Tomorrowsday #3: We’re the start of the coming race

Returning to our Tuesday sci-fi season. VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED was an atypical British entry in the series, an adaptation of John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos, a title which was never going to fly in the movies, though one might regret the hysteria of the alternative chosen. Especially given the film’s muted, low-key approach to much of the action, some of which can be credited to George Sanders’ quiet central performance.

Sheep! The first accidental echo of THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL. Nothing says “sleepy English village” like sheep, and they serve as maybe a metaphor for humanity’s potential fate, though watching the pale, placid things flocking along is oddly reminiscent of the alien kids when they appear, always traveling in a group.

Looks like Rilla got a camera crane into the village location for one day and shot the hell out of everything. The best bits of the remake are the quick cuts of unconscious Midwichers, but Rilla’s sweeping moves are better, the gliding camera contrasting with the static bodies and emphasising their inactivity. And playing the credits over the clock tower is terrific — it’s 11am, not time to sleep — and also, it rhymes with the prominent role played by clocks at the film’s climax.

This part of the film has a real EXTERMINATING ANGEL vibe about it, particularly when they send a man in with a rope tied to him. (Surrealist logic is allowed to be bendy, as in Tex Avery. Bunuel has his houseguests simply unable to try to leave, whereas the people on the outside CAN try to get in, but then they go wobbly and fall over.) In a way lots of the film is like Bunuelian sci-fi. A village falling asleep all at once is a surreal idea — a variant on Rene Clair’s PARIS QUI DORT, perhaps. Every woman of childbearing age becoming pregnant is equally bizarre. And, rather than relying on special effects (most of them fairly shaky when they do appear), the film prefers to keep the truly alien and uncanny stuff offscreen and therefore abstract, unknowable.

Peter Vaughan! A great psychotronic actor — two Gilliams, two Ken Russells and one Peckinpah to his name, but not yet. His P.C. Gobby here is one of a raft of early copper roles he was lumbered with before his greatness became apparent.

Wyndham offers a glimpse of something round in the village square, seen from the air. We obviously imagine a flying saucer. This could have been replicated in the movie, perhaps as a doctored aerial photograph, but they prefer to leave everything, but everything, to our imaginations. Perhaps this is due to censorship/taste concerns also: they don’t want anyone to imagine Little Green Men roving the village with turkey basters, impregnating every female in their path. By making the invasion invisible, we’re free to picture these conceptions as immaculate, with the alien sperm passing through the women like tiny ghosts, as a beam of light passes through a stained glass window, without breaking it. The alien fertilisation is an abstract force, just like the bubble of unconsciousness enveloping Midwich.

Another thing left out of the film is the attempts by various village women to lose their unwanted foetuses, taking long bicycle rides or hot baths, or throwing themselves downstairs a la LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN. Couldn’t deal with THAT in a film of the period.

Fiona was reminded of WENT THE DAY WELL?, another tale in which an alien force occupies a sleepy (!) English village. In both stories, the angry resistance by Britishers sometimes seems too brutal, unsympathetic.

“So cold…” says the soldier recovering from his unconsciousness. And it is! You can see the actors’ breath in the air.

There sure are a lot of Argonauts in this film. Well, Laurence Naismith and Michael Gwynn both appear.

Mobile X-ray unit! That was the answer to everything in those days. If it moves, X-ray it. If it continues to move, keep X-raying it until it stops.

The glowing eyes effect, which always seemed questionable, is even more flawed now that I see the film on DVD. I doubt that the BBC1 screening of my childhood was sharp enough to make it easil discernible that the glowing eyes have been painted onto still images of the kids, sometimes uneasily splitscreened with moving shots. It’s arguable that every effect you DON’T see in this film is preferable to everything we DO see. Partly because it’s a low-budget film and what it can afford to show us is limited. Mostly because the unseen enlists the imagination.

   

Fiona likes the crazy Herrmannesque harp glissandi — reminiscent of the shimmering, dreamy stuff in FAHRENHEIT 451. Composer Ron Goodwin maybe deserves more attention — certainly he wrote a joyous thing when he created Miss Marple’s theme tune for the Margaret Rutherford films, and of course there’s 633 SQUADRON.

George Sanders’s contractual piano, which he insisted had to be on the set of every film, is actually part of the set here, and he tickles its ivories a little. George is great. Around this time he made THE REBEL and writers Galton & Simpson asked him about his many conquests. Had he really…? “Oh yes. But I am now of an age when a satisfactory bowel movement far exceeds the pleasure of a good fuck.” You can, perhaps, see in his restraint and melancholy here foreshadowing of the despair which would kill him (“I’m very, very bored,” he famously recorded in his suicide note). But he’s also just being true to the role: as a clever bit of plot-character confluence, the elderly Gordon Zellaby is the only villager who’s really happy about parenthood coming so suddenly, as he’d lost hope of it ever coming. And he’s going to be the one who has to take final, fatal action against his own (sort-of) offspring.

Of course we all know it’s PSYCHOMANIA that really did for him.

Barbara Shelley, an actress unaccountably bundled into horror films more often than not (well, she was a good screamer), is also very good, though all Wyndham’s women are a little underdeveloped. Fiona has long felt that a version of the story focussing on the women’s side would be worthwhile — they have, after all, been raped and impregnated, and it takes a somewhat paternalistic view (which Wyndham had) to view this as a story in which the menfolk have the more dramatic role.

Throughout the film, director Wolf Rilla’s shots have a modest intensity, a slightly noirish sense of emphasis, so we always sense the drama beneath the serene surface of this “typical” village. There are beautiful shots of the kids that remind me of the “children of rage” in Cronenberg’s THE BROOD, in those shots where we see them walking in their parkas in longshot, images that are outwardly normal except for what we know about what’s REALLY going on.

The script here is credited to American TV and movie writer Sterling Silliphant and Rilla himself and producer/Scotsman Ronald Kinnoch, which Silliphant always saw as a deplorable bit of credit-stealing. He evidently felt his script was filmed quite faithfully and so those two didn’t deserve their names on it.

Little Martin Stephens, the lead space-hellion, becomes the prototype for all scary kids — the cool, calm, Spock-like approach is far more chilling than any Linda Blair snarling. It’s tempting to believe that the little girls in THE SHINING are English not because daddy Phillip Stone is English, but because the Diane Arbus photo that inspired Kubrick then reminded him of the cuckoos, and he had to hear them talk in clipped English accents.

Stephens, of course, is also fantastic in THE INNOCENTS, and turns in THE HELLFIRE CLUB and THE WITCHES, though less interesting, cement his rep as the ultimate scary kid. He’s the fulcrum of the whole gaggle.

I’m obsessed with the ending of this movie because it resorts to a kind of silent movie metaphor technique to make the invisible visible — to perceive the kids’ telepathic intrusion on Sanders’ thoughts we need to see what they see. So first they see the brick wall he’s trying to think of. Then, under their literally penetrating gaze, the wall begins to crumble — if they were really smart they’d figure out that if he’s concealing his thoughts there must be something he’s trying to hide, something therefore not in their interests… they know what happened to their OTHER colonies.

(A Wyndham novel never filmed, and unlikely to be filmed, is The Chrysalids, which also has psychic kids who can communicate across continents. But in this book, the coming race are the heroes and the puritans who seek to preserve unmutated genetic normality at all costs are the true monsters. And there are traces of his divided sympathies in this one.)

But this is a GREAT THING. The bomb concealed behind the wall fills the shot, just as the wall does, so they’re surreally out of scale. One thought superimposed on another. And I remember, after seeing the film, trying to conceal my thoughts in this manner, placing a surface idea over a secret one. And finding it impossible not to think of an elephant.

Cunning editing avoids the worst effects of an unconvincing miniature explosion — this being a British picture, it’s unnecessary to invoke the deity at the end (might be seen as poor taste, don’t you know?) but amid the reaction shots, the village vicar is prominently placed — then there’s another superimposition, suggesting the alien souls departing for space — it may be cheesy, but I rather love it. The movie NEEDS some kind of summative moment that takes us beyond a simple victory by dynamite. Watch the John Carpenter remake and see if you don’t agree.

“The world shall hear of us again!” they don’t say. But you know that’s what they mean. And they’re right. To be continued…

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17 Responses to “Tomorrowsday #3: We’re the start of the coming race”

  1. The creepiest thing about these kids are their haircuts : “Vidal Sassoon of Mars”

  2. And they work — after an initial jolt — in b&w, which they don’t, ever, in the remake.

  3. That bit about the students breaking the wall in Sanders’ mind conjures up associations with Pink Floyd and I guess Alan Parker.

    I wonder if Village of the Damned sympathizes with the kids. Because you know making a movie about older men attacking smaller children regardless of context lends itself to authoritarianism, something which Losey in his These Are The Damned brought forth and elided deftly all without losing sight of the fact that the kids are poison.

  4. Pink Floyd’s The Wall bundles together different meanings, to do with conformity and emotional repression, but doesn’t quite relate neatly to George’s mental block.

    The kids are very much the bad guys, but you can’t help but hope they’ll come round to the idea of peaceful co-existance, which is the goal George strives for, like Doctor Who. Unlike the Doctor, he does resort to violence but only as a last resort and as an act of self-sacrifice (he is, in fact, a suicide bomber).

  5. chris schneider Says:

    There’s a Wyndham adaptation made for the ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR, “Consider Her Ways,” which has sleepiness and pregnancy and something more of a female p.o.v. It’s set in a dystopian future where men are extinct but the scientific methods for creating new children compel the society to keep most women bloated and tranquillized and pregnant. Docile baby-machines, in other words. Barbara Barrie (ah!) is a present-day doctor who wakes up into this world, and Gladys Cooper is the antagonist. Uninspired direction by Robert Stevens, but original Bernard Herrmann music to supply atmosphere. Script by Oscar Millard, of NO HIGHWAY IN THE SKY and ANGEL FACE.

  6. bensondonald Says:

    Side note: Budget and a desire to tap imaginative powers are generally cited as reasons to spurn special effects. But I suspect at least some filmmakers avoid certain shots because they know they’ll be used in ALL the marketing, drawing an audience with the wrong expectations (and perhaps turning off more sympathetic viewers).

    A flying saucer, appearing however briefly in the early going, might well have ended up in every trailer and ad — and people would sit waiting for it and its occupants to reappear.

    Of course, less scrupulous Bs (and even As) make a point of exploitable images. The girl (sometimes a bit player) glimpsed in lingerie; a violent stunt; the best effect or biggest crowd shot; and the last-reel view of the monster (after an hour of people reacting to its spoor). There’s a conscious effort to provide just enough for a hot trailer — not necessarily an honest trailer, but a hot one.

    Sometimes it’s subtle. The Errol Flynn version of “Prince and the Pauper” is very much a boy’s adventure. The mothers appear fleetingly at the beginning; Flynn has a scene with a barmaid; and beyond that women are bit players if that. In the trailer, the barmaid is featured and even given billing to imply there’s a romantic plot. One suspects the character was written in for that purpose.

  7. Weeeell, according to Raoul Walsh, the reason women were regularly written in to Flynn films was so that Flynn could lay them (Walsh, too).

    I’m not sure if many filmmakers avoided visual effects for fear the advertising would misuse them, since the publicity men always found ways to misrepresent their efforts anyway, as in the Forbidden Planet poster where Robby the Robot is a rampaging maniac with Anne Francis in his arms.

    I like Consider Her Ways the story and the TV adaptation. Wyndham enters a female POV and has his heroine become The Terminator, traveling back to her own time and assassinating the scientist who caused the man-plague.

    He still has limitations regarding the female viewpoint: his heroine has lost her own lover, so she’s strongly motivated to preserve the male sex because she’s known true love and lost it. It doesn’t occur to JW that romantic love could still exist in an all-female world…

  8. bensondonald Says:

    “Son of Sinbad” was allegedly produced to legally satisfy all the contracts Howards Hughes handed out to starlets. Besides having harem girls scattered like throw pillows throughout, the script has the legendary forty thieves succeeded by their forty daughters. One wonders if all those contracts were for favors granted or just attempts to secure same.

    The film itself is a cheesy pleasure, beyond displays of pulchritude that scream girlfriends or contest winners . TV cowboy Dale Robertson is Sinbad and Vincent Price is his comic sidekick.

  9. bensondonald Says:

    As for thinking, recently read some old Pogo strips where Albert Alligator and Beauregard the Hound engage in a competition of brainpower. It quickly boils down to who can think about the largest amount of something. Albert is thinking of vast amounts of popping corn; Beauregard is thinking of vaster numbers of baby chicks. Judges and other critters wander off as the pair rack up panel-filling “Pop pop pops” and “Peep peep peeps”.

  10. Doesn’t sound like either Pogo or Beauregard would ring the bell on the Krell brain-o-meter.

    I love Son of Sinbad, mainly for Price’s long-suffering Omar Khayam, sighing over the burlesque dancers he can never have.

  11. Are you saying that Olivia DeHaviland was “in like Flynn”?

  12. Nono, because she was already a star before appearing with Flynn, or getting engaged to Howard Hughes.

    Walsh said that if he and Flynn spotted a pretty girl, one would see loudly to the other, “Wouldn’t she be perfect for the part of the sister?” A sister could always be invented.

    By this formula, Joan Fontaine might be a better fit (I kid!), but the real telltale is anyone appearing as a sister in a movie where there’s no reason for her presence in the story.

  13. mikeclelland Says:

    David,

    I have been actively involved with UFO research for over a decade, and THE VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED eerily mirrors much of what gets reported in the UFO literature. Fiona is right, there should be another film from the women’s point of view — it could be a documentary! Strange pregnancies are common within UFO research. I have talked to many women who have told of “missing” pregnancies. These accounts goes well beyond a simple miscarriage. I have also spoken to women who have told about meeting their own hybrid children. Very blond hair and very blue eyes are consistent. Lots more to this. UK author Nick Redfern wrote about this in his book BLOODLINE OF THE GODS. In that book he compares THE VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED to present day UFO reports.

    Sadly, he does not sight similarities to Bunuel or Tex Avery.

    Cheers,
    Mike Clelland!

  14. I’m wondering if there’s a work which charts the evolution of UFO reports with the symptoms described in film, TV and fiction. I’ve always been curious if stuff depicted in CE3K or VOTD occurred in reported incidents AFTER the movies showed it, or if the movies always follow reported encounters. Were implants a thing before Invaders from Mars?

  15. mikeclelland Says:

    David — You have asked exactly the right questions! I only wish I could supply exactly the right answers.

    First — There is an absolutely wonderful book (that you need to have) titled SLIVER SCREEN SAUCERS by English Author Robbie Graham.

    The UFO lore is a mess of strange pop-culture predictive weirdness. Some fiction seems to pre-date the reports, but after carefully inspecting the history of the reports, things seem to present themselves as a weird echo chamber. I think it is safe to say that the 1957 short story (of VOTD) pre-dates the weird pregnancy stuff in the UFO literature. There is an eerie Made-for-TV movie from the 70’s based on a 1953 short story (TRESPASS) by Richard Matheson. This has shades of VOTD and is well worth watching.

    It is safe to say that many fictional UFO books and movies pre-date the now widely available UFO reporting by decades.

    I would argue that there is a subtle force at play, and it results in the emergence of these predictive ideas, they float in the ether, and the artist can pluck the ideas using creativity as a sort of fly paper. I have no way of proving this. But I do NOT these foreshadowing stories are part of any kind of conspiracy. (this stance leaves me on the outskirts of mainstream UFO research – whatever that might mean).

    Also – the film CLOSE ENCOUNTERS relied heavily on UFO reports. Spielberg worked (somewhat) closely with Alan Hynek and Jacques Vallee — two researchers at the forefront of the more bizarre aspects of grappling with UFO weirdness. That movie is a good example of Hollywood mining UFO reports for ideas.

  16. I note (because given my limited knowledge it’s all I CAN note) that Spielberg didn’t embrace Vallee’s belief that UFOs were from another dimension/universe until Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Possibly Vallee hadn’t come out with that one yet at the time of CE3K.

    Whatever external or internal forces lie at the heart of UFO reports, I’m certain they’re the same as those informing reports of fairy abductions from previous centuries. Our beliefs – and movies, etc – colour modern reports the way the ancients’ beliefs coloured theirs.

    Thanks for the recommendation!

  17. mikeclelland Says:

    I agree on your comparison to the faerie lore. That is Vallee’s territory!

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