Wednesday, May 22, 2013

"V" is for Village of the Damned (1995)

 John Carpenter had a rough go at it in the 1990s. From 1980 to 1988, he racked up a filmography that any sci-fi or horror director would kill to have half of: The Fog, Escape from New York, The Thing, Starman, They Live, Prince of Darkness, Christine, and Big Trouble in Little China. And that was following up bringing the world Dark Star, Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, and what the hell, let's throw Elvis in there for good measure. For all intents and purposes, regardless of their box-office success, Carpenter had cemented himself as an all time genre Hall of Famer.

 Which is good, because the next ten years wouldn't have anywhere close to as good a run. Because I haven't seen it in years, I'll withhold judgement on Memoirs of an Invisible Man, a movie I faintly remember enjoying, but aside from In the Mouth of Madness, you'll be hard pressed to name one of his movies that anybody really likes. There's Escape from LA, a grab-bag of terrible ideas that makes one long for the stripped down New York setting; and of course Vampires, a movie that I happen to appreciate for its trashy, "movies for guys who like movies" approach, but the Cap'n also understands that I'm in a very small minority on that one. I don't even try to defend Vampires to most Carpenter fans. But I still wouldn't consider it the low water mark of his 90s output. That distinction belongs to the disaster that is Village of the Damned.

 I understand that nobody thought The Thing was going to be any good, so Carpenter attempting another remake, also of a well-regarded sci-fi / horror movie (this time from 1960) was probably met with mixed expectations. The Thing is, bar none, one of the best examples of how to remake a movie the right way (or re-adapt, if you prefer), and is frequently cited every time somebody defends Hollywood's propensity for remaking films. Fair enough, but this wasn't 1982, and while In the Mouth of Madness is more well regarded today, I don't see anybody crawling out of the woodwork to argue that John Carpenter's Village of the Damned deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the original. Or at all.

 In the small town of Midwich, California, everything is just fine. Doctor Alan Chafee (Christopher Reeve) is heading out of town for the day while his wife, Barbara (Karen Kahn) is getting ready to show a house for her realty company. Jill McGowan (Linda Kozlowski), the school principal, is getting the fair ready for town, and her husband Frank (Michael Paré) is off to pick up the helium for the balloons. Everybody is having a nice, small town kind of day, when shadows overhead that seem to be whispering cause everyone and everything to collapse for six hours. Alan returns to find a police barricade and a line that marks where it isn't safe to cross, along with scientist Dr. Susan Verner (Kirstie Alley), who is very interested in this unexplained phenomenon. When everybody wakes up, no one seems to know what happened or why, but there have been a number of casualties (including Frank). Stranger still, many of the women in town are pregnant, and the children they give birth to are... different.

 While John Carpenter's Village of the Damned, like The Thing, still credits the book as the initial source material (in this case, The Midwich Cuckoos), the original screenwriters of the 1960 version are also credited, so let's not pretend this is a page one re-adaptation. That might have helped. Hell, anything might have helped, because I'm not sure what John Carpenter was thinking with this movie. It's not just that Village of the Damned isn't a successful remake or that it was a bad idea - no, John Carpenter's Village of the Damned is a terrible movie.

  Unless he was secretly trying to make a Neil LaBute / Nicolas Cage-style Wicker Man "secret" comedy, Carpenter failed in almost everything he was trying to do with Village of the Damned. Instead of being eerie, the kids are obnoxious. Instead of their actions being unsettling, they're unintentionally comical. I haven't laughed so hard when I knew I was supposed to be disturbed since 8MM, but I couldn't take Village of the Damned seriously. We're not even talking "campy" here, because it's too stupid and clumsy in its execution to really accept at face value. The shots of the children, especially when they're too young to talk, are begging you to make "yeah, that'll teach you" voices or mob style threats in children's voices. I know I shouldn't be, but Carpenter does such an awful job of making them seem menacing that there's no alternative.

 Oh, and the eye glowing. I know, that's not new, but the multi-colored, not entirely clear what purpose it serves because everybody who gets it dies right up until the very end when it abruptly changes purpose. Suddenly they need it to really read your mind and not just force you to impale yourself on a broomstick or set yourself on fire. I guess it's all a matter of thinking of a brick wall very, very hard that trips their powers up. In the meantime, it's the standard "green," "orange," and "red" varieties, all of which end with an adult doing the suicide mambo so there's no clear evidence the evil alien children (SPOILER) did the deed. Even though every single adult speaks openly to each other that they know what's going on. Attaway to build suspense, Carpenter!

 The parents don't help, because rather than be intimidated by the clearly alien children, they're first and only reaction is to be annoyed. That includes the preacher, played by Mark Hamill (who had recently worked with Carpenter on Body Bags), whose death scene, involving a rifle, is laughable at best. It's nothing compared to the psychic battle of wills between Christopher Reeve and his "daughter" Mara (Lindsey Haun) at the end of the film, which results in some of the most unintentionally ridiculous faces I've ever seen him make (and we're talking about the star of Superman IV: The Quest for Peace here). The scene where the children take out an entire police force, the military, and a helicopter is borderline parodic, and still I can't bring myself to believe that's actually what Carpenter was trying to do.

 Village of the Damned isn't quite the nadir of Carpenter's career (that still belongs to the reigning champ, Ghost of Mars), but it's not a good movie. It's not even a "so bad it's good movie" - it's just awful. Nothing works, from the acting to the kills to the head scratching collaboration between Carpenter and Dave Davies of The Kinks. Think jangly guitars and droning synthesizers and you'll have some idea of how mismatched the pairing is. I guess the only upside is that the two main children still have careers: Thomas Dekker, who played David (the only "good" alien child) was in the Nightmare on Elm Street remake and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and Lindsey Haun had a recurring role on True Blood, so it's nice to know that John Carpenter's stupid movie didn't ruin everything. It's probably better that people remember In the Mouth of Madness and (sometimes) Vampires, because the rest of the decade was pretty much a wash for him, and the new millennium didn't get much better...

 Up next: "W" is for Weekend!

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