Original US release date: December 7, 1960
Production budget: $200,000
Worldwide gross: $2,175,000
There’s something special about old-fashioned, black-and-white horror, isn’t there? Without reliance upon grisly and grotesque images, profanity, or nudity, horror used to stay firmly focused on delivering compelling stories, characters, and atmosphere. There are still horror films that accomplish those feats, today, and those are always the best ones. But many are lazy, nowadays, using the graphic nature of the content or manipulative attempts at jump-scares to carry themselves through, often creating an entertaining, but immemorable experience.
Without question, Village of the Damned is director Wolf Rilla’s most iconic film. For those unfamiliar with it (or its 1995 remake starring Christopher Reeve), the story begins when the entire English village of Midwich suddenly and inexplicably falls asleep for several hours. Months pass by with no explanation until, suddenly, all of the women of the village who are biologically able to become pregnant find themselves to be just that. When the children are born – early and virtually simultaneously – it’s clear to all of the townspeople that something is askew, as the children develop at an inhuman pace and display an unbreakable bond with each other.
Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but Rilla’s presentation of the story – adapted from the novel The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham – seems to contain traces of post-World War II trauma. Rilla was born into a Jewish family in Germany in 1894 and, along with the rest of his family, was taken out of the country by his father when Adolf Hitler assumed power. Here, the village of Midwich is terrorized by a bunch of fair-skinned, blonde-haired children capable of mind-control. Being black-and-white, one can’t determine if the children are also blue-eyed. But as far as I can find, the children are never specified as being blonde in Wyndham’s original novel, though I haven’t read it, myself. It could just be a coincidence or perhaps it was simply the best way to visually denote a connection between the children for the benefit of the audience. But if it didn’t escape my notice, it surely didn’t escape Rilla’s, either.
Beyond that, the film is rife with ethical dilemmas. As black-and-white as the film’s visual spectrum is, the issues at hand are not. When the looming threat is that of not only children, but children that are your own, how is that to be handled? In an era during which issues of morality were often presented as an easy choice between good and evil – a simple binary conundrum – Wyndham and Rilla throw a curve ball at the audience and present them with a situation in which it’s simply not that easy. It was unique and daring and, in 1960, audiences ate it up. The film earned more than ten times its production budget in box office receipts. Maybe today’s audiences reject challenging and/or original material, but there was a time when such material was embraced.
Assuming the lead roles as new parents Gordon and Althea are stars George Sanders and Barbara Shelley. A hallmark of films from days gone by – even more so than today, though it’s still not uncommon, even if it’s better disguised – is a married couple who are separated in age by decades. When the film was released, Sanders was 54 years old and Shelley was only 28. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but I found their relationship to be difficult to buy, no matter how distinguished Sanders comes across as in the role of Gordon. Regardless, the two of them commit to their parts and work diligently to get to the bottom of the mystery of the nature of their son George and the other children in the village.
That mystery is the backbone of the film and ultimately the primary reason it succeeds. It seems simple, and perhaps it should be, but creating a captivating hook and not getting too impatient with one’s own narrative is a pretty reliable method for launching a strong film. With movies like Deadpool 2 leaning on crudity and shock value rather than imagination and creativity, older films such as this one serve as a welcome reminder of what matters most in storytelling. Having said that, the atmosphere and screen presence of the children certainly contribute much to the proceedings and function as an added value element that was fresh and unlike anything seen before in 1960. Even today, the effect holds up, even if the visual effects, themselves, show their age. (I find that to be part of the charm of these old movies, anyway.)
Village of the Damned has retained a spot in film culture since its debut in 1960 and it has certainly earned that spot. By today’s standards, I don’t know that many will find the film to be truly terrifying, but it’s certainly unsettling. Besides that, the narrative is engaging, with a solid mystery propelling it forward at a brisk pace through many time jumps. There are no wasted moments and no wasted motion in the picture, serving as an exercise in concise and efficient storytelling that achieves its goals without sacrificing effectiveness. With so many bloated movies out there that stretch for time when there’s little to say (I’m looking at you), it’s nice to see a project that serves the art and not the artist. Village of the Damned is a classic that everyone should see, not only for the content, but for an example of simple and effective storytelling, as well, that prioritizes substance over style, while still maintaining a firm grasp on both.
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