I’m reviewing these films together because they’re available in this handy double feature DVD. Village of the Damned is also available on Amazon Instant Video.
Village of the Damned: These eyes…
A fairly faithful adaptation of John Wyndham‘s 1957 sci-fi thriller The Midwich Cuckoos (reviewed by Ryan), Village of the Damned was released in June 1960. Sporting the admonitory warning “Beware the Stare That Will Paralyze the Will of the World” on its promotional poster, the film was both a critical and popular success … and deservedly so. Beautifully lensed in B&W and featuring highly convincing acting turns down to the smallest bit player, the film works as both intelligent science fiction and suspenseful horror, doling out its shocks strategically and to great effect. Almost 54 years old now, the film still retains its ability to chill the viewer, despite all the cinematic horrors that have come since.
In the film, the quaint English village of Midwich (in reality, Letchmore Heath, north of London) is suddenly put to sleep one sunny day by a mysterious force. In what is perhaps the film’s most effective sequence, we see the villagers drop in their tracks one by one, including Professor Gordon Zellaby (the great George Sanders) and his pretty, younger wife, Anthea (Barbara Shelley, who would go on to star in many horror films for Hammer Studios). The town remains unconscious for four hours (a whole day, in the source novel), while Anthea’s brother, a military officer named Alan Bernard (Michael Gwynn), tries to determine the extent of the affected zone from the outside.
Life returns to normal after the mysterious “Time Out,” until it is discovered that every woman of childbearing age in Midwich has suddenly become pregnant, to the great consternation of the women and understandable suspicion of the men. When those dozen children (60 in Wyndham’s novel) are born on the same day, following a greatly accelerated fetal development, they all seem fairly normal … despite their uniformly blonde hair, unusual fingernails and “arresting eyes.” But when the children’s advanced development proceeds apace, and they start to evince both a hive mentality and a habit of using lethal mind control to slay anyone who offends them, then even Prof. Zellaby, their staunch defender and a sudden father himself, must question their motives, as the British military ponders a means to destroy them…
Besides that bravura opening sequence, during which the town sleeps in eerie silence, Village of the Damned features several other well-done segments, as well. Most memorable, perhaps, are the children’s attacks, during which, with eyes strangely aglow, they force one man to crash his car into a brick wall, another to kill himself with a shotgun, and still another to turn himself into a human torch. The film ends most impressively as well, with Zellaby’s truly heroic actions bringing the story to a memorable close. Those glowing orbs just mentioned are a wonderfully effective special effect; they chilled me as I watched the film for the first time as a full-grown adult, and I can well sympathize with my buddy/film guru Rob, who mentioned that this image frightened him very much when he saw the movie as a child. As in the novel, we never do learn precisely WHY some mysterious agency (extraterrestrials, it is suggested) put the village to sleep and knocked up its womenfolk, or HOW the deed was accomplished (in the book, a spaceship that lands in Midwich serves as definitive proof of alien malfeasance), but that just adds, somehow, to the picture’s sense of strangeness and cosmic awe.
Village of the Damned has been tightly directed by German filmmaker Wolf Rilla (co-author of the script, as well) and boasts some gorgeous outdoor cinematography by Geoffrey Faithful. Shot on a budget of only $225,000, the result looks just fine, and clocking in as it does at a mere 77 minutes, the picture is compact and tight, without a wasted scene or bit of flab. And how nice it is to see George Sanders playing a sympathetic and heroic character here! Sanders, of course, also excelled at portraying any number of acid-tongued rogues, creeps and bounders during his long screen career, as anyone who has seen such films as Rebecca, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and All About Eve will attest. A replacement for the originally slated Ronald Colman (who passed away in 1958, after MGM scrapped its initial plans to produce the film, due to its “scandalous” virgin births), Sanders is simply wonderful here; urbane, sophisticated, and very much the moral center of the story. When his brother-in-law Alan refers to his increasingly odd son’s behavior, Zellaby gets to deliver what is perhaps the film’s single most effective line: “Anthea’s son. I have no proof that he’s mine.” Literate and adult from beginning to end, Village of the Damned is a superior entertainment, and one that was followed, four years later, by an unlikely sequel, Children of the Damned. And as it turns out, that one is a worthy follow-up — if very much different in feel — to a great original…
Children Of The Damned: “Beware the Eyes That Paralyze!”
In the 1960 sci-fi/horror thriller Village of the Damned, five small communities around the world had been put to sleep by a mysterious agency and all their women capable of childbirth immaculately made preggers. The resultant children had evinced powers of mental control, a hyper-accelerated physical development and a hive mind; by the end of the film, all the children had been slain by their panicky respective nations. Thus, a follow-up to this classic film would seemingly have been an unlikely prospect. And yet, four years later, that sequel, Children of the Damned, made its unexpected appearance. Released in January 1964 and sporting the alarming advice to “Beware the Eyes That Paralyze!” on its promotional poster, the film turned out to be a remarkably satisfying sequel featuring all-new characters, a completely different story line, and a wholly different feel, as compared to the first picture. Another product of MGM’s British branch, and again sporting an intelligent and adult script, first-rate acting and gorgeous B&W cinematography, Children can proudly hold its head high next to its famous forebear.
In the film, UNESCO has, for the first time, given a standardized IQ test to kids all around the world, and with startling results. Six children — four boys (from the U.K., Nigeria, India and the U.S.) and two girls (from Russian and China) — have turned in tests that indicate identical, impossibly high IQ scores. The six are brought together in London for study, and psychologist Tom Lewellin (the great British actor Ian Hendry) and geneticist David Neville (Alan Badel) begin their examination. But the children — who also demonstrate the same psi powers, hive mind, freakishly glowing eyes, and powers of mental coercion as the kids in the first film — soon band together, kidnap the Brit kid Paul’s pretty Aunt Susan (Barbara Ferris), and hole up in an abandoned church, while the heads of their respective governments ponder how to get them back or, possibly, destroy them. It would seem that a murderous showdown between the freakishly gifted kids and the panicky world leaders might be inevitable again…
There are several salient differences between VOTD and COTD, despite their surface similarities. Of basic importance is the fact that the kids in the first film are suggested to be alien in nature, and with their uniform blonde looks, they certainly do appear otherworldly and unsettling. The children in the sequel, on the other hand, are supposed to be biological sports who have miraculously arisen simultaneously. The kids in the first film are not sympathetic in nature; those in the second most definitely are, especially with their differentiated cute looks (the little Chinese girl is adorable) and after the audience learns that the kids are wholly human, just evolved to a point perhaps a million years in mankind’s future. There is more agonized soul searching as to what to do with these problematic children in the second film, with Hendry very much our moral compass, and while both films end on a decided down note, the events of the latter picture seem even more tragic, due to the sympathetic nature of the kids here. COTD, as screenwriter John Briley tells us during the DVD’s commentary, is more of a “moral fable of the Cold War,” whereas the first had been most clearly a science-fiction scarifier. And if possible, the six kids of the sequel cause even more of a worldwide tizzy than the 12 alien kids of the British village of Midwich in the original outing!
As to the similarities, both films boast absolutely first-rate, moody B&W lensing (by cinematographer Geoffrey Faithful in the first film and David Boulton in the second) and taut direction (Wolf Rilla in the former; Anton M. Leader, who otherwise worked almost exclusively for television, in the latter). As in the initial outing, the most memorable scenes in COTD for the viewer will most likely be the ones in which the kids use their powers to punish perceived threats on the part of their elders. Hence, in the sequel, Paul attempts to kill his mother by forcing her to walk in traffic; one government agent is coerced to shoot another and then to walk off a high balcony in that abandoned church; the children use some kind of sonic device to stop the attack of foreign kidnappers; and three British officials are compelled to slay one another by stabbing and strangulation. Two other similarities that the films share: crackerjack, literate scripts and remarkably fine acting down to the smallest bit players. Very much a class act all the way, this is one sequel that really does live up to its original, complementing the first while piling on new layers of meaning and additional food for thought. An “all-new suspense shocker,” that promotional poster proclaimed, and for once, the advertising hyperbole turns out to be precisely true! This is superior, adult entertainment all the way!
I only remember seeing the 1957 one. I remember those eyes! The sequel sounds worth seeing.
The original film is fantastic! And as book-to-film adaptations go, you’re right, it really is surprisingly faithful.
@ Marion and Jana: If you enjoyed the original film, then I sure do hope that you get to see the sequel very soon….