Friday, October 11, 2019

Cardboard Science: Suffer the children


VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED

If perhaps not the perfect version of itself, you just can't discount the cold savagery of the version we got.

1960
Directed by Wolf Rilla
Written by Sterling Silliphant, Ronald Kinnoch, and Wolf Rilla (based on the novel The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham)

Spoiler alert: moderate


Village of the Damned has been blessed with a long afterlife for a black-and-white mid-century sci-fi B-movie.  Beyond being remembered in the first place, it's one of the comparatively few to have gotten the remake treatment (it's one of the even fewer to still be generally considered superior to its remake), and it remains one of the single most visually iconic movies of its genre, its antagonists still very much the archetypal example of their particular breed of "monster."  The genre to which it belongs, of course, tends to be simplified down to "1950s sci-fi," though Village is, by a technicality, a product of the decade to follow, arriving in the December of 1960.  But that's a fairly easy mistake to forgive, considering it was based on English author John Wyndham's best-selling 1957 novel The Midwich Cuckoos, and its production history begins even before the novel hit shelves, with MGM commissioning an adaptation that fell, for a short little while, into the 1950s' version of development hell.  Eventually it was transferred to the studio's British branch, where Sterling Silliphant's Americanized screenplay was stripped to the bones and rewritten by its producer, Ronald Kinnoch, and its director, Wolf Rilla, in pursuit of bringing Wyndham's extremely British story (though they were happy to keep the punchier American title) back home.

There's something tantalizingly transitional about the film as a result.  Structurally and aesthetically, it's still every inch in line with all the generic rules laid down by The Thing From Another World nine years earlier, from the philosophical conflict between blithe scientific curiosity on the one hand and hard-nosed common sense on the other (though in this case it roots that conflict within a single individual), to its reliance upon scenes of men in rooms spouting expositional dialogue, to its quiet but compelling-enough sense of style.  But there's a queasiness at the heart of it, too, that perhaps just doesn't quite feel like it belongs to the 1950s, starting with the very reason that Village is remembered as vividly as it is, namely its villains, the children of the rural English town of Midwich—and, even more to point, how they got there.  (It's said that one reason the main MGM studio abandoned it was the very distinct possibility of the film getting them into trouble with American religious groups.)  It's a bit of a double-edged sword, however: there really isn't very much distinction to it besides its antagonists—and what it ultimately does with them—and as nervy as Village is in its particulars, and as supremely loaded as it is in its subtext, it's just not ever as good as you want to remember it, though on the plus side simply being a boilerplate 50s' sci-fi thriller that happens to have been made with a strong core concept (and with money, talent, and motivation sufficient to pull that concept off) means that there's a very high floor on how not-good it could possibly be.


Things begin on an autumn morning in Midwich, which we find humming with the usual activity, until the town simply stops: farmers fall asleep on their tractors; housewives fall asleep at their ironing boards; and Prof. Gordon Zellaby (George Sanders) falls asleep on the phone with his brother-in-law Maj. Alan Bernard (Michael Gwynn), who'd been arranging a weekend visit to see Gordon and his sister, Anthea (Barbara Shelley), and who is increasingly nonplussed to be cut off, and that every number he subsequently tries in Midwich is completely nonresponsive.  Deciding to simply head up there early, what he finds is a zone of force, with strictly marked boundaries, beyond which any human (or animal) loses consciousness immediately; when he brings the British Army in, they have no greater luck, and indeed Alan rather stupidly consigns an RAF observation pilot to a fiery grave by having him attempt an overflight.  But then, just as mysteriously as the force arrived, it vanishes.  Midwich wakes up, and life carries on—until the day twelve women of the town, all at once, realize they're pregnant, and that in almost every case the only possible explanation was that it happened the day their town was put to sleep.

This number includes Anthea, and the couple's elation turns to a sort of creeping dread, a dread that is only briefly banished when she and the other mothers give birth to a dozen children.  They number six boys and six girls, and they're too normal in the broad strokes, and oddly different in the smaller details.  They look more like each other—hair so blonde it's almost white, and the most unusual look in their eyes—than they do their parents, and, as they grow, they first demonstrate abilities in advance of their age, then abilities in advance of any human ever born.  This supplies enough of an answer to one question—where they came from—but it brings up a much more urgent one: what they intend to do next.  Gordon, despite being what one might term a "cuck," or "space cuck," is nonetheless convinced they represent an unprecedented leap forward in scientific and cultural development, and with the reluctant acquiescence of a nervous government, appoints himself their teacher.  Yet it becomes increasingly obvious that their plans go well beyond Midwich, and whatever those plans might be, they'll brook no interference from their neighbors, not from the boy they drown with their psychic powers, nor from the careless driver they send crashing into a brick wall, nor from his grieving brother, who comes at them with a shotgun he winds up swallowing.  And so Gordon really has to think hard about what his next move is—but not so loudly that his "son" David (Martin Stephens) might hear him.

The most striking thing about Village today is that it's not an "allegory of rape," but a story that is almost explicitly about rape—not a word actually used in this very circumspect, very British film, but hell, the words "pregnant" and "virgin" aren't used in this film, either, despite both concepts being very important to the narrative—but it's also a story about rape that really has no use for any woman's perspective whatsoever outside of a first act that's still deciding who its protagonist is going to be, going from household to household and bearing witness to the disruption and terrors of a mass rape being implemented upon a conservative English hamlet, if inevitably settling upon the almost-implausibly-conventional science hero who, for some reason, happens to live there alongside all the pig farmers.  Even his wife is less of a character than you'd expect, though she does get some strong moments of being horrified (mostly in connection with her son's subsequent actions, though she gets at least one scene to express serious doubts about her unborn child's true parentage).  And yet: despite doing it almost exclusively through a male lens (and I don't necessarily contest the idea that this is counter-intuitive to the point of being kind of annoying), the film manages to at least point in the direction of the right questions, by wrapping up mundane horrors that just about anyone could experience—being forced to become a vehicle for someone else's reproduction, and the ambivalence one couldn't help but feel over a child they didn't want in the first place, especially as that child turns bad, and only gets worse—in a rather snappy supernatural package.  And if it's about rape, it is also about abortion, albeit rather late in the term.


As for the snappiness, however, the bright side of Village's doughtily patriarchal approach is that it just flies right by: it's 77 minutes long, and the only times it strays from the merciless prosecution of its premise by the bluntest means available is when it decides to slow down and become unnerving and unsettling instead, which it manages pretty effortlessly, thanks to one of the most perfectly conceptual monsters ever invented.  Village exploits the innate creepiness of children when they don't blink and keep their faces still.  It suspects that all children aren't really human yet, and once freed from the childish emotions and idiocy you'd expect out of them, what's left can only be dangerous, exponentially so when you're faced with a clutch of them who all look alike and move like a flock, gazing out with a collective stare and clearly understanding all sorts of things they shouldn't be able to, and unmistakably disapproving of them.  Making them British schoolchildren is the cherry on top—normal British schoolchildren of a certain class are already only a little bit off from "naturally-cruel little alien" anyway.  (And British adults are big ones: there's a starchiness to Village that is probably the only way its scenario could possibly play, given the mammoth strain it places on one's suspension of disbelief in terms of how the parents and the government only ever respond, until very deep into the movie, with little but discomfited wait-and-see expectancy.)  David winds up the most fully "characterized" of the bunch, though if he's different from the others, it's that young Stephens always looks like he's a moment away from chuckling softly with smug superiority at the foolishness of his elders—despite being like three feet tall, he appears to always be looking down his nose—but you also know that the chuckle you can see in his eyes will never actually come.  It's likewise extraordinary how bloodless the children are (and not just in appearance): you don't ever really get the impression they like violence, or hate anybody, they just have their priorities, and as for everything else, they simply don't care.

Even so, either Rilla or Kinnoch did not consider this enough, so when the children manifest their powers, we're treated to the extremely questionable effect of their eyes glowing, delivered by way of held-frame photographs, in what was either a stylistic choice or a budgetary one—it could be both—and which occasionally delivers an image that's more disturbing because it's not moving, albeit only at the expense of a whole lot of distractingly dumb-looking ones, some of which even have motion blur in them.  The other choices Rilla makes are better: even if they're mostly very obvious ones (and ones still limited by a small budget), they're very good ones, anyway.  It's enough to wonder why he didn't have more of a career; Village is the sole movie he ever made that ever scraped the pop cultural consciousness.  He has a particular penchant for eerie silences and using sharp, staccato editing as a punctuation mark to the sudden eruptions of violence that, usually, only result in more dead adults.

It's the last dead adult that guaranteed the film the minor legend it possesses, though, and it's a pleasure to see any film pursue its own internal logic as ruthlessly as Village of the Damned ultimately does, and if it foreshadows Gordon's final strategy visually to an almost artless extent, I don't think I can honestly object to it; it's interesting, anyway, that Gordon only rises to their level when he too can divorce himself from his grand dreams of living vicariously through the super-children, along with any animal emotion regarding the sanctity of life.  It's one of the all-time great sci-fi ideas that is, in the end, subjected to just about the most boilerplate process possible ("are they evil?" "give me a year" "are they evil yet?" "I'm afraid so, yes"), but it treats that process with respect and gravity anyway, and it's very difficult not to like a movie this efficient and severe about one big idea.

Score: 7/10

That which is indistinguishable from magic:
  • The original screenplay involved a spaceship, suggesting, like, actual aliens running around and impregnating unconscious human ladies.  Somehow, that just seems crass.  Then again, while they never name it as such, an alien breeding ray is somehow both elegant and stupid, right?
  • Every time I watch this or Carpenter's version, I'm positively flummoxed by how these aliens reproduce.  Cuckoo birds and other brood parasites work because birds are, you know, not smart.  It's hard to imagine a success rate higher than zero with intelligent life, especially considering how the aliens practically announce themselves when they arrive, then infest the host species with creatures that 1)don't really look like them (the tidbit about the golden-haired kids in the Eskimo village is almost funny) and 2)appear completely incapable of blending in behaviorally anyway.
The morality of the past, in the future!:
  • It's really surprising to me that The Midwich Cuckoos has not been taken up by a feminist filmmaker for another go: both the film adaptations are male-centered, this one to an astonishing degree, and there's probably a little something to be mined from the scenario from a female perspective.
  • A similarly-afflicted village in the USSR is mentioned, and there's a tiny bit of implication (that would've done well to have been made more explicit) that part of the reason the British government is permitting Gordon's "let's not kill them" experiment is because they don't want to unilaterally disarm themselves of psychic alien children if the Soviets have some of their own.  It's perhaps meaningful that the British government appears to reach the end of its patience almost immediately once the Russians wipe their village off the map with an atomic shell from a piece of very-long-range artillery.
  • There's a swear word in the title!
Sensawunda:
  • While devoid of conventional wonderment, the film is full of the uncanny: from the initial mystery of a quiet town to the blank expressions Gordon, Anthea, and Alan wear as the children put them in a trance and they watch a man blow his own head off, only to finally react with ashamed horror when their minds are returned to them.  It's pretty spooky.

2 comments:

  1. I did like this movie a lot when I watched this movie in my American Film Genres class on horror film in college. (Never mind that it's not American, we also watched a bunch of Hammer movies so I'm not sure my professor understood the assignment.)

    The interesting thing about the children being so iconic is that somehow they've been conflated with the Children of the Corn, a much worse movie that is iconic for almost no reason. The general audience really has trouble parsing them out, it seems.

    Also, Wolf Rilla sounds like a GREAT movie on the SyFy network.

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    1. "Wolf Rilla" is an extraordinary name, and despite him only ever having made one movie of any note, I've never had any trouble remembering his name.

      I almost watched Children of the Corn last night--I've never seen it--as we were in the mood to see one of the minor Stephen King adaptations instead of The Shining or Carrie for the dozenth time. (Instead, I got my way, and we watched The Dead Zone--also new to me--though I am not 100% sure this was the right call.)

      I've heard Who Can Kill a Child? from 1976 is good, but I can't verify that.

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