By Dale D. Dalenberg, M.D.
November 17, 2013
The Dalenberg Library of Antique Popular Literature convenes its Film Society again this week to screen vintage suspense films from 1960/61. The British film production company Hammer Films provides us with a back catalog that is a treasure trove of lurid potboilers, film noir, science fiction, and especially, horror films. Founded in 1934 and continuing in its latest iteration today, the peak of Hammer Horror was the mid-50’s into the 1970’s. Certain actors’ work became synonymous with the look and feel of Hammer Horror, such as Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. It is really as an homage to Hammer Horror that we got to see Cushing show up in the original Star Wars and Lee in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films and George Lucas’s later Star Wars sequels.
For me, one of the attractions of many Hammer films is their B movie ambience and a certain antiquated lack of modern political correctness. There is often a hint of a then-future R rating bubbling up beneath the surface waiting to erupt. There is usually a cast of unknowns acting their hearts out in their one chance at cinematic glory. Sometimes, there is a whole plot device based on blatant pseudo-science that wouldn’t actually work in the real world.
. . .and sometimes Hammer gave us a film that featured then-unknowns on the cusp of bigger things in their careers. One such film is the first in this week’s double feature:
These Are the Damned (1961)
Columbia Pictures presents a Hammer Film production. Produced by Anthony Hinds, Directed by Joseph Losey, Screenplay by Evan Jones, based on a novel by H.L. Lawrence. Starring: McDonald Carey, Shirley Ann Field, Viveca Lindfors,
Alexander Knox, and an early, memorable performance by Oliver Reed.
Hammer produced one of the their most atmospheric, suspenseful masterpieces in this offbeat experiment of a film, directed by the great Joseph Losey, who at this point had escaped McCarthy-era blacklisting in Hollywood. In 1961, Losey was just a couple years shy of his greatest film achievements in The Servant and Accident. These Are the Damned was so inscrutable to the distributors that both the English and the American releases had their running times substantially cut. Thankfully, Columbia Pictures has re-released some collections of these Hammer Films on quality DVDs, so this film is now presented with a pristine black & white picture, its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and its original running time restored.
Briefly, the plot concerns a couple on the run from a gang of motorcycle hooligans who stumble into a secret government installation and discover 9 imprisoned radioactive children. The children, born of mothers who were exposed to a nuclear accident, are being raised by government handlers as a hedge against the coming nuclear holocaust, because it is believed that their intrinsic radioactivity will make it possible to them to survive the conditions following a nuclear war. The science is shaky, but when you watch the movie you don’t care, because the film in convincingly spine-tingling. While These Are the Damned takes as its starting premise the same nuclear threat that fueled most science fiction films from the late 1950’s, it presents a unique take on the topic, approaching it from a different angle than any other film. It doesn’t even start out as a science fiction film, and you are well into the plot development before you even get your first inklings that you are dealing with a science fiction story.
The Hammer charms are everywhere evident here. The film is wide screen and glossy, but it has a B movie feel. It is offbeat and edgy. It benefits from not having a big name star (Oliver Reed was not yet a household name at this point). And it does not have a happy ending, as most of the principal characters die, or about to die, at the end of the film, while the radioactive children who tried to escape their environs are all captured and re-imprisoned and crying out for help over the closing credits. It’s a harrowing ending that stays with you. And when you take a film home from the theater afterwards, that is a sign of an effective film.
But, we didn’t go home afterwards—we stayed for another Hammer film:
Never Take Candy From a Stranger (1960)—original British title: Never Take Sweets From a Stranger
Columbia Films presents a Hammer Film production. Produced by Anthony Hinds, Directed by Cyril Frankel, Screenplay by John Hunter. Starring: Gwen Watford, Patrick Allen, Felix Aylmer, and Niall MacGinnis.
Part social commentary, part film noir, this Hammer manages to tackle pedophilia and inject what could have been a preachy message picture with some real tension as an outsider in a small town goes up against the corrupt establishment. Along the way, we get treated to some disturbing images of Hammer Horror as British character actor Felix Aylmer turns in some of the most memorable snapshots of demented pedophilia since Peter Lorre in Fritz Lang’s M decades earlier.
The events take place in a small Canadian town where an outsider has moved his family to become the new high school principal. His 10-year old daughter and a friend are enticed into a sexual situation with the promise of candy by the senile and aging patriarch of the family who runs the sawmill and therefore the town. The prominent family knows granddad has a problem with little girls, but they have successfully kept it under wraps like everything else in their town. But this time, the enraged parents press charges. Naturally, in the course of terrorizing the child by forcing her to be a witness in court, among other insults, the charges get dropped, and the newcomers prepare to move out of town. The climactic scenes have granddad, moving like a stroke-afflicted Frankenstein monster, chasing the girls through the woods, police with dogs and parents frantically combing the countryside for the missing kids, and not catching up with grand-dad until he has killed one of the girls after molesting her in an abandoned cabin.
The film has even more resonance today because it is so dated. It comes from a time before Amber alerts. People in this movie apparently don’t even know the word “pedophile” yet. Part of the creepiness you feel watching this is the notion that people used to get away with bad stuff in small towns because of the same conspiracy of silence depicted in this story.