Village of the Damned
(SPOILERS) It’s probably easiest to point to Village of the Damned as the beginning of the end of John Carpenter as an estimable director. He was only 47 when it came out, but watching it, you’d be hard-pressed taking away any notion that he cared anymore. I tend to place the beginning of the rot earlier, post-Big Trouble in Little China, when he stopped working with Dean Cundey as DP and hooked up with Gary B Kibbe. Sure, they made In the Mouth of Madness together, and They Live! but the effect isn’t so dissimilar to Spielberg relying on Janusz Kaminski, even when the latter has been utterly unsuited to a picture (the biggest reason the announcement of the Berg vacating the director’s chair for Indy V is no bad thing).
Cundey lifted everything Carpenter did. Kibbe brought everything down, to some degree, exposing in the most unflattering fashion his director’s failings. Village of the Damned looks threadbare, as if no one involved could be bothered. As such, it couldn’t be more different to his previous remake, The Thing, where everyone seemed truly invested and giving 110 percent. The compositions are flat and uninteresting, but whereas, in other previous Kibbe pictures, the material or performances made up for this, here Carpenter seems to have wilfully lined up a selection of slumming-it-never-quite A-listers, given paper-thin characters and so cumulatively confirming the argument that their falls from favour were justified: Christopher Reeve as the lead, the town doctor, Kirstie Alley the NSA rep, Linda Kozlowski, Michael Paré (for about five minutes) and Mark Hamill (in a role that seems largely excised).
Wolf Rilla’s atmospheric and creepy 1960 adaptation of John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos is something of a minor classic. In stark contrast to The Thing, Carpenter seems to have zero idea how to make this version sufficiently different or impactful; perhaps his assertion that it would be a “pretty easy movie to make” represented his being too laidback about the challenges he faced. He later dismissed the picture as “getting rid of a contractual assignment”. Yet he rewrote David Himmelstein’s screenplay to make it closer to the original, the concept having been moved away from an alien influence. Unfortunately, the consequence of his decision is that there’s no strong sense of why this Village of the Damned needed to exist; making violence or pregnancy more explicit is hardly sufficient. And the most impactive moments (the guy on a rope who drops unconscious going into the zone) are simple restagings.
For example, he retains the blonde-haired, glowing-eyed kids motif, but shorn of black-and-white photography, they look faintly silly. Indeed, only the decent performances of Lindsey Haun (as the imperious leader) and Thomas Dekker (as the empathic one) prevent them from becoming a complete joke; there’s certainly no spookiness, Carpenter treating their murderous acts in the most rote and least inspired fashion (the one unnerving death comes early on, when the townsfolk are recovering from the force that rendered them unconscious for six hours, and its revealed that one resident fell onto his grill).
With no emphasis on atmosphere or terror, Village of the Damned must focus on plot and motivation, and the effect is starkly unflattering. Sure, there’s a foetus that’s a riff on the classic grey alien, but there’s little attempt to interrogate what it is the children want or why they are there, or even play out those themes between Reeve and Alley. You’re left with a great deal of empty space, twiddling your thumbs waiting for the next kill, conscious of a pervasive sense of undernourishment. Carpenter’s made his movie when The X-Files was hitting its stride; consequently, this comes across as a pallid cash-in, yet one failing to capitalise on the themes of a government willing to treat the population as guinea pigs. Less likely still, they remain at arm’s length and then decide to dispose of the kids, something they’d surely never do if there was the faintest prospect of weaponisation.
Instead, Village of the Damned falls back on the need for the good doctor to blow up the infants, thanks to a wall in his mind (they might just have used, you know, common sense to suss out that something was up). They in turn promise “If we co-exist, we shall dominate you. That is inevitable”. Carpenter throws in references to Charles Fort and Conan Doyle as the polar positions on the mystery, but fails to establish an interesting dynamic between any of the protagonists and antagonists.
Unsurprisingly Village of the Damned bombed – as had everything the director attempted prior to that point during the decade, and everything he would subsequently (although Vampire’s home video afterlife meant it spawned sequels). It may also have been the final nail in the coffin of Carpenter’s desire to remake another Universal property, The Creature from the Black Lagoon (although Memoirs of an Invisible Man bombing is also cited as contributing). If Gary Kibbe was going to lens it, that’s probably not such a bad thing.
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