In horror cinema, nothing so much becomes a character’s life as the leaving of it. It is de rigueur to see screen victims beaten, bitten and bled out, clawed and jawed, decapitated, eviscerated, and even evaporated. These fates are not reserved merely for the anonymous extras (the equivalent of STAR TREK’s red-shirted bit players) who walk on long enough to serve as the monster menu’s crunchy appetizer before the main course arrives; at least since George Romero grimly dispatched Ben in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1960), the audience identification figure has not been exempt from untimely termination. Generally, these dreadful demises are portrayed as tragic twists of fate or unexpectedly ironic outcomes; too often today, there is an arbitrary air of attempting to thwart expectations, as if a dramatically satisfying (i.e., “happy”) ending were somehow suspect, requiring a last-minute zinger to alert the audience to the filmmaker’s hip detachment. “Life’s a bitch, and then you die” seems to be the message reverberating in the auditorium after the curtain goes down and the lights go up. Or is it?
Although it may be easy to overlook, the history of horror provides us with many exceptions, characters who died not as victims but as heroes, martyrs to cinematic mayhem who act as on-screen surrogates for the better angels in our nature, sacrificing life and (most definitely) limb, proving that death, whenever it comes and in whatever guise, need not be synonymous with despair.
Exhibit A: Gordon Zellaby, artfully embodied by George Sanders in VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (1960), director Wolf Rilla’s adaptation of John Wyndham’s novel The Midwich Cuckoos, which portrays a stealth invasion launched from a small British village, where unconscious women have been impregnated, giving birth to eerily aloof blond children with alien abilities. (“Cuckoos,” in case you did not know, are birds that lay their eggs in the nest of other birds, which then unwittingly raise the hatchlings as their own.)
WARNING: Major spoilers ahead.
The scenario has the local population understandably perturbed, especially when the strange children begin using some form of hypnotic mind control to force their victims to kill themselves. The intellectual Gordon, however, believes that the children are reacting defensively. Acting as their teacher, he strives to reach them on a human, emotional level but finds himself coming up against a metaphoric “brick wall,” even with his “son” David (Martin Stephens).
As the children’s power swells to ever more disturbing proportions, and as word comes that an Eastern block country has dealt with a similar situation by nuking an entire village, Gordon eventually realizes that his truce with David is only temporary, that no permanent accord can be reached, and that the fate of humanity will be imperiled if the children ever manage to leave Midwich. But how can Gordon stop an enemy that can reach into his mind to see any plot he may concoct?
The answer, ironically, is another brick in the wall- this one an image on which Gordon focuses his mind, creating a mental block that hampers the children’s mind-reading powers. On the evening when young David expects Gordon to provide a plan to spirit the children out of the village, Gordon instead packs a bomb in a suitcase, sets the timer, and contrives an excuse to get his wife Anthea (Barbara Shelley) out of the house.
Sanders’ performance here is subtle and spot-on. While putting on a happy face, he displays enough resignation – just a touch – to register with the viewing audience, without overplaying to the point that would make us wonder why Anthea cannot see it.* Sanders also lends a wonderfully sentimental touch to what could have been a very cornball moment – when Gordon instructs his pet dog to “look after your mistress,” underlining the fact that, very soon in the future, Gordon himself will no longer be there to look after Anthea himself.
After Anthea is safely on the road, Sanders enters the lecture room, places his briefcase (with the hidden bomb) on the desk, and begins to deliver his lesson. David, eager to leave before the British military can take action along the lines of what happened in Eastern Europe, soon realizes that Gordon is not thinking about his lecture. David and the other children focus their minds on Gordon, chipping away at the mental image of a brick wall until – too late – they see the ticking time bomb that is truly at the center of Gordon’s attention.
Fortunately for humanity, the bomb goes off, obliterating Gordon and the “Midwich Cuckoos.” Anthea, who has grown suspicious over Gordon’s behavior, returns – but only in time to see the explosion from a distance. Standing in for the audience, her sense of loss becomes our loss; the fact that she survives tells us that the loss has not been in vain. Triumph and tragedy intermingle; the ending cannot be considered “happy” in any conventional sense, and yet it is thoroughly satisfying – an emotional catharsis as profound as any ever recorded on celluloid.
Over 50 years after its premiere, VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED remains remarkably effective, thanks largely to its low-key, convincing approach, but what truly elevates the film to classic status is the self-sacrifice of the conclusion. Personally, I cannot separate Gordon Zellaby, the character, from George Sanders, the actor. Not that the two personalities overlap in any meaningful way; rather, I am referring to Sanders’ at least partially self-molded images as a rogue and even a cad. His roles in such classic films as THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY (1945), THE GHOST AND MRS MUIR (1947) and ALL ABOUT EVE (1950) showcase a certain selfish, cynical disdain, suggesting a man who cared little for the world around him except insofar as it provided him with personal pleasure – an attitude that seemed to match Sanders own, as evinced in the title of his autobiography (Memoirs of a Professional Cad) and in the text of his 1965 suicide note:
Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool. Good luck.
Sanders’s real-life suicide was far from the heroic self-sacrifice of VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED, but that contrast, for me, only underlines the effectiveness of the film. Great drama galvanizes our collective psyche with the prospect of personal evolution, often though not necessarily in the form of redemption. A good guy who remains a good guy is not compelling; however, our souls are stirred when a character who has fallen from grace (as have all of us, to some extent or other) rises and returns to the fold like the Prodigal Son.
On some level, that evolution exists in the screenplay, with Gordon Zellaby shifting from protecting the children out of personal scientific curiosity to destroying them out of concern for the world inhabited by his loved ones,particularly Anthea. For me, the transition is much more powerful in the context of Sanders’ previous roles. On the cinema screen of my mind, it is as if this man who never cared for anything but himself finally found a cause that brought out the best in him, urging him to do a “far, far better thing” than he had ever done before.
Fortunately, most of us will never be forced into a situation demanding such noble action. But should the occasion arise, Gordon Zellaby has set the bar, in our minds – as have the many other Fallen Heroes of Horror, whose exploits I hope to share with you from time to time…
- As a matter of fact, she does see it, but doesn’t realize its significance until – fortunately for Gordon’s plan – she has gotten too far from home to be jeopardized by the bomb.