Nihilism was at a peak in the 1960s. The threat of nuclear war and/or the fallout from radiation was as genuine a fear as the leak of a man-made disease is today. This was a precursor, though initially ignored, of the spate of nuke movies like Fail Safe (1964), Dr Strangelove (1964) and The Bedford Incident (1965) which made the argument not to leave nuclear accessibility in the hands of trigger-happy politicians, scientists and the military.
The idea that scientists for experimental reasons might welcome radiation was not a notion easily embraced. The Damned (not to be confused with the earlier Village of the Damned, 1960, and later Children of the Damned, 1964, or, for that matter, Luchino Visconti’s The Damned in 1969) presents a more ruthless scientific approach than audiences might expect.
Three tales eventually dovetail. In a very contemporary nod to English society, tearaways known as “teddy boys” terrorise a seaside town. Led by the snappily-dressed umbrella-wielding King (Oliver Reed) when not causing general mayhem they take pleasure in beating up any male who happens to be enticed by his glamorous sister Joan (Shirley Anne Field). One such unfortunate is Simon (MacDonald Carey), an American tired of the rat race. Joan decides she has had enough of being used as sexual bait and boards Simon’s yacht to apologise, at which point unlikely romance ensues. Not that romantic initially, as Simon assumes she is easy pickings, and comes on a shade too strong. Her thwarted brother sends his gang to spy on the couple.
Scientist Bernard (Alexander Knox) welcomes the arrival of his sculptor girlfriend Freya (Viveca Lindfors) who has a studio in a cottage on the cliffs. Underneath the cliffs is a secret project involving a group of obedient 11-year-old children who appear to have lived there from birth, with whom Bernard communicates via closed circuit television.
Joan and Simon enjoy an evening idyll in the empty cottage until chased out by the gang. Escape leads them down the cliffside where the children offer them a hiding place. The kids think Joan and Simon are their parents coming to the rescue. They believe they are on a spaceship headed to planets unknown. They are as baffled that the incomers have warm skin as the escapees that they have cold skin. Eventually, they are joined by King, rescued from drowning by one of the children.
Eventually, too, all are trapped by Bernard and his men. King, with his violent skills honed, is able to take on the guards and fashion an escape. Bernard allows the couple to leave on Simon’s yacht, knowing they will die of radiation poisoning before too long, a helicopter hovering overhead should they decide to land anywhere.
When Freya discovers the truth, Bernard kills her. The children lived through a radiation leak and are being groomed by Bernard to survive the inevitable future nuclear war in the hope, presumably, that they might breed and create a generation invulnerable to radiation. All that upsets the scientist of this incident is that the children now know they are prisoners.
Small wonder Hammer didn’t know what to do with such downbeat fare. Ruthless scientists like Bernard were usually put in their place by intrepid civilians like Simon and Joan or outsiders like King. The imprisoned always escaped. Humans, never mind children, were not treated as lab rats. A more cynical contemporary audience would not be remotely surprised at the conspiracies of scientists and governments.
If you think The Wicker Man (1973) took an age to achieve cultdom, this took forever, in part because of the later artistic recognition of director Joseph Losey, this scarcely fitting into an oeuvre that contained The Servant (1964) and The Go-Between (1971). Recognition was negated by poor initial distribution, the American version heavily edited, and it wasn’t really until this century that its worth was vindicated.
It’s a brilliantly bold construct, especially as, in retrospect, other characters are imprisoned one way or another. King scarcely lets Joan out of his sight, and while forcing her to strut her stuff to entice men that he can mug is revulsed at the notion of her embracing another man. Freya, too, although she doesn’t realise it, can only enjoy a relationship with Bernard in which he has complete control. The teddy boys, who think they can wreak havoc, are easy pickings for the might of the military.
Some scenes are just superb. Joan picking up Simon. King’s relish of violence. Bernard in avuncular tones addressing the children, who could all be in the running for cute Disney roles. Joan’s shock at the coldness of the children. The children’s innate obedience turning to rebellion at their betrayal. A camera tracking a room to the sound of heavy footsteps, those revealed to belong to a man in a Hazchem outfit. Bernard’s cold-blooded elimination of his lover. Finally, the cries of the children too distant to be heard by tourists on a beach.
Oliver Reed (Hannibal Brooks, 1968), working hard on his steely stare and his breathless tones, is the pick here, but Alexander Knox (Accident, 1967) runs him close. Sultry-eyed Shirley Anne Field (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, 1960) does better than B-film regular MacDonald Carey who appears out of his acting depth.
Genuine cult material.