Village of the Damned (1960)
Written by Wolf Rilla
Directed by Stirling Silliphant, Wolf Rilla, and Ronald Kinnoch
Uncertainty is a regular part of life, but the systems we live under often create ways to blunt it. This is done by providing the citizens with a host of needed resources and using propaganda to shape their worldview. However, these systems can’t hold back the tide of reality forever and cracks inevitably appear. COVID-19 has been one of those uncertainty moments, something so significant that it pierces the veil and creates chaos. We are also conditioned to go into immediate denial (the effects of the propaganda) even if we see it happen right before us. “But I was assured,” we say, “That the people in charge have everything under control.” If you haven’t been convinced yet, just wait; things will get worse as denialism grows in the face of multiple global catastrophes.
From its opening scene, Village of the Damned sets a clear tone. The inhabitants of the British village of Midwich have fallen unconscious without warning. Anyone who enters the boundaries of Midwich also collapses, which immediately places the audience in the realm of the Weird. We are beyond our species’ established scientific knowledge and must look beyond what we know to find an answer. The military cordons off the village and observe. Four hours later, everyone wakes up and is examined by doctors. Nothing is found to have changed with their health, and everyone goes back to their lives left with questions.
Two months later, every person of child-bearing age with a uterus is pregnant, even a prominent community member’s unmarried underage teenage daughter. This leads to a collapse in social relations, with husbands turning on wives and parents on daughters. Accusations of infidelity and sexual promiscuity fly rampant. Medical experts aren’t as quick to believe these people became pregnant through sexual intercourse, which is made clear when all the people enter labor on the same day. The children mature rapidly, and all bear the same platinum blonde hair and “arresting” eyes. Over time it becomes clear these children are not human and are seen as a threat to the community.
Village of the Damned has some genre hallmarks, particularly its stoic tone. The film progresses like a documentary, holding back on musical flourishes or jump scares. The incident in Midwich is played as something that could plausibly happen, and science is looked to for answers. There’s a restraint to the direction that you aren’t likely to find now, very much a product of the era but one that matches perfectly with this picture. Director Wolf Rilla is not trying to terrify his audience but guide them into a sense of profound unease. The setting is a verdant English village; nothing could look sunnier or simpler, yet what’s happening is far beyond what you would ever expect. The most sensational thing about this film is probably its title.
I was surprised that the famous Midwich Cuckoos, the blonde alien children, appear in such a small portion of the picture. Its runtime is an extremely economical 77 minutes. By the time the children are born and aged up, there are only about 15-20 minutes left to go. Growing up seeing the movie referenced in film history books and horror magazines, I completely misunderstood their role in the story. The kids are important, but they are not the center of the movie; that is the idea of how humans approach the unknown and how we deal with things that cannot be explained using the standards of the time.
The murderous villains of the film ultimately end up being the human race, unable to understand these strange children who are popping up across the globe in similar villages that experienced hours of unconsciousness. I kept thinking about a former student who I’ve been messaging back and forth for a year now. They identify as genderfluid and have had the sort of difficulty you would expect in a small Tennessee town about talking to their loved ones. The reactionary response to the public acceptance of transgender/nonbinary people has been highly telling for me. We see the apparent limits of love some American parents have for their kids. I think most parents will accept their children for who they are, but there will always be those who let the fear of the different push them into destroying those relationships. The Midwich Cuckoos are a sort of reactionary metaphor; this is how the youth culture is generally seen by reactionaries. They are full of potential evil because of their different nature; their minds and bodies are things to be feared. It was a reaction to the growing consumer power of teenagers, how media began catering to the youth more explicitly, leaving the adults feeling that they were no longer in tune with the world.
The film’s central character Zellaby sees the children differently than the other adults. At one point, he muses, “They may be the world’s new people.” The children’s independence seems to terrify the grown-ups more than their powers. They lose relevance if they don’t have a population of smaller humans utterly dependent on them, looking to them for guidance in every aspect of their lives. The world is an uncertain place, and to see a new generation face the uncertainty by discovering themselves in ways that always have terrified our generation and the older ones is alienating. You combat that alienation by listening and understanding that as the children grow, our role changes. We must accept aging, and we must accept our roles as mentors & facilitators, emphasizing aiding young people in creating the world they want to live in.