In 1960, MGM British Studios first introduced us to a pack of blond-haired, candescent-eyed children in Village of the Damned (starring Barbara Shelley, a Hammer regular). Four years later, the frightening and murderous youth would return in Children of the Damned. In the interim, Hammer Film Productions would produce and release its own film about unusual and potentially lethal children titled simply The Damned. Despite the obvious similarities in both fundamental concept and title, Hammer’s film is a very different breed of horror film with kiddies that are simultaneously less threatening and more hazardous.
The first thing to strike you when watching The Damned is the film’s quasi-official theme song “Black Leather Rock”. With a squawking saxophone, heavy drum, and repetitive nonsense lyrics, it can be grating but just try to get it out of your head later. This primitive, simplistic song can be heard in the background of a couple scenes and dominates the film’s opening. As “Black Leather Rock” plays, we are introduced to our two leads. Recently divorced and enjoying an early retirement, Simon Wells (Macdonald Carey) is on a boating holiday in Weymouth, Dorset, England. Wearing the sorriest excuse for a hat, he is sight-seeing when he meets Joan (Shirley Anne Field).
This is no chance encounter as Joan is luring Simon to a brutal mugging at the hands of her brother’s gang (while they whistle “Black Leather Rock”). Oliver Reed, as brother King, immediately commands your attention. While his gang are all dressed in leather motorcycle gear, King sports a tweed jacket, collared shirt and tie and carries a brolly. His only concession to the gang uniform is a pair of black leather gloves. Yet it is the power of his personality more than his physical appearance that makes King the obvious leader of the pack. In his first appearance on the screen, King, surrounded by his gang, leans casually against the pedestal of Weymouth’s King’s Statue. The lethargic stance barely masks, however, a violence lurking below the surface. Reed was well known for his intensity and he pours it into the character of King in the opening scenes. The screenplay for The Damned, as written by Evan Jones, included several references to an incestuous relationship between King and his sister Joan. These references were removed at the insistence of the studio but the fervor in King’s eyes as he looks at Joan strongly implies more than a mere brother/sister connection.
After his beating by King’s gang, Simon is aided by Bernard (Alexander Knox), a man clearly in a position of some authority, two men working under Bernard, and Bernard’s mistress, the artist, Freya Neilson (Viveca Lindfors). You would think that being lead into the hands and fists of vicious thugs would deter Simon. On the contrary, when Joan somehow manages to track Simon down, he forgives her almost immediately and welcomes her aboard his boat. Joan is not the only expert tracker in the family, however. King and his followers arrive shortly after and are none too pleased that Joan is consorting with the enemy. In the ensuing altercation, Simon steals away with Joan out to sea.
It is around this point that you start to wonder if you have somehow made a mistake and are watching the wrong film. While engaging, what has occurred thus far seems more like a cautionary tale about troubled teens then the promised horror movie involving freak children. Fortunately Joan is about to lead everyone in an entirely new direction. She suggests that she and Simon hide out at a seemingly vacant cliff-top cottage that she often steals away to in order to escape King. The cottage just happens to be that of Bernard’s mistress, Freya. More importantly, Bernard has located Freya near his work, an ominous and heavily-guarded government facility. When King and his henchmen inevitably arrive, the chase is on yet again. In their haste to escape from King and King’s own determination to catch them, Simon, Joan, and King all fall from the cliff into the icy waters below. They are rescued by a small group of eleven year old children in robes living in a bunker under the government facility.
This is where I must leave off lest I reveal too much. Suffice to say, that Simon and Joan have gone from the frying pan and into the fire. They don’t immediately know it but their situation is dire. Hammer’s The Damned is a damn entertaining film. One does have to wonder whether it could have been two entertaining films. A movie dedicated entirely to the children’s story and the horror elements would have been welcome. At the same time, I enjoyed the plot of the first half of the film so was disappointed when that conflict was all but discarded. In particular, my favourite part of the film is Reed’s performance as the hoodlum, King. Unfortunately, once the focus of the story shifts, no one seems to have known what to do with King. With all the raw energy of his personality, I can imagine King being the one to take charge and lead them against the dangers. Instead he is merely along for the ride. His character fades and he is relegated to taking direction from Simon and, ironically, being lead around by an eleven year old boy.
Allow me to end with one final curiosity about The Damned. Alert readers may have noted that the poster I included above says “these are The Damned”. In Canada and the U.S., the film was released as These Are the Damned and I, therefore, assumed this is a North American poster, odd capitalization notwithstanding. However, there are precious few posters and lobby cards to be found online that don’t include the phrase “these are” before the original title. The film does not appear to have been marketed very extensively upon its release in the UK but I would still expect numerous British posters to have survived. It seems likely, therefore, that some of the posters to be found online were used to promote the film in the UK and included “these are” as a lead-in to the title. This further lends itself to the idea, and this is mere speculation on my part, that the North American title was inspired by the posters.
The Damned (1962) Directed by Joseph Losey; Written by Evan Jones; Based on the novel The Children of Light by H. L. Lawrence; Starring Macdonald Carey, Shirley Anne Field, Viveca Lindfors, Alexander Knox, & Oliver Reed; Available on Blu-Ray from Power House Films.
This is my contribution to The Third Hammer-Amicus Blogathon. The other half of our two-man gang has also banged out an article for the blogathon here. Please check out some of the other contributors by clicking on the image below. Our thanks to Cinematic Catharsis and RealWeegieMidget Reviews for allowing two ruffians to mingle with polite society.