Wessex on Screen: The Damned (1963)

Welcome to the first in an occasional series of articles about films and TV programmes set and/or shot in Wessex. Regular readers of the Wessex Chronicle will know that your editor is a huge fan of Berkshire-based studio Hammer Films, so it seems fitting to begin with one of their odder movies, which I recently caught on the excellent Talking Pictures TV--a channel specialising in older, mostly British movies--where it was showing under its US title, These Are The Damned.

The film was directed by Joseph Losey in an austere, European style, and shot in stark black and white by regular Hammer cinematographer Arthur Grant. The tone of the film is utterly unlike the lush Eastmancolor gothic of directors like Terence Fisher, the man who defined the Hammer style in the public mind.

Made in 1963, at the height of the mods vs rockers clashes that plagued seaside resorts across Britain, particularly on the south coast, the story starts out as a slice of social realism. American tourist Simon Wells (Macdonald Carey) visits Weymouth and gets robbed by, and then romantically involved with, Joan (Shirley Anne Field), the sister of terrifying gang leader King (Oliver Reed). King doesn't take too kindly to the latter development. He is highly protective of his sister, and it is implied that he has incestuous feelings for her, though such things could not be explicitly stated in that era. Modern audiences might find the love affair between the middle-aged Simon and a woman barely out of her teens more distasteful than audiences in 1963 apparently did, however.

About half an hour in, the film takes a sharp left turn into sci-fi territory, as we are introduced to a sinister research facility lead by Bernard (Alexander Knox), a man who Wells had previously met at his hotel in Weymouth. Through a series of twists and turns, Simon, Joan and King find themselves trying to uncover the truth about his secret experiments on children.

The film makes good use of the Weymouth locations, The famous town clock forms the scene of Simon's first meeting with Joan, while the street-running trains, steam-powered in those days, can be seen and heard throughout. One disappointment, though, is the lack of authentic Dorset accents. As was standard in mid-20th century British cinema, the supposed Weymouth natives either speak cut-glass RP, or in a sort of RADA Cockney argot. It is a minor flaw, but one which prevents me from praising it as an authentic Wessex film.