Village of the Damned (1960)


The word "cuckoo" has such a connotation in American English that it has somewhat lost its original meaning.  Where we often associate the word with European clocks or a term meaning crazy a cuckoo is, in fact, a rather sneaky and vicious bird.  It will lay its egg in the nest of another bird, and the hatchling will either use up resources from the parent that should have gone to its own brood or will sometimes kill its competitors.  While many birds do possess surprising amounts of intelligence a good majority still go by instinct and, if the baby is in the nest, the mother will take care of it and protect it regardless.  Thus, John Wyndham's novel The Midwich Cuckoos has a meaning much closer to the plot, something that his native British readers would have picked up on.  

The book was, and still is, considered a great piece of speculative fiction, and it was optioned for a movie even before its publishing date in 1957.  Actor Ronald Coleman was tagged to play the lead part of scientist Gordon Zellaby, but MGM wanted Gary Cooper in the role.  Unfortunately, getting production started dragged on to the point where Cooper was unavailable and Coleman fell ill.  This led to George Sanders taking the role, and his low-key and detached performance is just one element that made Village of the Damned such a classic.

One day the rural English town of Midwich suddenly goes silent.  Major Alan Bernard (Michael Gwynn) is on the phone with his brother-in-law Gordon Zellaby when the conversation abruptly cuts off.  Concerned about what may be happening Bernard gets permission from his commanding officer to head to the town where he soon finds out that the entire community has suddenly gone to sleep, and anyone who moves past a specifically demarked point also faints.  This soon wears off and, while the army is baffled, it seems like everyone is okay after the ordeal.

A few weeks later, however, it turns out that every woman who can bear a child - whether they are sexually active or not - is now pregnant.  While for Gordon's wife Anthea (Barbara Shelley) this is initially a cause for celebration, it causes major problems with some of the families of the younger girls and in situations where husbands were gone for a long while.  However, after the children are born it is obvious that the pregnancies were not natural.  Each child has identical platinum blonde hair and certain non-human features on the microcosmic level.  They are also telepathic and often work as a hive mind.  As they develop at an accelerated rate the concern begins to arise that they may be a threat to the human race.

Village of the Damned is quite the lesson in subtlety.  Unfortunately, being it came out in 1960, it had to be.  Just a few years before pregnancy couldn't even be mentioned on American television, and it is obvious that there are a lot of twists and turns made in the script to get around British censorship on the subject as well.  It was long something looked at as a joyous moment - at least if the circumstances were within community standards - but it wouldn't be until the end of the 1960s that many mainstream movies even acknowledged what led up to pregnancy.  It is amazing what tricks the script here does to even avoid mentioning something like virginity.  Books had a bit more leeway, but something like Village of the Damned was sure to show up in the Saturday matinee, and the last thing anyone wanted was the little tykes coming home with some difficult questions.

Happily, this quiet, detached tone exists throughout the film.  It in fact begins with quiet when the entire town of Midwich is put under, and then their lives are disrupted not only by the intervention of the military but also by the unexpected arrival of the children.  While Sanders, Shelley and Gwynn are good in playing their established characters, it is the group of children that will always stand out.  Creepy kids are a mainstay in horror and this movie has some of the creepiest, especially since, aside from their glowing eyes, they look exactly what a bunch of madmen were trying to create barely a couple decades before the movie was made.  Their seeming lack of individuality also leads to comparisons to The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, although the political underpinnings of The Midwich Cuckoos, though there, were not as blatant as in Jack Finney's work. 

The script was adapted by Stirling Silliphant, a prolific writer for American television series at the time, and director Wolf Rilla, who brings an extremely realistic tone to the story.  Though black and while, and using wipes that fell out of favor by the 1970s, a lot of the movie looks surprisingly modern.  It is a story that still works today, even though John Carpenter's attempt to update it in 1995 ended up adding a huge dollop of camp that, happily, is not in the original.  The fact the actors seem to take the subject matter seriously, as does Rilla, just heightens the tension the audience feels.  

Village of the Damned (1960)
Time: 77 minutes
Starring: George Sanders, Barbara Shelley, Michael Gwynn
Director: Wolf Rilla

 

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