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. 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 utterly certain nuclear holocaust is coming, and offers hope of repopulating the Earth after the fire.
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 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.