DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: These are THE DAMNED

Tuesday 25 May 2010

These are THE DAMNED

These are THE DAMNED (1961) dir. Joseph Losey
Starring: MacDonald Carey, Shirley Anne Field, Oliver Reed, Viveca Lindfors and Alexander Knox


By Greg Klymkiw

Blacklisted American filmmaker Joseph Losey’s compelling science fiction thriller “These are THE DAMNED,” made for Britain’s Hammer Studios in 1961 and released in the U.S. during 1963 in a severely truncated form, is much closer in spirit to the company’s more subdued 50s efforts such as “X – The Unknown” (which Losey was fired from when the right-wing star Dean Jagger threatened to walk rather than submit to the direction of a “communist”), as well as the marvellous “Quatermass” pictures with Brian Donlevy. In spite of this, “These are THE DAMNED” is still as unlikely a Hammer picture and certainly an even farther cry from the company’s deliciously overwrought 60s and 70s colour horror films starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. In fact, Losey’s near-masterwork goes further than most Hammer pictures, and frankly, most science fiction pictures of the 50s and 60s as it seems even more in tune with the early beginnings of the British New Wave than any of its fantastical genre counterparts.

Imagine, if you will, a kitchen-sink angry-young-man story (an incest-obsessed Teddy Boy) merged with a fantastical fairy tale (involving a strange, sad race of "super" children) and fraught with 50s/60s apocalyptic paranoia (on behalf of everyone in the film). It’s a mad vision, which inhabits a time gone by, yet possesses a timelessness that makes it as relevant today, if not more so. These qualities are inherent in the work due, very considerably, to Losey’s staggering and original mise-en-scéne – a patchwork quilt of movement and composition that ultimately becomes surprisingly linear in creating a world that seems at home, ONLY on the silver screen, yet also possessing mirror-like qualities of our own world. It's a universe where one can recognize a planet - our planet - that’s as fraught with the same kind of orderly disorder we continue to face in these times of economic uncertainty and war – a world fraught with crime, poverty and boneheaded, exploitative government policy and all seemingly on the verge of collapse.

The film’s opening credits run over a bird’s eye view of the sea, waves crashing on a remote shore below, panning ever so smoothly to reveal that we’re on a rocky cliff. The camera dollies gently to reveal a series of grotesque sculptures along the edge of the barren outlook until it settles on a tortured figure – a semi-mermaid with a hawk-like visage and a vaguely human torso. The figure is frozen and faces away from the majestic sea and sky, yet it seems desperate to face the beauty of the horizon. Losey’s “directed by” credit appears in a patch of sky on the upper left of the contorted beauty of the sculpture, then recedes into the clouds.

What a credit sequence! The bronze outdoor sculptures seen here and throughout the film are credited to the iconoclastic British artist Dame Elisabeth Frink and they are very much stars of the film - in addition to the warm-blooded ones.

As if this weren’t enough, we move from these images of nature and art, all presented with stalwart Hammer composer James Bernard’s suitably malevolent score to a smash cut revealing a gorgeous wide shot of the seaside resort of Weymouth perched from a gently lolling camera on the water. Thus begins the movie’s opening dramatic sequence – a brilliantly shot and edited montage which may well be the ultimate British predecessor to Lester’s “rock videos” in “A Hard Day’s Night” and clearly an influence on Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange.” With music written by Bernard and lyrics by both screenwriter Evan Jones and Losey himself, an unnamed band (worthy of some of the amazing tracks on the “Las Vegas Grind” series) sings:

Black leather, black leather, rock-rock-rock...
Black leather, black leather, smash-smash-smash
Black leather, black leather, crash-crash-crash
Black leather, black leather, kill-kill-kill
I got that feeling – black leather rock!

As the song be-bops along, the camera begins atop a clock tower, makes its way down and reveals a load of leather-clad Teddy Boys led by the suave King (played by an ultra-cool and very young Oliver Reed), adorned smartly in a crisp white shirt, thin black tie and a plaid sport coat to end all plaid sport coats. Perched against a perfectly symmetrical sculpture of a white unicorn (juxtaposed beautifully with the architecture of Weymouth and Frink's sculptures from the previous sequence), King surveys the square as Simon Wells (Macdonald Carey, who starred – for thirty years!!! – on the soap opera “Days of Our Lives”), an American tourist, admires a historical plaque and is quickly seduced into following a fetching, nubile Joan (British ingénue Shirley Anne Field). At first, Joan appears to be King’s squeeze, leading the American along with promises of carnal delight, but it's clearly a trap. King and his Teddy-Boys beat the American to a pulp and steal his watch and wallet.

Joan feels some guilt over her part in this act of savagery and soon tracks Simon down to apologize and, with a strange Daddy-fixation, throw herself at him. This enrages King – not because she’s REALLY his main squeeze, but is in fact, his sister!!! King has rather obsessive and overtly incestuous feelings towards Joan and refuses to let her touch or be touched by any man. Add to this mix, a mysterious military bureaucrat Bernard (Oscar-nominated Alexander Knox for his role in “Wilson”) who seems to be overseeing a secret research operation just on the outskirts of property owned by the sultry, cynical sculptress Freya (the vivacious Viveca Lindfors).

The movie eventually brings all of these seemingly disparate characters together – first at Freya’s studio on the cliffs and finally, behind the barbed wire of the military research facility where a strange group of children are incarcerated within a seawall fortress – subject to observation, experimentation and indoctrination.

This is one crazy movie! And what a movie it is! Dealing with such heavy themes as haves and have-nots, incest, art versus science, science as creation, secrecy yielding paranoia, childhood innocence being exploited for a greater “good” and ultimately, the horrors of nuclear radiation – “These are THE DAMNED” is some kind of lost and decidedly insane masterpiece (albeit with some of the flaws associated with its bare-bones budget).

Based upon a novel by Evan Jones, neither the British nor American titles seem to adequately encompass what this film is about. The novel’s original title was “The Children of Light” which seems to be a far more evocative summation of the picture itself – a film devoted to the ironic loss of innocence of an entire post-war generation to the mad powers that gripped everyone and created a platform that forced subsequent generations to live in a world of fear, paranoia and exploitation with each successive government blunder and lust for power - or, in the parlance worthy of a Teddy Boy: same shit, different pail.

Joseph Losey made a B-movie, all right. He who would go on to direct many more fine pictures, including a rich collaboration with Harold Pinter, but "These are THE DAMNED" is one hell of a great B-movie!

“These are THE DAMNED” is included in the recent Sony Pictures DVD release entitled “Hammer Films: The Icons of Suspense Collection” which also features the very good child molestation thriller "Never Take Candy From a Stanger" in addition to four other pictures from the same period.

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