Final of the Tokyo International Film Festival. I decided skip the closing film, The Town, by Ben Affleck, since I had no interest in seeing it, and since it is Halloween, meet up with friends. I must be getting old since I couldn’t think of anything better to do than sit around and watch a bunch of horror films with friends on Halloween. Village of the Damned is a film I have seen before, but it is always a new and fun experience to watch a movie that you know well again with people who are seeing it for the first time.
Village of the Damned, the story of otherworldly happenings in a small English village, is often hailed as one of the classics of British horror, but it is technically an American film. MGM had a British division for filming stories set England, and to save costs, as it was cheaper to film in England at the time. Three years after Village of the Damned, Robert Wise chose to shoot The Haunting at MGM’s British studio, where he could further stretch his limited budget. MGM was no stranger to horror films, dating back to Lon Chaney in London After Midnight in 1927. MGM horror films such as Peter Lorre in Mad Love in 1935 and Spencer Tracy in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1941 had always been classier and more literate then than counterparts at Universal. Village of the Damned is a prime example, being based on the novel The Midwich Cuckoos, by John Wyndham, who also wrote The Day of the Trefids.
Many of the elements of the novel had to be left out of the screenplay to make it marketable as a film. The rights to the novel where sold before it was completed based on the strength of Wyndham’s name, and as he completed pages of the manuscript, they were shot on microfilm and sent to Hollywood. When the finally pages arrived, MGM studio heads were horrified to realize that the novel they had bought could be interpreted as anti-Catholic, as the idea of an alien race impregnating every woman in a small village seems to mock the concept of immaculate conception. The word “pregnant” was carefully excised from the script. The novel leaves no doubt that aliens have come to earth and impregnated the women, as a surveillance plane spots a spaceship on the ground. This is left out of the movie, which makes the happenings even more mysterious, as something unexplainable is injected into a very prosaic setting. They also throughout Wyndham’s title, which refers to the name of the village and a species of bird which lays it eggs in the nests of other birds, which unknowingly raise them, to the detriment of their own offspring. The title was either considered too explicit, or too obscure, and was discarded.
The movie opens very effectively with scene of bucolic village life frozen in time. A passed out man slumps over a trailer that movies in circles, women lay on the floor of the tiny general store, and professor has dropped to the floor of his plush study. A few months later (the fetus develop fast), a dozen very advanced, very odd and very blond children are born to the women of the village on the same day. The studio pushed director Wolf Rilla to make the children harelipped or hunchedbacked, but insisted on making them idealized, with fair skin and radiant blond hair. “It made the weird happenings even stranger,” the director said. “It seems to me the horror were all the more horrible, because they were so normal. I wanted the children to look nice and pleasant.”
George Sanders is great is a role that is somewhat atypical for him, as it is completely sincere, as professor with a much younger wife, who becomes the mother of the leader of the evil kids. Barbara Shelley, who plays the wife, later complained that the script gives very little attention to the women in the movie, and she is right. While later movies such as Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen focus on the feelings of mothers who suspect that their offspring might be evil, Village of the Damned is very much about the men of the village standing around and talking about how to solve the crisis. They learn that Midwich was not to only place where such children were born under unexplained circumstances, and that in all the other cases the men rose to the occasion and killed the children, and in some cases the mothers as well. In Midwich, the men with military backgrounds, and those with academic backgrounds unable to agree on a course of action.