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The Damned (1963) at the NFT reviewed

Thedamned

I’m rapidly coming to the conclusion that I don’t know a thing about the cinema. Either that, or my memory is playing me up. My reason for booking to see The Damned was basically that I thought that I had seen it many years ago on a late night TV showing and wanted to see if it lived up to my memory of it. Even ‘memory’ is a misnomer, as all I could remember was a scene on a beach with Oliver Reed and his biker cohorts cavorting with a girl. Some things just stick in your mind, as the song goes!

The opening scene looked promising, with a shot of a beach and the early appearance of a bike gang, Oliver Reed playing their leader. There the resemblance ended, however, and we were plunged into one of the most off-kilter, creepy and plain sick sci-fi movies of the period. Several story lines are in evidence here, starting with the gang of bikers and their female lure, the lovely Shirley Ann Field, enticing strangers down lonely alleys, then beating and robbing them. The second, a tale of friendship between a ‘man from the ministry’ and a middle aged sculptress who rents a cliffside property from her friend. The property gives her the quiet and solitude she needs to create her tortured sculptures, made from driftwood and other reclaimed materials. The third, and most disquieting, is about a group of children being educated in isolation in a secret underground bunker, subjects of our ‘man from the ministry’. 

It is the sometimes far from seamless stitching of these separate strands of the storylines that most intrigues you, and at the same time, throws you off-balance with its tracking from one to the next. The initial shot of the assault on a visiting middle-aged American academic contains a wealth of detail about England in the 1960’s. Filmed in Weymouth, where Victorian gentility sits side by side with the modern, the sight of virtually traffic-free roads and stylish, well-kept shop windows were as refreshing as they were beautifully photographed. The bikers, including a young Kenneth Cope, are a little on the soft side and are inexplicably led by Oliver Reed, resplendent in a hounds tooth check jacket. Reed cuts a robust Mod figure, toting a rolled umbrella, which he uses to hook round his victims’ throats prior to delivering them a beating. His sister (Shirley Ann Field) plays the bait for his traps, but she resents her brother using her in this way, even offering an explanation for his possessive behaviour; she feels he doesn’t let her have boyfriends because he’s never had a girlfriend. 

A contemporary interview with the director, Joseph Losey, revealed that he felt he had had both Field and Reed imposed on him, and that Reed was ‘untrained’. I can’t claim any credentials as a casting director, but I’ve seen Oliver reed in countless films, and he never disappoints, as in this one. He plays the despicable but psychologically flawed thug to perfection, evoking an atmosphere that would have to wait a good few years to make its reappearance in films I prefer to call the ‘Violence 2000’ genre, like ‘A Clockwork Orange’. 

Our lure decides to make a break for it, joining the American on his yacht, and they end up on a lonely stretch of beach, taking advantage of an empty house, already seemingly familiar to the American, no doubt from previous amorous encounters. It is of course our solitary sculptress’ house. However, the cliffs outside hold a surprise, and they get stuck in a cave when the tide comes in. It is here that the sci-fi element kicks in, as our stranded lovers are rescued by a group of children who are shocked to discover that the adults have warm skin. The adults are equally shocked at how cold the children are, and they quickly realise that the children are being held here as part of some experiment, eventually finding that their jailer is our man form the ministry.

If the title of the film hasn’t already reminded you of  ‘Children of the Damned’, then these scenes with the children will. However, it differs from that classic of the ‘Soft Apocalypse’ genre, in that the relatively benign adult hero of ‘Children’ has no obvious parallel here. We learn that the children were all born to mothers who had been exposed to radiation, and are unable to live except in the rarefied atmosphere of the bunker. Our man from the ministry has been charged with the grim duty of bringing up the children to repopulate the earth after the seemingly inevitable nuclear holocaust, their immunity to radiation ensuring their survival. 

It’s a long way from a tepid biker movie to a sinister apocalyptic fable about the morality of nuclear research, child psychology and isolation, deliberate or otherwise. I’ve given away so much of the plot already, but I’ll leave you to decide the ending for yourselves.  It’s another film that seems to have been hiding away, in spite of the stellar reputation of its director, but it must surely find a wider audience one day. Thanks to the NFT for digging this one out of the catacombs for a well-deserved and welcome showing.

Scenester

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