In the small countryside town of Midwich, the whole population suddenly embraces an unnatural sleep. When they wake up shortly after, life just seems to go back to normal as if nothing happened. Until two months later, when all fertile women in the area have become pregnant.
One of the most important British science fiction writers of the ’50s was without a doubt author John Wyndham, whom in a relatively short period between the years of 1951 and 1957, conceived four novels considered as timeless classics of the genre: ‘The Day of the Triffids’, ‘The Kraken Wakes’, ‘The Chrysalids’, and ‘The Midwich Cuckoo’. The last one of them, 1957′s ‘The Midwich Cuckoos’, had a very interesting concept as its major theme; an attack on humanity using the most cherished and valuable element any society has: its children. Thanks to this original idea and to Wyndham‘s accessible writing style, the novel became quite popular, securing a movie deal with an American studio the very same year of its publishing. Sadly, the project was considered too controversial and shelved. Fortunately, three years later, the project was resurrected by the British branch of MGM. With German director Wolf Rilla at the helm and actor George Sanders in the leading role, the year of 1960 saw the novel ‘The Midwich Cuckoos’ turned into movie ‘Village of the Damned’.
The film begins in the small British village of Midwich, where an unnatural phenomenon is about to take place: suddenly all of its inhabitants, including the animals, fall unconscious for no apparent reason. Anyone entering the perimeter around the village loses consciousness as well. The military arrives to investigate the bizarre event, but nothing concrete is concluded. Moments later, the villagers awake, apparently unaffected. However, two months later it is discovered that all women and girls of childbearing age are pregnant. Naturally, this prompts a series of accusations between the villagers, but the real mystery begins when the children are born: all women give birth on the same day and all the children have the same unusual appearance (pale blond hair, almost white). But that’s not the only thing strange about them, as they also grow at an unusually fast rate, have a telepathic bond between them, and the most terrifying thing, they possess the ability to read and control minds. To Gordon (George Sanders), “father” of one of the children, it becomes clear that they have an evil purpose in their collective mind.
Adapted to the screen by prolific writer Stirling Silliphant (celebrated for his work on ‘In the Heat of the Night’), director Wolf Rilla and producer Ronald Kinnoch, ‘Village of the Damned’ is a relatively faithful adaptation of Wyndham‘s novel, respecting every major event with one enormously important difference: while in the novel the Children eventually look like teenagers (when they are nine years old), in the film the action takes place when they still look like children, making the plot’s idea of subverted youth to have a more lasting and powerful impact as the monsters of the film have the innocent face of a kid. By keeping the Children’s origin a mystery, the writers achieve a greater atmosphere of suspense and horror. This way the unnatural force behind the events of the “time-out” establishes itself as a major threat to the balance of society. Something remarkable about the screenplay is that, like the novel, the storyline is cleverly devised to make one feel uncomfortable with the Children’s lack of real humanity, increasing the paranoia and repulsion caused by having a human child to not be entirely human.
This sense of discomfort is what director Wolf Rilla decides to enhance in his movie, making a terrific job at building an atmosphere of impending doom, as his conception of the film certainly has more to do with the elements of horror and suspense than with those of hard science fiction. With the experienced eye of cinematographer Geoffrey Faithful at hand, Rilla conceives a moody, highly atmospheric tone for the film that highlights the fears and suspicions of the small British village, which grow almost as much as the darkness that seems to engulf the film as the plot unfolds. While the film’s strength rests on its strong, literate screenplay, Rilla and Faithful conceive several striking images of horror that make the most of the lavish black and white photography employed in the film (the sight of the Children’s heartless glare is a powerful one). While the budget was noticeably limited, it’s really amazing what the filmmakers achieved with so little, and proves that director Wolf Rilla made the right choice when he decided to focus on the atmosphere, the acting and the storyline.
The acting is definitely another of the film’s highlights, as it’s what ultimately takes ‘Village of the Damned’ from being another tale of horror and science fiction to a whole new level. As Gordon, George Sanders is effective in his restrained but realistic portrayal of an ordinary man facing the extraordinary. Far from being the typical scientist hero of science fiction, Gordon basically represents the common man, which helps to bring the horror closer to home (a trademark of Wyndham‘s work). Despite not being the usual role for Sanders (whom often played the sophisticated aesthete), his understated performance truly captures the everyman persona. However, the real star of the film is without a doubt Martin Stephens, who plays David, Gordon’s “son” and apparent spokesperson of the Children’s collective mind. Cold and emotionless, Stephens‘ performance is remarkable as he truly becomes a menacing figure with his serious, adult manner of speech and threatening lack of heart. His performance is even more amazing when one compares it to the very different character he would play (again in an astonishing fashion) the following year in ‘The Innocents’.
The rest of the cast is for the most part effective in their roles, and while at times some cast-members may seem stiff or wooden, it all goes almost unnoticed as the real weight of the film rests on the terrific performances of George Sanders and Martin Stephens. Certainly, the film’s disturbing premise had a lot to do with the movie’s enduring popularity, but as written above, another key factor in the film’s success is definitely the fact that the characters are common people. After years of having “the right people” as heroes (meaning, the qualified professional to solve a certain problem), sci-fi was discovering the value of the everyman as main character, which always has been a key element in horror stories since the beginning. With this I’m not saying that previous sci-fi horror was not worthy of recognition (classic films like 1954′s ‘Them!’ are a testament of that), but that ‘Village of the Damned’ has more in common with horror than with classic science fiction. The ambiguity of its ending, emphasizing the mystery regarding the origin and fate of the Children, is further proof of this.
Like Alfred Hitchcock‘s ‘Psycho’ and Michael Powell‘s ‘Peeping Tom’, Wolf Rilla‘s ‘Village of the Damned’ seems to inaugurate a new era for horror. While the theme of this film is at first sight the total opposite of those two classics (both films centered on serial killers), ‘Village of the Damned’ shares their focus on the realistic emotions of its characters and their humanity. If filmmaker Wolf Rilla had overplayed the science fiction themes, the film would had been quite different, as in the end, what matters is not the fact that the Children may be the beginning of an impending alien invasion, but the conflict a father has with a son, and a village with its children. Even when director Wolf Rilla never made anything else as outstanding as ‘Village of the Damned’ (neither before it nor after it), his work behind the camera in this film is worthy of recognition, as in one single movie he managed to create an unforgettable, truly iconic tale of horror. And that’s more than what many horror directors can say.
Trailer on YouTube.