Saturday, October 24, 2015


Children scare me sometimes too.... but not as much as SPOILERS

This is one of those horror movies that I'd heard of over the years but never came to watch (the sequel as well, though I only knew of that vaguely, in part from an Iron Maiden song, which I'll include at the bottom here).  This falls in line with what happened with what happened for me with another John Carpenter film, The Thing, where I watched the remake before catching up to the original.  I tend to do that sometimes, missing out on some key moments in the history of horror and science fiction and Westerns, and I can only imagine and speculate as to how I would have received seeing this younger, a lot young even, like as a child (and incidentally both films, their originals, are part of a series I'm doing on my podcast, The Wages of Cinema, where I have to see movies my friends has suggested I see that he's seen over the years, you can listen to that episode very soon, but I digress).

This is at times a very British series - it comes from a book called The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham, who also wrote Day of the Triffids (you know the one, maybe, where plants attack, that's basically what I know about it - and the basic horror behind both films is this: what happens when children, who adults see as not being fully-formed and can be molded and shaped are just BAD from the start, and in a society where we expect them to be well-behaved and upstanding and can control people's minds?  Is the power structure turned upside down?  How about logic and emotion, the latter sometimes (often times in the past from my perception of things with certain families and groups in the UK) are kept to a level where things are 'proper' and 'orderly', another word for repressed?

Of course in this case there isn't some 'Bad Seed' style element, nor is there Satan ala The Omen.  This is a science fiction set-up from the beginning, and the start of Village is nothing is not chilling to the core.  What happens if suddenly, all at the same time, everyone in a town falls asleep or is knocked out at once (humans and their pets), and once others come in to the area of the town they too fall asleep (and please don't try to fly a plane into this area).  Something about seeing all of these shots of people, all slumped over, in the streets, in their stores, in their cars (parked, for now), leaves an uneasy feeling, especially how the filmmakers add little to no music and it's also in stark black and white; in color it may still be terrifying, but the B&W carries a deeper dread to it.  I'm reminded of Lewis Black in a stand-up bit saying how when you see a movie in black and white it means (usually) everything is super serious and without any shred of humor (sorry Mr. Black if I screwed up that line, I'm sure it was more clever when you said it).

The gist of the story comes from everyone waking up in this small community of Midwich, and when it appears that all (or at least most) of the women are suddenly soon after expecting babies.  But did the husbands even do the deed to get this done?  I was slightly confused at first as to whether the men were knocking them up (i.e. our main character George Sanders as Gordon Zellaby, a man of science and rationality), but it seems pretty clear that there's some "immaculate conception" going on as well, such as with a 17 year old who seems to have not had sex before.  The pregnancies are fast - 5 months into it the embryos are 7 months along - and the kids seem to become kids very quickly.  Though there's no clock as to how quickly these kids become the size they are at, that's part of the point - we're disorientated as much as I'm sure the adults are.  And it's clear as day these children, about 7/8 of them in all, with the same white hair and albino skin and black clothes, freak people the fuck out... and seem to be driving people to kill themselves(!)

I was still a little confused after the movie ended (not as I watched it though, which I give the writers credit) about how the kids knew exactly about the other kids in other countries who were born and were soon after either killed by the town elders (Eskimos for example don't take kindly to babies with light hair), or were left to 'run' things in as in Soviet Russia.  But then that's one of those small story details I can certainly take more than a grain of salt to think about - hey, they can control people's minds and/or melt them (it seems), and are implants from another planet, I'm sure there is some logical explanation there.  And that's not the point of the movie anyway: the horror comes from how we as a society will look to beings we don't understand, and how quickly or not we respond to such threats.

I think know the presentation goes helps to mask that it's kind of a conservative message at the bottom core of it, in some part, as some of the main people in town want to round up the kids and (at least) put them in prison when they hear how other countries deal with these demon spawn, but Sanders wants to study them, find some way scientifically to discover their capabilities or how they think and use their minds.  As soon as the kids start really fighting back against the adults - some wanting to kill them more than others, as you can see in a couple of scenes where it's just shocking how easily it can happen in the matter of a minute - Sanders realizes his mistake and knows they have to be put away.

And yet the other part though is that this is a stone cold, not too funny satire/commentary about logic vs conformity, and how the same conformity and Group-Think that forms the kids together also will send out a mob from the pub to go after the 'Other' that's the threat.  There's some deeper stuff going on in the story, the subtext of things and the greater socio-politican implications, and it helps to elevate what is actually a pretty short film at 77 minutes long.  It's a very good movie that suffers if anything most from the one child actor who talks - Zellaby's "son" David (Martin Stephens, who was just in the "Spooktacular" series in The Innocents - being obviously dubbed over, and an ending that feels kind of ambiguous but not at the same time.  It's an eerie shot involving eyeballs, let me put it that way, but it doesn't answer what happens to these... 'children'.

On to the sequel, and it's... a little different, that's for sure.  Is it better? Ummm... to quote the kids in the movie when asked why they're doing this... I don't know(!)  Ok, I do, kinda, but...  

I think the best way to see Children of the Damned is as a stand-alone film, oddly enough.  It is a sequel,  but it isn't in the way that it might, say, reference anything from the previous entry.  It's almost as if there was no incident in Midwich where these children all (spoiler) die when George Sanders brings in the bomb and uses his "brick wall" in his brain to stop them from controlling him.  You'd think there may even be some reference to how this was a phenomenon in other nations with children born en-masse.  But in 'Children', it's like the first movie didn't... happen(?)  Not to say the international-element of the first film is removed; on the contrary, this time it's one child from different nations, and they're all in London (I'd presume that's the place) and, with the exception of one child (I think anyway, the main kid Paul), the 'Damned' are all kids of Embassy leaders.

In a way, one might think that this could be an improvement on the first film in the sense of how these kids could live for so long - you might recall if you watch 'Village' that the Eskimos killed their kids since, naturally, having light-haired children was a very odd/kill-worthy thing for a group of black-haired people.  Here, there's Indian, African, Chinese and Russian kids to join the British Paul, and they don't have the same hair.  In another way this makes them less frightening - there's no visually congruous way to see them as the same, and I think this is an attempt to make them, perhaps, sympathetic in this one.  This is spearheaded by Ian Hendry's let's-try-to-see-what-they're-like psychologist (ala Troy MacLure you might remember Hendry from such films as The Hill and Repulsion), who doesn't want to wipe them out like (spoiler) everyone else does.  Well, almost everyone.

The problem with watching Children of the Damned is the fact that Village of the Damned exists; if you have something that has the same title (in part) and the same connective tissue of the kids-who-look-deadpan-and-use-mind-control powers, then it should have some relation to the original.  Maybe if I'd see this first it would be more effective, but it takes a while for the movie to get to a final act where it sort of crams in a lot of things that Village, though a shorter film, was able to pace out in a more interesting way.  What I mean is the split between those who immediately want to jump to killing the kids since they are, shall we say, not human, and then those (i.e. Hendry's Llewelyn) who sees them still as kids and, yes, they may be a superior race, but aren't we humans supposed to be the better species?   But Oh, wait, hold on to your horses, one more BIG revelation comes that throws even what little connection to the first film out the window (BIG spoiler):

They're us - a million years into the future, at least so says one old doctor who studied the DNA and found, uh, reasons that this is the case.  Holy AI Artificial Intelligence, Batman!  So the movie suddenly turns into hard-sci-fi when I thought it was still, at least somewhat, a horror movie about telekinetic children who are half alien and half human.  Suddenly I wonder if Planet of the Apes is in the strangest way possible a *prequel* to this whole series(!)  It was a shame to have this at the last minute since, again, it makes for an interesting idea... but in the middle of a "Damned" movie?  Where one thinks that the mechanics of how these children are is without question?  But there's still the immaculate conception angle, no?  Yes?  Then what?  Do human beings a million years in the future come back to the past to suddenly impregnate our women to create, uh, a special super species that JUST WANTS TO BE LEFT ALONE DAMN IT, OR YOU'LL DIE!

So, Children of the Damned turns out to be kind of an intellectually frustrating experience, even as I can't fault the production quality or generally the performances by the adults (the kids are just... there, you know); it's directed in a way that still retains some of the creepiness of the first film (a scene where soldiers are attacked with what is in essence a sonic-plexus disruptor or some kind of sonar thing in the church where the kids are hiding in is the best scene of the movie, in tension and editing and everything).  But at the same time it takes too long to get what it's really about, the meat under everything that it's hinting at.  Even as a stand-alone film I'd still have questions, even as, again, it's difficult, especially if you watch it so soon after the first movie, that it would have SOME connection to that movie.  I hasten to say the producers used just some elements and slapped together their own movie, but maybe that's it.

If I sound harsher about it than it deserves, it's due to how good the first movie is, and what a concept this presents us with.  I'd love to see someone possibly make a a version of this story one day from the kid's point of view - maybe it could take the tact of Last Temptation of Christ.  We assume that the kids are still, whether they're alien or super-advanced human or not, half human, and thus they have that property of being a super-being but having the heart and soul of homo sapiens.  What kind of burden that must be on a child!  What if you could look at that dramatically speaking?  Or... maybe I'd be sucking the horror out of that as well.  This is a good, unique little series that has some elements of a 'Body Snatchers' motif, but uses society and how adults view children (and the collective-hive mindset in general in societies) in a clever way.

But the solution for these kids.... PUT THEM IN THE IRON MAIDEN!

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