The British had been producing classy and intelligent science fiction films since the 1950s, namely Hammer's stabs at Nigel Kneale's Quatermass character and several others. But VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED was a product of major studio MGM who had their British unit make the film with a modest budget. Becoming one of the most popular movies of its type, it was tightly directed by German-born Wolf Rilla and cleverly adapted from John Wyndham's novel The Midwich Cuckoos by Rilla, producer Ronald Kinnoch (under his pen name George Barclay) and future Oscar winner Sterling Silliphant. But the talent in front of the cameras also greatly helped what made it the classic that it is, and a worthwhile sequel, CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED, followed in 1964. Now Warner Home Video has released the two as a "Horror Double Feature" DVD.
In VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED, the small English village of Midwich is subjected to a mass blackout where the entire population passes out for hours before regaining consciousness. The only result of the incident seems to be a rash of unexplained pregnancies which occur to the entire town's amazement. Twelve children are born after this incident--six blond-haired boys and six blond-haired girls, all rather Arian in appearance. One of the children, David (Martin Stephens) is the son of physicist Gordon Zellaby (George Sanders) and wife Anthea (Barbara Shelley), and appears to be their leader, and once of school age, the children soon set themselves apart from the rest of the village. While a conference of authorities tries to theorize what makes these super-intelligent, emotionless children what they are, Zellaby agrees to let the children live in a separate cottage, with him taking on the responsibility of schooling them. But danger brews all around, and in morbid acts of self defense, the children are responsible for a rash of suicides and unaccountable deaths.
The tense final confrontation between brave Zellaby (a wonderful performance by Sanders) and the children of the damned is one of the finest underplayed moments in horror/science fiction cinema. The telepathic children, with their glowing eyes and unpredictable behavior are highly memorable screen villains (especially Stephens, who re-dubbed his own high-pitched voice for an eerie effect) and have influenced numerous "killer kids" movies over the years. Hammer star Shelley is excellent as the mother who wants so desperately to share affection with her cold child, and fine support is given by Michael Gwynne (REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN) as the military man who makes a startling discovery, and Laurence Naismith as the local doctor who delivers the little devils. Wolf Rilla never directed a finer film, and its sometimes documentary style and effective black and white cinematography truly set a mood that's almost impossible to capture nowadays.
Since VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED was hit for MGM, CHILDREN OF DAMNMED was produced some years later. This follow-up does not have the same impact, but there is a loyal cult that subscribes to this being just as good, if not better than the original. Now, six children with "the eyes that paralyze" have been born in various countries (Britain, the U.S., Russia, India, China and Nigeria). Doing away with the blond hair concept (they all look accordingly different), the children are discovered during a worldwide scholarly project, spearheaded by Psychologist Tom Llewellyn (Ian Hendry) and geneticist David Neville (Alan Badel), because of their abnormal levels of skill and high intelligence. The British boy, Paul (Clive Powell) is the first to be examined, and the other five are brought to the U.K. Paul is able to telepathically communicate with the others and assembles them so they can take refuge in a large, deserted cathedral. Taking Paul's defenseless aunt (Barbara Ferris) as a grown-up pawn, the military and various officials try to come down on them, but the children use their advanced mental abilities and a mechanical sound weapon, built from an organ, to defend themselves accordingly.
CHILDREN does not try to copycat VILLAGE, but actually creates a darker, more violent tale. The lethal but misunderstood children are more subdued here (hardly given any dialog) and although their possible alien origin was implied in the first film, a scientist now theorizes that they might be the result of a cell of a man advanced one million years! One particularly disturbing scene has Paul send his mother out to be hit by a car, only she survives and screams from her hospital bed that she's never been touched, in reference to the birth of her wicked offspring. The film boasts more murders than the first one, but tends to be boring and not nearly as well-executed. Ian Hendy is an excellent leading man, and it's a shame that he didn't get more pronounced roles (like in THEATRE OF BLOOD for example) before his untimely death.
Warner Home Video presents VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED and CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED together in their original 1.85:1 aspect ratios with anamorphic enhancement. Compositions look excellent, and the transfers on both black and white films are superb with rich detail, well-defined blacks, and crisp and stable whites. There is little or no grain apparent on either film. VILLAGE is slightly superior to CHILDREN, since the latter has a few more noticeable print blemishes and some scenes tend to appear too dark, but these are ultimately minor quibbles. Both titles are accompanied by respectable sounding Dolby Digital monaural tracks and present the audio portion adequately, along with an additional French language track. Optional English, French and Spanish subtitles are also included.
Each film has its own running commentary. VILLAGE's commentary is by Steve Haberman, author of Chronicles of Terror: Silent Screams. Haberman gives a good amount of information about the film, the production, the cast and other back story info. He also brings up Hammer Films a few times but fails to point out some of the familiar Hammer actors (John Phillips, Richard Vernon), when they're on screen. Other holes are left blank, but there are still some interesting things touched upon here. CHILDREN contains a commentary by its original screenwriter, American-born John Briley, who won an Oscar for GHANDI. A commentary like this would have been better off moderated, and although Briley only gives a limited amount of attention to the film in question (concentrating on the "cold war" aspect he injected into the screenplay), he does have some worthwhile things to share about his career and his craft, with a couple of good anecdotes tossed in. The original trailers round out the supplements, and I must say, CHILDREN's trailer always make me chuckle when the announcer says, " and Mark from America." Don't ask me why! (George R. Reis)
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