Saturday, 23 June 2018

The Village of the Damned (1995)

There are certain movies that I tend to go out of my way to avoid seeing, for varying reasons. One of the movies I’ve avoided is John Carpenter’s 1995 version of The Village of the Damned. In this particular case my reasons for avoiding the movie were quite clear-cut. First off, I liked Wolf Rilla’s 1960 version so much I couldn’t see how anyone could possibly improve on it. Secondly, I’ve always disliked movies that Americanise English subject matter. In this case my second objection is even stronger than usual, given that John Wyndham was perhaps the most quintessentially English of all science fiction writers. And The Midwich Cuckoos was the most quintessentially English of Wyndham’s novels. An adaptation of that novel set in the United States sounded like a seriously poor idea.

Nonetheless the 1995 version of The Village of the Damned is a John Carpenter movie and I do generally like John Carpenter movies, so I have set aside my prejudices and here I am reviewing it.

One day everybody in the town of Midwich loses consciousness. All the animals lose consciousness as well. Some hours later they all regain consciousness. No-one has any idea what has happened or why. The government has sent Dr Susan Verner (Kirstie Alley) to investigate. While she’s certainly a doctor it’s reasonable to assume that she has some intimate connections with the intelligence community.

It soon becomes apparent that every single woman of child-bearing age in Midwich is pregnant and they all fell pregnant on the day of the unexplained blackout. It’s obvious that something very strange is going on. There is simply no possible way that some of these women could be pregnant, but they are. And they all decide to keep their babies.

The children grow up very fast. They are extremely bright but lack any kind of empathy. They’re not actually emotionless - in fact they display an excessively emotional need for revenge if they suffer any injury or even a minor inconvenience. This is one of the elements in the story that worked fine in the 1960 movie but seems inconsistent and meddled in this version.

Dr Verner is still hanging around and giving the impression she knows more than she’s prepared to reveal publicly. She seems to have been added to the story to give it a bit of an X-Files vibe, with a vague suggestion that maybe the government knows more than it’s prepared to let on as well. She chain smokes through the move so you could describe her as the movie’s faintly sinister Cigarette Smoking Woman.

The children become more obviously evil. It’s not just Midwich’s future that looks bleak, these kids could be a threat to the whole planet.

There are so many things wrong with this movie that it’s hard to know where to start. There’s no subtlety in the portrayal of the children. Right from the start they are clearly Demon Children From Hell and their evilness is so blatant you have to wonder why everybody else in the town doesn’t just leave. For the story to work it’s necessary that the women should make serious attempts to bond with the children and should be genuinely emotionally conflicted about them. Nobody could be emotionally conflicted about these little horrors. It’s also necessary that the strangeness of the children should be revealed slowly, so that at first it’s still possible for people to convince themselves that they’re just normal kids. All of this was done successfully in the 1960 film and the 1995 film fails on every count.

There’s a much bigger problem. John Wyndham had a deep love for traditional English society, and he felt that things were changing rapidly and not necessarily for the better. The Midwich Cuckoos is a kind of allegory of the rise of soulless mass society. The Midwich of his novel was a creation that the author cared about and the reader cannot help feeling emotionally involved in the tragic fate that seems to be the village’s destiny. All of that is lost in Carpenter’s film. His Midwich is already soulless so why would anybody care if it’s threatened?

The characters are dull and the acting is dull. Terrible things happen to the local doctor, Dr Chaffee, but Christopher Reeve’s performance is so colourless and uninvolved that Dr Chaffee is even more robotic than the demon children. The other actors make no impression whatsoever and their characters are so uninteresting that I found it difficult to keep track of them.

Kirstie Alley tries to be cynical and sinister but she doesn’t really have the acting chops to make Dr Verner anything more than a cipher.

The special effects are OK but they’re not really any improvement on the 1960 movie.

There are some minor changes to the story, notably in regard to the David character, but they’re muddled and unconvincing.

By 1995 Carpenter’s once promising career was definitely on the skids. He no longer had enough commercial clout to be given the level of creative control necessary to do something interesting with the material and he knew it. He didn’t want to make The Village of the Damned and he didn’t have final cut and he had major disagreements with the studio and it seems likely that he just lost interest and was only thinking of the pay cheque. It’s ironic that the commercial failures that derailed his career were in fact some of the best and most interesting movies of his career (movies like The Thing and Big Trouble in Little China). This must have been more than a little disillusioning. Unfortunately The Village of the Damned was not the sort of movie that was going to get his career back on track.

The overwhelming impression I get from this movie is pointlessness. It’s inferior in every way to the 1960 film and it adds absolutely nothing of value to the story.

I found myself not caring what happened to Midwich or its inhabitants who seemed no more convincingly human than the evil alien children.

I really can’t think of any reason whatsoever why anyone would want to see this movie.