Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Town of Midwich Becomes the Village of the Damned

There’s nothing to distinguish Midwich from any other rural English village—except that one day, every living inhabitant passes out for four hours. A man slumps over the steering wheel of a tractor as its runs in circles. An unconscious telephone operator doesn’t hear the constant ringing of incoming calls. Water overflows bathtubs, irons scorch clothes, and a stuck phonograph record repeats the same musical notes over and over. Then suddenly, everyone wakes up and all seems normal again.

Except it isn’t, of course. A month later, every woman capable of bearing a child is pregnant. Twelve perfectly healthy children are eventually born, each with blonde hair, “arresting” eyes, and narrow nails. At the age of 12 months, one of them opens a Chinese puzzle box. And what one learns, they all do—immediately—as if they share the same consciousness.

Few films can match Village of the Damned for its eerie opening and original premise. Much of the credit belongs to John Wyndham, who wrote the source novel The Midwich Cuckoos (as well as The Day of the Triffids). However, director Wolf Rilla builds on Wyndham’s ideas by giving the film an otherworldly quality. Some of his images are disturbingly hypnotic, such as the sight of the Aryan-like children, walking like a pack, through the quaint village. Likewise, his use of natural sound—even the opening credits roll over church bells instead of music—gives the film a different aural quality.

George Sanders portrays the only sympathetic father (as you can imagine, the “fathers” have difficulty accepting the children). Sanders’ character, though, appreciates the children’s tremendous intellectual potential. He and his son, David, may not love each other in a conventional sense, but they admire and respect one another. In contrast, David has little need for his coddling mother, though he is always polite to her.

As David, young Martin Stephens gives a fine performance. One of the best child actors of the 1960s, Stephens had enough screen presence to hold his own against Deborah Kerr in The Innocents (1961). He had the unique ability to act like an adult trapped in a child’s body.

Village of the Damned is an unconventional science fiction film, so don’t expect answers to the questions it poses. A 1964 sequel, Children of the Damned, expanded on the notion that the children are feared mainly because they’re different (a theme also explored in Larry Cohen’s It’s Alive movies). John Carpenter directed a lifeless remake of Village of the Damned in 1995.

(Incidentally, co-writer Stirling Silliphant had an interesting career. He created the TV series Route 66 with Herbert B. Leonard and wrote most of the episodes. He later won an Oscar for In the Heat of the Night, had a boxoffice smash with The Poseidon Adventure, and became a martial arts student and friend to Bruce Lee. Silliphant, Lee, and James Coburn conceived a martial film called The Silver Flute. It was eventually made as Circle of Iron with David Carradine in the role intended for Bruce Lee.)

8 comments:

  1. When I was a kid this movie really freaked me out.

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  2. Good pick, Rick (hey, I'm a poet). I agree that Martin Stephens was a wonderful child actor. His way of speaking was so adult, and as mentioned earlier in the recent post on The Innocents, he is frighteningly able to be an adult in a cute little boy's body. Like quizshowbob, I remember seeing this as a kid too, and the sight of the pack of children, plus their calculating eyes and politeness in reaction to love really creeped me out. Very good movie.

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  3. Rick, what an interesting idea for a film. There is nothing creepier than children. LOL!!!

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  4. Rick, this is one of my favorite classic sci-fi movies. It has a unique plot too. I have read "The Midwich Cuckoos" by John Wyndham, and it is chilling also. If you can find the book, it is well worth reading, Sanders is excellent as David's father. All the children are good actors. In many ways it is a disturbing film and the ending is a shock. Great choice for October, Rick, and I enjoyed your article.

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  5. One of my favorite scenes is when George Sanders is trying to prevent the children from reading his mind. He creates a mental image of a brick wall...which begins to crumble as the children exert their power on him. Also, note that this is the second Martin Stephens movie in three days.

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  6. I just recently saw this with my wife, and we both thoroughly enjoyed it. It's an eerie film, and as Kim said, children just makes it even creepier. My favorite scene was the same one that Rick mentioned. It's terrific, both visually and dramatically. I agree that Carpenter's remake is tepid and uninteresting. And don't forget, of course, that Barbara Shelley also stars in this. I'm fairly certain I could watch her in anything. Superb review, Rick!

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  7. This film is wonderfully creepy and it starts, like you said, with the absence of any music during the opening credits.

    I quite like George Sanders in this film. He gives a good portrayal of a father who accepts he does not love his son, but still appreciates the boy's exceptional mind.

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  8. I met Martin Stephens, teri and Lesley Scoble last year at the Chiller Expo in Parsippany NJ. They were the nicest people you ever want to meet. They were very kind and cordial. Ive been wanting to meet Martin for over 50 yrs and never thought Id ever get the chance. Some things are worth waiting for!

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