Village of the Damned (1995)


John Carpenter gradually became disenchanted with making movies, and for good reason.  The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China and others are all considered classics now, but they were bombs when they came out.  Lambasted by critics or totally ignored by audiences, it resulted in Carpenter self-producing Prince of Darkness and They Live in the late 1980s and then largely becoming a director for hire during the 1990s.

Honestly, no one will say the 1990s were the best decade for Carpenter.  He made one great movie during that time - at least one that I consider great - and that was In the Mouth of Madness.  It felt like what it was supposed be, which was John Carpenter both playing on the celebrity of Stephen King while making his own H. P. Lovecraft movie.  It worked, not the least because King borrows a a good number of ideas from Lovecraft, but because it feels like Carpenter still seemed like he had some input despite the fact that, unlike most of his previous material, he had no hand in the writing. 

That is the telling thing.  Most of his '90s movies didn't include him in at least the initial writing, save for Escape from L.A. and Ghosts of Mars, and both are low points of his career.  It seemed like he was still making movies because he didn't know what to do if he retired.  Escape from L.A. was largely a favor to Kurt Russell, while the other films were to earn a paycheck.  That includes his remake of the 1960 classic Village of the Damned.

The original Village of the Damned was based on John Wyndham's book The Midwich Cuckoos, and MGM never thought it would end up being a hit.  It did, largely because of the striking images of the platinum blonde children with their glowing eyes, the low key direction of Wolf Rilla and Rilla's and Stirling Siliphant's streamlined adaptation of Wyndham's novel.  It resulted in one sequel, Children of the Damned, which didn't fare as well, but the original Village is still considered a classic and, although nominally a science fiction film, often is part of the typical Halloween playlist.  Thus, when Universal decided to remake it, they were probably hoping Carpenter might bring the same inspiration that he did to The Thing, his remake of the 1950s sci-fi thriller The Thing from Another World.  By the early 1990s his movie was considered both a science fiction and horror classic, and had been redeemed from the reception it had received a decade earlier.  The difference, though, is that Carpenter wanted to remake The ThingVillage of the Damned was a different story.

One day a strange shadow passes over the California town of Midwich and many residents hear a strange whispering sound.  A few hours later all of the residents and animals within the town suddenly fall asleep, some with fatal results.  Dr. Alan Chafee (Christopher Reeve) happens to be away doing rounds at a hospital when he returns to find the town surrounded by military seemingly under the command of Dr. Susan Verner (Kirstie Alley), who is affiliated with an unknown government agency.  Soon the town wakes up, but no one at that point has any idea what happened.

Within a few weeks every woman in the town that can carry a baby is, which naturally causes problems in certain situations in which they shouldn't be.  The children are all born on the same day.  While one is stillborn, the rest are fine - in fact, more than fine.  They age at an accelerated rate, have telepathic powers and tend to all think with one mind.  The exception is David (Thomas Dekker), the son of school principal Jill McGowan (Linda Kozlowski), who begins to develop human emotions to the dismay of their leader, Mara (Lindsey Haun), Dr. Chafee's daughter.  As the government becomes more concerned about the children it comes down to Dr. Chafee to make a decision to save the town from destruction. 

Supposedly the reason John Carpenter agreed to direct this remake is because he was interested in directing a remake of The Creature from the Black Lagoon, which has been in the planning stage for decades.  It never happened, with Carpenter instead going on to make Escape from L.A. afterward.  Village of the Damned was not well-received by critics nor audiences.  If wondering who the target audience would have been for this in 1995 it would have been fans of the original, and unfortunately, though this still wasn't a production with a huge budget, much of what works best in the original was due to a shoestring budget and a ton of creativity on how to use it.  I personally thought it was an okay adaptation when I originally saw it, but nothing special, with the most memorable parts being, obviously, the children as well as Mark Hamill's over-the-top performance as Reverend George. 

Christopher Reeve, unfortunately, would suffer his accident shortly after this was released that left him paralyzed the rest of his life.  He's given the hero part, and he's good, but anyone could have played the role.  Kirstie Alley's character was obviously influenced by the Cigarette Smoking Man from The X-Files, which was at the peak of its popularity at the time.  In fact, that's really the whole reason an entire government conspiracy was shoehorned in there, as obviously the the studio told David Himmelstein, who was responsible for the revisions to Silliphant and Rilla's script, that they wanted that kind of atmosphere.  

There are other changes, such as making David a sympathetic character and, in the end, making it clear what the children are.  The original movie left it vague, while its sequel stated that they were an advanced form of humanity from about a million years in our future.  It makes a major difference because in the original the children often only killed wen they were directly threatened and, in the remake, they seem to enjoy it despite the fact they are supposed to be emotionally detached.  There is, of course, more outright violence than the original, as well as discussions of abortion which the original would not have dared to touch.  

Unfortunately, these changes do nothing to make the story better.  It's window dressing at best and distracting at worst.  These additions are all the more distracting because the original script is largely intact, right down to events that happen and dialogue.  Some characters are renamed moved around, but it's largely the same.  And, honestly, while Hamill does overact his part, it is Pippa Pearthree who plays the reverend's wife that really pushes the overacting into camp.  Also, I can't really blame Hamill for how he plays the reverend, and the dialogue he is given to say is absolutely ridiculous.  It's hard to go any other way.

Still, because the original story is still there and is undeniably good, the remake, though unnecessary, is enjoyable.  It just never succeeds in giving the viewer the same sense of discomfort as the original does.  A movie like Village of the Damned needs the quiet parts to unsettle the audience and needs to feel the same fear as the townspeople do about what the children can do rather than showing them do it over and over again.  The palpable fear of Midwich toward the children is there in the original, but seems largely missing here.  It may partially be due to the town where it filmed being largely uncooperative with the film crew, but without it the audience doesn't have the connection they need to believe in what the movie is showing them.  While Carpenter and everyone does a decent job, and in no way made a bad version of the movie, it just really needed those creepy little accidents that made the original so memorable.

Village of the Damned (1995)
Time: 98 minutes
Starring: Christopher Reeve, Linda Kozlowski, Kirstie Allie
Director: John Carpenter





 

Comments

  1. It's been awhile since I've seen the original, but I remember it as having certain Cold War overtones that enhanced the tension, and I assume were entirely absent from a 1995 remake. The question of "the other villages", and particularly the one the Soviets are intensively studying, looms in the background in the plot of the first one, and there's a nicely chilling turn when the Soviets abruptly modify their handling.

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  2. Even more so when the British first respond in shock to that solution and then start inching toward the conclusion that they will have to do the same to Midwich.

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