Collins’ Crypt: In Defense Of VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED
My screening series at the New Beverly ended in 2014, which bummed me out for a lot of reasons. Most of them were general (i.e. "It was a really fun thing to do") but a couple were very specific - such as the fact that it was a few months short of a 20th anniversary screening of John Carpenter's Village of the Damned that I had already mentally sworn to arrange. No one will argue that it's one of Carpenter's better films (even JC himself doesn't seem to think too much of it), but I feel it's under-appreciated and unfairly maligned even by his fans, and as at the time the only thing we had to reappraise it was a barebones DVD (which was one of the first I ever got, in fact), I figured a big-screen revival would at least change a few local horror fans' minds, at least. Plus producer Sandy King was always game to come to my screenings of her films (doing so for In The Mouth of Madness and Vampires), and she was always a great guest - it woulda been a fun screening.
I also had a more personal reason for wanting to host this particular film - it was the first time I got to see a "John Carpenter movie" theatrically. My mom turned down requests for a ride to In The Mouth of Madness (in her defense, it was during a snowstorm, so I couldn't blame her), and so my only other theatrical Carpenter experience was a technical one: Memoirs of an Invisible Man. Having very little idea of who Carpenter was when I sat down for that "Chevy Chase movie" a few years earlier, I couldn't really count it as one - besides it's one of the very few movies in his filmography that doesn't have his name on the title. No, Village was the first time I went out to the theater specifically to support my still-burgeoning love of Carpenter, and I've obviously seen every one released since, plus (mostly thanks to the New Beverly) I've caught all the others on revival screenings, so I thought it'd be a nice way to come full circle as well.
Luckily, Scream Factory shares my enthusiasm for the film, adding it to their considerable roster of Carpenter selections in their library (I was so close!) and giving it their usual deluxe treatment - new interviews, a retrospective, a look at the shooting locations, the original EPK, etc. So it's likely that folks will give it another shot anyway, but I figured I'd add it to my own collection of "In Defense of" titles, if only for the fact that it might be the only Carpenter movie not yet covered by either Phil Nobile Jr or myself at this point. But when I sat down to watch after deciding to focus on it for my next piece, I quickly remembered why I never got the hate for this one - I think it's actually a slight improvement on the original, and let's not forget that below par Carpenter is still worthwhile entertainment.
Right off the bat we get some solid work, with Carpenter deftly setting up Michael Paré as a major character and then killing him off in the first ten minutes, the sole named victim of the blackout that strikes the town of Midwich and leaves ten of its women pregnant. There's a poor bastard who got knocked out while tending a grill and was thus immolated when he fell asleep on it, but Paré had it worse, driving full speed when the supernatural force struck him, sending him off the road and into another truck, which explodes and kills him instantly. No, our real hero is Christopher Reeve (in what would be his last performance before his accident), the town's doctor and pretty much the only one the evil children seem to tolerate, for whatever reason. It's a really good performance from the actor that made me wonder once again why he was never a big star outside of the Superman films (ever look at his Boxofficemojo chart? It's pretty grim), and he's backed by a pretty good roster of co-stars that include Carpenter regulars (Buck Flower and Peter Jason) and left-field choices, like Kirstie Alley as the not-fully-evil scientist studying the children.
Carpenter also stages some pretty great kill scenes, aided by Gary Kibbe doing some of his better work as the filmmaker's go-to DP in the post Cundey years. Bad dummy notwithstanding (and it looks even worse on Blu-ray), Buck Flower's death is a fine little setpiece that mildly pays homage to The Omen for good measure, and the immolation of the lady in the town square is pretty horrifying. Plus, the big action finale, where the children set their sights on a bunch of cops, is terrific B-movie entertainment, a smorgasbord of stunts and pyrotechnics that might actually be one of Carpenter's last really good action scenes (I like Escape from LA, but man... that movie's action is marred in almost every way possible). This sequence is also backed up by a terrific cue titled "March of the Children", which you sadly can barely hear over all the gunfire and explosions, though it rightfully kicks the soundtrack album off to make up for it. Carpenter is playing his LA show in June, and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't praying he surprises everyone by pulling this one out of his closet - I'd much rather hear it live than some of the more obvious choices (plus, co-composer Dave Davies is joining him for the tour, so it'd be even more fitting a selection).
As for the kids, I think they're pretty good and sufficiently creepy. Lindsey Haun as their leader is a fine addition to the canon of evil children characters (and on her interviews she seems pretty bubbly, making the performance even more impressive considering it was her first feature film), and thankfully Carpenter didn't have her or any of the others do anything stupid like move their arms around when using their powers - just a focused look (with CGI-enhanced eyeballs) suffice. And in one of the film's biggest changes from the original film and source novel, we get a "half-human" child, David (future John Connor Thomas Dekker) whose "partner" died at childbirth and as a result he's not as much in sync with the others, showing mild signs of human emotion. Carpenter may often go for a cynical and/or ambiguous ending in his films, but this is one of the exceptions (spoiler), as when we see David in the car at the end, leaving Midwich behind, there's no silly "and then his eyes glow!" moment or whatever to send us on our way - he seems perfectly human, which offers a glimmer of hope and suggests that humanity can be enough to defeat the alien oppressors. It's subtle, but it's rather sweet, especially in a Carpenter film - this would pair better with Starman than They Live or The Thing. I do wish they interacted with other kids, however - the original offers a few such moments and they are missed here, as it seems the town is devoid of all other children (weird when one of the main characters is the school's principal). On the retrospective we see a still of a deleted playground encounter, though the reasons for its removal are not made clear (Carpenter and King both kind of phase themselves out of the retrospective; the actors do most of the talking).
But that's a minor quibble. If there's anything really holding the movie back, it's that it's often too rushed, to the extent where it almost feels like it's missing a second act. In the other versions of the story (meaning the first film and the source novel The Midwich Cuckoos), the children age at an accelerated rate (in the book, for example, at aged nine they appear nearly twice that), but if that's the case here I can't tell - it just seems like that much time has gone by. A flash-forward kicks off with the town having been largely abandoned; we see overgrown weeds and other signs of a place that was left behind, with many residents presumably scared off for good by the creepy-ass children who walk in unison and use telepathy to kill anyone who offends them in the slightest way. I would have loved to have seen more of the various parents' gradual realization of how "off" their children were, and perhaps some more of their inner turmoil - Reeve in particular never gets a moment where he gets to show any real parental love for the child - she drives the mother to suicide when she's an infant, but after that it skips ahead to where he's already treating his daughter as a villain. Peter Jason refers to the studio taking the movie away from Carpenter before he could finish it (I assume he means finish "editing" it, not "shooting"), so my guess is that there probably was at least a little more of this stuff in an earlier cut, but excised by a studio wanting to get to the killer kid action sooner.
That said, the original is guilty of the same thing - if anything Carpenter's film is more fleshed out in certain respects. Original director Wolf Rilla wastes no time getting to the blackout - it occurs in the first two minutes, after we've only met a single character (unlike Carpenter's, which introduces several of the leads and allows them some interactions before knocking them all out cold). And it also kind of races through some of the things that I think would be interesting (especially now as a parent), such as the cold attitudes the parents have toward the children (who are slightly less robotic in the original, it should be noted). Carpenter's film at least offers one compassionate parent (Linda Kozlowski's character, who is David's mother) who won't give up on her son the way that all of the other parents have - the Rilla film has no equivalent, really. In fact, there are no real roles for the females at all in the original movie - we spend most of the time with the men (many of them in the military) and the boy David is the leader of the children (meaning the only one who really stands out). The closest exception is Barbara Shelley, but she does very little and apart from the occasional motherly action (bandaging a cut on her son's finger, for example) she mostly just has a glorified housewife role. And there's no real equivalent of the Kirstie Alley character, so if you're looking for a more feminine-friendly version of this story, Carpenter's is the way to go, no contest.
But that's probably just another byproduct of the film's baffling lack of defense, even among Carpenter's faithful fans. It's a solid film that respects the original (Rilla even stopped by the set - you can see some footage of it on the EPK) while carving its own identity, adding intriguing tweaks that overcame the studio interference that kept them from reaching their full potential. Add in the solid score and the allure of Reeve's last real performance, and you get a movie I'm really not sure why anyone ever says is worthless or unwatchable (yes, I've heard both). I've said before that I have eight films in my top five Carpenter selections*, so ultimately I suspect that the real reason for its low reputation is because he had set his bar so high with so many of his others. Guess there are worse problems a filmmaker could have, though now that he's more or less retired from filmmaking in favor of his music, I hope folks are using the time to reappraise some of the ones that didn't get their due.
*Halloween, The Thing, Assault on Precinct 13, The Fog, Prince of Darkness/Escape From New York/In The Mouth of Madness/Big Trouble in Little China.