From the Vaults: 'Village of the Damned' (1960)
All I knew about this movie going in was that it had been remade with Mark Hamill in 1995 (the remake also starred Christopher Reeve and Kirstie Alley, and was respectably directed by John Carpenter, but in 1995 all my friends and I cared about was Mark Hamill). I had the impression that the whole idea of a town full of evil kids was fairly corny. I did not expect the original "Village of the Damned" to be so down-to-earth, and so very unsettling.
Things begin quietly -- very quietly -- as everyone in the village of Midwich, England, suddenly and collectively passes out one afternoon. Tractors crash into trees, record players run down, bathtubs overflow, irons burn holes in shirts ... even the animals are out cold. Britain's military rolls in and is standing there wondering what to do when suddenly everyone in Midwich wakes up again. There seem to be no ill effects (well, except for the poor guy who fell asleep flying a plane).
And then, two months later, all the Midwich women of childbearing age realize they're pregnant.
The movie's adapted from "The Midwich Cuckoos," a novel by John Wyndham -- who also wrote the wonderful "Day of the Triffids," another tale of mayhem lurking just beneath the peaceful British countryside. Here the action moves at a fairly tranquil pace, introducing an array of mostly likable, relateable characters inhabiting Midwich.
Our heroes are scientist Gordon Zellaby (George Sanders) and his wife, Anthea (Barbara Shelley), with Anthea's brother Alan (Michael Gwynn) providing a military connection. After the mass loss of consciousness, everyone pretty much just dusts themselves off and says "Mustn't grumble" and gets back to work.
But the pregnancies really freak the village out, and this is where the movie starts to get to you. Anthea is pregnant, and it comes as a huge surprise to her and Gordon, who married late and never expected to have children. They're transported by joy. "You've made me the happiest man alive," he keeps telling her, and then makes her sit down and starts fussing over her. Aww! I love these two!
Elsewhere in the village, though, the news is not so good. A teenage girl swears up and down to her doctor that she's never had sex, and he just looks at her skeptically; you can feel her frustration and anguish at not being believed. Another woman's husband has been away for a year, so serious domestic tension ensues. There's major gossip at the post office!
This is all before the children are born. And they aren't quite ... right.
For one thing, they're all born prematurely yet fully developed. And for another, they're massively evil! (Oops, did I spoil anything?) From birth the doctor talks about their strange eyes. And Anthea's son David pulls a nasty trick while he's still in diapers: Gordon hears her screaming from the nursery and rushes in to find her trying to pull her own hand from a pot of boiling water, and the baby staring at her balefully from his crib. Apparently she accidentally gave David a bottle that was still hot and, well, that upset him! (What if this movie had come out during a breast-feeding era?)
The babies age really quickly, so that within three years they look like 8- or 10-year-olds, and they're beginning to wreak havoc. They aren't cute or loving; they seem to know things, and they can make things happen. People who cross them meet unpleasant ends. Gordon, whose scientific mind is clearly pretty thrilled by all this, figures out that if one of them learns a puzzle, the others all know the solution too. He puts himself in charge of teaching them, asking them questions like "Is there life on other planets?" but doesn't get very far. It soon becomes clear that it's the children -- or us!
This movie is far from the cornball romp I'd expected, largely thanks to the performances. Tiny Martin Stephens (above, and at right) is chillingly composed as young David, resisting Anthea's maternal advances and putting on his death-glare when he gets upset. The following year, he'd be giving Deborah Kerr nightmares in "The Innocents" as Miles, a role in which he's also preternaturally calm and articulate.
I also have to give major props to George Sanders and Barbara Shelley (that's her, above, being baffled by her son), who are just heartbreaking as the Zellabys. They're such a believable couple, and things work out so very badly for them! Barbara Shelley in particular is a vision; I about passed out when she appeared in a gorgeous vintage cocktail dress. Shelley would go on to star opposite Christopher Lee in "Dracula: Prince of Darkness," the follow-up to "Brides of Dracula." I will be checking that out.
The most brilliant thing about this movie is how it plays on one of the most basic fears: What if you don't really know the person closest to you? What if your own flesh and blood is out to get you? And it never really explains where these kids came from. Perhaps your pesky older brother is a Midwich cuckoo! Brr!
-- Anne Elisabeth Dillon