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Friday, May 14, 2010

Village of the Damned

This 1960 release is another film at the outer (and blurry) edges of sci-fi movies. Village of the Damned (VoD), has almost none of the usual sci-fi elements -- aliens, saucers, monsters, mad scientists, etc. Instead, VoD is a tight thriller about the mysterious birth of a group of children who have special powers. How to deal with children who can kill whomever threatens them via mind control, and can read minds, poses a desperate puzzle.

Quick Plot Synopsis
On an otherwise bucolic day in a small English village, everyone suddenly falls over, unconscious. There is an invisible perimeter around the village that causes anyone who enters it to fall unconscious too -- even soldiers in gas masks. Just as mysteriously, everyone wakes up after a few hours, with no serious harm done. A few weeks later, the women of child-bearing age are all pregnant. This causes great unrest in itself. The babies are all "perfect", though large. They develop quickly. David, the mysterious son of Anthea and Gordon, exhibits a frightening power to cause "accidents" when he's angry. He is also a child genius. What's more, anything that one of the Children learn, they all know. They are telekenetic, and can read minds to some degree. Years later, the soberly dressed, all blonde children are perceived as a threat by the authorities. Gordon pleads for a chance to learn more about them. Yet, after more fatal "accidents", Gordon knows he must do something. He prepares a bomb in his briefcase. He fills his mind with thoughts about a brick wall as he goes to teach the Children about atomic physics. They worry over his brick wall thought, but cannot break the wall in time. The bomb goes off, killing everyone in the school. Yet, pairs of glowing eyes stare out of the flames, and float away. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
VoD is a great bit of movie story-telling. George Sanders gives a great performance as the kindly and optimistic (but doomed) professor, Gordon Zellaby.

Cold War Angle
While not overt, the era's paranoia is strongly evident. Older generations worry about the corruption of their youth.

Notes
Based on the Novel -- VoD is adapted from John Wyndham's 1957 novel, "The Midwich Cuckoos." Some species of cuckoo lay their eggs in other birds' nests so they raise the cuckoo chick. While the screenplay follows the novel fairly well, there are some economies taken. For example, there are 60-some Children in the novel, but only 6 or 8 in the movie. Wyndham's novel makes the alien connection more obvious, with aerial spotters sighting a metallic object near the village. The movie makes no mention of this, though Gordon does ask the Children what they know about life on other planets.

Aryan-o-phobia -- It is interesting that director (and co-writer) Wolf Rilla had the Children all dress in matching formal school attire, travel together in a pack and be very very blonde. The specter of the Nazi ideal of blond "aryans" being the "master race" was evidently still a strong cultural force in Britain. The Children's cool, stoic demeanor lined up well with the coldly dispassionate stereotype of the Nazi. To 1960 audiences, the blonde Children were a quiet, though menacing, reminder of a terrifying ideology.

Bad Boy -- Children have generally had haloes in movies before VoD. The evil-child trope runs counter to the cultural momentum to regard children as innocent and in need of protecting. Once the halo was take away, the bad boys (and girls) would resurface many times in other movies, and not just the semi-sequel to VoD, Children of the Damned. In the next decade (the 70s,) however, the evil child would the result of the occult, not aliens. The Omen, The Exorcist, and Rosemary's Baby. Still, there was the tension between cultural maternal instinct and fear.

Bottom line? Fans of saucers and monsters won't find any. Fans of horror-gore won't find any. Yet, VoD is a well told story, with a power belying its meager budget. It's an engaging and intelligent thriller well worth watching.

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