VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED/CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED  

FREAKS  

DEAD RINGER

( WARNER HOME VIDEO ) 

Let me admit flat out that I believe VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED is to the science fiction genre what OUT OF THE PAST  is to film noir. In other words, for my money it is quite simply the greatest film of its kind ever made.

Whether you agree with the above admittedly sweeping statement or not is beside the point. But there can be no dispute about the fact that a potentially lurid story about glow-eyed humanoid children who develop at an alarming rate and use astonishing powers of mind to assert their supremacy could, in the wrong hands, be a cheesy and lurid affair. (It was: witness the witless and dumbed down remake with Kirstie Alley ----- when the heroine is scarier than the humanoids you have a real problem.) 

From the very first brilliantly directed opening scene, one of the greatest ever, of the original, however, it becomes instantly apparent that we're in the hands of a superb director, Wolf Rilla, who really knows how to squeeze maximum effect from even the most seemingly innocuous camera move, and the fact that the screenwriters, Rilla, Stirling Siliphant, and George Barclay have fashioned a screenplay that counts on the viewer's intelligence, in this day and age when science-fiction films are essentially aimed at backward twelve year olds, is refreshing and invigorating to a fantastic degree. 

It certainly doesn't hurt that the great George Sanders forsakes all of the patented sly and caustic mannerisms that were the trademarks of his most notable performances to deliver a measured and compassionate interpretation that is among the best of his career, and that he is supported by an exceedingly talented British cast that never stoops to condescension, and treats the fantastic story with great reverence, and indeed, respect.  

I fail to see how the black and white anamorphic transfer could be better. A minimum of grain, great black levels and grey scales, and sharp clarity make this VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED a sheer pleasure to watch. 

Warners has provided further evidence of VILLAGE's greatness by thoughtfully including a very good anamorphic transfer of the sequel, CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED, which in its lumbering and cut-rate way amply and graphically illustrates how the original might have turned out if it had been placed in the uninspired hands responsible for this tired and tedious rehash. For that reason alone it's well worth seeing.  

FREAKS, Tod Browning's rather conventional circus tale of deception and horrible retribution, mainly notorious for its use of real circus human "oddities" in most of the roles, which was released in 1932 and instantly withdrawn by its unlikely distributor, M.G.M., only to materialize in the 60's as a cult favorite at midnight shows, is, for me at least, despite the fact that it undeniably retains its uniquely nightmarish quality, a difficult film to watch.

In the included documentary author David J. Skal takes great pains to repeatedly state that the majority of the "freaks" employed for this weird enterprise not only didn't feel exploited, but actually were almost continually gainfully employed and, by and large, enjoyed "normal" and comparatively prosperous lives,  a contention that I, for one, not only consider hard to swallow, but rather glibly dismissive and insensitively shallow. One thing is certain: anyone who views FREAKS is guaranteed to never forget it. It really is a viewing experience like none other. 

Considering the fact that FREAKS was unceremoniously dumped by its distributor and unseen for more than three decades, the full screen black and white transfer offered here is in reasonably decent shape. There are some age related artifacts occasionally present in both picture and sound, but that seems strangely appropriate given the seamy nature of this highly unusual film.   

After more than a decade of comparative obscurity and unemployment, Bette Davis, in tandem with arch-rival Joan Crawford, came back with a bang in the surprise smash WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE which was rather grudgingly distributed by her old studio boss (and nemesis) Jack L. Warner. So successful was BABY JANE that Warner offered her the lead in DEAD RINGER and even allowed her to choose her own director. Not wishing to be burdened by the strong and brilliant directors, such as Wyler and Mankiewicz, who had painstakingly forced her to tone down her mannerisms in her most celebrated work, she chose her previous leading man Paul Henreid to "direct" her in this opus in which Davis plays a twin sister who, because of a longtime grudge over a man, kills her wealthy identical sibling  and assumes her identity. 

Clearly Davis was feeling her oats in this somewhat simple-minded and threadbare project, and Henreid must have applauded her every over-heated gesture, for Davis delivers an astonishingly unrestrained, hilarious non-performance that borders on the ludicrous to such a fantastic extent that she comes across as one of the more exaggerated male Davis impersonators, and unknowingly (?) provides an exhibition of such preposterously florid proportions that she single-handedly breathes ludicrous, and wickedly entertaining life into what might have been just another dry and dopey affair.  

Peter Lawford, apparently aware that his role of the greedy and immoral lover of the wealthy twin fit him to a "T", never overwhelms us with anything approaching characterization, Karl Malden is lumpy and ludicrous in the unlikely role of the nice cop who, for reasons that entirely escape us, pines for the poor sister, and Jean Hagen, Estelle Winwood and George Macready are stuck in thankless roles. A lesson on how to screw up a minor and utterly undemanding role of a maid is generously supplied by Henreid's vapid and clueless daughter Monika. 

I hope I haven't given readers the impression that I didn't thoroughly enjoy this DEAD RINGER, for which Warner's has provided an entirely workable black and white anamorphic transfer. Nothing could be further from the truth! For me, DEAD RINGER had more out and out laughs than any of the contemporary comedy "gems" on display currently. Bette buffs unite! DEAD RINGER is an entertainment bonanza, courtesy of its loony leading lady! 

P.S.  Surgeon General's Warning: The Davis cigarette consumption is of such mind-numbingly humungous proportions that you should be advised to watch DEAD RINGER with your windows open.                                       

--DICK DINMAN

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