Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Village of the Damned (British MGM, 1960)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Fortunately, just after the piece of cheese that was The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb (the last in a sequence of eight Hammers TCM showed in sequence on Hallowe’en, including their takes on the Frankenstein and Dracula characters as well as their mummy films) TCM showed a masterpiece: Village of the Damned, a 1960 film from Britain based on a novel by John Wyndham called The Midwich Cuckoos, a great title, though one that would not have gone over well with the horror audience either in the U.K. or the U.S. — in this country audiences seeing a marquee reading “George Sanders in The Midwich Cuckoos” would probably have assumed it was a film about ornithology and cast Sanders as a dotty birdwatcher. Instead, Sanders plays professor Gordon Zellaby (a tongue-twisting name but only a minor blot on a great movie); he and his wife Anthea (Barbara Sellaby) have been childless — by chance, not by choice — for years when all of a sudden a mysterious force causes all the inhabitants of Midwich to lose consciousness simultaneously. A similar gimmick has been used for laughs in several films, including Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome, but though there are comic elements in this one (a technologically backward older couple who still have a wind-up 78 phonograph and use a non-electric iron get immobilized while she’s in the middle of listening to a record and ironing her best dress; the iron burns through the dress, of course, while the record sticks in one groove and keeps playing it over and over until it runs down) the scene is carefully not played for laughs: among the victims are a bus driver (and all his passengers) whose bus runs into a tree (fortunately without causing injuries), and a farmer who’s driving his tractor when whatever it is hits and ends up plowing in circles until he too is stopped when his vehicle hits a tree.

The authorities are alerted because at the precise moment all of Midwich was immobilized Zellaby was on the phone to his brother-in-law, Alan Bernard (Michael Gwynn), and Alan is concerned enough to go to Midwich to investigate — whereupon he sees a motorcycle cop drive towards the town, pass through the invisible line and fall off his bike when he too falls victim to whatever it is. The immobilization only lasts for a few hours, after which everyone comes to — but in a few months it develops that every woman in town who’s capable of bearing a child suddenly finds herself pregnant. The Zellabys, who’ve been hoping for such an event, are pleased as punch — but some of the others, especially a woman whose husband had been at sea for over a year, a 17-year-old (and her parents) and a middle-aged virgin, are less than thrilled, especially with the townspeople (and the sailor, who happens to arrive home just as the wife gets the “good” news) leaping to the obvious conclusions.

The mystery pregnancies result in the birth of 12 blond, blue-eyed children who as they grow through infancy to school age turn out to have extraordinary mental powers, including the ability to read the minds of normal humans and to bond their own brains into what today would be called a hive-mind — the script by Wolf Rilla (who also directed), Sterling Silliphant and Ronald Kinnoch (who also produced, but in the Val Lewton tradition he took his writing credit as “George Barclay”) actually compares them to ant and bee hives — that gives them super-intelligence. It also makes them threatening as all hell — on two separate occasions they respond to real or perceived threats from normal humans by focusing their mental powers (represented by a glint in their eyes that, according to imdb.com, was created by matting a negative image of their irises over the positive one on film) and forcing them to commit suicide. One man is led to drive his car into a wall and another, the brother of the original victim, goes after them with a shotgun and is taken over so he shoots himself with it instead — and, in line with the less-is-more theory of horror Val Lewton pioneered (and Stephen King debunked) that the less we see of something, the scarier it is, we don’t actually see the man blast his own head off, much less the resulting blood and gore.

That’s the difference Boris Karloff once outlined between terror and horror (by his definition, the films he made would constitute “terror” while the splatter movies of today would be “horror”); the point of the sequence is not to gross us out by seeing the guy’s brains explode, but to intimidate us by confronting us with the sheer power of the mystery children and the threat they pose to anyone who’s unfortunate enough to get on their bad side. George Sanders was a bit old for his role — he aged well physically but the growing disinterest in acting, and in life itself, that would lead him to commit suicide for real in 1970 (and leave behind a note explaining that the reason why was that everything now bored him) is very much a part of his characterization and, in fact, is absolutely right for the part, as is the fact that he looks decrepit and utterly unheroic even in a story that forces him to a sacrificial gesture at the end (spoiler alert — using his own mental power literally to turn his mind into a brick wall, he sneaks a suitcase containing a bomb into the building where he’s supposed to be teaching the children, and blows up both them and himself).

 Village of the Damned, like the Lewton films and damned few others in the history of terror on screen, is a movie that scares precisely because of its understatement, its refusal to give us more information about what’s going on beyond the bare minimum needed to follow the story (we never learn what power was behind creating the super-children in the wombs of human females, nor what its agenda was, nor why it had to be preceded by immobilizing all the people in the town), yet it’s a tale not only chilling in its basic conception but evocative of questions about whether the ends justify the means — as when Zellaby receives word that a similar incident in a village in Russia ended abruptly when the Soviet government ordered their army to level the town, killing super-children and innocent villagers alike, and we’re left to wonder whether faced with a menace like this, the totalitarian solution, however brutal and inhuman, may be the only way to deal with it.

According to imdb.com, Village of the Damned was originally planned as an MGM Hollywood production with Ronald Colman as Zellaby, but the controversial nature of the story — particularly the rash of virgin births, which predictably drove the Roman Catholics still in charge of the Production Code Administration and the Legion of Decency nuts — forced MGM to transfer the production to their British subsidiary, and while that was going on Ronald Colman died. What makes it even more ironic was that George Sanders ended up “replacing” Ronald Colman in more ways than one; not only did he end up making a film originally intended for Colman, he married Colman’s widow, Benita Hume.

The children — led by Martin Stephens, who plays David Zellaby (at one point Sanders’ character acidly notes, “He’s my wife’s son; I can’t be at all sure that he’s mine”) and would play another haunted child one year later in The Innocents, Jack Clayton’s adaptation of Henry James’s ghost story The Turn of the Screw — wore blond wigs with extra-high skulls to give the impression that their cranial development was larger than normal people’s, and though the script doesn’t mention this I couldn’t help but think that one aspect of the movie that had special resonance for a British audience just 15 years after the end of World War II was the way they looked like the Nazi ideal, the blond, blue-eyed Aryan supermen of the future who were supposed to take the place of the Untermenschen once the Nazis helped things along by exterminating us.