The German-born director and writer Wolf Rilla had a prolific career in British television and cinema, and will be particularly remembered for his direction of the 1960 film Village of the Damned, a chilling version (co-scripted by Rilla) of John Wyndham's classic sci-fi tale The Midwich Cuckoos.
The son of the actor Walter Rilla, he was born in Berlin in 1920, but when he was 14 years old the family moved to London to escape the rising power of Hitler. Wolf continued his education at Frensham Heights School in Surrey, then at St Catharine's College, Cambridge, where he studied English, graduating with an upper Second. His part-Jewish father, who had been an established actor in Berlin and Vienna, continued his career in British films and theatre, and in 1939 he joined the BBC as a writer-producer in Features and Drama.
Wolf had no interest in acting, but in 1942 he joined the German section of the BBC World Service as a writer and translator; then, when BBC Television was reactivated at Alexandra Palace after a six-and-a-half-year closedown due to the Second World War, he became the corporation's first drama script editor. He is credited with recommending Frederick Knott's beautifully plotted suspense thriller Dial M for Murder, which attracted much attention when it was transmitted in 1952 as "Play of the Week" and which went on to be a stage hit in the West End and later a film directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
It was in 1952 that Wolf Rilla realised his ambition to direct movies, though his first films were minor low-budget thrillers, including Noose for a Lady (1953), The Large Rope (1953) and The Black Rider (1954). He was then asked to join Group 3, a production company set up by the National Film Finance Corporation and run by the distinguished team of Michael Balcon, John Baxter and John Grierson, with the express purpose of providing an outlet for new talent.
Rilla's first film for them, End of the Road (1954), was a compassionate study of old age starring Finlay Currie, and the first of Rilla's films to attract critical attention. The Blue Peter (1955), which starred Kieron Moore as a shell-shocked war hero whose cynical view of the world is altered when he becomes an athletics director at a boys' camp, had a lot of appeal, and was Rilla's first film in colour, but, like most Group 3 productions, it fared only modestly at the box office and was Rilla's final film for the company.
Pacific Destiny (1956), based on Arthur Grimble's memoir A Pattern of Islands, starred Denholm Elliott as Grimble, who served as a British colonial officer in the South Seas, and Susan Stephen as his supportive wife, but the Samoan location footage, beautifully shot in CinemaScope, won more praise than the episodic movie. The Scamp (1957), an effectively sentimental story of the attempts of a teacher (Richard Attenborough) to raise an unruly youth while the boy's drunken father is abroad, was popular, and Bachelor of Hearts (1958), a frothy tale of university adventures, was a big success, partly due to its German star, Hardy Kruger, who had become a favourite after his performance in the prisoner-of-war drama The One That Got Away.
Piccadilly Third Stop (1960) was a disappointment, a routine tale of an embassy heist, but it was followed by his finest film (the first of two for MGM), Village of the Damned, with Rilla extracting every chill to be found in Wyndham's eerie tale of a country village where 12 of the women are impregnated while asleep - it is theorised that the aliens deposited the children in the women's wombs, the way cuckoos lay their eggs in the nests of host birds. Although the children are lovingly raised by the women, it gradually becomes apparent that they are wicked beings with plans to take over the planet. Rilla said,
What interested me was not to make a fantastic film but a film that was very real. To take an ordinary situation and inject extraordinary events into it.
The children's power is first indicated when one of the babies compels his mother to put her hand repeatedly into boiling water because she has given him a bottle that is too warm. Costing only $82,000 to make, the film grossed $1.5m in the US and Canada alone. "That film has become a classic," said its star Barbara Shelley a few years ago:
It's shown - I've never been invited - in places like Brazil; I know that Wolf Rilla goes off, all expenses paid, as the director.
Its minimal budget meant that special effects were few, but particularly unsettling was the way the children's eyes glowed when they were using their powers. "Beware the eyes that paralyse!" warned the advertisements. Tom Howard, a photographic effects specialist, created the effect by cutting a negative print in over the positive, turning the irises nearly white. The children's leader was effectively played by young Martin Stephens, now an architect and meditation teacher, who later described Rilla as "a very good director. A very clear director, and a patient one." Rilla said later, in conversation with his former child actors,
People always ask how did I get such good performances out of you lot. Simple - I asked you to do nothing except be still and stare. Children fidget and are never still, and I wanted you all to be absolutely still and steady and just stare. Very unchildlike, and, of course, very unsettling.
Rilla's second film for MGM, Cairo (1963), was a fair remake of John Huston's classic heist movie The Asphalt Jungle, with Tutankhamun's jewels the intended booty, and a cast including George Sanders and the director's father, Walter Rilla. During these years, Rilla would occasionally be guest director on television plays, and from the Sixties on, most of his work was in television, where he directed and/or scripted a variety of shows, from plays to the Paul Temple series. When he returned to the big screen, it was for such titles as Secrets of a Door-to-Door Salesman (1973) and Bedtime with Rosie (1974).
Wolf Rilla also wrote six novels, lectured at the London International Film School, and published The A-Z of Movie Making (1970), about working in the film industry. In later years, he and his wife Shirley moved to Fayence, in Provence, where they ran a hotel, Le Moulin de la Camandoule.
Tom VallanceReuse content