Village of the Damned: A Cinema Static Classic Reflection

by on November 26, 2011

in Entertainment

Hi Folks.  This week we continue our Cinema Static Classic Reflections series with the 1960 movie, Village of the Damned.

Village of the Damned promo art

If one were to conduct a survey, no survey of science fiction films would be complete without including the marvelous work of our brethren across the pond, the British cinema.  The British cinema of the 1960’s can be summed up easily: great stories, directors, acting, locations and ideas, but small budgets.

In American cinema, we had plenty of low-budget films with not so great special effects, but they were also poorly written and acted.  (I could easily fill this page with titles but how about Attack of the Crab Monsters or Teenagers from Space?)  Village of the Damned was in a sense, an American film, but it was made by the British branch of MGM Studios using a British director, actors, crew, and locations.

In the late fifties author John Wyndham was riding high on some of his recent best-sellers.  Some critics refer to him as a “cross-over” which doesn’t have anything to do with the way he dressed, but with how he was able to mix genres.

Generally, John Wyndham is listed under science fiction, but his stories have some horror elements to them also.  I’ve been a fan of his since I was very young and my oldest sister used to read to us.  One of the books she read to us was The Chrysalis, (which continues to be one of my most favorite sci fi novels).  I’ve since read as many of his books as I can find.

Sadly I don’t think he’s that well known today but in the fifties/sixties era, his books were very popular in England and the U.S..  So much so that in 1957 when he was writing “The Midwich Cuckoos”  – the story Village of the Damned is based upon – he had already sold the rights to MGM studios.  He was literally sending the pages as he wrote them to MGM studios in Hollywood.  They in turn selected director Wolf Rilla and screenwriter Stirling Silliphant, and those two gentlemen began working on the screenplay.

Village of the Damned

Wolf Rilla was born in Germany but his family left for England before WWII.  He eventually worked in the new medium of television and directed several movies, his best known being Village of the Damned.

Stirling Silliphant started out in advertising working for Disney and Twentieth Century Fox before turning to screen writing.  He has a long list of movies to his credits including The Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure and In the Heat of the Night for which he won an Oscar in 1968.

Rilla and Silliphant worked on a script but the problem for the studio was the subject matter.  The story concerns a village where every woman of childbearing age becomes pregnant after some mysterious force causes all the villagers to be unconscious for several hours.

Interesting Social Issues of Those Days:

Village of the Damned still

While this might sound tame by today’s standards, in the late fifties you couldn’t even say the word “pregnant” on film.  MGM studio executives also felt strongly that the story was mocking the virgin birth and so they balked at the project.  Director Rilla brought in another scriptwriter, George Barclay and they set about the task of rewriting the entire story again, only this time leaving out some of the characters and as much “offensive” material as possible.  They also couldn’t get the budget they wanted to film it here in the USA so they took it back over to England which was where the story was set anyway.

About Village of the Damn:

Village of the Damned

As mentioned above, the story concerns a weird force that makes the villagers of Midwich fall unconscious for hours.  Weeks later all females of childbearing age discover they are pregnant.  This is not a happy thing for some families.  In the more subtle parts of the film we see the village minister talking about the teenage girls who don’t have a clue how it happened.  (This would never be believable in today’s culture!)  And there’s a woman who has to tell her husband she’s pregnant when he’s just come back from the sea.  (Since his brother still lives in the village, he’s tortured by the thought that the child might be his.)

There’s not a lot of dialog here, but great direction and acting by the supporting players gets the point across.  The protagonist in the film is Prof. Zellaby, played by veteran actor George Sanders.  If you don’t know that name, you will know his voice (Jungle Book).  Usually cast as a suave, cynical man-about-town, (Rebecca, All About Eve, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Portrait of Dorian Gray), in this movie he plays against type and is the villages’ intellectual in residence.  He’s married to a younger woman, Anthea, played by Barbara Shelley, (at one time the queen of Hammer Horror films).

Of course the military and British Home Office are very interested in the cause of the village blackout and subsequent pregnancies and with the help of Zellaby and his brother-in-law Alan (who’s involved in the military), they resolve to keep an eye on the development of the children once they’re born.  This also involves the village doctor (Laurance Naismith), who has to set up a mobile doctor’s office in order to take care of all the pregnancies.

Once the children are born, they all show the same characteristics: high foreheads, white-blond hair, they’re bigger than average size and develop physically faster than normal, plus, they are very intelligent.  They exhibit cold and calculating personalities sadly lacking in human emotions as they quietly observe all around them and as Zellaby observes, if you teach one of them something, all the others seem to “learn” it too.

A Word About The Children:

Village of the Damned

The child actors in the film were chosen for their dark eyes so there would be a nice contrast with the white wigs they wore.  The wigs were padded to give them bigger heads.  The studio wanted something else to make them more creepy so they asked for Rilla to change the children’s eyes whenever they are reading minds or doing something to coerce the villagers.

So Rilla had the effects people reverse the color on the film negative, this gives them a white appearance.  This tiny change let the audience know that something nasty was about to happen and proved to be very popular for the film.

The leader of the children was played by actor Martin Stevens.  He didn’t do a lot of movies, but the 2 he’s most known for are The Innocents and Village of the Damned.  He does a fantastic performance in both films.  It’s mind blowing to see a child so young with such a grasp on what is expected of him and how his character relates to the story and other actors (watch him, he’s so subtle with his facial movements!).  He charactor is the son of Zellaby and the natural leader for the children in the movie.  Rilla does a great job directing these kids.  In each scene they stand out as “different.”  Without me saying anything, if you watch Village of the Damn, see if you can put your finger on it.

Some Interesting Tidbits about Village of the Damn:

The budget was only $82,000. but it grossed over $1.5 million, a tidy sum in those days.

When it was completed it languished on the shelf for months because MGM was too timid to release it.  They thought the subject matter too provocative, even with all the changes in the first script.  According to film historian and writer Steve Haberman, the film was shown to some theater owners and distributors and they didn’t like it either.  Then one day a British theater owned by MGM needed a second movie for a double feature and they played Village of the Damned.  The audience loved it!  Some critics were shocked and panned it but many gave it good reviews.  It was remade in 1995 by John Carpenter but like most remakes, it sucked big time.  Sadly it was also Christopher Reeves last movie before his riding accident left him paralyzed.)

In the original title of the book, “The Midwich Cuckoos,” we have a clue about this film and it’s unfortunate that the studio didn’t keep it.  A cuckoo is a bird that lays its eggs in another bird’s nest and fools the other bird into hatching its young.

-Sybil

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