Village of the Damned

Village of the Damned

the novel on which the film is based:

The Midwich Cuckoos, John Wyndham

Director Wolf Rilla and producer Ronald Kinnoch were forced to go to Britain to make the MGM Studio release Village of the Damned, based on British science fiction author John Wyndham’s novel The Midwich Cuckoos. So, thanks to the meddling of the Catholic Legion of Decency (America’s self-appointed film censorship board in the 1950s), the look and feel of The Village of the Damned is, refreshingly, more British than American. The stark black-and-white cinematography and the bleak atmosphere echo the "kitchen-sink" dramas of post-war British film-making. The film subtly transmits authentic elements of British-ness, which suggest Wyndham’s writing as much as the Hollywood interpretation as a generic space-invaders B-movie.

The film’s effectiveness emerges from implied horror, the signature “veiled threat approach” of Hitchcock films—and from the on-location filming, an actual English village setting, British actors with artlessly effected accents and mannerisms, and the absence of typical cheap shortcuts (dense color filters to turn daylight shots into night shots, ludicrously fake alien props, and bad foreign accents). The one concession to American expectations is the heavy-handed glowing eyes special effect to let the audience know when the alien children are exerting their destructive telepathic powers.

For all that, Village of the Damned follows the formulaic hostile alien invader mythology of the Invasion of the Bodysnatchers fifth-column horror sort. The entire population of rural, isolated Midwich falls into a mysterious sleep. Is this a spell cast by evil spirits? Is it Satan at work? Or, since this is the 1950s, is it the work of post-A-bomb hostile alien intelligence? Soon it is discovered that the womenfolk have been mysteriously impregnated (what is currently the cult of alien abduction) and they give birth to blond-haired children. Much of the film focuses on the gradual realization that these children are dangerous, hostile monsters (half-human, half-alien). The children’s period of gestation and physical development are accelerated; their intelligence level is superhuman. Their power to read minds and override human will is frightening and their shared collective mind is terrifyingly suggestive of the lockstep mentality of Nazi Germany or Stalinist collectivism.

The Midwich Cuckoos alludes not only to historical fascism, but also to its resumption in the Cold War era. The American Catholic Church’s apoplexy over Village of the Damned was a reaction to the virgin births of the alien children. To the Church, the film implied that Satan in any of his many guises could replicate the Holy Spirit’s Immaculate Conception. The renaming of the film as The Village of the Damned, which derails the metaphor of cuckoo birds’ nesting habits, explicitly refutes this bit of paranoid thinking. Intelligent alien life remains a heresy to Catholic dogma.

Perhaps the most subversive element of Village of the Damned is its head-on challenge to the myth of Childhood as Utopian Innocence. In its time, the filmic Midwich horror arose from demonic children as bellwether for the horrors of 1950s social conformity. South Park aside, to frankly suggest that actual children do not conform to the utopian vision of innocence remains a shocking breach of the innocence taboo. In an age when drug addiction, suicide, and alienation are rampant among children, when children pack heat, and disaffected youth massacre their school-mates and teachers, The Village of the Damned can still make contemporary audiences squirm in their seats.

Les Wright

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