#26: These Are The Damned


1964

Director:  Joseph Losey

Cast:  Macdonald Carey, Shirley Anne Field, Oliver Reed

Introduction     Plot Summary     Impressions     Wrap-up

My rating:  Class B (2/7, very hot blue-white star).  Hammer Films, the legendary British horror studio, does science fiction, and they throw in Oliver Reed, Macdonald Carey, a blacklisted American director, and a mix of avant-garde sculpture and jazz-rock.  How could this one go wrong?  It’s fun and well worth a look, though it’s also a tad slow and definitely a downer of a plot…

Introduction

Ah, Hammer Films.  No one who pays attention to the history of cinema can fail to give Hammer a special place, and the studio certainly earned it.  Its notable films include The Quatermass Experiment, The Curse of Frankenstein, the 1958 Dracula, The Mummy, and a host of sequels.  In other words, Hammer Films is a giant in the horror genre, and substantially influenced the cultural milieu.

So what happens when Hammer turns its attention to a serious science fiction story embodied in the novel The Children of Light?  And throws in, of all things, Macdonald Carey—the man who played patriarch Tom Horton on Days of Our Lives for over thirty years—and Oliver Reed—the burly, hard-drinking tough guy who starred in an unbelievable number of movies from the late 1950s into 1990?  And then, as if that wasn’t enough, selects a McCarthy-era blacklisted American to direct the project?  The result is an angry movie with a dual storyline which has three groups of characters colliding and interacting, as well as more than a little topical relevance.

People often comment on the movie as being somehow derivative of, or owing something to, Village of the Damned on the one hand and A Clockwork Orange on the other.  It would be a mistake to do either, as this movie is far more than a horror story about xenogenesis or social commentary about violence.  And of course the movie was filmed before Anthony Burgess wrote A Clockwork Orange, and long before it was turned into a movie.

The movie was not without troubles, though.  It took two years before it was released in England, with nine minutes cut.  Politics may have been responsible for the delay and the cuts.  An additional two years elapsed before it debuted in the United States, and the film screened at that time had another ten minutes cut out of it—much of it the philosophy espoused by some of the characters.  The 2010 DVD release, however, restored the film to its former glory and delighted audiences, gaining a cult following.

The movie is not for everyone, mind you.  It’s slow, dark and somber, with disquieting themes.  It leaves the viewer with a lingering sensation that the bad guys win—though there aren’t many good guys in the movie, either.

Plot

Short summary:  Boy meets girl.  Girl gets boy mugged by her gang.  Girl comes back to boy.  Boy rescues girl from the gang.  Gang chases boy and girl.  Boy and girl wind up meeting a group of mysterious children who live underground in a secret research complex.  Gang leader finds them.  Boy decides to rescue the children from their situation.  The military recaptures the children, but permits boy and girl to leave.  The children are returned to their underground complex.  The day is decidedly not saved, though perhaps the best possible outcome for most characters is achieved.

Impressions

The film opens with a nifty little song called “Black Leather Rock,” and it really serves to illustrate some of the nicest things about the movie.  Don’t believe me?  Watch it for yourself:

Pounding drums…screaming saxophone…quaint sea-side English town…attractive young woman…you see what I mean by style?

Visually the film is marked by the extraordinary scenery of the village of Weymouth.  Weymouth is a real English town, located at the mouth of the Wey river (hence the name) on the southwest coast of England.  It’s a tourist resort, and has been for something on the order of two or three hundred years now.  The movie makes the most of the really quite stunning town, an amazing setting for such a dark film.  It also shows the forbidding cliffs and the cold English sea to advantage.

The movie also uses the character Freya’s art to help establish tone and mood, and the sculptures—real works of art by the English sculptress Elisabeth Frink, who lived near Weymouth for the last sixteen years of her life—are striking.  Frink was described in her obituary as having been interested in “the divine in Man.”  The sculptures in the movie, though, are rough and dark, with lines that convey pain and something quite different from the divine.  At least one critic noted that the figures reminded him of the victims of the atomic bomb blasts in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which may well have been influenced by the ultimate nature of the children in the movie.

There’s one place where the movie falls a little flat visually, and it’s when Joan and Simon are on Simon’s boat.  Obviously done on a green screen instead of a real boat, the horizon’s motion doesn’t match that of the characters, and there is a visible edge to the characters against the background of the sea itself.  All things considered, it’s a rather minor detail, but it does serve to bring home the idea that Losey accomplished a striking vision with a rather small budget.

Musically, the film score can’t really hold a candle to the opening, but even “Black Leather Rock” would pale after a while.  The movie does something interesting, though:  after opening with a haunting flute-like song which segues into “Black Leather Rock” and uses a jazzy number when Freya arrives, the soundtrack drops the music altogether.  For the majority of the film, some eighty minutes or so, the movie relies on non-musical sound, dialogue and imagery to establish tone and mood, with very few exceptions.

The actors all turn in believable performances, and the developing relationship between Carey’s Simon Wells and Field’s Joan is fascinating in its own right.  Joan is in many ways the linch-pin of the film.  She’s a street kid—though one of the best-dressed gang members I’ve ever seen, and maybe that’s because it’s England in the 1960s—locked in a dysfunctional relationship with her brother King, the leader of the gang.  The whole situation comes about because Joan dares to attempt an escape from King’s domination, to reach for a normal life, and Simon is kind enough to try to rescue her.  While arguably one of the weaker performances, Field nevertheless delivers the goods, and her character really shines when she’s interacting with the children.

Carey’s Simon is in some ways a typical do-gooder.  A former insurance salesman who abandons his old life in the wake of a divorce, Simon stumbles across a damsel in distress and then upon nine children in distress.  Make no mistake—his original motivation regarding Joan is nothing if not selfish—but as soon as he sees her as a real person, he warms and takes up the role of knight-errant.  He’s got nothing and no one to stop him from trying to help the people he encounters, and he brings an intensity to the role which subtly drives the film forward.  Carey believably portrays a somewhat impulsive everyman who is bound and determined to do the right thing.

There is a distinctive lack of chemistry between Simon and Joan, by the way, but it feels like it’s a deliberate choice by director Losey.  This isn’t a match made in heaven; it’s a mismatch straight out of a much darker place, with no possible positive ending…

Reed does a very nice job as the jacketed (again, 1960s England) but thuggish King.  His character is in full command until he leaves his safe, comfortable world with his supporting gang members, and then—like a fish out of water—he seems to lose his way and merely follows Simon’s lead until he is confronted by something he knows: military police trying to capture him.  Then his selfish and criminal nature reasserts itself.  Reed plays the character’s turns quite well, and he’s believably nasty.

Viveca Lindfors, who plays the sculptress Freya Neilson, turns in a wonderfully eccentric performance.  The character is a Swedish artist, giving her an aura of mystery, but the character is a lot of fun to watch and Lindfors clearly pulls out all the stops and cranks the volume up to 11 on her performance.  She also gives one of the movie’s few glimpses of light in an otherwise rather depressing and pessimistic story.

Thematically, the movie is a bit of a wash.  It deals with, but provides no answers to, a couple of social ills.  Brace yourself, because it’s spoiler time, and it’s not very pretty.

First up, the problem of the delinquent “Black Leather” gang.  They’re violent and they reject the norms and laws of society.  The beating they dish out to Simon in the opening minutes of the film is brutal and senseless; they spend the stolen money in an arcade.  And it’s no accident that Bernard, the scientist running the secret project, is followed around by his own uniformed goons, or that the street gang marches in time and cadence:  the parallels between the street gang and the military are deliberate and are intended to demonstrate that the gang merely reflects society, as well as to tie the various themes together.  The street gang’s senseless violence also foreshadows the violence which will be meted out by Bernard and his cronies.

The relationship between King and Joan is even more disturbing.  King is a virgin who becomes insanely angry every time Joan looks at another man, or another man looks at her.  There’s something seriously wrong on the streets of Weymouth, and it appears to involve a repressed incestuous control-freak thing.  King’s brutality toward Simon is driven, in part, by his feelings for his sister.  The film doesn’t offer any full explanations for King’s oddities, and in some ways it’s a character quirk intended to drive the plot—it gives Joan a reason to fear King and to attempt to escape his control.

Bernard, the scientist who rules the top secret project, ardently believes that mankind and society are doomed.  His position is that mankind has weapons of terrible destructive power, and that sooner or later, accidentally or intentionally, we will use them, and thereby render the Earth an uninhabitable radioactive wasteland.  Freya—who rents a remote seaside cottage from him, and who seems to be his mistress or lover—espouses a much more hopeful view of the future (even though her sculptures are dark and foreboding).  Their contrasts—he authoritarian and establishment, she the opposite—are critically important to the movie.  Simon and Joan don’t express similar sentiments, but their actions suggest that they, too, are in the Freya camp.

One of the more interesting scenes in the movie takes place when King arrives at Freya’s cottage and studio in search of Simon and Joan.  Simon and Joan are gone by then, but Freya is back, and the two have a disturbing, near violent encounter.  King smashes one of Freya’s sculptures, and says he enjoyed doing it, but a tear runs down his face as he makes the statement.

The mystery of the children—who are cold to the touch, and kept in an underground complex—is gradually revealed: they are radioactive.  Spend too much time in their presence, and a normal person will die.  Bernard interacts with the children through two-way television cameras, and his staff only ventures into the children’s complex when dressed in haz-mat suits.  Bernard has a plan for these children, though, as they will repopulate the earth after the (to his way of thinking) inevitable nuclear war.  The children don’t know that, though, and they don’t even realize that they are dangerous.  Bernard consistently tells the children that he’ll explain everything when they’re older and they can understand it.

On the other hand, Bernard admits to Freya that he would create more of the radioactive children if he could, as they are the only people who can survive “when the time comes.”  Bernard kills Freya to keep the secret, and permits the dying Simon and Joan to leave, knowing that they would soon die from radiation poisoning.

Bernard is driven by both his nihilistic viewpoint and, believe it or not, genuine kindness for the children.  He can’t cure them, so all he can do is to either kill them or to keep them away from the rest of humanity.  Secrecy is part of the children’s protection—though it’s also part of Bernard’s plan to save humanity.  It is the breach of that secrecy which leads to the tragic consequences of the film, and how the children learn that they are the damned of the film’s title.

Wrap-up

Complex and moving, These Are The Damned is a study in parallels and contrasts.  Its meanings are layered and I suspect that it would repay a second viewing with greater insight.  But it’s also a bleak and sad film which harnesses disturbing imagery which may haunt me for a while.  That said, it’s a powerful experience which actually improves as you think about the movie (I initially intended to rate the movie as a class F, but upgraded my rating the more I thought about the movie).  If you’re in the mood for something sad and thought-provoking, this little gem may be right up your alley.

If that’s not your cup of tea, this is one you might want to avoid…

Other Blog Entries and Reviews:

The Movie Projector review
1000 Misspent Hours review
Eccentric Cinema review
DVD Savant review
WTF Film review

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2 Responses to “#26: These Are The Damned”

  1. Awesome writing style!

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