George SandersJohn WyndhamJenny LairdRichard Vernon
Village of the Damned (1960)
Medium: film
Year: 1960
Director: Wolf Rilla
Writer: John Wyndham, Stirling Silliphant, Wolf Rilla, Ronald Kinnoch
Keywords: The Midwich Cuckoos, horror, SF
Country: UK
Actor: George Sanders, Barbara Shelley, Martin Stephens, Michael Gwynn, Laurence Naismith, Richard Warner, Jenny Laird, Sarah Long, Thomas Heathcote, Charlotte Mitchell, Pamela Buck, Rosamund Greenwood, Susan Richards, Bernard Archard, Peter Vaughan, John Phillips, Richard Vernon, John Stuart, Keith Pyott, Alexander Archdale, Sheila Robins, Tom Bowman, Anthony Harrison, Diane Aubrey, Gerald Paris
Remade as: Village of the Damned (1995)
Format: 77 minutes
Website category: Horror pre-1970
Review date: 15 January 2010
That was really nice. As a film it's no more than quite good, but as a John Wyndham adaptation it's captured something we'll never see again.
Obviously it's been simplified. That goes without saying. It's less intelligent and playful than the book, but only in the sense that a movie doesn't have room for all of Wyndham's intellectual exploration of his concepts rather than because it was made by morons (e.g. Day of the Triffids 2009). It's faithful as far as it goes. It feels true to the book, just a bit streamlined.
What I love about this adaptation is that it feels right. This tails away towards the end as we head for what's practically an action finale by John Wyndham's standards, but that's forgiveable too. This film looks exactly as I'd imagined the novel and will probably still be at the back of my mind when I next read it. It's an English village in 1960, shot in adorable black and white. There's a village telephone exchange, operated by a little old lady. There are hand-wound gramophones. There's a tractor. There's a man wearing a bow tie without irony and a village policeman on a bicycle. It's terribly civilised. The movie's Midwich is just a lovely place to be, with the same kind of charm that I get from the book.
Besides, Wyndham's such a part of his era that there's something satisfying about seeing him in the correct setting.
The people feel right too. The attitudes, the emotions... it all feels honest. The pregnancies are handled perfectly, never tipping over into melodrama but equally not flinching away from the reactions you'd undoubtedly get from immaculate conceptions in 1960 England. I enjoyed the scene of all the men waiting in the bar.
Then you've got the cast. The big star is of course George Sanders as Gordon Zellaby, who's the best thing in the film and every bit as charming as Wyndham's Zellaby. Sanders tended to play smooth but dodgy characters, so it's rather nice to see him in a gentle role like this. I laughed at "why did you kiss me like that?" for instance. He was Shere Khan in Disney's Jungle Book and both the Falcon and the Saint, but I saw him most recently in Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940). He'd won an Oscar ten years earlier for All About Eve, you know.
Backing him up is Barbara Shelley, leading lady of horror, and he's lucky to have a wife like her. Sanders (54) was twice Shelley's age (27) at the time of this film, but they're a lovely couple and I should think women might be as likely to be jealous of Shelley as men might be of Sanders. Then you've got a solid supporting cast, of whom the people I recognised were Peter Vaughn, Bernard Archard and Richard Vernon (Sir Desmond Glazebrook). Michael Gwynn is perhaps occasionally a little wooden as Alan Bernard, but even he's not too bad. Furthermore they've taken the sensible step of appointing a single spokesman for the Children and giving him all the dialogue, which means only relying on one child actor instead of several. His name's Martin Stephens and apparently he was the most popular child actor in Britain during the late 1950s and early 1960s, but he went off and became an architect instead in adulthood.
All that is wonderful. I adore the look and feel of the film. Obviously there has to be something rather less wonderful about the film or we'd all be hailing it today, which of course is the script. It's fine. I respect it. It's trying to be faithful to Wyndham's novel, but by its nature it can't help being a simplification. There's nothing near the church during the Dayout, which incidentally only lasts about four hours. There are only twelve Children and Zellaby's son is one of them, rather than him having the Zellaby nose. A lot of Wyndham's thoughts have been omitted. Zellaby doesn't get as much time as I'd like with the Children, only conducting one experiment (the puzzle box) and never really building a relationship with the group, only to some extent with David. I can understand why a scriptwriter should have made all these changes, but the result is something less thoughtful and interesting.
The biggest plot change though is the ending, which by Wyndham's standards is practically an action shoot-out. Wyndham didn't really do Hollywood finales. It's okay as far as it goes, but it's a bit obvious and doesn't really go far enough from the original to become actually good. The 1995 John Carpenter movie is clearly inferior to this film in almost every way, but I prefer Carpenter's ending. I don't know what the story is with all those glowing eyes flying into the night at the end, though. Maybe it's just a cool weird bit that doesn't mean anything, or maybe they meant it as set-up for the sequel, Children of the Damned (1963). I guess the former.
This film had been going to be American. We dodged a bullet there, since this wouldn't be half the film it is without its setting. Pre-production began in 1957 and Ronald Colman was signed to play Zellaby, but MGM shelved the film on deciding that it was controversial and inflammatory because of the virgin births. Coincidentally Colman died in 1958 and in 1959 his widow married Sanders, who then took the role of Zellaby in 1960 that had been meant for Colman.
This is a lovely little film, but unfortunately it loses its way as the story progresses and it becomes more and more movie-like, until its final act is merely quite good. Nevertheless it's full of nice little touches, such as the way that canary goes to sleep at the beginning. For some reason that tickled me. I wouldn't call it a classic, but try watching a few John Wyndham adapations and you'll soon find yourself with a new appreciation of all the ways in which it's perfect.