Now that we take up Village of the Damned from 1960, (requested by Laura of Who Can Turn the World Off With Her Smile?) can we agree to agree on something beforehand? You can call it a science fiction movie, you can call it a horror movie, you can call it an allegory, but here at the Siren’s place, let’s face it, Village of the Damned is one thing above all. It’s a George Sanders movie. As such, it has several things that one expects, such as dry line deliveries, well-cut suits, occasional cocked eyebrows, and George doing his secondary type of role, after all-around cad--that of somewhat effete intellectual.
It also has some things you don’t expect from Sanders, such as him going dewy over his wife’s pregnancy, interaction with a child that doesn’t involve (as Kim Morgan once suggested) snapping “you’re too short for that gesture,” and most startling of all, Sanders fainting in his very first scene. A swoon by George Sanders, the King of Unflappable? It’s like confronting an opening in which Lee Marvin folds cloth napkins.
Village of the Damned, filmed in glorious black-and-white by DP Geoffrey Faithfull, is set in a bucolic, out-of-the-way English village, at first so postcardish you half-expect Margaret Rutherford to swing by on her bicycle, but later darker, dingier. The opening has a fairy-tale hook, as Gordon Zellaby (our George) is on a phone call with his brother-in-law Alan (Michael Gwynn), a military officer, and faints dead away. But it isn’t just Gordon, it’s the whole village out cold. Eventually they come to, and things seem to return to normal. Except that suddenly, every woman in the village of childbearing age falls pregnant (a wonderful British idiom that suggests causes both active and passive).
In the course of a few short months, the women give birth at the same time, and before you know it, the kids are growing up at a decidedly inhuman pace. The children are blonde, hyperintelligent and preternaturally adult. The authorities suspect something is up and want to deal with the children en masse. But Sanders, a professor whose beautiful wife is one of the ones who’s given birth, is adamant that the children should be left alone so they can be observed. He even volunteers to teach the little darlings himself in a one-room schoolhouse, like some horror nerd’s idea of a Laura Ingalls Wilder book. Leaving the creatures alone turns out to be as lousy an idea as it was in The Thing From Another World, if not quite as spectacularly ill-judged as in Alien.
Here’s something to ponder--why do scientists so frequently get it in the neck from science fiction? By which the Siren means, for example, movies where the man (or woman) of action looks at the alien, and its dripping fangs, and the way it’s casually fiddling with the radio buttons in order to scramble communications with the Air Force, and the man (or woman) of action sensibly suggests blasting the thing. But the scientist is all, “No, we have to study it! We need to make friends! Just hold out your hand and let him sniff it!” The Siren would attribute this theme to the Cold War anxiety that gives so much classic sci-fi its subtext, but it crops up in later entries too. She thinks a thread common to many science fiction movies is, ironically, deep fear of science. (One great science-fiction movie that’s about embracing science? Close Encounters. It’s unusual in that regard.)
Sanders is well-suited to a part that shows scientific curiosity killing the cat, and, unexpectedly, he tethers his performance to domestic emotions he rarely shows in other movies. Sanders reacts to becoming an expectant papa as a cerebral man experiencing one of life’s elemental joys. He doesn’t have sexual chemistry with the gorgeous Barbara Shelley, who’s playing his wife, but such is the age difference you might not buy that anyway. Instead, his eyes follow her as if he can’t believe his luck, and you feel for him keenly when he realizes her pregnancy wasn’t luck at all. When Sanders proposes to teach the children himself, it’s the act of a man who’s been burned by domestic emotion, going back to the sphere where he always felt more at ease, anyway. It makes his final act all the more poignant.
"People always ask how did I get such good performances out of you lot. Simple--I asked you to do nothing except be still and stare. Children fidget and I wanted you all to be absolutely still and steady and just stare. Very unchildlike, and, of course, very unsettling."
--Director Wolf Rilla addresses the youngest members of his Village of the Damned cast for a reunion on the U.K.’s Radio 4 in 2003; quoted in The Guardian, 12/4/03
What the Siren really liked about Village of the Damned, aside from the star, was the way an alien invasion was integrated into ordinary middle-class anxieties. There’s the fact, first of all, that the aliens invade wombs, not airspace. That opening is weirdly sexy--the men are out for the count, but what are the women experiencing? Apparently they don’t remember a thing, which is too bad for us as viewers; surely the Siren can’t be the only one dirty-minded enough to wonder about cross-galaxy mating. (Then again, if alien sex turned out to be like Demon Seed, an interesting movie that didn’t quite make the Siren’s list, it’s all for the best.) There’s a marvelously tense scene with a young girl going to her doctor, grappling with the calamity of an unwed pregnancy in 1960, and trying to explain that she didn’t even do anything to get herself in this state. The anxieties of the men, whether it’s one deluded enough to think he’s the papa or one who's seethingly certain he isn’t, are also sharp and believable.
"I knew it was an unusual part. I quietly liked it...having these very adult qualities and having control over the adult. Imagine having that power--and I could taste a bit of that. You realise how powerless you are as a child. I don't think I found it too much of a stretch, that part!"
--Martin Stephens (David Zellaby), ibid.
And the children themselves, with their flaxen hair and glowing eyes, are there at least in part to confirm our suspicion that there is something more than slightly creepy about a perfectly composed, adult-acting child. They’re a bit like miniature Georges, with their ramrod posture and their grammar so perfect they even differentiate between “shall” and “will.” Of course, to this day, the children mostly remind people of quite another group, especially after we see one of them as a toddler, telepathically commanding his mother to dunk her hand in boiling water after she accidentally overheats his bottle, one of the few genuinely frightening moments in a movie that’s more about anxiety than primal terror.
"I don't think any of us were aware of it then, but of course now they remind you of the Hitler Youth, blond-haired Aryan children and all that. I'm convinced that was an unintentional subtext; after all, the war was still fresh in our memories. But none of us had any idea of the impact it would make."
What the Siren didn’t like about Village was the military; god they’re a bunch of stiffs, with their maps and their brow-furrowing, even more than usual in a science-fiction film where the fate of the planet winds up resting with a civilian. Despite the movie’s crisp 78-minute length, every time it veers back to a meeting room with a map or a great big table or a desk and a telephone, suspense withers and time turtles.
Thank goodness for George, as always, finally accepting the fact that his son is never going to be fellow academic material and may in fact do something frightful, like try to take over the planet. The final scene, with the children surrounding George in a grim parody of classroom dynamics, now goes into the Siren’s large mental file of favorite Sanders moments.