THE MIDWICH CUCKOOS (1957) by John Wyndham

Wyndham_Midwich_penguinTime for another left turn at Fedora, but one that seems appropriate given the festive season. Focussing on a series of increasingly deadly events in a small English village, this is a typical bit of low-key speculative fiction by John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris (1903–1969). It was filmed twice as Village of the Damned (in 1960 and 1995), which may have diverted attention from the original book, which is much sharper and less cosy than it may seem …

I submit this review for Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme over at Todd Mason’s Sweet Freedom blog; Katie’s Book to Movie Challenge at Doing Dewey (for reviews, click here); and Carl’s 2015 Sci-Fi Experience (review links here).

“This is a thing that has happened to all of us. We must make it bind us together for the good of all. There is no blame upon any of us …”

Presumably with a bit of tongue-in-cheek, Wyndham begins with a small English village that is not so much sleepy as actually asleep! On the night of 26 September just after 10 o’clock, all the people of Midwich, as well as all the animals, fall into a deep slumber that will last some 36 hours. There is a military research outpost nearby so, this being the height of the Cold War, thoughts immediately go to some sort of attack. During what will be referred to later as the ‘Dayout’ all attempts to access the village fail – ultimately it is determined that something landed in the village and emitted a kind of conical field so that anyone within a two-mile radius would not be able to enter without also being affected, including low-flying aircraft. Then everyone wakes up and life seems to go on more or less as before, though 11 people died during the incident due to exposure or accident. Within three months an air of unease descends when it becomes clear that every single woman of child-bearing age is pregnant …

“… this cannot be conception: it therefore follows that it must be incubation”

TheMidwichCuckoosSome of the women attempt to induce miscarriages, others even attempt suicide. Some are beaten by their husbands, believing their spouses to have been unfaithful. But some of the women were teenage virgins … Ultimately everyone realises that while a couple of the pregnancies were natural, most were artificially created and that the women are in fact merely hosts. At birth the children all prove physically similar with golden eyes, delicately tapered extremities and fine, silvery hair. The story is divided into two halves, narrated by an author who recently moved to the village with his wife but then leaves for a job in Canada. They return seven years later on holiday to see what has happened to the village and its children since then …

“Who are those children? There’s something about the way they look at one with those curious eyes. They are – strangers …”

The second part of the book ratchets things up noticeably after those pesky Russkies raise a village of ‘alien’ children on their own turf to the ground with a nuclear weapon. The Midwich children instinctively know about this and prepare to retaliate, having already caused several deaths, demonstrating a rather Old Testament approach to dealing with conflict with the understandably disturbed villagers. By now the children are being taught by at a special school, segregated from everybody else. They have a hive mind, what one child learns they all know too. Soon the village will be too small and they prove that they can control minds, making their enemies turn on each other – can they be stopped?

“We have become a folklorist’s treasure-chest.”

Although usually marketed as SF, this is a story of unease and paranoia that also touches in fascinating way on Christian mythology and is told in a sober and adult fashion. The ‘cosy’ factor comes from the fact that we never leave really the village – we hear about the outside world but never actually go there. Although the story begins in much the same manner as Michael Crichton’s later The Andromeda Strain – with a small town apparently laid low by some virus – here the feel is not claustrophobic because Wyndham is clearly going for something more universal. He taps into fears about the future, about mutation in a post A-bomb world, about general anxieties of ‘alien’ invasion (in the broadest sense at a time when immigration was starting to become a big political issue). The book was written barely a decade after the end of the Nazi threat, with many seeing recent activities by the USSR in Hungary as harbingers of more international warfare. Indeed, late in the book we learn that this was not an isolated incident and that similar cluster pregnancies and blackouts occurred on the same day throughout the world. despite a surfeit of pseudo-anthropological talk, this is a story that remains current and valuable – it was no surprise that the movie immediately snapped it up.

Village-of-the-Damned-movie-poster-colour

Here in London I recently got to watch a 35mm print on the big screen of Village of the Damned, the rather crassly retitled 1960 film version of Midwich Cuckoos, and it holds up remarkably well for a low-budget black and white genre movie of the day. The story and cast of characters, inevitably, has been greatly compressed to fit in its 80-minute running time. The narrator is dispensed with entirely as are many secondary characters, focusing almost exclusive on scientist Gordon Zellaby (a nicely understated George Sanders), who in the book belatedly emerges as the main character. His wife, originally Angela but changed to Anthea for the film, was originally a much stronger character, but is none the less a powerful presence as she is played by the smashing Barbara Shelley, an underrated ‘scream queen’ who made several great horror films at around this time and who thankfully is still with us. In the book her pregnancy proves to be natural and not part of the ‘invasion’ but in the film she  gives birth to David (Martin Stephens), who ends up being the ringleader of the children. The number of the children is also somewhat reduced in numbers (from 60 in the book to a dozen). In the book the children are mostly heard of but not seen, with only a couple of dialogue scenes with them towards the end. It’s the reaction they cause in the villagers that interests Wyndham. In the film they are much more obviously ‘other’ and threatening, thus becoming more straightforwardly a tale of alien invasion

Although omitted from British prints, one of the innovations of the film was a creepy special effect (courtesy of MGM British’s resident optical effects genius Tom Howard) in which the children’s eyes glow yellow when they exert their influence on the villagers. For the film they are more clearly telepathic, with increasingly powerful ESP abilities. Compared with the book, the film is certainly more traditional in terms of its gender politics – Wyndham gives the women a much more central role, but in the film we get a much more predictably patriarchal approach, with the men always being the ones to decide how to deal with the children. All the same, even if in a reduced way, the film does properly deal with the inner turmoil and conflict that Shelley’s character feels about the cold and distant son she so wants to love. Stephens is terrific as David, the slight smirk he exhibits when they have done something really awful, like making a car smash into a brick wall or make a man turn a shotgun on himself, is truly unsettling (incidentally, you should visit Stephens’ website: www.martinstephens.me.uk/).

Children-of-the-Damned-01

The film proved to be a hit though initially MGM was very nervous about its religious undertones when Stirling Silliphant delivered his draft script to the executives in Hollywood – so much so in fact that they shelved it for a couple of years. Eventually the film got made, though relocated to the B unit at MGM British. The producer and director had about a week to rewrite the script to relocate it back to the UK and cut down the cast and scenes for a small budget of little over $200,000. Ronald Colman, initially considered for the lead, was dead now but George Sanders is really good in the role (a useful reminder in fact of what a subtle performer he could be). Shot in November and December 1959 on location in Letchmore Heath, it has a fine, autumnal feel that is very British in its grayness – the village is very well cast too, and had the advantage of being just a few miles away from MGM’s studios in Borehamwood, where all the interiors were shot.

What Demonic Force Lurks Behind Those Eyes?

Ultimately this would lead to many other books and films about children who are plain evil – or worse! The cycle had probably been kick-started with the stage success of Maxwell Anderson’s 1956 adaptation of William March 1954 novel, The Bad Seed, though Lillian Hellman’s 1934 smash The Children’s Hour arguably got there earlier. This led then to Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby, William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist and launched other movie franchises including Larry Cohen’ It’s Alive, Richard Donner’s The Omen and so on. The 1960 film had a sequel in Children of the Damned, which expanded on the international dimension which was alluded to in the story but was otherwise unseen. The result was a decent if slightly too verbose excursion that deserves credit at least for not taking the path of least resistance and offering more than just the usual retread. In 1995 John Carpenter remade Damned with only fair-to-middling results despite a decent cast including Christopher Reeve, Kirstie Alley and Mark Hamill.

Village-of-the-Damned_filmposter2

DVD availability: Warner released this film on a superb DVD which not only included excellent picture quality and an informative and humorous audio commentary by Steve Haberman (though he is wrong when he says that reports that the British prints removed the shots of the glowing eyes were incorrect as sadly they were all missing from the one I watched projected last Thursday); the DVD also includes the sequel, Children of the Damned, also with an audio commentary, this time by John Briley, the film’s screenwriter. A set that is really well worth getting.

Village of the Damned (1960)
Director: Wolf Rilla
Producer: Ronald Kinnoch
Screenplay: Stirling Silliphant, Wolf Rilla, ‘George Barclay’ (Ronald Kinnoch)
Cinematography: Geoffrey Faithful
Art Direction: Ivan King
Music: Ron Goodwin
2015sfexp275Cast: George Sanders, Barbara Shelley, Martin Stephens (possibly dubbed by Olive Gregg), Laurence Naismith, Jenny Laird, Michael Gwynn. Susan Richards

I submit this review of the John Wyndham book for Carl V Anderson’s 2015 Sci-Fi Experience, his celebration of all things SF which runs in December 2014 and January 2015 – to sign up to this non-challenge, click here.

***** (3.5 fedora tips out of 5)

Advertisements
This entry was posted in 2014 Book to Movie Challenge, England, Tuesday's Overlooked Film and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

40 Responses to THE MIDWICH CUCKOOS (1957) by John Wyndham

  1. robert says:

    I was barely a child when I saw this film, and was very disturbed at that time. So I supposed it must have been a good film at that time… 🙂 I still have in mind the last scene (or one of the last) with the school teacher looking at his suitcase then the children staring at him while he only had one thought: a brick wall slowly crumbling down until… (no spoiler for those who haven’t seen it 🙂 )

    • Thansk Robert – what is impressive too, and I should have pointed it out in the review really, s that the film is smart enough to demonstrate a real ambivalence about the children and the degree to which they are doing anything different from what anyone else would do to protect themselves. The scene at the end is very memorable (and completely original to the film – in the book we never find out what actually happened int he classroom).

  2. tracybham says:

    Fascinating, Sergio. I am familiar with the movies but haven’t watched them because that wasn’t the type of movie I enjoyed. The connection with the book is totally new to me. Very interesting and I might try the book.

  3. realthog says:

    I’ve read the book a few times (although not for a while) and reckon it’s a stunner, alongside Wyndham’s other classics of that era like The Day of the Triffids and The Kraken Wakes and especially The Chrysalids. The movies? Less wonderful, I’d say.

  4. Santosh Iyer says:

    Science fiction is simply not for me. As for horror, if I have to recommend a 1960 horror film, I would definitely go for Psycho !

  5. Sergio – Thanks as always for a fascinating post. I have to confess though that this one just isn’t up my street. I respect a well-made film; I really do. But this one is a little too close to sci-fi/horror, even if it isn’t that, really, for my taste.

  6. dfordoom says:

    It’s very much a novel that pits traditional English life against the changing modern world and Wyndham clearly believes that the modern world will be a good deal more unpleasant. Of course he turned out to be absolutely correct.

    • I think Wyndham was fairly ambivalent about it in many ways – in the book Zellaby makes a very good case on behalf of the children – which I think has helped keep it current.

  7. Colin says:

    Never read the book but I do quite like the 1960 movie. I wasn’t impressed at all by the sequel though. It’s been ages since I watched it and can’t quite remember why, but I know I came away unsatisfied.

    • I’m usually a big Carpenter fan but the film does feel a bit flat – partly because it is rather too close a remake, though ti does at least bolster the female roles a bit,

      • Colin says:

        Ah crossed wires! I should have made that clearer – I haven”t seen the remake at all. I meant the ’64 follow-up.

        • A, sorry chum, you did say the sequel, I mid-read. I should re-watch Children of the Damned – it looks good and had a strong cast but must admit, I don;t remember that much except that in my memory it did get a bit bogged down in talk very early on … What i liked though was the changed attitude to the children, which seemed a worthwhile tack.

          • Colin says:

            It seemed a big step down from the first film, but that’s about all I can recall now.
            Glad you highlighted Sanders’ subtle work in the 1960 film as I think he can be a bit undervalued and seen as a smooth, oily type and not much more,

          • I agree about Sanders – he worked with many fine directors and was usually very good value and I like him a lot here. Would have been fascinating of Ronald Colman had played it …

          • Colin says:

            I could see that working, although I really have no complaints on Sanders.

          • I agree – one of best leading roles – indeed, I suppose one of his last …

  8. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Excellent review. I remember the film well, although it’s many years since I saw it, and Sanders was great. The climax was brilliantly done and for the time very, very effective.

  9. Skywatcher says:

    I’m a big fan of both the book and the movie. I know that Brian Aldiss sneered at Wyndham for writing ‘cosy catastrophes’, but his novels are anything but cosy. Using the village as a setting is a masterstroke, as it has become the place where, in the modern world, city folk retreat to escape from stress. If i recall correctly, Wyndham had witnessed the chaos that reigned in Germany just after WWII, and became fascinated by the idea of how quickly things could fall apart.

    The Cuckoos are rather like the Triffidds, in that they are actually in the background for a lot of the book. In fact there is an almost deliberated distancing effect. In THE KRAKEN WAKES, the story is told from the point of view of some charming media types, who are generally innocent bystanders to events, and don’t quite realise until the end of the story that the world is about to change enormously. It reminds me a bit of cult 60s movie called THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE, where we see the potential end of the world from the point of view of journalists. We are at a distance from the important events; we don’t see scientists scurrying around trying to solve things, we don’t see politicians. It’s from the point of view of people like us. We don’t quite know what the exact plans of the children are, and in the end the story is very much about the personal choices that people make. As usual with Wyndham, CUCKOOS is really about the ideas, not least of which is how much ‘The Law of the Jungle’ is still present, however much we might object to the idea. As an aside, it’s interesting to compare this to THE CHRYSALIDS, where the telepathic kids are the heroes and the ‘ordinary’ people are the villains of the piece.

    The film is nicely understated. Most of the prints I’ve ever seen do not have the glowing eyes, although more have started to surface in recent years as the satellite channels generally use the American print. For myself, I tend to prefer the non-glowing version, as the effect more obviously makes them SF monsters. I can’t help thinking that the more restrained 60s production helped the story; if it was written and filmed now, they would be blowing up people’s heads and generally doing lots of special-effects stuff. The low-key approach is much creepier. It’s not surprising that the gender politics of the book is ahead of that of the film. Wyndham’s THE TROUBLE WITH LICHEN is a strongly feminist book, with one of the main characters a female scientist (which is probably one of the reasons that it was never adapted to the screen!)

    • Thanks fot that Skywatcher and agree completely about the the Rosencrantz and Guildernstern approach in Wyndham’s SF – and the feminist aspect of Lichen is a real plus. Just got the new Blu-ray of Caught Fire and it is a superb film that holds up fairly well.

  10. Patti Abbott says:

    I found it very disturbing too and have never looked at blonde kids the same way since.

  11. Book and film scared the lights out of me when I was very young, I still shiver to remember! John Wyndham was very popular then – I wonder how much he is still read?

  12. Sarah says:

    I’ve definitely seen the film(s) and I’m pretty sure I read the book as a teenager. I went through a phase of reading John Wydham in old paperbacks I used to pick up in charity shops. The beauty of these books were that they were very short. Easily read in an afternoon. No longer the case with much fiction these days.

    • Thanks Sarah – and yes, I know what you mean abotu the length thing (though finding an afternoon just to sit down and read feels liek a major achievement these days). It didn’t use to phase me in my youth but nowadays picking up a tome of 600 pages, unless it’s by Tolstoi, really does put me off and rarely seems justified by the content, especially when there does seem to be a lot of padding, blank pages and far too many chapters (though I prefer that to too few …) 🙂

  13. Sergio, you had me hooked from your opening lines and I especially look forward to watching the film version whose revised title does sound like I have seen it, possibly on TCM though I’m not sure. The story sounds every bit like an sf, even horror perhaps, and I can’t think of it as anything else. Thanks for yet another great review.

  14. Pingback: 2014 Book to Movie Challenge – completed | Tipping My Fedora

  15. I read this a few years back, and the main thing I remember was it being preachy and sexist in the second half. I’ll still read some more Wyndham, but I recall this one being a let-down once the initial action passed.

    • I think TROUBLE WITH LICHEN is much more obviously feminist but I thought this one was surprisingly modern, though I agree, the first part of the book is by far the most intriguing.

  16. Pingback: The Nanny (1965) – Tuesday’s Forgotten Film | Tipping My Fedora

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s