Village of the Damned (1960)

D: Wolf Rilla
S: George Sanders, Barbara Shelley, Michael Gwynne

Low-budget adaptation of John Wyndham's The Midwich Cuckoos which surprisingly fails to capture the claustrophobia of the novel largely due to its focus on the sci-fi horror elements and the exclusion of the small-town paranoia which was integral to the original source.

A small village in England mysteriously blacks out for several hours one afternoon, and when the population reawaken, every female capable of bearing children is pregnant, though no physical interference seems to have taken place. When the children are born they are physically and psychologically abnormal; maturing faster, possessing superior telepathic powers and a higher intelligence which seems to be shared among them as a collective mind. Only local scientist George Sanders, adoptive father of one of the children, tries to understand them. But fear and suspicion mount as their powers increase and the authorities are faced with the question of how to deal with them.

Though the low budget allows a certain Night of the Living Dead type realism to drive the film, it moves far too quickly through the details of the children's maturation. It only occasionally settles down to a well-worked scene of suspense or tension, and never fully fleshes out any of its characters. Sanders is generally good, and the rest of the cast contribute sincere performances, but on the whole they are only slightly removed from the straight faced campisms of the preceding decade.

It is clearly a film poised at a turning point. Its tone and pace are more subdued than the typical fifties horror movie and it contains some scenes of great subtlety, yet its stock of military hardliners and its sensational ending date it badly. It never crosses the line into the modern horror era by portraying realistic social dysfunction from which the terror emerges. Instead, by characterising its monsters in terms of the unexplained and the fantastic, it denies the story its power to question the human beings who are under threat in the first place.

Some elements of a convincing reality are present: the scene where a husband who has been at sea for a year sits and seethes as we realise he has discovered his wife's pregnancy and suspects infidelity; a man escorts his young daughter to a mobile clinic set up to deal with the crisis, she mounts the steps, and her mother follows her with a concerned backward glance. Scenes like this give the film a sense of the real world which helps the first half to retain some of the novel's social analysis. But the latter half is more of a straight alien monster movie, with the 'leader' of the children making several portentous speeches which would not seem out of place in a fifties potbolier.

The central metaphor of the novel (the cuckoo) is lost even in the catchpenny title of the film. The true purpose of the children's mission is never fully explored, and its implications for society tend to be reduced to the rather typical 'alien invasion' scenario which lies underneath it, but which was beautifully displaced in print by the focus on the human drama of a society in moral and spiritual crisis.

It does retain some of its revolutionary character simply by the presence of such disturbing elements as the children themselves, the question of the virgin births (which so outraged the Catholic church when the film was released), and the general low key, low budget feeling which makes things seem that bit more 'ordinary'. It still functions as a horror text, though it is too easily lumped in with the anti-communist allegories from which it is descended. But it is not sure enough of its material to give full vent to the questions of human behaviour which seem intrinsic to the subject, and instead turns its focus outward ("Keep watching the skies!") in the manner of its predecessors.

The film might work better for the viewer without foreknowledge of the novel. But it would then be too easily dismissed as a standard genre outing, which is not really fair. It is worth seeing, especially for genre buffs. It is also still a great deal more interesting and effective than John Carpenter's awful remake. But it can't but rank as a disappointment given how close it comes to being something more than it eventually is.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.