The Movies That Made Me Weird(er): These Are the Damned (1963)

9 06 2011

The Fifties were a much stranger decade than the Sixties.

I mean, the Sixties were interesting and exciting and whatever. I just think it would have been stranger if the Sixties had not been witness to an all-out culture war.

The Cold War was ramping up throughout the strange and scary Fifties. To many, nuclear war was inevitable and imminent–and despite the bomb shelters and the hide-under-the-desk school drills, few actually believed it was survivable, especially toward the end of the decade. People were marrying and buying homes and going to the movies and working and having kids and planning for a future many didn’t expect to ever happen.

Communism was spreading: by 1955 both Korea and Vietnam had been divided into communist north and democratic south, and Eisenhower had outlined the ‘domino theory’ as a model for the further spread of communism. The fact that he was talking about conditions specific to Southeast Asia at the time, and in no way intended to apply that same theory worldwide, didn’t stop anyone from grabbing the concept and using it to pump up the ‘Commies are hiding under the bed!’ fearmongering of the day.

And there are vegetables hiding in the Jello!

In the US, fear of a communist takeover led to the rise of McCarthyism and the creation of the Hollywood Blacklist by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Not having a rabid, frothing at the mouth hatred of Communism could lead to accusations that you yourself were a dirty Commie.  That could mean losing your friends, your social standing, or even your job–and nobody wanted to hire a dirty Commie, so you were pretty much screwed if that happened…unless you decided to turn someone else in, instead.

I don’t want to make it sound like Hollywood Communism was the only UnAmerican activity that interested the Committee–they also investigated the WWII Japanese internment camps (which they deemed a sufficiently American activity) and the KKK (also considered sufficiently American until 1965 or so.) But Communism was a thing that was definitely UnAmerican. Also, given their focus on the entertainment industry, it seems clear that at least some members of the Committee didn’t consider Jews, homosexuals, and other dangerous liberal types to be sufficiently American.

But this...THIS is American?

So: conservatives were afraid of commies, liberals were afraid of conservatives, and everyone was scared of The Bomb. If you ask me, that’s a set up for strange times.

Fear of imminent nuclear annihilation is a central theme in These Are the Damned (trailer here).  It was released in the UK in 1963  (though it didn’t make it to the US until 1965) and is therefore often assumed to be a statement on or reaction to those events. But the movie was actually based on a 1960 novel and filmed in 1961. Director Joseph Losey (The Boy With Green Hair, Concrete Jungle, Secret Ceremony) was an American who basically exiled himself to the UK rather than testify before HUAC. He was in his forties at this point, and pretty angry about what was happening in the world, his country and his industry.

These Are the Damned is a very angry film.

Not that it starts out that way. It’s actually pretty deceptive, the beginning of the film. Simon, an aging American expat, is vacationing in Weymouth (which, I guess, is like a downmarket Brighton) when a pretty girl catches his eye. They flirt, and he walks with her a while–until they are ambushed by a gang of toughs. Simon (Macdonald Carey) is beaten pretty badly and his money gets taken.

It turns out that the girl, Joan (Shirley Ann Field), is the sister of King (Oliver Reed), who is the leader of the gang that roughed him up. They use Joan as bait to attract dirty old tourists, who they then rob. Joan is set up as a bit of a tart here, and there’s kind of a creepy abusive and incestuous undertone to King’s interactions with her.

This whole opening bit seems to be setting us up for a story about Wild and Violent Youth terrorizing decent folk, and the depiction of the gang here is pretty typical of clueless adults trying to make a statement about Kids Today. For one thing, they’re referred to as ‘Teddy Boys‘ (which they are not: they are rockers. Get your youth subcultures straight, people) and for another, they have this cheezy terrible theme song and they march around whistling and shit. They’re like a lamer version of the Jets and Sharks.

This is terrifying to old people.

In this video clip, you can hear the song and see the terrifying gang members as they terrifyingly lounge on a terrifying unicorn statue. Also note the MONUMENTAL Toe of Camel that Joan is sporting here. Not that you could miss it. A blind dude could see this mooseknuckle a mile away:

So poor old bloody beaten Simon is found and brought to a cafe where he meets Bernard (Alexander Knox, sporting an inexplicable accent) and Freya (Viveca Lindfors, being awesome.) Freya is a sculptress who summers at Bernard’s beach cottage because she does her best work there. Bernard works for the government (the cottage is actually part of a small military complex) and he can’t tell Freya anything about what he does. They have been lovers for a long time.

The three of them have a nice, adult conversation that establishes the characters without being too exposition-y. Freya decides that she likes Simon because “he doesn’t like the world. It’s a good beginning.” It sounds less pretentious in context. (It’s still kind of pretentious, though.) Freya doesn’t like the world, either. Not in a nihilistic way or anything, mostly in that bohemian artist way. In fact, she disagrees with Bernard that nuclear annihilation is inevitable, but her sculptures resemble the charred victims of a nuclear blast (the sculptures were done by an artist named Elisabeth Frink, who it turns out was kind of a big deal.) Freya is difficult and interesting and I like her.

I'm not sure how I feel about the art, though.

Later, Simon is back at his boat when Joan appears. It seems that she kind of likes him (as she pointed out to her brother, Simon offered her his arm to cross the street–a kindness she clearly isn’t used to) even though she calls him out for being a dirty old man (he never asked her for her name, just stared at her raging camel toe.) Simon, in turn, calls her out for being a tart who lures men to their doom. King and his boys show up, and King orders her off the boat. Joan complies at first, but then at Simon’s urging she jumps back on the boat and they motor away from King, impotently furious on the shore.

Speaking of impotent, let’s talk about King. Dude CLEARLY has a thing for his sister. He’s controlling, abusive, and dangerous. It’s quite clear that he’s never had a girlfriend, or any woman in his life besides Joan, and he’s super inappropriately protective. They’ve been the only family each other had since their parents died some time previously. King could just be a dumb cartoon of a creepy dude (I mean, come on, his name is KING) but Oliver Reed NAILS it. He’s all silky menace and barely-suppressed rage–until he loses it. It’s disturbing in all the right ways. I fucking love Oliver Reed.

Yeah, he's crazy. CRAZY HOT.

On the boat, Simon and Joan get to know each other. What I mean to say is, Simon mauls her, thinking he’s gonna get a little easy piece, and Joan rebuffs him and makes him feel ashamed of himself. Which, to Simon’s credit, he eventually does. She tells him that the last time she showed any interest in a man, King locked her in a closet for a week, and Simon begins to suspect that Joan isn’t the tart she first appeared to be. Simon offers to take her ashore, and Joan says she can’t just go home, she’s got to wait until King cools down a little. So they go ashore near a little cottage Joan knows, a place where she sometimes hides from King.

At the cottage they make love. The subtext of the conversation that follows makes it pretty clear that she was a virgin (or at least far from promiscuous) and Simon reassures her that she’s not just some chick. He even asks her to marry him, and for a moment they pretend they have a future together. Which they really, really don’t. An abused twenty-year-old girl and an aging former insurance salesman are not the formula for forever love.

Simon and Joan: these crazy kids have no future together.

They hear someone approach the cottage and flee, thinking that it’s King. But it’s not King, it’s Freya. This is her summer cottage, and her sculptures are all around the place. Freya notices the signs that someone’s been hooking up in her bed, and she reacts with a sort of wry approval of the anonymous interlopers getting their freak on.

Then King shows up. This is where I become totally Team Freya, because she is so cool. She’s not outwardly afraid and she even tries to have a serious conversation with this horrible angry oaf who’s invaded her sanctuary. She’s certainly not as hostile as I would be if some douchebag invaded my summer cottage. He’s all in her face and intimidating, demanding to know where Joan is. Freya, of course, has no answer to this. She also has no more time for King, and she imperiously dismisses him.

Instead of leaving, King takes a hatchet to one of her sculptures. My girl Freya is NOT HAVING IT and they struggle and roll around on the ground until they’re both sobbing. Freya asks him how he could do something so cruel, and he tells her that he enjoyed it. Then he runs away. (When I saw this the first time, it was the edited US version and this scene made it seem like King had raped Freya, which made no sense context-wise. I mean, I was a kid, but I still knew that dude didn’t want to rape anyone but his sister.)

King and his gang chase Joan and Simon onto the grounds of a military installation. Joan and Simon jump off a cliff into the ocean where they are rescued by a group of children in bathrobes and jammies. The kids are really interested in how warm Joan and Simon are, and they take turns touching their faces in a strangely melancholy scene. The kids themselves are cold to the touch.

King has followed them over the cliff, and one of the kids finds him and brings him in. This kid, Henry, is like the Butters of this movie. The other kids don’t like him very much, and the poor bastard latches on to King only to be rebuffed at every turn, but he keeps cluelessly trying. Anyway, Joan points out to King how cold the kids are, and King goes “Ugh, they’re dead!” and calls them zombies like the sensitive bloke he is.

You should have just thrown him back, Henry.

Who are these kids? Well, it turns out that Bernard’s big government project that he can’t talk about is this crazy underground bunker/dormitory thing that houses nine children, all about eleven years old. Bernard speaks to them every day via a TV screen. The kids have a secret room where they’ve hung up pictures of their ‘parents’ that they cut out of books, and they have different theories about where they are and what the world is like; one boy is certain they are on a spaceship being sent to colonize a distant planet.

Bernard is keeping these kids here because they are mutants–their mothers were all exposed to radiation from a nuclear accident during their pregnancies and the children themselves are radioactive. The people working on the project can’t be around the kids unless they wear containment suits. Bernard is convinced that total nuclear war is inevitable, and the only chance the human race has for survival is these kids, who would be immune to radiation and therefore able to go out and populate the earth.

In a lesser film, Bernard would be a one-dimensional Man of Science blind to his ethical transgressions. Instead, Knox gives him a sense of melancholy awareness that what he is doing makes him a monster. Although, he also gives him that messed-up accent. I don’t know if he’s supposed to be Irish or Scottish or what, but he sounds like a cross between Dracula and Van Helsing. Anyway, a sprinkling of melancholy is the only emotion Bernard ever really displays. Whether or not he was a detached and unemotional motherfucker before he got involved with this project, he’s definitely a detached and unemotional motherfucker now.

Freya and Bernard: another couple with no future together.

The kids are making Simon, Joan, and King sick. Soon they discover that the kids are radioactive. The military brass find out the kids are hiding adults and prepare to go in and get them. Not to save the adults’ lives or anything–it’s already too late for that. Bernard doesn’t want the kids to see the adults die. He doesn’t want the kids to know they’re poisonous to every living thing. He doesn’t want them to think of themselves as monsters.

There’s also the problem of the adults attempting to free the kids from this bizarre prison. Because who wouldn’t? You can’t just leave children living in an Underground Kid Farm as part of a Secret Military Project. Even when they are made to understand that those kids are toxic to anyone who comes in contact with them (though I don’t think they’ve quite grasped how toxic) Joan and Simon are committed to freeing them, because it’s the Right Thing To Do. Just like Bernard is committed to keeping them there, because ensuring that some part of the human race survives after a nuclear holocaust is also the Right Thing To Do.

War is bad for children and other living things.

It all ends as it must: Simon and Joan–who has gone from an abused kid to a woman of purpose and some strength over the course of the film–break the kids out for a brief moment of sunshine on their faces and fresh air in their lungs, before the military dudes gather up the kids and deliver them back underground. King dies behind the wheel of a stolen car being chased by a helicopter and drives off a bridge. Joan and Simon are allowed to go back to Simon’s boat, where they are soon to succumb to radiation sickness.

Freya sees the kids scatter and the black-suited men chase and catch them. Bernard reminds Freya of something he told her at the beginning of the film: that if he told her about his secret, he could be condemning her to death. Now that she knows, will she join him on the project?

She rejects him in no uncertain terms. Then LIKE A BOSS she lets him know she’s in no mood to waste her remaining time in meaningless conversation, turns her back on him, and sets to work on a sculpture. It’s an awesomely life-affirming Fuck You. Team Freya, y’all.

Bernard responds as we have been led to expect he would.

This movie confused the shit out of me when I was a kid. I didn’t even twig to the whole nuclear war part of the story. Bernard refers to a power that has been unleashed that can and will destroy the world, and I thought he was talking about how the kids were evil or something–I just assumed it was connected to Village of the Damned and Children of the Damned (which it isn’t.) But the kids never turned evil and the gang certainly weren’t monsters, even though they weren’t very nice. I had no idea what to make of this movie.

Certain parts stuck with me over the years, though; the stupid song, Freya’s windswept cottage, the final shot of the helicopter circling above Simon’s boat. So when TMC played These Are the Damned during Hammer Horror Month I just had to revisit it.

The cool, stark opening titles stuck in my mind, too.

I am really, really glad that I did. This. Movie. Is. Awesome. There’s a lot of depth to the story, it’s beautifully shot, and it’s most definitely a movie for adults–with actual adult characters. No explosions or special effects or big action set pieces. Just a strange, sad, angry story about how fear makes us into monsters.

These Are the Damned is very much a product of its moment in history. It’s a relic of the SF New Wave of the 60s and 70s; challenging, experimental, full of ideas and offering a scathing indictment of the suppressed hysteria of the times. Even that hokey opening gang dance march thing works in terms of heightening the strangeness of the proceedings.

I give These Are the Damned five out of five Secret Underground Kid Farms. It’s got troubled youth, weird expressionistic art, atomic camel toe, and Oliver Reed. What’s not to love?

It’s available on DVD as part of the Hammer Icons of Suspense collection, through Netflix, and it sometimes pops up on TMC.

Sweathogs, circa 1961.

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