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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

Village of the Damned (review)

Made for Television

The Brits sure do know how to make sneakily scary science fiction. C’mon, admit it: There was something about those monsters made out of garbage bags on Doctor Who that gave you a little frisson of fright, even as you were laughing at them, right? So how did Limey filmmakers freak the bejesus out of us — and make us post-ironic hipsters today snicker at the same time — before the good Doctor came along? Slapped some white wigs on a buncha kids, told ’em to talk in a monotone, and shot it all in glorious black-and-white, that’s how.

If 1960’s Village of the Damned didn’t have a direct influence on the creation of Doctor Who, which debuted on TV only a few years later, I’ll eat my Powerbook. Everyone in the pretty little rural English village of Midwich faints dead away for no apparent reason one fine day. Army major Alan Bernard (Michael Gwynn) happens to be on the phone with his brother-in-law, Gordon Zellaby (George Sanders: All About Eve), when the line apparently goes dead. So he immediately mobilizes the army, which cordons off the town and sends intrepid young troopers into the affected area… at which point they all pass out, too. Where’s Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, the staunch general in charge of U.N.I.T.? Where’s the Doctor? Oh, there’s a doctor here, Willers (Laurence Naismith), but he’s just the ordinary medical kind, not an interfering Time Lord, and somehow it’s not quite the same.
Four hours later and equally inexplicably, everyone wakes up. This is the point at which Sarah-Jane would turn to the Doctor and say that since everything seems fine, they could split now, right? But the Doctor would suspect that something else was afoot — it must be, since we’re only 15 minutes into the episode… er, movie.

The twist Village takes is of the slightly naughty variety that Doctor Who would never have touched. All the women of childbearing age in Midwich are now pregnant. Even the unmarried ones who declare, “But I never… it’s impossible!” Even the one who’s — gasp! — only 17! (One wonders how all the fertile 16-, 15-, 14-, 13-, 12-, and 11-year-olds escape this fate, but that would be too naughty a concept even for film, I guess.) The babies develop fast, are all born on the same night, and continue their rapid growth. They’re creepy and they’re kooky, these kids, with their “arresting” eyes, genius IQs, and seeming telepathy. And, ho boy, do not make them mad, ‘cuz then their eyes start glowing and who knows what kind of hell is gonna break loose. Gordon defends his preternatural son, David (Martin Stephens), imagining him the next Einstein, but we can all see, as Hank Hill would say (to borrow from yet another bit of brilliant TV), “The boy ain’t right.”

Just as Doctor Who was, at its best, cool and eerie, so is Village of the Damned, which is, by the way, based on a novel by John Wyndham, who also wrote the very Doctor Whoish Day of the Triffids. It was never Doctor Who‘s cheap monsters themselves that gave you chills — it was the thought of aliens or mutants or whatever invading somewhere so nice and normal. Midwich, here, is a charming little town: a pub, a post office, little fences setting off from the road homey brick houses, their cozy rooms all wallpapered with happy Laura Ashley florals (even if the film is in black-and-white). Why would aliens — as it seems these damned children are the spawn of — choose here for the beachhead of their invasion? If they’d choose here, what’s to stop them choosing my town next?

Okay, Village of the Damned is, in spots, as cheesy as Doctor Who could be. It’s hilariously overearnest, the kind of film in which Gordon and his wife, Anthea (Barbara Shelley), can wrap a discussion of how they just don’t know why they passed out for four hours with her grave question: “Gordon, what did happen?” to which he replies, “I don’t know,” and you can positively hear the italics. It’s the kind of movie in which Gordon can march around authoritatively because, “It’s okay, he’s a professor,” says Alan. Of what, we never learn… could be his specialty is 14th-century French poetry, not alien invasions. But he smokes a pipe and has patches on the elbows of his jacket, so he’s in charge.

Oh, all right, fer pete’s sake, Village of the Damned has actually got peasants wielding burning torches marching on the undesirables. And in the end — here’s a shock — lowly humanity triumphs, once again, over the vast superior alien intelligences. Hurrah for us!

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MPAA: not rated

viewed at home on a small screen

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