Sunday, November 16, 2008

Beware the Eyes that Paralyze


VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED typifies British science fiction in that - unlike the comic book and serial traditions of American fare - the films adhere to sombre threats in drab settings. The work unfolds Quatermass-style, slowly adding the uncanny to a normal rural setting.

DIRECT echoes of H.G. Wells' obsession with catastrophe and its aftermath appear time and again in John Wyndham's oeuvre. Christopher Priest famously summed up the most frequently voiced criticism of Wyndham's work when he described him as "the master of the middle-class catastrophe." But while the tone of the author’s stories may occasionally strike modern readers as quaint, their cosiness serves a serious purpose. His innocuously English backdrops are central to the power of his novels, implying that apocalypse could occur at any time - or, indeed, be happening in the next village at this very moment. Wyndham was also redefining the science fiction genre; up until the late 1940s, sci-fi was almost exclusively set in space and involved what Wyndham himself described as "the adventures of galactic gangsters."

Wolf Rilla's 1960 VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED is a beautifully restrained adaptation of Wyndhams The Midwich Cuckoos issued three years previously. It is the story of a mysterious, hours-long fainting spell among the inhabitants of a small community, which is followed by the pregnancies of every local woman of childbearing years - including virgins. After short gestations, the women give birth to ten-pound babies with blonde hair and "arresting" eyes who, as they rapidly mature, are discovered to share a single consciousness, read people's minds, and be very dangerous when crossed. Gordon Zellaby (George Sanders) - the aging father of the apparent spokesman of the group, David (Martin Stephens) - is entrusted by the government to educate the children in a remote house, while trying to determine their purpose.

A year before his performance in THE INNOCENTS, Martin Stephens is the tweed-suited spokesman of the children in the original VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED. Stephens' flicker of an almost-smile after forcing a motorist to kill himself is one of the nastiest shots in British cinema.

As the children grow, so do their powers. Nevertheless, there are some inconsistencies. Early on, sensing that the grocer is frightened of them, they show unexpected consideration in promising to stay away from her shop. But when a man accidentally almost strikes one of the children with his car, they instantly band together and force him to kill himself by driving into a wall. Conversely, after more acts of violence, Zellaby’s brother-in-law Alan Bernard (Michael Gwynn) forces his way into the children's presence and threatens them, but they do not kill him, instead punishing him with a dose of temporary paralysis. Whether this is because of some kind of feeling for Gordon or wife Anthea (Barbara Shelley) is not stated; the only thing that is clear is that the children, like all children, do not have full command of themselves, however other they may be.

VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED is a film that has managed to enter the collective unconscious because of the portrayal of the Midwich Children. With identical blonde wigs (an unsettling effect is achieved by casting real-life brunette kids whose colouring is subtly wrong for their hair), staring eyes (in some prints a glowing effect was added) and choreography of movement, they are disturbingly other. Their origin is left ambiguous, and when Zellaby interrogates them on the subject, their only response is lowered eyes and a calm "It would be better if you didn’t ask these questions" from David. Although alien impregnation is the favoured theory, it is implied that the children are the result of mutation, representing the next stage in human evolution.

CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED develops the original film’s political subtext, and transports the action to a damp and grimy London.

Much of the power of VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED comes via two pieces of serendipity. Firstly, when the project was in the planning stages, the Catholic Legion Of Decency objected to the central theme of mysterious impregnation. Consequently, the film could not be produced in the United States, and was instead made on location in Hertfordshire; the resulting shoot lends an uncomfortable air of authenticity. Secondly, filming in England meant the presence of some marvellous British character actors: Laurence Naismith as Dr Willers, Bernard Archard as the tormented village minister, Richard Vernon as the Home Secretary, and Peter Vaughn as a bicycling policeman. Sanders gives a suitably rounded performance but Barbara Shelley is not given all that much to do; Anthea seems to spend most of the film being sent out of the room. In contrast, Gwynn makes the most of his far more substantial role as a man with a foot in both camps, and Stephens'' air of cool, detached superiority makes us comprehend the extent of the threat. Stephens was eleven when the film was shot and, like many good child actors, both looked younger than he was, and seemed older.

A product of its time - the domestic scenes between the Zellabys now seem particularly dated - VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED dares not even hint at abortion. In perhaps the film's most indelible moment, we see the affected villagers – one man accompanied by his wife and his daughter – filing silently in and out of the clinic, not one person making eye contact with any other. On one level this is a story about rape and the consequences; and yet other than in a few scenes with Anthea, the film is never about its women. On the contrary, its focus is divided between the village men and the male authority figures. It has a power that many of its followers lack, perhaps because unlike them it is not merely a family drama, but deals with broader issues such as government action in times of crisis, how people's perceptions of themselves can affect their actions, and where the moral line should be drawn. If the film's resolution is a soft option, the hard questions asked nevertheless remain.

John Carpenter’s VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED remake marked another notch in his downward spiralling of a career.

In CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED, the youths identified by a research initiative are gathered from around the world and housed in London for collective study. After international and Cold War tensions lead world governments to return the children to their respective embassies, the children escape and hide out in an abandoned church in Southwark, where the situation escalates into a final showdown with the armed forces. Here, the youths are no longer malevolent, but merely misunderstood. Where VILLAGE was a variant on INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS and its subgenre of aliens subverting the human norm, this film belongs to the type of alien contact personified by THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL and STAR TREK, about defusing xenophobia and prejudice. Subsequently, it lacks any of the sense of sinister thrill of the original, and the film offers up the ludicrously improbable notion of having the children build a deadly sonic weapon out of a disused church organ.

Both Wyndham’s source novel and Rilla's film were very much a reaction to their place and time. John Carpenter's 1995 American remake of VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED approached no such social issues, relocating the story to "Midwich, California," and adding a dash of the director’s trademark shock tactics. The mis-casting of the film is its greatest talking point, however, which is amusing in its outlandishness. Just prior to his horse-riding accident, it is awkward to watch the limited dramatic range of Christopher Reeve as Midwich's resident M.D. Kirstie Alley displays little presence as the cold-hearted, secretive epidemiologist, and if Crocodile Dundee's main squeeze (Linda Kozlowski) is difficult to recognize as one of the expectant mothers, what better camouflage could there be for Luke Skywalker than as the local minister?