Posted by Richard Harland Smith on June 1, 2012
On Sunday, June 3rd, I’ll be appearing IN PERSON! at the New Beverly Cinema in West Hollywood to help present a double bill of Joseph Losey’s THE DAMNED (US: THESE ARE THE DAMNED, 1961) and Joe Cornish’s ATTACK THE BLOCK (2011). The two films, which I hold in very high regard, are great screen partners, focusing as they do on what might be termed juvenile delinquents (though the lawbreakers in the former are more in the young adult demographic) who find themselves caught up in extraordinary circumstances — a fiendish scientific conspiracy on the one hand, an alien invasion on the other — that point the viewer to the obvious conclusion that we never know who the heroes will be until we know what the villains will do. I’m really looking forward to this exhibition and, if you find yourself in the greater Los Angeles area, I hope you think about stopping by.
THE DAMNED is a loose adaptation of Henry Lionel Lawrence’s 1960 novel The Children of Light, bankrolled by Hammer Films. Having enjoyed good box office with their Technicolor Gothic horrors THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957) and DRACULA (US: HORROR OF DRACULA, 1958) and their respective sequels, Hammer was looking to diversify. The success of PSYCHO (1960) in the States prompted a string of like-minded psycho-thrillers (among them, SCREAM OF FEAR, PARANOIAC and MANIAC) while this outing was a bid to fill out the independent company’s curriculum vitae with a lashing of science fiction. Chosen to helm the production was American expatriate Joseph Losey, who had quit the States after his troubles with the House on UnAmerican Activities Committee and subsequent blacklisting. Losey had been tapped in the past to direct Hammer’s X:THE UNKNOWN (1956) until that film’s star, fellow American Dean Jagger, nixed Losey’s contribution due to his Communist sympathies. With THE DAMNED, Losey was given considerably more freedom, with the caveat that he use company regular Oliver Reed (CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF) and actress Shirley Anne Field, who had made an aesthetic impression in a small role in Michael Powell’s PEEPING TOM (1960) the previous year. Working quickly, with a budget amounting to only about $160,000, and having no particular affinity with science fiction, Losey crafted a singularly arresting and deeply chilling tale of a government experiment involving children that unites in common cause two groups predisposed to hating one another but whose members must ultimately cooperate in order to thwart the powers that be. Who knows what Hammer was expecting but they did not seem to know what to do with THE DAMNED, which they shelved for two years before releasing it on the bottom half of a double bill with Michael Carreras’ MANIAC (1963). Cut by ten minutes and again tucked in as a second feature, the film had its American premiere in 1965 as THESE ARE THE DAMNED, with an ad campaign that woefully undersold the intelligence of Losey’s adaptation and misrepresented the film as an alien children thriller that seemed the bastard stepson of VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (1960) and THE FROZEN DEAD (1966).
Misunderstood by the Yanks and all but disowned in its native country, THE DAMNED has endured to be regarded half a century later as a benchmark of British science fiction. The categorization is interesting, given the odd nature of sci-fi cinema in the United Kingdom. Cold War era science fiction is haunted by the specter of atomic power and the inescapable fallout of atomic radiation. In the States, birthplace of the atom bomb, the dominant emotion is regret; in film after film from Hollywood at the time, atomic radiation was responsible for breeding monsters – giant ants, giant spiders, giant men – who footsteps pulverized the terra and humbled humanity in general and the scientific community in particular. In Great Britain, the feeling was more of paranoia, and no small wonder. Though England was on technical par at the end of World War II with the States and the Soviet Union, developments in the immediate postwar period put the country at a distant third. All three countries got their share of German scientists but with the adoption of the MacMahon Act in 1946, American reneged on its promise to share nuclear secrets. As a result, Great Britain lagged behind the other Allied superpowers and the national cinema reflects this sense of powerlessness and vulnerability. The Boulting Brothers produced an early atomic scare film with SEVEN DAYS TO NOON (1950), about a conscience-stricken atomic scientist who suffers a John Brown-like psychotic meltdown and threatens to detonate an atomic device in the heart of London unless the country’s stockpile of nuclear weapons is destroyed. Though Roy Boulting and Frank Harvey retained the screenwriting credit, the original story for SEVEN DAYS TO NOON was the work of Paul Dehn and James Bernard. Dehn would go on to write GOLDFINGER (1963) and BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES (1971), both of which turn on the potential or eventual detonation of atomic/nuclear devices, while Bernard was better known as an in-house composer for Hammer and would in fact go on to provide the score for THE DAMNED, including its infectious opening title “Black Leather Rock.”
The smallness and insularity of the British film industry makes for an interesting tangle of professional and personal associations, with a few lines running through THE DAMNED. Arthur Grant, who photographed THE DAMNED for Losey (working in Cinemascope for the first time) went on to shoot QUATERMASS AND THE PIT (US: FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH, 1967), as well as John Gilling’s Cornish (eh? See the parallel?) two-fer THE REPTILE (1966) and PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES (1966), both of which send strangers from the city into hostile rural settings where mysteries mask conspiracies of domination. In 1952, Hammer had attempted a quieter tale of the fantastic called THE FOUR-SIDED TRIANGLE, about human duplication, which was adapted from a novel by William F. Temple by Paul Tabori — brother-in-law of THE DAMNED costar Viveca Lindfors. Other films during this era that dealt with the same level of paranoia include VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (1960) and its sequel CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED (1964), as well as 1984 (1956) and THE GAMMA PEOPLE (1956). Though largely forgotten today, THE GAMMA PEOPLE is an intriguing precursor of THE DAMNED (“The children of today are the citizens of tomorrow”), concerned as it is with an experiment employing radiation as an intelligence booster. (Another fun connection is that the villain of the piece, Walter Rilla, was the father of VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED director Wolf Rilla.) 1984 and THE GAMMA PEOPLE were both released in the States by Columbia, who handled the American distribution of THESE ARE THE DAMNED – you’d think the company would have promoted the newer film along lines similar to those earlier efforts but by 1965, I guess, anxiety about Big Brother-type government agencies was old hat and the punters were more interested in evil children. In this regard (though the kids in THE DAMNED are far from evil), Losey’s film slots intriguingly in among VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED, CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED, Jack Clayton’s THE INNOCENTS (1961) and OUR MOTHER’S HOUSE (1967), and Peter Brook’s LORD OF THE FLIES (1963) and helps to reflect the country’s discomfort with its own future, localized in the fear of its offspring. Nigel Kneale would bring the question of the future full circle with QUATERMASS AND THE PIT, which made modern man out to be the result of alien re-engineering and his powers of reasoning (and questioning) the sequelae of Martian jiggery-pokery, bundling all questions of the future in a forgotten past.
Flash forward fifty years and ATTACK THE BLOCK (2011) offers a view of Great Britain’s future in the plight of its disadvantaged and discounted inner city dwellers. Concerned with a cadre of South London toughs who become unlikely local heroes in a turf war with extraterrestrial invaders, Joe Cornish’s cult hit engendered accolades from the genre community as well as a dishearteningly vocal backlash from certain quarters uncomfortable with the depiction of a mixed-race gaggle of chavs as saviors of humanity. This was a more than curious reaction, given that cinema has long loved its good bad guys, from the mobsters of the Warner Brothers gangster films and loveable outlaws of its prairie tales, to the sundry lawbreaker antiheroes of such films as THE ASPHALT JUNGLE (1950), GUN CRAZY (1950), RIFIFI (1951), THE KILLING (1956), BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967), THE GODFATHER (1972) — seriously, the list of applicable film titles in which the protagonists are culled from the ranks of wrongdoers is seemingly endless yet ATTACK THE BLOCK drew Internet discussion board proclamations like this:
While the Teddy Boy ruffians of THE DAMNED have long since ceased to disturb, the ATTACK THE BLOCK gang is able to rankle, unnerve, and polarize the moviegoing public by virtue of skin color and a preference for face-obscuring hoodies. (Not long after the film’s release, the Trayvon Martin case brought these very issues of racial representation/racial profiling into the spotlight, with the populace dividing itself to either defend Martin as a victim of racial prejudice coupled with vigilante entitlement or condemn him as a no account hoodlum who got what he deserved purely on the strength of a handful of snapshots.) No one would be in real life nearly as choosy about whom they’d let pull them from the rubble as they are when it comes to dramatic stagings of disaster scenarios, in which case people get strangely persnickety in cherrypicking their champions. ATTACK THE BLOCK puts a punk spin on the Dunkirk spirit of Gordon Flemyng’s DALEKS INVASION EARTH: 2150 (1966), which patterned its protagonists after the French Resistance of World War II (with an avuncular assist, of course, by Peter Cushing’s time-slipping Dr. Who), but however it may ground its plot in the discouraging reality of tenement life (a theme mirrored in the 2009 French zombie movie LA HORDE), Cornish’s film is as hopeful as THE DAMNED is cynical, referencing Steven Spielberg’s E.T. – THE EXTRATERRESTRIAL (1982) with its two-wheeling tearaways assuming the mantle of do-gooders when the alien encroachment prevents them from doing bad. Key to the tale is the arbitrariness of heroism, a theme that pings from time to time in films and probably never more indelibly than in Martin Scorsese’s TAXI DRIVER (1976), a far more militant and upsetting film than ATTACK THE BLOCK attempted to be.
THE DAMNED and ATTACK THE BLOCK are being presented at the New Beverly by the Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA) UCLA Student Chapter, which routinely programs an old film with a thematically-relevant contemporary title under the title “Something Old, Something New.” I’m very honored to be asked to participate and I hope to see you there on Sunday, starting at 7:15pm!
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