Thursday, 25 February 2010

Children of the Damned (1964)

Children of the Damned is a kind of sequel to the 1960 British hit Village of the Damned, one of the best science fiction/horror movies of its era (or any other for that matter). But it’s not a true sequel. Today it would probably be described as a reboot! It takes the same basic idea of a group of fantastically gifted children with paranormal powers who turn out to be not exactly human but it uses the idea in a very different way.

The film-makers should at least be given credit for realising the danger that they might end up simply remaking Village of the Damned, and they’ve not only changed the way the idea is developed, they’ve also changed the tone very radically. Unfortunately the results are not entirely satisfactory.

A couple of good-natured British scientists are conducting a study on intelligence in children, and they’ve uncovered a prodigy. In fact Paul is more than just a prodigy. His intelligence is truly mind-boggling. They’re at a loss as to how to explain this boy genius, especially after meeting his mother and deciding that she is most definitely no genius. They realise this at once, when they discover she’s working class (an attitude that a movie today would certainly not get away with). She also tell them that he has no father. Literally. She claims to be still a virgin.

The scientists naturally assume she’s either lying or mad, that is until they encounter Colin Webster. He’s some kind of operative with some mysterious and shady British Intelligence service, and he tells them that there are five other children just like Paul in other parts of the world. Their intelligence isn’t just similar to Paul’s - it’s identical. They get identical test scores. They also solve a complex problem in exactly 37.5 seconds. Spooky.

Naturally the various governments of the various countries from which the children are convinced that the best use for these children is to put them to use designing weapon. Which they promise the children that of course they’ll never use. An attempt to snatch the children from an abandoned church in which they’ve taken refuge with Paul’s attractive young aunt Susan (whom they’ve adopted as their unofficial carer) goes horribly wrong when the children unleash their own super-weapon, the Church Organ of Death. This is way beyond existing Earth technologies, and they’ve also clearly demonstrated their telepathic and mind control powers, and now the enthusiasm of governments has given way to fear. Examination of blood samples has revealed that these super kids have non-human blood. They must be destroyed.

The original movie worked because the children were both truly frightening and very alien. They appeared almost unstoppable and at the same time they clearly had to be stopped somehow. Children of the Damned tries to humanise the children, to make them somewhat sympathetic, and it thereby loses the terrifying impact of the first film.

It tries to raise moral questions about what we have the right to do in order to protect ourselves from a threat, but it ends up with a rather wish-washy “Why can’t we all just get along?” kind of message. The ending tries to be ambiguous but ends up being merely vague and confused, as if the screenwriter suddenly realised he had no idea how to end the movie.

On the plus side it features some excellent and very atmospheric black-and-white cinematography. Changing the setting from a sleepy English village to a rather grimy London cityscape works surprisingly well.

The acting is generally pretty good. Ian Hendry and Alan Badel are very good as the two British scientists who discover England’s super child. They’re both well-meaning but without any very clear idea of what has to be done. Alfred Burke (who went on to play the seedy private eye in the superb Public Eye TV series) is impressive as the British government spook. It’s a nicely underplayed performance. He’s the kind of guy who would cut your throat if his political masters asked him to but he’d do it politely and you’d know he really didn’t like doing things like that, but you know how it is, national security and all that.

The children are creepy, but not as creepy as in the original film.

It’s probably worth mentioning that although both Village of the Damned and Children of the Damned were MGM movies they were made by MGM’s British division and they are in fact entirely British movies.

It’s available on DVD in a two-movie set that includes both films. I don’t think Children of the Damned is worth purchasing on its own but the set is quite cheap and if you’re getting both movies anyway it’s worth a look.

1 comment:

Shaun Anderson said...

Great review! - I think what Children of the Damned lacks is the two special sequences which made Village of the Damned such a chilling masterpiece - the opening scene in which a village mysteriously succumbs to sleep in the middle of the day is brilliant in its eerie and uncanny qualities. And also the finale in which George Sanders creates a literal brick wall in his mind, behind which is the bomb he has smuggled into the classroom. Children doesnt have a single show stopping sequence, and is too concerned with contemporary global politics than it is with creating atmosphere.