ACIDEMIC Journal of Film and Media

Reverse Oedipus: Village of the Damned

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Erich Kuersten

1960: British kids in school uniforms with glowing eyes, driving the fearful conservative locals insane with the power of their minds! No, it ain’t the Who, it’s one of they key horror moments of our modern age. Based on the book The Midwich Cuckoo by John Wyndham (Day of the Triffids), Village of the Damned tells the story of generational conflict between the local populace of a small English hamlet called Midwich and a rash of weird children born to all the women after a “consciousness outage.” Gordon Zellaby (George Sanders) sees it all happen.


The local psychiatric big wig, Gordon’s on the phone with his high-ranking brother in law, Major Allen Berner (Michael Gwynn), as his wife Anthea (Barbara Shelley) flits around in the other room fixing lunch. Suddenly the town is hit by a force that renders every living thing within an invisible perimeter around the town unconscious.


After the consciousness is restored everyone seems unharmed, but the local women are all pregnant (including Anthea), and a few years later groups of incredibly composed schoolchildren are walking around together, driving any adult or bully who gets in their way to suicide with their powers of mind control. Gordon and Anthea’s own son is their leader, and uses Gordon to try and help them escape once the town's meddling proves to difficult to ignore, and the British governmentdebates dropping an atom bomb on the town to get rid of the youngsters.


Interestingly, Wyndham—a British author—set the original novel in the United States, but the film’s American producers relocated the shoot to England for tax purposes. It’s hard to imagine the tale being as chilling in the U.S.A, a land where everyone is used to passing out, waking up pregnant, and giving birth to blonde-eyed monsters that drive them insane. For the Brits such an event must be an especially difficult challenge to their stiff-upper-lipped reserve. In fact, the Midwich residents can hardly even discuss these things even amongst themselves. This is still the era when fathers-to-be pace the waiting room, furiously smoking cigars, rather than shouting “Breathe, Honey, breathe” in a surgical gown and mask. Whereas Americans would be swarming around the freak blonde kids like a tourist attraction ("Do that glowing eye thing again!") , or burning the virgin moms at the stake in puritanical hysteria, the stalwart Midwichers merely “think of England” and carry on as if it didn’t happen.


In fact, this sense of British propriety is what creates the problem in the first place. By contrast we learn that a similarly-inflicted Inuit tribe in Northern Alaska has killed all their batch of blonde kids at birth, as per tribal custom. In Outer Mongolia, an outbreak resulted in not just the children, but the mothers being killed. In Midwich these sort of barbaric bud-nippings don’t happen—this is England, Jack! As a colonizing nation they scoff at primitive superstitions which view the unborn as vampiric--neither alive nor dead—prior to their initiation into the social order. One look at these weird kids and the primitives knew they could never be initiated and so they were pulled like weeds from the group garden.


Alas, even without this genetic “early warning system” our modern society has no initiation ceremony, no equivalent to the traumatic, transformative, primitive rite that makes a child bonded to the tribe body and soul. The casting of the modern child out of the house and into public school is probably the closest we offer, and it usually has the reverse effect, turning the child even further inwards as a defense against bullies, gym class, and condescending teachers. Whereas in primitive societies the initiation creates an individual member of the tribe, to be respected and acknowledged, out of the raw manifestation of ambivalent nature, in civilized society the reverse holds true: British children are taken from their privileged place in the household, put into identical school uniforms, and sent off into cold, gray world en masse.  Not only are they thus depersonalized, the fetishistic school uniforms they are made to keep them trapped in a “separate” status, as objects of sexual desire and power. Their school uniforms are models of pedophilic kinkiness; the militaristic top half (suit and tie) and the sexualized nakedness of the bottom (shorts) mirrors the cabaret outfits of Weimar-era Berlin, placing these Aryan-looking children into a position of objectified other a priori to any revelation of advanced intelligence.


In 1960 Britain still was only fifteen years from the end of World War Two. In the post-9/11 world of today we may suffer a certain amount of anxiety, but can such anxiety compare with that of a typical Londoner during the blitz of 1939-45? The destruction of the World Trade Center is, after all, not a nightly occurrence. The Aryan blonde, emotionless coldness of the Midwich children certainly echoes trauma still buried in the fear centers of many an Englishman (an equivalent might be if a town full of American white women started giving birth to Muslims).


One must remember too, that the colonizing British must harbor some suppressed well of collective suspicion that a good ass-kicking still coming their way from the Third World they've been exploiting all this time. He who conquers by the sword will be conquered by the rocket, so to speak. Unlike Britain however, Americans are proud to be without a class structure, racially defined or otherwise. In Britain a chimney sweep will still supplicate before a doctor, thus the fear and hostility accorded the children by the uneducated locals makes more sense than it would in an American town. If the intellectual leaders of Midwich are to be made lower class citizens—if the doctor is to become the new chimney sweep—then what will happen to the chimney sweep? He will be bumped one peg lower… bumped off, in fact, and he knows it well in advance of the paradigm shift. Like the humans they walk among, the Midwich children are class conscious, treating the upper class, i.e. the Major and George Sanders with some respect (The kids hurt the major at one point, but don’t kill him) while the local yokels are treated the way German soldiers might treat the peasants in an occupied town, with punishments that vastly outweigh the infractions.


Another unmistakably English element is the suburban/rural environment. The locals are trapped there in a way that is unimaginable in the national highway crossed America of the same age. Remember the big American horror of the same year was Psycho, which involves a roadside motel where “the highway was moved.” Being merely a mile or two away from it is enough to cause anxiety, to get a feeling of being cut-off. Midwich isn’t even near any highway; it’s connected only to the next hamlet via a winding country lane populated by parsons on bicycles and farmers in their quaint pick-ups. It’s provincial in a way Yankees can’t even understand as connected by thoroughfares and televisions as they are. The government representatives travel by car into town to figure out what to do, and if necessary they will drop an atom bomb without anyone ever knowing. The town is never “connected” to the rest of the country or world in any clear way.


We can see how less effective the story is when moved to America in John Carpenter’s 1995 remake. The only way Carpenter can even begin to duplicate the sense of being “cut off” is by moving the town deep in the New Mexico desert, then establishing a sense of community via scenes involving the residents all getting ready for a big town picnic, which he bathes in golden hues and sets to acoustic guitar music. It doesn’t work as well as the gloom of the English countryside, where the towns seem always deserted and unnaturally quiet, but the sense of community is still genuinely thick, at least at the pub.


In the original, Gordon’s “Britishness” is also an important facet of the film, as his ability to repress emotion helps when it subtly becomes apparent to him that he’s responsible for the presence of these children. As a resident ‘intellectual leader’ of the town, he is (due the class construct) an authority figure; he “creates the symbolic order.” So when Anthea announces her pregnancy, his joy indicates they have been hoping to have a child well past the point they could expect to conceive, and now his prayers have been answered as if via telegram from the British government. As viewers who have already seen the movie poster or know the gist of the plot, we can’t help but feel in on some dark joke due to the unironic, swelling, happiness of Ron Goodwin’s clever score. It’s an interesting choice in cues, as usually music seems to “know” the future. In this way, Gordon’s perceptions of reality set the standard for the film. When he’s happy, the music is happy; when he’s scared, the music is scary. When he suspects the children are his own dark Monkeys Paw-style wish come true, he hides it even from the composer... Brits are masters of poker-faced subterfuge!


But happy as the music might make Gordon out to be, the rash of mysterious pregnancies aren’t all so well received in the rest of Midwich, especially with the unmarried “good” girls: Janet Fall attempts suicide over the news, and the other, less wealthy or unmarried ones get the short end of the system’s stick. They’re considered sullied in reputation (even though they are technically still virgins) as it’s easier for a patriarchy to accept a woman’s guilt over its own failure (as in the tendency to assume “she was asking for it” in rape cases).


This is yet another region in which the film’s British-ness works to its fear-factoring advantage, as the realm of medicine is socialized, linking the child birth process of the poor with the evil epistemological eye of Big Brother. We see this in a key scene where a mobile medical unit has been set up in the town to monitor the moms-to-be (the poor ones, who unlike Anthea can’t afford private care). The camera POV is from above, looking down on the women coming in and out of the truck, their heads hung in shame, as if inviting us to see them as test subjects under the microscope. The shot seems to link the government, aliens the world of medicine the way the TV show The X-Files would later do, drawing sinister conclusions about who really owns and controls a woman’s womb.  


When the babies are finally born, there is again a sense in the suddenly optimistic musical cue that things may go all right for Gordon. But it doesn’t last long. The dog is the first to suspect things are not all right, by growling nonstop at the baby, christened David. Then Gordon begins to get jealous too. “Handsome, isn’t he?” he says of the child, but beneath that British reserve one can sense the faint hint of a reverse Oedipal complex – with the son already having more power over the mother than the father does. David will later employ this power to force Anthea to scald herself when the water in his bottle is too hot, and one can only imagine what other infantile urges the child forces his mother to gratify.


When there is an invasion of otherworldly evil it is common for the main character to have some sub-Freudian link with it, some barely tangible connection that only the weird old, cackling old woman at the bar can see. It was the boiling over sexuality of 1950’s teenagers that caused the giant insects in all those old bug movies, not the A-Bomb, though what’s the difference? Each is a metaphor for the other. Gordon cannot reconcile the reverse-Oedipal urge to kill his kid with the buried suspicion that his wishing brought the stork of Satan down upon them all. So rather than admitting he made a mistake, he wants to find some good therein. He starts arguing that the Midwich spawn are not inherently evil, but just at that pre-empathic stage of all infants; there is good to be found in them, and fun things to study and learn about the human mind. A parallel in the 21st century would be the childless couple who wind up with deformed quintuplets after signing up with an insane fertility doctor, and yet manage to convince themselves their lives are somehow changed for the better.


Thus Gordon becomes an unwitting traitor to himself and the town. He uses his position as a leader to admonish the military and government officials to allow him to study the intelligence of the children on his own, arguing that they should be allowed to live together in a schoolroom: “Children are not good or evil!” Gordon's brother-in-law the Major is concerned: “What if we can’t put the moral breaks on them?” This is a legitimate worry—if they know you can never spank them, why should they ever listen? And Gordon’s wunwillingness to condone their extermination distinctly sets the field of science/eugenics up against humanity’s own survival. The sense of taboo that resulted in the Intuit and Mongolian children being killed at birth doesn’t exist for the civilized man, who has to wait until the children have grown so big powerful only nuclear strikes will do the trick (which becomes the fate of two other damned “civilized” villages). In this context, Gordon becomes his own bad guy, like Dr. Carrington in The Thing (1951) shouting: “You’re wiser than we are, you must understand!” as James Arness gets ready to clobber him with a chunk of wood.


That the Major and others give into Gordon’s ill-advised wish is again due to their Britishness (Kenneth Tobey would have just shoved him aside) and the fact that these are their children too, and rebellion and “difference” is not all that unusual (the major’s parents may have wanted to kill him when he was a kid, too). The comic book/movie series X-Men follows a similar tack, with the mutants finding refuge at a school helmed by a master of mind control. It’s a misunderstood teen fantasy of letting all the freaks go live together since the adults hate them so much. Like some pint-sized biker gang, the Hitler Youth or a rock band, they “all want to dress alike,” and walk around the streets like they own the place. They are part of a new movement, the dawn of the eugenic-counterculture. Parents are yesterday’s papers. At one point Gordon even asks them; “What do you kids want?” The kids reply: “We want you to leave us alone!”

This request which would later become immortalized in Pink Floyd’s The Wall, a 1982 rock film chronicling a fascistic rock star’s childhood in post-war England. And as in that film, the adults simply cannot leave their little Nazi progeny alone. When faced with a higher or different intellect than themselves, the parents must try to understand, meddle and control and failing that, destroy them rather than be made irrelevant. “If you didn’t suffer from emotions, you would be as strong as we are,” David says to Gordon at one point, indicating that what the adults see as their “humanity” is something the Midwich children have transcended, and in short: “if you want to find out what’s behind these blue eyes/ you’ll have to claw you’re way through this disguise” (2).


It has long been a source of fascination with UFO theorists that if humans could access our entire DNA, we would be able to recognize and harness powers which we now think of as “alien.” Some go so far as to speculate that alien “DNA dampers” are what keep that other 90% of our minds inactive. We could be as strong as the Midwich kids if our minds weren’t mostly shut off as a result of some higher being’s neutering of our genes: When David’s “real” extra-dimensional father last pulled his “induce sleep and artificially inseminate” business it may have been with apes at the dawn of time. He made sure to lower the wattage of our alien chromosomes, but for this next go-round, he’s turning the dimmer switch up to “bright.” Gordon notes that the children’s’ power has no limit, any more “than there is a limit to the power of the human mind.” Emotions and feeling may just be what we have instead, the filler, the last few remnants of our shouting, ass-grabbing monkey ancestors.

But we are still bound by our own compassion as human viewers, and any compassion we had for these “different” kids is compromised when they start killing more and more innocent people. When the drunken crowd at the pub decides to go burn down the schoolhouse, the scene in its way links the Universal 1940’s “torch wielding villagers” with the drunken posse of Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971). Like Dustin Hoffman in that film, Gordon stands between the villagers and their prey, guided by his sense of superiority as an intellectual. Not that he is really needed, as the kids make the leader of the mob self-immolate with their own torch. The horror of this scene also further estranges us from whatever sympathy we harbor for the misunderstood “cool” kids. Our own sense of superiority to the lower class townspeople is called into question when our identification with the kids is continually turned back in our faces. They in fact become the new adults. They are too powerful and amoral even for us, the infantile viewers. Thus when Gordon brings his satchel full of dynamite and brain full of brick walls into the schoolroom, he is now the child. He is the rock and roll rebel who is going to blow up the school as a symbol of rebellion against of his social rulers.  As the audience we have become anti- our own hierarchal constructs. We may as well be singing “we don’t need no education / we don’t need no thought control” as we hammer the brick walls of the classroom down around us, while our grandchildren watch and sadly shake their heads in disaproval. .


(Note: Excerpted from Van Helsing's Journal #2, 2002)

c. 2001, 2009 - Erich Kuersten

C. 2013 - Acidemic Journal of Film and Media - BFG LCS: 489042340244