Village of the Damned (1960) Is The Quintessential British Horror Movie

Editor’s note: All throughout October, the vibes get spookier and the nights get longer. It’s the perfect time of year to watch horror movies, whether you’re a year-round horror fan or you just like to watch horror flicks to get into the Halloween spirit. This year at Horror Obsessive, for our 31 Horror Classics Revisited series, we’re giving you one recommendation for a classic horror film each day throughout the month of October. What do you think–is this film a horror classic? What other horror films do you consider to be classics, and what films do you make sure you watch each October? Let us know in the comments below!

Village of the Damned is the quintessential British horror movie, which is kind of surprising as it didn’t start out life that way. Based on the book The Midwich Cuckoos, by John Wyndham—a man responsible for the fantastic Day of the Triffids, among others—Village of the Damned was originally written for an American setting, and during the three years it stayed in developmental was linked with lead actors such as John Lupton—someone mainly known for his forays in the war and western genres—and Russ Tamblyn who would eventually find his way into horror with The Haunting.

In 1960, Village of the Damned was moved from its American home, across the pond to MGM-British Studios, and it was here that German director Wolf Rilla came on board. He took one look at the script and decided that it wasn’t any good, at least not for the film he was trying to make, stating that Village of the Damned needed:

…a lot of work to make it realistic. It was written by an American who had not gained a great deal of knowledge concerning English life; it just rang false.”

So, we have an American script, based on an English novel, being fixed by a director/writer of German descent. However, what could easily have been an absolute cluterf*ck of a movie somehow managed to be transformed into one of the greatest films to ever come out of this sacred isle, even if Rilla did admit that he wasn’t fully happy with how it had turned out, considering that he only had six weeks to work on it before shooting began.

I still don’t think the script was as good as it could have been but there simply wasn’t time.”

Yet, to me, Village of the Damned is an almost perfect horror movie. Join me as I take you on a journey through the sleepy hamlet of Midwich, and explain just why Village of the Damned is so damn good, and why you should never trust children with blond hair and glowing white eyes.

The Others from Village of the Damned, staring out with glowing white eyes.
The extras from Total Eclipse of the Heart never got over their scenes being cut.

Warning: Spoilers Ahead

Village of the Damned begins with Gordon Zellaby (George Sanders) on the telephone with his brother-in-law, Alan Bernard (Michael Gwynn), asking him to bring a book down with him when he comes for a visit. In the midst of this conversation, Gordon falls over. Well, I say falls over he kind of goes down in stages as Sanders was closer to 60 than he was 50 and any sudden fall might’ve knocked a hip out of place. Worried that his brother-in-law might be injured—quite possibly for real—Alan tells his secretary to keep trying and goes off to speak to his group leader, General Leighton (John Phillips), about getting away early as nobody can seem to contact Midwich. General Leighton agrees, but not without giving him a knowing nod that seems to say: “Alright, they’re ‘cut off’ are they? Not trying to bunk off work early at all, are you?”

I feel I should add here that everyone in Village of the Damned either speaks as if they’re related to the Royal Family, are farmers “Ooh arr, ooh arr” or come from the Dick Van Dyke school of Cockney accents. This is possibly why a lot of our American cousins think that we’re all either related to the Royal Family, are actually farmers, or spend most of our time sweeping chimneys for fun. We’re not and we don’t. I for one have never felt the urge to oppress the masses with the cunning use of flags, plough a field, or hang out on rooftops busting out duets with Julie Andrews.

Anyway, as he arrives at Midwich, Alan bumps into local bobby—hip British slang for the five-o—PC Gobbey (Peter Vaughan), who is out searching for a missing bus. This is quickly found having swerved off the road and into a ditch. When PC Gobbey goes in to investigate he too falls very, very slowly to the floor. Enter the army, and we discover that we have an unknown phenomenon that is causing anyone to go within a specific boundary around Midwich to become unconscious. We also discover that Alan Bernard is as thick as two short planks because knowing what he does—that people are passing out within spitting distance of Midwich—he sends in an airplane to have a look from above, which ends about as well as can be expected as the pilot passes out, forcing the plane into a nose dive that ends with quite a tasty little explosion. So, yeah, good work there Einstein.

Eventually, everyone comes too and nobody seems the worse for wear until a couple of months pass and there’s a sudden outbreak of Christ-like pregnancies throughout Midwich. With Village of the Damned being made at the start of the 60s, this was a time when pre-marital nookie was frowned upon. In fact, nookie of any kind was generally meant for the marriage bed and would possibly be greeted with a shrug of the shoulders and the old “Lay back and think of England” mentality that Britain has never truly let go of. So when some of the women who have fallen pregnant are either married but their husbands have been away or are young girls who swear blue that they’ve never ever thought of their country in that way, ever, at all, then people start questioning just what the hell is going on here and is it natural? The answer to which is no, it’s bloody not, because when the children are born, all on the same night, it’s obvious from the get-go that there’s something off about them

Maybe it’s the fact that they’ve all got blond hair and strange eyes, or maybe it’s because there were similar occurrences at the time of the Midwich blackout across Europe, but there is work afoot that is unexplainable. The fates of the other children didn’t end well, with outcomes ranging from 30 of them dying within 10 hours of birth, to an entire colony putting them to death because of the way they looked, but Russia had more success and put their kids straight into higher learning, as they figured out quick smart that there was a certain amount of special going on. We also learn that the Midwich children are pretty damn special as well when Gordon Zellaby shows his son David (Martin Stephens) how to open a complicated Chinese puzzle box. Only needing to watch it done once, the knowledge that David has just gained is then sent out to the other children as their mind acts like a hive collective and that isn’t freaky at all, no siree bob.

People start noticing strange things going on in Midwich, such as the children being able to read minds, or young lads showing up very dead in rivers after offending the blond brigade, and this all comes to a head when one of the local townsfolk almost runs one of the young demon spawn down. He stops just short of turning her into pavement pizza, but even though he gets out of the car to check on her—all the while apologizing and taking full responsibility for his actions, mind you—they do the freaky ass eye thing, get him back behind the wheel of his car before making him drive headlong into a wall at the end of the street. Killing him dead as a dodo. From here on out the violence escalates and we soon have a town vs. children scenario laid out for Village of the Damned.

At the hearing into his death from recklessly driving into a brick wall for no apparent reason, a verdict of “He was feeling guilty, so took his own life” is met with an outburst from the dead man’s brother, James Pawle (Thomas Heathcote), who decides that the only way to deal with these abominations is to shoot them with a very big gun while they’re out for a stroll. This would’ve all gone according to plan as well if that pesky Gordon Zellaby hadn’t also been out enjoying the afternoon air in the company of his wife, Anthea Zellaby (Barbara Shelley), and his boy, Alan, because when he sees Pawle appear from the bushes holding his massive weapon—and no, that’s not a euphemism—he tells him to go home before the children see him.

What he should’ve actually said is; “Go home before the children see you and for the love of all that is holy, don’t think about shooting them in the face as they’ll bloody well know.” But because he doesn’t, Pawlee walks off daydreaming about murder which they pick up on straight away. Their incredibly level-headed response to these thoughts is to make him turn the gun on himself. This is one of my favorite scenes in Village of the Damned and it is played perfectly. The mounting tension as Pawlee places the gun under his chin is palpable, even though you know that there is nothing that can be done to stop the inevitable, and Heathcote runs the emotions of a man unable to control his actions while simultaneously being fully aware of what he is about to do brilliantly, making you feel every moment as his hand moves closer and closer to the trigger.

With the children all living under one roof by now, and Gordon being their teacher, it’s easy for a mob to find them and try to burn them to ash, which is what happens after a few beers in the pub turns into a riot, with a vast majority of the men folk taking up arms or in this case flaming hedgerow. Man, we’ve all been there on a Friday night, right folks? As the angry, flame-wielding locals head towards the schoolhouse where the children are, they’re met at the door by David who stops them dead in their tracks with a single thought. He then makes the head honcho of this gathering drop his burning bush, which proceeds to set fire to the man who burns to death. Now, while researching this article for interesting tidbits, I found out that the special effects used for the eyes were placed onto the film after shooting, hence why it’s all freeze-frame when they go uber-kill. Yet it turns out the original theatrical release in Britain had that removed, so instead of white glowing non-moving eyes, this print saw them just stare at their victims. This is even creepier when you take into consideration that this meant that after David had watched the fricassee himself, he smiles before turning back into the house. Now that’s a version I wish I could get hold of.

With the children now out of control, Alan in a coma after trying to tell David off for frying a fella to death, and the British government seemingly planning to nuke Midwich off the map—having learned that their Russian counterparts had to do the same with their own Village of the Damned—David approaches his father and tells him that he must find them a way out. He expects Gordon to split them up and place them with families all over the country, from where they’ll branch out and create new colonies. He also has until Friday’s lesson to figure all this out, but instead, Gordon comes up with a plan of his own.

Sending his wife away to London in the capable hands of her now coma-less brother, and saying goodbye to his dog in such a manly British way that I have to fight back tears whenever I watch it—no, really—he heads to the school thinking of nothing but a brick wall. As he starts his lesson, David and the spooky ass kids from hell approach him and ask him just why he’s thinking of masonry? As he repeats to himself that he must think of the wall they start to break his defenses down and when they finally do get through, they discover he has a bomb in his briefcase that goes BANG! just as his mind clears. Yes, it’s a model that gets blown up, but it is such a vicious and violent ending to the film—and one that comes at great self-sacrifice—that it could’ve been a cardboard cut-out for all I care. Village of the Damned ends with his wife weeping, his brother-in-law in shock, and Gordon, David, and all the other little blond-haired freaks very much splattered against the walls and ceiling of the school house, as it slowly burns to the ground

Davdi looks shokced at the climax of Village of the Damned
Wait? What do you mean, I’m not in the sequel?

Village of the Damned is one of my favorite movies of all time. Now, I know that’s something that I seem to say a lot here on Horror Obsessive, but it’s true. There is something so special about Village of the Damned, so unnerving, that I challenge anyone who is a fan of the spooky-ass kids doing spooky-ass telepathic s*it genre to watch this version and tell me that it’s not a masterpiece and far superior to the 1995 car-crash John Carpenter remake.

There are wonderous performances across the board from every member of the cast, but special mention has to go out to Martin Stephens as David, who sets the standard by which scary children in horror movies are held to this day. The way he seems so emotionless while at the same time being able to project just how terrifying David is at heart—and how hell-bent he is on his and his family’s survival—is chilling at best and claustrophobic at his worst, such as when he’s setting people on fire.

Village of the Damned stands taller in the pantheon of British horror movies than anything outside of possibly Hammer Horror’s Dracula. It’s more engrossing than Quatermass and The Pit, more disturbing than Peeping Tom, and makes Damian from The Omen look nothing more than a spoilt brat. Village of the Damned is the quintessential British horror movie, and as long as the sun burns bright, Midwich will always be the place to go if you fancy being scared stupid by a bunch of blond-haired, glowing-eyed children, with a penchant for mind-reading with a liberal dose of murder sprinkled on top.

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Written by Neil Gray

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