John Carpenter is my favorite director, and frankly, it’s not a particularly close race. Classics like The Thing (read our 35th anniversary tribute here), Halloween, and Escape From New York are firmly entrenched on my Top 10 Films of All Time List. In some way, just about every Carpenter film holds a special place in my heart. It is my love of his work that led me to volunteer to write this retrospective. John Carpenter’s Village of the Damned (1995) celebrates its 25th anniversary on April 28, 2020. I first saw it on opening weekend back in 1995. Interestingly enough, I’m not sure I’ve revisited it more than a time or two since then. So, how does it hold up, some two and a half decades later?
Have a look at the trailer, then read on to find out!
Village Of The Damned (1995) Synopsis
Ten months after the small California town of Midwich was struck by a mysterious event during which everyone in the village fell unconscious at once, 10 local women give birth on the same day. As the unsettlingly calm and unemotional children grow at an abnormally fast rate, it becomes clear that they can read adults’ minds and force people to harm themselves. Local doctor Alan Chaffee and federal agent Susan Verner must team up to battle the alien children.
Village of the Damned stars Christopher Reeve (Superman franchise), Kirstie Alley (Cheers TV series), Linda Kozolowski (Crocodile Dundee 1986), and Mark Hamill (Star Wars franchise). John Carpenter directed the film from a screenplay by David Himmelstein (My Name Is Sara 2019). The film is based on the original Village of the Damned (1960), which was, in turn, based on a novel by John Wyndham (The Midwich Cuckoos).
Universal Pictures released Village of the Damned on April 28, 1995. It opened in 7th place on the weekend box office chart with an estimated $3.22 million. That figure is about one half of Chris Tucker and Ice Cube’s Friday and about one third more than Chuck Norris’s Top Dog. Both opened that same weekend. Holdover romantic comedy While You Were Sleeping took the weekend’s top spot.
Here’s a look at the official poster art!
Terror From The Skies
I’m not saying it was aliens, but… it was aliens. At least, that seems to be the implication in the film’s opening scenes. It all starts with a sweeping aerial shot accompanied by mysterious whispers. Whatever is descending on this sleepy little country haven is coming from the sky. The establishing shots are set up nicely by cinematographer Gary B. Kibbe, a long time Carpenter collaborator who did the cinematography on Prince of Darkness, They Live, In The Mouth of Madness, and more. He would go on to shoot Vampires, Escape From L.A, and Ghosts of Mars for Carpenter. Sadly, he passed away earlier this year in March, 2020 at age 79.
The film opens on a country festival, where we meet the inhabitants of Midwich. We are introduced to several couples, the town’s preacher (Mark Hamill), and the town’s doctor (Christopher Reeve). It isn’t long before we hear the strange voices again, and suddenly everyone in the town is struck unconscious by a mysterious force. This mass sleep event draws the attention of a shadowy government agency and a federal agent doctor named Susan Verner (Kirstie Alley) who arrive to investigate the occurrence.
The Children Are Coming
No one knows what happened. It wasn’t a gas attack, radiation or anything else the local authorities or Feds can find. The results, however, can’t be denied. Several Midwich women are pregnant, including Dr. Chaffee’s wife. The kicker? All of the pregnancies date back to “the event.” Creepy? Yes. Doctor Chaffee sure thinks so.
Never fear! Agent Dr. Susan Verner informs the town that the government is here to help. If anyone wants to terminate, it can be discreetly arranged. If the women wish to carry their children to term, they’ll be given a stipend of $3000 per month, plus all inclusive pre-natal care to help with expenses. This, all in exchange for the right to monitor and study the pregnancies. The night of the town hall, the women all have mysterious dreams. Premonitions. Post-hypnotic suggestions from the womb, perhaps. Soon after, they all decide to keep their babies.
Before long, the children are born and all baptized at the local church. As they grow, we see they are anything but normal. They all have white hair, piercing eyes, advanced intelligence, and then, finally, psychic powers! In one scene, a child mentally pushes a woman to dip her arm in boiling water. Soon after, another child compels a woman to hurl herself off a cliff side. It’s pretty clear these children are a threat to their parents and anyone else who gets in their way.
The Hero We Need
As a parent, the true terror in this film is watching these children grow up in loving homes, only to mercilessly kill and destroy everyone around them. The bond between parent and child – especially a young child – is sacred. They are so helpless. They depend on adults for food, warmth, love, diaper changes… everything! To see them so completely nurtured and loved, only to turn on their parents so coldly and completely is chilling.
Here’s where Christopher Reeve’s Doctor Chaffee character anchors the film. He studies the children, gives them medical care, and teaches them. He is a “father” to one of them himself, so he is intimately and completely involved. Despite his fear and loathing for their rancorous nature, he presses on and does everything in his power to show them compassion and educate them about the human condition. His performance is believable, passionate, and nuanced, to the point where you can feel his desperation. It is truly the strength of this film.
Soon, things spiral even more out of control. The children grow more and more powerful. Their evil, it seems, is unstoppable. Can Doctor Chaffee reach them in time to avert a massive bloodletting? Or will he have to take matters into his own hands? If you’ve seen the film, you know the answer. I won’t spoil it for you here. Suffice it to say, it is a memorable performance from Reeve in what would be his final picture before suffering that unfortunate, debilitating accident, which paralyzed him from the neck down. We lost Chris in 2004, at the all too young age of 52.
Carpenter didn’t write this film, but you can see his influence all over it. Gary B. Kibbe’s aforementioned cinematography will feel familiar to Carpenter fans because of their long list of collaborations. George “Buck” Flower and Peter Jason appear in supporting roles. Flower has been in several Carpenter films, including They Live, Escape From New York, Starman, and The Fog. Jason is a veteran of no less than SEVEN Carpenter films. They both feel right at home here.
Also on full display? Carpenter’s knack for doing more with less. You can tell this film didn’t have a huge budget (a reported $22 million). Carpenter keeps the scope tight and spends the money where it will get the most bang for the buck: the children. The visual FX used for the children’s “evil eyes” and psychic powers look really good and still hold up today. There’s also a nifty helicopter crash at one point that looks very believable and benefits from classic Carpenter misdirection. Perhaps Carpenter’s greatest contribution to this film is the soundtrack. His score is subtle, effective, and full of the familiar cues we expect from all of his musical works.
What’s NOT in this film, I feel, is Carpenter’s passion. As I said earlier, he didn’t write this. He directed it, essentially, for a paycheck (his words). Back in the mid-1990s, Carpenter was working with Universal Pictures to try a reboot of The Creature From The Black Lagoon. While he was waiting for that project to come together, he agreed to do Village Of The Damned to fulfill a contractual obligation. The film was not well received (29% critical score/27% audience score on RottenTomatoes), and the Creature deal soon fell apart. That sucks! I, for one, would have LOVED to see that picture.
Village of the Damned was a critical disappointment and a box office failure, but I have to tell you, I still enjoy it. Is it John Carpenter’s best work? No. Is it worth watching? I say, “Yes.” If, for no other reason than to see Christopher Reeve’s Super performance. Yes, I went there. He really does give it his all in this one.
Village of the Damned is not currently available to stream, but you can rent it digitally on Amazon. For physical media fans, Shout! Factory released a Collector’s Edition Blu-ray not long ago that’s worth checking out. No commentary, sadly, but tons of interviews and behind the scenes stuff. It’s very cool! Carpenter fans will be pleased with this one.
What are your thoughts on the film? Tell us in the comments!