They Said What?! is a biweekly column in which we explore the highs and lows of film criticism through history. How did critics feel about it at the time, and do we see it differently now? Chris Coffel explores.
The 1990s were the last decade that gave us multiple John Carpenter movies, with five total released over the ten-year stretch. The director’s work from that period is largely viewed as a mixed bag, though, with some really high highs and some really low lows. Released smack dab in the middle was Village of the Damned.
The film is set in a small town where women mysteriously become pregnant and then give birth to some creepy little kids that may not be human. As a remake of a popular cult film backed by a big studio budget with major stars including Christopher Reeve, Kirstie Alley, and Mark Hamil, Village of the Damned had the makings of a hit. The poor box office numbers proved otherwise.
These days, Village of the Damned seems to be the Carpenter movie nearly everyone forgets about. Nat Brehmer, writing for Wicked Horror, calls the film “one of the most overlooked horror movies of the 1990s.” When the director’s filmography is ranked, Village of the Damned usually finds itself near the bottom but with a blurb acknowledging it as underrated. Collider placed the film 13th out of 18 titles, saying it “gets a lot of unwarranted hate.” For our ranking, the film placed 18th out of 20, with Meg Shields saying “it would be a mistake to dismiss this campy low-key gem.”
With the film now celebrating its 25th anniversary, we take a look back at what critics had to say upon its initial release.
In his review for the San Francisco Chronicle, Peter Stack called the film “Curiously mellow for a John Carpenter thriller”, writing that the director “is effective in creating ominous atmosphere” but fails to ever deliver a real punch. In the end, Stack described it as “a trip to a village of the darned tedious.”
Richard Harrington was far less kind. Writing for The Washington Post, Harrington said Carpenter “shows no grasp of character development, plotline, or time passage” and openly questioned whether the director “lost his mind or just his talent.” Carpenter wasn’t the only one to feel the wrath of Harrington. The entire cast was written off as has-beens with the critic describing them as actors “we already tend to speak of in the past tense.”
Steve Newton agreed with Harrington, labeling Reeve and Hamil as “heroic has-beens” in his review for the Georgia Straight. Newton felt the film was “embarrassing” and said the most shocking thing about it was the woman sitting next to him marking “her rating card with an ‘excellent’ grade.”
In the Austin Chronicle, Marc Savlov piled onto the cast as well, calling Alley “woefully miscast” and Reeve “equally miscast.” Of the Star Wars actor, Savlov wrote, “I won’t even go into Mark Hamill’s zombified impersonation of the local priest.” As for Carpenter’s efforts, Savlov said it’s “arguably the weakest horror film he’s ever made.”
Gary Kamiya had one simple question in his review for the San Francisco Examiner: “Why was this film made?” Kamiya’s point was why you’d do a remake without bringing anything new to the table. In this regard, Carpenter failed in the eyes of Kamiya, with the only new additions being improved special effects and confusing plot elements. “Needless and undeveloped subplots dissipate the clean suspense of the original,” Kimya wrote. “And the exponential increase in violence and gore cannot conceal this.”
In his middling review for The Register-Guard, Lloyd Paseman praised Carpenter for not trying to do too much to modernize his remake. On the downside, Paseman wrote that the film’s “plot development and dialogue are pretty mediocre.” Paseman also wasn’t able to buy Hamil in the role of the town’s minister, calling him “badly miscast.”
Not all critics were naysayers. Janet Maslin called Village of the Damned Carpenter’s “best horror film in a long while” in her review for The New York Times. Maslin felt the remake was “more sly than frightening” and credited Carpenter for “restaging the original story with fresh enthusiasm and a nice modicum of new tricks.” Maslin even enjoyed the cast, singling Alley out as “enjoyably snappish.”
As for how Carpenter feels about the film, he could take it or leave it. In a 2011 interview with Vulture, the director described it as a “contractual assignment” that he’s “really not passionate about.” He did add, however, “that it has a very good performance from Christopher Reeve, so there’s some value in it.”