Tuesday, October 21, 2014

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #8: Village of the Damned

John Wyndham’s particular genius was for welding gnarly sci-fi concepts to an ineffably English worldview. And nowhere was this more fully expressed than in the rural setting of ‘The Midwich Cuckoos’.

By a strange quirk, Englishness in cinema is often more accurately rendered by filmmakers of other nationalities: Joseph Losey (American: ‘The Servant’, ‘Accident’), Alberto Cavalcanti (Brazilian: ‘Went the Day Well?’, ‘Nicholas Nickleby’), or the quintessential Englishness of Michael Powell as filtered through the Hungarian émigré sensibility (‘A Canterbury Tale’, ‘A Matter of Life and Death’).

‘The Midwich Cuckoos’ was filmed as ‘Village of the Damned’, adapted by American screenwriter Stirling Silliphant and helmed by German director Wolf Rilla. The result is a perfect depiction of stereotypical English stoicism, resilience and pragmatism, skewed just enough by a foreign perspective to emerge as something genuinely unsettling.

The film starts with everyone in the village of Midwich falling unconscious simultaneously. With the confident dexterity of a cardsharp knowing he’s got your attention from the outset, Rilla deals out images of prostrate bodies in the middle of narrow lanes, sinks overflowing, irons burning through clothes, an LP catching on a phonogram, the same note playing over and over, a tractor trundling in circles, its driver slumped over the wheel. Cosy, comfortable, English settings and images – but creepily subverted.

Next up, a self-contained sequence where the military establish a cordon around Midwich and attempt ingress, first with a caged bird, then with a human volunteer. Rilla builds tension with the steady accretion of detail, playing off the by-the-book stiff-upper-lip rationale of the top brass against the slow dawning realisation that something is very wrong.

When Midwich re-awakes and the strange forcefield that seems to have cloaked the village disappears, the film makes its one concession to prudery and elides the mass pregnancy of all female citizens of child-bearing age (speculations on xenogenesis, i.e. impregnation by an alien entity, inform the novel) into a quick sequence of visits to the village’s increasingly harassed and befuddled doctor. The film then deals out another quick series of elisions, depicting the group of disconcerting similar children first preternaturally gifted infants and then as mini-adults, far more advanced in years than their age allows for. They go everywhere en masse. Their manner is aloof. There isn’t a trace of emotion in their behaviour.

Professor Gordon Zellaby (George Sanders), father to one of these uber-children, begins a study of them, keeping in close contact with his brother-in-law (Michael Gwynn) who was one of the military personnel in the opening scenes. Zellaby blags his way onto a British Intelligence think tank and a fraught series of discussions hammer through the speculative discourses of Wyndham’s novel with an economy that does Silliphant proud as a writer. The upshot is, basically, that Zellaby wants to learn from the children in order to understand them, while the military, concerned about similar phenomena in isolated areas across the globe, do what military types in movies of any genre do best and starting figuring out the best way of destroying the problem.

The science vs. brute force dialogue is stamped across the film’s tense 77-minute running time, and Rilla milks the stand-off for all it’s worth, Zellaby desperately securing a facility in which to study the children before gradually realising that the dynamic is actually the other way round, and that his benefaction might count for nothing when their use for him is exhausted.

‘Village of the Damned’ simmers with the threat of violence, either against the children or, increasingly, by them. Their telekinetic disposal of a grief-crazed shotgun-wielding villager, whose brother’s death they’d earlier caused, is all the nastier to watch because of the sense of complete detachment. In the best scenes, Rilla simply observes the children and the result is like watching a Cronenberg film made a decade and a half before Cronenberg got started.

In some aspects ‘Village of the Damned’ is dated, and – putting it tactfully – not all of the performances are of Sanders’s calibre, but it remains an intelligent, suspenseful chiller that sets out to challenge and unnerve and does so with clinical efficiency.

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