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Village of the Damned/Children of the Damned

Based on legendary sci-fi novelist John Wyndham's The Midwich Cuckoos, Wolf Rilla's terse, smart Village of the Damned remains one of the more effective and chilling relics of the cautionary Cold War cinema, while its not-really sequel (more like a variation on a theme), Anton Leader's Children of the Damned comes off today as an earnest curiosity that surrenders its right to entertain to the seriousness of its heavy-handed allegory. Released three years apart, in 1960 and 1963, it's possible that the relative sobriety of the second film is an anxious response to the near-miss apocalypse of the Cuban Missile Crisis. But, more likely, it's simply a case of two screenwriters with wildly differing sensibilities. Village of the Damned was written by Sterling Silliphant, a tireless, studio-friendly scribe responsible for the cult television classic "Route 66," the Oscar-winning In the Heat of the Night, and, more ignobly, a number of Irwin Allen disaster epics, including the genre's nadir, The Swarm. While Silliphant's involvement may not have guaranteed quality, there was at least a dependable intelligence at work that would respond to the brainier assignments passed its way, and Wyndham's clever, pulpy tome certainly brought out the inventive best in the writer. The film begins with an intriguingly inexplicable incident that finds the people of a small British hamlet falling into a collective coma. After a few hours, they come to, but, some time later, every woman of child-bearing age in the town, even the virginal, finds herself pregnant, causing a range of reactions from joy to utter horror. Gordon Zellaby (George Sanders) and his wife Anthea (Barbara Shelly) are among those particularly cheerful at this development, but when the birthed bounty of this phenomenon turn out to be unfeeling, rapidly aging, preternaturally intelligent beings, the joy of eventual parenthood is replaced with a slow-building horror. Silliphant and Rilla opt for a long-ish set-up, allowing the viewer substantial time to invest in the nightmarish scenario, which is ably anchored by Sanders, whose calm, reasoned approach to the children is far more sympathetic than the suspicious, kill-'em-all mob mentality that finally takes hold. Themes of integration, appeasement and, of course, atom-age hysteria pepper the work, but Silliphant resists the temptation to drag down the narrative with shrill message-mongering, which is in direct contrast with the sledgehammer approach of John Briley, who verily screams his "peace on earth" plea with mounting intensity as Children of the Damned sulks toward its tragic conclusion. Well-directed by television vet Leader, this follow-up is a finger-wagging admonishment to a world speeding toward Armageddon. Preferring to explore the global implications of inconceivably brilliant children, Briley's take imagines the planet's major powers hoarding their mini-Einsteins in a manner that reflects the day's Mutually Assured Destruction philosophy. The idea is a good one, but Briley unfortunately uses it as an opportunity to preach peace and disarmament. This time, the children (there are only seven of them, one for each world power) band together in a dilapidated church, where they begin constructing a mechanical device of unknown use. The assembled world leaders of course assume the worst, figuring that, if they can't control the children, they must destroy them. Only a sensitive psychologist, Dr. David Neville (Alan Badel), and a young woman, Susan Eliot (Barbara Ferris), who becomes a sort of den mother to the little geniuses, attempt to intervene on the children's behalf, but they are doomed to failure in an increasingly warlike world. By focusing so fiercely on the story's medicinal value, Briley undercuts any possible suspense, thus, presaging a burgeoning preference for Important Cinema that would inflict Gandhi and Cry Freedom on the moviegoing public. Children of the Damned is still an interesting companion piece, but it's not in the same league of its slier predecessor. Warner presents Village of the Damned and Children of the Damned in solid anamorphic transfers (1.85:1) with monaural Dolby Digital audio. Extras include feature-length commentaries by author Steve Haberman (on Village) and John Briley (on Children). Theatrical trailers, keep-case.
—Clarence Beaks

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