Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, March 29, 2013

Director Report Card: John Carpenter (1982)

8. The Thing

“The Thing” is a good example of how public opinion can shift over the years. Coming in the wake of “E.T.,” the film was eviscerated by critics, dismissed as heavy on gore and little else, and greeted with hostility by the public. It was a blow against John Carpenter’s reputation as a proven hit-maker, one he would never really bounce back from. In the intervening thirty years, things have changed. “The Thing” is now regarded as a landmark in special effects, one of the director’s best pictures, and a masterpiece in the sci-fi and horror genres. It is even considered by some as one of the greatest horror films ever made.

The film is only a loose adaptation of Howard Hawks’ original “The Thing from Another World,” instead drawling more from the original novella, John Campbell Jr.’s “Who Goes There?” The story is a study in chilly isolation and nightmare imagery. Like many of Carpenter’s previous films, it is both an ensemble piece and a siege picture. However, unlike “Assault on Precinct 13” or “The Fog,” the threat comes from inside, not outside.

Carpenter has his best handle on atmosphere here since “Halloween.” “The Thing,” if nothing else, is skillfully orchestrated in tone and mood. One of the earliest shot in the film is a pan over the snow covered hills of the Arctic. A first time viewer wouldn’t know why the seemingly mad Norwegian is gunning after that husky. A sense of mystery is maintained throughout the first act. One of the biggest departures from the original film and the book is that the main cast isn’t the first ones who discover the Thing. Instead, they have to investigate the Norwegian camp, discovering an abandoned building and charred, bizarre remains. Why the change? Strictly to fuel more mystery, create questions of “why,” “who,” and “what” in the audiences’ minds. The first creepy shot in the movie, and the film’s first use of Carpenter’s trademark steady-cam, involves the strange dog wandering down a hallway, stopping to look at a shadow on the wall before walking off. Upon this rewatch, I realized the dog couldn’t make its move until it was on its own. It’s the first sign of a sinister, insidious intelligent.

Small moments like these prepare the viewer for the well-spring of nightmarish special effects the movie unleashes soon after that. When it comes to practical make-up effects special effects, animatronics and puppetry, Rob Bottin’s work has never been topped. “The Thing” features some of the most disturbing special effects ever put to film. The monster is all twisting, squirming, crunching limbs, tentacles, and slime. The dog kennel scene slowly escalates, the walls of twisted, mutated flesh building. When a blossom of death, a mouth/hand covered with teeth emerges from the dog(s)’ diseased form, it becomes clear to the audience that this Thing doesn’t come in peace. The body horror has an almost surreal effect. The shot of Bennings, turning to face the others, its hands twisted into claws, releasing an unearthly howl, is like something out of a nightmare. The defibrillator scene is another tour-de-force of cringe-inducing special effects. Yellow gibs squirm inside the monster, nightmare faces shooting out it, heads crawling away. It’s hard to believe all of this was accomplished with only latex, wires, and pumps. Critics of the horror genre frequently say it relies solely on special effects. If any film proves that monster effects themselves can make scares, “The Thing” does.

“The Thing” confirms its horror classic status by featuring two all-time great jump scares, and a few other pretty good ones. The dog kennel freaks the audience out by building on horrifying images. The defibrillator scene springs those same images on the audience totally out of the blue. It’s a real shock and the freakishness just keeps coming immediately afterwards. If the defibrillator scene is unexpected, the blood test scene measures suspense. Each time the hot cord is about to touch down in a dish of blood, the audience’s leans forward in anticipation. The viewer’s expectations are pulled completely taunt when the trouble starts again, causing the watcher to jump out of his seat. There’s no relief since the horror keeps on coming in the form of more monstrous, twisted flesh.

The blood test is another turning point in the script. It ends the paranoia-thon that comprises the meat of the second act. After the threat of the Thing is revealed, nobody can trust one another. Blair goes nuts. There’s a burnt body in the snow outside, power outages, and slashed clothing. Everyone is on edge, MacReady especially. The film mines tension out of that paranoia, since anyone is bound to react in a number of ways. The stand-off before the blood test is probably the peak of this type of suspense. After the monster is determined, “The Thing” becomes a men on a mission flick. This is encapsulated in MacReady’s monologue to the remaining troops. Though “The Thing” is widely considered a study in paranoia, it just as much a movie about people coming together in times of adversity.

The third act is honestly a little disappointing compared to the fantastic first two. We know early on Blair is the Thing and everyone is working together, deflecting the monster’s plot. It’s the movie at its most slasher-like, the monster chipping through the remaining cast members. MacReady facing off against the monster alone shapes up to be a great one-on-one finale. The floorboards rippling forward is a pretty good jump scare. The story’s Lovecraftian roots become obvious here. Exhibit A: Giant tentacles reaching out of the ground. While the Blair Monster is as grotesquely horrifying and fantastically realized as any of the film’s other combination, MacReady shouting swears, jumping away, and blowing the monster to smithereens is a little underwhelming. The movie makes up with that with the final images, taking the story out on a note of ambiguity and bristling winter cold. The last shot of two men, sitting together in the cold against a dying fire, feeds into the film’s twin themes of paranoia and brotherhood.

The ensemble cast is really the only problem I have with the film. There are too many characters here and only a few of them get any development. MacReady is one of Kurt Russell’s best performances. He has no problem going dark, getting some paranoid jitters in a few scenes. Ultimately, MacReady proves himself as the right man for the job. He’s less a standard hero then just an everyman that keeps his head on the straightest and survives. It lacks the tough guy bravado of Russell’s other performances in Carpenter’s films, instead showing a more considerate side.

There are some other strong standers in the cast. Wilford Brimley really gets to go over the top as Blair while also showing some creepy, alien other-worldliness near the end. Keith David is nicely hot-headed as Childs, the film’s second most likable character, and Donald Moffat provides some comic relief as the frustrated Garry. The rest of the cast is thinly developed. There’s the squirmy Windows, stoner helicopter pilot Palmer, laid-back cook Nauls, dog-lover Clark, Fuchs the scientist. Beyond these general ideas, we don’t have much to go on for the rest of the cast. It doesn’t damage the movie any but I wonder if it would have been an even tighter affair with a slightly trimmed set of characters.

Carpenter’s curbs some of his own tricks from “Halloween” here. The icy cold of the Arctic is emphasized with chilly blue/purple lighting and dark shadows. Ennio Morricone provides a creepy score, full of scrambling strings and slow, electronic droning. Though not quite perfect, “The Thing” is incredibly good and fully deserves its reputation. It’s a film that particularly rewards re-watching. First time viewers wonder who the Thing is. Multiple viewers wonder when someone became infected, where the monster moved off-screen, and watch the infected individuals more carefully, looking for signs. It’s a film that inspires investigation and new discovery, sure signs of a great film. [Grade: A]

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Director Report Card: John Carpenter (1981)

7. Escape from New York

“Escape from New York” is widely considered a classic of eighties action cinema. Certainly, a film has reached a certain iconic level when it spawns low-budget Italian knock-offs. In all honesty, I’ve never been a huge fan. While the film is solid in all regards, there are a handful of flaws present that prevent me from loving it.

I’ve never considered Carpenter a strictly horror filmmaker. His reputation as a master of the genre is due to the importance of his contributions, not because he’s worked solely in it. Quality, not quantity. “Escape from New York” is not a horror film… And yet. Rewatching the director’s films, I’m starting to see horror elements creeping into all of John’s work. “Dark Star” has got an alien in it. “Assault on Precinct 13” is kind of a horror film. Similarly, “Escape from New York” has some horrific elements.

The premise is pure popcorn punchline: In the future, New York has been transformed into a city-wide prison. The President has gone down in this New York. Snake, former war hero and current criminal, are you a bad enough dude to rescue the president? There’s nothing blatantly horrific in that set-up. There are insane, probably cannibalistic rovers that come out of the subway at night, attacking people. Like the gang members in “Assault,” these beings are faceless and mindless. The movie relies on occasional horror set-dressing in service of thrills. Most notably is a brief moment where, accompanied by a sharp loud musical cue, a figure leaps across in the background.

However, this isn’t the real reason “Escape from New York” feels a bit like a horror film. It’s all about the atmosphere. We see daylight in New York maybe twice. The nights are very dark, filled with pulsing blues and lingering greens. The towering skyscrapers seemed to form a close-off valley, leaving little room to run for cover. The bad guy’s main henchman, a dude named Romero with feathery, anime hair, even reminds me of Klaus Kinski or “The Exorcist”’s Captain Howdy. (I doubt Carpenter intended that one, though.) By this point, Carpenter knows what he is doing. He handles the action well, moving beyond the “pointing guns at people who then fall down” style displayed in “Precinct 13.” The climatic car chase across the bomb laden bridge is probably the film’s best action.

I feel almost ashamed to say this. The real reason I’m not crazy about “Escape from New York?” Snake doesn’t impress me. Kurt Russell is awesome and is frequently most awesome when directed by John Carpenter. He has an eye-patch and carries big machine guns, wears leather and combat boots. Snake slings one-liners almost as much as he slings bullets. Russell is doing a straight-up Clint Eastwood impersonation, which on paper sounds very entertaining.

So why don’t I love you, Snake? A couple possible explanations. It’s a thin character. Snake doesn’t have an inner-life. He’s only in it for himself and doesn’t seem to evolve much over the course of the film. He’s not all that likable. Some of his relations with the supporting cast seems to melt his heart but only a little bit. Neither of those things should matter when it comes to action heroes. Arnold and Jason Statham don’t have an inner life. But those guys are funny, likable, bad-ass. And… Snake isn’t? The character is supposed to be sarcastic and hilarious. Yet all the actual laughs in the movie belong to other characters. While there’s plenty of shooting and violence, he’s not that great at fighting. He always seems very close to loosing fights but not in a way that lends realism. Only twice in the movie does Snake really seem like a bad-ass, once when he gets the drop on two goons and another when he finally beats his burly adversary. The character’s final move is supposed to be awesome and funny but comes off as extremely petty. Less like a bad-ass lone ranger and more like a teenager miffed at mom and dad. Russell doesn’t elevate the character either, instead mostly sticking to grumbled, gruff grunts.

It’s a good thing the supporting cast is packed solid with awesome character actors. My favorite is the late, great Ernest Borgnine as Cabbie. Despite the nihilistic location, Cabbie is unusually upbeat. He loves music, first appearing in a musical theater and always blasting big band music from his cab cassette player. The guy is even smiling and happy when tossing Molotov cocktails at trios of Crazies. While it would have been easy to read the character as unhinged, Borgnine is so naturally likable. He establishes Cabbie as the perfect comic relief in the film.

Donald Pleasence plays the American President, British accent intact, on much the same wavelength as Dr. Loomis. While Loomis is high-strung because of the evil around him, the President is nervous and shaken apart by his current situation. Pleasence does nervous fantastically, and his stuttering and shouting is frequently hilarious. His full-on, machine gun aided breakdown at the climax is even better. Harry Dean Stanton plays the back-stabbing, snake-like Brain, who has a history with Snake. Once again, Carpenter casts well, as Stanton is an expert at this kind of part. You’re never sure of Brain’s alliance but, with the way he dislikes his real name of “Harold” or how he obviously cares about the other characters, shows a hidden vulnerability and integrity. Adriene Barbeau, though her eighties perm is distracting, certainly looks good in a very low-cut dress. She too has hidden depths, loving Brain in a subtle way, not to mention being quite adapt with a gun.

Isaac Hayes doesn’t give the Duke of New York, the film’s villain, much deepness. However, the Duke is cool, primarily because Hayes was just an awesome, funky guy. The chandeliers on his limo’s headlights pushes the guy almost into pimp parody. The Duke shows cool sadism. Lee Van Cleef, Tom Atkins, and Charles Cypher do their regular things in small supporting parts but they’re good at it and are, perhaps, underutilized.

I think, perhaps, if I bought into Snake’s awesomeness, I would love “Escape from New York” as much as many others do. I even think Carpenter’s score is one of his weaker efforts. There’s a lot to like about the film however, as it’s campy and well-paced. I like the movie but don’t love it. [Grade: B]

Friday, March 22, 2013

Director Report Card: John Carpenter (1980)

6. The Fog

“The Fog” has maybe one of the best openings in horror movie history. A pocket watch dangles in center of the screen, ticking away, swinging back and forth, as if the filmmaker is trying to hypnotize the audience. The watch suddenly snaps close. We are revealed to be sitting around a campfire, as Shakespearean character actor John Houseman informs that it is nearly midnight but there is still time for one more story. The tale is told, setting up the film and it’s persistent spooky mood. If “Halloween” was a dissertation on the Midwestern urban legend, “The Fog” is a take on the tradition of the ghost story.

As the opening continues, we see Carpenter’s full evolution as a stylishist. The camera roams around the town, showing small creepy things happening. Shelves shaking, car alarms going off, chairs moving on their on. The only thing breaking up this show build-up of poltergeist activity is the sultry, sexy voice of Stevie Williams, played by Adrienne Barbeau at her absolute peak hotness. All of this seems to guarantee that with “The Fog,” you are in for a spooky ride.

Something I observed on this viewing is that Carpenter isn’t interested in building atmosphere. I’ve gone on before about how horror, for me, is built on shadows and fog. Despite being right there in the title, this isn’t a movie devoted to billowing clouds and creeping shadows. Sure, there’s lots of it, fog I mean. We get several extended shots of the green, glowing, billowing mist creeping over the beach and town. However, Carpenter isn’t going for soft, subtle creeps. Instead, the director is focused on tension and terror.

There are several sequences built on generating serious scares. An early scene of the ghosts attacking a trio of fishermen sets up the prototype of the film’s scares: Sharp, sudden blades emerging from the fog, quickly striking down their victims. The movie uses jump scares extremely well. An absolute classic involves a dead body unexpectedly tumbling out of a locker. The same dead body later rises from a slab, reaching a hand out for a victim. (Not unexpectedly, Jaime Lee Curtis is the attacked girl in both scenarios.) The movie’s top moment of shrieking scares involves a ghost appearing in a door way, fog billowing into the room. In a moment that has to be a homage to Dario Argento and “Suspiria,” searing red color floods the frame as a meat hook is driven into a neck. Moments like these are kindred spirits to Michael Myers leaping out of closets or back seats in “Halloween.”

While the film is primarily the director’s spin on ghost stories, several moments remind me of the sort of urban legends that inspired “Halloween.” My favorite involves a ghost tapping on Tom Atkins’ door. He takes his time approaching, unaware of the danger. The tapping goes on, the camera showing a meat hook slowly moving back and forth. As midnight ends, the clock breaks, and the ghosts vanishes, taking the danger with them. These moments share attributes with any moment of Michael Myers standing around, lurking.

The film peaks early at the end of the second act, when the moments of building tension and pure scares combine. On paper, the idea of a car fleeing from an encroaching cloud of fog sounds ridiculous. However, a combination of well done practical effects, a spooky score, and balanced direction and pacing make it a stand-out moment. The intensity continues in the movie’s scariest moment, featuring a hiding, clearly terrified child, glass doors, and a particularly nervous nanny. A possible cheat, involving a sudden rescue, the fog taking a break, and that horror movie cliché of a car not starting (Or, in this case, a tire getting stuck in a mud puddle), is defused by red-eyed silhouettes slowly approaching out of the fog. The film never reaches this three-layer dip of awesome scariness again.

Somewhat disappointingly, in the last act the movie becomes a siege film, Carpenter falling back into “Assault on Precinct 13” territory. Though there are strong moments, like the ghost arms pushing through stained-glass windows, but the movie can’t quite mine tension out of the confined spaces and impending assaults. Even the climax, which involves Adrienne Barbeau fighting off the lepers on the roof of a light house, can’t quite muster the tension and scares it is desperately reaching out for.

I can’t help but feel this drop-out in scares has to do with two decisions made in the script writing. The first involves splitting the story into two threads. The main one involves the majority of our characters walling up in the church together. The second involves Barbeau all alone in her light house, fending for herself against the invaders. The lighthouse is doubtlessly the more interesting concept and is the one that gets the less attention. It splits the tension and prevents the audience from ever being fully involved in either situation.

Why is the light house the more involving scenario? “The Fog” is an ensemble film. There’s no clear protagonist. While “Assault on Precinct 13” kept the audience interested in its large(ish) cast by keeping focusing on their interactions, “The Fog” has everyone off in their own story lines. Most of the characters are left underdeveloped. Janet Leigh and Nancy Loomis get the worse of it, confining all of their major character development to one car ride and a tearful monologue from Leigh. This seems like a major waste of the vetern actress. Atkins gets a fairly juicy monologue but his character is mostly an undefined, slightly rogue-ish leading man. Carpenter seemed to be blatantly subverting Jaime Lee’s reputation as the virginal horror final girl by casting her as a hitchhiker who sleeps with a guy after knowing him for a few hours. None of the performers give a bad performance but their parts are underwritten.

Except for Adrienne Barbeau as Stevie Wayne. Barbeau is rarely used well in films, mostly being consigned to eye candy. I guess it’s not a coincidence that her husband-at-the-times would give her a strong leading role. Stevie has several modes as a character. She’s a mother, first off, and while she only has a few scenes with her son, they ring with warmness. As a DJ, she puts on a sultry bedroom voice, seducing the listeners as much as she does the audience. Like Laurie Strode however, Stevie is a survivor. When the situation goes to hell, she never gives up, fighting through with pure scrappy determination. She’s tough and refuses to die. It’s easy to tell she’s in over her head and scared shitless but Stevie certainly doesn’t need a man to save her. Aside from an overly long scene of her walking to the radio station, repetitive ocean sounds and radio feedback filling the air, every scene focused on her is good stuff.

Another stand-out performance belongs to Hal Holbrook. The spitting image of Edgar Allan Poe, with his sunken eye sockets, shocked hair, and sad drunk demeanor, Holbrook plays the part of a conflicted holy man to the fullest. He brings a lot of fine ambiguity to the part. He obviously harbors a great deal of guilt about what his ancestors have done. However, when time comes to give up the gold, he seems unwilling. Charles Cypher gives another fine performance, really cutting loose as the horny weather man attempting to woo Barbeau. Considering Cypher usually plays the dull voice of authority, it’s nice to see him ham it up a little bit.

“The Fog” is built on a foundation of rich horror history. Carpenter’s typically atmospheric electronic score owes quite a bit to both Goblin and “Tubular Bells,” especially its chiming main theme. There’s blatant call outs to H.P. Lovecraft, American International Pictures, and Alfred Hitchcock, not to mention in-jokes about Carpenter’s collaborators. While Rob Bottin’s work here doesn’t point towards the mind-blowing talent he would display later in “The Thing,” only showing off gooey maggot-infested make-up once, the lepers are iconic monsters. Black outlines with burning red eyes, shambling out of the white fog, make for an incredibly creepy, indelible image.

“The Fog” seems to solidify its horror classic status with that sting-in-the-scorpion-tail, shock ending. It’s a flawed film for me and certainly not as strong a statement as “Halloween.” However, I almost feel like it’s a richer film then “Halloween.” “The Fog” is cozy, in a way, and it’s easy to see why it’s horror comfort food for fans world over. [Grade: B+]

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Director Report Card: John Carpenter (1979)

5. Elvis

In a deleted scene in “Pulp Fiction,” Quentin Tarantino via Mia Wallace says you’re either a Beatles man or an Elvis man. Up until recently, I could say I was a die hard Beatles man. However, I’ve recently come to reassess the music of the King and found myself liking a lot of it. You can't deny the guy's overwhelming influence on rock music and culture. Decades after his death, people are still obsessed with him, creating museums and extensive personal collections. Considering the huge shadow his life and career cast over American pop culture, it's sort of surprising John Carpenter's "Elvis" is only one of a few biographical films about the guy.

John Carpenter got the job of directing “Elvis” supposedly because the producer, knowing he scored his own films, figured Carpenter knew music so he must’ve known a lot about Elvis. Whither or not that’s true or makes any sense doesn’t matter. “Elvis,” a work-for-hire TV movie, is important to the Carpenter filmography for a simple reason. It was the first time the director was paired with Kurt Russell, who would go on to become not only a good friend but the director’s favorite leading man.

What’s most interesting about the film is that it doesn’t really focus on Elvis: The Phenomena. For a fact, his ascent through the pop culture mindset doesn’t really register. Instead, the movie is a personal take on the King. His relationship with his mother in the first half is very important and his romance with Pricilla dominates the second half. He talks with his dead twin brother in several scenes. The movie is attempting to capture Elvis: The Man, not Elvis: The Most Defining Face in American Pop Music and Popular Culture. The first hour is squarely devoted to the man's humble root. It shows his debt to his family and country boy beginnings. A notable moment involves a pick-up truck race. The movie is successful in getting you to relate to a frequently far-out figure.

This, naturally, makes the movie a showcase for its lead performance. Russell is dead-on in the part. He looks a lot like Elvis and perfectly imitates the King’s mannerism without going overboard into parody. This relatable performance and a story focused on personal aspects go a long way towards humanizing an iconic figure, which was obviously the intention. The movie is also very well paced and breezes by despite nearly being three hours. It's separate clearly into three chapters and, despite "the rise again" part of the "rise-fall-rise again" cycle never being in doubt, you still care.

This is such a showcase for Kurt that the supporting cast is easily overlooked. Shelly Winters is good as Elvis’ mom, hiding a lot of insecurities under a calm demeanor. A moment of her sitting in the newly minted Graceland, conflicted about her son's rock royalty, stands out. Always underrated character actor Pat Hingle needed more to do as Col. Parker and is mostly confined to a handful of small scenes. The movie doesn’t touch on the Colonel’s corruption at all, probably the most interesting, memorable thing about him. Season Hubley, who Russell was dating at the time, underperforms as Priscilla. You don’t really understand while Elvis falls so deeply in love with her so quickly. Hubley is flat and rather unemotional. There's certainly no evidence to suggest such devotion and passion in their relationship.

As I mentioned early, the movie is so focused on Presley’s personal life that not much time is spent on his status as a pop culture phenomena and icon. He goes almost immediately from playing county fairs to earning gold records and buying Graceland. There are several musical numbers, obviously, and while they showcase Presley’s music, they don’t move the film along. (I assume Russell was dubbed but, if he did indeed do his own singing that makes his performance even more impressive.) Sadly, the movie cuts off before the King’s plummet into pills and obesity in the seventies. I guess dying bloated on his commode would’ve made for a pretty down beat ending, but it feels like an essential part of the story is left out. “Elvis” is a pretty basic musician bio-pic. It’s not much of a Carpenter film, save for a few POV tracking shots. Another rarity for many years, the movie is now widely available to be treasured by Elvis devotees and regarded by Carpenter fans as an oddity, notable mostly for an excellent lead performance. [Grade: B]

Bangers n' Mash: Horror Musicals

Not that any one's noticed but updates over here at Film Thoughts have been slightly sporadic this month. This is mainly because I've been working on a few different projects: Putting the finishing touches on my book, working on two new literary projects, and editing the newest episode of the podcast nobody listens to or likes. The latest episode of the Bangers n' Mash Show is about a week late mainly because of that extensive editing. The raw material was nearly two and a half hours. The final episode is just over a single hour, with music. I cut out more audio then is actually in the finished episode. Either JD and I goof around too damn much or am an obsessive compulsive perfectionist who over-edits. The case can probably be made for both.

Anyway, what's the topic this time? Horror musicals, those films that toss together two of the unlikeliest, most polarizing genres. We talk about the established classics of the genre and a few of the more recent examples, all of them being cult favorites. I've all ready discussed a few of this films at length and will probably talk about some of them again in the near future. We even discuss some of the oddball musical stage adaptations of established horror classics. (Though I made a big omission in that category: The ill-fated, infamous "Carrie: The Musical" is probably the earliest example of that sub-genre of stage musical.)

I know I say this every time but the next episode won't take as long. It's all ready recorded, I'm all ready editing, and it should be out in a few days, before the end of the month. Fingers crossed.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Director Report Card: John Carpenter (1978) Part 2

4. Halloween

Let’s seriously talk about “Halloween” for a moment. Not a lot happens for the majority of the picture. You have that iconic opening before going to an equally good beginning and then… Girl talk! Not to say that the characters of Laurie, Annie, and Lynda are unlikable. Truthfully, they are a fairly well realized group and each actor is very good in the part. I know Debra Hill talked about making sure the girl talk was authentic sounding. Nobody’s really spellbinding and you get the impression that each actor was just playing a character close to their personality. Jaime Lee might be the iconic one, but my heart will always belong to P.J. Soles, who is immediately likeable, even with all that “totally.” And what the hell ever happened to Nancy Loomis? Their is a certain naturalistic charm to the three girl's performances.

Another thing I’ll point out about this movie is just how loose its script is. You have people doing stuff at one house, Michael kills them, waits around for the next people, kills them, before someone else wanders into his zone, and then he sets off to kill them. Meanwhile, Dr. Loomis stands around, idling, waiting for when the script needs him to say something spooky or throw out some exposition until the very end where he shows up to save Laurie Strode’s ass. A lot of discussion has been made about the ambiguity of this flick but, let’s stop kidding ourselves, some parts are just underwritten. I’ll give Carpenter The Shape’s naturally existing, explanation free evil, but some of the other stuff is just thin.

If you’ll allow me to wander off into film theory land for a moment… Yeah, yeah, all the other slashers ripped off “Halloween” but Laurie Strode doesn’t do shit. It was the rip-offs that really came up with the idea of the final girl rising up against her male attacker and saving her own life. I’ll give her credit for surviving so long but, if not for Loomis, both movies would’ve had a way more downer ending.

I know you must think I hate the movie now but I don’t. Despite all of the aforementioned issues, “Halloween” is a classic for a reason. There is a genuine sense of dread throughout. The first act doesn't so much drag as builds, adding to the tension with each new hint or glimpse. Michael Myers might be the most famous slasher but he’s really more lurk, less hurt in this first movie. Like any predator, he spends the day watching his prey, observing their habits. After night falls, when his powers grow, he attacks, isolating and picking everyone off one by one. I can’t remember who first compared The Shape to the shark in “Jaws,” but the comparison is apt. The scene of Michael carrying Annie’s body around the Doyle house is where dread really hits me for the first time. When little Tommy sees something he shouldn’t. That is the boogie-tales and camp fire stories, the unspoken rules that define our culture.

The old movies playing on the TV throughout the film is probably just Carpenter being cute, but I can’t help but wonder if he’s being just a tad post-modern there, as if comparing the fictional evil of space aliens with the actual evil of psychotic killers. The film, in general, resist any sort of sociological reading. The director has denied the conservative religious angle frequently applied to this and other slasher films. Instead, the film is deeply rooted in middle America, suburban urban legend. The house everyone goes out of their way to avoid... The boogiemen and monsters that lurk in the shadows... I maintain that this is one of the reasons the film was such a huge success, why it resonated so strongly across the pop culture landscape. "Halloween" shares a common experience, horror stories any one can relate too.

And of course the last act is just ball-to-the-walls intensity. Yes, we all know that Myers is going to get back up each time, but the combination of the dark direction, the world famous music, and Ms. Curtis’ desperate performance make it scary, even after a hundred viewings. Carpenter's visual layout has to be commended as well. Frequently emulated, never topped, the scene of Myers rising up from the floor right over Laurie's shoulder is still chilling. Myers' mask is blank, suggesting the lack of a face, the lack of personality. It's an old trick, employed all the time in the horror genre, but rarely is it this effective. Or maybe the mask was just picked because it pops out of the darkness all the time.

I make fun of Dr. Loomis’ function in the script, but, seriously, what a great character. It probably wouldn’t have worked with anybody but Donald Pleasence. (Though Carpenter’s first choice of Christopher Lee makes me wonder…) He makes Sam’s histrionic, melodramatic dialogue a reinforcement of his status as the knower of evil. I especially like the underpinnings that the doctor is just as crazy and obsessed as his murderous patient.

And that ending… Forget all the sequels. Forget how derivative the open ended horror finale is, for a minute. Those last shots are brilliant. By showing all of the areas where the madness had taken place, combined with that throbbing score and the heavy breathing, the evil of Michael Myers suddenly goes from an isolated event to an infectious virus polluting the world. Perhaps the real testament to the power of “Halloween” is that it remains effective despite being the most famous, and possibly most ripped-off, horror movie in the world. [Grade: A]

Friday, March 15, 2013

Director Report Card: John Carpenter (1978) Part 1

3. Someone’s Watching Me!

“Someone’s Watching Me!” is probably the most obscure film in John Carpenter’s filmography. It’s also an important one. Carpenter’s previous films were in the sci-fi/comedy and action genres. “Someone’s Watching Me!” is the director’s first crack at horror. Similarly, the movie is, in a way, a prototype for “Halloween.” (Not to mention, a bit of a companion piece to the Carpenter-written “Eyes of Laura Mars.”) It’s even important as the first collaboration between Carpenter and Adrianne Barbeau. While not a great film on its own, it shows Carpenter as a developing stylist.

For a television film from the late seventies, the cinematography is surprisingly good. The first shot, in a darkly atmospheric apartment room, is a long pan down a telescope. The angle frames the telescope as strangely phallic, which characterizes the movie’s voyeurism as gender motivated, as a man forcing himself on a woman. This seems supported when a character later in the movie explicitly compares the emotional violation with a physical violation. The opening credits show a white-on-red grid fading into the harsh lines of the apartment complex, the film’s setting. The director doesn’t seem to have a high opinion on the then-high tech apartment, deliberately making it an isolating, frightening place. (The apartment is called Arkham Tower, which I’m sure is Carpenter intentionally referencing Lovecraft.) Carpenter employs a lot of tracking shots, an emerging trademark. The camera watches the film’s heroine as she walks through hallways, talking to herself. The Vertigo shot is used in one scene, which is notable since this is something of an extended Hitchcock homage. The camera peers under table at listening devices and also stares from behind telescope lens.

Another important distinction is that, while “Dark Star” and “Assault on Precinct 13” were largely ensemble pieces, “Someone’s Watching Me!” focuses squarely on one person, practically a character study. The combined effect of the angle and the dialogue works towards establishing the character’s inner-world. Carpenter’s screenplay eschews voice over in favor of our heroine spending a lot of time talking to herself. It’s a move that’s a little odd and the dialogue is sometimes stilted or a too on the nose.

Having said that, Lauren Hutton centers the film. As the story progresses and her nerves are shaken more apart by the intrusion of her privacy, Hutton does a good job of believably portraying the emotional break-down. This is important, since the movie employs the cliché of no one believing our protagonist is in danger, even though she is aware of the danger and it’s obvious she is in danger. Luckily, the script, while occasionally awkward, is well constructed enough to prevent anyone from coming off as an asshole or idiot. A lot of credit goes to Charles Cypher as the detective in charge of the case, clearly sympathetic to Hutton’s plight, who makes it clear his hands are tied by bureaucracy.

The movie is concerned with gender. Hutton is a single career woman, living on her own for the first time. Her best friend, played by the ravishing Barbeau, is an open and out lesbian, probably a unusual occurrence on 1970s television. Early on, Hutton worries about her new boss hitting on her. At the job, she has to quickly dispel come-ons from a male co-worker. An important moment finds her in a single’s bar. Frequent ‘70s television star David Birney plays a man that quickly catches the woman’s eye. He’s enough of a swinging seventies dude to ask her to bed on the first date while being sensitive enough to graciously accept no for an answer. (They still end up in bed before the end.)

The main focus is on a woman in peril from men. The emotional threat soon becomes a physical one. The movie mines some suspense out of these moments. Hutton quivers in terror under a grate in the parking garage, the threatening man standing above her. The climax finds her in a dark apartment, attacked by the man, both dangling out an open sky-rise window. Probably the most effective moment involves a character’s final fate happening off-screen, the audience only hearing her panicked screams. A subtle, early moment has the barely glimpsed man escaping the woman’s apartment. “Someone’s Watching Me!” is quite nearly a feminist horror film, even if its exact stance on the issue isn’t totally clear. It’s empathetic to a well-written woman in peril from villainous man without her being overly strong.

While mostly feeling like a theatrical film, the movie doesn’t avoid some of the pitfalls of seventies television films. The musical score is overdone and toneless. There are at least two particularly lame fake-out scares, one involving a mysterious man in a parking lot, another involving a janitor. (The Janitor: The go-to character type for fake-out scares.) While Hutton, Barbeau, and Cypher are all good, Bimey is less so. How the movie hints at Bimey or some other established character being the unseen villain, and then goes in the opposite direction, is kind of lame and misleading. The commercial break fade-outs are present and accounted for. While Hutton’s breakdown or a character getting trapped in an elevator are good moments, both seem to pad the movie out a bit.

“Someone’s Watching Me!,” unavailable on home video for many years, is perhaps more important for what it represents to Carpenter’s overall career then as a stand-alone film. It’s an interesting movie, with a number of pluses in its favor, without being a terribly memorable one. [Grade: B-]

Monday, March 11, 2013

Director Report Card: John Carpenter (1976)

2. Assault on Precinct 13

Carpenter has always been fairly open about his love for the films of John Ford in general and for “Rio Bravo” specifically. I can’t count the number of interview were he’s mentioned it as his favorite film. This admiration manifested itself very early in his career with “Assault on Precinct 13,” a modern day set, feature-length homage to Ford’s masterpiece. While certainly a solid action B-movie in its own right, this one is most interesting to spot Carpenter’s emerging style and trademarks.

The story is simplistic enough. A police building on its last night before being moved across the city, staffed by a skeleton crew, is besieged by a vicious street gang. Circumstance forces a convicted criminal and known killer into the situation with the cops. There’s a brief justification provided for the gang’s actions. A somewhat tacked on opening scene shows the cops shooting down four of the gang’s own, motivating their violence against the police, as well as the street crooks coming into the possession of a crate of stolen weapons. However, the why and how are less important then the actual situation. The film is primarily about the bonds forged between the rag-tag group, friendships and mutual respect coming into being while under fire. The ending, which shows cop and criminal walking off together, seems to nail this theme home.

Carpenter’s direction features several visual quirks that would become his trademarks later on. There’s a POV shot, a car racing down an all-too-thin seeming street. When night falls in the second half, the shadows are dark enough to remind me of “Halloween,” especially when you have blank evil faces emerging from it. Napoleon Wilson is the first Carpenter tough guy anti-hero. Wilson was convicted of murder, though the film doesn’t go into much detail concerning that. He’s willingness for violence and rough-and-tumble attitude makes him an ideal guy to have around once the invasion starts. (Especially when he’s cracking goon’s arms in half.) This is the prototype for Snake Plissken, MacReady, and John Nada. It’s not hard to imagine Kurt Russell in the part. Like “The Thing” and numerous other films to follow, this is an ensemble piece. The most charming moments, like some stray banter or an inexplicable take on Rock-Paper-Scissor called “Hot Potato,” strictly revolve around our guys talking to each other.

Perhaps the most prominent sign of JC here is the film’s antagonists. The Street Lightening gang is the earliest example of Pure, Natural Evil: Directionless, without identity, and ruthlessly violent. “Assault on Precinct 13” is not a horror film but it shouldn’t come as a surprise that its filmmaker would become a leading force in the genre. The gang members recall the ghouls of “Night of the Living Dead.” There seem to be a limitless supply of them. Their ruthlessness is established early on, during the film’s most notorious scene. These guys gun down an innocent little girl in cold blood without even flinching. Even though the movie really push the girl’s innocence (Pigtails? An ice cream truck in the middle of a warzone?), it’s a startling scene of shock. The gang’s multi-ethnic origins and an early scene of blood-mixing seem to suggest a mythic, extra-normal quality. The movie recalls two famous urban legends during its run time. A daring escape is cut short by the Killer in the Backseat. In maybe my favorite moment, a ghoulish discovery starts with mysterious sounds dripping down on the roof of a car. Despite its horror elements, this is still a pure action movie. Much of the film is made up of gunfire and the best action comes during a thrilling shoot-out montage, which is fantastically edited.

The movie is constructed extremely well but cult followings are born of memorable characters. Austin Stoker’s Ethan Bishop is almost an everyman figure, a laid-back veteran cop, who shows unexpected strength. Stoker gives a good performance, endearing small gestures with a lot of character. Darwin Joston as Napoleon doesn’t give a bad performance but is a bit on the underwhelming side. Maybe his unassuming appearance is intentional but he certainly doesn’t look like a bad ass. Joston still does his best to make the characters repeated catchphrases, about cigarettes and how he got his name, funny and natural. He also has good romantic chemistry with Laurie Zimmer. As far as female leads go, she’s tough, gunning down a number of baddies. There’s a slow, sexy boil to the way she carries herself and says her lines. Tony Burton, as Wilson’s prison buddy Wells, is probably the film’s comic relief. I like him a lot. He’s not exactly a coward but is definitely weary of his bad luck. Despite being so prominently featured in the first half, Martin West’s grieving father Lawson is mostly in a state of shock through the rest of the film. The closest thing to a name actor in the film is Charles Cypher as the crotchety prison warden. I wish he was given more to do.

The movie’s climax proves a little underwhelming. Everything is cleaned up by a giant, off-screen explosion. The tension never quite gets a tight as it was suppose to be, mostly because the cast prove a little too good at shooting down creeps. Carpenter’s other trademark, a self-composed synth score, does its best to maintain the thrill. It’s a very catchy, smooth melody that is maybe a little too electronic. If the director’s intention with “Assault on Precinct 13” was to create a calling card, consider that mission accomplished. It’s a solid action thriller and would pave the way for Carpenter’s best, most iconic films. [7/10]

Friday, March 8, 2013

Director Report Card: John Carpenter (1974)

Artwork courtesy MalevolentNate at DeviantArt.
I told you I'd get back to reviewing horror films next. John Carpenter is probably the most respected horror director living tonight. (Even though he's done plenty of work outside of the genre, as you'll see.) When you make a little movie like "Halloween" that proceeds to change and influence the entire genre, I guess you earn that reputation. Weirdly, "Halloween" hardly defines Carpenter's career though as almost all of his films have wide, diverse cult followings. I'm not sure I would call him one of my favorite directors but he has made some of my favorite movies. His best films are infinitely rewatchable. Before sitting down to do this report card, I had seen almost all of his films multiple times before. However, watching them back to back reveals a strong, sometimes very quirky director's voice I had never quite noticed before. Carpenter is up there with Argento and Romero as a true horror auteur. Like those filmmakers, does he totally loose his talent at some point in the nineties? Read along and find out!

1. Dark Star

“Dark Star” is a weird film. It’s a weird film to start John Carpenter’s career on. As a director most associated with the horror genre, you wouldn't expect his first feature to be a stoner space comedy. It’s a weird film as a test-run for “Alien,” but both movies are undeniably tied together by their blue-collar astronauts, “Truckers in Space” premise. Generally speaking, the film is, for lack of a better word, “kooky.” It’s probably correct to assume that recreational drugs were indulged in during every stage of production.

Conceived by John Carpenter and writer / star Dan O’Bannon as their student film at UCLA, “Dark Star” has several enormously amusing elements in its favor. The entire idea of burnt out astronauts trying to pass the time on a long space flight is a pretty funny, subversive premise to begin with. One of the funniest reoccurring jokes in the movie is that the ship is constantly breaking down. There’s always something malfunctioning or in need of repair. It’s a decidedly unglamorous take on space travel. The computer’s voice speaks in an especially soft, friendly, conversational voice even when giving grave, awful news. Amazingly, there’s enough character in Cookie Knapp’s vocal delivery that the computer never comes off as ingenuine or sarcastic. 

No doubt my favorite gag in the movie is Pinback’s video diary. In a series of one-sided interviews recorded over the course of years, the passage of time is shown by his various haircuts, we get a good idea of his degrading mental health. He complains about the other guys mistreating him and forgetting his birthday. He tells a particularly filthy joke, all of the dirty parts censored and removed. Dan O’Bannon’s performance shows a surprising grasp on comedic timing.

One of the most clever elements of the script is nuclear bombs that can communicate but are also intelligent. The bomb has a general finicky attitude and dislikes getting called out throughout the film. The film’s climax involves a philosophical debate with the bomb. Discussing the nature of reality and existence with a talking bomb is wacky enough to begin with but, when said bomb gleefully chimes “This is fun!,” it might be the biggest laugh in the whole film.

There are, in general, a lot of oddball, offbeat gags throughout, like laser cannon target practice or an astronaut getting suddenly sucked out of an airlock. A dead man preserved in a block of ice, talking in a dreamy tone, asks about sports when lives are at stake. The script in general features a lot of awfully clever dialogue.

This is a feature expansion of a short film. Sometimes this is very obvious. The entire beachball alien sequence seems to drag on forever. At first, it’s kind of amusing, just because the concept is so ridiculous. For such a silly creature, it’s actually performed with a level of characterization. But then the scene just won’t end. In particular the elevator gag goes on very long. It’s pretty obvious the entire sequence was just inserted into the movie to pad it out to feature length. Even then, it has inspired moments, like the beachball suddenly deciding to tickle Pinback at an inopportune time.

The special effects have a charming, home-made quality to them. The spaceship sets are actually pretty well done. Surprisingly, aside from a conspicuous eight-track, the technology on display has aged well. (The movie even predicted digital music.) That the main ship model is so well done should come as no surprise, considering all the machines in the film were designed by Roy Cobb, the man later responsible for the spaceship designs in “Alien.” (This film is actually responsible for getting Dan O’Bannon and Roy Cobb involved in Alejandro Jodorowsky’s unrealized, fascinating, absolutely batshit sounding “Dune” movie.) The effects have an off-hand, blunt quality, fitting perfectly with the film’s tone.

“Dark Star” actually has a brilliant ending. Despite being nihilistic, in the sense that everyone dies, it’s still strangely hopeful. The two main characters get what they want after all, in a round-about sort of way. Despite lagging here and there, “Dark Star” is perfect midnight cult viewing. I would never recommend the use of drugs to anyone but, while watching this film, a little booze or pot would probably add to the effect. [Grade: B+]