Shout! Factory’s Scream Factory line, along with Universal, has released on Blu-ray JOHN CARPENTER’S VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED: COLLECTOR’S EDITION, the 1995 sci-fi remake of the 1960 British classic, based on John Wyndham’s novel, The Midwich Cuckoos, and starring Christopher Reeve, Kirstie Alley, Linda Kozlowski, Michael Pare, Meredith Salenger, Mark Hamill, Thomas Dekker, and Lindsey Haun. A critical and box office failure when released, JOHN CARPENTER’S VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED has not undergone, unlike several other initial Carpenter misfires, a positive critical reevaluation...and it probably never will. It didn’t excite much interest or admiration back in 1995, nor does it today, except possibly for hard-core Carpenter fans who may want to track the distressing downward trajectory of his career. Lots of extras for this crisp 1080p HD widescreen transfer, including a new making-of doc, an extended interview with Carpenter regular Peter Jason, a re-visit to the filming locations, archival interviews with the cast and crew, and the original trailer.
The quaint, cozy Northern California village of Midwich. As the residents peacefully sleep, an ominous black shape passes over their houses, noted only by town doctor Alan Chaffee (Christopher Reeve, SUPERMAN, GRAY LADY DOWN), who is awakened by strange, faint whisperings. Everyone else in Midwich is ready for another routine day, highlighted by a school autumn festival (what’s with that gawd-awful guitar plunking on the soundtrack?) organized by new principal Jill McGowan (Linda Kozlowski, CROCODILE DUNDEE, BACKSTREET JUSTICE). Then suddenly, inexplicably, at 10:00am the entire citizenry falls to the ground, passed out. Jill’s contractor husband, Frank (Michael Pare, EDDIE AND THE CRUISERS, EDDIE AND THE CRUISERS II: EDDIE LIVES!) is outside of Midwich on an errand, but the second he crosses back from the outskirts, he faints at the wheel of his truck and plows into another stopped car, blowing himself up sky high. As if by magic, government epidemiologist Dr. Susan Verner (Kirstie Alley, STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN, LOOK WHO’S TALKING) shows up with the military, curious to say the least, as to why the town has fallen asleep. Almost immediately, though, everyone wakes up, and the unsettling incident is forgotten...until 10 women in Midwich become pregnant, including virgin Melanie Roberts (Meredith Salenger, THE JOURNEY OF NATTY GANN, A NIGHT IN THE LIFE OF JIMMY REARDON), with all the women sharing the same conception date: the day of the blackout. Before you know it, nine strange, grave, emotionless little blond-haired aliens are born — one dies in childbirth, and is spirited away by the mysterious Dr. Verner — and fear settles into Midwich. The children can read minds, and they’re not afraid to use their psychic powers to will an adult to harm himself if such a person threatens or hurts one of their own. Can Dr. Chaffe stop the little monsters, led by his “own” daughter Mara (Lindsay Haun, ADDAMS FAMILY REUNION), perhaps with the aid of ever-so-slightly empathetic alien child David McGowan (Thomas Dekker, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, THE LAND BEFORE TIME IX: JOURNEY TO BIG WATER)?
It’s difficult to try and champion a movie like JOHN CARPENTER’S
VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED when the director himself has stated on numerous occasions
he wasn’t exactly passionate about what was always a second-best compromise
project satisfying a contractual studio obligation. Carpenter, forever disappointing
studio accountants who wanted to see the kind of insane profit returns his indie
classic HALLOWEEN secured back in 1978, was by 1994 on a clear downslide in
terms of his power to command big budgets and stars for his Hollywood horror/sci-fi
flicks. Unfairly, future b.o. expectations were tied to that HALLOWEEN gross
for subsequent outings like 1980’s THE FOG, 1981’s ESCAPE FROM NEW
YORK, and 1982’s THE THING, the latter dropping quite a bit of change
for Universal. Follow-ups CHRISTINE and STARMAN (a welcome critical hit) in
1983 and 1984, respectively, were only moderate money-makers. However, expensive
effects-laden BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA was a big loser at the b.o in 1986,
and that’s when Carpenter was forced into smaller budgets and lesser stars
like Jameson Parker, Rowdy Roddy Piper, a past-it Chevy Chase, and Sam Neill
for financial failures PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1987), THEY LIVE (1988), MEMOIRS
OF AN INVISIBLE MAN (1992) and 1994’s IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS.
Carpenter had next wanted to film a remake of the horror classic, CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON; however Universal, which was contractually owed another Carpenter title, nixed that expensive idea and gave Carpenter the remake of the classic 1960 U.K. sci-fi chiller, VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED — an assignment Carpenter grudgingly accepted. The budget was tight, limiting Carpenter’s choices of actors to Christopher Reeve, Linda Kozlowski, and Kirstie Alley, none of whom were in demand anymore for lead roles in prestigious projects (if they ever were). According to all concerned, there were difficulties between Carpenter and the studio as to expectations for the overall tone of the movie (the studio wanted more violence, more gore), and the studio’s final cut of the movie — a perk Carpenter used to have in his earlier days — was quite severely pruned. The movie finished shooting in November, 1994, and was rushed out to theaters in April, 1995 — a good indication the studio just wanting to wash their hands of it and be finished with the whole thing. JOHN CARPENTER’S VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED failed to impress critics, nor were audiences interested; on a reported $22 million dollar budget, it managed a meager $9 million in ticket sales (Sandra Bullock's WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING creamed it on its 5th place opening weekend), with only half of that returned to Universal as rentals. Carpenter would only make four more movies — all financially unsuccessful — before his (apparent) retirement from directing in 2010.
Being a big fan of a number
of earlier Carpenter movies, including ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13, HALLOWEEN, THE
FOG, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, THE THING (his masterpiece, I’d argue), and
BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (criminally neglected on release), while still enjoying
a few of his minor efforts, such as PRINCE OF DARKNESS and THEY LIVE, it’s
difficult to reconcile that the same director helmed the desultory JOHN CARPENTER’S
VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED. If the stories are true from Carpenter, his wife/producer
Sandy King, and members of the cast that Universal took the movie away from
Carpenter and hacked it into incoherence, that’s one thing. But no amount
of poor editing can disguise the fact that basic elements of the production
simply don’t work, further hindered by a director seemingly on auto-pilot.
To be fair, if Carpenter didn’t have final cut: the editing is
atrocious. Things just happen in JOHN CARPENTER’S VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED,
and people come and go, and we don’t know who they are, or why they’re
doing the things they’re doing. Mark Hamill’s Reverend George character
is the best example; he’s introduced as a fussy eccentric who demands
finger-paints from Kozlowski at the school fair; later he offers comfort for
pregnant virgin Salenger...and then he disappears. We forget about him completely
until he shows up out of the blue in a scene with a rifle, hiding in the bushes,
ready to kill alien child Haun. What motivated that desperate act?
Carpenter usually has a thing or two to say about religion in his movies, but
here...we have no idea what Hamill is doing or why. JOHN CARPENTER’S VILLAGE
OF THE DAMNED’s characters are all vague blips who pop up only to satisfy
already shaky plot points (years are supposed to be passing with the kids, but
you never feel it); none of them are fleshed out enough for the viewer to care
what happens to them. For instance: why, exactly, is Reeve considered the most
fair, wise, intelligent man in town, capable of taking on the alien children?
Because he’s a doctor? If anything, it’s because he got top billing,
that’s why, because the movie never shows him excelling at any of those
high-falutin’ traits (JOHN CARPENTER’S VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED’s
biggest unintended joke is that the townspeople are just as anonymous and drained
of interest as their alien counterparts).
We don’t even get a sense of a realistic physical space with the town of Midwich — something Carpenter was so good at doing in his earlier movies, whether they’re the fictional towns in HALLOWEEN or THE FOG, or real cities transformed into nightmares (ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, THEY LIVE), or isolated enclosures that become entire worlds for their beleaguered inhabitants (ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13, THE THING, PRINCE OF DARKNESS). Midwich by comparison has no distinguishing characteristics, other than the familiar Inverness, California location work (from Carpenter’s previous THE FOG). It doesn’t feel small, or isolated...or anything; its parts don’t seem to fit together, so how can the fuzzy characters appear to believably inhabit it? If one of Carpenter’s key abilities in his earlier movies was to create a credible physical environment in which his characters suddenly become trapped, he fails utterly to achieve that in JOHN CARPENTER’S VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED, in a standard sci-fi invasion story that demands at the very least such a milieu (he can’t even best the original in creating such a space; compare the two movie versions during the first scenes where the army tries to find out where the “no go” line is that surrounds the village — where director Wolf Rilla creates palpable puzzlement and suspense, Carpenter flubs with a chintzy couple of soldier uniforms, some cows, and an asphalt farm road out in the middle of nowhere that doesn’t look like its within 50 miles of any tiny village).
The ideas behind JOHN CARPENTER’S VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED are no more plausible or compelling, either. Carpenter stated he wanted to approach the storyline from a feminist angle...but I can’t see that concern anywhere here. A virgin gets pregnant; a woman whose husband has been away gets pregnant; widow Kozlowski gets pregnant, and...so what? Carpenter does nothing with these potentially interesting angles, and it’s still big boy Reeve who saves the day in the end. There’s a moment in JOHN CARPENTER’S VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED where Alley is first confronted by the children, when they come to her makeshift lab. For a split second, Alley gives the kids a sardonic sneer that comes pretty close to capturing the veiled contempt that George Sanders had for his alien overlords in the original 1960 version. It’s the kind of tension JOHN CARPENTER’S VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED needed all along. And right there, you wish that Carpenter had had really pushed the feminist angle and let talented snot Alley be the central character. Alas, her character is the most shadowy (and the most ridiculous) in the movie, with her government doctor either advocating getting more money for research (which we never see) or skedaddling on out of there anytime things get dicey (her final scene has to be one of Carpenter’s most unsatisfying).
Worst of all: Carpenter doesn’t seem all that interested in making an effort to distinguish this remake from the original; it’s remarkably stodgy and literal in its “updating.” No interesting subtext underpins it and transforms the material, while the suspense is woefully inadequate (it’s remarkable how slow and tedious the movie plays, from a master who could reliably put you on the edge of your seat in movie after movie). If those alien kids are supposed to be symbolic for something else bothering Carpenter’s mind, he doesn’t hint at what that symbolism would be (couldn’t be politics for him this time...because a Democrat was in the White House). And if the alien kids are just supposed to be creepy and scary on their own...they’re laughably not. Why Carpenter chose to keep the blond hairdos and drab English clothes from the original movie is anybody’s guess, but it’s an idea that simply doesn’t work. When those little bastards are all walking down the street together, looking like they’ve just been to Hammer Studios for a casting call, JOHN CARPENTER’S VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED becomes camp, not terror. Carpenter may not be especially known for his comedic skills, but full-on satire and lampoon would have been the only saving grace for his outdated approach (I never missed a Carpenter movie on the big screen, but when I caught the trailers for this one back in ’95, and saw those little goofball Hitler Youth aliens staring green light back at me, I cracked up and skipped the whole thing). You can’t fault the kids, though, for Carpenter’s handling of them; fey, already intrinsically disturbing Thomas Dekker isn’t up to conveying David’s internal conflict, while mean-eyed Lindsey Haun is directed as if she’s touring in a particularly bad road company production of The Bad Seed. As for the adults, only Alley has the good taste to look disgusted with everything and everyone, while Kozlowski looks totally out of place precisely because she’s giving a good performance — it just doesn’t belong here. And the less said about bored, out-to-lunch Christopher Reeve, the better — a one-trick Superpony, at least on the big screen, who, for the duration of his sentence here, looks like he’s suffering the first ill effects of a bad clam (he had to know this crappy B horror remake was just further confirmation his A-list heyday had long since past). Universal may have taken JOHN CARPENTER’S VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED away from John Carpenter and made it much worse...but I doubt it was much better to start with.
The 1080p HD anamorphically enhanced 2.35:1 widescreen transfer for JOHN CARPENTER’S VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED: COLLECTOR’S EDITION looks quite sharp and clean (maybe a little too enhanced around the edges in a few noticeable scenes), with deep blacks, fair color (a couple of scenes looked a tad — just a tad — washed out, but that may have been Carpenter’s intent with his earth tone palette), excellent grain structure, and okay contrast. Image fine detail is good but not spectacular (again: the enhancement might be a bit strong). Overall, the original material looks in good shape; I didn’t see any dirt or speckling. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is quite lively when the action gets going, with a few impressive separation effects and a rock-solid, heavy base line, while the dialogue-heavy rest of the movie comes over clean and crisp. English subtitles are included.
Bonuses (all HD except for the vintage stuff) include "It Takes a Village: The Making of Village of the Damned" (49:17), where Carpenter, his wife Sandy King, and several members of the cast and crew discuss the movie’s production (Mark Hamill and Kirstie Alley are the big no-shows here). Carpenter seems pretty blasé about the whole thing (you can tell that if no one ever mentioned the movie to him again, he wouldn’t care one bit), but Mrs. Carpenter seems intent on raising the movie from the dead. I don’t know what I found more obnoxious: her stating that British black-and-white horror movies were better than our own homegrown “throwaway bubble gum” movies of the 1950s and 1960s because of the higher level acting (clichéd American snob appeal for anything foreign), or the truly vile suggestion that JOHN CARPENTER’S VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED didn’t do well at the box office because of the Oklahoma City bombing tragedy that had happened just nine days before the movie’s opening (the movie didn’t do well because it didn’t have any stars, and because the idea was tired and worn out, and because the presentation was subpar and because the studio dumped it without a big promotional push...not because children and adults died in a real-life horrific event). Greg Nicotero shows up with some cut footage, like the animatronic babies in the nursery. Meredith Salenger admits the script made no sense (she couldn’t say why her character’s baby was born different). Karen Kahn brings in the discussion of race (her character’s marriage to Reeve — she says nobody cares now...but nobody cared then, either). Peter Jason and Michael Pare also chime in, while Lindsay Hahn has some bright memories of the shoot and Thomas Dekker says, “shit,” a lot. "The Go To Guy: Peter Jason on John Carpenter" (45:11) is a pretty thorough examination of why an actor would be enthusiastic about a director who kept hiring him (couldn’t resist — it’s still a fun interview). "Horror's Hallow Grounds" (20:56), finds Sean Clark revisiting the Inverness, California locations for the movie. "Vintage Interviews and Behind the Scenes" (24:36), are just what they’re labeled, including on-set interviews with Carpenter and a happy, smiling Reeve (he looks relieved just to be off camera). The original trailer is included, along with stills and marketing stuff in the "Still Gallery", as well as reversible art, from Nathan Millner, on the slipcase insert. All in all: a ton of extras for such a marginal Carpenter title — which is good news for the hard-core fans. (Paul Mavis)
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