Sunday, 31 July 2011
John Wyndham came up with an original alien invasion in his novel The Midwich Cuckoos (1957); Wolf Rilla's film, from a script by the American Stirling Silliphant (who uses a few Yank expressions that should have been changed - 'general store' for 'village shop'), is a low-key dramatisation and all the better for it.
The first half covers the Midwich blackout, so the business with the children - which takes place over years of plot-time - is sometimes a little rushed. There are a lot of secondary characters to cope with and the splendid Barbara Shelley (most caring of the mothers) gets pushed into the background so her scientist husband (George Sanders) can shoulder dramatic weight.
The sleeping village set-up is classic Quatermass stuff - a tractor grinding around in a circle, an iron burning a hole in a dress, a record stuck in a groove, a cow collapsed in a field. Everyone wakes up in convincing embarrassment, which gets odder as the pregnancies are announced, delivering the sort of emotions American s-f films, pitched at kiddies, didn't do in the 1960s: the awkward joy of the Zellabys at an unexpected event, the meek terror of the teenage virgin confessing to a doctor, the mute rage of the sailor home after a year abroad to find his wife knocked up, the quiet solidarity of a pregnant mother and daughter who visit the clinic at the same time.
Once the kids are born, it becomes a monster movie in which the threat is a malign higher intelligence with no moral grounding. What works is the shape the threat comes in: the Midwich Children are the creepiest ever seen on film, with identical blonde wigs (an unsettling effect is achieved by casting real-life brunette kids whose colouring is subtly wrong for their hair) and staring eyes (in some prints, a glowing effect was added). The polite spokesman for the group mind is played by Martin Stephens (also notable as Miles in The Innocents (d. Jack Clayton, 1961)) but dubbed by a grown woman. Rilla hints at the children's human side (they all solve a puzzle box to get chocolates) as well as a malevolence that is scary from an alien but might be even scarier from a human kid (Stephens' flicker of an almost-smile after forcing a motorist to kill himself is one of the nastiest shots in British cinema).
In spread-the-unease form, it ends with one of the first it-may-not-be-over endings (later a genre cliché): the glowing eyes, superimposed over the fire, zap off into the skies, suggesting that killing the kids' bodies may not have wiped out their disembodied intelligence.
MONTHLY FILM BULLETIN
THE BRITISH FILM INSTITUTE
Volume 27,No.318,July 1960,page 102
VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (1960)
When, for several hours, all life in the village of Midwich comes to a cataleptic stop, the authorities investigate. Two months pass before the implications of that eventful day become apparent, however. Six boys and six girls are born, each with the same flaxen hair and strangely powerful eyes, to women unable to account for their pregnancy. Time passes, and by the age of nine the twelve children are not only intellectual giants, but also seem to have supernatural powers. When two men oppose the children and die in mysterious circumstances, physicist Gordon Zellaby is forced to admit that the children, one of whom was born to his own wife, must in some way be responsible. Realising that there is no limit to the evil power of these children, already planning to spread out and multiply, Zellaby decides that he alone, whom they have come to trust, must be responsible for their destruction. And yet the children have long since proved themselves able to read his mind...
The solution of this excellent adaptation from John Wyndham's The Midwich Cuckoos can be recommended for its ruthless ingenuity, the story is original as these things go and has grip, the village background is pleasing and Wolf Rilla's direction (except for some irksome glimpses of George Sanders' marital bliss) both sharp and discreet. Altogether, in fact, with chillingly effective performances from the children to add to the tension, this is probably the neatest science fiction film yet to have come out of a British studio.
The Monthly Film Bulletin was published by the British Film Institute between 1934 and 1991. Initially aimed at distributors and exhibitors as well as filmgoers, it carried reviews and details of all UK film releases. In 1991, the Bulletin was absorbed by Sight and Sound magazine.