Simon Wells (Macdonald Carey) is a middle-aged American on holiday in Britain, the seaside town of Weymouth to be exact, and today a young woman, Joan (Shirley Anne Field), catches his eye. He follows her, takes her arm to cross the road, and they end up in a side street where Joan's brother King (Oliver Reed) and his gang of bikers emerge and mug him, leaving Simon bleeding on the pavement. He doesn't know it yet, but his path will meet with the gang once more - at a top secret research base situated on the coast...
One of Hammer's forays into science fiction, you'd never be aware there was a fantastical element to The Damned for at least the first third, as it looks like the title refers to the biker gang. Just as The Wild One ushered in biker movies for America, they caught on in Britain to a lesser extent as well, and here instead of Marlon Brando we had Oliver Reed, which wasn't a bad substitute. So you could be forgiven for thinking you were watching a moody juvenile delinquent thriller.
The script was adapted from a story by H.L. Lawrence by Evan Jones, and it eventually is revealed that the title refers to pretty much all of us. Director Joseph Losey wasn't best revered for his science fiction, and it's true this film was taken out of his hands and re-edited under the title These are the Damned to make it snappier, but nevertheless it built up a cult reputation. Perhaps this is because once it settles into its doom declaring groove, it contrives to tap into a worries about governments and a danger that is so vast it leaves most feeling impotent in the face of it.
Not that the film shows its hand too early, and Carey makes an unconvincing lead, far too old for Field making this look like the adventures of a dirty old man for a while. Simon and Joan do meet up again when she wanders onto his boat, and eventually they both go on the run from King and the ne'erdowells. King has a possessiveness towards his sister that strongly speaks of an incestuous interest, and with Reed playing the role he's obviously trouble.
The chase goes on into the evening, with Simon and Joan winding up at a top secret base where they take a tumble over the nearby cliff. They are rescued by a group of children who are being kept there as part of an experiment, and Joan notices with concern that they are all ice cold to the touch. As the persistent King climbs down to join them, nearly drowning in the process, will they manage to escape the authorities?
The children are such pathetic characters that their exploitation, the reason for which only becomes clear by the ending, is unsettling, but not half as worrying as the way the story takes on nuclear war as an inevitability, leading to one of the bleakest conclusions in genre cinema. Yes, it takes itself far too seriously, but in a way that's it strength, a serious statement that eventually there is no hope - it's that lack of a comfortable resolution that has stuck with its viewers over the years. The government here is one that is planning for doomsday and has no compunction about eliminating anyone who wants to believe there might be a glimmer of optimism about the future. Music by James Bernard.
Cerebral, at times pretentious, American director, from the theatre. His American career (The Boy with Green Hair, a remake of M, The Prowler) was short-lived due to the Hollywood anti-Communist blacklist, and Losey escaped to Britain.