Thursday, October 23, 2014

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #9: Children of the Damned

Anton M. Leader’s ‘Children of the Damned’ continues the rigorous science vs. brute force debate established in Wolf Rilla’s ‘Village of the Damned’, but in all other respects this is a sequel that utterly up-ends its predecessor.

One plays out against the quaint cottages and open fields of its rural setting, the other in the cramped and sunless streets of London. One confines its drama to country houses and spic-and-span cottages, the other to grimy bedsits and abandoned buildings. One has a pragmatic retired professor as its protagonist, the other a younger impassioned psychoanalyst. One has a group of almost identical children, the other children of different nationalities. One implies that these children are the progeny of something alien, the other that they were virgin births.

And, crucially, one casts its otherworldly children firmly as villains, the other as misunderstood innocents.

Perhaps ‘Children of the Damned’ is best approached not as a sequel but a flipside or a reinterpretation. The film starts in media res with six children – variously Chinese, Nigerian, Russian, Indian, American and English – brought together for study by a UNESCO committee on child development. Tom Llewellyn (Ian Hendry) and David Neville (Alan Badel), respectively a psychologist and a geneticist, are researching the background to the English lad, Paul (Clive Powell). Their access is hampered by his mother who is hysterical and adamant that she has no business having a son since no man has ever touched her. Tom and David, in something of a sweeping generalisation, correlate her profession as photographer’s model with licentiousness and initially disbelieve her story.

Later, following an unfortunately (and mildly suspicious) road accident, Paul enters the care of his sympathetic aunt, Susan (Barbara Ferris). The children, swiftly cohering into a telepathic unit, employ mind control over Susan to assist them take shelter in a disused church. So far, so ‘Village of the Damned’. But it soon becomes apparent that Paul and his comrades are only using their mental powers when threatened, and that their coercion of Susan is merely a temporary requirement and they mean her no harm. While still crossing a certain line in terms of social norms, their behaviour is far removed from the show of force that the children of Midwich delighted in reiterating in the first movie.

A crucial narrative development has Tom initially convince the children to leave the church and report to their nations’ embassies. The callous political brinkmanship of the adult world immediately becomes apparent: their ambassadors welcome them delightedly, keen to remodel them as weapons. Telekinetics prized for their use in some potential psychic war. It can only be speculated how much inspiration ‘Children of the Damned’ had on ‘Scanners’. As with ‘Village of the Damned’, there’s a sense of the film as pre-Cronenberg Cronenberg. If anything, Cronenberg’s visceral disgust at the human condition and his major theme of God as an absent landlord is even stronger in ‘Children of the Damned’.

Naturally, the children respond to threat by using their powers against it and, several dead ambassadors later, they’re back at the church. The house of God as social realist Alamo. Yes, that’s a distinction worth emphasizing: if ‘Village’ uses its sleepy rural setting as an effective counterpoint to its fantastical concepts, then ‘Children’ is sci-fi dystopia as kitchen sink drama.

‘Children of the Damned’ uses a broader canvas and asks thornier questions than ‘Village’. It’s 15 minutes longer yet spans a shorter timeline and contains arguably less incident. It lacks the precise craftsmanship of Wolf Rilla’s direction while John Briley’s script takes longer to debate its big themes than Stirling Silliphant’s. Together, they complement, offset and challenge each other. ‘Village’ is arguably the more superbly crafted work, ‘Children’ the more intellectually satisfying.

No comments: