Like the blackened husks of nuclear fallout victims, the surreal sculptures in Hammer Film’s 1963 production of “These Are the Damned” belie the happenings of something awful nearby.
They are graphically maimed, semi-human, and crossed between grotesque and disproportioned birds and quadrupeds that, at one time, might have been horses.
And they watch over the blackened waters and sheer cliffs of the Weymouth coastline, as if waiting for something catastrophic to happen.
And it does.
In the finale, men in hazmat suits scale the cliffs, soldiers scour the countryside, and a cabal of poisonous, irradiated children — an unfortunate lot bred to survive the effects of an expected nuclear holocaust — escape across the landscape.
Such is the bleak and nightmarish science fiction film of Joseph Losey, a blacklisted American director better known for his movies on politics and the English class system. Eking out a living in England in the '60s, he might have chosen this production for its promised paycheck, or its chance to let him work again. But he turned in something that went beyond the usual science fiction offerings of the time.
The film opens with a leather-clad biker gang of hooligans led by King (a young Oliver Reed in one of his first lead roles), pursuing a middle-aged American yuppie (MacDonald Carey) through the streets of Weymouth.
The yuppie is soon snagged by King’s sister Joanie (Shirley Ann Field), who leads him into a trap where he is beaten and robbed.
King, who sports a white blazer and cowboy boots (in contrast to the black-leather jackets and boots of his gang), appears to have an incestuous relationship with the girl, and jealously keeps her away from other men.
“It’s you and me against the world,” he says at one point. “It’s been that way since we were kids. Do you think I’d ever let a man put his dirty hands on you?”
So he becomes incensed when Joanie eventually leaves him for the middle-aged yuppie.
Joanie and the yuppie eventually escape on a boat to the countryside and discover an artist’s studio guarded by deformed statues. King finds them there, however, and chases them off a cliff and into the ocean.
There, a group of children appear.
The children, all 9 years of age, pale skinned and cold to the touch, rescue the protagonists from the treacherous waters and pull them through an opening in the cliff to their home: A military bunker. The children say they have rescued others before, namely a rabbit, which sickened and died in their care. None of the protagonists knows why the children are there.
But eventually the audience does. The children were born after an unnamed nuclear disaster killed their mothers (who were pregnant with them at the time) and made them uniquely capable of surviving a nuclear winter.
“These Are the Damned” came out during a transitional time in the history of Hammer Film Productions. In the late '50s and early '60s, the British company had enjoyed success with its Victorian-era horror films “The Curse of Frankenstein,” “The Horror of Dracula,” and “The Mummy,” and moved away from its earlier comedy and science fiction productions, such as its 1955 film “The Quatermass Xperiment,” which featured a man transforming into an alien organism, and served as a predecessor to “These Are the Damned.”
But “These Are the Damned” — filmed in rich black and white and photographed with an eye toward the grotesqueries of not only the deformed statues, but the innocent faces of Joanie, King and the irradiated children — comes away as something quite different.
The children aren’t turned into monsters. They are monsters, as are the siblings Joanie and King, who are ruled by their passions. But there is an innocence in their monstrous ways. They don’t quite understand the destruction they cause, whether it’s King to Joanie, Joanie to the yuppie, or the children to the world. And that is where the real horror and tragedy lies, because in the end, when they act upon their better natures to help each other escape, they ensure a tragic conclusion to all.
“These Are the Damned” is available on DVD in “The Icons of Suspense Collection: Hammer Films.”
Cinema sect is a weekly column by N-D News Editor Matt Fritz, featuring analysis and reviews of cult horror, science fiction and exploitation films from the depths of cinema history to the present.