A contract assignment, made to open the door for a remake of Creature From The Black Lagoon that sadly never came to be, Village Of The Damned is probably the worst movie John Carpenter ever directed: hokey, miscast, devoid of tension and atmosphere. As pure hackwork, it’s a failure, with too many glimmers of personality for the filmmaking to ever qualify as anonymous; as an update of a genre classic along the lines of Carpenter’s The Thing, it’s uninspired. Released in 1995, mere months after the fan favorite In The Mouth Of Madness, Village Of The Damned is an odd duck, a bad film that never comes close to working as horror, but which features enough unusual touches and flourishes of staging to put it several notches above dismissible.
To Shout! Factory’s credit, the label’s new Blu-ray never tries to pass the movie off as the overlooked gem that it isn’t, though the disc’s vibrant transfer and generous new supplements—including interviews with cast and crew and an extended sit-down with character actor and Carpenter regular Peter Jason—make it a lot easier to appreciate. A very straightforward remake of the 1960 British sci-fi horror film of the same title, Village Of The Damned depicts a small community where the women all become pregnant after being rendered unconscious in an unexplained attack, giving birth to an emotionless death squad of super-powered, platinum-haired moppets. But though the movie sticks to the original’s plotting, it undercuts its suggestive potential with inconsistent performances (e.g., Kirstie Alley, with cigarillo and tea shades, as the movie’s take on the tough Hawksian woman), lame effects, and smatterings of overcooked-bratwurst gore.
There is also the fundamental problem of the pasty super-children: creepy in the original’s drab, black-and-white English countryside, they look silly bouncing along two-by-two against the bright backdrop of Marin County as Windham Hill-esque new age guitar noodles on the soundtrack. (Contributing factor: A complete lack of suspense.) One sometimes gets the sense that Carpenter—who took over the project after Wes Craven passed on it—was never interested in making Village Of The Damned work as a horror film. The shocks are perfunctory, but the Western-obsessed director’s use of the California sky in visual compositions is dramatic and dynamic, giving the movie a grandiose oomph that never squares with the claustrophobic premise.
Carpenter and cinematographer Gary B. Kibbe pull off at least one striking widescreen composition every scene or so: town doctor Alan Chaffee (Christopher Reeve, in his last role before being rendered quadriplegic by a horse-riding accident), seen in profile against a wall and lit chiaroscuro, à la Kurt Russell in Carpenter’s earlier Elvis; an apocalyptic-looking wide shot of a rural route littered with bodies and wrecked police cars; a conversation in a cemetery between Chaffee and conflicted evil child (Thomas Dekker), framed against the horizon as though they’d just wandered into the middle of a later-period John Ford movie. The overwhelming impression is of a filmmaker who’d rather be making a different film—which, oddly enough, is what makes this one so interesting to watch.