There was more than radiation in the fallout from the first atomic bomb — there was an awful lot of science fiction, too, peaking in certain eras (the 1960s and 1980s) as though that cloud of glittery dust, lingering off the cultural coast, had been blown in again by adverse, probably cold, winds. I’d never heard of The Damned — a fittingly black & white little masterpiece from Hammer, released in 1963, though filmed two years earlier — till I happened upon it late, late one night when I couldn’t sleep (one of the best times to happen upon a film, particularly a black & white one), and I couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard of it before.
Its approach to the science fictional core of its story is oblique — it’s a good half hour before there’s a hint of anything strange going on. Before that, it could be a slice-of-life seaside drama. It starts with a retired US insurance man, Simon Wells (played by Macdonald Carey, who I’ve only just realised played the good-guy cop in one of my favourite films, Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, two decades earlier), thinking he’s getting the come-on from local girl Joan (Shirley Anne Field), but in fact is being lured off the sea-front to get mugged by her gang-leader brother, King (Oliver Reed). The motorcycle gang, fingersnapping in black leathers, seem halfway between the danciness of West Side Story and the smartly-dressed nastiness of A Clockwork Orange: Reed’s character carries a brolly; it’s got a knife blade in the handle.
Meanwhile, further up the coast, freethinking Freya (Viveca Lindfors) has a remote, clifftop cottage where she makes some fractured-looking sculptures (glimpsed in the movie’s opening shots, they look uncomfortably like the victims of an atomic bomb blast), unsuspecting that the “public servant” Bernard who lives next-door (and who is, I think we’re supposed to infer from the way he leans familiarly on her bed, her lover, though they’re an odd match) is running a dangerously top-secret operation in a bunker beneath the cliff. The first glimpse we get of this operation is when Bernard turns on a TV link and starts talking to nine very British schoolchildren living in total isolation. When Joan and Simon, on the run from the possessive King, fall from the cliff to the sea below, they’re rescued by the children — who aren’t supposed to be able to get out, but have found a way. Starved of any interaction with other people (one of the boys believes their bunker is actually a spaceship, transporting them to another world), the kids are as excited by the hope this couple they’ve fished from the sea might be their parents, as they are to find they’re warm to the touch — the children themselves are ice-cold. When King arrives and touches one of the boys he backs off, scared, saying the children must be dead. In fact, the children are, in a way, the key to a new life — born out of a freak accident involving a strange kind of radiation, they may be able to survive in a post-bomb-drop future. The only thing is, they can’t live with us normal humans. Or, we can’t live with them. Not for long, anyway.
I love this slow-start approach, where the fantastic only begins to intrude once a real-seeming, recognisable world, and real-seeming characters, have had a chance to establish themselves. If only films like The Damned had been a success (neither Hammer, nor its distributor Columbia seemed to know what to do with it), we might have had more of them. Its bleakness is made all the more tragic by the way that, before the characters enter such a hopeless situation, they’ve been grappling with their own, more normal-worldly, versions of hopelessness already.
It’s a little odd that 1963 saw the release of another UK film featuring apocalyptic kids that had the word “damned” in the title: Children of the Damned, a sequel to the 1960 John Wyndham adaptation, Village of the Damned. (The Damned is also an adaptation, but the 1960 novel it was based on, Children of the Light by H L Lawrence, seems rather difficult to get hold of.) In the US, the film was retitled These are the Damned, but I think The Damned is a better title, as it leaves room for the question: who are the damned? Is it the kids isolated in their underground bunker, or is it us, aboveground, exposed to the constant nuclear threat?