John Carpenter’s version of Village of the Dumb Damned is from the director’s awkward ‘90s phase.
As the box office returns proved, in 1995 the world was not exactly gagging for a remake of a 1960s UK/US horror film (it grossed less than half its budget). So why, for the love of Dusty, did Carpenter do it? My theory, for what it’s worth, is that in 1993 human embryos were cloned for the first time. Rather than explore the ramifications of that in an intelligent and original way, the expedient option was to raid the past.
The major problem is that Carpenter brought nothing new to what had been a post-Second World War fable about society’s unease at the rapid advancements in science and technology, and the still-fresh fear of being invaded by a foe who is like you, but with all your least appealing qualities to the fore. (It can hardly have been an accident that in both versions of the film, the children are eerily blonde, dressed alike, and march in formation.) Laziness like that is no doubt what garnered the film its Razzie nomination for ‘Worst remake or sequel’.
The strength of Carpenter’s version, if it has one, is the late Christopher Reeve in the role first played by classic English gentleman George Sanders. Richard Donner, who directed Superman, once said, “Reeve convinced me, when I met him, that Superman could fly.” As the doctor in the afflicted town of Midwich, Reeve radiates strength, compassion, dignity and intelligence. His performance here, as a grief-stricken widower trying to raise a child he cannot relate to, is grounded in a reality that this ridiculous, campy film in no way merits. This was his last role before the riding accident that shortened his life and left him quadriplegic, and he deserved better.
Instead, he is surrounded by cheap and nasty special effects and a chain-smoking, black-clad Kirstie Alley doing her best spoof of Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct. Only she and Mark Hamill, as a crazed priest with a wild look in his eye, seem to know that they’re in a B-grade flop and treat their parts with the correct level of disrespect. In fairness, Linda Kozlowski takes the same serious approach Reeve does, but the two of them were fighting a losing battle against a rising tide of schlock. The ‘glowing eyes of mind control’ are no more frightening or effective than they were in the video to Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse of the Heart, and all the children seem to grow at different rates (while ‘David’ is still a baby, ‘Mara’ is already the size of a toddler) despite being conceived and born at the same time.
The children are the product of a mysterious blackout that affected everyone in the town of Midwich and left all the women of child-bearing age pregnant. Carpenter was obviously aware that other horror movies had explored the socio-political, feminist, psychological and physical aspects of conception and childbirth, because he opts not to develop those ideas here. In fact, nothing much in Village has received real attention: the still-born babe Alley whisks away in a blanket can’t be bigger than a kitten, but when its preserved remains are unveiled later in the film it’s the size of a bloated Ewok. If Carpenter’s cunning plan was to bore the viewer so much that this kind of sloppiness went unnoticed, he almost succeeded.