As his career moved in the 1990’s, John Carpenter found the Hollywood film business a less hospitable place to be: he bounced from studio to studio during this era and his work often suffered from double-dealing at the executive level. Some of these films have picked up a cult following in recent times, particularly In The Mouth Of Madness and Vampires, but the struggles with the studios often took their toll on the work.
Case in point: Village Of The Damned, a 1995 remake of a ’60s horror classic that found Carpenter doing a remake for the studio bosses in hopes that they’d give him the greenlight to do the remake he really wanted to do, The Creature From The Black Lagoon. When Village underperformed at the box office, Universal reneged on the deal and poor Carpenter was left with one of the least inspired entries in his filmography. While it unmistakably has his style, this film is clearly “work for hire” material.
This new take on Village moves the tale to small-town U.S.A.: a mysterious event strikes the small event of Midwich, causing everyone to temporarily pass out. When they awaken, several women suddenly discover themselves to be mysteriously pregnant, including new principal Jill (Linda Kozlowski). Town doctor Alan (Christopher Reeve) works with government scientist Verner (Kirstie Alley) to deliver the children, even though she is clearly keeping info from the town. As the babies grow into children, they are revealed to have strange, sinister abilities – and it is revealed they are the progeny of aliens bent on conquering the earth.
As the above synopsis should indicate, Village Of The Damned is a densely plotted affair. There’s enough story and chararacters in this remake for an entire season of television. It’s crammed into 98 minutes due to heavy studio-mandated cuts, which means that characterizations get short shrift – especially the alien kids – and the plotting gets loopier as the need for shocks overwhelms storytelling. It doesn’t help that David Himmelstein’s script gets silly when it’s time to be scary, including some oddball “creative death/maiming” scenes involving a pot of soup and lethal eye drops. There’s also a bizarre large-scale action scene involving gunplay, crashing cars and a helicopter crammed into the third act to give it a sudden, out-of-nowhere jolt of action.
Carpenter does his best to give the film a professional gloss: his first act is actually pretty good, allowing him to do the kind of ensemble-based storytelling he did in The Fog, but he can’t overcome the ever more disjointed and eccentric turns of the script. The oddball stunt-casting of the film doesn’t help: Reeve and Kozlowski turn in solid work but Alley is bizarre casting for a scientist character and actors like Meredith Salenger and Peter Jason are wasted in weak, thinly-drawn roles.
This state of affairs is a shame because Carpenter’s sense of technical craft is really on point here. Working with his then-regular cinematographer Gary Kibbe, he does lovely work with Cinemascope framing and creates a series of beautifully composed images. His sense of mise en scene and score generate a creepy atmosphere, even when the script gets daft. Had the material been better, he could have made a solid genre exercise – instead, he had to settle for treading water and the resulting film is ultimately a stylishly made bit of nonsense.