2015 Blind Spot Series: “Village of the Damned” (1960)

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Creepy kids are often an automatic score when it comes to horror films. 1960’s “Village of the Damned” is an early example of that theory in action. This unique piece of British sci-fi horror anchors its suspense in its largely unexplained phenomena. But that’s just fine because watching its straightforward story play out is a lot of fun.

“Village” was initially intended as an American picture but MGM moved it to their British studio and brought in German director Wolf Rilla to head the project. The story was based on John Wyndham’s 1957 novel “The Midwich Cuckoos”. The film faced several criticisms from censors over different bits of content most of which still found its way into the final version.

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The film opens in the small British village of Midwich. Suddenly and mysteriously everyone in the village falls unconscious including a prominent professor Gordon Zellaby (George Sanders). Gordon’s brother-in-law Alan (Michael Gwynn) grows suspicious after failing to reach anyone in the village over the phone. The unexplained phenomenon soon wears off and the community seems to be unaffected. That is until a short time later when every able woman in the town turns up pregnant including Gordon’s wife (played by the “First Lady of British Horror” Barbara Shelley).

The film presents the confusion, anger, and distrust that would naturally follow such and event. But Midwich then suspects something else is taking place as the babies mature and are born at an accelerated rate. Once born they continue to grow faster than normal, each with bright blonde hair, a heightened intellect, and “arresting” eyes. A series of unexplained events follows leaving the village and outsiders wondering what these children represent and what their motivations may be.

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Wolf Rilla doesn’t let his film devolve into an endless parade of cheap scares or contrived creepiness. Instead the movie focuses on the mystery and the evolving threat itself. Questions aren’t always answered. The movie doesn’t serve everything to the audience on a platter. Instead it leaves many things up in the air and we are just as lost and confused as most of the characters. It’s a smart approach that keeps the film from being corny or routine.

It is also helped by a solid cast of characters each of whom are truly invested in the predicaments of their characters. In fact I was a bit surprised at just how well presented the characters are both from the script and the performances. Actually the entire movie functions this way. The well presented script and performances solidify the film’s aim to be a mysterious and creepy science fiction, horror, thriller. The true grip of “Village of the Damned” is rooted in its unsettling mystery and the filmmakers know how to keep their project within those bounds. The film definitely benefits from that.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4 Stars

“THE THING” (2011) – 3 STARS

While I would hardly call 2011’s “The Thing” necessary, this prequel to John Carpenter’s 1982 horror classic manages to capture enough of the shocks and paranoia of its predecessor to be successful. While it is indeed a prequel, in many ways it’s a remake borrowing more from Carpenter’s version than offering much new. But trying to recreate a tried-and-true formula isn’t a bad thing and “The Thing” almost nails it. It works more often times than not but it does fall victim to its own poor choices.

The film sets the table for the 1982 picture by detailing the discovery and unleashing of the deadly shape-shifting extraterrestrial by a Norwegian research team in Antarctica. One of the film’s biggest strengths is its desire for a fluid continuity between the two movies. Everything is connected nicely and any fan of the earlier film will appreciate the effort. Here the Norwegian team has found a UFO and a life form buried under the ice. Against wiser suggestions, the head of the group orders the creature be brought back to their base for research. After the creature reveals it’s still alive and escapes, the team learns that the alien assimilates its victims and then imitates them both physically and verbally. Soon everyone is suspected of being a host which leads to fear and panic throughout the base.

Sound familiar? Like I said, the film borrows a lot from its predecessor. It’s moody and creepy and the isolated Antarctic setting still works really well. But it never lives up to Carpenter’s version. One of the problems is the overloaded cast of characters, most of which we never connect to. Only a few characters really stand out while others feel like token kills for the alien. You could have easily cut out about five meaningless characters. They would have never been missed and the others would have benefited from it. Also while the movie does finally start to capture some of the intense paranoia of the earlier film, it seems to come and go. Carpenter’s film was driven by the paranoia and unnerving suspicions of his characters. I also thought this movie got a little off track close to the end. There’s an out-of-place sequence in the underground UFO that felt completely disconnected from the rest of the film. That was one attempt at originality that really fell flat.

On the flip side, Director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. does effectively employ several of the techniques used by Carpenter. And while I wouldn’t call the special effects better, the availability of CGI does give this creature much more fluid motions and his assimilations are pretty grotesque. Of course I mean that in a good way. The film is also helped by some really good acting throughout. Mary Elizabeth Winstead as especially impressive as a paleontologist who becomes the lead character. The wonderful Australian actor Joel Edgerton is also quite good as an American helicopter pilot who tends to sit on the outside of the largely scientific group. Both performances are natural and true even when the material let’s them down a bit.

“The Thing” is a film that will largely appeal to a small audience. Fans of the 1982 classic will want to see it and should find a lot to like. While it trips itself up with an overloaded cast and a few scenes which feel like they belong in another film, it does deliver that almost old-school sci-fi monster movie feel. It captures some of the paranoia that I keep harping on and it’s connection to the previous picture is very well done.  Top it off with some nice performances and you have a film that is very watchable. Oh, and did I mention they have flamethrowers???