The Damned

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.

The sculptures in The Damned were created by Elisabeth Frink

The sculptures in the film were created by Elisabeth Frink

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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

Cat Girl

Cat Girl is a UK take on Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur’s 1942 US film, Cat People, a favourite of mine that I reviewed a little while back. Released in 1957 (the same year as Tourneur’s other well-known horror, Night of the Demon), it’s been put out on DVD as part of Network’s British Film series — coincidentally in the same month as Cat People finally gets a Region 2 release (from Odeon Entertainment). It’s not a film I’d heard of, and I was immediately intrigued.

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Newly-married Leonora (Hammer Horror’s Barbara Shelley in her first starring role) is summoned back to the family home by mad old uncle Edmund. She goes reluctantly and, despite her uncle’s stipulations, not alone, bringing her new husband, Richard, as well as his (unknown to her) lover Cathy and Cathy’s hanger-on, Alan. Her uncle has doleful news, but waits till the dead of night before summoning her to his study. (In the meantime, he nips outside to take a bloody bite or two out of a raw rabbit, in the company of a leopard he keeps in a cage.) On the back of the DVD case, Network say Cat Girl is an “updating” of Jacques Tourneur’s earlier film, but already it seems to be taking a step backwards. Cat People was set firmly in the contemporary world, and certainly got some of its power from having the supernatural emerge into a modern reality at utter odds to the fantastic. But here we’re in full old-fashioned Gothic mode, complete with blustery thunderstorm, old dark house, mad uncle poring over piles of ancient books, foreign-accented retainer with a limp, flickering candles, billowing curtains, long, frilly nighties, and a 700-year-old family curse.

Cat Girl in Gothic mode

Cat Girl in Gothic mode

The curse is Uncle Edmund’s news. He is about to die (as predicted in one of his musty old books), and Leonora, as the only remaining member of the Brandt family, will take on the curse. It’s lycanthropy, but with a twist: instead of turning into a wolf (or, in this case, a leopard — though the film posters mostly feature a panther), at night Leonora’s soul will enter that of the leopard Uncle Edmund keeps in a cage in his study. It will be “the servant of your mind, the strength of your body”, and she’ll feel its “love of darkness, the craving for warm flesh and blood”. His message delivered, Uncle Edmund then goes out into the blustery dark to become the leopard’s next victim, and the curse is passed on. The following day, an already slightly unbalanced Leonora enacts her first lycanthropic revenge: finding her husband and Cathy canoodling in a copse, she sets the leopard on them. Cathy escapes, Richard doesn’t.

Cat Girl getting more modern...

Cat Girl getting more modern…

Cat Girl then leaves the gothic for something a bit more modern. It’s already been established that Leonora’s real love is for a former crush, now a Harley Street psychiatrist, Dr Brian Marlowe. He, however, is married (to Dorothy — the psychiatrist’s wife’s Dotty!), but, in the usual tradition of silver screen headshrinks (none of whom seem to have any sense of ethics), elects to treat the increasingly besotted/deranged Leonora himself. In what is, perhaps, the film’s most chilling sequence, Leonora books herself into Marlow’s institute, only to find herself being rendered increasingly powerless. Her belongings are taken off her, her room has bars on the window, and glimpses of her fellow inmates confirm that this is, despite Dr Marlow’s assurances, an asylum for the fully insane. Then night falls, and she goes properly bonkers — or, rather, goes into full mind-meld with her leopard, and is left convinced, the next day, that her hands have been turned into claws and her face is that of a hideous predator. Her descent into a cat-like frenzy, tearing at her bedsheets, her clothes, and her own skin, is a moment of genuine horror — though it’s not the sort Cat Girl is ultimately aiming for. Because, after this, Leonora shifts from the film’s heroine to its monster.

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Not quite as useless as Cat People’s lecherous Dr Judd, Dr Marlowe still believes he has the situation under control. So under control, in fact, that after this one night of madness, he decides this obviously dangerous and self-harming woman will recover better in the company of normal people — of his wife, in fact, despite Leonora’s clear hostility to Dorothy. (Dorothy, meanwhile, produces a string of cat-related double entendres whenever talking of, or to, Leonora. My favourite: “Be a pet and zip me up.”) Dorothy at least has the sense to start feeling creeped out when, having left Leonora alone with her budgie for a moment, she comes back to find nothing in the cage but feathers.

One of these women is a lycanthrope.

One of these women is a lycanthrope.

Cat Girl has neither the brooding, pressure-cooker feel of Cat People, nor its sense of tragedy (Irena’s scrabbling for normality, then her resigned and finally gleeful backslide into lycanthropy, are so much more sustained than Leonora’s madness), but it does provide some new variants on the same situation. The most interesting aspect is Barbara Shelley’s passage from helpless gothic heroine, through to a more modern gothic victimhood (trapped in an asylum, teetering on the verge of madness), then to an increasingly torrid darkness, ending the film as a psycho-killer in a black mac, almost as if you can see horror cinema in the process of sloughing off the skin of its own Gothic past. Unlike Cat People (which has two distinctly tense horror scenes in a tightly orchestrated plot), Cat Girl has only one real build-up of tension, at the end, as Leonora stalks her love-rival through the night streets of London. The moment she slips out of her shoes to better pad after her prey you know the game is really on — though, by this time, the film is almost over.

An interesting add-on to Cat People, then — and a film that’s left me wondering, what other good British horror films were there in the 1950s?

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Why I Like… Doctor Who

It starts with a trip down a rabbit hole — a weird, angular, metallic rabbit hole that keeps changing the shape of its iridescent walls as you fall. Meanwhile, there’s a distant alarm going off — either that, or someone’s trying to shoot you with a ray gun. From the echoing bass rattle you can hear, you might be surrounded by miles of distant, faulty plumbing. If so, someone’s emptied a boxful of pins into the system, because you keep hearing these wooshing washes of tinkliness pass by. Then up from the darkness looms an enormous face. Tom Baker, eyes agoggle. There for a moment, then he’s gone, dissolved into many colours like a prismatic ghost. And still you keep falling.

Doctor Who is weird.

The first episode of Doctor Who I saw was from Tom Baker’s introductory adventure, Robot. As that was broadcast between the end of December 1974 and mid-January 1975, I must have been three and half years old at the time, which means that seeing the programme is one of my earliest memories. (Sitting in a bath watching my chicken pox peel off comes a close, but not so fondly-remembered, second).

I pretty soon wanted to be the Doctor. (I don’t mean I wanted to act the part. I mean I wanted to be the Doctor.) But it was the monsters that most fascinated me. The two are, of course, inseparable. The Doctor is the corrective called for by the imbalancing evil of the monsters; the monsters are the shadow cast by the heroic light of the Doctor. It’s why the Doctor always has an intuitive knowledge about the enemy he faces, often before he sets eyes on it/them — as soon as he steps out of the TARDIS he knows, like he can sniff it in the air, something’s afoot. And he often knows the sort of something it is, as well as the sort of foot, sucker, or pseudopod it’s afoot on. The reason for this is that the Doctor and the Monsters are one. They’re part of the same psychological picture.

Looking over the first few seasons of Doctor Who that I saw — seasons presided over by the dream-team of Philip Hinchcliffe as producer and Robert Holmes as script-editor — there’s a lot of blurring the line between men and monsters. In The Ark in Space, the far-future human Noah turns by painful stages into an insectile Wirrn (courtesy of a generous helping of green plastic bubble-wrap). In Genesis of the Daleks, Davros, already half robot himself (the other half a distinctly withered Mr Potato Head), fast-forwards his people’s evolution into slug-like creatures encased in “Mark III Travel Machines” (banality-of-evil-speak for Daleks). There’s the Jekyll & Hyde Professor Sorenson possessed by anti-matter in The Planet of Evil, and Marcus Scarman with his mind taken over by the evil alien Sutekh in Pyramids of Mars. There’s the humanoid androids all set to take over the Earth in The Android Invasion, and a man turning into an alien plant-monster in The Seeds of Doom… Virtually every story has men turning into monsters or monsters masquerading as men. (With some, such as the Cybermen, the process is complete before the story begins.)

The Doctor and the Monsters, like Angels and Demons, are opposing absolutes. The real story takes place in between, in the human realm. Here, there’s the constant threat that you, a human being, might turn into a monster. And not just a green bubble-wrap one. There are far more insidious forms of human monster. That first season of Doctor Who I saw (the twelfth since the show began) was particularly full of fascists, cold intellectual elites, and power-mad scientists — all ways in which people can really become monsters.

To the child I was, unable to understand any of this consciously, having that inner battle between humanity and monstrosity spelled out in such clear, vivid, excitingly fantastic terms was, I think, a vital part of the appeal of watching the programme. It also perhaps explains why I felt so disgusted when Colin Baker began his tenure as the Doctor by attempting to strangle his companion. That was 1984. Dark heroes were very much of the times (Watchmen was only two years away), but I couldn’t see the point in a Doctor indistinguishable from the monsters he was supposed to be fighting. Having watched every episode since Robot with almost religious devotion, I gave up. There are still some Colin Baker stories I haven’t seen, and never will.

But Doctor Who had done its job.

Whenever I read about the formative influences of my favourite writers & artists, there’s usually a point where they discover a cache of story — a collection of myths and legends, a book of fairy tales, a copy of The Arabian Nights. Doctor Who was my story-cache, and that weird, down-a-metallic-rabbit-hole theme tune was its “once upon a time”. (The TARDIS, bigger on the inside than the out, is the through-the-wardrobe portal to the only thing that is truly bigger on the inside, the imagination.) In its gleefully pulpy way, Doctor Who regularly plundered myth, fairy tale, popular entertainment, literature, history and science for ideas and storylines. (The Hinchcliffe-Holmes era had a particular penchant for Gothic Horror, Hammer style.) As such, it was the ultimate all-in-one cultural education for the final quarter of the 20th century.

That and Blue Peter, anyway.