It's been said that the eyes are the windows to the soul. I wonder what the originator of that quote would have thought of "Village of the Damned."
The 1995 film features extra terrestrial children, their glowing eyes telepathically ordering adults to do terrible things.
I’m getting ahead of myself.
I own a tattered copy of John Wyndham’s 1957 science fiction novel, “The Midwich Cuckoos.” The story involves an alien presence infiltrating a small town. The men and women of Midwich suffer a blackout in which everyone suddenly falls asleep. Not long after waking up, all the women discover they are pregnant. The children are born and share an unspoken kinship with each other but none of the adults.
The kids have an unfeeling, detached manner to them. Much worse, their eyes flare into an unholy glow when angered. Bearing psychic abilities and mind power that make them seemingly unstoppable, the children are clearly well on their way to world domination.
The haunting, black and white “Village Of The Damned (1960)” by director Wolf Rilla is still nightmare inducing. It’s impossible to forget the glowing eyes on those cruel, interchangeable children as they telepathically force the adults to kill themselves.
Famed horror filmmaker John Carpenter was clearly also taken with Rilla’s film. His version, “Village of the Damned (Collector’s Edition) [Blu-ray],” isn’t as focused, tonally or at the narrative level, as his masterful 1982 remake of “The Thing From Another World.”
Christopher Reeve stars as a Midwich teacher whose wife is among the mothers of the “damned.” Come to think of it, the “Damned” probably the parents, not the offspring. The arrival of an expert (Kirstie Alley) spells out the uniqueness of the Midwich blackout and the interest the scientific community at large has in the town.
The 1995 film’s best scene has a town member smiling with greed over the news that carrying one of the blackout babies to term will result in considerable financial compensation.
This ‘Village’ Needs Work
Despite a Carpenter score that is far from his finest, everything about the set-up is top notch. The film has been gorgeously lensed by Carpenter veteran Gary B. Kibbe (he also shot “Prince of Darkness,” “They Live,” “Body Bags,” “Escape From L.A.” and “Ghosts of Mars”).
Establishing shots of an unseen UFO hovering over Midwich are striking, as is the sequence of the town simultaneously falling asleep. Once you get to the many scenes of the kids making adults stick their hands in boiling water and other unpleasant business, the movie loses its pull and becomes tacky.
The cast is an odd assemblage of second-tier celebrities and former A-listers. It unintentionally plays like Midwich is a town populated by out of work actors.
Yet, while some of the choices are jarring (Mark Hamill is cast as a creepy Catholic priest), everyone turns in an admittedly strong performance. Reeve, in his last role before a riding accident paralyzed him in ’95, makes his dire situation credible. Alley is surprisingly forceful as the scientist who oversees the town and, to a degree, controls the situation.
Young Lindsey Haun is excellent, suitably scary and loathsome, as the head of the children.
The Horror Master Stumbles
Near the end, the blending of old-fashioned elements in a modern setting falters when Carpenter stages a mob of torch carrying town folk. The image is so antiquated, even for 1995, you wonder if they’ll set fire to Midwich and then head over to Castle Frankenstein.
As the film concludes, it puts a lifelong Carpenter fan like myself in a tough position. I love Carpenter’s movies (including his most recent, strangely unloved “The Ward”) and find myself defending some of his clunkier movies.
Not this one.
There are great moments to savor but oddly, Rilla’s 1960 original is still scarier. The characters in Carpenter’s film, while embodied by that intriguing cast, have no inner life and only discuss plot exposition.
Reeve’s performance is among his most compelling (outside of “Death Trap,” “Street Smart,” “Noises Off!” and the “Superman” films). The climactic battle, involving the image of a wall that keeps the children from knowing their outcome, is riveting. So are the visual effects, particularly when the extraterrestrials inside the guise of children become visible. Yet, it’s an unsatisfying movie of moments.
Home Video to the Rescue
The Scream Factory’s “Village of the Damned (Collector’s Edition) [Blu-ray]” is a dream for fans of Carpenter and the film itself. The lack of a director’s commentary is made up by “It Takes a Village: The Making of Village of the Damned.” The documentary covers so much ground, a commentary would have been redundant.
Not only is Carpenter typically engaging in his recollections, he and others frankly comment on how the film was taken from him and edited against his approval. Someone comments that, as is, “the film lost what made it a John Carpenter movie.” That’s hard to disagree with.
The nicest surprise is hearing from the children, now fully grown character actors. They remember their time working for Carpenter with genuine affection. While there are stills and references to the sought after “bully/playground” scene, we don’t get to see it.
On the other hand, the major find is the mostly complete, never before seen early sequence where the Midwich babies all rise simultaneously from their hospital beds. The puppetry and lighting of this nightmarish bit is striking.
FAST FACT: John Carpenter won a best live action short Oscar in 1970 for his University of Southern California school project, “The Resurrection of Bronco Billy.
Another great featurette is “The Go-to Guy,” featuring Peter Jason’s many tales of being an actor for Carpenter and a producer on “Village of the Damned.” Jason’s jovial tales are fun and extensive. He even provides insight on the making of Carpenter’s under-appreciated “Escape From L.A.” and “Ghosts of Mars.”
There’s also an entertaining look at the film’s locations today, as well as the trailer, vintage interviews (including one from Rilla) and photo stills.
This is one of those essential Scream Factory purchases, even for casual genre fans or Carpenter completists who aren’t down with “the Damned.” The wealth of filmmaking info, behind the scenes tidbits, joy and heartbreak over the creative process and passion for the craft makes this a keeper.
Rilla’s 1960 film has been noted as a metaphor for (among other things) the fear of neo-Nazism spreading post WWII. Some of this translates to Carpenter’s version, but the overall point it makes is unintentional: when the vision of a master filmmaker is taken away from him and the end result is a compromised.
It’s the story, not just the village, that is truly damned.