Attack of the RP Accents
(Village of the Damned, Wolf Rilla, UK, 1960, 77 minutes)
When John Carpenter released his version of Village of the Damned in 1995, he located the action in a Californian coastal town – diverting hugely from the quiet English shire town of Wyndham’s original 1957 novel, The Midwich Cuckoos. It’s an unnecessary shift, because – as Rilla recognises in his own adaptation, released thirty-five years earlier – the whole success of Village of the Damned lies in its preoccupation with rural Englishness and a distinctively twee tone.
The film opens with the residents of a fictional English village simultaneously falling into a mysterious slumber from which they cannot be woken; while they’re asleep, all the women in the area are impregnated by some uknown entity. Some are married, and do not question their pregnancies; others find their situation harder to explain or understand.
Sending a group of villagers fall asleep is hardly the most threatening alien attack seen on film, but it sums up Rilla’s approach perfectly: this is at times one of the gentlest, cosiest sci-fi horror films you’re ever likely to see. The villains of the piece are a gang of strange, intellectually advanced schoolchildren, apparently born of xenogenesis, with platinum-blonde hair and golden eyes as well as frightfully posh RP accents. As villains go, it doesn’t get much safer or more middle-class than that.
And despite all of this, Village of the Damned nonetheless manages to be a genuinely disturbing viewing experience. The children behave in ways that do not tally with their innocent, angelic faces: they relish their ability to read minds, thus depriving all Midwich residents of mental privacy, and they exact revenge, whenever they see fit, in damaging and harmful ways.
The scares here are all subtly done. Instances of genuine terror are so rare as to be non-existent. But then, Rilla isn’t making that sort of film: this is as much a portrayal of provincial England, with bobbies on bicycles and military men in berets, as it is a sci-fi story about alien life forms. The insidious influence of the children is all the more effective for the fact that the villagers around them enjoy simple, unassuming and quiet lives in Midwich.
The influence of Village of the Damned is highly evident in pop culture, not only via endless television spoofs but also in a number of other films of the sci-fi/horror canon. Probably the most notable of these is Alien, which borrows the idea of extra-terrestrial life forms incubating inside a human host. But such a comparison only underlines the contrasting subtlety and sophistication of Rill’s direction: where Alien relies on dramatic action sequences and a very stylised design, Village of the Damned subverts the usual horror norms to produce something far gentler, but with just as much power to unsettle.
It’s biggest strength is, of course, also its biggest downfall. There are times when its relentless gentility starts to cloy, and it feels like nothing so much as a Sunday afternoon movie. Perhaps the worst culprit here is Barbara Shelley, playing an impeccably put together Midwich mother. Her accent is perfectly clipped and her makeup flawless – but her overall demeanour jars with the horror context, as for much of the time Shelley seems to behave like a heroine in a light-hearted romantic comedy.
Viewers taking the film on its own terms, however, can be expected to delight in the its distinctively low-key approach to the sci-fi genre. Its fascination with the domestic, and how this can be played with in a horror context, are all part of the film’s charm. And if it’s not enough, there’s always John Carpenter.