Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The Village of the Damned (USA, 1995)

(Trailer to Carpenter's remake; Trailer to the much better original.)
You know a film is bad when Mark Hamill supplies the best acting job in the entire project.
Sometimes a person fucks up, and this time around John Carpenter really fucks up. Again. And we ain't just talking about the umpteenth version of the identical abysmal, monotone score that he threw together for the flick. Hell, can he
really claim to make music? Is there really any difference between any of the scores he has ever supplied for his movies? When will he finally stop sabotaging his own work and start contracting the soundtrack out to someone who can actually compose music? Of course, in the case of this film, even a soundtrack composed by Beethoven (or John Williams, for that matter) wouldn't have helped any…
Needless to say, unlike his reworking of The Thing, Carpenter's version of The Village of the Damned will never be reappraised as an unsung and unjustifiably crucified genre film. If Carpenter is any way lucky, people will one day simply forget that he ever made this misbegotten turd of a third-rate television film. What? The Village of the Damned isn't a TV movie of the week? Shit, then the film is even worse than what it seems to be: a low-budget rent-payer filmed primarily because the television rights to the newest Stephan King snoozer haven't yet been ironed out.
The original Village of the Damned (1960) is a sleek, effective B&W thriller from England starring George Sanders. (Both films are based on the novel The Midwich Cuckoos, written by John Wyndham, who also wrote the original novel to The Day of the Triffids.) For his remake, Carpenter and scriptwriter David Himmelstein kept most of the original film script but moved the action to Marin County, added color, a few new characters and a lot of padding. The final result is an effective sleeping pill.
The Village of the Dammed starts off by introducing us briefly to a variety of inhabitants of a pleasant little town of Midwich. That very sunny, beautiful day, a cloud blows over and everyone passes out. The lead Jill McGowan (Linda Kozlowski, in a rare appearance outside of a Paul Hogan production) loses her husband Frank (Michael Paré) when he conks out behind the wheel of his truck and has a fatal accident. After some hours, those who didn't crash their cars or pass out into a barbeques awake no worse for wear, but soon after Frank's funeral, ten of the women — including one virgin — find themselves pregnant. The strident, chain-smoking government-sent epidemiologist Dr. Verner (Kirstie Alley) hypothesizes that they have all been impregnated by aliens, but no one seems to really hear her and in no time flat all the women give birth en-mass to identical-looking babies in a converted barn, with a chain-smoking Dr. Verner delivering the singular miscarriage. Well, the kids grow quickly and they be real evil: virtually identical tow-headed tots with perfect haircuts, in no short time they cause one woman to jump off a cliff, Rev. George (Mark Hamill) to blow his head off, some other guy to drive into a conveniently located gas tank and all sorts of other nefarious stuff. (Of all the aspects Carpenter kept from the original film, the most ridiculous is the gray-toned, almost identical outfits the little demon kids wear: in the original movie set in a gray and rainy England, where the youth often wear identical school uniforms, the concept worked well by taking something ordinary and making it monstrous. In the new version, set under the sunny Californian sky, the outfits become laughable.)
Carpenter plays a bit with the idea that the demon kids might be able to become something more emotional and human under the right circumstances: the little David (Thomas Dekker) actually develops a sort of understanding of pain and loss since he is the only one of the group without a mate — his mate having been the singular the miscarriage. This idea, however, is seemingly presented less for any intellectual discourse than to permit the possibility of a sequel. (A sequel that one hopes will never happen.) In any event, waves become brick walls, the town falls into chaos and everything burns and almost everyone dies and somewhere along the way the scriptwriters totally forget that the government is sending planes to bomb and destroy the place. The Village of the Damned is an example of some pretty sloppy filmmaking, to say the least.
In his book The Fearmakers, author John McCarty charges that Carpenter "has fallen into the trap of turning out FX-oriented drivel for big studios in need of product." The Village of the Damned is probably the best example to date of this, but for the fact that the special effects are relatively seldom and definitely don't look like they had the budget of a big studio. The film is a long, meandering and pointless waste of celluloid totally lacking in any suspense in which one or two effective ideas get lost by the overall ineptitude of the project. It is a soulless studio quickie, populated by a variety of cheaply had second rate actors and lacking any and all artistic intentions. The Village of the Damned is product in the same way that a Big Mac is: a mishmash of stuff thrown together in imitation of the real thing.
Carpenter himself has never made any bones about how he "would have been happiest" in "the forties and the studio system," but going by the quality of this and so many other past projects of his, he would have been working for the Poverty Row studios like Monogram, Republic, and PRC. But even as a second feature to a double bill, Carpenter's version of The Village of the Damned is a sorry excuse for a film. Avoid this one like the plague. (Ye be damned if you don't...)

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