Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, April 26, 2013

Director Report Card: John Carpenter (1995)

17. Village of the Damned

I’ve always suspected that Carpenter was hoping to recreate the same sort of magic he had on “The Thing” with the 1995 remake of “Village of the Damned.” Both were sci-fi horror classics of the cold war era. However, comparing the two films is ill advised. Firstly because “Village of the Damned” is much more of a direct remake then “The Thing” was. Secondly, it’s nowhere near as good.

The open pan over the coast, an ominous whisper on the soundtrack, attempts to create a mood of dread. Midwich, moved from Britain to the California coast, is introduced as a cozy, friendly town, the sort of place were a cookout at the school is an event for everyone. How cozy is Midwich? Cozy enough that two of our main characters are introduced snuggling in bed with their spouses. As in the original, soon the entire village falls unconscious under mysterious circumstances, every woman in the town waking up pregnant. Unlike in the original, government agents descend on the town, studying the strange, ivory-haired children that are born. It doesn’t take long for the creepy kids to show off their psychic powers and make their malevolent plot known.

The biggest problem with John Carpenter’s “Village of the Damned?” The kids aren’t scary. Their eyes glow and flash, they glare menacingly, and people around them self-mutilate in ostensibly horrifying ways. Yet none of it registers as creepy or unnerving. The glowing eyes are overdone. In one sequence, the camera places so much importance on a baby’s eyes lighting up to a bright green that it comes off as flashy, instead of frightening. In another sequence, the eyes flash like headlights. Finally, during the big finale, the kids’ whole heads light up like a burning jack-o’lantern. While the original treated this aspect relatively subtly, the remake overdoes it. As for the silver hair? Bad wigs.

The hypnotizing children’s effects on the people around them are even more heavy handed. Their birth is preceded by a dopey nightmare sequence. A mother places her hands in boiling water, wailing melodramatically. The mother later tosses herself off a cliff, the suicide filmed in a startlingly uninteresting way. Any shock is totally sapped by the baby’s smiling face being overlaid over the moment. An eye doctor shakes her hands and contorts her face, dripping acid into her eyes, in a sequence almost comically overwrought. One of the more contrived sequences involves a janitor dropping himself off a roof onto his broom. While "Buck" Flower’s performance is amusingly sloshy, the method of dispatchment is incredibly awkward and borderline ridiculous, negating any attempts to build tension. The unintentional hilarity peaks when a truck goes crashing through a gate, mysteriously flying through the air despite the lack of a ramp, slams into a gas tank, and produces an improbably enormous explosion. The acts of violence are so badly mishandled and hysterically pitched; I can’t help but wonder if Carpenter was intentionally going for camp. Even potentially workable moments, like Kristie Alley dissecting herself with a scalpel, come off as lifeless. All the violence in the last act is.

Perhaps the biggest issue with the kids are their performances. None of the child actors has a grasp on the material. Lindsay Haun as Mara, the leader of the tribe, goes for coldly calculated and sinister. There’s nothing convincing about her acting and her line-readings usually just come off as flat. This is especially noticeable during her monologue, were her orders of servitude sound like a little kid reading off her mom’s grocery list. Thomas Dekker as David isn’t much better. The character, an emotion-less alien-child learning to feel, probably has the richest arc in the film. Once again, there’s no conviction in Dekker’s delivery. He comes off as flat, confused, and hopelessly out of his element. I know these are child actors I’m talking about but, if an entire film is going to revolve around young people, make sure to cast kid actors that can pick up the slack. The rest of the children receive no personality.

The adult cast is much more mixed. Upon release, the film was overshadowed by Christopher Reeve’s debilitating equestrian accident. Reeves is fine in the role. He’s good while screaming at the kids about emotion or bonding with one in a graveyard. However, even he seems a little disinterested at times and it never registers that the evil leader is his daughter. Linda Kozlowski as David’s suffering mother does better, panicking nicely, but the sudden romantic subplot forged between the characters at the last minute is really awkward.

The supporting cast is filled with interesting character actors. Michael Pare gets third billing despite dying in the first ten minutes. Mark Hamill, well into the character actor portion of his career, is highly entertaining as the town priest. He’s immediately aware of the children’s true intentions, stresses, sweats, and freaks-out over it to great effect.

But one performance practically cripples the whole film. Kristie Alley is woefully, dreadfully miscasted. Her sassiness works fine when trading sarcastic barbs but it’s impossible to take her seriously as a tough as nails FBI agent. Some of the dialogue sounds awful coming out of her mouth. She says “It’s a stillborn” like a punch line and her plea to the FBI board for more funding plays like an out-of-place seduction scene. Some performances can switch between drama and comedy with ease. Alley isn’t one of them. Another flat, off-paced performance is Karen Kahn as Reeves’ ill-fated wife.

If the presentation is listless and the cast asleep, the story is route. The government actively being involved in the children’s rearing had potential but doesn’t go anywhere. The movie harps on the theme of “emotions are what make us human!” repeatedly, without illustrating it in any sort of subtle or meaningful way. One of my biggest grips with the film is fairly petty. In the original film, the origin of the children was kept fairly ambiguous. Though it’s obvious some sort of force was responsible for impregnating the entire town, the exact details were never revealed. It could have been alien, demonic, extra-dimensional, who knows what. That was part of what made it scary. The remake is up front: It’s aliens. There’s nothing wrong with that, I suppose, but it certainly removes part of what made the story interesting.

Carpenter’s direction is mostly as lifeless as every else about the film. The final confrontation between Reeves and the kids, though swiped almost wholesale from the original, manages to build some tension. What follows is a decent ending and the film’s sole exciting moment. (Also, the final shot might be a reference to Cronenberg’s “The Brood.”) Carpenter and Dave Davies’ score is usually overbearing but the use of a children’s choir is spooky and appropriate. For the most part, so much about “Village of the Damned” is mediocre. It shows a sharp decline in quality for the filmmaker and was, in many ways, the beginning of the end. [Graded: C-]       

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