An American village is visited by some unknown life form which leaves the women of the village pregnant. Nine months later, the babies are born, and they all look normal, but it doesn't take the "parents" long to realise that the kids are not human or humane
Remakes of popular classic science fiction movies are always a bit of a gamble - especially when the original film was already great unto itself. Why even go back to that well? In some cases, it is worth the journey. In 1982, John Carpenter released his take on 'The Thing' a remake of the classic Howard Hawks film 'The Thing from Another World.' On the surface, one could call Carpenter's film a bloody tension-filled remake, but in actuality, it's a far more faithful adaptation of the short story 'Who Goes There' by author John W. Campbell Jr. In 1995, John Carpenter would again remake a classic science fiction film with 'Village of the Damned.' While it manages to capture a sense of creepiness and suspense, this new offering doesn't do very much different with the material compared to the 1960 version directed by Wolf Rilla.
Life in the sleepy California coastal town of Midwich is a fairly routine, day in, day out affair. People go to work, they come home, have a meal with family and repeat the cycle until the weekend. For Dr. Alan Chaffee (Christopher Reeve) and his wife Barbara (Karen Kahn), they are happily married with great careers and a beautiful home on a cliffside overlooking the ocean, but they don't have any children of their own. Jill McGowan (Linda Kozlowski) and her husband Frank (Michael Paré) are also happily married but don't have children of their own. Now that Jill is the principal of the school, the idea of having kids weighs on their minds a little more these days - but they're in no hurry. On a day when the whole town is supposed to come together and have a nice get together at the school, everyone inside the town of Midwich suddenly passes out falling flat where they were standing, including the animals.
Outside of town, authorities are frantically trying to figure out what is going on ever since the town went dark. Alan was away attending to a patient when the incident occurred and is desperate to get back to his wife, but he can't because whenever someone passes a specific invisible boundary line, they too pass out - even when they're wearing a gas mask. Working to coordinate the response is a mysterious military scientist by the name of Dr. Verner (Kirstie Alley). With someone like Dr. Verner on the scene, Alan knows that something terrible has happened. But when the passed out people begin to wake up, the question of "why?" goes unanswered as everyone is focused on getting back into town to find out if their friends, family, and loved ones are safe. Everyone is seemingly normal, aside from those who had the misfortune of falling asleep behind the wheel of a car.
The mystery deepens months later when it is learned that every woman in the town of an age and ability to have a child is pregnant including - Barbara and Jill! Dr. Verner isn't able to offer any answers but is desperate to study the situation and her team is tasked with providing care for all of these women. When all of the children are born on the same day at the exact same time, all but one of the nine mystery children survived. As the children grow, the people of Midwich quickly learn that these white-haired children aren't normal. As "accidents" happen, people die and each time the children are there. Alan does what he can to infuse his daughter Mara (Lindsey Haun), the leader of the group, and the rest of the children with a sense of humanity and compassion, but as they are clearly something other than human, the safety of the town and even the rest of the world is at risk.
The John Carpenter take on 'Village of the Damned' had the misfortune of opening a scant nine days after the tragic bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Since a number of young children were killed in that horrible blast, people were understandably numb to the idea of going to see a science fiction/horror picture about killer children and the film essentially flopped at the box office. While this explanation is a perfectly reasonable reason why a movie would do poorly financially, I also feel that this film just doesn't do enough new and exciting with the material to differentiate it from the 1960 original film starring George Sanders. The combination of George Sanders' Gordon Zellaby character and Laurence Naismith's character Doctor Willers into a single character of Dr. Alan Chaffee played by Christopher Reeve works particularly well as it streamlines a number of conversations. Another aspect that works for this film was making the David child played by Thomas Dekker being more emotional and capable of empathy because he has lost his female child partner.
Taken as a whole, John Carpenter's version of 'Village of the Damned' isn't a terrible movie or even a bad one necessarily, it just feels uninspired in a lot of ways. Compared to his previous effort with the absolutely fantastic 'In the Mouth of Madness,' 'Village of the Damned' can feel a bit flat. I still enjoy this film, I do get quite a kick out of it, but it isn't one of Carpenter's best. While I enjoy the late great Christopher Reeve in this film (it was his last completed film before his riding accident), his character Alan Chaffee as well as Linda Kozlowski's Jill, and Thomas Dekker's David, are about the only fully fledged characters in the film. Kirstie Alley as Dr. Verner does what she can with the part, but it is a fairly one-note character without much of an arc as is Mark Hamill's Reverend George. As creepy and disturbing as Lindsey Haun's characterization of Mara is, the character itself doesn't have much happening.
Perhaps it's because we don't get to know these central characters that we never really come to know the town of Midwich itself and ever feel a sense of peril for the people. Aside from the alien children, we never see any other kids their own age or witness them interacting with other members of the community. They're born, we flash forward a couple of years and the town is a shell of what it once was and those who remain are afraid of the kids. We don't get to witness this town's slide into fear and paranoia in a palpable way and the film's sense of dread and suspense is cut short because of it. While I feel that Carpenter's decision to deliver this film from a largely female perspective was a brilliant idea touching on themes of childbirth, the choice of abortion as well as what it means to be a mother to a child that isn't necessarily yours, there ultimately wasn't enough weight behind these themes to make this film come alive in its own unique way. John Carpenter's 'Village of the Damned' is a film that I would like to enjoy more than I do, but it still boils down to being a middling effort - albeit still a good one - from one of the best genre directors in the business.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Village of the Damned' arrives on Blu-ray thanks to Scream Factory. Pressed on a Region A Locked BD50 disc, the disc comes housed in a standard Blu-ray case with identical slipcover featuring new artwork. The Blu-ray case also features reversible artwork that reflects the film's original poster artwork. The disc opens directly to an animated main menu featuring traditional navigation options.
Given that John Carpenter's 'Village of the Damned' is a back catalogue Universal title that wasn't received well during its initial theatrical release, I had hoped that since the film had established a cult following it would be given a good and proper HD remastering for this 2.35:1 1080p presentation. Things are pretty good, but sadly they're not as good as they could be. I'm going to do my best to be diplomatic with this portion of the review and highlight the positive qualities as well as the bad, but I'm going to state my disappointment outright: this is a movie that should look better than it does and given the fan following of John Carpenter, this movie deserved better treatment. Perhaps what sticks for me the most about this transfer is the egregious use of edge enhancement. This is an extremely crunchy looking film that causes fine details and edges to suffer as a result. Most close up shots and even some middles look okay, not great, but okay. It's the wide shots and establishing scenes that can look as if this image was simply an upconverted DVD with plenty of crunchy edges, aliasing, some banding, and boosted contrast. While night shots look strong with deep blacks, there sadly isn't any real sense of depth to the image and the film can appear rather flat.
On the positive side of things, there does appear to be some - albeit difficult to notice - film grain throughout, so if it was as scrubbed with loads of DNR as the U.K. release allegedly was, it doesn't show. Fine facial features are readily apparent as are costuming and some of the production design details and a few of the makeup/gore effects. But again, that's when the image is in close up and middle range distance, anything in the wide shots tends to lose focus or become so crunchy looking that it's hard to appreciate the work cinematographer Gary Kibbe put into it. This isn't an upscale of the DVD master as the opening credits sequence has been slightly pillar boxed - for no apparent reason - but once those credits are done the image slips back to full 2.35:1. The print sourced for this release is also cleaner than the DVD free of any hair, debris, or speckling. This Blu-ray transfer also displays a much stronger and pronounced color range than the DVD featuring some strong and striking primaries, as well as green and brown earth tones that are evident throughout the film's various locations. After 'They Live' and 'Prince of Darkness' which I would give a 3.75/5 almost 4/5 ranking, I was hoping for something along those lines here. But this transfer for 'Village of the Damned' doesn't fair as well. It's certainly leaps and bounds better than the LaserDisc release and the DVD (Which I will be providing some comparison screenshots for in the forums), but I still can't shake a certain amount of disappointment with this transfer.
Thankfully John Carpenter's 'Village of the Damned' comes packed with two excellent audio tracks, a DTS-HD MA 5.1 as well as a DTS-HD MA 2.0 stereo mix. Of the two, I do prefer the 5.1 mix, it does provide a bit more atmosphere, but the dialogue isn't as powerful as it is featured in the 2.0 mix. That said, the full 5.1 surround track works nicely by building a sense of atmosphere and presence to the mix as a whole giving the dialogue, sound effects and the score by Carpenter and Dave Davies plenty of space to breathe. The 2.0 mix in comparison tends to smash everything together and as a result some elements can sound canned or slightly lifeless. Dialogue in the 5.1 mix keeps to the front and center channels and like I said previously, it can be a little soft so you may feel the need to boost the volume during the film's starting moments. Once those credits are out of the way and most of the characters have been introduced and the primary story kicks in, the rest of the movie is pretty even and shouldn't require much adjustment. Overall this is a big improvement over the Dolby 5.1 mix found on the DVD which always sounded very muddy to me and had bigger issues handling the quieter moments.
It Takes a Village: The Making of John Carpenter's Village of the Damned: (HD 49:17) This is a fantastic making of feature that is incredibly thorough and detailed as it talks to cast, crew and director John Carpenter and his wife producer Sandy King. Everything is covered from the casting to some very wonderful stuff covering what it was like working with Christopher Reeve to having Mark Hamill on the film. They also go into a bit of detail about how Universal apparently took control of the final edit as well as pushed the release date of the film up so Carpenter didn't have much time to edit - even though he says he's happy with it - the film is apparently a shell of what it could have been if the cast interviews are to be believed.
The Go To Guy: Peter Jason on John Carpenter: (HD 45:13) Considering Peter Jason has in some way starred in seven of John Carpenter's movies, this is a pretty awesome interview, to say the least. Peter Jason gives a ton of detail about working with John, meeting him because John was a fan of Howard Hawks' 'Rio Lobo.' He's got tons of stories to tell and all of them are fun and add a little extra something special about how he's worked with John Carpenter so many times.
Horror's Hallow Grounds: (HD 20:58) I'm really glad they brought this extra feature back. This time, Sean Clark and friends visit Inverness California where the film was shot and the shoot apparently was regularly disrupted by locals.
Vintage Interviews and Behind the Scenes: (SD 24:40) This is the material that has been ported over from the previous DVD. It's all good material and offers a little more info about the film.
Still Gallery: (HD 2:05) A collection of set photos, stills and marketing materials.
Theatrical Trailer: (SD 1:59)
John Carpenter's 'Village of the Damned' may not be the best offering from the director, but even as a middling effort, it's still pretty good and better than the average for a mid-90s horror/sci-fi film. It's also great to see the film and appreciate the work of the late Christopher Reeves once again. Scream Factory has brought 'The Village of the Damned' to Blu-ray with a serviceable but still problematic image transfer. The audio hits the marks and the extra features assembled for this release are top shelf. I do wish the transfer had been stronger because on that front I'm having difficulty outright recommending it, but fans should still be happy that it does look better than the DVD release and the quality of the extra features make the purchase worth it. Recommended.