Sunday, May 22, 2016

Village of the Damned (1995)

Village of the Damned (1995) is a mystery to me. On paper, it sounds like a home run. John Carpenter did wonders with his version of The Thing, and you'd think letting him tackle another remake of a 1950s sci fi classic would produce the same magic. Unfortunately, while not an outright dud and actually better than I remember, Village of the Damned is a disappointment.

The small town of Midwich, population 2,000, is one of those happy, little post-card towns, where life is simple and the pressures of the big city are far away. One day, at precisely 10 a.m., every man, woman, child, and animal within the village blacks out, and six hours later, they all wake up, seemingly no worse for wear (except for the guy who passed out on the grill and the car crash victim). Then, it becomes apparent ten of the women are pregnant, and nine months laters, they give birth. But something is ... off about the children. They are cold, emotionless, and all have the same platinum hair. Oh, and they have telekinesis, which they use to make adults kills themselves.

Based on the sci fi novel The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham and the 1960 movie directed by Wolf Rilla, also called Village of the Damned, Carpenter's take has a lot going for it. The original movie was condemned as blasphemous by the Catholic Church for suggesting a virgin birth, and the word "pregnant" could not be said because of rating standards of the time. Carpenter and his screenwriters can bring that stuff more out into the open and even depict the childbirth sequence. The idea of abortion is brought up.

The cast is nothing if not noteworthy. Christopher Reeve plays the town doctor whose daughter Mara (Lindsey Haun) becomes the leader of the children. Kirstie Alley is a mysterious, chain-smoking government scientist who knows more than she lets on. Linda Kozlowski is the school principal whose son David (Thomas Dekker) develops emotions. Mark Hamill is the town pastor, and Carpenter regulars Peter Jason and George Buck Flower turn up in supporting roles.

But strangely, the movie feels incomplete, as if important scenes were never filmed or were filmed but got cut. The first 35 minutes or so, which deals with the blackout and its fallout, work reasonably well, building a spooky atmosphere and intriguing mystery, but once the kids arrive, things go awry. Years progress in the narrative, but only the children seem to age, and characters and subplots that were introduced in the first act are dropped or rushed in the second act with little fanfare.

Certain things are presented without context. We're told the town is dying and people are leaving, that the children seem to respect Reeve's character, that Reeve was part of the science project studying the children but left, and that the children don't fit in regular school, but little of this is shown. Most characters, like Flower's drunk janitor, exist mostly to antagonize the kids so they'll kill them. There are intriguing narrative, character, and thematic angles that could have been exploited marvelously, but the movie seems uninterested in doing so, content to go from shock killing to shocking killing.

That might be less of a complaint if the scares were done better, but for a Carpenter film, some are shockingly hokey. A doctor accidentally burns one of the children during an exam, and the children make her blind herself by pouring chemicals into her eyes. The whole scene is weak, contrived, and poorly acted. Another man is forced to drive his truck into a gas tank, which is located right at the end of the road. Alley informs Reeve the government has destroyed all the other towns where similar children have been born and plans to do the same to Midwich, and this development is never mentioned again.

The movie picks up some energy and excitement in the final 15 minutes or so. The Army and police mount an assault against the children, and the children control them into annihilating each other. The final confrontation between Reeve and the children, when he created a mental image of brick wall to keep them from reading his thoughts, is the best scene in the movie, with the kids' alien nature coming more to forefront as they try harder to peer inside his mind. The camera slams repeatedly into the brick wall, which begins crumbling under the mental assault.

Performances are mostly fine. Reeve does well in his last big role before a horseback riding accident paralyzed him, and Kozlowski is sympathetic as the mother, but Alley is completely lost in a vague, miscast part. The child actors are pretty good for the most part, convincingly alien and at times rather creepy, but they aren't helped by a dye job that makes them look like they're wearing bad Beatles wigs.

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