With delinquent bikers, secret bases, and radioactive children, The Damned is one of Hammer’s few science fiction films… and its strangest.
As Hammer Studios rode the transition from the Fifties to the Sixties, the father-and-son leadership team of James and Michael Carreras made several efforts at ‘prestige’ pictures, reaching beyond the excellent thrillers and horror films that were the studio’s bread and butter.
Hammer bravely tackled pedophilia in Never Take Candy from a Stranger (1960) and came up just short of several BAFTAs with the portrayal of British war crimes, Yesterday’s Enemy (1959). Both movies still have the power to disturb. Then, in 1961, Hammer undertook a ban-the-bomb picture in Joseph Losey’s The Damned … and got an art-house film far beyond what the studio had bargained for. (Hammer had previously courted Losey to make 1956’s X The Unknown but McCarthyite star Dean Jagger vetoed the Communist director.)
The key decision was to sign expatriate American Losey, already an auteur director in many critics’ eyes, to helm this anti-nuclear work of dystopia in which the good guys lose and the curse of the atomic bomb looms over everything. Losey tossed out the Hammer-commissioned script of fellow blacklist victim Ben Barzman and set Evan Jones speedily to work on a replacement. He also brought in a non-Hammer ensemble of actors and technicians (Oliver Reed being the only familiar Hammer face), as well as—in characteristically obdurate fashion—going over schedule and budget. For a studio that notoriously counted every shilling, this was a cardinal sin. What resulted has been dubbed “the strangest film to come out of Hammer Studios,” although in a complimentary way.
However, Hammer didn’t think so. It ordered additional scenes filmed and even then was unsatisfied. The movie was recut twice, then sat upon for two years in England, and four in America. These Are the Damned (to use its U.S. title and differentiate it from Luchino Visconti’s meretricious Nazi epic, The Damned) was then tossed out on the bottom half of double bills. A few American reviewers realized These Are the Damned’s prescient nature but it remained mainly the province of Losey scholars and university film societies before being rediscovered through home video, most notably in Powerhouse Films’ 2019 Blu-Ray reissue.
By the time, These Are the Damned was released (or more accurately, escaped) into cinemas, Losey had made his breakthrough film, The Servant (1963) and Hammer had pulled back from upscale aspirations—and discovered the joys of mascara-red blood and lots of it. There would be plenty of Dracula, Frankenstein, and Mummy films, some of them quite stylish, but no more pictures like Yesterday’s Enemy (also on Powerhouse) or These Are the Damned. Our loss.
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Figure Studies in a Landscape
To the skirling strains of flutes in James Bernard’s score, Arthur Grant’s camera—in glorious Hammerscope—scans the barren seaside cliffs of southern England and over the outdoor studio of the sculptress Freya (Viveca Lindfors), whose misshapen creations look the like the irradiated victims of Hiroshima. This cryptic opening is disrupted by an abrupt transition to the bourgeois resort town of Weymouth and the rude strains of ‘Black Leather Rock.’ It summarizes the rough credo of King (Oliver Reed, The Devils) and his teddy boys.
“Black leather, black leather, smash, smash, smash!
Black leather, black leather, crash, crash, crash!”
King himself is destined to crash before the picture is over but right now he’s riding roughshod over Weymouth, where the lone bobby on the street is helpless against King and his seven followers. They behave like overgrown children and, in their way, as just as “damned” as the radiation-infected adolescents we will later meet. As ‘Black Leather Rock’ pounds the soundtrack, Losey pans down the Weymouth clock tower, debased with a festoon of Christmas lights, past the disapproving profile of Queen Victoria, and over to Simon Wells (MacDonald Carey, Losey’s The Lawless), whose suit and white, floppy hat makes him look for all the world like Jacques Tati’s hapless Mr. Hulot. Like Hulot, Wells is also on holiday and as Joan (Shirley Anne Field, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning) saunters by, she picks him up with an insouciant double-entendre: “Never seen a clock tower before?”
(That introductory shot of the Victorian clock tower would be riffed upon at the very beginning of The Servant. There, Losey starts on the royal British coat of arms. He then pulls back—and back—to reveal that it is the centerpiece of the marquee of Thomas Crapper & Sons, famous purveyors of You Know What. So this is what the British Empire has come to, he seems to say.)
Losey now executes a reverse of him downward-and-right pan, moving left across King (whose signature umbrella is suspended on the phallic horn of a sculpted unicorn) and his teddy boys then upward along a statue of King George III, supremely oblivious to the violence that is hanging in the air. Joan functions as King’s “honey trap” and Simon is her mark. She signals King with a couple of phrases of ‘Black Leather Rock,’ whereupon the gang pounces on Wells, robs him, and kicks him senseless, all with cold indifference.
We now meet the other, more powerful couple in the story, Bernard (Alexander Knox, Accident) and his lover Freya, whom he greets with a brusque, “You go back to London!” Bernard has more than his share of secrets to keep, yet he allows Freya to maintain her studio right over the cliff from his top-hush installation. For the moment, all we know is that Freya has brought Bernard another of her morbid, raven-like bird sculptures (“My graveyard bird.”), which he is only too happy to receive. Despite being named after the Nordic goddess of spring and fertility, Freya’s preoccupations are as morbid as Bernard’s. He is the real power in Weymouth, symbolized by his right-hand men, Major Holland (Walter Gotell, The Stud) and Captain Gregory (James Villiers, Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb).
Freya: Captains and majors. Do they both belong to you?
Bernard: Aye and I keep a pet colonel in the kennel at home.
As you can see, Evan Jones’ screenplay—which devotes far more time to character development than the average Hammer script—verges on poetry and it would be sorely tempting to simply reprint it. Brought to Bernard by his underlings, Simon explains his philosophy to the scientist: “I like listening to people who know what they’re talking about. My trouble is I never believe anything they say… The people who know all the answers are much happier.” Prophetic words that will come back to haunt him later. They’re echoed in the name of his yacht, Dolce Vita, both a nod to Federico Fellini’s 1960 masterpiece of modern spiritual malaise and an expression of Simon’s hedonistic outlook.
Freya: I like him because he doesn’t like the world. It’s a good beginning.
Bernard: It’s hardly enough.
Freya: I agree.
Alluding to Bernard’s “military friends,” Freya now addresses the meat of the story, Bernard’s “mysterious project … When a bureaucrat wants to keep his job he stamps everything ‘Top Secret.’” Bernard doesn’t disagree even though Freya says “I hate your secrets,” but issues a not-so-veiled warning not inquire any further.
The love/hate dynamic between Bernard and Freya is nothing compared to that between Joan and King. They grew up rough on the streets, which forged a close bond—too close in King’s case. Commentators on the film frequently refer to King’s attachment to Joan as “almost incestuous” but there’s nothing “almost” about it and King’s pathological jealousy of Joan’s growing interest in Simon will be the lethal mainspring that drives the plot. (Joan was even locked in a closet for a week by King for dating another man.) With King in hot pursuit, Joan corners Simon aboard Dolce Vita and begins to strip off to further arouse Wells’ interest.
Joan: It takes two to play pretty little games.
Simon: Now look, I invited you for a drink.
Joan: You didn’t. You didn’t invite me anywhere. To you I’m a little tart who you picked up on the street.
Simon: Well who are you, Lady Godiva?
Joan: That would make you Peeping Tom.
Simon’s reductive view of women is expressed by his “With a figure like that you don’t need to a name.” Still, when King’s gang shows up and threatens Wells at knifepoint, Joan throws in with the American, leaping aboard Dolce Vita as it pulls out of the canal. King dubs Wells “Simple Simon” (an apter nickname than we realize at the moment) and vows hotly, “When you come back to shore, Simple Simon, you’re a dead man.” Not that Wells is any great improvement on King. Once at sea, he forces himself upon Joan (“You’re just what King said you were”). Simon belatedly apologizes for being “clumsy and brutal” but doesn’t ease up on his oafish courtship, which is visually punctuated by Dolce Vita’s American flag—Losey cocking a snook at his former homeland.
Still, Joan is sufficiently attracted to Simon to bring him to Freya’s studio, where she sensually caresses the sculpture. When Simon offers to smash a window at “the birdhouse” to get in, Joan ironically chides him that “You must learn to respect other people’s property.” He lacks Joan’s instinctive response to Freya’s art, merely looking on in incomprehension before taking Joan to bed. Although Losey was insecure around actresses, the scene is gentle, even erotic. In a post-coital moment, Joan reproves Simon, “You think to stop thinking means you’re happy,” to which he responds with a simplistic proposal of marriage, rationalizing their May-December romance with, “It’s as if I’m no longer afraid of dying.” (He should be.)
The charismatic cult leaders at the hearT of Waco and Jonestown cast a heavy shadow over The X-Files episode ‘The Field Where I Died’.
Secrets and Violence
Meanwhile, Bernard’s boffins are chafing at their cloistered, secretive existence. “Rather a gilded bird in a rusty cage,” gripes one, taking exception at Bernard’s provincial accent and comparative lack of education. “If it were up to you, you’d turn all these children into beatniks,” sneers Holland in response, while Gregory professes not to think much of anything (like Simon), prompting the jibe, “You’re the sort that built the empire, aren’t you?” “Any bully can command obedience,” responds Gregory, in Villiers’ uniquely rich and distinctive voice, “Only a gentleman can command loyalty.” And by “a gentleman” he clearly means Bernard.
It is time to meet Bernard’s charges: nine children sequestered in an underground bunker, addressed by Bernard only via closed-circuit television. Named after kings and queens of England (including a Victoria) they ask uncomfortable questions about incest and their future purpose “when the time comes,” queries which Bernard parries patronizingly, cutting off discussion when it’s pointed out that he’s being undemocratic. In a later scene, using a headset that looks suspiciously like a repurposed hairdryer, one of the girls listens to Gregory reading Lord Byron’s (aptly chosen) ‘The Prisoner of Chillon’, a poem that speaks indirectly of the plight of the children themselves, “To whom the goodly earth and air/Are banned and barr’d …”:
“My hair is grey, but not with years,
Nor grew it white
In a single night,
As men’s have grown from sudden fears:
My limbs are bow’d, though not with toil,
But rusted with a vile repose,
For they have been a dungeon’s spoil,
And mine has been the fate of those
To whom the goodly earth and air
Are bann’d, and barr’d—forbidden fare”
Freya returns to the Birdhouse to find the evidence of the lovers’ tryst (her coming having scared off Joan and Simon). King is right on her heels, full of questions Freya can’t answer—although she pointedly notices King’s unhealthy fixation with her bed. “I know your kind,” King sneers while his hands wrap around the neck of one of Freya’s sculptures as though to strangle it. “You think this junk’s all that matters … They’re nasty, that’s what.” “What have my morals got to do with your Joanie?” Freya coolly responds, prompting King to smash one of her sculptures in impotent rage, “impotent” being the operative word as Joan will later imply (rather heavily) that he’s incapable of sexual performance. King then throws himself upon Freya, pinning her to the ground in a brutal parody of coitus.
Freya: How could you be so cruel?
King: I enjoyed it, my dear lady.
King then repairs to the nearest graveyard, drawn by the whistled hook of ‘Black Leather Rock,’ signaling his droogs to try and corner Simon and Joan out in the open. Instead, it drives them to the fences of Bernard’s military base. Trapped between the gang and the base’s penetrating searchlights, the lovers climb the barbed-wire fence (with King madly on their trail), until all plunge off the cliffside and into the English Channel. The next we see of Joan and Wells, they are being dragged to safety by the children, whose skin is perpetually ice-cold to the touch, as Joan discovers to her horror. Still, the grownups don’t resist the children’s entreaties to stay, even at the risk of being discovered by “the Black Death” (Bernard’s minions in rubber hazmat suits). Losey, whose debut feature was The Boy with Green Hair (1948), was always marvelous with children—think of The Go-Between (1971) —and is no less so here, eliciting unforced performances. “We were hoping you were parents,” Victoria tells Simon, revealing that the children were originally 11 in number and are all 11 years old. Parroting Bernard, she tells him that he will learn what he needs to when he needs it and all at the appropriate time, words that will strike ironically home at the climax.
But now there is an intruder in the mystery, for King has also been saved from the surf, not that he appreciates it. He and Wells threaten each other ridiculously with pieces of wood, while the kids refer to King as “it.” “He’s dead. He’s dead, I tell ya,” King exclaims fearfully when touches the icy children. Regaining what passes for his self-possession, he returns to his fixation with Joan’s sexuality.
King: I’m not going to stay here and watch the two of you.
Joan: What do you think we’re going to do?
King: Don’t be dirty.
Joan: It’s you, King. It’s you who’s dirty. You tried to lock me up and you’ve tried to everything you can think of to stop me from being a woman—because you’ve never had a girlfriend.
King: That’s not true, Joanie.
Joan: Yes, it is!
King: I only want you out of the hands of men like that.
Joan: Or any men at all!
One moment Joan is thrashing King with a towel, then tenderly handing it to him to dry himself, before retreating into Simon’s arms. The lovers’ activities haven’t escaped Bernard’s notice either. He visits Freya at the Birdhouse, observing prophetically, “This place seems to have a fatal attraction for lovers.” Losey positions Lindfors and Knox at opposite ends of the bed (the actors’ offscreen tension informing the scene with useful subtext) as they spar affectionately before Bernard gives way to his gloomy worldview: “I live with one fact. The power has been released that can melt those stones. We must be ready when the time comes.” He is firmly convinced of the inevitability of nuclear war and that it cannot be prevented, a thought which blows Freya’s mind. She clings to optimism. “A public servant is the only servant who has secrets from his master,” she says in parting.
Writhing in Simon’s lap, Joan and King begin to display symptoms of radiation poisoning and are given a piece of post-apocalyptic pablum food grown by the children themselves. Mary, one of the other kids, also suffers from a potentially fatal illness. The remaining children share with Simon their fantasies about their purpose. One says their parents will return one day to “open the magic doors” while another believes they’re on a spaceship to a distant galaxy. Bernard has discovered the adults’ presence in the caves and orders Wells found and removed, saying, “I do not want the children to watch him die.” To facilitate the search and distract the artist, Gregory visits Freya “by way of improving my mind.” When he observes that her sculptures look unfinished, Freya inquires, “Isn’t everything in life sort of unfinished,” adding, “If I could explain these I wouldn’t have to make them.” Words for a filmmaker to live by!
It sounds like a Zen koan: what does Everything Everywhere All at Once sound like? Son Lux’s composer Rafiq Bhatia explores the glorious anarchy.
Birds of Ill-Omen
Flanked by the shadow of one of his death-bird sculptures, Bernard takes to the TV relay, to demand that the children give up Simon, Joan, and King: “Big people are dangerous to you… Nothing that’s warm can live with you.” The children rebel openly and obscure all the cameras. “Simple Simon” finally realizes that he has seen more than he should and tries to organize a mass escape, still not comprehending what he’s up against, including “the Black Death,” led by Holland. King guns down one of unit (weeping after he does so), and Wells captures Holland. Even now, Simon fails to realize that “The children themselves are radioactive,” as Holland grimly tells him. He’s still bent on loosing them upon the world, radiation or no.
Even once set free into the sunlight, the children’s space proves illusory. Gregory and “the Black Death” are upon them in a flash, even as one flees to a now-cognizant Freya’s arms. Henry climbs into Freya’s car with King and they speed away from the scene. Meanwhile, Simon is still struggling toward the truth. With Bernard looming over him from the top of the cliff, he summons up all the rage his dying body can muster, to the dissonant strains of Bernard’s spare score.
Simon: I’ve seen you before. You’re the man who knows all about violence, aren’t you? You’re the man that knows all the answers, aren’t you? Why are you doing this? What’s it all for? What are you trying to make out of these children? What do you want with us? Answer me? Will you answer me?
Bernard coldly orders them aboard the Dolce Vita, knowing full well they are ultimately going nowhere. Sobbing, Freya rages at him, leading Bernard to the climactic revelation. The children were all “born as they are,” their mothers the victims of an accident radiation release of unknown type and severity. “There are such accidents. 300 in the past 15 years.”
Bernard: We don’t yet know how to repeat the conditions that produced these children.
Freya: You mean you would if you could?
Bernard: Certainly … it is now desperately important that you should try to understand me and what I am doing. Life has the power to change. After the first great explosion, strange flowers, unknown before, bloomed in the desert. To survive the destruction that is inevitably coming we need a new kind of Man. An accident gave us these nine precious children, the only human beings who have a chance to live in the conditions which must inevitably exist when the time comes. Every civilized nation is searching—searching—for the key to survival that we have found.
Freya strokes Bernard’s face one last time before returning to her work. He offers her a Faustian pact: help him help his children to inherit the earth, as he puts it. “What Earth!?” cries Freya, framed next to one of her sculptures, symbolizing creativity and life. “What Earth will you leave them? After all that Man has made and still has to make, is this the extent of your dream? To set nine, ice-cold children free in the ashes of the universe?” Knowing that she is to be killed, she dismisses Bernard for good, telling him is wasting the scant time remaining to her.
On the main road, King and Henry are being slowly pursued by one of Bernard’s helicopters, a faceless, mechanical nemesis that prefigures the fatal chopper in Losey’s subsequent Figures in a Landscape (1970). “Get away from me,” gasps King to Henry. “You’re poison. You’re killing me.” Unlike Simon, King knows all too well what’s happening. Two helicopters corner the stolen car and “the Black Death” spirits Henry away. In an absurdist tableau, King takes his machine gun and flails at the messengers of death with it as though it were a club, before climbing back into the car and crashing through a bridge, just short of Weymouth. At sea, Joan and Simon are gently expiring, shadowed by an ominous, all-seeing helicopter. “We can start again, Joan. We can go back again to the beginning,” says Simon obliviously. And does he remember how badly they began? “We can’t, Simon,” responds Joan sadly. “We can’t leave the children.” She then goes to view her own ‘bird of death,’ framed against the helicopter and (again) the American flag, a reminder of who dropped the first atomic bomb.
In a last virtuoso touch, Losey’s aerial camera follows the Dolce Vita and its metallic, impersonal overseer, then leaves them to swoop over the cliff of the Birdhouse, where Bernard shoots Freya dead. (Losey had the fatal gunshot coming from the helicopter but Hammer thought this too oblique and ordered an insert of Knox gunning Lindfors down). From within the cliffs, we hear the children calling for help, for salvation. Bleak stone walls are their response. As the final shot fades out, we see the promenade at Weymouth again, deaf to the cries of “Help! Please help us!” Have those cries become our own?
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David McKee works as a business reporter and editor by day in order to feed his science-fiction habit on nights and weekends. He caught the bug way back when Space: 1999 was airing. He lives in Augusta, Georgia, with his wife and their cat.