War is hell. And WWII exemplified this in spades with millions dead and a continent devastated. But out of the wreckage, a bustling horror-film industry began to take shape. And many of the post-war films reflected the rampant cynicism and paranoia of the time. For fans of the era, post-war England was the epicenter of the movement.
Cranking out a clutch of killer films from 1945 onward, the UK singlehandedly launched a new genre in the process: gothic horror. One of the very first of these post-war goodies was an anthology film called Dead of Night, which helped kick open the door to a flurry of eerie horror flicks to come. One such film, Village of the Damned (1960) has just made its way to hi-def via a new Blu-ray release (Warner Archive).
The stage is set in the English town of Midwich, sometime after WWII. In this sleepy town, life seems pretty ordinary; men work outside, women do housework, and main character Professor Gordon Zellaby (George Sanders) goes about his bookish business. Suddenly, an unexplained event happens that messes up everything.
Simultaneously, all of the inhabitants of this serene little village collapse into a catatonic stupor, including the professor and his much-younger wife (played by dishy horror vet Barbara Shelley). Director Wolf Rilla’s opening salvo captures the events in a set of stylish vignettes. Shot in stark black and white, it makes for an unforgettable opener.
While first thinking it might be an attack of poison gas, the military experts soon dismiss this theory when they test the village’s boundaries. The unwitting townsfolk eventually awaken only to find themselves befuddled and embarrassed.
While there are no obvious answers, within a short enough period, a new development takes shape: many of the women in town become afflicted with a mysterious new condition—pregnancy. For 1960, this was pretty racy. And word has it that the Catholic church was not happy about it at all, seeing the film as making a mockery of the Immaculate Conception. The townsfolk are equally floored,
Within just a few months the babies arrive, with full heads of platinum blonde hair and odd piercing eyes. Almost immediately, they’re talking and solving complex puzzles. They grow at an alarming rate and eventually morph into these creepy—albeit slightly campy—elementary school-age kids with obviously fake-looking hair. (It turns out, the filmmakers had assigned naturally brunette kids to the roles to enhance the peculiar look.) The kids are led by the ultra-brainy and precocious David, who also happens to be the Zellabys’ son. While he’s articulate and extremely well-mannered, he and his cohorts can both read and control the minds of others and happen to have sinister plans of their own.
Soon enough, all goes awry and while there’s plenty of blame to go around, there’s a strong feeling that an otherworldly force is involved (could be aliens…or Communists?). And, there’s obviously something more to these kids than meets the eye. Speaking of which, the piercing eye effect still strikes a chord, and was achieved by freezing the frame and manually adding the color. In the end, the film leaves enough questions unresolved, implying that a sequel could be forthcoming. Said sequel, Children of the Damned, would follow in 1964.
Village of the Damned was remade in the ’90s by horror maestro John Carpenter. While the remake ups the ante in terms of special effects and a more sensationalized approach, Wolf Rilla’s original still stands as the superior version, its lo-fi effects, post-war paranoia and elegant pacing elevating it to well above average.
For questions, comments or something you’d like to see, drop me a line at Retrohead77@yahoo.com. Cheers, Kaz