Saturday, August 11, 2012

While they were sleeping...

An hour before midday in the village of Midwich everyone went to sleep. People slumped over desks, tables, steering wheels and sinks, livestock lay in fields, limbs splayed, a woman was facedown in a cart full of cabbage, a head among heads, and a tractor drove in circles until it hit a tree. The military’s brought in to investigate and they too fall asleep. A plane is sent in to get a better view, and the plane goes down in a ball of fire. Then, some hours later, just as abruptly as they fell asleep, everyone wakes up (except for that most unfortunate pilot). No one knows what happened. Until two months later, when every woman of childbearing age in the village turns up pregnant. 

The opening scenes of Village of the Damned (1960) constitute a paragon of captivating economy. This fairly faithful adaptation of Wyndham Lewis’ The Midwich Cuckoos sets up its fantastic premise with chilling sobriety. Director Wolf Rilla’s coverage of each scene is clean, quick, and packed with information. Crucially, there is no music; Ron Goodwin’s score is smartly held off until we’re well into the story. Nothing in the atmosphere of this little British film eases us in; there are no genre tropes to console us; really weird shit is conveyed with realism. That’s why it’s scary. 

Then things get more interesting. Our hero, Professor Gordon Zellaby (George Sanders), probably in his early 60s, is married to Anthea (Barbara Shelley), a much younger woman. They seem very much in love. They have no children, to their great sadness. Anthea’s pregnancy comes as a miracle. Which is of course the problem. It is a miracle, or at least a phenomenon of elusive origin, just like the town’s newly pregnant teenage virgin, who must think she’s either mothering the Second Coming or some Satanic goblin. All these women appear to have gotten knocked up during that attack of collective sleeping sickness. They all give birth at the same time, far ahead of schedule, to eerily perfect little Aryan children with strange eyes. And the children grow with supernatural velocity, and they’re smart as whips. And they’re not friendly. And, it would seem, they’re telepathic. 

While never resorting to facile portent, Village of the Damned lets us know from the start that something deeply disconcerting is unfolding; it generates suspense by letting wonder just how it will unfold. I’m probably not spoiling much by telling you that the women of Midwich have been made the midwives of some hostile external force—without even being aware of it, they’ve been subject to a mass rape. The thing about the source novel’s title: cuckoos lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, and then their offspring try to take over those nests. 

Sanders gives a performance of rare tenderness. The villagers imbue the film with a pleasing authenticity. But it’s the actors who aren’t supposed to seem like real people that stand out. The kids are really creepy, especially little Martin Stephens as the Zellaby’s child. Their vehement anti-sentimentalism has often been compared to that of the titular aliens in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), and both films have been rightly read as parables for the era’s anti-Communist anxieties. But beyond these potent political metaphors there is a more terrifyingly timeless reading, something to do with the shadow side of parenting. Who are these little monsters? And how could they have possible came from us? 

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