A Damned fine scare
By Henry Sheehan
Efficiency is an underrated quality in filmmaking.
If you want to see why, go watch John Carpenters neatly suspenseful remake of VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED, the sci-fi favorite from 1960 based on John Wyndhams "The Midwich Cuckoo."
In a compact 98 minutes, the veteran horror (HALLOWEEN) and science-fiction (THEY LIVE, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK) filmmaker delivers the kind of thrill that wears a wicked grin even as it shocks.
This is not super-intense-I-cant-look terror; it depends more on atmosphere and character identification than on pure sensation. But the tension begins with the very first shot, and it goes well beyond the final fadeout.
Not that Carpenter tries to make more out of the material than is there. The movie is, after all, about eerie kids who turn out to be alien spawn intent on taking over the Earth.
Given that Carpenter is expert at mining ghoulish laughter, you expect black humor. But he never snickers at the material, only joins us in smiling over our own craving for entertaining fear.
Thats why while we can appreciate the humor in, say, a guy unknowingly barbecuing himself to death on his own grill, it still doesnt keep us from jumping out of our seat at the discovery.
The grill in question is fired up for a big community get-together in the rural coastal community of Midwich, Calif. Even thought some of the towns female residents awoke that morning with a strange foreboding, convinced they heard burbling voices pass over them in the dawn, everyone is geared up for a good time. Unfortunately, however, they all gear down real fast when, without warning, every living thing from town pastor to the local cowskeels over unconscious. As it happens, the local doc, Alan Chaffee (Christopher Reeve) was outside of the city limits on rounds, and on his way home is stopped outside the danger zone by a phalanx of cops and feds headed by the black-clad, campy and vampy Dr. Susan Verner (Kirstie Alley).
In contrast to Chaffees smalltown earnestness, Verner, who is given to extravagant gestures and yellow cigarettes, brings nothing but a chilly, scientific detachment to bear, not just on this phenomenon, but the frenzied night nine months later when 12 of the towns women, including a virgin, Melanie Roberts (Meredith Salenger), all give birth.
The birthing scene, set in a barn converted to a makeshift delivery room, is an example of how Carpenter has opened the older movie up by expanding the points of view, bringing the pregnant women into the action as more than mere plot points. As the action proceeds, Jill McGowan (Linda Kozlowski), a widowed friend of Chaffees and one of the mothers, adds a third perspective to the strange goings-on, a move that enriches the story considerably.
As it happens, the action is largely spurred by the kids. There are 11 of them, one shy of six matched pairs since on the birth night Verner had scurried away with one of the newborns, insisting it was stillborn. Within a few years, the look-alike, platinum-haired tykes have matured to chilly pint-size intellectuals with a disturbing habit of turning up around "accidents" and "suicides." Before too long, their mind-control powers have become so strong, they dont even bother to hide them.
It doesnt take long for the good townsfolk, from the preacher (Mark Hamill) down to a drunken janitor (Buck Flower), to decide that the children have to be eliminated; even the good-hearted Chaffee cant wait to knock off his own child, Mara (Lindsey Haun), the kids malevolent leader and the one who spills the world-domination beans.
That task would be hard enough, given that the kids know right away when someone wants to hurt them. But this time out theres yet another complicating twist: Jills son, David (Thomas Dekker), doesnt seem as heartless as the others. Perhaps because it was his "mate" that was spirited away by Verner, David has come to understand pain and loneliness.
On top of everything else, VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED is a good-looking film. Shot in the Point Reyes and Inverness area (where Carpenter shot THE FOG in 1980), the film has a fresh, big-outdoors look that contrasts nicely with the intense intimacy of the central parent-child conflicts. A shooting style that combines a wide-screen format with deep focus cinematography creates a dramatic arena that can be invaded from any directionand usually is.
All in all, its a good example of how smart "mere" entertainment can be.