John WyndhamIan HendryBessie Love
Children of the Damned
Medium: film
Year: 1964
Director: Anton Leader
Writer: John Wyndham, John Briley
Keywords: The Midwich Cuckoos, horror, SF
Country: UK
Actor: Ian Hendry, Alan Badel, Barbara Ferris, Alfred Burke, Sheila Allen, Ralph Michael, Patrick Wymark, Martin Miller, Harold Goldblatt, Patrick White, Andre Mikhelson, Bessie Love, Clive Powell, Yoke-Moon Lee, Roberta Rex, Gerald Delsol, Mahdu Mathen, Frank Summerscale
Format: 90 minutes
Website category: Horror pre-1970
Review date: 21 January 2010
It's earnest, a bit meagre and stupid, but quite well photographed. We've got something not very good here.
It's a sequel to Village of the Damned (1960). You'll see a lot of nonsense being talked about "thematic sequels" and "a sequel in name only", but it's another batch of Children with the same powers and the same mysterious progeniture. Maybe they were psychically created by those flying eyes in the first film? The credits call it a sequel, anyway. Admittedly it's got a different setting, a different cast and no acknowledgement by any of the characters that something similar happened a few years ago in a few villages around the world, e.g. Midwich, but that's just a plot hole.
As plot holes go, mind you, it's a pretty big one. The Russians must have forgotten that they'd nuked one of their own towns to kill its Children, for instance.
The movie's story is much less interesting than Wyndham's version. The Midwich Cuckoos was basically wondering how a small village would react if it found itself harbouring a nest of humanoid cuckoos. The novel is working on a very personal level, primarily addressing themes of parenthood and society even while it's layering a bit of geopolitical cynicism on top. This sequel on the other hand is putting its Children in an international context, with a bit of business with their mothers early on but otherwise making them the responsibility of their countries' respective ambassadors. The few women in this film are mother/victim figures. For the most part it's a man's world, with a cast full of scientists, politicians, professors and soldiers. They're charmless and almost personality-free. They're always down to business, except for the one played by Alan Badel, who's occasionally sexist.
This leads the story along very different lines from its predecessor. I'd have loved to see the Children go to war with the humans, with lakes of blood and the corpses stacked up like driftwood, but unfortunately everyone pretty much stands around and talks. Act One is a big recap in which our heroes painstakingly go through all the logical steps required to get them up to speed with the audience. We know all this stuff. We remember Village of the Damned. It would have saved a lot of time if the characters in this film had remembered it too. There are only six Children here and they all come from different countries, their progenitors presumably having decided that impregnating entire communities attracted too much attention and so a better survival strategy might be to try to be subtle. Fortunately the filmmakers don't try putting golden wigs on children from Africa and China.
This seems sensible. Less so is the fact that the Children run away, join forces and barricade themselves into a church in London, rather than (say) allowing their respective countries to treat them like royalty. That wasn't a clever move on their part, but maybe they panicked when an intelligence test identified all six as having identical super-genius scores. There's also a line about "we are stronger together". Also puzzling to me at first was the fact that they appeared to be made up of five boys and one girl. How were they planning to reproduce, then? The mind boggled. In fairness I later realised that I couldn't tell the gender of the Chinese one and so (s)he might actually have been female, but it would probably have been better and more sinister to make them all female or all male. There's a scene in the film where one of the Children's blood cells eats a human blood cell, although it's not obvious why this didn't seem to affect their mothers during pregnancy.
The film spends a lot of time showing us the foolishness and folly of mankind, international politics, the military, etc. This is theoretically praiseworthy, but also dreary and predictable. For example, consider the scene where the Children have built a sonic weapon and are using it on some men with guns, despite the fact that the Children are standing directly above it at the time. Brain-destroying sound waves clearly don't go upwards. Anyway, the consequence of this is that the ambassadors start using exactly the rhetoric that was being used at the time to justify the nuclear deterrent. This is earnest and relevant to 1964, but it's also kind of boring. Ian Hendry's character sees the light around now and starts protesting that they shouldn't just let the politicians and the military kill the Children, but his main argument in support of this seems to be "it's not nice".
The situation escalates. By the end we've got what looks like the entire British army outside that church, which is of course the stupidest action imaginable. The correct outcome of this had been of course that the Children would make them all kill each other, but we're not supposed to be thinking about that because the film wants a big military build-up for its VSE (Very Serious Ending).
This is the kind of film that has a high-up government person saying, "Nowadays we'd find a better use for Shakespeare." I suppose this kind of sledgehammer approach to the theme isn't entirely without merit, since the film's basic point is sound and it makes sense for them to be following up on Wyndham's socio-political concerns. My objection is simply that they're doing it without wit or the slightest shred of subtlety.
The Children turned out to be quite interesting, though. We get a more nuanced view of their psychology than we did in Village of the Damned, where as far as we were concerned they were simply evil. That's the view of the soldiers and politicians. This lot on the other hand seem less sure of themselves, possibly as a result of their lower numbers and scattered upbringing. Remembering The Chrysalids, it's possible that they hadn't even been in proper contact until recently. "What do you want?" "We don't know." I found that a fascinating moment, but that's by no means all. By the end, we've been given a surprising and not unsympathetic peek into their psychology. That shot of those clasped hands near the end isn't entirely without power, despite the obviousness of the film's VSE.
The film also throws in a surprising bit of speculation about the Children's origins, which is quite good and doesn't contradict any previous mythology. Overall there's some really nice ambiguity in all this, in which we're being invited to empathise with a bunch of dispassionate killers. Apparently an earlier release of the film contained a scene where one Child makes a speech in which he realises that they've been sent to help mankind, but this sounds like utter bollocks and I'm glad it wasn't on my DVD. The movie I watched already felt like a sledgehammer. The ambiguity about the Children is pretty much the one redeeming feature of the themes and storyline, so I agree entirely with whoever made that particular edit.
All that was good, but the film's portrayal of its Children isn't perfect. "They tried not to kill" is sufficiently ridiculous that I'm not sure if even the movie believes it, despite technicalities like the sonic weapon turning you into a vegetable but not actually being non-fatal. On the one hand, the Children notch up a fair-sized body count. On the other, we have silly-looking bits like (a) Paul's mother surviving even though they made her walk into traffic, and (b) Ralph Michael being allowed to survive when he shoots and kills one of the Children, despite the fact that they'd previously murdered two men because they hurt the dog. They're psychic, so obviously they'd know he was there. In fairness I can see a psychological justification for both of those incidents, but at the time they felt wrong.
There's a lot of stuff like that. Had Paul's mother really signed that form, given that we'd just seen her encased in plaster? What was the point of that telephone call at 4:30 am? I don't know if you'd actually call these plot holes, but I wasn't sure if the scriptwriters simply hadn't considered these points or else were just bad at getting across their explanations to the audience. Whatever the truth, this is a poor piece of work on their part.
The movie looks quite good, though. It's not as pretty as its predecessor's village setting, but it has some nice night-time photography and makes occasionally stylised use of shadow. I love black and white. Its London shooting also looks vaguely nostalgic, although it's slightly absurd to see all those empty streets. ("We're shooting a film here! Everyone keep back!") Its army build-up reminded me of Remembrance of the Daleks, oddly enough. Same city, almost the same year. Look out too for the chunky 1964 army radio, in which someone's practically holding a TARDIS console to their ear. Another sensible decision was to keep the children's dialogue to an absolute minimum, which works both on a production level and within the story. Obviously one wants to keep one's child actors silent, but it's also realistic because telepaths wouldn't chit-chat.
I didn't hate this film, but I certainly wouldn't recommend it. The things I liked about it were: (a) the moral ambiguity with the Children, (b) their use of the dog, (c) the shot of Paul knocking a hole in that stained glass window. I can't explain the latter. I just enjoyed it. Fundamentally though, this is a film that's trying to deliver a big, serious message without being intelligent enough for it. The fact that the story requires the Children to be super-geniuses just makes the script's stupidity doubly unfortunate.