Village of the Damned (1960)

Major Alan Bernard (Michael Gwynn) makes a phone call early one morning to his friend Gordon Zellaby (George Sanders). Mid-conversation, Gordon collapses on the ground unconscious. After which we’re treated to footage of various other village disaster scenes (tractor hitting a tree, record player skipping), all punctuated by the inclusion of unconscious bodies.

Thus starts one of the greatest British horror films ever, Village of the Damned. I don’t know why the Cold War led to so many great allegorical horror films (the Manchurian Candidate, the Night of the Living Dead), but I can only hope they all remain this good. Cold War connection besides, Village of the Damned holds another special spot in film history; it being extremely rare for violence against children to ever be shown, let alone make a movie where it has to be shown.

While director Wolf Rilla isn’t nearly as talented as the Manchurian Candidate’s John Frankenheimer, Rilla still manages to get one amazing scene.

On his way to Midwich, to find out what happened to his brother, Alan finds a bus that has collided with a tree. Obviously the driver has also fallen unconscious. Alan sends the mailman ahead, and the minute he gets too close to the wreckage, he collapses onto the ground.

The military being the military, Alan’s discovery becomes a major operation. They send a pigeon out first, to see if it’ll be affected. The bird falls right off its perch at the line of demarcation. So next they send out a trooper, who, secured with a rope tied around his waist, marches off into the unknown. He too falls unconscious. Only now, due to the rope, they can reel him back in. To find out the bodies are unconscious, and not corpses.

I don’t know why I love that scene so much, but I think it’s mainly due to the level of detail behind the canary and the military’s test subject. Also, the military is portrayed here as they’re supposed to be: honest, good-natured, and just. Free from the corrupting specter of modern cynicism, the film looks to protect the type of universe that we’ve all heard about, but have never been lucky to see.

It is this purity (the Allies had just won WWII after all) that is the film’s most captivating aspect. John Carpenter’s 1995 remake had to fail because of this; since, by that time, no one could believe in anything being righteous. Now the Village of the Damned’s unerring belief in its heros is at once comforting, longed-for, and foreign to modern audiences.

Shortly after the incident, all of Midwich’s females start turning up pregnant. An unnatural pregnancy, as the fetuses are growing at an exaggerated rate. In one of the film’s more effective moments, a virgin is informed that she is, indeed, pregnant. She looks shocked and horror-struck as she tries to explain to the doctor how that is impossible.

A perfect dramatization of what, at the time, would be a young adult’s worst case scenario. (Ruling out, of course, the underlying threat of nuclear war running through everyone’s mind at that point.)

Gordon and his wife, Anthea (Barbara Shelley), previously unable to have a child, also find they’re pregnant. Like the rest of the village’s children, their son David (Martin Stephens) is born too fast with a unknown hair type (platinum blonde clearly hadn’t made it over the pond at this point), strange finger nails, and light-up eyes that can be used to read and control your mind.

Same as normal children really, just with a hint of albinism in them. Gordon is the only person in the village who actually likes the children. Alan is surprisingly vocal about his nephew’s perceived immorality; even though, at this point, there’s no proof that David and his brethren aren’t moral.

The one bit of violence we do see perpetrated by the children is justifiable. A careless driver actually hits one of the children with his car. The driver climbs out, acting strangely hostile to the group of children he almost ran over. David mind-blasts him, causing the man to crash himself into a wall. Sure, it seems a bit over the top if you forget that the man in question almost ran a child over in broad daylight.

When a group of older schoolchildren throw a ball at a group of “the Damned,” it is David who stops them from retaliating. Same goes when the children stop for candy, and the read the mind of the shop owner to realize she doesn’t want them there. David admits he’s read her mind, and promises to send someone else inside to pick up the candy from this day forward.

Gordon pleads with the authorities to give him one year to teach the children; sequestered away in a schoolhouse. The modern world fears the children, but Gordon doesn’t want to throw away all the advances these kids could lead to. Gordon’s beset with problems shortly after, however, when the brother of the slain reckless driver attempts to ambush the children; armed with a shotgun.

David and Alan talk the man out of committing the violence, but not soon enough. The children know the intent of the shotgun, and force Jim to use it on himself. This causes the military bigwigs in London to go berserk, as these kids has vast, untapped potential, but haven’t learned that “thou shalt not kill,” unless, of course, the Queen tells you to.

The children are too young, still too literal, to have internalized all of the hypocrisies of modern life.

The final straw coming when a group of villagers, torches in hand, go to burn down the children’s schoolhouse. David stops the mob, causes the leader’s heart to stop, then wipes an intervening Alan’s mind clean. Setting up one suspenseful finale as Gordon plots a suicide bombing run on the schoolhouse, but how to do it when your students can read your mind?

This might be the only movie I’ve seen where the last “action” sequence features no action at all. Gordon facing off against David and his friend; all standing still in a schoolroom. They’re trying to pry into his mind, he’s trying to focus on a brick wall.

KA-BOOM!

The knowing look of shock and horror on David’s face, when he figures out Gordon’s plan a split second before the bomb explodes might be the saddest one on celluloid. The children trusted Gordon, only wanting to be clandestinely dispersed around the world, so that they could continue evolving without interference. Instead they’re exterminated.

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