Village Of The Damned (1960 UK)

Village_of_the_Damned_(1960)This review is dedicated to Barbara Shelley, where ever you are: a very underrated actress who deserved more high profile roles than she received. Back on November 12, 1959 to be precise, the Hertfordshire village of Letchmore Heath was invaded by a gang of film makers intent on bringing to life John Wyndham’s fantasy novel The Midwich Cuckoos. German-born director Wolf Rilla felt his gang could succeed. Did they? Read on Macduff…

Herr Rilla managed several memorable set pieces, notably the gripping introduction with unconscious villages scattered around the village green and, later, a riveting series of close-ups as the children will a character named James Pawle to blow his head off with his own shotgun. But these are too few highlights from a script which teases us with some of Wyndham’s themes without following them up. The villagers knee-jerk reaction to the ‘foreigners’ in their midst smacks of an ant-intellectual witch hunt. But this interesting road is tidily closed off when the intolerant villagers turn out to be right: the children really are evil.

Worse than this is the contempt with which the film treats its female characters. For a story centered around phantom pregnancies this is unforgivable. Barbara Shelley (playing Anthea Zellaby) complained later on that “had there been that other strain through it, of mother and child, it would have increased the film’s effectiveness many times.” Quite! As it is, the pregnant women are left to suffer in silence (although Mrs Zellaby is allowed some hysteria of her own) while the men retreat sullenly to throw darts and down pints in the local pub.  Even so, the Zellabys are a charming couple, with urbane George Sanders (Gordon Zellaby) and Ms Shelley making their civilized best of some ambitious stretches of awkward dialogue.

Village+of+the+Damned+—+9(A child is a certain sorrow and an uncertain joy)

At one point a character named General Leighton smugly observes: “We’re not a police state – yet.” Unfortunately Britain is a police state these days but the poor buggers shooting this could not know what was to happen decades in the future. We have some self-sacrifice from George Sanders, we have some nature vs nurture debate: “Children are not born with a sense of moral values, they have to be taught.” I agree with that one. What else do we have? A Ron Goodwin score that is suitably twee and treacly. It serves as a mirror to the middle class society invaded by the immaculately conceived, emotionless, young cuckoos.

Visually, photographer Geoffrey Faithfull drops the ball on this one. He was usually an astute cinematographer, sometimes employing a murky style if needed, but here his photography is too bright. Prettiness and clarity does not give one the creeps, and I assume Herr Rilla was hoping to cause a few chills up the viewer’s spine. Among the little monsters, 11 year old Martin Stephens is horribly convincing as the tweed-suited little man who acts as spokesperson for the children. His ‘received pronunciation’ voice is unnerving. The children’s glowing eyes were created by special effects expert Tom Howard. Overall, Village Of The Damned is a refined, modest and very British sci-fi classic that skates lightly over the incredibilities; toning down the laughs while emerging a little bloody but definitely unbowed.

Village+of+the+Damned+—+5(Sharper than a serpent’s tooth…)


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