These are the Damned
It’s almost impossible to really empathise with what other generations worried about. Nowadays we’ve settled into a general, all round anxiety that people are basically terrible, and what the hell are we supposed to do about that? But if you lived in the sixties you’d have worried that, at any moment, all people, terrible or otherwise, would be wiped out in an instant by an all-consuming nuclear fire. And it wouldn’t be worrying like we do these days with ‘maybe this’, or ‘what if that’; it would be ‘I hope the bomb doesn’t drop today, I have tickets for the test match’.
You see, people had to live in a world where humanity being wiped out in a nuclear war was not a fear, but an inevitability. It’s a pretty heavy thing to have to read about every morning over breakfast is what I’m saying. Of course, people being people, they also found time to worry about other things, rather splendidly when you think about it. ‘Yes, yes nuclear war will destroy us all, but won’t somebody do something about those nattily dressed hoodlums? They’re simply ruining the seaside. ’ That’s what makes a film like These Are The Damned so interesting, the chance to see what people in sixties Britain were afraid of - a nice bit of perspective in a era when it’s difficult to keep track of what frightens us.
So, in this movie, you’ve got a violent thug who’s terrified of sex, his sister who’s terrified of being alone, a cave full of children who are terrified they’ll never get out, and a Scottish scientist who’s terrified that nothing will survive the nuclear war that’s coming. It’s the scientist’s fear that drives the movie though, as it pretty obviously dwarfs everything else. Yes, you may well have complicated sexual feelings for your sister, but if we’re all about to burn in a man-made hell on earth, does it really matter?
That’s why the structure of the movie is so great. It starts off like a gang picture, with a cocksure bunch of roustabouts with their choreographed outfits, motorbikes and whistling. There’s the pretty girl who falls for the older American mugging victim, and the furious brother with all those feelings that he’s reasonably sure can be fixed by punching uncomfortable thoughts in the face. So when all three of the gang picture’s characters end up slap bang in the middle of a twisted science-fiction horror, fighting for their lives while trapped in something they can’t understand, you develop an intense empathy for people who lived in this time. They were dealing with the usual problems of ‘kids these days’ and ‘violence on the rise’ and ‘I don’t understand me or you’, while all the time knowing deep down that they were doomed to be nothing more than acceptable losses; just another pile of dust to be blown away by the winds at the end of the world.
I do love a movie that takes a good left turn, a ‘wait, what movie are we watching?’ sort of experience. One that was more common in the old days I suspect, where everything wasn’t ruined by people on the internet incapable of keeping their big traps shut. Because it’s great to be able to watch these characters with their own dramas and dreams and resentments suddenly forced to deal with something bigger. And it’s always terrific in a movie when characters put their differences aside, although unfortunately in this case it’s to ensure their daring escape from an irradiated prison that has already killed them.
It’s all so wonderfully pointless in that way. Usually a Hammer film has some sort of moral code, even if it is an evil one. Even Frankenstein learns, even Dracula desires; but here nothing is achieved and no-one is saved. What’s especially nice is the ending the audience wants is given to them briefly, before the nihilistic fist of the nuclear age grabs them by the throat again. So the children are rescued but then immediately recaptured, the man and woman end up together but as corpses in a boat, and the scientist finally settles his moral argument with his old and dear artist friend by shooting her in cold blood and broad daylight. It’s the cold ending a cold war film deserves, leaving an audience in no doubt that they may as well keep worrying about their petty nonsense, because there’s bugger all they can do about what’s really going on anyway.
It’s a weird and interesting movie alright, a mish-mash of genres where the longer it goes on the more you realise that the director is in complete control of what’s happening. He knows exactly what he’s mishing and when he’s mashing. That Hammer could give him a platform to tell this story says a lot about their flexibility and expertise, and that sometimes the most effective questions to ask an audience are ones they already know the answer to.
Speaking of which, another pint?
Hear The Bloke Down The Pub talk all about his love of Hammer HERE