Friday, May 14, 2010

Carpenter's Tools: Village of the Damned

In the Mouth of Madness earned John Carpenter terrific write-ups from genre enthusiasts, and today it can easily be seen as one of the director's finest works. Combined with the underrated stab at comic-thriller, Memoirs of an Invisible Man, Carpenter looked to be testing himself after the wavering quality of his late-'80s independent work. With Village of the Damned, however, Carpenter returned to his usual milieu, a small area terrorized by a supernatural force. It's certainly familiar territory for the director, but Village, a thoroughly unnecessary remake, lacks the with and the atmospheric efficacy of his previous work.

Why Carpenter even sticks to the title is questionable, as the hints of alien presence in the 1960 original are almost openly stated, thus removing the spiritual/religious implication of the title. The children are made to look more obviously strange, and so they wear ludicrous platinum wigs and sport fancier eye manipulation that funnily enough ends up looking silly compare to the sinister look of the dilated pupils and funky aura of the original animation. Maybe the story should have just stayed in black-and-white, when it was a simpler tale of Cold War fears of brainwashed children, but then Carpenter doesn't alter the story enough for it to lose its original meaning.

Given that his Village of the Damned came out in 1995, perhaps that's the root of the problem of a film so preternaturally so interesting I shan't be wasting much of your time on it. The only significant changes involve added gore, a sad devolution for the man whose manipulation of the mood of Halloween was so suggestive and gripping that, as they did with Tobe Hopper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, people assigned to it an outrageous gore it in no way contained. Indeed, lascivious shots of a man passed out on a sizzling grill when the alien force passes over the small American town of Midwich and renders every living organism unconscious, of a mother possessed by her mutated spawn into boiling her own hand as penance for serving soup that was too hot, or the leader of a mob who burns herself alive.

The best thing I can say for the film is that Carpenter gets competent work out of his actors despite his failure to smooth the more stilted dialogue that hindered the original. Christopher Reeve, in his last role before his horse accident, has all that Superman charm he just naturally emitted, while B-actors like Mark Hamill and Linda Kozlowski do not get much attention but put in some solid work. Even Kirstie Alley makes an impression, despite how miscast she is for the role of a government scientist tasked with monitoring the children and tacitly allowing their reign of terror to continue for the sake of research.

Carpenter's direction is of course pristine, featuring tracking shots so fluid that they become far more interesting than anything on-screen, and even even makes a high-angle shot, traditionally suggestive of the inferiority of what's being filmed, into sinister proof of the children's might as the camera itself almost withers in their glare. But apart from some interesting modernity -- the government offers to pay for the abortion of any impregnated woman who does not want to carry her mystery child to term, the implication à la Alien (a horror reworking of the space comedy that gave Carpenter his first feature) that the powers-that-be will sacrifice lives in order to harness a new weapon -- but these are fleeting moments of memorability in a film that passes so quickly out of mind that you might assume the children really existed and wiped your brain of the events. But then that would imply that they really can feel compassion after all.


  1. I couldn't agree with you more on this one Jake. It's just a really bland and ultimately forgettable affair that fails for a number of reasons, most of which you've pointed out: the stripping of all ambiguity and tensity that was present in the original; the deadly lack of any resonant atmospherics; and just the overall scarcity of anything even remotely interesting happening on a story level. Also agreed on Alley being terribly miscast here.

    You said it perfectly when you called it "a thoroughly unnecessary remake". The whole thing is just a frustrating misfire, and the fact that it came on the heels of one of Carpenter's most inspired and effective pictures makes it all the more bewildering.

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