Joseph Losey directed this unusual and memorable Hammer sci-fi film about a top secret experiment breeding children to repopulate Earth after nuclear war. The story was adapted by Evan Jones from H.L. Lawrence’s novel The Children of Light. Macdonald Carey plays an American in midlife crisis who’s walked away from his insurance career and travels about, living on a boat. His stop in Weymouth takes an ugly turn when a pretty young woman (Shirley Anne Field) lures him to a brutal mugging. Her brother (Oliver Reed) is the magnetic leader of this violent gang of “Teddy Boys.” The thugs roam the streets whistling the tune to a rock song with nonsensical lyrics (“black leather black leather kill kill kill”) and inspiring movies like A Clockwork Orange (1971). After the beating, Carey wanders into a cafe and a conversation between mysterious “public servant” Alexander Knox and wise sculptor Viveca Lindfors, who bemoan this age of senseless violence. Later, Field catches up with Carey. She’s attracted and confused, a little remorseful but mostly looking to escape her controlling brother. Carey, searching for his own happiness, does the luring this time and the couple sail off together with Reed close behind, promising revenge.
Carey and Field spend a romantic evening at Lindfors’ ramshackle studio on the rocky windswept coast, and when Reed’s gang catch up to them, Carey, Field and Reed fall into the sea and end up in a mountainside hideout filled with 11-year-olds. It’s part of a massive underground complex where children are kept prisoner and are being prepared for life after nuclear war. They were all born to mothers accidentally exposed to radiation, so the children are almost inhuman, ice cold to the touch, prone to death by mutation, and deadly toxic to normal humans.
Knox and company monitor the children’s every move with an Orwellian surveillance system, have cameras in every corner and regular chats to scold or indoctrinate them. But no amount of drilling or breeding has driven instinct out of the kids, who cut pictures of imaginary parents from magazines, and who crave freedom once they meet these three warm-blooded, caring “big people” from outside. The kids have long kept track of all the “eyes” on them, and made diagrams of the camera blind spots, and now they rebel, smuggle food to their new guests and refuse to tell Knox where they’re hiding. Reed couldn’t care less about the children, but Carey and Field help them escape, and Knox will do anything to keep all of them and his project secret.
This movie is dark and deeply disturbing. It strikes a sustained, weird, paranoid tone from the start by showing us Lindfors’ art which looks like charred remains at Pompeii. Then you get that monotonous melody skipping like a broken record, a social issue picture about anarchic street youth and a bunch of adults instantly launching into deep, abstruse discussions about morality, eternity, and the meaning of It All. Cryptic statements, random meetings, paths crossing; it all creates a fog you can’t see too steps ahead in, and like the three characters falling off that cliff, you suddenly find yourself in a horrific sci-fi.
Knox is fanatically certain the end is near and believes that with these kids, he’s cultivating a hardier, more beautiful flower to pop out of the ashes of a nuked planet. His intent is good, but his God complex is scary. And what kind of future is he creating by breeding cold, miserable rebellious youth, and liquidating good people who value life? Through cell failure and stubborn human nature, Knox’s experiments might be foiled but he has the power to erase any mistakes, witnesses or doubters.
The pleasant Carey tries his best to be heroic as reality dawns on him. Maybe he’s sorry he asked for some adventure in life, but he keeps sailing forward. Lindfors gets the best part as the arty soul who embraces life, sees the real and pretty in everything and turns every thought over like one of her works. She senses something unspeakable is the focus of Knox’s work but even her wild imagination can’t grasp the reality of what’s going in that futuristic Bond villain lair deep beneath her studio. Her rejection of Knox’s worldview and cure is absolute and makes her another enemy to be eliminated.
Reed is a maniacal man-brat, an intimidating but immature bully who jealously shelters his sister because, as she likes to remind him, he’s never been with a woman himself. His character seems unnecessary but it is fascinating to watch this mean and cocky master of the streets so terrified of these kids and what they represent. The movie ends with an escape, but to what? Death from radiation poisoning, and pursuit by helicopters and men in protective suits who’ll clean up the mess. The Damned (aka These are the Damned) is the only evidence that the experiment and the people who stumbled into it ever existed, it’s an unsettling science fiction experience and it’s part of The British Invaders Blogathon hosted by A Shroud of Thoughts.