From the opening shot of These are the Damned (The Damned in the UK), you get a sense of the youth’s disaffection of the early 60s, when the film was made. It opens with a brutal attack on a middle-class gentlemen, Simon Wells (Macdonald Carey), who is on a yachting holiday by a gang of leather-clad ‘Teddy boys’ (the film calls them Teddy boys, but they are much more like rockers). Clearly, a tourist, the gang sees him as an excellent opportunity for a beating and robbery. This aggressive gang is causing mayhem in Weymouth, led by debonair psychopath King (Oliver Reed), who has an unnatural attraction to his sister Joan (Shirley Anne Field).
Despite being the catalyst for his earlier beating, Joan falls in love with Simon and escapes on his yacht to sever King’s control. She fears for both of their lives if they return to Weymouth. King has a psychotic, incestuous desire for his sister, and believes she belongs to him alone. By defining King, especially in front of his gang, to be alone with a mature man will undoubtedly lead to violence unless they allow King enough time to cool down. However, this time King will not cool down, vowing to kill Simon and him and his gang are on the lookout for the wayward couple.
During their escape, Simon and Joan hide out and make love in a cliff-top house filled with intriguing pieces of artwork. The house belongs to sculptor Freya (Viveca Lindfors), who is at odds with her partner, government scientist Bernard (Alexander Knos). Eventually, gang member Sid (Kenneth Cope) locates Simon’s boat. As King chases after his disobedient sister and her co-conspirator, Simon and Joan fall over the cliff edge. All three of them end up in a futuristic bunker. This below sea-level bunker holds a group of nine children.
These secluded and well-mannered children are dressed like school children and are educated by remote control. But they are mutants and are immune to radiation, which came about after their mothers had been killed in a nuclear accident, days before their natural birth. Their birth symbolises humanity’s hope after the earth is destroyed by an atomic holocaust, at least for Bernard. The bunker that holds them protects them from the initial effects of the nuclear fallout. He believes the children will re-create civilisation after the imminent nuclear holocaust. The only ‘human contact’ they get comes from Bernard appearing on a television screen, who promises the answers to their existence ‘when the time comes’.
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The lack of human contact is because the children themselves are radioactive, after the absorption of radiation in their mothers’ wombs. So when Simon and Joan come across the children, they are surprised that they are ‘ice cold’. Here is where we learn the truth about the fate of the children in the post-nuclear world. But Simon and Joan are unaware that children are radioactive and decide to free them, not understanding the full ramification of what they are about to do. Comparisons have been made between this film and Village of the Damned, but the main difference is that the children in These are the Damned are innocent victims rather than a threat from outer space.
For me, the styling and mood of the piece are reminiscent of The Quatermass Xperiment. Director Joseph Losey’s images are full of his views on the foolhardiness of the government. The contradiction in using technology, such as sports cars and helicopters, implies that Losey is both impressed by and laments it. What starts as a strange love triangle between Simon, Joan, and King becomes an antinuclear allegory about civilisation after the world falls under the nuclear bomb.
Anyone that has read enough of my articles knows that I have a soft spot for Reed, and his portrayal as King is the best part of the film. At first, King seems nothing more than a plot driver, as he forces Simon and Joan to discover the lab and the children, but he is much more intricate than that. The fact that the skill of the bad guy is the thing that could save the day is not something that is often used in films.
The structure of These are the Damned is terrific. The lovely girl falling in love with the older guy and the angry brother who answers to his own sexual demons and punches others in the face find themselves the unlikely stars of a distorted science fiction horror. All three have to fight against something that they do not understand, as did many people who lived at that time. Especially for the youth are fighting against the adult chant of ‘kids these days’ with their own battle cry of ‘you don’t understand me’, both knowing that the youth are destined to become appropriate victims in a war that nobody wants.
These are the Damned, had nineteen minutes of ethical discussion and exciting confrontations cut from it for the US release. It was not until the 90s that the film was restored to its full 96-minute run time, and this version is finally getting the excitement it deserves.
It is an odd, exciting film that brings together many genres, is perfectly directed by Losey and is one of the strongest Hammer films. An authentic rebellious piece of filmmaking, These are the Damned holds the audience in its death grip right to one of the harshest endings -“Help us! Help us! Please help us!”
We’ll survive if we all just stick together!
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