Hammer-Rama: These Are the Damned, by Alexander Miller
Earning the reputation as one of the strangest films from Hammer Studios is no easy feat and, considering the competition, These are the Damned (aka The Damned) should wear that badge proudly. I’m kicking myself for selecting this title because it’s a damn hard film to synopsize, regardless, here we go; These are the Damned is largely a science fiction tale, but its characters spawn from the biker/youth gone wild subgenres as well. King (Oliver Reed) leads a biker gang around Hawthorne with his sister Joan in tow, after they mug an American tourist named Simon Joan feels remorseful and flees her possessive brother by jumping aboard Simon’s boat. Afterwards they discover a secret military base holding a band of children that are the subjects of a military experiment to breed a radioactive race of people with the intent of surviving a pending nuclear war. Thanks to King’s demented fixation on his sister he joins Simon and Joan in liberating the captive kids.
Like many of Hammer’s hard to categorize titles, (Don’t Take Candy from a Stranger, The Snorkel, Night Creatures), These are the Damned went unseen for years. You have to pity whoever had the task of advertising this film, and it looks as if they tried to milk the success of The Children of the Damned (another “spooky children” movie with the word “damned” in the title) with little luck. These are the Damned is a hard sell from the outset as the story might sound dumb but Losey’s direction contributes to the film’s success. Although Losey would direct only two films for Hammer, it looks as if he shared their commitment to intelligent genre filmmaking. If you play it too straight, you lose the impact of the genre; if you show too much, you lose the sense of realism.
When a movie has two contrasting narrative components, one half tends to outweigh the other; for instance, you can’t have a conversation about Inglourious Basterds without someone saying “well I wanted to spend more time with the Basterds.” Lengthy analogies aside in this case both components are very much of their time, thus working off of each other quite well. The leather-clad bikers seem to be the British offspring of the rebellious youth culture (in the wake of The Wild One and Rebel Without a Cause) while the brood of radioactive children are very much the sons and daughters of the culture surrounding the Cold War. The inherent minutia of nuclear anxiety permeated through movies around the world but was particularly fascinating in British cinema as it was a jumping point for Hammer with The Quatermass Xperiment in 1955. These are the Damned doesn’t reach the same heights of greatness like Hammer’s Quatermass series, however, it’s not a dud, like some of the more forgettable sci-fi chillers by Hammer like The Four Sided Triangle. Losey favors political parables for straightforward thrills; on the peripheral we have some relevant inquiries into modern surveillance, and the acts of a callous government gone awry in the shadow of the nuclear age. When Orwellian foreshadowing reveals the true nature of humanity’s path, we get the denigration from both fronts. The streets are filled with prowling gangs, and just beyond the shore experiments are carried out on innocent children.
This standout title from Hammer owes a lot of its sustainability to its director, an American expat (thanks to the HUAC blacklist) named Joseph Losey. Unlike many directors for Hammer Losey’s brief tenure with the studio lasted a short period as he went on to direct standalone classics such as The Servant, King and Country, and an adaptation of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Losey’s direction is serviceable to the material and manages to juggle the various components of this strange, but likable outing based on H.L. Lawrence’s novel Children of the Night.
These are the Damned is a Hammer film with precious few of the studio’s stock players (again, aside from Reed) in the cast. Reed at this point was already a solid leading player. I wouldn’t go as far to say that he saves the film but he definitely strengthens the final product. Oliver Reed makes for a strong lead as the slightly unhinged gang leader whose overprotective attitude towards his sister shouts “Freudian” louder than Tony Montana in Hawks’ Scarface. Reed was young but already a magnetic presence, and like many subsequent films he steals the show. Shirley Anne Field plays Joan, who is more or less forgettable. The more notable cast member aside from Reed is Walter Gotell as Major Holland, who would go on to appear as an uneasy ally to a globe-trotting spy in many James Bond films. Macdonald Carey has some chops as an actor but his character Simon is a bit of a lump and feels more like a half-wit tourist courting a woman young enough to be his daughter.
Alexander Knox plays an unimposing heavy called Bernard (a reference to Bernard Quatermass perhaps?) in charge of the nefarious operation. On a more interesting note, his mistress, Freya (Viveca Lindfors), populates the island with creepy sculptures of charred figures reminiscent of past nuclear incidents or, perhaps, an unnerving premonition of what could be on the horizon. Regardless, this expressive artistry is compelling.
Appropriately pessimistic and well-conceived, These are the Damned remains a lesser known entry in the long annals of science fiction.
Seekers of unique science fiction tales are likely to have a good time with this amalgam of palate satiating strangeness. Plus, there’s a catchy, and appropriately peculiar theme song from Hammer composer James Bernard (lyrics by Evan Jones), “Black Leather Rock.”