In 1982, John Carpenter directed what I consider his greatest film, THE THING. With it, he took a silly sci-fi flick from the 1950s and turned out a paranoid gross out that threatened the end of the world, fueled by the masterful effects work of Rob Bottin. His inspired take on THE THING flopped at the box office, but once it got exposure on videotape, people realized Carpenter had created another classic. So back in 1995, when I heard he was working on a remake of VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED, I was jazzed. Images of creepy kids taking over a town powerless to do anything against them danced through my head, and I eagerly awaited to see what dark corners Carpenter would examine. When I hit the theatre opening weekend, I couldn’t have been more bored with Carpenter’s workmanlike effort.
The story is simple: An everyday American town is going about its everyday business, when a force sweeps over the town, knocking out everyone (including the cows, in an inspired choice). Enter a government type who smokes a lot and talks tough, and a doctor who was out of town for the day. Six hours later, the force leaves, and all the women discover they’re pregnant, leading initially to some scandal. Bribed into keeping the children, the townsfolk regret it when the now adolescents exhibit the ability to control minds and cause destruction to anybody who threatens them. It’s up to the doctor and the government type to stop these terrorizing tykes from world domination.
The film’s major problem is its lack of energy. There’s no drive to this film, not from the script, the actors, and least of all the director. Things proceed at a glacial pace (proof: it takes nearly 40 minutes before the tykes arrive at adolescence, glowing eyes and all). In the last decade of inaction before THE WARD came out, Carpenter himself has admitted he’s become lazy, and doesn’t want to do much. It’s as if that lethargy set in back in 1995, and is on full display here. The film starts off a drag, and never picks up. By comparison, remember that THE THING began with a crazed Norwegian in a helicopter trying to shoot a dog.
Give Carpenter credit for inspiration in the randomness of his cast. You’ve got Superman, Rebecca from Cheers, Eddie minus the Cruisers, Crocodile Dundee’s girlfriend, and Luke Skywalker, not finding out about his father, but playing one. Kirstie Alley is totally miscast as a government scientist toughie gal. As for the rest, they could have provided a bonkers energy, based on their prior roles. But Carpenter will have none of it, and gets Linda Koslowski, Michael Paré and Mark Hamill all to sleepwalk through this lethargic affair.
Saddest of all is to see Reeve in inaction. I saw this film its opening weekend, a month before Reeve’s riding accident. I remember I couldn’t believe when I heard that Reeve was paralyzed, when a month prior I’d seen him spry and chatting the film up on talk shows. Reeve was never a great actor, but he was always earnest and likable; here he does a competent job in a project where the director seemed intent to hold all energy back.
By far the tykes are the best thing in the movie. Creepy, emotionless blonde pre-teens, driven to take over the world always get me (my favorite horror film is THE OMEN, so this should come as no surprise). That they’re organized, systematic, and downright evil only enhances the fact that they’re telepathic, making it impossible to hide anything from them. When their eyes start glowing emerald, sure it’s a little silly, but I buy it. The bleach blonde wigs make up for some typically poor kiddie performances. All in all, they’re a terrifying bunch.
As a remake, it pales compared to the source material. John Wyndham’s novel The Midwich Cuckoos was the stark basis for the first film, which is a minor classic in its own right. George Sanders brought a verve to the 1960 version that is altogether lacking here, and the film was a lot creepier. It may not hold up for modern audiences, but for anyone who understands good horror, it leaves Carpenter’s effort in the dust. If Carpenter had only attacked this flick as he did THE THING, fans in 1995 would have been talking about how this was a return to form. Much like THE THING, this Universal remake bombed at the box office. Funny how nobody speaks of this one as a classic today.
BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA was the last great Carpenter film, after which he headed into lean years. Carpenter could have bucked that trend with VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED, had he only given it the energy it deserved, and given his fans a film that had any energy to it at all.