October Horrorshow: Village of the Damned (1995)

The October Horrorshow continues here on Missile Test with a film from the latter half of John Carpenter’s career. The man whose work has inspired no less than three remakes (with more on the way) was no stranger to remakes himself, having previously applied his unique talents to The Thing. More than a decade later, 1995 saw the release of Village of the Damned, a remake of the 1960 British production of the same name. Carpenter’s Village of the Damned is not that bad of a film, but it suffers from the same great flaw that typifies much of his work. That is, the ideas in the film are better than the execution. Carpenter flicks will get the gears turning, a good thing, but in Village of the Damned, like in They Live or even a classic such as Escape from New York, so much territory feels left unexplored.

Moving the action across the pond to rural California, Village of the Damned tells the story of the residents of the small town of Midwich after they collectively suffer an unexplained loss of consciousness lasting six hours. Later, it is discovered that ten of the residents of the town are pregnant, having conceived during the blackout. They all give birth on the same day, and the town welcomes a new batch of strange children into its midst.

As they develop from infancy into pre-pubescence, these children display bizarre and frightening behavior, characterized by advanced intelligence, telepathy, clairvoyance, and remote mind control. This has left the townsfolk at a decided disadvantage when it comes to living with these kids. The children have the ability to do and know just about anything they want, yet they have no more greater impulse control than a normal child. Woe be to anyone who crosses them, as more and more unfortunate residents of Midwich find out. Accidentally serve your freak child a bowl of soup that was too hot? Prepare to have your arm scalded in a pot of boiling water. Whack one of them in the head with a broomstick? Said broomstick will soon become piercingly familiar.

The presence of menacing characters such as this, and the fact the adults in the film are fully aware of their predicament, presents all sorts of possibilities when it comes to reconciling the children’s abilities with normal human society. How do you prepare a classroom full of potential supermen for lives as adults? How do you instill a sense of right and wrong, good and evil, or even the bedrock idea of civilization itself, empathy, on beings that seem to have no interest beyond their own secretive aims and agendas? Without the children caring anything at all for their hosts, yet wielding such power over them, how do you convince them that a moral life as we know it is anything less than slavery, a world where the children cannot, for the good of humanity, be themselves? The only way in which normal people can be safe around them is if the children pretend there is nothing different about them, no godlike talents, no willful vengeance. How do you teach them that there are such things as consequences, when they can never be held to account? In the end, all one can hope for is that the children choose to be merciful.

So, the ideas behind Village of the Damned are strong, and these are drawn from the source material on which this film and the original are based, The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham. Having never read the novel, I cannot speak to Wyndham’s effectiveness in exploring his themes, but I can speak to Carpenter’s.

The nature of the children is given short shrift in Village of the Damned. Rather than really digging into the material, Village is a collection of short set pieces designed to show that the children are evil, before the main characters finally step up and decide to put an end to all the shenanigans. There are lame attempts to give the children an otherworldly origin, but the vehicle for this information, Kirstie Alley (attempting to play a mysterious government scientist) gives too hammy of a performance to be credible. Also, Carpenter never effectively establishes that the government has an interest in the goings on in Midwich, something he shouldn’t have flubbed given his strong mistrust of authority. Alley is the preeminent watchdog for the Man in this film, but don’t expect the audience to buy that an endless stream of yellow cigarettes, a quote from Arthur Conan Doyle, and a baby blue 1994 Plymouth Acclaim equal X-Files weirdness (Alley had a driver open the backdoor for her on one of those things. Please. An airplane toilet has more legroom than an Acclaim’s backseat.).

There is an attempt made at knowing the children. They go to school, and the main protagonist of the film, Dr. Alan Chaffee (Christopher Reeve), is enlisted to teach them. This would have been the golden opportunity for the film to effectively show the ins and outs of the children, yet nothing comes out of it but another corpse, almost as if Carpenter shied away from the one solid chance he had to show depth in this film.

Besides that, Reeve was the best member of a cast which included Alley, Linda Kozlowski, Michael Paré (briefly), and Mark Hamill. The children were about what one would expect from children told to act cold and unemotional. They just haven’t had enough life sucked out of them yet by that age to pull it off. As hinted at above, Kirstie Alley was just dreadful in this film. There’s no way to soften this assessment. Reeve, however, was a pro. It’s easy to forget that while he was active his career was victim to typecasting, not lack of ability. Only when he was asked to perform acrobatic facial gesticulations of b-movie grandeur did things go wrong with his performance. Thankfully, that was at the end of the movie.

Village of the Damned is a far cry from Carpenter’s best efforts, but it’s still better than dreck like Prince of Darkness. That also means that Village of the Damned is a better film than Alien: Resurrection.