- Reverend George (Mark Hamill) discusses "the children" of Midwich in John Carpenter's Village of the Damned.
Over the last several weeks, a number of intrepid fellow bloggers have -- with great enthusiasm and meticulous attention -- excavated the controversial 1988-2001 span of John Carpenter’s directorial career.
I tackled Ghosts of Mars (2001) here on the blog. Joseph Maddrey wrote compellingly of his admiration and affection for Vampires (1998) at Maddrey Misc. Jim Blanton stepped up with a spirited defense of Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992) at his Fantasmo blog. And just yesterday, J.D. at Radiator Heaven offered a detailed retrospective of They Live (1988).
One effort not yet examined in detail during this online burst of renewed interest is John Carpenter’s remake of Village of the Damned (1995), a film was not particularly well-liked by critics, general audiences or Carpenter fans. In my less charitable moments, I have even suggested it is the weakest film in the director's canon. Writing for Critics Corner in 1995, Brandon Judell noted the film was "so bad, so unimaginative, so poorly directed, you end up gawking at the screen entranced." Entertainment Weekly noted the film's "made-for-cable" feel (EW #296, October 13, 1995, page 86).
Yet when I screened John Carpenter’s Village of the Damned a few weeks ago, I detected some intriguing qualities that I had missed in the past, and that had entirely escaped my attention in my earlier reviews of the film.
And although I don’t believe that -- by any means -- I’ve successfully unlocked the “key” to assessing John Carpenter’s Village of the Damned as a great or masterful work of cinema, I do feel that perhaps a few of these observations could at least open up a new discussion of the film’s virtues. The bottom line is that the film -- while battered by deficits on a number of fronts -- is better than I remembered it.
They Have the Look of Man, but Not the Spirit of Mankind: Something Strange is Happening in Midwich
John Carpenter’s Village of the Damned is a remake of the beloved 1960 black-and-white classic directed by Wolf Rilla (itself an adaptation of John Wyndham’s book: The Midwich Cuckoos). All three productions focus on children of extra-terrestrial origin, and the world's response to these changelings.
The J.C. film dramatizes the story of a sleepy town in scenic, quiet Southern California. On the day of the annual town picnic, something unseen and malicious moves quietly over the placid, wide-open skies of Midwich. The presence of this invisible interloper is just barely perceived by some locals, including Dr. Alan Chafee (Christopher Reeve). But -- by and large -- it remains undetected...moving on a secret agenda.
Then, at 10:00 am, the object strikes. Everyone within the town boundaries of Midwich falls inexplicably unconscious. When the citizenry spontaneously awakens at 4:00 pm, all the women of child-rearing age are…pregnant. Even the town virgin. Even the faithfully married woman whose husband (Peter Jason) has been away in Japan for several months.
Before long, a secretive employee of the United States Government, Dr. Verner (Kirstie Alley) arrives in Midwich and encourages the pregnant women to carry their babies to term with the promise of Federal funding.
The women – perhaps affected by alien brainwashing – keep the babies. We experience one of these possibly alien brainwashing dreams too: a strange vision of euphoric emotions and roiling storm clouds. The women are garbed in simple garments and they caress their abdomens with a sense of exaltation.
In nine months, the mystery children of Midwich are born, and though they initially appear human, the platinum-haired children possess a distinctive “hive” or group intelligence. They also lack all human emotions. Over the ensuing six or seven years, the children separate themselves from the human citizenry of Midwich (even their parents) and protect themselves from human interference with terrifying psycho-kinetic abilities. In short, these alien children can “persuade” the weak human mind to commit terrible acts of violence; acts including suicide. The townspeople come to hate the children, just as the children come to regard humans as inferiors.
Unfortunately, the children grow more powerful over time, led by Chafee’s icy daughter, Mara (Lindsey Haun). Sensing a losing battle, Dr. Verner finally reveals the childrens’ true alien nature to Chafee. Now their school teacher, Chafee attempts to destroy the emotionless alien progeny before their influence can spread beyond Midwich.
Only one of the children, named David (Thomas Dekker), seems to possess a human side. Perhaps this is so because his female “twin” or partner died in childbirth years earlier. That intense sense of loss has granted David a first-hand understanding of loneliness, and the human quality of “empathy.”
Hive Mind: One Size Fits All in This Village
There are many aspects of this particular Carpenter film that just don’t seem to work as well as they should; and these problems all stem from one particular creative decision: the apparent necessity of transplanting the events of the drama from an isolated, homogeneous English village in the 1960s to modern, diverse America in the 1990s. In other words, many of the problems exist at a script level; or at the level of intention.
For instance, in a small, isolated English community of decades past, it is possible to believe that all the villagers attend the same church, and are of the same religious persuasion. Somehow, we can accept the uniform nature of the indigenous population in that foreign, slightly timeless setting.
In John Carpenter’s Village of the Damned, however, there is just one church and one priest (played by an oddly-bitchy Mark Hamill) in Midwich, and all the new mothers without exception even attend the same “mass Baptism” service. This may sound like a small matter, but it means -- essentially -- that there are no Jews, no Muslims, and no Atheists in Midwich. Just Christians. And Christians of the same denomination, apparently.
Again, that just doesn’t quite ring true. I live in small town North Carolina, and all around me there are people of various colors, religions, and political beliefs. On a purely human level, would every mother and father involved agree to a mass baptism instead of an individual one?
I call this the “one-size fits all” dilemma, and it extends even beyond the film's central narrative to the very appearance of the children themselves. In the original film, the children wore relatively ascetic-looking clothing that was contextually accurate to a life in the 1960s (and in England). The clothing read to our eyes as “gray” or “black” because, simply, the film was shot in black-and-white. Again, there's a sort of timeless quality to it.
In John Carpenter’s Village of the Damned, the Midwich children – all from different families – universally wear similar gray clothes…but a color world surrounds them. I understand that the filmmakers were groping for an “equivalent” look to that which was utilized in the 1960s original, but it’s a “one size fits all” solution that doesn’t make sense on more than a surface level.
Are viewers to assume these children – at age 7 – have no older (human) half-brothers and sisters in their families, and therefore no hand-me-downs to wear? That the children shop at the nearest Gap, but that their parents only purchase slate-gray outfits for them? Even if the parents were forced to somehow purchase only gray clothes, it seems likely that someone might comment on this oddity. Do the children wear gray underclothes too? You could argue that there is a distinct leitmotif in the film concerning "eyes." It is the eyes which are the source of the alien power; and Mara and Chafee discuss eyes being "windows of the soul." Perhaps the gray clothes result from the fact that the children are color blind. That's a shot in the dark, however. The film does not establish that idea even indirectly. You get the feeling that this was a visual decision, to garb all the children in grays (in a color world), and it doesn't quite make logical sense.
That kind of unquestioned, “one size fits all” thinking is all over Village of the Damned. Take for instance, the impressive night-time shot of the caravan heading to the hospital. Car headlights stretch over the horizon as the delivery date finally arrives. Again, a beautiful composition and a great visual, but we are made to understand that the pregnant women deliver at exactly the same time on the same night.
I understand the women have been implanted by aliens, but the aliens are gestating inside the bodies of human women; and those human bodies are individual. Each one is unique. I assume that during their pregnancies, the mothers-to-be had different diets and different exercise regimes, for example.
Seems to me those factors would also determine how fast or how strongly the baby develops in each woman. Just like all the children wearing gray, or all the denizens of Midwich attending the same Church, this mass exodus to the hospital reeks of plot contrivance or convenience. On a simpler level, is it believable that every woman would still be living in the same town at delivery time, anyway? (Again, that could be a stipulation for the Federal funding, but that’s not established in the text of the film anywhere…)
And, as I belabored in my book, The Films of John Carpenter, the plot of Village of the Damned clearly encompasses several years. By my reckoning at least seven or eight years pass, considering the age of the children by the film’s climax. And yet there is no on-screen indication that time has passed for any characters other than the children. The Washington Post review picked up on this and noted that Carpenter shows "no grasp of character development, plot line or time passage," (Richard Harrington, The Washington Post, April 28, 1995).
Just think for a moment how greatly cars have changed from 2000 to 2008. Think of how different your street looks today than it did eight years ago. Look in a mirror and judge yourself for a second: even the healthiest amongst us “ages” in eight years in a variety of ways and I’ll testify to this: having a baby ages you faster than any force in the world.
But seriously, fashions change, hair-cuts change, people move from one home to another, and people gain weight over the years. Yet, Village of the Damned skips over seven or eight years in the blink of an eye, and adult characters don’t change at all. Not what they wear; not how they style their hair; nothing!
For once in a Carpenter film, the action scenes aren’t particularly well-handled either. They come across as minor and not particularly scary. One character is injured when she is forced to squeeze painful medical drops into her eyes.
That incident may have read as dramatic on the page, but on the screen it just seems, well…silly.
Some of the pacing seems off too. Carpenter does well with the film’s climax: with Chafee blocking his thoughts (with images of a brick wall…) from the children; even as a bomb ticks down to destruction. But the scene leading up to that finale -- a sustained assault on the children by local police and a helicopter --seems entirely unnecessary. For one thing, we know the government is going to bomb the dickens out of Midwich anyway (because that’s what they did with the other “colonies"), so why bother to send police forces in on the ground where they’ll just be cannon fodder? For another thing, how do the children make a helicopter pilot (at night, no less) crash his chopper? Another moment, involving Midwich-ers of the 1990s spontaneously taking up torches (!) on Main Street also seems very off. Torches? Really? In 1995 America?
Village of the Damned fails because of the relentless accumulation of little things like these aforementioned points. By itself, not one of these issues is enough to scuttle the film. But taken in combination, the film seems slap-dash; careless. Writing in Magill's Cinema Annual of 1996, Kirby Tepper noted that while Village of the Damned was well-intentioned, something was missing. He called the film "a bit shallow," and noted that the "lack of depth in the film can be seen in its campy dialogue and its discrepancies." Although I disagree, to an extent on the comment about dialogue, I agree with the rest of that criticism. Something just feels...off.
Why Can’t We Just Live Together? Race Relations in America and in Midwich
On my first viewing, the most troublesome aspect of John Carpenter’s Village of the Damned was its apparent (and bland) passing-over of an important hot-button issue during the Age of Clinton: reproductive rights.
After all, Village of the Damned concerns women forcibly impregnated during an alien rape…who all decide to carry their pregnancies to term.
I just felt that the film left the whole issue of reproductive rights entirely unexcavated. When does society consider it right to “terminate” a pregnancy? Is life sacred, no matter what the origin? As I wrote in The Films of John Carpenter, I felt that the movie missed so many possibilities and opportunities by avoiding the issue of abortion all together.
Today, upon reading this complaint, I realize that I was reviewing the film I had expected and hoped for, rather than the film that was made. And that's not fair. I was wearing blinders. It wasn’t the first time, and it likely won’t be the last time, either. But I can see now that I made a mistake.
John Carpenter’s Village of the Damned does indeed concern a hot-button issue of the 1990s, but it isn’t reproductive rights. Rather, it is race relations. This is entirely appropriate given some of the startling events of the decade.
On March 3, 1991, for instance, a twenty-five year old black man, Rodney King, was stopped by officers of the LAPD for speeding while attempting to dodge a traffic ticket. The policemen beat Mr. King so savagely that one eye socket was shattered, one leg was broken, a cheekbone was fractured, and some of his fillings were knocked loose from his teeth.
Soon after the event, CNN re-played the amateur videotaping of that beating around the clock. When a poll was conducted about the incident, some 92% of Los Angeles residents believed that the very men sworn to protect and serve the community had utilized excessive force on this occasion. Frankly, it was hard to see it otherwise: King was outnumbered by the police, and didn’t seem to be putting up much by way of resistance. And certainly not after the beating began. Yet on April 29, 1992, the four police officers most deeply-involved in the beating of Rodney King were acquitted of all wrong doing by a jury of peers. As a result, Los Angeles…exploded.
A riot ensued on April 29, 1992 – the worst in American history -- in which 3800 buildings were vandalized, thousands of buildings were burned, and property damage spiraled to a cost of one billion dollars. Fifty-three people were killed. On TV, we saw looters and…worse. We saw a white trucker, Reginald Denny, pulled from his cab and attacked on live television. But whites weren’t the only victims of the riot: 60% of the buildings destroyed in the Los Angeles riots belonged to Korean-Americans.
So it wasn’t just the King verdict that had sparked this conflagration. Something else had been unleashed. Hatred begat hatred, begat hatred, again and again, across the diverse population of Los Angeles. A shaken Rodney King timidly went before a camera crew in an attempt to stop the violence.
He famously asked: "Can we get along? Can we stop making it, making it horrible for the older people and the kids?...It’s just not right. It’s not right."
That question -- "can we get along?" -- is the very question that appears to underline Village of the Damned, produced just two years after the L.A. riots. Late in the film, a character involved in the racially-charged battle between the alien children and defensive mankind asks - in a clear echo of King's appeal - “Why can’t we just live together?”
Examine the scenario closely, and you can detect how this remake involves two races in one society jockeying for superiority...and survival. Even young David feels intense race-based pressure to conform to his kind, to side with, essentially, his “skin color.” Meanwhile, t
By contrast, the minority (the alien children) views the same battle not in terms of “hate” but rather as a “biological imperative,” a stand for their own culture; which is in danger of being either assimilated or destroyed by the larger, more powerful culture.
In the end, standing between these two entrenched racial viewpoints is -- literally -- a brick wall that seemingly cannot be breached. Chafee talks about competition vs. cooperation, and the superiority of human emotions, but even he is not impartial in his judgment. His prejudices are already set in stone. Mara – the leader of the children – calls him “a prisoner of his values.” She is thus arguing for a progressive cause: an acceptance of a new viewpoint outside that which is traditional and known.
The children (violently) stand up for their way of life (“there are going to be changes...”) while the adults of Midwich attempt to kill or bully them. Religion turns them into a convenient scapegoat, and the Reverend of Midwich compares them to devils, or demons. George Buck Flower, appearing in a cameo, attempts to frighten and intimidate the children, telling them directly, “you ain’t right!” The children fight back with lethal, ugly, force.
Viewed in terms of “race” relations, one can start to see how some of Village of the Damned's apparent weaknesses start to be mitigated, at least a little. It even seems necessary that the adults are treated in as monolithic a fashion as the children (as merely humans, rather than as Catholics, atheists, Jews, liberals or conservatives) because every little difference begins to take away from the central metaphor. It is much more important to see the battle as being between humans on one side and the children on the other.
Even the distinguishing features of the aliens – those trademark gray clothes and bad platinum wigs – visually characterize the race “differences” we are meant to note . And the lethargic, overlong police attack on the children? In some way that too reflects the specifics of a race war: the law enforcement arm of the Majority has come to wipe out the minority. It’s Rodney King all over again, only here Rodney King is telekinetic, mad and quite capable of defending himself. And when the children riot, it is bloody...
And consider this too…perhaps the townspeople of Midwich are picking up those objectionable torches, willy-nilly, because they’re going to a “high-tech” genre lynching (President Bush Sr.'s description of another racially-tinged event of the 1990s: the 1991 confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas). . The image of the torch is resonant in American history, and consistent with the overall racial motif. The torch explicitly reminds one of a KKK rally, or some such thing: of a mad mob out to destroy the reviled “other,” the “outsider” living in “our town.”
Although many townspeople and the Children die in the film, Village of the Damned is not without hope on the subject of race relations. David shows the capacity for love and other “human emotions” and is thus a bridge between man and alien...the hope for the future. Interestingly, he character of David was not featured in the original film, and therefore one must conclude that hw was added here -- in a turbulent time -- so as to show that a peace was possible between the races; that race different need not necessarily end in riot, death or assimilation.
Maybe all the awkward, weird elements of Village of the Damned actually further the film’s leitmotif of a looming race war; of race intolerance and hatred in America.
We Have Become Accustomed to the Power of Science
Nearly all of John Carpenter’s films feature some strong anti-authoritarian message. Prince of Darkness and Vampires take aim at the Catholic Church. Escape from L.A. and They Live go after the Republican Party, and even Halloween exposes “holes” in our apparently safe infrastructure (law enforcement, medicine, parents, psychology…).
Village of the Damned is no different, but here the target of Carpenter’s maverick streak seems to be irresponsible, grasping science.
It is irresponsible science that allows the alien children to grow inside human women, out of “curiosity.” It is irresponsible science (represented by Alley's Verner) that keeps the secret of the aliens for so long, from the affected populace. It is alien science, of course, responsible for the strangest experimentation of all: the implantation of alien embryos into human wombs.
This anti-science message was part and parcel of the 1990s too. The X-Files (1993-2002) concerned, rather explicitly, alien experiments involving human gestation (in episodes such as "The Beginning" and in the first feature film, Fight The Future). Episodes such as "Soft Light" revealed the danger of forward-pushing science carried too far too fast. This whole philosophy of "tampering in God's domain" again came into vogue because of rapid technological advances in the 1990s. This was the era that saw Big Blue beat a chess master, cloning become a reality, and the development of the human genome project. But what was the moral authority behind such science? If you reject the race war analysis of Village of the Damned, you might consider in its stead, the film as an anti-science screed, one concerning the danger of genetic experiments carried to – literally – Aryan ends (blond haired, physically-perfect white children are the result…). These Aryans wear uniforms (the gray outfits) that visually recall the uniformity of Hitler Youth. The children are also frighteningly dispassionate in the pursuit of their goals.
Sometimes Mysteries Don’t Get Solved
Village of the Damned is not a great film. However, like all works of art, it reflects the issues of its day (the mid 1990s), whether that issue is the blazing pace of scientific advancement or turbulent race relations. For me, the film has never quite worked as more than the sum of its parts; but studying it in terms of the race aspect has proven illuminating to me in the last week.
There is another facet of Village of the Damned I more thoroughly appreciate now than I did on original viewing: the visual component. In particular, the first half of Village of the Damned is very strong. The movie opens as an alien shadow goes by overhead, in a series of menacing aerial shots. On the soundtrack, we hear an inhuman whispering…like a storm is slowly building; like something is watching. Carpenter handles this section of the film deftly, generating a strong sense of paranoia and also voyeurism. The aliens are among us – chattering – but we don’t see them. In her review of the film, critic Janet Maslin praised Carpenter's staging of this opening, noting that Village of the Damned "has one of the eeriest opening sequences in horror history." (The New York Times, April 28, 1995).
Carpenter’s macabre sense of humor is also entirely intact here. One of my favorite moments the film involves the Midwich fellow cooking hot dogs at the Town Picnic. Last year he burned the hot dogs, goes the gossip. This year,however, he falls asleep on the grill during the time of the alien “black out” – and burns himself to a crisp. When the picnic-goers awake, Carpenter cuts to a shot of the grill and we see a smoking, flame-broiled human form splayed out there. This is wicked fun, pure and simple, and the kind of nightmarish vision we expect in a carefully-crafted Carpenter film.
Many Carpenter films look better across the passage of years, as the director’s neo-classic virtues stand out more and more from today's interchangeable, TV-style movies. Ultimately, I submit that is also the case for Village of the Damned. Carpenter’s skill behind the camera makes a difference, and elevates the film. In the final analysis, Village of the Damned may not be a good film. But thanks to Carpenter’s visual aplomb, it at least looks like a good film.
On some days -- or at least until Carpenter's next film is released -- that’s enough...