British sci-fi/horror classic "Village of the Damned" gets the Warner Archive treatment
BLU-RAY REVIEW / FRAME SHOTS
“VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED: WARNER ARCHIVE COLLECTION”
Blu-ray, DVD; 1960; unrated; Streaming via FandangoNOW, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
Best extra: A commentary by film historian and screenwriter Steve Haberman
MANY HORROR and sci-fi movies deal with women bearing children whose fathers are other than human. Sometimes the source is demonic, as with “Rosemary’s Baby,” “The Omen” and “The Seventh Sign.” Other times, the culprit is extra-terrestrial, such as in “Demon Seed,” “Aliens” and “Species II.” An example of the latter, and deservedly considered a black and white genre classic, is “Village of the Damned.”
Based on a popular 1957 science fiction novel by British writer John Wyndham, the story is set in a quiet little English village called Midwich. One sunny day, every living thing in the town mysteriously loses consciousness, for four hours. Soon after the village “awakens,” twelve women of childbearing age discover they’re pregnant, including Anthea (Barbara Shelley), the much younger wife of Prof. Gordon Zellaby (George Sanders).
The phenomenon is a happy surprise for them but causes shock and dismay for a chaste teenaged girl, and a woman whose husband just returned after a long absence. All twelve babies arrive gifted with uncanny intelligence, platinum blonde hair, and strange eyes. After several years, they prove to be telepathic, and with the power of their glowing eyes are able to compel people who wish them ill to harm themselves. Led by German director Wolf Rilla, the British MGM production is excellent and never gives in to the sort of camp, or cheap effects (with one exception) to which many low-budget horror and sci-fi movies of that era succumbed. In 1995, John Carpenter directed a color remake of “Village,” to tepid reviews.
This Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray looks simply terrific. The black and white cinematography, by British veteran Geoffrey Faithfull, has a fine-grained textured look. Details are extremely sharp, with deep blacks and bright whites set off by a variety of intermediate tones.
The mono soundtrack is also top notch. Dialogue is clear, sound effects realistic, and the subtle score, by Roy Goodwin (“Frenzy”) beautifully sets off the dramatic silences.
Haberman’s commentary is quite informative, save for his lapses into telling viewers what they’re seeing (for a second time). He offers fun trivia, such as a list of George Sanders’ wives, which includes two Gabor sisters, as well as what he wrote in his suicide note.
Haberman explains the meaning of “The Midwich Cuckoos,” the title of Wyndham’s novel. Cuckoos lay their eggs in other birds’ nests, which usually means destroying the ones that belonged there. Says Haberman, Wyndham “believed in H.G. Wells’ theory,” in which the writer introduces one fantasy element into a realistic setting, for the biggest impact.
Stirling Silliphant wrote the screenplay for “Village.” Silliphant was an American producer, as well as a screenwriter, who also wrote for such TV shows as “Naked City” and “Route 66.” He earned an Oscar for his work on “In the Heat of the Night.” Haberman relates MGM’s initial reluctance to produce “Village,” declaring it “anti-Catholic,” because one of those impregnated in Midwich is a 17-year-old virgin. Parallels to the immaculate conception were feared, despite the rather prudish mid-20th-century habit of never using words like “pregnant” or “virgin” in feature films. Even so, “Village” was still considered shocking by many, which explains MGM choosing to have it made by their British counterpart.
Haberman notes that one reason “Village” is so well regarded is the quality of the acting: “Character actors in England didn’t feel they were slumming by appearing in genre films.” Many were theatrically trained. “Village” almost didn’t get released, says Haberman, but once it was, it immediately became a critical and financial success.
— Peggy Earle