Time 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”
Some 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 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 ways on Christian mythology and is told in a sober and adult fashion. The ‘cosy’ factor comes from the fact that we never really leave 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 movies immediately snapped it up.
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 more central role but the film takes a 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/).
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.
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
Cast: 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.