The director Joseph Losey is probably best known for his collaboration with Harold Pinter on the films The Servant (1963), Accident (1967) and The Go Between (1970). He also let his hair down for the curate’s egg that’s Modesty Blaise (1966). The Servant is possibly Losey’s best film, a brilliant monochrome study of the master and servant relationship turned very inside out and starring Dirk Bogarde and James Fox.
Although filmed two years earlier, Losey’s The Damned was also released in 1963. Made by Hammer, it was one of their psychological horrors of that decade. I watched it for the first time last week, one of the few Losey films I hitherto hadn’t had the pleasure of seeing, when it was shown by the BBC as part of their British Film Forever season. Throughout the summer, the Beeb have shown some obscure British films linked to their weekly genres of romance, costume drama, social realism, thriller, comedy, war and horror. Obscure choices possibly because they don’t currently have the rights to the films they’ve been covering in the accompanying documentaries (for example The Servant, as well as other obvious British favourites such as Get Carter, If… and A Clockwork Orange), but the unusual selection is welcome because I’ve had a chance to see a lot of criminally underexposed gems. Films such as Sidney J. Furie’s The Leather Boys (1964), Michael Reeves’ The Sorcerers (1967) and Losey’s The Damned…
Filmed in black and white, The Damned has an Anglo-American cast, the most recognisable actor being the young Oliver Reed. Reed is a favourite of mine, although I heartily concede that he has a very unusual acting style. He’s good in films like this, that require little or no elements of a naturalistic performance. He’s best on broody, which he does magnificently here. Think of a warm up for his Bill Sykes in Oliver!.
Reed plays an edgy leader of a seaside motorcycle gang, who take exception to his sister (Shirley Anne Field) becoming involved with an older man (Macdonald Carey). What’s looking decidedly run of the mill suddenly takes a weirder turn when our three leads stumble across a sinister military base where a group of children are apparently held captive. What follows is an eerie science fiction film with dashes of horror.
For audiences in the early 60s, the makers of The Damned play on the apparent inevitibility that Mankind is going to be destroyed by a nuclear bomb. It’s sooner rather than later in everybody’s expectation, or when the time comes as the children menacingly predict. Cue a plot development where the group of youngsters turn out to be a bunch of radioactive pre-teens kept to survive the bomb and inherit the Earth. Cue great early 60s sci-fi. Cue lots of effective eye-rolling from Reed.
The Damned is quite dated now, but the script is above average for this type of film and Losey’s direction shines as usual. The children reminded me of the youngsters in Village of the Damned, a film based on a John Wyndham story, and although more use should have been made of them (perhaps a little too much preliminary eye-rolling gets in the way) the film develops quite darkly and manages to ask awkward questions about incest, impotency and death. There’s also an infuriatingly catchy theme tune. Not bad for a Hammer B-movie.