It Takes a Village, and other lessons children teach us

VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED may have a rotten remake but it has an excellent sequel. (Remake it now, and you can digitally recolour the kids’ hair instead of relying on wigs, and you can have one boy and one girl play all the kids, so they’re identical as in the book. DO IT.)

CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED (1964) is niftily directed by Anton M. Leader (AKA Tony Leader) and it’s the busy TV director’s only feature save for THE COCKEYED COWBOYS OF CALLICO COUNTY, a 1970 Dan Blocker vehicle (???). I reckon Tony should have quit while he was ahead. But he does fine work here, continuing the dutch tilts and low angles of the first film and adding more modernistic touches too. Those eerie/cheap stills of the kids with glowing eyes in the first film are echoed by the title sequence, a series of ever-enlarging freeze-frames that look to have been taken from a crash zoom, so there’s weird blurring around our eldritch kid.

When the kids traipse through a deserted London, they’re in very, very subtle slomo. I’m reminded of Franju’s LA PREMIERE NUIT.

“Children are a doorway into the supernatural,” said Mario Bava. “Children don’t think as grownups do — they are mad, in fact,” wrote Richard Hughes.

I had somehow convinced myself that sci-fi writer Anthony Boucher had a hand in the writing of this, but his only screen credit is William Castle’s excellent MACABRE, and this is the work of John Briley — and indeed it brings together numerous of the motifs of a screenplay of his previously celebrated here, THE MEDUSA TOUCH. Psychic powers and a climax at a floodlit London church… Briley’s other main credits are earnest Attenborough snooze-fests. I wish he’d done more clever pulp fantasy.

Five genius children are born, but scattered around the world this time. A UN IQ test detects them and they’re brought together in London, where they become even more powerful. This is clearly a development of the alien invasion from the first film, but nobody ever refers to that case… I guess that would just pad out the exposition. But investigators seem able to intuit developments before they happen (“Does Rashid ever make you do things?”) so maybe they’re acquainted with the rulebook from the previous movie. No wigs this time — I think the black and brown and Chinese kids wouldn’t have looked credible in blonde Beatles ‘dos, so I support this choice.

I guess I get why some people don’t care for this film — no Martin Stephens, and a plot that’s imperfectly developed — but I love it. It has a great Quatermass/Doctor Who opposition of humane scientist to nasty government/military, and the two leads are terrific. Ian Hendry and Alan Badel may not be stars of the George Sanders magnitude, but like the spooky kids, put them together and their power is magnified. The dry, melancholic Hendry, occasionally erupting into what his pal calls “a Welsh tirade” — the sardonic, fruity Badel, who just can’t help make everything a sneer. One bachelor, living with another — somewhere between Holmes & Watson and Tony Hancock & Sid James. “There should be a whole series with these guys,” declared Fiona, something I think every time I see this, which isn’t often enough.

Also featuring Professor Dippet, Thumbelina, the shrink from PEEPING TOM and Oliver Cromwell. And Bessie Love, beginning the strange, psychotronic third act of her career (VAMPYRES *and* THE HUNGER!)

Because we’re in London in 1964 in b&w, everything looks like REPULSION — one pictures Hendry changing coats so he can pursue dirty weekends with Yvonne Furneaux between set-ups. Davis Boulton shot it, fresh from THE HAUNTING. Evidently he couldn’t get the defective Cinemascope wide angle lenses that make that movie so distinctive (they had to sign all sorts of papers promising not to sue if the distortion was TOO extreme) but he does fine work. His subsequent career is unaccountably appalling.

Ron Goodwin does the music again, really the only direct link to the original film.

The script, though flawed, has some killer lines and some fascinating developments. The children barely speak, their few vocal moments strikingly well-chosen. Barbara Ferris, the sympathetic aunt of the English boy, speaks for them, possessed, her high, clipped voice sounding remarkably like little Martin Stephens’ in the first film.

An eleventh-hour plot twist reveals that the kids’ cells are human, but from a million years in the future (how can they tell?). This is very interesting, and kind of goes nowhere, but it does make this a precursor of both LA JETEE and THE TERMINATOR. We’ve established that random mutations (or “biological sports,” to use the film’s quaint terminology) couldn’t account for six prodigies occurring at once. So evidently these kids were implanted in the womb back in time, through some process we can only guess at and for some purpose that never becomes clear. A third movie is obviously called for.

When Badel expresses his disgust with espionage cad Alfred Burke, it comes out as “What would you lot do if the whole world made friends — had a bloody love affair?” “Oh, I shouldn’t worry,” smirks Burke. “You know how love affairs go.”

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10 Responses to “It Takes a Village, and other lessons children teach us”

  1. I trust you’re going to include Losey’s magnificent “(These Are) The Damned” in this series.

  2. These Are The Damned is flat-out one of the greatest science-fiction films ever made, one of the greatest British films ever made, and simply all around special. I’ve seen it three times already.

  3. And I still haven’t seen it from beginning to end. I’ll be writing about it, but not as part of this series — too far off-topic.

    Maybe in Joseph Losey Week Two?

  4. Anthony Boucher’s credits include the Sherlock Holmes radio series with Rathbone and Bruce. I recall reading that Boucher would devise the mysteries, and Denis Green would dramatize them. Boucher also wrote “The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars”, a 1940 novel about a bunch of Sherlockians gathered in Hollywood to advise on a movie. It’s fun nonsense: A nasty screenwriter stages a fake murder to taunt them, followed by further staged incidents that reveal blackmailable pasts. It riffs on BSI obsessions and appears to caricature some real members.

  5. That sounds great, and in tune with the other one I want to read, Rocket to the Morgue, dealing with a murder at a science fiction convention and featuring caricatures of the likes of Robert Heinlein and L Ron Hubbard…

  6. chris schneider Says:

    For some reason, I wasn’t the right age when I first saw the Rilla VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED — and it left me cold. I did, however, like CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED. I also feel obliged to mention that Leader directed a memorable TWILIGHT ZONE episode: “The Midnight Sun,” the one with Lois Nettleton and Betty Garde and the ungodly heat. His other TWILIGHT ZONE episode, “Long Live Walter Jameson” with Kevin McCarthy, isn’t much, but it does involve time travel.

  7. Yes, I remember those two, and Leader did a fine job on the first, grim one. He also did a Star Trek with an evocative title, For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky. You don’t get titles like that nowadays.

  8. The greatest of all “Twilight one” episodes is of course —

  9. Matthew Davis Says:

    Checking next week’s Tv schedule I see that Losey’s “These are the Damned” is on Talking Pics Tv Sunday 22, 10:10. Everyone sing along : “Black leather, black leather, rock, rock, rock. Black leather, black leather” ad nauseum.

  10. If they show it in the right aspect ratio, I’ll be there.

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