October 5, 2010
Every Friday night this month, TCM is showing a slate of Hammer Horror films, so we at Movie Morlocks have been saluting the venerable production company’s work. Hammer Films, launched in 1934, has an imposingly large filmography, and has just re-started after a 30 year hibernation. Let Me In (the remake of Let the Right One In (2008)) is its first production to hit U.S. theaters since their 1979 version of The Lady Vanishes, starring Cybill Shepherd and Elliott Gould. They claim to have 25 projects in preparation, and they just inked a deal to publish horror novels with Arrow (an imprint of Random House). I’m going to dip into their past, though, and focus on the 1963 Joseph Losey film The Damned (re-titled These Are the Damned in the U.S. It airs October 22nd at 11:15PM. It is also available on DVD).
It’s a strange beast, a youth-in-revolt drama that morphs into a sci-fi dystopia fueled by nuclear panic. Based on a story by H.L. Lawrence (The Children of Light), and adapted for the screen by Evan Jones, it stars Macdonald Carey as Simon Welles, a rather dissolute American traveling to the graying resort town of Weymouth, in England (a stand-in for the blacklisted American exile, Joseph Losey). There he meets Joan (Shirley Ann Field), who lures him into a mugging by her brother King’s leather-clad Teddy Boy gang. King (played with neurotic smarminess by Oliver Reed) is a sexually-repressed type, tyrannically controlling his sister’s love-life and channeling his own lust into bits of random violence. Joan runs off with Simon, and they hide out in the cliffs, where they discover a secret government experiment to forge children who could survive a nuclear holocaust. King chases them into the same nightmare.
The experiment is lorded over by Bernard (Alexander Knox), an avuncular and nihilistic scientist convinced that nuclear destruction is unavoidable, and one suspects he thinks necessary as well. He tells Simon after his mugging that the “age of senseless violence has caught up with us too.” This statement, ostensibly about the Teddy Boy gang who jacked up Simon, is also writ large on the geo-political stage. Bernard wants to start the world from scratch with his miracle children, who have survived irradiation, are cold to the touch, and whom he treats as his students, although he locks them inside a cliff.
Joseph Losey was not thrilled to take on the project. He tells Tom Milne in “Losey on Losey” that:
I undertook The Damned, from a novel I thought confused and good, because several other projects had fallen through at that moment and it was a difficult period in my life. This has never been sufficient for me to take on anything; but I did, because I thought the novel spoke passionately and felt passionately about the irresponsible use of the new atomic powers put into the hands of the human race… I knew I was making it for a company distinguished for making pretty horrid horror films. I…was interested in parallel levels of violence. …These were the things I wanted to play on; the science-fiction aspects of the story didn’t interest me at all.
Despite his low opinion of Hammer Films, the company still did all it could to satisfy him. The original script was written by a former collaborator of Losey’s, Ben Barzman, which Columbia had approved, but he rejected it on the set, and moved forward with a new script from Evan Jones, which Denis Meikle says was “written on the hoof” in his A History of Horrors. Producer Tony Hinds left the production because of this radical change, to be replaced by Michael Carreras. But whoever was in charge, only Losey and Jones knew what the story was any longer.
Regardless of the chaotic production, and Losey’s demurrals, it’s a striking and unsettling piece of work. It’s the first film he shot in the 2.35:1 ratio (here called HammerScope), but he and DP Arthur Grant had a firm sense of its possibilities. There is the deep focus of the shot that headlines this piece: of the gang randomly destroying an object in the deep background (a mutating mass of violence) while Joan contemplates fleeing in the foreground (an alienated, isolated presence). This composition repeats insistently in the first part of the film, in which Joan latches on to Simon as an escape hatch. The leathered gang is always shot as a group, usually in long shot, and like automatons whistle and sing their killer theme song, “Black leather”.
Losey’s work in the first half is highly mobile and engaged. The gang straddles a unicorn statue, sneering to the passersby. In the same take the camera glides up the monument to George III, another icon emptied of meaning to these bored youth. Then Losey cuts straight from George to Joan enticing Simon to follow her to his doom. As in his U.S. masterpiece The Prowler, institutions are losing power to induce obedience to the law, as endemic corruption has undercut any sense of legitimacy.
With the introduction of Bernard’s destructive paranoia, the gang’s distrust of authority seems apt, if not directed very constructively. Their violence is a microcosm of the battles that are threatening to devour the world, and which triggers Bernard to enact his megalomaniacal experiments. He drills his irradiated orphans with military precision – in art, history and literature, an a futile act of cultural preservation. But the kids are ignorant of their fate, and completely cut off from the world outside. They construct “parents” from magazine photos and their own crude drawings. Even if Bernard’s predictions come to pass, it’s unlikely these desperate children could forge the kind of society he envisions.
Losey’s attention seems to flag with the sci-fi sections, stuck with flat cave interiors, rote plot machinations and an overdetermined political allegory dragging things down. The film was a reaction to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), a vocal activist group in England, formed in 1957, that agitated for unilateral disarmament by the UK (their logo was adopted later as the worldwide emblem of peace). Bernard’s post-hawkish acceptance of a nuclear war is the ideal straw man for CND to knock down.
The rich imagery of social decay pops up only occasionally in the second half, almost entirely in the sculptures of Bernard’s sometime lover and full-time bohemian, Freya, played with cynical resignation by Viveca Lindfors. She constructs desiccated, unpolished works of human and animal forms, splayed menacingly against Weymouth’s dreary landscape. A shadow of her bird lands behind Bernard in one of the images above. They are portents of death that everyone ignores, even herself.
While the ending is too pat – an everyone loses wake-up call that now looks forced, the film contains an irreducible creepiness, as well as Losey’s inspired sections of societal rot and cycles of violence that he is able to convey almost entirely through the image. Afterward he would move on to a string of art-house hits with his Harold Pinter adaptations starring Dirk Bogarde, but I don’t think any other of his British productions contain the same uncanny power as The Damned.