1960s, British cinema, Scifi

The Damned (1963)

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aka These Are the Damned

Director: Joseph Losey

By Roderick Heath

Like Stanley Kubrick, Joseph Losey decamped from America for Britain and remained there for the rest of his career, albeit more for political rather than artistic reasons. The Damned, a coproduction between Columbia Studios and Hammer Films, had a troubled history. The resulting product begins with some charmingly perverse fake rock (“Black leather, black leather, kill kill kill!”), reflecting the difficulty filmmakers were having in adapting to that new argot, and the off-kilter narrative takes a while to find its feet. And yet, once it does, The Damned is one of the richest and most intriguing of the crop of what could be called sci-fi noir to come out of Britain in this period.

Macdonald Carey plays Simon Wells, a former insurance salesman and middle-aged drop-out who, having moored his yacht in Weymouth, skylarks around the docks and tries to pick up Joan (Shirley Anne Field), a comely young slapper who’s used as bait by her older brother King (Oliver Reed) and his mob of Teddy Boy thugs to entrap men like Simon, and then mug him. Two soldiers in civvies (Walter Gotell and James Villiers) come to Wells’ aid and take him to their superior, Bernard (Alexander Knox). Their boss is a gentlemanly but mordant scientist who’s in the company his bohemian sculptress girlfriend Freya Neilson (Viveca Lindfors). Freya is troubled by Bernard’s increasing distance and secrecy as manager of an installation outside town, but maintains an air of informed appreciation of the state of the world in irreparable fragmentation.

Simon, returning to his yacht, is visited again by Joan, who both abuses him for assuming she was a cheap tart he could pick up, and also seems to want something from him— respect or love or whatever’s coming—because she’s feeling trapped by her unstable, possessive brother, who locked her in a cupboard the last time she flirted with a man. When King and the gang come upon them, Simon guns the boat and sails out of the harbor; Joan, instead of remaining with them, runs after his boat and jumps onto the stern. King, infuriated, orders his boys to watch the coast. When they do row ashore, Simon and Joan shack up and make love in a house owned by Bernard and used by Freya as her studio. Freya’s arrival scares them away.

Freya is confronted by King when he arrives, and he, in an irrational fury, smashes one of her weird sculptures before he joins his boys in chasing after Simon and Joan. Joan falls over the edge of a cliff into the water below; Simon and then King follow her down the cliff face. Joan and Simon are washed into a grotto and crawl into a cave, fitted out like a Bond villain’s hideout, where a colony of mysterious children with ice-cold skin live. These children are indeed the damned, born inoculated with radiation after their mothers were accidentally exposed and taken in hand by Bernard and the state to be raised in perfect isolation because they are poisonous to other humans and vice versa.
utterly certain nuclear holocaust is coming, and offers hope of repopulating the Earth after the fire.

The children, educated via video screens and prodigiously adept in science, have formed their own little society, complete with a hiding place Bernard allows them to maintain. In this space they have set up achingly pathetic shrines to their unknown parents, with pictures clipped from magazines providing the faces. Above ground, Bernard and other military and science officials argue about how to handle the children, who help to hid these adults who have stumbled into their world. One of the soldiers accuses a scientist of wanting to make them “little Beatniks!” Bernard, both avuncular and conscientious, yet disturbingly dedicated and self-assured, is

The Damned was adapted from H. L. Lawrence’s novel Children of the Light, and it plays a game later used to quite different effect by Tarantino and Rodriguez in From Dusk ’Til Dawn (1995). It begins as a realistic narrative and then swerves unexpectedly into fantasy. There’s an odour of opportunism in trying to tie together youth appeal (its rampant Teddy Boys) and scifi horror that seems to have been foiled by director Losey’s bent, which is utterly individual, even poetic. He is backed up by an exceedingly intelligent script by Evan Jones that gives a keen edge to the film’s divided personality that’s quite different to even the best Hammer horror. The film’s odd casting deepens the weird air; Carey is out of place, Field seems too toffy-nosed for her part, Knox’s Scots accent is bad, and perpetual foreign villain Gotell is amusingly cast as a British officer. Reed, however, is effective as King, with his soon-to-be familiar smouldering mix of raw force and febrile spirit, and Lindfors is extremely good in imbuing Freya with vital soul.

The children’s number includes future Excalibur (1981) Lancelot Nicholas Clay. Fascinating little moments and exchanges abound, such as when Freya strikes up an easy conversation with one of the better-natured Teddy Boys, or in her conversations with Bernard that reflect both ardour and cool, aging perspective, and in Joan and Simon’s edgy relationship, two wildly different people crashing together by natural selection. Bernard’s hopes for the children only offset the cynical, murderous spirit that underlies his humanitarianism. He believes in nature’s capacity to adapt and change, an idea that draws him to Freya’s sculptures, which resemble animals and figures either decaying or unfinished—evolution or devolution rendered indistinguishable. Much as King, a barely coherent personality shoved inside a powerful body, keeps Joan desperately in thrall for protection and self-justification, so, too, does Bernard, as a representative of an increasingly schizoid society, keep the children in their underground abode.

Although King’s Teddy Boys in their leather gear and the children in their pristine uniforms and public school accents seem different, they’re all avatars of an anxiety over the future of humanity that seems set to fall prey to its own craziness. The underground children gleefully erupt in rebellion when given a chance, smashing the cameras and predicting the imagery of rebellious-kid films like if… (1968) and Pink Floyd’s The Wall (1982). Moreover, Reed’s King seems kin to Alex of A Clockwork Orange as a representative of a new, dangerous youth culture, with his mix of brazen antisocial rage and performance art, dressed in a dapper suit, carrying a knife-cane, and playing the sergeant-major to his men. Like Alex, he confronts a female artist in an isolated setting and takes a club to her artworks in unleashing his oddly misdirected male potency against her feminine remoteness and creative self-sufficiency.

A couple of years ago, George Miller, kicking about the idea of a new Mad Max film, noted with some amusement that people were nostalgic for the end of the world. Similarly, it’s always the edge of incipient paranoia, of frightening novelty, of inevitable calamity both in the immediate past and just around the corner that’s always fascinated me about the popular scifi of the ’50s and ’60s. Some of the best examples of this type of film came in Britain, with writers like Nigel Kneale, Arthur C. Clarke, Terry Nation, William Golding, John Christopher, Brian Aldiss, and John Wyndham and movies like Village of the Damned, The Abominable Snowman, the Quatermass series, and The Day the Earth Caught Fire, leading to more overt nuclear-holocaust films like Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove and Peter Watkins’ The War Game. Often visually quoting the Blitz, the Holocaust, and the Manhattan Project and citing Britain’s new, unfamiliar piggy-in-the-middle status in the new Atomic Age, such works often possess an inky, forlorn, menaced atmosphere. The Damned embraces its own apocalyptic heart, cowering before the prerogative of science and government, presenting a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t quandary that’s unsolved at the close.

As to whether Bernard’s plan offers hope for the future or reflects the unbound obscenity of the modern era, the answer, perhaps, is yes to both. The caring Simon and the orphaned Joan immediately want to help the kids escape; the anarchic King, brought into the cave by one of the boys who latches onto him as a father figure, takes on the efforts of the military to put the genie back in the bottle. But they’re fighting against a situation that’s far larger than any of them, and Bernard and the soldiers manage to recapture the kids shortly after escaping. They let Simon, Joan, and King flee because they will die soon of radiation poisoning. Freya, having witnessed the events, rejects Bernard’s prognosis, and so he calmly shoots her. The last, haunting image is of Simon’s boat sailing out to see with its anti-Adam and Eve expiring, followed, like a great mechanical vulture, by a helicopter that will destroy their boat once they’re dead, whilst the voices of the children on sound scream out for help.

Dark and cumulatively disquieting, The Damned is a small gem.

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1950s, British cinema, Crime/Detective

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)

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Director: Terence Fisher

By Roderick Heath

This is the best film of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s book. In fact, it’s better than the book. Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novels hardly stack up against his short-story gems. The novel of Hound shoots itself in the foot by blowing the cover on its villain halfway through, then stumbling through an anti-climactic last act. It also avoids examining undercurrents the story presents, even copping out of the science/superstition clash that drives the narrative, only flirting with the ideas comically when Bishop Frankland threatens to sue amateur anthropologist Dr. Mortimer for body-snatching in his digs at Neolithic sites. But Doyle fails to bring anything to a point. He even writes Holmes out of half of the novel.

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Armed with a tight screenplay by John Bryant, Fisher’s film charges with force into the story’s potential. Opening with a typically thunderous James Bernard score timed with lightning bursts, the camera closes in slowly on the matte-painted Baskerville Hall. The velvet-threat tones of Francis de Wolff, playing Mortimer, intones the legend of the hound. In the 17th century, a tenant farmer is tortured in the Hall by aristocratic cads because he stood between his daughter—imprisoned upstairs—and Sir Hugo Baskerville (played with perfect sleazy elegance by David Oxley). Baskerville, for a coup de grace, roasts the man in the fireplace.

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Sir Hugo has to pay up on a wager to his fellow noble scoundrels on how long the man would last, and being the gentleman he is, he proposes paying with the girl. Proceeding upstairs, he finds the girl has absconded out the window via the ivy-covered walls. Hugo orders his hunting hounds released to chase her down, and sets out on horseback, crying “May the hounds of hell take me if I can’t hunt her down!” He catches her in the fog among wreathed ruins of an abbey and stabs her death with relish. He is then confronted by a growling, unseen monster that devours him greedily amid the creep’s blood-curdling screams.

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Having gotten our attention, Fisher dissolves to Holmes’ study as Mortimer concludes his reading. Unlike the novel’s agreeable geek, this Mortimer is a fat, faintly shifty self-publicist who responds huffily to Holmes’ less-than-enthralled air. Peter Cushing’s Holmes is introduced, his pencil-thin form leisurely lifting his hand with a gasp of vision not at Mortimer’s words but to play a chess move that’s occurred to him. Watson is played by Andre Morell, who had portrayed Nigel Kneale’s scientific titan Quatermass on television, making it clear he’s not a Nigel Bruce buffoon but a quick-witted, if slightly old-boyish, colleague.

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Dr. Mortimer engages Holmes to solve the mysterious death of Sir Charles Baskerville with a litany of relishable clues, such as the footprints of a gigantic hound and the fact that Sir Charles tiptoed (“But he wasn’t tiptoeing,” Cushing intones, “He was running, Watson, running for his life until he burst his heart!”). Holmes is also to protect Sir Charles’ heir, Sir Henry (Christopher Lee), who, it soon turns out, needs protection badly. There’s a stowaway tarantula in his boot, that crawls onto his shoulder (suggesting, in one shot, a large lump of lint), and is disposed of by Holmes who hits it like he’s killing an anaconda. Though hardly dangerous to anyone else, the spider could have been fatal to Sir Henry, with hiss inherited heart condition. Holmes announces he must stay in town, so he has Watson accompany Mortimer and Sir Henry to Baskerville Hall.

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First seen in delicately menacing sunlight with Bernard’s eerie oboe scoring, Dartmoor soon becomes a nightmare-drenched wonderland. There’s the convicted killer of prostitutes Selden (David Birks) loose from Dartmoor Prison, for piquance. There’s dingbat local minister and entomologist Bishop Frankland (Miles Malleson), for comic relief. Or is he? Did the tarantula come from his collection? Why does Mrs. Barrymore (Helen Goss), wife of the trusty housekeeper (John LeMesurier), weep at night? Why is Selden signaling to the hall? What are saturnine farmer Stapleton (Ewen Solon) and his enfant sauvage daughter Cecile (Marla Landi) up to?

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Despite the noisy music and equally loud color, Fisher’s films are marked by a cool mixture of poetic realism and tightly built sequences, and, as in The Hound of the Baskervilles, a riot of florid atmosphere—rotting leaves, jagged stone, dawn-lit moors, rustling silk, blood-red coats, Marla Landi’s earthy skin, dripping mines, lanterns, and black bogs. Fisher’s Hammer films revitalised British cinema and rode point for a revolution of Horror popularity that only ran out of steam some 25 years later. Fisher began his directorial career in stultifying quota quickies. His one early work of note was So Long At The Fair (1951), featuring Dirk Bogarde and Jean Simmons, a fascinating mystery based on a great urban myth. The film sits heavily under the starchy influence of the standard period film, and would have benefited from Fisher’s later, rowdier touch.

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Indeed, before the Fisher-Hammer explosion, British genre cinema, though rich and fascinating, lacked the damn-the-torpedoes drive of their American brethren. Suddenly, that WWII-era, stiff-upper-lip veneer cracked, and out came a bloody-gorged beauty, luxuriating in sex, violence, pounding melodrama, black humor, and with a coherent thematic agenda. Like the “Angry Young Man” tales that were emerging at the same time, Fisher’s early Hammer films jumped with the eagerness of a terrier on rats onto the skeletons in the English cupboard—particularly sex, class, and religion. Hollywood and European Horror of the ’20s and ’30s, only took cues from Freud and surrealism. This hitherto unexplored element in the Gothic genre became, in the hands of ’60s Horror practitioners, at its best a potent vessel for revisionist views of history, power relations, and morality shifts.

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Dracula, for instance, the invading foreign seducer preying on the flower of English femininity, was refashioned by Fisher and Lee as a suave precursor of James Bond, a vampire Heathcliff, a variant on the handsome ruffians Stewart Granger played years before. Amidst the generic explosion the success of the early Hammer productions generated, Fisher’s films laid down the blueprint for a movement away from purely metaphoric horror into more socially and psychologically aware works.

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Whilst too many horror stories are reflexively conservative creations, serving up doses of misogyny, fear of sexual deviancy, and needful conformity, Fisher began a trend that would be expanded on by later directors such as Peter Sasdy, Michael Reeves, Gordon Hessler, Hans Geissendoerfer (in his vampirism-is-Hitlerism parable Jonathan, 1968), Roman Polanski, and George Romero. Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man, written by Anthony Shaffer and starring Lee, created as a parody/tribute, inverted Fisher’s style by replacing Gothic chic with deceptive folkish whimsy, but reverently employed his intellectual approach. Much later, Fisher would be paid homage by Neil Jordan with his remarkably bizarre fantasy The Company of Wolves (1984) and Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow (1999).

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Fisher’s films show a consistent fascination with the relationship of Manichaeistic forces: good and evil and their fraught relationship. As axiomatic as this fascination sounds in the genre context, it is, in fact, hardly so. Some directors, Jean Rollin for instance, regarded traditional “good” as an idiotic blind alley. Others, from Murnau through to Polanski and Romero, regard it as fragile and ineffective. Still others, the true exploitation directors, conform to standard moralist structures even as they rejoice and celebrate what they purport to condemn. In Fisher’s films, good and evil stand entwined, evil usually rather more attractive than good, and fatally so.

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Fisher’s moral eye was unpredictable, original, and inescapable. He turned tragic titan Victor Frankenstein into a ruthless, destructive sociopath, a meddler so driven to discover that everything, even human life, becomes incidental. He is light years from Colin Clive’s preening motherly male, instead a manifestation of the alienation found in Edward Teller’s disinterested statement about the detonation of the atomic bomb he helped create: “Who wants to see that? It’s just a big bang.” Fisher then became the only director to do anything interesting with Dracula’s nemesis, Van Helsing, turning him from aged savant into dashing man of iron, comforting in his fearless resolve and paternal, caring strength, but frightening in his puritanical brutality and willingness to crush the leech-like sensuality of vampires (usually women). As well as the first servings of truly in-your-face gore in his stakings, Fisher also offered a clear statement of the painful relation between “good” and “repression,” an indictment of for-your-own-good regimes.

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In The Hound of the Baskervilles, Holmes stands in the same position as Van Helsing and Dr. Frankenstein as an arbiter of rationalism in an ignorant, intellectually sluggish world; he is Frankenstein with a moral compass. He clears away the shadows and reveals the greasepaint and old rope used by Stapleton to make Sir Henry think the past is quite literally haunting him. Holmes is (here at least) a less interesting figure than Cushing’s Frankenstein and Van Helsing, except in his haughty, egotistical streak, a strong trait in the stories, more emphasized here than any other film.

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The film is most crucially interesting in remoulding the relationship of Sir Henry and Stapleton’s daughter (in the novel, his actual wife, forced to pose as his offspring to make his potential future claims easier). Casting Lee as the descendent of the depraved Sir Hugo marks him as a powerful, imperious, sexually magnetic presence. As such, far more meaningful than the novel’s pallid baronet, Sir Henry is attracted to the gleaming-eyed, sullen-mouthed, Spanish-born Cecile Stapleton (Marla Landi), who provokes and yet runs from his stirred lust. Sir Henry is cursed with the same rapacious instincts as his ancestor, but so is Cecile—her fire is the Baskerville genes sharpened by deprivation and centuries of rage held by the peasantry towards their aristocratic exploiters, to their deadliest, most sexually sadistic point. A femme fatale to the max, Cecile is Sir Hugo returned in his victim’s body.

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Likewise, Stapleton (Ewen Solon)—in the novel an insidious, devious naturalist, a false-benign opposite of Holmes—here plays the gentleman farmer but crippled (by an inherited trait of Sir Hugo’s, a plot point) and down-at-heel, generating his evil plot with native cunning rather than intellectual prowess. The Stapletons’ revenge enacts the classic “return of the repressed.” In the film’s breathlessly well-staged finale (apart from a less-than-terrifying mutt), Cecile, having lured Sir Henry to the Abbey, the ruins of which are, throughout the film, a bullring-like battleground of good and evil, and turns their passionate tryst to a mocking tirade in preparation to serve Sir Henry up for dinner. Doyle had a singular running theme of abused women in his stories–in one, a maltreated wife fills her villainous husband with the entire magazine of a revolver, to Holmes’ and Watson’s unblinking approval—and characterized Miss Stapleton as a terrified dove trapped by her husband. Fittingly, where in the book it is Stapleton who is sucked into Grimpen Mire, here Cecile is last seen sliding into the muck. The evil of the Baskervilles, their greedy sexuality, dies with her. Fisher, though not as decoratively sophisticated as Bava, was great at pace and action—two elements that directors with infinitely larger budgets and resources can never get in proper balance. None of his films slow for a second, whilst remaining as coherent as filmmaking can get. His trademark touches include vigorous close-ups and deep-focus dioramic shots that bind together elements and crystallise the action.

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Fisher expanded his intensely rhythmic approach to editing (his job in movies before becoming a director), and The Hound of the Baskervilles stomps on its tackier production elements to create a film of racing verve. Hound was a comparative box office failure, because the audience resented a lack of monsters, so a planned series of Holmes films did not join the painfully distended Frankenstein and Dracula cycles. Fisher continued provided visitations on traditional themes, though his romantic variation on The Phantom of the Opera (1962) proved a big flop and stalled his career. Generally out of place as Hammer films became sillier, sexier, and more violent, Fisher nonetheless served up several more bona fide classics, including The Gorgon (1963), The Devil Rides Out (1967), from a Dennis Wheatley novel, and Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969), before retiring and dying in 1980.

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