Written by Evan Jones
Directed by Joseph Losey
Starring Macdonald Carey, Shirley Anne Field, Viveca Lindfors, Alexander Knox, Oliver Reed
US Release July 7, 1965
RT 87 min.
Home Video Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Classic Horrors rating = 7 (out of 10)
Warning: review contains plot spoilers.
What do you make of The Damned, a movie so frustrating and odd, yet so deeply fascinating? At its core, it’s a cerebral tale about early 1960’s nuclear paranoia told within the framework of top-secret experimentation on children. However, until the last third of the movie, that’s such a low-key aspect of the story that I wondered if it would ever emerge from the unusual drama of its characters. The opening scenes that depict the mugging of Simon Wells (Macdonald Carey) by King (Oliver Reed) and his street gang, plays almost like something out of West Side Story.
“Black leather, black leather, crash-crash-crash. Black leather, black leather, smash-smash-smash.” This gang is so cool they sing and whistle as they use King’s sister, Joan (Shirley Anne Field), to lure the American tourist into an ambush. The dapper King, in suit and twirling an umbrella, then leads his black leather-wearing men down the street in marching formation. I envision spectators lining the streets and applauding after the show. Later, when anyone encounters King or the gang following an incident where they’ve been terrorized, they greet them calmly without showing panic or calling for help.
We casually meet the other two key players when the shaken Simon is assisted into a nearby café. He acts like he knows Bernard (Alexander Knox) when he says, “I expected you, but not the street gangs.” Bernard has been meeting with his summer tenant, Freya Neilson (Viveca Lindfors) who pays rent with sculptures she’s made while staying at the cliff-top house that sits at the base of his heavily guarded laboratory. She refers to his “military friends” and “secret project.” He says, “If I were to tell you even a little about my secrets, I would be condemning you to death.”
That’s all we get about that for a good, long part of The Damned’s 87-minute (or 96, depending on the version) running time. It’s back to Simon and Joan, who, it turns out, share a mutual attraction. She goes back and forth between joining him on his boat and returning to her brother. King is overly protective of her, and perhaps a bit jealous of any men with whom she becomes involved. When Simon tries to kiss her, she cries, “Damn you, damn you, damn you. You are dirty, just like King said.” When he says, “Joan I’m sorry, I was clumsy and brutal,” they’re soon making love…
…in Freya’s house. Yeah, they just walk in, talk about what a fabulous place it is, and make themselves at home in her bedroom. (Well, the lovemaking is assumed; she lies on the bed fully clothed, but he walks around in his t-shirt.) Suddenly, he asks her to marry him. Later, Freya returns to find her bed disheveled. King walks in behind her and asks, “Where’s Joanie? Where did she go?” She doesn’t know Joanie and tells King, “I don’t know who you’re talking about.” Then, “You’re a strange boy.” “I’ll show you how strange,” he replies, and proceeds to smash one of her sculptures.
No matter what happens in The Damned, King’s gang is lurking about, usually watching events unfold from nearby rooftops. After a chase and the resulting confusion, everyone ends up inside the secret facility. Simon, Joan and King are in a cave below where the children have a hideout. A gang member is detained and interrogated. Finally, the story comes together, although the purpose of the facility and the origin of the children are not revealed until during a dramatic speech by the bad guy (Bernard) at the end of the movie. (Even then, it’s expectedly vague.)
From what I gather, the children are being bred to start society anew when the world inevitably experiences nuclear annihilation. They’re radioactive themselves, cold as ice, and somehow the key to mankind’s future survival. One day they’ll crawl from their cave, the new masters of Earth, but Simon and Joan want to release them now. The problem is, they’d kill anyone they encounter, not with purpose, but because of their physical nature. In fact, Simon, Joan and King are already exposed, with King experiencing symptoms of radioactive poisoning right away.
The parts I like most about The Damned are those that feature the children and drop breadcrumbs about what’s happening to them. In an isolated classroom, Bernard talks to them over a television monitor about telling them more “when the time comes.” The children ask, “When does that time come?” When the kids bring Simon, Joan and King food, they say, “It has all the minerals and vitamins; we make it in the lab.” And, when Simon’s Geiger counter (?) goes off, he tells the children to remove their clothes; however, it clicks even louder when it’s placed near their exposed skin.
At the end of this last scene, Simon says something that defines the movie. He tells them to get dressed again because, “It doesn’t matter now.” From that point until the end, it’s all very grim. How could it not be? I may have been exaggerating when I said the explanation is vague. You can piece it together, I suppose, but it takes work. That means the movie will not be for everyone. It’s science fiction in the strictest sense, filmed as art house, appealing to the thinking person. What about watching it for pure entertainment? Well, you’re damned if you do, but I also happen to think you’re damned if you don’t.