Cult Movie: The Damned 'bleak, dungeon dark and at times utterly nihilistic'

1960s sci-fi oddity The Damned mixes youth rebellion with nuclear nightmares
Ralph McLean

The Damned

JOSEPH Losey’s The Damned is quite possibly one of the oddest sci-fi films ever made. Given that it’s a product of the 60s, an era when odd and unnerving sci-fi was pretty much the norm, that’s really saying something. It’s also completely schizophrenic.

Superficially, it’s a standard teenage rebellion flick about a bunch of suspiciously old 'teenage' tearaways who lurch around the seaside killing time and causing trouble as they go. A visiting American tourist called Simon Wells (MacDonald Cary) takes a fancy to a local girl called Joan (a woefully wooden performance from Shirley Anne Field) and decides to take a stroll with her. She leads him into a trap where he is mugged by those aforementioned hoodlums led by Joan’s seriously weird brother, King (Oliver Reed), who swings a mean umbrella and harbours an unhealthy obsession with his little sister.

All this traditional crime caper stuff is fun enough – the gang even do their thing to the strains of a ridiculous sub Tommy Steele theme tune called Black Leather that plays every time they take to the streets – but as the story progresses, things get very odd indeed.

With Simon and Joan falling in love and going on the run to get away from the pursuing gang they unwittingly uncover a cave populated by nine strange radioactive children who have been bred by the government as a part of a crazy scheme to ensure that the human race will continue after the inevitable nuclear war that is apparently on the way.

The children are cold to the touch and pumped full of radiation by ministry scientist Bernard (Alexander Knox) and Simon, with help from the clueless Joan, and the glowering King promises to help them escape – no matter what the cost.

Shot in crisp black and white and boasting plenty of location shooting from around the picturesque coastline of Weymouth and the surrounding area, The Damned is a truly bizarre tale that looks good but ultimately frustrates as much as it entertains.

Losey, a director hounded out of America in the McCarthy era, made better films in Britain – The Servant comes to mind for one – but never did he tackle such bold and faintly subversive subject matter he does here.

To suggest the British government is breeding children to survive a nuclear apocalypse would be strong meat today and must have rattled some serious authority cages in 1963. In fact Columbia were so confused by the film and what it was trying to say that they didn’t even release it in the US until 1965.

The 'youth on the streets' elements are a bit hammy to watch today, but Reed smoulders through his complicated role of gang leader and potentially incestuous brother like only he can, and there’s a nastiness to their actions that predates the Droogs of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange.

A bleak, dungeon dark and at times utterly nihilistic nuclear nightmare of a film, The Damned is far from perfect – but there’s something about its downbeat world view that renders it still strangely potent today.

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