Damned if You Do, Damned if You Don’t – By Philip Smolen

Speaking as a father, kids can sometimes seem like they’re from another planet. You can talk to them in a calm logical tone of voice and coolly explain to them why they should do something a certain way. They’ll look at you, nod their head and then proceed to complete the project in a totally roundabout, illogical fashion. And when you ask them why they did it that way, they look at you and innocently say “I don’t know.” Kids are ruled by their emotions. This is because they just haven’t lived long enough and their logical processes aren’t completely developed. And as an adult, you realize this and understand that this is the way they are and it’s one of the things that makes them special.

But back in the 1960s, two British studios went against this traditional observation and released three unique sci-fi movies that featured strange intelligent children. The first caused a sensation when it was released and was very popular with film audiences and the publicity and word of mouth grew so strong that the Catholic Church even felt compelled to protect their flock by condemning the film as “morally objectionable” (I always loved that description!). The first unofficial sequel was made a year later by a well known director and a famous horror studio, but the film was taken away from him by the studio and its release was delayed. The third film was released in the U.S. before the second made its way here. But all three of them were smart, thought-provoking and way ahead of the sci-fi curve. I am, of course, talking about the trio of “Damned” movies released between 1960 and 1965. So this month, let’s take a quick trip back to the glorious black and white days of cinema and examine three uber cool flicks that presented a unique sci-fi menace.

1. VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (Metro Goldwyn Mayer [UK] – 1960) Director: Wolf Rilla

The quiet English village of Midwich holds a terrible secret. A recent unusual phenomenon knocked all inhabitants unconscious for a period of four hours. People and authorities from outside the village are unable to enter the town without also passing out. After four hours everyone in the town recovers and life goes back to normal. Shortly after the incident, all town women capable of bearing children find themselves pregnant. They give birth (all on the same night) to a strange brood of emotionless, blond haired children (12 in all) who show remarkable intelligence, advanced development with one unified mind among them. Any attempt by an individual (even their parents) to hurt these children or keep them apart results in that person injuring or killing them self while these bizarre children look on (with glowing eyes). It’s up to resident scientist Gordon Zellaby (George Sanders) to discover the truth. What he suspects is that these children are the result of impregnation from an unknown alien species!  And what happened in Midwich has also happened in other parts of the world. The children trust Gordon, and he hopes to teach them human ethics and morality. But after a time, Gordon realizes that these weird children will soon be able to multiply which may jeopardize all of humanity. Gordon then plans a desperate attempt to silence these glowing eyed creatures forever.

“Village of the Dammed” was a very controversial film upon its release in 1960. Made by the small British branch of MGM, the film was unceremoniously dumped on the American film market when MGM lost confidence in it.  Condemned by the Catholic Church (because of the Immaculate Conception theme) the film was still an instant success and spawned several sequels. It’s an intelligent and daring film which raises the question of what is the greater evil: is it the alien force for impregnating the women of Midwich against their will or is it the human race for being unable to accept this new breed of human?  Another of the film’s strengths is the look of the hybrid children. All of them are blonde haired and dark eyed which gives them a genuinely chilling appearance. They speak through Gordon’s son David (Martin Stephens) which adds to their overall weirdness. The final menacing touch is their glowing eyes which were designed by special effects man Tom Howard (Tom Thumb, Gorgo). The effect is haunting and creepy, and Rilla doesn’t overuse it. Special mention also has to go to George Sanders who gives a wonderful performance as David’s father. It’s clear that he’s amazed at the intelligence these children possess, but also frightened at what their continued existence could mean for the human race. Based on John Wyndham’s novel “The Midwich Cuckoos”, Village of the Damned remains an unnerving alien invasion film of the first order.

Quotable Movie Line: “I’m afraid that there have been grave developments. The Russian army group in the western Urals is equipped with a new type of gun. It can project a shell up to 60 miles, an atomic shell. Apparently they tried it out yesterday on the village of Raminsk where their children live. The village of Raminsk no longer exists.”

2. THESE ARE THE DAMNED (Hammer Films [UK] – 1961, 1963; Columbia Pictures [US] – 1965) Director: Joseph Losey

While on vacation in London, American Simon Wells (MacDonald Carey) tries to pick up pretty Joan (the wonderful Shirley Anne Field), not realizing that she’s the lure for a group of ‘Teddy Boys’ led by Joan’s brother King (Oliver Reed). The group beats Simon up and steals his money. Later, Joan goes back to apologize to Simon, but King (who has incestuous feelings for Joan) follows. Simon and Joan flee in Simon’s boat and later dock at a rocky shoreline that houses a sinister government installation. Simon and Joan (and later King) go into a cave and are taken in by a group of children who are cold to the touch. Later they find out that a vicious government man named Bernard (Alexander Knox) is conducting a heinous experiment and exposing the children to increased amounts of radiation so that they can survive a nuclear war. Simon, Joan and King try to escape with the children, but not before the adults have absorbed a fatal dose of radiation. The kids are recaptured and King is killed when his car goes over a bridge. Simon and Joan manage to get back to Simon’s boat and attempt to flee. And as they escape, they hear the children’s continued haunted cries for help.

I first saw this film during its brief US theatrical run in 1965 and I was blown away by it. “These are the Damned” is one of the most powerful and nihilistic sci-fi films of the decade and I wasn’t prepared for a movie that examines the government’s cold black heart. Even now, it still gives me a chill whenever I watch it. The idea that a government is willing to irradiate their children in order to win a nuclear war is absolutely terrifying. What ratchets up the terror for me even more is how cold and blasé Bernard and his group are about the children. Listening to them dispassionately discuss what’s going on with the kids, it’s almost as if they are talking about pieces of equipment rather than human beings.

“These are the Damned” was a very troubled production. Veteran director Joseph Losey made a powerful anti-war sci-fi film, but one that Hammer Chairman of the Board James Carreras didn’t understand. So Carreras heavily edited the film (it was originally 100 minutes long) and he wouldn’t release it until two years after it was completed. Then, when Columbia Pictures, who had provided the funding for it, saw it, they were enraged and edited it even further and didn’t release it in America until 1965. But, looking back now more than 50 years after the film’s release, it’s amazing to find a sci-fi film from the 1960s that is filled with such depth, intelligence and passion. While not associated with the two MGM “Damned” films, (I’m sure James Carreras just wanted to glom on to the popularity of “Village of the Damned”, so he made sure to use the word in the title), “These are the Damned” is a classic sci-fi movie that probes a very disturbing subject. It’s a milestone in fantastic filmmaking.

Quotable Movie Line: “What Earth, Bernard? What Earth will you leave them? After all that man has made, and still has to make. Is this the extent of your dream; to set nine ice-cold children free in the ashes of the universe?”

3. CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED (MGM [UK] – 1963; MGM [US] – 1964) Director: Anton M. Leader

 In London, a strange group of six intelligent children are born. Ostracized by their parents and peers, the children possess remarkable intellectual capacity as well as the ability to force others to do their bidding. Slowly, the six become psychically aware of each other and are drawn together in an old abandoned church. Once they are together, they all develop the ability to know what all of the others are doing and thinking. Trying to help them is British scientist Tom Llewellyn (Ian Hendry) who is convinced that the children are not aliens, but represent a leap forward in man’s evolution. However, after the children cause a few deaths (to people who want to hurt them), they are deemed a menace and surrounded by the authorities. Tensions mount as the authorities are worried that the children’s’ minds will become too powerful. Top scientists from around the world try to talk to the children, but an unfortunate event seals the tykes’ doom and they are destroyed by the army.

The only official sequel to “Village of the Damned”, “Children of the Damned” was summarily dismissed by critics when it was first released. But there is much to admire here. First and foremost is the intelligent screenplay by Jack Briley which juxtaposes the fear and misgivings of those in charge with the desire of Hendry and his fellow scientists to learn as much as they can from the children. They are sure that these kids represent a leap forward in man’s ability and that they can show their elders a way to end all wars. The weak minded government officials and military higher ups are afraid of losing their grip of power and so mistrust whatever the children say. Another ironic aspect that I like is that the children seek solace from human kind in an abandoned church (where sanctuary was first recognized). The fact that the church is broken down and decrepit echoes the hopelessness of such a concept.

The film also features a stellar British cast including Ian Hendry, Alan Badel, Patrick Wymark and George Coulouris. They bring typical gravitas to their roles. And just as in “Village of the Damned”, legendary special effects man Tom Howard successfully uses the glowing eye effect whenever the children use their awesome power. While the film isn’t as groundbreaking as “Village of the Damned”, “Children of the Damned” is a fine sequel and touches on some haunting sci-fi themes.

Quotable Movie Line: “They’re after you and you won’t get away. They’re stronger than I am. I hate you. I want you to suffer the way you made me suffer. I should have crushed you to death the first moment I held you to my breast. They’ll get you now and I’ll help. I’ll do everything I can to help!”

Of course, innovative films bring a flood of imitators and it wasn’t long after these films were released that a lot of other movies with strange kids were released (see below for a partial list). And that concept has continued to this day. It seems like film producers never get tired of including strange children in their films. And moviegoers never seem to get tired of watching them!

Additional Movies With Killer Kids

1. The Bad Seed (1956)
2. The Brood (1979).  
3. The Children (1980)
4. Children of the Corn (1984)
5. Island of the Damned (1976)
6. It’s Alive (1976)
7. It Lives Again (1978)
8. The Omen (1976)
9. The Other (1972)
10. Spider Baby (1964)
11. Village of the Damned (1995)
12. Wicked Little Things (2006)

Selected References

Meikle, Denis. A History of Horrors: The Rise and Fall of the House of Hammer. Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press, Inc. 2009.

Senn, Bryan and Johnson, John. Fantastic Cinema Subject Guide. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc. 1992.

Smith, Gary A. Uneasy Dreams: The Golden Age of British Horror Films, 1956-1976. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc. 2000.

Warren, Bill. Keep Watching the Skies: American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties. The 21st Century Edition. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc. 2010.