“Black leather, black leather, smash smash smash!”
Ah, youth gone wild, what sweet songs they sing. This charming ditty is repeated throughout The Damned (a.k.a. They Are The Damned) in various forms: theme song, background music, spoken mantra, gang call sign and wolf whistle.
We are in 1960s Britain, given a twist into dystopia by the nuclear age and tabloid scaremongering of rampaging teenage rebels. The times may have changed, but the song remains the same – technology and the next generation evoke primal fears of an out-of-control world and make for classic sci-fi cinema.
An opening credits pan, from Southern English cliffs to a line of bizarre stone sculptures, begins a recurring theme of Man imposing itself on Nature. Then the black leather band kicks in and we hit the seaside town of Weymouth, where young nymph Joanie (Shirley Ann Field) entices ageing American tourist Simon (Macdonald Carey) off for a wander (“never seen a clock tower before?”). Her dandy thug brother King (Oliver Reed) and his biker gang follow, whistling their mantra to work – a productive day being giving the old rube a beating and emptying his wallet.
The lines are drawn; youth are dangerous and the future is bleak for contemporary Britain. A bloodied Simon is helped by military henchmen into a sea-view tea room where their boss, shadowy establishment guru Bernard (Alexander Knox), is relaxing with sculptor-artist/part-time lover Freya (Viveca Lindfors) and dourly explains the nihilistic vision to the American. England is no longer “a country of old ladies knitting socks”, as “the age of senseless violence has caught up with us too”.
Bernard’s top secret government project brings the science into this morbid almost-fiction. He heads the Whitecliff Establishment outside of town, where a class of eleven-year old children are being held deep in a bunker. Being a kindly uncle figure, he talks to them via TV while seated in an Eames lounger, their only outside communication in a modernist prison-school that monitors their upbringing and training for a mysterious future.
Also trapped is Joanie by King, who once locked her in a cupboard for daring to go out with a man. After beating the brethren on a speed around town she meets “dirty old man” Simon again and decides to take a leap of faith, jumping onboard his boat to escape the gang.
March-to-November love is declared during a sojourn breaking into Freya’s cottage, swiftly nipped in the bud by the artist’s return and black rebel shenanigans. A graveyard pursuit (filmed low-budget day-for-night) ends at the heavily guarded military security fence, where only a cliff edge fall provides temporary escape.
Rescued from the sea by the children they are alarmed by the adolescent’s ice-cold skin and horrific life of captivity. When King arrives to reclaim his sister it isn’t long before the three ill-matched wannabe-rescuers begin to fall sick as the truth about the youngsters is revealed…