June 28, 2010

1 These Are the Damned (1963)

Country: UK
Director: Joseph Losey

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

So goes the song chanted by a group of leather-jacketed, motorcycle-riding British Teddy Boys at the beginning of Joseph Losey's astonishingly bizarre film These Are the Damned, released in April as part of the Icons of Suspense: Hammer Films collection. Part romance, part thriller, part teen alienation picture, part nuclear age angst movie, part government conspiracy paranoia, part science fiction—the film synthesizes elements from all these genres into a unique form that defies categorization. It does, however, plainly show what David Thomson identifies as Losey's defining trait as a director—his blending of the apparently contradictory qualities of "subtlety" and "hysteria."

The movie opens with an American tourist, Simon Wells (Macdonald Carey), guide book in hand, being brazenly picked up on the street in the southern English coastal town of Weymouth by a young woman, Joan (Shirley Anne Field). It turns out she is acting as bait to lure gullible male tourists into being robbed by a gang of motorcycle thugs led by her sadistic brother, King (Oliver Reed). When the bloodied Simon is taken to a hotel by a couple of friendly strangers (who are actually military officers in civilian clothing) to recover, he meets their colleague Bernard (Alexander Knox, like Losey a victim of the Hollywood blacklist who relocated to Britain), a scientist working with them on a top-secret government research project, and Freya Neilson (Viveca Lindfors), the Swedish sculptor who is possibly Bernard's former lover and who has rented his cottage, The Bird House, located next to the research center, for the summer season.

Later as Simon, recovered from the attack, leaves Weymouth in his boat, he reconnects with Joan, now fleeing from the possessive brother who seems to have an unhealthy obsession with her sex life. ("You think I'll let a man put his filthy hands on you?" King angrily asks after she admits her attraction to Simon.) Pursued by the brother and his gang, Joan takes off with Simon in his yacht and the two begin an affair. When they are followed by the gang and forced to hide out, Joan directs him to the secluded Bird House. Soon all these characters—Simon, Joan, King, Freya, and Bernard—meet up again and become involved in the top-secret government project, which involves psychological experiments on a group of decidedly spooky children. When the two lovers realize the children are being held against their will, they determine to help the children escape.

These Are the Damned was distributed by Columbia but was a Hammer production, and it shows, especially in the lurid and rather misleading publicity for the movie, clearly intended to capitalize on the success of Village of the Damned (1960). Like many Hammer horror films, especially those with a modern setting, it deals with outsiders who find themselves enmeshed in the peculiar goings-on in a strange place where they have just arrived. But just as Alfred Hitchcock did in Psycho, Losey subverts audience expectations by turning a predictable genre on its head, in this case by transforming what at first seems an odd but basically conventional Hammer thriller—two lovers on the run from a pack of predatory monsters—into a movie about repressed incestuous impulses, fear of nuclear destruction, distrust of government, the inhumanity of scientific research, existential angst, and the social disintegration of the modern world.

One thing that distinguishes These Are the Damned from typical Hammer fare is the attention paid to the visual element of the film. It is the haunting look Losey creates for the movie that gives the film its thematic gravity and visual urgency. That this is going to be no ordinary Hammer horror film is apparent from the opening shots. The first thing we see is a static, picture postcard view of the sun-drenched southern English coast in high summer, the gently curving cliffs receding to the horizon, crowned by lush meadows, with waves breaking languidly at their base. After a few moments the camera pans to the right, and when it stops we now are looking at the edge of the clifftop stretching horizontally across the vast CinemaScope screen, a group of grotesque post-modern sculptures silhouetted against the blank sea and sky. These are the sculptures of Freya arrayed outside The Bird House, and most seem to be either monstrous, gargoyle-like birds (she refers to one of her works in this style as "my graveyard bird") or misshapen human forms that resemble nothing so much as the anguished victims at Pompeii.

Such strong visual contrasts are found throughout These Are the Damned. The traditional streets of Weymouth typified by the clock tower where Simon first meets Joan, with its unicorn statue and large plaque of Queen Victoria, contrast vividly with the fortified, ultra-modern research facility where Bernard conducts his experiments on the children, with its array of high-tech gadgetry used to spy on the children and its walls decorated with semi-abstract paintings whose dominant mood is of dread and alienation. The open-air scenes of sea, sky, and meadows and The Bird House, built right into the cliff so that its whitewashed walls and grass-covered roof seem almost a natural extension of the landscape, form striking counterpoints to the futuristic underground dormitory excavated deep in the cliff face where the children live, deprived not only of natural light and air, but of any direct human contact except with one another.

This is a movie whose details of plot and production design cumulatively relay an atmosphere of hopelessness, a movie that shows the futility of any attempt to escape by the people trapped in the bleak world it depicts. Bernard, the representative of order (government) and knowledge (science), decries the "senseless violence" of youth culture yet has no qualms about subjecting the children in his experiments to psychological cruelty. He regretfully accepts the inevitability of nuclear war and the destruction of the human race while at the same time coldly sanctioning the deaths of those who oppose his scientific aims and even committing murder himself. The ultimate irony of the film is that those individuals with the most humanity are in the end destroyed by those with the least humanity, who justify their actions as a means of ensuring the survival of humankind after a nuclear holocaust. One of the most weirdly entertaining movies of the Cold War is also one of the darkest, most disturbing, and most cynically anti-authoritarian of that anxiety-ridden time.

1 comment:

  1. I've seen this movie twice, at age 11 and 21, and it still haunts me. "These Are the Damned"
    is the only science fiction film I know that
    works as a classical tragedy. Every good intention based on pity or compassion goes
    horribly wrong. Each character lives a life
    isolated from the world - biker, burned-out
    executive, artist, scientist entrusted to keep
    the human race from extinction, radioactive
    child - and every attempt to connect with someone else leads to their doom. The children
    in their innocence are the most lethal. Had Bernard's plan not been interrupted they would
    have inherited an uninhabited wasteland, but
    after their brief minutes of impossible freedom
    they will remember the world was once different
    when (and not if, such is mankind's destructive-
    ness as embodied by the adults)they leave their
    underground prison.