Bad Seeds

Today's ticket buyers are likely to think about the rise of violence and the perceived decline of moral behavior among young people. When the kids decide to leave their respective homes and start a colony at the edge of town, it's hard not to think about the splintering of traditional families, and of lonely children's determination to find surrogates in the form of gangs. And the idea of the government interfering with family planning and raising kids according to its own twisted agenda will probably win a rueful grin from paranoid right-wingers.

The problem with Carpenter's Village is that these notions just linger at the edges of the narrative, like metaphoric wallflowers waiting for some brave soul to ask them to dance. The filmmaker doesn't tease them out the way David Cronenberg teased out the venereal disease paranoia in his classic remake of The Fly, and James Cameron teased out his anti-technology and dehumanization themes in both Terminator pictures. Carpenter seems more interested in the literal technique of filmmaking -- how to make an individual scene as creepy, nasty or violent as possible -- than in integrating his set pieces into a grand, hellish, indelibly coherent cinematic vision.

He wants to be taken seriously as an artist, but he doesn't have the intellectual discipline or the ability to milk scenes for every last drop of symbolic meaning. Strip away the terrific premise, and Village of the Damned looks like every other Carpenter horror film: a series of gruesome, protracted killings leading to a final blowout showdown. Parts of the picture work magnificently; a couple of don't-open-that-door shocks made me jump right out of my seat, and there are least two mind-control sequences so scary they actually gave me nightmares, something that hasn't happened since Silence of the Lambs.

And the finale rises to a level of brilliance Carpenter hasn't achieved in a very long time. In it, Reeve's doctor is trying to hide a crucial piece of information from the children's telepathic snooping. He's desperately trying to put up a psychic wall -- literally represented as a glowing brick wall -- between himself and the kids, and as they respond by hammering away at it mercilessly, Carpenter keeps hurling his camera toward the wall like a battering ram, finding a visual equivalent for an abstract mental contest.

When that wall breaks down, you feel elated, not just because the hero has held his ground, but because the director has pushed the creative envelope and shown you what's possible. Which only underscores Carpenter's shortcomings as a director: creatively speaking, in film after film, he leaves way too many walls intact.

Village of the Damned.
Directed by John Carpenter. With Christopher Reeve and Kirstie Alley.
Rated R.
91 minutes.

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