Monday, July 5, 2010

[THESE ARE] THE DAMNED (1961-5)

After some austere opening credits, Joseph Losey's only directorial outing for Hammer Studios opens with something like an overture: a pair of tableaux amid the statuary of an English town, set to the bombastic beat of Hammer maestro James Bernard's rock pastiche Black Leather Rock. The camera glides down the length of a Victorian memorial clock. A woman (Shirley Anne Field) emerges from behind it to ask an American tourist (Macdonald Carey), "Never seen a clock tower before?" She swaggers away, the hilt of a knife sticking out of the front of her pants. Cut to a motorcycle gang apparently led by a mufti-clad Oliver Reed, apparently watching what we've already seen from the vantage of a statue of a unicorn. The camera glides upward to reveal this as part of a memorial to the golden jubilee of George III, the monarch himself on top. It's more like a video for Black Leather Rock than the opening of a film, a highly stylized sequence that starts you wondering immediately what kind of film this is and who, after all, are the damned?


The woman, Joan, is bait. The American, Simon, bites. The gang, led by Joan's brother, beats him up and robs him. Simon gets cleaned up at a restaurant where he makes the acquaintance of Bernard, a scientist, and Freya, a sculptor. She has a studio on the nearby coastal cliffs, while Bernard works at a top-secret facility nearby. These two know each other quite well, but Freya still doesn't know what Bernard actually does. To tell her, he quips, would be to condemn her to death.

Simon goes back to his houseboat, followed by a conscience-stricken Joan. Her apology takes a while, and before long the gang comes to reclaim her. After a chase Joan jumps back onto the boat and Simon heads for open water. She suggests holing up on the cliff and hiding out in the often-empty sculptor's home until the gang, and her brother King especially, cools down. But King doesn't want to cool down and he has a hunch on where Joan would go. By the time he gets there Simon and Joan are gone, though not before getting it on, but Freya is back. King denounces her "nasty" art and smashes one of the sculptures. Meanwhile, Simon and Joan stray too close to forbidden turf and are chased down a cliff. King is nearly caught in a dragnet and flees down the cliff in turn.

Simon and Joan are rescued by a group of robe-clad children. We've seen them already earlier in the day; they're some sort of special students whom Bernard addresses via a two-way monitor. They seem to be bright kids but are frustrated with being unable to meet Bernard face to face. But that's something he can't do. We get a clue why as the kids interact with their new visitors. Joan discovers that the children are cold to her touch and don't warm when she holds their hands. The kids themselves know that they're being trained for some special purpose, but aren't sure what that is. One boy speculates that they're being sent into space, for instance. Once King catches up with the group, he offers his own diagnosis: "They're dead, I tell you!"

In a movie like this, you'd almost believe that a wrong turn could take our heroes to Hogwarts Academy (above). If so, pedagogical methods were more advanced back in the 60s (below)


This may be a Hammer film, but things aren't that bad. They just might be even worse for everyone involved in this incredible genre-switch of a story. Evan Jones's screenplay, adapted from a novel by H. L. Lawrence, flows naturally from juvenile-delinquent film to near-apocalyptic science fiction, with a dash of conspiracy paranoia thrown in. Even better, it still has time to develop its characters, especially Reed's King and Alexander Knox's Bernard. King is an explosive package of issues ranging from his Scarface-like protectiveness toward his sister to his hysterically hypocritical reactionary self-righteousness about everything from May-December romances to modern art. It did leave me wonder how this weirdo ended up leading a gang, but Reed makes you believe in what you see. Bernard, meanwhile, is set up as the film's true villain, and lives up to that promise, but we also see that he has compassion for his young charges, if not for anyone else. We see him argue with military types in favor of more freedom of movement and decreased surveillance of them, but when it looks like the kids will break out, he has no choice but to act with absolute ruthlessness, proving that he wasn't joking about fatal consequences for anyone who finds out too much. Knox handles the hard chore well of playing a genuinely sinister character who isn't really happy with what he has to do. The other actors acquit themselves well, even Macdonald Carey despite his being pretty much a poor man's William Holden in his role and somewhat unconvincing as a young woman's lover.

Oliver Reed, Art Critic

Losey and Jones also do something provocative with statues, both the monuments in town and Freya's abstract, half-finished work. They seem to be making a statement about the degeneration of man's own self-image from the iconography of George III to the "nasty" expressionism of Freya's figures, and they clearly invite analogies between the statues and both the children at the base (being molded by Bernard) and King (as a case of arrested development). Both are candidates for "the damned," as is just about everybody in the picture.

Hammer had a hot potato in this picture. Filmed in 1961, it wasn't released in Britain (as The Damned) until two years later. It took another two years before it reached the U.S. in heavily edited form as These Are the Damned, premiering in New York as the second feature on a double-bill with Genghis Khan. Turner Classic Movies took cinephiles by surprise a few years ago by broadcasting the uncut version with no fanfare, and that version, retaining the American title, is probably the main attraction in Sony Pictures Home Entertainment's new Icons of Suspense collection. If you're into genre bending, Joseph Losey, Oliver Reed, or absolutely bleak endings, it definitely should be an attraction for you.

The trailer was uploaded to YouTube by elenanoque.


And from AlexV66, Black Leather, Black Leather, rock rock rock!

3 comments:

dfordoom said...

A great movie. One of Hammer's best. Losey was an amazingly versatile director and some of his best films are comparatively little-known or not generally highly regarded - The Romantic Englishwoman and his high camp masterpiece Modesty Blaise being two cases in point.

Watching Hammer said...

An utterly brilliant film, and showed what Hammer could do outside the (sometimes) straitjacket of 'Gothic'. Such a bleak film.

Alex DeLarge said...

Cool film! I've been in a Losey mood lately and reviewed his Pinter classics, and discovered that this gem was newly released on DVD. Love the sculptures like twisted flesh exposed to radiation. My review hasn't been posted yet but should be up soon. Keep up the good work!