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Based on the 1951 novel, The Midwich Cuckoos, by John Wyndham, one of the most widely read science fiction writers of the fifties, Village of the Damned is an imaginative and chilling entry in the genre. What most people don't know is that John Wyndham was just one of three pseudonyms used by writer John Harris during his career. Harris came from a background in advertising and farming, served with the Royal Signal Corps during World War II, and published his first science fiction novel, The Secret People, in 1935 under the name John Beynon. He also wrote The Outward Urge under the pseudonym Lucas Parkes. However, it was under the name of John Wyndham that Harris established his reputation as a spinner of weird and fantastic tales, usually pitting earthlings against some form of catastrophe like an alien invasion. Just take a look at some of his novels. The Day of the Triffids was made into a film starring Howard Keel and Janette Scott (later immortalized in the song "Science Fiction Double Feature" from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, 1975) and later into a BBC series. And what were triffids? Oh, just a harmless bunch of spores from outer space that arrived on earth via a meteor shower and grew into gigantic man-eating plants with a nasty habit of spitting blinding poison into the eyes of humans. His book, Re-Birth, dealt with the survivors of a world-wide nuclear war. In Trouble with Lichen, Wyndham writes about a miracle essence called antigerone which increases life expectancy by a couple of hundred years. And if you like giant spiders spawned by bomb experiments, check out Wyndham's Web.
Of course, it's hard to top The Midwich Cuckoos for downright creepiness and the film version, Village of the Damned, remains a minor masterpiece of the genre. Made in England for less than $300,000, the picture grossed more than $1.5 million during its initial release in England and the U.S. (an astonishing sum for 1960). The film's popularity even inspired a sequel, Children of the Damned (1964), which some viewers feel is superior to the original version. Just a few years ago, director John Carpenter tried and failed to duplicate the success of the original Village of the Damned with his own 1995 remake version starring Christopher Reeve and Kirstie Alley. And who's to say that Village of the Damned wasn't the primary influence behind the demonic children who inhabit such films as The Boys from Brazil (1978) and Narciso Ibanez Serrador's Island of the Damned (1976) (also known as Would You Kill a Child?).
Filmed on location in Letchmore Heath, England, Village of the Damned is easily the best movie ever directed by Wolf Rilla, a German native working in England (his subsequent output was low-budget sexploitation films with titles like Pussycat Alley, 1963, and Naughty Wives, 1975). In addition to the taut direction and atmospheric setting, the film is also memorable for Martin Stephen's mesmerizing performance as the willful leader of the alien children. The child actor would resurface the following year playing one of the disturbed children under the care of governess Deborah Kerr in The Innocents (1961), a superb film adaptation of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw.
Children of the Damned (1964), the sequel to Village of the Damned, is equally memorable, but for different reasons, and is a complete departure from John Wyndham's original story. In fact, the two films share no similarities in the storyline, cast or crew other than the composer and three assorted sound people from the first film.
In Children of the Damned, six children are born (at different locations around the world) with unusually high intelligence and special powers (the film's ads warned "Beware the eyes that paralyze!"). United Nations scientists move the youngsters to London for closer investigation. While the researchers argue among themselves about the children's fate, the military tries to figure out a way to harness the youngsters' special powers. Meanwhile, the six children decide to take matters into their own hands.
Some critics noticed an unusual subtext in the film concerning the two male protagonists played by Ian Hendry and Alan Badel. In Science Fiction in the Cinema by John Baxter, the author wrote "the two men live together in what seems a loose homosexual relationship, and when the less dominant of them becomes involved with a woman, the other, played with malicious authority by Alan Badel, throws himself actively into destroying the children....the allegory is plain but on the way to its presentation director Anton Leader has given us one of the finest pieces of SF cinema to come out of England, or for that matter any other country."
As a variation on the theme of potentially destructive children, Children of the Damned is certainly an intriguing film and was nominated for Best Dramatic Presentation in the Hugos, the science fiction world's equivalent of the Academy Awards. The film was written by John Briley who would later win a Best Screenplay Oscar for Gandhi (1982). Not only was Children of the Damned filmed in England but most of the crew was British. One exception was director Anton Leader, probably best known for his television work, including episodes of Star Trek, Gilligan's Island and Lost in Space. This is only one of two feature films he directed. Appearing in a small role is Bessie Love, who had been nominated for a Best Actress Oscar decades earlier for The Broadway Melody (1929).
The Warner Video DVD of this double feature is a first rate presentation; the films are presented in their original widescreen format in sharp new transfers. Village of the Damned comes with a running commentary by author Steve Haberman (Chronicles of Terror: Silent Screams) who provides plenty of well-researched factoids on the production and the author. His delivery, which comes across as condescending at first, eventually settles into a comfortable, relaxed groove. More interesting, however, is John Briley's commentary for Children of the Damned - he wrote the screenplay. Despite some television work, the film was his first feature and blacklisted writer Adrian Scott (who was living in England at the time) was brought in to help Briley with the story structure.
For more information about Village of the Damned/Children of the Damned, visit Warner Video. To order Village of the Damned/Children of the Damned, go to TCM Shopping.
by Jeff Stafford & Lang Thompson