Mar 6, 2013

IT AIN'T THAT BAD: VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED

In this column, movies with less-than-stellar reputations are fairly and objectively defended. Full disclaimer establishes that said movies aren’t perfect, and aren’t close to being such, but contain an undeniable amount of worth that begs you for a second chance. Films chosen are based on their general reception by both critics and audiences, more often than not falling into the negative. Every film, no matter how dismal, has at least one good quality. As they say, it ain’t that bad. 

Spoilers abound.


It goes without saying that John Carpenter gave the world the absolute greatest horror remake with The Thing. I highly doubt you could find many individuals willing to contest that. Fourteen years later, he gave the world another remake of a classic from the golden age. Utterly reviled upon its release (much like The Thing), Village of the Damned enjoyed a fine opening weekend at the box office and made enough money to be considered a success. But unlike The Thing, most critics and fans have not done a 180 as far as Village is concerned. They hated it then and they hate it now. Their reasoning for their distaste runs rampant: miscasting, a severe lack of character development, a thinly-plotted and inconsistent script.

I can’t say I disagree with any of that. But more on that in a minute.

A quick rundown of the plot for those who have never seen it (and you should be warned, spoilers abound from here till the end): the town of Midwich falls victim to a mysterious black-out of sorts that causes everything with a pulse to pass out. For hours, all lay crumpled on the floor, or the ground (or yikes...the roaring grill). They eventually awake, unsure of what’s happened, but try to get on with their lives...until it’s revealed that all of the women in town are now mysteriously pregnant, including the virgin, or the biologically barren. The government catches wind, shows up to see what’s the what, and once there, never actually leaves again. The children are born with blonde hair and a very special skill set: they have the power to control your mind and make you do things you would never normally do - to others as well as yourself. Carnage, as always, ensues.


Even the most ardent Carpenter fan (and I certainly count myself as one) has to admit that he peaked with The Thing, and after They Live, never quite reached the same heights of quality again. (In the Mouth of Madness is the only exception.) And Village of the Damned is nestled somewhere in his run of entertaining-but-maudlin offerings of the 1990s.

Nothing against Christopher Reeve, but he doesn’t quite bring his A-game to this production, and I doubt it was an indifference to the material, considering (and not to speak ill of the dead) that he wasn’t really one of the more celebrated thespians of his generations for a reason. Still, he’s perfectly satisfying as Dr. Alan Chaffee, and from time to time even feels more at home playing the father of an evil alien leader than he ever did as Superman. Given their working relationship and lasting friendship, it’s way too easy to picture Kurt Russell in the Chaffee role - that kind of simple fan-casting has the power to make you look back on the film with incredibly different, what-could-have-been eyes. Linda Kozlowski (mostly known for the Crocodile Dundee franchise) also provides a perfectly serviceable performance as Jill McGowan, but spends most of the film looking dour and downtrodden. The only one apparently having any fun is Kirstie Alley as Dr. Vurner, the cigarette-smoking, fed-clothes wearing bitch who seems to know from the very beginning just what is happening to the town of Midwich... but doesn't feel the need to clue in anyone else until it’s basically too late. (Oh, let's not forget Mark Hamill, cheesing it up as Reverend George, just pleased as punch to be part of a major studio production again.)

The problem is there is barely any interaction between characters in this film. Reeve has scenes with everyone, but the other supporting characters barely speak to each other. Though they both have major roles, Kozlowski and Alley don’t exchange a single word to each other. Perhaps it was a purposeful choice to limit Dr. Vurner’s interaction with other members of the town, but there doesn't seem to be an endgame to support it. Much more information could have been fed to the audience; more opportunities for human drama were missed. For instance, Vurner wants to dissect the kids, knowing that they're evil. Yet, Jill's blond son seems decent and good. Right there could have been an interesting conflict worth pursuing.

The biggest flaw with the script by David Himmelstein (including an uncredited rewrite by occasional Carpenter writing partner Larry Sulkis [Ghosts of Mars] and Steven Siebert) is that it feels like whole sections were removed - either in the writing stage or the editing stage. Obviously there have to be leaps through time in order for the newborns to age, from infant to toddler to elementary-school age, but often time it feels as if important developments are also being left behind. For instance, at a town hall meeting, Dr. Vurner confirms that every fertile female in town has become mysteriously pregnant, and therefore has attracted government attention. She presents them with a choice: Have an abortion and the government will pay for it, or carry the children to term and the government will pay for that, too - along with a monthly allowance of three thousand dollars. (The catch for this second choice is that Dr. Vurner or her team of scientists would like access to the children on a weekly basis for research purposes.) After the pregnant women have dreams featuring some really bad ‘80s music-video-inspired set dressing, they all decide to keep their kids. This really fucks up Vurner’s plan to cut open one of the aborted fetuses to see what they’re made of. Long preamble aside, this is the point: All the women in town are pregnant. Earlier I described them as “fertile” women, but that’s really just an assumption. It’s never stated if it really is every woman (the young? the elderly?) or just the ones biologically capable of carrying to term. Vurner confirms that “all [the women] have decided to keep their babies.” When the time comes, dozens (dozens!) of women go into labor. There is only one confirmed miscarriage. But yet, we jump through time, and there are only nine of the special children. So what happened to the rest? Were there more? Did the others die? Were the other children born normally? If so, where are they? And why wasn’t this ever mentioned?


Speaking of the one woman who miscarried, why is so she so upset about it? At this point it’s well-established that there is something off about the kids - and that they’re kinda jerks. So why wait five or six or seven years to blow her head off? One would think she’d be relieved she didn’t squeeze out one of the little blond turds.

But hey, we’re here to defend Village of the Damned, right?

It’s no surprise that, muddied screenplay aside, Carpenter’s direction and choices manage to shine through and make some of the more absurd aspects of the film interesting. For someone who questioned his ability as an "actor's director" in the beginning of his career, his ease with successfully utilizing children - nine, in fact - is cause for celebration.

First, it's rare when the performances by a child outshine those of their adult counterparts. Lindsey Haun as Mara, the children's ringleader, is quite good. Her role is atypical, and her task is memorizing large chunks of somewhat complicated and technical dialogue while removing any semblance of emotion from her voice. She very much manages to be eerie and intimidating, and as far as evil kids go, is far more effective than the kid from The Omen

Playing the thorn in Mara's side is the young Thomas Dekker as David, the only of the children seemingly born with humanity. His role is actually surprisingly complex in a philosophical aspect. He questions himself constantly, confused by these "emotions" he sometimes feels. He questions why he mourns for someone he's never met - that of the baby which miscarried, which would have been his "partner." From the very beginning he seems different from the rest, and his mother recognizes this. Dekker is quite good as well, and would go on to have a rather successful career for a young actor, his most high profile role as that of John Connor in television's "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles." (Although, to me, he'll always be the hospital-bound Bobby in the episode of "Seinfeld" who demands that Kramer tell Yankee Paul O'Neill he needs to hit two home runs.)

(As an aside, I'll mention that one of the other children is played by Shawna Waldron, best known as having played Icebox in Little Giants. She has one line of dialogue - it's not bad. The end.)

There's an especially well-constructed montage which takes place at the funeral of the young woman who opted to remove herself from earth following her miscarriage. Reverend George gives an impassioned eulogy for the departed, all the while (and it would seem, for the first time), acknowledging the evil that has plagued their small town.
God said, "Let us make man in Our image, after Our likeness.” But image does not mean outer image, or every statue or photograph would be man. It means the inner image—the spirit, the soul. But what of those in our midst who do not have individual souls? Or spirits? They have one mind that they share between them—one spirit. They have the look of man, but not the nature of mankind…
It's the first and perhaps only time in the film a parent attempts to reach out to the other parents and ask them, basically, "Our kids are the fucking devil. Is there anything we can do?" Juxtaposed against this scene are the children out and about, doing some single-file marching. It sounds stupid, and Hammil's monologue borders on the cheesy, but with Carpenter's eye and music, it works quite well.

The visual effects by Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) is impressive. What was a somewhat hokey effect in the original Village has been re-imagined, utilizing the full color spectrum that changes in accordance to the children's level of intensity they are exhibiting, and sometimes even revealing the children's interior physical structure at key moments. Granted, what looked impressive in 1995, compared to the CGI extravaganzas of today in which entire countries are eviscerated, might seem somewhat simple, but ILM, who worked with Carpenter previously on Starman and Memoirs of an Invisible Man, does nice work here.



Ohhh...and the finale. How I love this finale. Once again, the use of Carpenter’s superior musical skills (sharing duty with Dave Davies) makes the finale incredibly affecting. From the first shotgun shell to the final explosion, the music, the quick (and quickening) cuts, and the jumping back and forth among the carnage outside - it’s all immensely suspenseful and satisfying. It gets your blood pumping and works on a very simplistic level - it appeals to what Carpenter calls “the lizard brain” the human race still possesses from our very early genetic roots; our need for destruction and domination. The finale is quite literally a race against time, permeated by the ticking clock counting down to the detonation of the explosives hidden inside Chaffee’s briefcase. And the brick wall he envisions in his head to block the children from seeing his motivations for keeping them in the old barn begins to slowly chip away. The music builds and builds and - in one of my favorite moments of any Carpenter film - finally ceases, a small choir on the soundtrack lets out a single sigh, all goes quiet, the kids look at the clock realizing this has been his plan all along...and quite literally, the roof is blown off the place. It's the stuff of film boners.

I remember reading at one point that Wes Craven was attached to this remake, a stipulation of his current contract with Universal Studios, and John Carpenter offered to Craven that he would take it on instead. This knowledge, coupled with his own comments on the original movie calling it "hilarious," would make one think that Village of the Damned wasn't exactly a passion project. But the aforementioned finale on which I heaped all my praise was evidently enough for the filmmaker to take on the assignment.

He said:
"The reason I wanted to remake The Thing was because of the blood test [scene]. The reason I wanted to remake this one [Village] was because of the brick wall scene."
When I was a wee one, I remember sitting down at the dinner table with my family and listening to my parents discuss the winners and losers at that year's Academy Awards, which had aired a night or two before. (Braveheart took home best picture.) I remember asking, in all of my naivety, if Village of the Damned had won any awards (as I had just seen it on video that week). My father gave me a funny look and asked, "For what? Worst movie of the year?" Also during this time, I had known someone personally who had gone to see Village in theaters, and had become so terrified that she began having a panic attack and an ambulance had to be called. This was kind of a defining moment for me as a film fan. At this young age I realized there was a real chasm between films that critics liked and films that general moviegoers liked - and an additional chasm strictly between moviegoers, who have never and will never agree on the quality of any one film.

I would never call Village of the Damned a great film, because, to be honest, it's not. But there are enough good things about it to justify its own existence. 

3 comments:

  1. Loved it when I saw it at the theatre, and still love it... warts and all. Some nice comments.

    ReplyDelete
  2. "Perhaps it was a purposeful choice to limit Dr. Vurner’s interaction with other members of the town, but there doesn't seem to be an endgame to support it" - er... the kids could read peoples' MINDS... surely the fewer people she spoke to the better?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sure, I buy that. But because the screenplay fails to mention the logic behind her hesitation to interact, it will have to remain theory. Besides, her interacting with other characters doesn't automatically equate to her spilling the beans on what the government knows about the kids. Interaction could have been far simpler, free of eyes-only info, and aided in fleshing her out as a character.

      Delete