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October 18, 2010

Hammer Films Month - These Are the Damned

I went into Hammer's 1963 sci-fi flick These Are the Damned almost completely blind.  (Of course, I don't mean I was physically blind, more that I was blind to the film's trappings.  If you thought I was physically blind, you probably thought I was silly for having a movie blog.  But I digress...)  All I knew about the film, directed by Joseph Losey (a Wisconsin born director who defected to Britain after being accused of communist subversion by the House Un-American Activities Committee), was that it was a well regarded sci-fi film that promised some type of damnation.  That's all you need to know about a movie, right?
Truthfully, I could have used a little more information going into the film, because - for at least the first half hour of the film - I had no idea what it was going on about.  The opening scenes show the effects of a leather-clad "teenage" gang and their leader, King (Oliver Reed), a non-leather clad fellow with a dagger in his umbrella and a penchant for whistling.  After King and his gang assault an American tourist (Macdonald Carey), said tourist takes up with King's sister Joan (Shirley Anne Field).  In the meantime, a driftwood carver (Viveca Lindfors, Creepshow's Aunt Bedelia) presents an ominous "graveyard bird" sculpture to a mysterious fellow played by Alexander Knox.  We find out that Knox's Bernard is working at a military facility with some secluded children, and we find that Lindfors' Freya is renting a cottage from him near the base.  In the meantime, King chases the tourist and Joan to the seaside cottage, and the characters' paths officially cross.
In the set-up, there's a lot of talk about "the era of senseless violence" spoken by Bernard and Lindfors - cementing the fact that they share a dreary perspective on life.  We're also sure early on that King is more than just a street bully, mostly because Reed gives the character an evil charm that hints of psychosis.  These are just two of the ways that the picture the film paints is incredibly bleak - and we really haven't even met the children.  The film's plot really takes off when the tourist and Joan, followed by King, jump the fence into the military facility and encounter those children.
I'm not sure how much more I really want to say about the plot behind These Are the Damned, because it's so unique.  I will say that the 1950s' favorite sci-fi topic - atomic power/the danger of radiation - is of course involved, but the method of distribution for this gimmick is different than anything I'd expect.  This is Godzilla without a lizard, focusing on the dangers that those who come into contact with this plague without letting them know what towers over them.
 Let's jump back to those children.  As they're shown in their underground home, secluded from any adults that don't appear on a television screen, it's hard not to see them as livestock.  There's an obvious connection to the famed American flick Village of the Damned, but never does this film feel like a retread.  These aren't emotionless souls, they're real children who simply don't know what they're up against.  One of the most heartbreaking things about seeing the film unveil its plot is the realization that these children are the ultimate victims of "the era of senseless violence".
The final act brings all the film's ideas to light, and I'd be lying if I said I didn't find it all a bit over-zealous.  Despite plenty of opportunities to cop out, the film maintains a dark vision of these characters and their predicament all the way through the final frame.  The film also features some realistically creepy moments, particularly a first person tracking shot in which someone - or something - makes its way across the children's school house/dormitory.  Considering when the film was made, this moment of putting us inside the mind of the killer is far ahead of its time.  It's just another example of how Losey - a director who knows the cruelty of government paranoia first hand - keeps the viewer on edge for the length of the film.
These Are the Damned is another example of Hammer Films pushing the boundaries of genre cinema, and is yet another title that surprised me from their back catalog.  This is a relevant sci-fi film that carries a lot of weight, even if the plot's twists border on cheesy.  I'm excited to see it again, because this might quickly become one of my favorite sci-fi films of the 1960s - if not any decade. 

If you're at all interested, These Are the Damned is available to view online via Crackle (for freez!), and will be playing on October 22nd (aka THIS FRIDAY!) on Turner Classic Movies as part of their night of Hammer sci-fi (start time = 11:15 PM EST)!  Do yourself a favor and make time for this Damned movie!


Anonymous said...

I was just reading up on this film the other day, so I know the plot and what's going on with the kids. You're so right in saying its unique. I would love to see this Hammer film.
BTW, TCM had The Gorgon on the other night. I hadn't seen The Gorgon before but I really enjoyed it. I love how it wasn't about Medusa but one of her other sister Gorgons. Nice touch.
Dreaded Dreams
Petunia Scareum

The Mike said...

Oooh, The Gorgon is one I haven't gotten to yet. Very excited to see it.

Thanks for reading!