Monthly Archives: November 2017

Willard (1971)

*. Willard is a movie that I suspect most people (among those who care about such things) will have heard of but not seen. This is mainly because it has never (as of this writing) been released on DVD. It is, however, easy enough to find online
*. Its relative obscurity may also be because it’s not very good. If you’re expecting fireworks you’ll probably give up after a while, as it’s a slow build and nothing really happens, horror-wise, until the final ten minutes.
*. It’s often referred to as an early example of the “revolt of nature” genre, though that’s a label that I find misleading. Yes, the birds in The Birds are in revolt. Same with the various swamp critters who take over in Frogs. But the rats here don’t really suggest “nature” to me. And what with Willard’s telepathic link to Ben what I think we’re getting is more a sort of Jekyll-Hyde story, with the repressed and dutiful young man wreaking a terrible vengeance by way of a furry alter ego. A distaff version had already appeared as Cat People, and it’s the same story Romero would revisit in Monkey Shines.
*. The real evil in these films is not something in nature but is instead a human evil, an evil within. Ben and his extended family are just tools, acting out Willard’s psychopathic urges.
*. As I’ve said, I don’t think it’s a very good movie. It has, however, grown a cult following, in large part for being  weird. Willard isn’t just a misfit, but a true eccentric. How could he not be with Elsa Lanchester as his mom, and the two of them living together in that decaying palace?
*. Roger Ebert thought the box office success was based on the number of people who wanted to see Ernest Borgnine eaten by rats. If so, they must have left disappointed. And is Borgnine (playing Martin, Willard’s boss) really that bad a guy? Willard deserves to be fired. He’s totally useless at his job and probably should have been canned years ago. Willard blames Martin for making him hate himself, but I’d wager his mother had more to do with that. And when Martin kills the rat Socrates in the store room, do we think he’s a heavy, or just taking charge and doing what has to be done?
*. No, the weirdo here is Willard, the mama’s boy who is “basically an extrovert, except it’s all inside.” I mentioned Cat People earlier, and Simone Simon’s likeness to a cat has often been referred to as part of the uncanny quality of that movie. Can we say that Bruce Davison, long-haired and chinless, has a bit of the rat about him? And if our animal familiars in some way represent those abnormal elements of our own personalities, what does that say about Willard? That he’s a sneaky little bastard?
*. Perhaps people paid to see Borgnine being eaten, but by the end I think we’re looking forward to Willard getting his. Which he does in what I think is the only truly unnerving scene in the film, just for the sound effects of the rats nibbling away at his corpse. A pity it comes so late. Up till then, the rats really aren’t that scary. Borgnine has to work hard to sell their attack on him, and finally just has to jump out the window to save himself further embarrassment.
*. I wonder how much of this film’s continuing cachet is in fact the result of its being largely unseen. For those who have made the effort, I think it must be a let down. The only thing to commend it is the interesting cast, with everybody playing some kind of a caricature. Even the doe-eyed Sondra Locke is hardly more than a plot device. Still, I’m relieved she got out of the house alive. I think Willard genuinely did want to get rid of Ben and live with her. But she would only have been his new mother.


Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014)

*. I know I shouldn’t be surprised — I should probably stop being surprised by anything relating to the movie business — but I was still brought up short by an interview with Matthew Vaughn about the origins of the movie Kingsman. According to Vaughn “It started in a pub with Mark [Millar, author of the Kingsman comic books], and we were drunk . . . We sort of were complaining about how spy movies had become really quite serious. We said, ‘Let’s do a fun [one].'”
*. The reason this surprised me is that spy movies have been sent up and parodied ever since there were spy movies. The first James Bond movie, Dr. No, was released in 1962. Casino Royale, a madcap Bond parody and Kingsman‘s closest analog, came out in 1967. Ever since then the genre has been getting mocked and ridiculed pretty much non-stop. Even the parodies are franchises, from Austin Powers to Spy Kids.
*. Which I guess is a long way of saying that Kingsman: The Secret Service is nothing new. It’s a Bond parody down to its shoelaces (though I have to note in passing that according to co-screenwriter Jane Goldman the last thing they wanted to do was make a parody, which is another thing I just can’t figure out). There have been some adjustments made to the times, so that the plot is even more cartoonish and the action even more like a video game, but that’s about it. That’s all that makes this “a postmodern love letter to spy films” (Vaughn).
*. What were you expecting? This is the kind of movie Vaughn (who previously directed Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class) does. Comic books and video games. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, if it’s your thing. Though I have to once again register my dismay at how shootouts are now all being filmed as though they’re play action from a first-person shooter video game, complete with visual overlays. I’ve complained of this before (see my notes on John Wick and Hardcore Henry, both released around the same time as Kingsman). I’m tired of it. It’s time for someone to come up with something new.

*. About the only new wrinkle is the gentle ribbing of the British class system, which is a theme Vaughn has a fondness for (see, for example, Layer Cake). But that’s not much for novelty.
*. Otherwise . . . Samuel L. Jackson is the megalomaniac villain with an alpine lair and an army of mooks. He doesn’t have a cat but he does have a lisp and an exotic bodyguard. Q is now Merlin. Michael Caine shows up just because you couldn’t imagine him not showing up. And those are Harry Palmer’s glasses, after all.
*. I wasn’t sure where the Kingsmen were getting their money from. Is it all old money? That’s been running out lately, and they have lots of rent to pay. Maybe they’ve invested in Richmond Valentine’s company, seeing as his tech fortune is the way of the future. So should we feel sad then for the Savile Row dinosaurs and the death of the code of the gentlemen?
*. Some people were offended by the politics. The bad guy was an environmental activist just trying to deal with the problem of global climate change! Jason Ward had this to say in The Guardian: “It is an unpleasant, carelessly violent cartoon, in thrall to the establishment and utterly contemptuous of women and the working class.”
*. I think this goes too far. The politics of Kingsman seem muddled to me, and I’m not sure it’s saying much about anything, even the class system.

*. About the only real political moment in the film that I registered was Colin Firth’s assault upon the church congregation. This is a scene that put off a lot of reviewers (myself included) but I think that it just might have been meant as a satire of political correctness run amok. Most of the movie up until then had treated violence as cartoonishly non-lethal (the gang of chavs at the pub recover from their beating at the hands of Firth in remarkably short order, the girl who drowns doesn’t really drown, etc.). But the rabidly racist, anti-Semitic and homophobic churchgoers can be freely slaughtered without compunction. They are not among the secular saved.
*. Neither are the toffs though, as the rapture of the aristocrats involves all of their heads exploding in inexplicable psychedelic puffs of smoke. So, politically, it all seems like a wash to me. Presumably Valentine will be left to mate with his bladerunner to repopulate the world. All of the chaos appears to have been borrowed from Casino Royale, but I don’t know if that’s going back too far for this generation of filmmakers. When Vaughn and Millar talk about Casino Royale in the making-of featurette “Panel to Screen” they’re referring to the 2006 Daniel Craig vehicle.
*. I’ll end on a final note of surprise. Why were so many people offended by this film? As already noted, I didn’t see it as having any kind of political message. It’s just another round of brainless comic book crap. I didn’t even mind the product placement for McDonald’s. For some reason Mark Kermode judged the “bum note” at the end “completely unforgiveable,” but for the life of me I can’t see what got his dander up. It just seemed to me to be the traditional Bond ending updated for the Internet porn generation. So what? I mean, I didn’t think it was very funny (I didn’t think anything in the movie was very funny), but I sure didn’t find it offensive.
*. So I wasn’t offended. I wasn’t surprised. I wasn’t impressed. But I was sort of entertained. That was enough to guarantee a sequel anyway.

Layer Cake (2004)

*. Matthew Vaughn’s directing debut, though it’s nothing new. He’d produced Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, two films that launched (I won’t say invented) the hip genre of neo-BritCrime. Layer Cake is more of the same: an ensemble cast of fast-talking oddballs with tribal nicknames, clever but brutal violence mixed with humour, hopelessly convoluted plot, an editing style that trips over itself in its seeming rush to get somewhere, and the dialogue of players who all seem to be aware they’re in a gangster movie.
*. I hate dragging Tarantino back into this, but where would the modern gangster movie be without him? Aren’t they all pigs of his sow?

*. If there’s an evolution or trajectory we could track in Vaughn’s limited body of work it’s a progression toward ever greater silliness. It’s not that Vaughn is necessarily more inclined toward comedy than Ritchie, but his comic sense is broader. I think of Layer Cake as a sort of halfway house in Vaughn’s brand of BritCrime that would eventually end up in the farce of Kingsman: The Secret Service. His fascination with the British class system is also more developed here, and would be even more so in that later movie.
*. Daniel Craig and Tom Hardy before they were stars. Though Hardy is mostly invisible. I couldn’t even recall if he had any lines. (On a re-watch I caught a few, but they’re short and not essential.) As for Craig, his flinty shade of suave landed him the gig as James Bond. I remember not being thrilled when I first heard that he’d be playing Bond but watching him here I can see how he would have ticked a lot of boxes. You can dress him up in the role, and undress him too.
*. Sienna Miller’s role is one of the most gratuitous female roles ever. What is she doing here aside from being a bowl of eye candy? She’s not even a moll. Her one big scene is played as a comic coitus interruptus. I couldn’t remember her character’s name even after watching the movie twice.

*. I guess Layer Cake is enjoyable enough while it lasts, it’s very well shot and some of the performances are first rate (Colm Meaney as usual, but also a scene-stealing turn by Stephen Walters as Shanks). There’s no point even discussing the plot, which is one of those collapsible constructions that is complicated just for the sake of being complicated and whose component parts don’t always add up. You expect lots of twists and you get twists and I have to say that all the twists except the final one were exactly the ones I expected.

*. As for that final twist, Sidney’s revenge, I found it silly. The studio actually made Vaughn shoot a couple of alternative endings that are included with the DVD. I would have preferred the second, which leaves us with Sidney in pursuit. Given that the ending we have is open-ended enough to allow for a sequel I don’t see how that would have compromised whatever integrity the finished product has.
*. I can’t think of much more to say about this one. I listened to the DVD commentary with Vaugh and screenwriter J. J. Connolly and didn’t make a single note on anything they said, which is unusual. I didn’t think it was a bad commentary. It was fun to listen to, but it didn’t seem like they had much to say about the production or any of their creative decisions. Maybe there isn’t much to say. I can’t think of anything.

Calvaire (2004)

*. I feel like I should hate this movie. But I don’t.
*. The reason I say I should hate it is because it’s an example of the “new extreme” style of horror filmmaking, which is more about making the main character survive a series of grim punishments than it is about building suspense or even providing the odd jump scare. The title was translated into English as The Ordeal, which loses the religious angle but otherwise sums things up pretty nicely. I’ve called this the cinema of cruelty, but the more familiar label of torture porn works just as well.
*. I’m not a big fant of this bleak and nihilistic style of horror, though I’ll allow that it has worked on occasion. But there’s more to dislike about Calvaire than its despairing tone. It’s also a highly derivative film.
*. You can call it homage if you want, but really it plays like a scrapbook of highlights from an anthology of horror. The basic premise — a guy’s car breaks down out in the boonies and he finds himself stranded among a tribe of bloodthirsty hillbillies — is only surprising insofar as this is Belgium and not the Deep South. Then we get the dinner scene from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, complete with extreme close-ups of Marc’s eyeball. The rape scene from Deliverance, with a real pig squealing in the background. And even, in a real trip into the bizarre, a group of children standing around in red raincoats. Don’t Look Now, but why? Where did these kids even come from?
*. So, like I say, I should have hated this movie. Why then did I like it so much?
*. In the first place, I love the look. The photography here really captures the earthiness of the countryside in a way that these movies usually don’t. It’s a muddy, wet, foggy, landscape, but one that’s beautiful as well. It’s an authentically natural world, and the people who inhabit it, however deformed, are very much a part of or at one with nature. Even the bestiality makes the same point.
*. Second: I like the theme of men without women. As a former rural citizen I can confirm this is a real issue in the country, though thankfully it doesn’t usually go to this extreme. It’s also a theme that is, surprisingly, a bit of a fresh twist. In American movies, from Psycho on, the weird loners who live without women aren’t that interested in sex. Women will get killed, but not raped. Here the men are definitely weird (that dance is something special), but we are allowed to feel some sympathy for them, or at least for Bartel. They have been abandoned by Gloria. Even Boris’s Bella has run away. It is kind of sad.
*. Of course, Marc is a man without a woman too, and here the story gets even more complicated. How do we read Marc’s sexuality? Is he gay, or asexual? One can understand his being put off a bit by the old lady’s advances after his music show at the home, but he doesn’t even seem to be sympathetic to her, which I think we would expect him to be. Is he disgusted by her? Offended? This scene is quickly followed by one where he is clearly being propositioned by an administrator at the home. And not just any administrator, but one played by pioneer French porn start Brigitte Lahaie. Brigitte Lahaie is a babe, but Marc rejects her advances with the same slightly disgusted demeanour as he turned down the old lady.
*. Perhaps this is just meant to show that Marc doesn’t have the same weakness for the opposite sex (or any sex) that has led to the breakdown of the village’s group psychology. He is immune to their particular form of madness. But, in an odd way, doesn’t that make him less human?
*. Or, another reading, perhaps we’re just meant to see Marc as being able to arouse feelings in others without being able to feel them himself. In Paris Hilton’s famous self-estimation, he’s “sexy, but not sexual.” It’s a very modern type, familiar to fans of contemporary fiction. And in a novel we expect to see such figures sent to an existential hell. There is something about Marc’s fate that reminds me of what happens to Tony Last in Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust. Is the movie’s final line meant to show that he’s learned something?
*. The performances are quite good. Laurent Lucas is suitably enigmatic and passive, qualities that allow others to see in him what they want to see. Jackie Berroyer is sympathetic as Bartel, which isn’t easy. He really plays the joke scene well, where we have that obligatory sinister tipping point where what was once just an awkward situation turns into something darker. And though I think it was around this time that Philippe Nahon said he was getting tired of these roles, he’s still effective here.
*. I wonder if the Christian symbolism actually means anything. It’s quite obtrusive, from the title to Marc’s crucifixion and later discovery of the cross in the forest, but what of it? Is it just like the kids in the red raincoats, an artsy flourish hinting at some deeper significance that never materializes or to a connection that’s never made?
*. I’m inclined to dismiss it. I don’t see how Marc’s imitation of Christ is in any way redemptive, unless we see him as being redeemed at the end by being forced to experience an emotional human relationship and so granting Nahon a kind of absolution. But really, I don’t see this film as a sermon at all.
*. The bottom line is that I don’t expect genre filmmaking to be original, and Calvaire puts enough of a new spin on the old story as to make it fresh. It’s quite well made and has a great look as well, presenting some of the highlights in really interesting new ways (for example the gunfight at the end leading up to the delirious overhead rape sequence is an amazing virtuoso turn). A lot of credit has to go to Fabrice Du Welz, someone who has established himself in my eyes as one of the best new horror directors of the twenty-first century. As I began by saying, normally I shy away from this stuff. Calvaire left me wanting more.

Adaptation (2002)

*. Oh boy. I guess you either get it or you don’t. I sure don’t. Or, to be more specific, I get it and I’m not impressed.
*. Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze seem like a match made in film school. Being John Malkovich struck me as pointless. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind I couldn’t finish watching. Her I thought overblown. Then there’s this.
*. It’s a story about a screenwriter who is having trouble adapting a book into a movie, which is exactly the position Kaufman was in. This sort of thing usually goes by the name of self-reflexivity or self-referentiality, or as “meta”-something or other. It’s nothing new, complicated, or very interesting. You might complain that it’s narcissistic and solipsistic, but since it levels those accusations at itself it’s one step ahead of you. You may hate the screenplay, but so does Kaufman! In fact he hates himself! This is a nearly foolproof way of disarming hostile criticism.
*. This game of whether or not the film is being serious, about anything, or is just putting us on, is one that you either find entertaining or annoying. I’m of the latter opinion. Roger Ebert, who loved the film, starts off his review by referring to it as bewildering, curious, and challenging but I really don’t see what’s so complicated about what’s going on. At the same time, the fact that it’s all being presented in such a way undercuts my response to the characters. How can I take them seriously?
*. It’s billed as a comedy, but was any of this supposed to be funny? In what way? Not only did I not laugh, I didn’t smile once the whole way through. The only obvious comic parts involved the mockery of Donald’s obtuseness, and they were . . . obvious. I mean, in 2002 a screenwriter sending up hack screenwriters in Hollywood by way of a caricature “bro” making it big with a serial-killer script? What’s the point?
*. And Donald isn’t even the biggest caricature! Just look at his brother. Is there any more tired cliché than the self-doubting, self-hating, nerdy neurotic comic writer in Hollywood, presented in a self-reflexive narrative? Alvy Siger in Annie Hall. The Larry Sanders Show. Jerry Seinfeld. Come on. How is Kaufman making any of this new? Annie Hall was way more inventive (and funnier).

*. As you can tell, I wasn’t thrilled by Adaptation. I couldn’t see what was smart or demanding or original about it. I found the knowingness and irony off-putting in a passive-aggressive kind of way. But the politics were the most troubling thing of all.
*. John Laroche (played by Chris Cooper) is the only character I cared about. He’s presented in a sympathetic light, as Floridian flotsam blown this way and that by fate and finding some meaning or purpose in life by chasing after a rare flower that he does seem to have some genuine feeling for beyond the commercial. This all seems good, as the film is aware that Charlie and Susan (and Charles and Spike) are just using John as material, or projecting their own inadequacies upon him, and aren’t that interested in him otherwise.
*. Because John is a redneck, and the movie’s focus is on Hollywood Charlie and NYC Susan. At the end the film can’t think of anything to do with him but feed him to the gators (the real John Laroche is, as of the time of this writing, still alive). Susan, we can be sure, is going to be OK, and the really important thing is whether Charlie is going to get back together with his girlfriend. This goes beyond being patronizing.
*. Put another way, while I haven’t read The Orchid Thief, I did read the New Yorker article it grew out of. I thought it was interesting. I thought it might have made an interesting movie. Kaufman found it a difficult story to adapt, but it’s hard to miss the fact that he didn’t find it interesting. Or at least that he thought the story of his own personal and professional problems was, or should be, of more moment.
*. I think this is what’s behind all the complaints about the film’s narcissism, which I think are deserved. The problem is that while Charlie is more interested in Charlie than he is in anything else, I’m not.

Lights Out (2016)

*. I appreciate the fact that Lights Out comes in at 80 minutes. Let’s face it, there isn’t a lot of story here. Anything they added would just be filler. Do we really want to know anything more about these characters and their dysfunctional family? Of course not. As soon as we see the trick with the light switch and Diana’s appearance/disappearance act we know pretty much everything we need to know and we’re ready to start getting scared.
*. Actually, if you’d seen the 2013 short of the same name directed by David F. Sandberg and starring his wife Lotta Losten (she’s the woman playing with the light switch in the prologue here), you’d know everything you need to know. What gets added here isn’t very interesting, or credible. I suppose they did the best they could to come up with a back story for Diana given the fast turnaround, but still.
*. I mean, what is Diana anyway? Some projection of Sophie’s subconscious, like the Babadook? A ghost? A demon? If a demon, I don’t understand the way she is both material and immaterial. If she can appear and disappear and go through doors and walls and zip around to different places and control the entire city’s power grid, why does light still bother her?
*. I was also unimpressed by Diana’s appearance. I think someone has to start exercising their imagination a bit more. Basically Diana is just another Sadako/Samara clone from the Ringu/The Ring movies. She seems like something that just crawled out of a well, and even has the same twitchy sort of movements. This has become a very generic look and I wasn’t impressed. What’s even more surprising is that the gremlin from the 2013 short, with its ping-pong ball eyes and pointy teeth, created with no budget whatsoever, was scarier.
*. Hm. So Diana had a photosensitive skin condition (Xeroderma pigmentosum) that caused her skin to fry like Dracula’s in the sunlight. In order to cure her, the good doctors decide to tie her to a chair and shine a bunch of powerful lights on her. She spontaneously combusts. Damn. Who could have seen that coming? And this was in the 1980s. I guess medicine has come a long way since the dark ages.
*. Maria Bello and Teresa Palmer are both good. Palmer in particular takes a hum-drum role and gives it a bit of an edge. She’s tough but troubled, not just a sexy last girl. I also like the way she wields her UV tube like a Jedi lightsaber. That was a clever prop to find in a basement (though apparently UV light has an even stronger effect on people suffering from Diana’s condition, so the science doesn’t work out that well).
*. But despite best efforts this is still a movie with a single concept, which is pretty much exhausted in the first ten minutes. Nevertheless, the return on investment was staggering and a sequel became inevitable. Indeed, an alternate ending promised as much. That ending was cut — wisely, I think, as it was clichéd and the effects for Diana’s second combustion looked terrible — but there can be no doubt the bitch will be back. I hope they find something new for her to do though, because after only 80 minutes she’s already getting old.

Lights Out (2013)

*. If I could extend Keats just a bit, monsters we see are scary, but those we can’t see are scarier.
*. The reasons for this probably go back to some evolutionary adaptation. If we can only sense a threat but not see it our threat level goes up. As we lean forward, deep into the darkness peering (that’s Poe, and James Wan), we imagine the worst. This could be something really bad.
*. The upshot of which is that we’re afraid of the dark. Or more specically we’re afraid of what might be in it.
*. In a film this short (3 minutes) there isn’t time to develop this idea much further. Basically what we have here is a single visual conceit: a creature that only appears as a shadow or silhouette in the darkness. What does it want? What is it up to? Probably no good, but it behaves in a curious way.
*. The less we see, the scarier the demon seems. The same goes for the less we know of it. When director David F. Sandberg expanded the concept here into a feature, the 2016 Lights Out, he gave the creature, named Diana, a whole back story and various personal issues. None of which made her a bit more threatening.
*. The demon in this film isn’t even that afraid of the light. It has no trouble defeating the protagonist’s duct-tape solution, and at the end makes a full appearance in regular electric light, something Diana could not do.
*. I was reminded of the Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” a classic story that reappeared in 1983’s Twilight Zone: The Movie (with John Lithgow in the William Shatner role). As with the gremlin on the wing, the creature keeps slipping closer in jumps as the lights come on or as the woman looks away or covers up. Then you get one big jump scare at the end.
*. Given the format that’s all we need. Along with a bunch of other shorts Sandberg did with the same actress (his wife, Lotta Losten) — Attic Panic, Coffer, Cam Closer, Closet Space — what we get is basically a build up to a couple of jump scares. It’s horror for the YouTube generation, and I think it works very well. It is, however, all based on one clever (but very simple) bit of camera work, the lights-on/lights-off disappearing act. Would that be enough to sustain a feature? A franchise? There would be only one way to find out.

Village of the Damned (1995)

*. Apparently John Carpenter remarked in an interview somewhere that he didn’t particularly want to do a remake of the classic 1960 film Village of the Damned. He wasn’t personally invested in the project at all, and only agreed to do it because he was under contract.
*. That would normally send off some alarm signals, but (1) contract work can still be highly professional and of good quality, and (2) aside from The Thing, I’m not sure how many movies Carpenter ever made that gave me the sense that he cared very much about them. I think he’s always been pretty up front about directing being just another job.
*. Still, this version of Village of the Damned seems particularly uninspired and unnecessary. Unlike The Thing, which largely skipped over the Howard Hawks film to return to the original story, Carpenter’s Village of the Damned sticks very close to the 1960 film and doesn’t reach back to John Wyndham’s novel The Midwich Cuckoos much at all. In fact, if you told me that Carpenter hadn’t read The Midwich Cuckoos I wouldn’t be surprised.
*. To take just the most obvious example, Wyndham’s novel has nothing in it about the children being able to read minds. This was new to the film, and Carpenter adopts all of it here, down to the imagining of a mental wall to hide thoughts behind and the satchel at the end with a bomb in it.
*. A brief history of taboo words. In the 1960 original they actually make it through the entire first part of the film without ever saying the word “pregnant.” In this movie Kirstie Alley, in her public address to the villagers, says that “the choice is yours” as to whether they want to terminate their pregnancy, and that the government will even perform the procedure for them. That’s actually pretty bold, but you never hear her say the word “abortion.”
*. Reading a few of the contemporary reviews, it seems people were expecting Carpenter to come at them with more blood and guts. I’m surprised how tame it is. The camera shies away from the gore for the most part. Unfortunately, there’s only the one decent kill and that’s the man who accidentally falls on top of the BBQ when he passes out. I thought that was clever.
*. The glowing eye effects were overdone, and I got tired of them quickly. They also don’t make much sense. But again, this is a borrowing from the 1960 film.
*. Hello Michael Paré! And . . . good-bye Michael Paré! For getting near top billing he doesn’t hang around very long does he? With Eddie and the Cruisers (1983) he seemed like he was on his way to becoming a huge star. Goodness knows he’s stayed busy over the years — no small achievement in the movie business — but stardom never really happened.
*. And, tragically, goodbye Christopher Reeve, at least as a leading man. This was the last film he shot before the riding accident that left him paralyzed. At the time he was a guy who pretty much embodied the traditional figure of the handsome leading man.
*. It’s too bad that none of these movies really dig into the basic premise of the novel about the incompatibility of the two species, and how there can be no peaceful coexistence between them. I mean, this is a point that’s always mentioned in passing, but it seems important enough, at least to me, that I wanted them to argue about it more. Why would Reeve want to help the kids if he knows what’s really at stake, for example? And how much empathy should we humans really feel for them?
*. Perhaps the biggest change they made to the story was in having one of the kids develop a bit of empathy, then saving him from destruction. Unfortunately, I didn’t care for this character much (he’s so cute he even speaks with a slight lisp) and sort of wished he’d died with the others. As it was, I expected a final twist where we’d see his eyes glow, sort of like the rash breaking out on the little girl’s skin at the end of The Brood. But I guess we’re supposed to end up feeling that everything is going to be OK, at least until David hits puberty and starts taking girls out. Then I’m afraid it’s all over for us.

Children of the Damned (1964)

*. Sequels often disappoint by being just a rehash of the original. Producers can’t be blamed for that, since what audiences usually want is more of the same. It’s a bold move to break with a successful formula.
*. So I’ll give Children of the Damned credit, a lot of credit even, for trying to do something different. This isn’t Village of the Damned 2: The New Batch. Unfortunately, that just makes me feel even more disappointed at how bad it is.
*. The storylines in the two films are so different that it’s sometimes said that this isn’t a sequel. To some extent I agree, but the children are still supernatural offspring (virgin births), still have the same powers (mind reading and mind control, a shared group consciousness), and they did make use of the “Damned” again in the title, so a sequel of sorts it is.
*. I assume they’re the same alien hybrids as in the first movie, though even in Village of the Damned the business of their mothers’ impregnation was left murky, for obvious reasons, and we never really knew who their daddy was. In this film it’s often said that the explanation offered of a sudden evolutionary jump through parthenogenesis means that there is no alien impregnation, but accelerated evolution, a “biological sport,” is just presented as a hypothesis and wouldn’t rule out an alien breeding program anyway.
*. On the DVD commentary track writer John Briley says he thought of the film as essentially “a moral fable about the Cold War” and not a psychological thriller. That seems right to me. The basic idea is that the children represent the best and the brightest of the scientific community being co-opted by the military-industrial complex to create more advanced weapons system. Given what they’re able to put together in the church out of scraps and spare parts one can see the potential.
*. So basically this is an anti-war movie piggy-backing on the premise from Village of the Damned. Even the end is meant to make a point about how easy it would be to accidentally turn a cold war hot. And I credit Briley (who would later win an Academy Award for writing Gandhi) for his political stand. But at the end of the day I don’t think it works.
*. I don’t know if it’s possible to make such a movie without seeming preachy. Children of the Damned is preachy, and was apparently meant to be even preachier. The kids even hole up in a church for heaven’s sake!

*. Briley also wrote a creepy little movie called The Medusa Touch that, when you think about it, is very similar to Children of the Damned. I hadn’t thought about the connection until I found out he wrote The Medusa Touch when researching these notes. (Yes, I do research. Not much, but a bit.)
*. When Doctors Llewellyn and Neville go knocking on Paul’s door and they are greeted by the lovely Barbara Ferris (playing Paul’s aunt) she asks them if she can help them. A leering Doctor Neville chortles “Rather!”
*. This seemed a bit out of character but I didn’t think much of it. Then, listening to Briley’s commentary, I was surprised to hear him say that he had to work hard to keep the audience from thinking of the two doctors as homosexuals. To be honest, I had never thought of this. Then, re-watching it, I guess I could see where people might get that idea. They never seem to hook up with Ferris. On the other hand, they are shown as sleeping in separate bedrooms.
*. I wonder if Black Sabbath were inspired by this movie when they wrote the song “Children of the Grave.” That was released in 1971 and the lyrics talk about children rising up to protest against war. There are lines like “Must the world live in the shadow of atomic fear? Can they win the fight for peace or will they disappear?” It’s not too much of a stretch to think there was some influence. I mean, they got the name of the band from the marquee outside a theatre playing Bava’s Black Sabbath.
*. Well, to sum up, it’s all quite earnest but I didn’t find it very interesting. I like the junior Anacharsis Cloots congress marching about London but they just don’t have the same edge that the cuckoos from the first film had. John Wyndham’s main theme about a competition between incompatible species never gets much of a hearing. These kids are the good guys, not damned at all but sent from above to redeem fallen humanity, and ending up much like that other fellow. This be the verse.