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John Carpenter’s ‘Village of the Damned’ at 25: Christopher Reeve vs. creepy kids

Village of the Damned
Still from 'Village of the Damned' by Universal via MoviestillsDB
 

Editor’s Note: With a relative lack of new film releases due to the coronavirus pandemic, Vanyaland is taking a look back at some notable films on the anniversary of their release. For the full archive of this series, click here.

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The year 1995 was a really interesting one for John Carpenter, and one could, if they were truly a hack writer, toss out a Dickensian lede about it being “the best of times and the worst of times” (whoops). The master director and composer entered the decade on one of the most legendary hot streaks in the history of genre filmmaking. He’d made 10 films from 1976 to 1988, each of which ranges from good (The Fog, Assault on Precinct 13) to great (Christine, Escape from New York) to masterpiece-caliber (Halloween, The Thing, Starman, Big Trouble in Little China, Prince of Darkness, and, of course, They Live). He was, essentially, the Joe DiMaggio of horror and science fiction, and even if his movies didn’t make money or received the adoration that they so richly deserved, he’d be vindicated by history.

 
 

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But, as Joe eventually went hitless against the Indians on a July day in 1941, Carpenter would make a film that would be hard-pressed for many to love. A lengthy dispute with the produces of They Live kept him out of the director’s chair until 1992, when he returned with the bizarre Chevy Chase vehicle Memoirs of an Invisible Man. It was a passion project for Chase and a complete and total mismatch of star, director, subject matter, and tone; and while it’s not totally irredeemable — the sets and effects are fantastic — it’s a truly rough sit. The one-two punch of that and Dan Aykroyd’s Nothing But Trouble would all but relegate Chase to the minors compared to where he’d been in the ’80s, and Carpenter would move on to more interesting projects.

This brings us back to 1995, a year in which genre fans were rewarded with, not one, but two John Carpenter films in a single year. The first, hitting screens on February 3 in the U.S., would be the now-classic In the Mouth of Madness (which, technically, would qualify as a 1994 release thanks to its early debut in Europe), and would mark Carpenter as one of the few filmmakers who actually understood how to bring Lovecraftian weirdness to the big screen. It would be the perfect capstone to the master’s “Apocalypse” trilogy, with the metatextual collapse of reality around Sam Neill (who had worked on Memoirs of an Invisible Man with Carpenter) and the ensuing cosmic horror being as strong of an ending to a portion of an artist’s career as one could imagine and/or write. Two and a half months later, a new phase of the master’s career would begin, and like it was for many aging greats, things just wouldn’t be the same anymore.

 
 

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On April 28, Carpenter would release Village of the Damned, a remake of Wolf Rilla’s film of the same name from 1960. Based on John Wyndham’s novel The Midwich Cuckoos (an easy-to-understand title change if there ever was one), both versions of the film tell approximately the same story: an entire town suddenly faints at around the same time, and anyone who enters the area around the village does so as well. The military cordons off the roads in and out of town, but about four hours later, everyone wakes up. Over the ensuing months after the UFE (unexplained fainting event), many women in the town become pregnant simultaneously as a result of manipulation and malfeasance by an unknown force during that lost time. The women eventually come to term and give birth to normal-looking but deeply odd children. Each child looks the same, with platinum hair being the defining feature between them, and they begin to grow physically and mentally at an astonishing rate. As they do, the children begin to develop psychic powers: they can read minds, influence others, and seem to have a telepathic bond with one another. More disturbingly, each seems to lack any sort of empathy for those surrounding them, and this, of course, draws them into conflict with those around them.

Rilla’s film, set in the English village of Midwich, starred George Sanders and Barbara Shelly as George and Barbara Zellaby, the concerned parents of David, the seeming-ringleader of the children, and Sanders’ character, a professor, ultimately becomes their de facto teacher. He, also, would be their annihilator, killing the children with a time bomb after he finds out from MI6 that the only other cadre of kids like them in the world — in Soviet Russia, of course — has been exterminated by their government. The knowledge of these events would cause the children, who have already been killing the townspeople for perceived slights, to lash out and potentially destroy the village and, perhaps, the world at large. He gets past their mind-reading ability by visualizing a brick wall, up until the bomb’s detonation, and this results in one of the film’s most iconic images — the children smashing through the brick wall, their faces full of anger and fear, being the first traces of emotion, right before the bomb explodes.

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The 1960 film is a brisk and pulpy 77 minutes, impeccably paced and thoroughly entertaining, but it was definitely a film one could remake. If anyone could improve upon it, it would have been the man who remade The Thing from Another World into a bonafide horror masterpiece. Carpenter, of course, would update the film’s setting — it would be set in the present, in a small California town also named Midwich — and expand the film’s length by a full 21 minutes. In the Sanders role, renamed Dr. Alan Chaffee for the remake, would be Christopher Reeve, whose career, in the years since he’d left the cape and S-shield behind, had started to recover. Long gone were the days of Superman IV: The Quest for Peace — he’d just starred alongside Anthony Hopkins in the Merchant/Ivory adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day two years earlier and was making a healthy living working in TV as well. And, instead of the female lead being the wife of the professor, she’d be Jill McGowan, another townsperson tragically affected by the missing time, played by Crocodile Dundee‘s Linda Kozlowski.

On the day of the UFE, all of Midwich is assembling together at the local church for a fair and cookout. Jill, the principal of the local school, rides in with her husband Frank (Michael Pare, in the Marion Crane role), in order to help set up face-painting and balloon animal booths alongside the Church’s Reverend (Mark Hamill), and Frank leaves to go pick up some helium. He stops at a gas station and says hello to Alan, who is on his way out of the town to make his rounds at a city hospital. But, at 10 a.m. sharp, the UFE happens, and the assembled townspeople faint right where they stand. That includes Frank, who faints behind the wheel and crashes his car in a fiery explosion. By the time Alan returns from his rounds some six hours later, the military has surrounded the town, and the feds have brought in an Epidemiologist to study the phenomenon. Her name is Dr. Susan Vermeer, and she’s a major addition to the story, played by Kirstie Alley. She quickly deduces that it’s not a disease, given that there are firmly defined boundaries where the effect occurs. But, at 4 p.m., the town awakens. Most are in shock, and a few truly unlucky people have died violent and ugly deaths, like Frank, or the charred corpse that was once the townsperson manning the grill at the fair.

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The early gore attempts to stress that, yes, this isn’t your father’s Village of the Damned after all. After all, it was the ’90s: The Hays Code had long fallen by the wayside, and things that one would have blanched at the time of the original’s release — say, the presence of a toilet on-screen — were now commonplace. This aspect of the project, to make the implicit in Rilla’s film explicit, intrigued Carpenter. So, when Chaffee begins to discover that the women in the town are pregnant — including Jill, an unwed teenager (Meredith Salenger), the Reverend’s partner, and his own wife — in the aftermath of the UFE, Carpenter uses Alley’s character as a way of dealing with the very obvious question one has when adapting a story like this in the aftermath of Roe v. Wade: Surely at least one woman would choose to terminate her pregnancy. And that choice is what Vermeer offers the townspeople at a town hall meeting: the government will give them a stipend and pay for all care and medical expense, or provide them with the means to quickly end this unplanned nightmare. The women think it over, but each is psychically persuaded to keep the children by a bizarre shared dream roughly resembling the “Bound 2” video.

 
 

Months later, the women give birth in a makeshift field hospital, with Vermeer supervising the whole process. Most of the children are successfully delivered, except for the teen’s, which is stillborn and the little corpse is quickly spirited away by the government doctor. A montage follows in which the children are christened and begin to grow, Vermeer reports to her shadowy superiors about their development. They each have platinum hair and pale skin and are seemingly paired off psychologically. Alan’s daughter, Mara, begins to show psychopathic tendencies early on in her development: she psychically forces her mother to stick her hand in a pot of boiling soup and is only stopped from stewing her hand by Jill’s arrival at her home. The child’s eyes glow and change from green to red as she uses her powers. Later on, she’ll force her mother to jump from the rocky cliffs near their home, totally devastating her father. The townspeople are already starting to grow suspicious of the children, and these initial bursts of violence only serve to isolate them from the community.

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One slight issue that Carpenter’s film has is that the passage of time is often unclear — do the children grow faster than their peers, or are we watching years pass by in the space of a cut? Either way, at the film’s mid-point, the children have become elementary school-aged, and walk around the town dressed in identical gray clothing like mod synthpop goths, a case of Carpenter weirdly anticipating modern style — they’re young Millenials, complete with the neutral Urban Outfitters wardrobe. Mara’s the group’s ringleader, and the children skulk about, paired off in a little marching order, with the exception of David (Thomas Dekker), Jill’s son, and the odd man out in the group. His partner was supposed to be the stillborn child, and, as such, he’s a little different than the other kids, seeming to have a conscience and curiosity about the people around him (this is Carpenter’s acknowledgment of the sequel to Zilla’s film, Children of the Damned, which made the monsters more sympathetic). They’re ostracized and isolated from the community after a series of violent encounters — the groundskeeper at the school kills himself by impaling himself on a rake after accidentally hurting one of the children, and a local optometrist is blinded after using the wrong chemical on a child during an eye exam.

Chaffee is chosen to teach the children at their new schoolhouse — a barn that’s the kind of set that you, having not even seen the original film, just know is going to explode in the third act. He tries to reason with them, to get them to see the beauty of love and compassion, but outside of David, he has no luck. Reeve gets several Captain Kirk-style dialogues with the children, where he pleads with them for the sake of the human race, and he does a good job with it, his idealistic views eventually giving way to an exasperated resignation. It’s at this point that Vermeer reveals to him the origins of the children, and she shows him the preserved corpse of the stillborn child, which looks almost exactly like a grey alien (and at that point, Whitley Streiber ran from the theater, screaming). Yes, the children are of part-extraterrestrial origin in Carpenter’s take, which falls in line with much of his “explicit” approach to the source material. It’s unclear in Zilla’s film exactly what the children are, and it weirdly dilutes some of its power.

 
 

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If creepy kid movies are often manifestations of the fears of a generation of parents over what they — and culture at large — are doing to their children, the original Village of the Damned is a very frank post-WWII and Cold War expression of Greatest Generation terror about what the Boomers were becoming under their influence. But even though the materials are there for Carpenter to craft, say, an anti-Indigo Children screed by having them literally face-off with the on-screen representations of the boomers — Superman and Luke Skywalker, in fact — the master director whiffs it, and, as a result, the film feels somewhat dead. It’s not tapping into a cultural vein, or expressing some sort of parental nightmare, it’s just echoing those prior ones in a totally unsatisfying way. Add to this a perhaps studio-mandated restraint on Carpenter’s part in regards to some of the kills during the film’s climax, when the townspeople finally turn on the children. All these big moments, such as when Vermeer is placed under her own scalpel by a few of the children after she’s forced to show them the pickled corpse of their pal, or when the Reverend’s wife self-immolates as the townspeople assemble in a pitchfork-and-torch-wielding mob, or even a gargantuan shoot-out between the military and local police, land with a thud. They’re not poorly crafted — the master’s direction remains as sturdy as ever — but they’re just uninspired.

This brings us to the climax, in which Chaffee hatches a plot to save the town — and the world — from the children, by killing them with a timed bomb hidden in his briefcase. much like Zellaby did in the original. The children, who have a list of demands, that they’ve tasked the doctor with fulfilling, are confident that their plan will succeed, but they don’t seem to recognize that even their trusted servant might want them dead as well. Chaffee visualizes a brick wall, and the children can’t find their way around it. Meanwhile, Jill sneaks into the barn to rescue David, who, after a bit of psychic tug-of-war with the rest of the children, pushes Mara to the ground and cuts out with his mom. Able to focus on the task at hand, the kids finally break through Chaffee’s defenses, revealing their psychic alien nature in the process, only to discover the bomb’s existence right before it explodes. The barn goes boom, killing the doctor and his charges, and Jill and David ride off into the sunset, much like the creepy kid and his babysitter in Joe Dante’s Twilight Zone: The Movie segment.

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The film would fail critically and financially, and it would truly kick off Carpenter’s wilderness period. He’d make the first true sequel to one of his films in the following year, the much-reviled Escape from L.A., and spend the rest of the decade and the first part of the next one. attempting to reclaim past glories with 1998’s Vampires, which features a whole lot of homophobic James Woods gags, and 2001’s Ghosts of Mars, which kind of rocks. He wouldn’t direct another film until 2010’s The Ward, which landed with a thud upon its release. After that, he’d focus on two things: playing video games and making kick-ass music (to be honest, the soundtrack to Village of the Damned, co-written by Dave Davies of The Kinks, is pretty damn great, as a Carpenter soundtrack typically is). Kozlowski would leave the industry behind following the film’s release, only returning for one final outback outing with Paul Hogan in 2001, and Alley, well, would be Kirstie Alley. But, sadly, it would be Reeve’s final performance in a theatrically-released film — the next year, he would tragically be paralyzed from the neck down in a horseback riding accident — and, indeed, his performance seems to be the only thing that Carpenter really likes about the film in the present day, and it’s hard to disagree with him. Outside of his work here, there’s very little here for anyone other than die-hard Carpenter completists.