Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Bangers n' Mash 16: The Evil Dead Franchise

Got this one in just under the wire. It still counts as two episodes a month even if the second one goes up minutes before midnight. Anyway, here's Mr. Mash and I discusses "Evil Dead," it's sequel, and it's recent remake every stopped giving a shit about two weeks ago.

I'll use this space for a brief update. The remaining parts of the John Carpenter report card are coming, I swear. Should be up in the next few days. You'll just have to excuse my slowness. April was a rough month.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Director Report Card: John Carpenter (1995)

17. Village of the Damned

I’ve always suspected that Carpenter was hoping to recreate the same sort of magic he had on “The Thing” with the 1995 remake of “Village of the Damned.” Both were sci-fi horror classics of the cold war era. However, comparing the two films is ill advised. Firstly because “Village of the Damned” is much more of a direct remake then “The Thing” was. Secondly, it’s nowhere near as good.

The open pan over the coast, an ominous whisper on the soundtrack, attempts to create a mood of dread. Midwich, moved from Britain to the California coast, is introduced as a cozy, friendly town, the sort of place were a cookout at the school is an event for everyone. How cozy is Midwich? Cozy enough that two of our main characters are introduced snuggling in bed with their spouses. As in the original, soon the entire village falls unconscious under mysterious circumstances, every woman in the town waking up pregnant. Unlike in the original, government agents descend on the town, studying the strange, ivory-haired children that are born. It doesn’t take long for the creepy kids to show off their psychic powers and make their malevolent plot known.

The biggest problem with John Carpenter’s “Village of the Damned?” The kids aren’t scary. Their eyes glow and flash, they glare menacingly, and people around them self-mutilate in ostensibly horrifying ways. Yet none of it registers as creepy or unnerving. The glowing eyes are overdone. In one sequence, the camera places so much importance on a baby’s eyes lighting up to a bright green that it comes off as flashy, instead of frightening. In another sequence, the eyes flash like headlights. Finally, during the big finale, the kids’ whole heads light up like a burning jack-o’lantern. While the original treated this aspect relatively subtly, the remake overdoes it. As for the silver hair? Bad wigs.

The hypnotizing children’s effects on the people around them are even more heavy handed. Their birth is preceded by a dopey nightmare sequence. A mother places her hands in boiling water, wailing melodramatically. The mother later tosses herself off a cliff, the suicide filmed in a startlingly uninteresting way. Any shock is totally sapped by the baby’s smiling face being overlaid over the moment. An eye doctor shakes her hands and contorts her face, dripping acid into her eyes, in a sequence almost comically overwrought. One of the more contrived sequences involves a janitor dropping himself off a roof onto his broom. While "Buck" Flower’s performance is amusingly sloshy, the method of dispatchment is incredibly awkward and borderline ridiculous, negating any attempts to build tension. The unintentional hilarity peaks when a truck goes crashing through a gate, mysteriously flying through the air despite the lack of a ramp, slams into a gas tank, and produces an improbably enormous explosion. The acts of violence are so badly mishandled and hysterically pitched; I can’t help but wonder if Carpenter was intentionally going for camp. Even potentially workable moments, like Kristie Alley dissecting herself with a scalpel, come off as lifeless. All the violence in the last act is.

Perhaps the biggest issue with the kids are their performances. None of the child actors has a grasp on the material. Lindsay Haun as Mara, the leader of the tribe, goes for coldly calculated and sinister. There’s nothing convincing about her acting and her line-readings usually just come off as flat. This is especially noticeable during her monologue, were her orders of servitude sound like a little kid reading off her mom’s grocery list. Thomas Dekker as David isn’t much better. The character, an emotion-less alien-child learning to feel, probably has the richest arc in the film. Once again, there’s no conviction in Dekker’s delivery. He comes off as flat, confused, and hopelessly out of his element. I know these are child actors I’m talking about but, if an entire film is going to revolve around young people, make sure to cast kid actors that can pick up the slack. The rest of the children receive no personality.

The adult cast is much more mixed. Upon release, the film was overshadowed by Christopher Reeve’s debilitating equestrian accident. Reeves is fine in the role. He’s good while screaming at the kids about emotion or bonding with one in a graveyard. However, even he seems a little disinterested at times and it never registers that the evil leader is his daughter. Linda Kozlowski as David’s suffering mother does better, panicking nicely, but the sudden romantic subplot forged between the characters at the last minute is really awkward.

The supporting cast is filled with interesting character actors. Michael Pare gets third billing despite dying in the first ten minutes. Mark Hamill, well into the character actor portion of his career, is highly entertaining as the town priest. He’s immediately aware of the children’s true intentions, stresses, sweats, and freaks-out over it to great effect.

But one performance practically cripples the whole film. Kristie Alley is woefully, dreadfully miscasted. Her sassiness works fine when trading sarcastic barbs but it’s impossible to take her seriously as a tough as nails FBI agent. Some of the dialogue sounds awful coming out of her mouth. She says “It’s a stillborn” like a punch line and her plea to the FBI board for more funding plays like an out-of-place seduction scene. Some performances can switch between drama and comedy with ease. Alley isn’t one of them. Another flat, off-paced performance is Karen Kahn as Reeves’ ill-fated wife.

If the presentation is listless and the cast asleep, the story is route. The government actively being involved in the children’s rearing had potential but doesn’t go anywhere. The movie harps on the theme of “emotions are what make us human!” repeatedly, without illustrating it in any sort of subtle or meaningful way. One of my biggest grips with the film is fairly petty. In the original film, the origin of the children was kept fairly ambiguous. Though it’s obvious some sort of force was responsible for impregnating the entire town, the exact details were never revealed. It could have been alien, demonic, extra-dimensional, who knows what. That was part of what made it scary. The remake is up front: It’s aliens. There’s nothing wrong with that, I suppose, but it certainly removes part of what made the story interesting.

Carpenter’s direction is mostly as lifeless as every else about the film. The final confrontation between Reeves and the kids, though swiped almost wholesale from the original, manages to build some tension. What follows is a decent ending and the film’s sole exciting moment. (Also, the final shot might be a reference to Cronenberg’s “The Brood.”) Carpenter and Dave Davies’ score is usually overbearing but the use of a children’s choir is spooky and appropriate. For the most part, so much about “Village of the Damned” is mediocre. It shows a sharp decline in quality for the filmmaker and was, in many ways, the beginning of the end. [Graded: C-]       

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Director Report Card: John Carpenter (1994)

16. In the Mouth of Madness

John Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy follows a natural progression. “The Thing” shows an apocalypse beginning, the origins of the end of the world. “Prince of Darkness” is an apocalypse in evolution, one shut down just before breaking loose and even then, only being prevented. “In the Mouth of Madness” is the pay-off to that build-up, a movie that promises Armageddon and delivers. This is how the world ends. And it’s awesome.

“Prince of Darkness” wore its influences on its sleeve. “In the Mouth of Madness” continues this pattern. Lovecraftian elements bled through each chapter of the trilogy but this film takes them much further then any of the others. A good portion of the film is set in a sinister New England town called Hobb’s End, a place that is clearly just a short drive from Arkham, Dunwich, or Innsmouth. Like Innsmouth, the town’s citizens become involved in occult rituals before becoming something other then human. The old woman who runs the local hotel is Mrs. Pickman. Moreover, the film is awash in Lovecraftian visuals. Squamous, eldritch horrors squirm with tentacles and rows of gnashing fangs, just outside the frame of our reality. A painting in the hotel, one of the creepiest elements in the film, progressively grows more disturbing. The happy couple develops the Innsmouth Look, something appearing in the water. Next we see the painting, the man and woman have changed into crawling, octopus-headed monsters, a black church rising from the waters, the appendages of something big in the sky. Most blatantly, the Old Ones themselves are named dropped.

The Lovecraft element goes deeper then just cribbing the author’s style and aesthetic. The film addresses the author’s favorite theme of madness. Violent insanity takes over the entire world in this film. While Lovecraft always stopped just short of showing society totally ripped apart by madnes,. Carpenter dives right in. Moreover, the movie explores the relationship between author and reader, reality and fiction. Millions of people reading the same story make it true, whither they believe in it or not. That belief drags the author’s world out of his own head and into our reality. From a subtext level, “In the Mouth of Madness” is one of Carpenter’s richest films.

At the beginning, “In the Mouth of Madness” almost seems like it will play out like a detective story. Sam Neil’s insurance investigator is presented almost like a hard-boiled P.I., cynical about the world, always getting his man. This is shown in a wonderful scene where Neil breaks down an arson-fraudster with ease. He is hired by a publishing house to track down Sutter Cane, a writer of cosmic horror stories and the best selling author in the world. He’s gone missing and Neil’s quest to find the man soon brings him to Hobb’s End, a town that seemingly only exist in Cane’s head. After that, the line between fiction and reality begin to blur, bleed into and over each other. Neil remains skeptical until he comes face-to-face with the otherworldly horrors, which is probably the reason why he’s resistant to the mind-shattering insanity virus for so long. The same virus that eventually destroys the world. By the end, the film’s meta elements come full circle. The viewer is left to wonder just how much of this fiction is fiction within the fiction.

All this talk of creeping dread and the end of the world wouldn’t matter much unless the film was actually scary. Luckily, the movie is chock full of horror of all different sorts. The creature effects are comparable to “The Thing.” The slimy, slithering monsters are only ever seen in quick glimpses, briskly edited montages of creepy images. The combined effect is unnerving. This is employed several times, each time the horrors growing closer. My favorite moments involves Neil catching a glimpse of Mrs. Pickman in her basement, now more monster then human, a bloodied axe swinging through the air. The film’s main theme is visually illustrated when an author pulls himself apart, pages of a book tearing apart, tearing the walls of reality apart too.

Aside from Lovecraft, Carpenter pays due to the other masters of horror. The careening camera angles in the opening asylum sequences remind me of Argento, as do the close-ups of thrashing blades. Stephen King is referenced by name and Sutter Cane himself seems at least partially based on King. (The Lovecraft elements and meta devices are things King would probably do, too.) The scene of Neil’s love interest twisting herself into a four-legged monstrosity, bones cracking, creaking around, wouldn’t be out of place in a David Cronenberg film. If it wasn’t made three years before, I’d say the close-ups of yellow road lines passing through the headlights is a reference to David Lynch’s “Lost Highway.” Either way, parts of the film drip with surreal, Lynchian atmosphere. The long sequence of a boy/old man on a bicycle is there for no reason beyond it’s freaky. “In the Mouth of Madness” captures Lovecraftian creepiness the best since “Possession,” which it seems to wink at a few times. Aside from both films starring Sam Neil, both share a shot of a monster in a person suit standing behind a glass door, an evil force pushing through from one side to another.

The movie indulges in some traditional horror elements from time to time. Neil seeing a cop beating a man in an alley-way is creepy. When it’s repeated in a nightmare, it’s creepy if a little overdone. When Neil wakes up in a nightmare within a nightmare, it gets a little silly. Luckily, the film’s further use of jump scares are a little better. The only horror element that doesn’t work is the Hobb’s End townsfolk being consumed by the evil forces. The make-up is great and, as long as the shots of deformed people are confined to quick edits, they work. However, kids with creepy voices and messed up faces lack the subtle creepiness the rest of the film employs. It might not sound like it but “In the Mouth of Madness” has a darkly comic vein running through. A muzak version of the Carpenters is well-used and a long held shot of an axe wielding maniac walking towards our protagonist is both creepy and oddly funny.

Sam Neil does a great job in the lead, running the gamut of emotions. He maintains an oddly funny edge throughout while never undermining the horror of the situation. Jurgen Prochnow is very creepy as Sutter Cane, doing a lot with just a malicious glance or grin. Julie Carmen is probably the weakest of the leads but she has the tricky goal of playing someone being manipulated by other forces. This considered, I suppose she does an okay job. Charlton Heston, David Warner, and John Glover all stop by for amusing cameos, each one playing the kind of part you’d expect. And a bit of praise must go out to Frances Bay, probably better known as Happy Gilmore’s Grandma, as Mrs. Pickman. She’s the nastiest old lady you’re likely to see in any horror movie and she does it without ever raising her voice.

Powered by one of my favorite Carpenter scores, “In the Mouth of Madness” is the director’s last masterpiece. Genuinely creepy, packed full of plenty of content to chew over, darkly funny, and deeply clever, it’s an underrated and underseen chiller from one of the weakest decades for horror. [Grade: A-]

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Director Report Card: John Carpenter (1993)

15. Body Bags (with Tobe Hooper)

In the early nineties, HBO’s “Tales from the Crypt” made horror anthologies kind of a big thing. It’s not surprising that Showtime, one of HBO’s pay-cable rivals, would conceptualize their own horror anthology series. In perhaps a bid to rival the big name talent of Robert Zemeckis and Walter Hill that the Crypt Keeper had in his corner, Showtime reeled in John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper, two of the most influential names in modern horror.

Comparing “Body Bags” to “Tales from the Crypt” is apt in several ways. Both featured a cheeky, pun-spewing horror host. While in “Tales,” the episodes are framed around stories in a book, “Body Bags” frames each of their stories around a morgue locker. One way you can’t compare the two is that “Tales from the Crypt” went on for seven seasons, three movies, a Saturday morning cartoon show, a kid's game show, and remains a well-remembered bit of nineties pop culture. “Body Bags” spawned a single pilot movie that isn’t even available on DVD anymore.

The movie isn’t all that well liked but fans with low expectations might find some enjoyment here. John Carpenter fans have an interesting reason to check it out. On a rare occasion, the director himself steps in front of the camera. Carpenter hams it up as the unnamed Coroner, an undead ghoul who regales the audience with the stories of how each body ended up in the proverbial bag. I’ve always found the horror host atmosphere kind of cozy, just out of the nature of a character speaking directly to the audience. Carpenter, who has always kept a low profile as far as on-screen appearances go, really chews the scenery. Even if John’s lack of classical acting training is fairly evident, the framing devices are still fun. If you enjoy the brutal punning of the Crypt Keeper, you’ll probably get some laughs or groans out of the dead body related wisecrack delivered here. However, it’s hard to imagine Carpenter’s enthusiasm sustaining itself for a series run. Especially considering the way the framing device ends, it’s a little hard to see a continuing show. Was the Coroner going to be dissected at the end of every episode? (I’m fairly certain the morgue sequences were directed by an uncredited Larry Sulkis.)

Carpenter directed the first two sequences, which I’ll talk about here. I’ll save the third Tobe Hooper directed sequence for that director’s inevitable report card.

The first sequence, “The Gas Station,” is easily the best. Carpenter seems to be spoofing his own “Halloween” a little bit here and it’s notable that this is the director’s only return to the slasher sub-genre after that seminal film. The story resembles an urban legend, which might explain how much I liked it. A young girl works her first night as the night shift attendant at a spooky, out of the way gas station. Despite being a young woman in an isolated location, she ignores the warning of a serial killer being on the loose. Throughout the night, she has a series of increasingly disquieting run-ins before the threat reveals itself from a some-what unexpected place.

Considering the half-hour runtime and abundance of horror clichés, “The Gas Station” raises a surprising amount of tension. Carpenter uses the isolated location well, filling the limited space with blue and grey shadows. Seems like every guy who knocks on the glass is creepy, a surprisingly effective tactic. The segment has no fear of jump-scares, deploying them regularly. This just adds to the disquieting mood. When the killer is revealed, the show actually creates some tension. It gets good mileage out of the tried and true tactic of the girl stumbling away from the killer as he slowly moves in on her. The sudden story development that ends up saving her life is easy to anticipate but I can’t help but find the killer’s dispatchment to be especially nasty and amusing. There’s a darkly comedic tone running under the whole thing.

I wonder, if “Body Bags” had been picked up for series, if it would have been “Masters of Horror” a decade earlier. Aside from Carpenter directing, he sneaks in cameos from Wes Craven and Sam Raimi. (Both well cast as a dirty old man and a dead body, respectively.) Genre favorites like David Naughton and “Buck” Flowers have roles, while Alex Datcher makes a decent final girl. Robert Carradine ends up playing against type and is both amusing and kind of legitimately threatening. The in-jokey tone really becomes evident with the several shout-outs to “Halloween.” The entire story is set just outside of Haddonfield and Carpenter recreates the killer raising up from the ground shot. It’s not horror prime rib but “The Gas Station” does make for a decent horror fast food hamburger.

The second Carpenter lensed story, “Hair,” is a lot less successful. The premise is hokey in the highest degree. While the idea of a man’s insecurity about loosing his hair has some ripe opportunity to commit on aging, the show instead goes for easy gags. This is meant to be a comedy but the laughs rarely come. The set-up is long-winded and the lead character’s obsession with his lack of hair just seems overly exaggerated. The montage of waxing, flaxing, long hair blowing in the wind set to Crosby, Still, and Nash really goes on too long. The sci-fi/horror elements come with a thud. Stanley Keach does okay in the lead but seems strangulated by the material. David Warner and Debby Harry have little to do in their small roles. It seems odd that talented, known names like them would be cast in roles that don’t amount to much. The ending is inconclusive and lifeless. The only thing I really liked about “Hair” were the little stop-motion hair monsters. The movie even overdoes that. The first time we see the cut hairs slithering off on their own, it’s clever. The amusement factor goes down with each additional shot.

I probably would have watched and enjoyed a full run of “Body Bags.” The first story is quite good, the second is super lame, and the third is about half-and-half. As far as horror anthology records out, one-and-a-half out of three isn’t too bad. “Body Bags” is probably a little better then it’s reputation suggests.  
[The Gas Station: B] [Hair: C-] [Film overall: B-]

Monday, April 22, 2013

Bangers n' Mash: Toy Movies

This actually went up on the Tube on the 15th but I'm just now posting it here because the podcast post tend to be the least viewed here on my blog. Should the Bangers n' Mash Show ever get it's own website, I'll stop posting here. But for the time being I'll continue.

Anyway, the topic was toy movies, movies based off of action figures, board games, trading cards, items and concepts generally considered toys. This mostly means me ranting at length about the shitty "Transformers" movies. We recorded this episode to coincide with the release of "G.I. Joe: Retaliation" but, because it takes me about two weeks to edit the shit out of the base recording, this didn't get release until a few weeks after people had stopped caring about that movie. The next episode, similarly, deals with a topic that was relevant two weeks ago. It will be out soon, promise.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Director Report Card: John Carpenter (1992)

14. Memoirs of an Invisible Man

John Carpenter’s career is spotted with a few work-for-hire jobs, impersonal films relatively lacking in his stylistic trademarks and quirks. “Starman,” “Elvis,” “Christine” for a better example. But no work-for-hire job is more work-for-hire-er then “Memoirs of an Invisible Man.” While he’s not totally inexperienced in the genre, a slapstick Chevy Chase comedy is far from the first thing you associate with the director. His lack of interest is so obvious, you can see it right there in the poster. “Memoirs of an Invisible Man” is the only John Carpenter film without his name over the title.

The movie starts off on a semi-decent note. Chevy Chase plays a stock broker, one who is, har har, rather transparent in his personal life and philosophies. His life is devoid of meaning until he meets Alice, played by Daryl Hannah during the peak of her loveliness, and immediately falls in love with her. Shame for him that the next day he gets caught in a lab accident at a nuclear research facility and turned invisible. Soon, he’s on the run from government agents. The movie gets some decent comedic mileage in these early going scenes from Chase’s typical sarcastic wit, in particular his dismissal of his co-workers. There’s a number of laughs and sight gags in the early going. A particularly amusing sequence involves the invisible Chevy manipulating a unconscious drunk in a taxi cab. There’s some small, funny gags, like Chase nonchalantly grabbing a purse back away from a purse-snatcher.

Considering Chase’s other comedic trademark is his slapstick antics, you’d think being invisible for the majority of the film would be a hindrance. That’s right and the movie gets around this in a pretty lame way. A lot of the film is shown from Chase’s perspective, showing him as visible in many scenes. The only time he’s actually invisible is when the movie needs to show off some special effects, showing objects floating in the air, manipulated by invisible hands. Granted, the special effects, most of them accomplished with blue screen methods, actually hold very well. Pencils, phones, and even a faceful of make-up float seamlessly in the air. The only time the effects show their age is the shot of a floating head running down the street. All of this is neat but I feel like a memoir featuring a largely visible man is kind of cheating. Perhaps this was a concession to Chase’s notorious ego?

While the movie’s first half-hour is amusing enough, around the half-hour mark it settles into a somewhat dragging rut. Chase goes off the grid, hiding in a co-worker’s vacation home. Following the rules of dramatic screenwriting, Hannah and a few other friends show up. The comic highlight in these scenes involves a naked Chevy and a premature ejaculation joke. After that, Chase and Hannah go on the run together and the movie starts to focus on the romance. The two have decent chemistry but the laughs stop cold during this segment. At this point, “Memoirs of an Invisible Man” looses me. There’s a definite tonal shift here and it’s widely unsuccessful.

Another weird aspect to the film is the subplot involving the government agents. Sam Neill plays the villainous Agent Jenkins. Neill is actually legitimately sinister in this part, creating a lot of malevolent intent with just a glare. Moreover, the way he makes a fairly convincing case for his goals makes him an oddly rounded villain. This is best illustrated in a brief moment where Hannah looks up into a train door, seeing Neill’s face reflected on the other side of the glass. The movie is overall light-hearted and Neill’s most villainous act is an off-screen murder, which really isn’t followed up on or given much weight. So this makes the character’s ultimate fate seem overly mean-spirited, not to mention casting Chase in an unpleasant light.

There’s ultimately little here to interest Carpenter fans. As far as his stylistic trademarks go, there’s one brief tracking shot and a POV shot, from Chase’ perspective as he floats over the edge of some water. Beyond that, there are some classic horror references. The invisible man, naturally, gets in a bathrobe, bandages, and goggles at one point. Neill mentions the possibility of invisible agents in World War II. The movie keeps a few accurate aspects from H.G. Welles’ original novel, such as digesting food in the invisible man’s stomach being visible until fully adsorbed into the body or the invisible man having difficulty sleeping do to a lack of eyelids. (It doesn’t address dirt collecting under fingernails or going blind from invisible corneas.) Carpenter, being a blatant Hitchcock fan, can’t resist throwing in a brief shout-out to Bodega Bay.

“Memoirs of an Invisible Man” is a fairly forgettable Chevy Chase vehicle, another in a long string of box office bombs for the actor at the time. The film wastes Michael McKean and Stephen Tobolowsky in small supporting roles, while not doing much with Darryl Hannah besides getting her in some tight, skimpy outfits. Aside from standout special effects, there’s not much to recommend. Carpenter fans can easily skip this one. He didn’t even score it. [Grade: C]

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Director Report Card: John Carpenter (1988)

13. They Live
Up to this point in his career, John Carpenter had remained an apolitical filmmaker, focusing instead on ambiguous evil. With “They Live,” Carpenter put his political philosophies on his sleeve. This is a movie with a blunt political agenda. In it, the rich, upper class, predominately right-wing Republicans are evil, demonic aliens from outer space. One of the things that’s most brilliant about the film is that it criticizes Regan-era politics through one of its most enduring pop culture contribution: The tough guy, hyper-macho, shoot-em-up action movie. Like George Romero’s best films sneaks social critique in under traditional horror trappings, “They Live” is a big dumb action movie built around biting social satire.

The film has an immediately hooking premise. A drifter, an everyman named Nada, wanders into California looking for work. It’s not easy to find, here in 1988. Despite Ronald Regan’s trickle down economic supposedly boosting America’s budget, that cash hasn’t trickle down to a blue-collar worker like Nada. He’s turned away from the unemployment office, sleeping in homeless shelters, and has to wiggle his way into a construction job. After getting his hands on a mysterious box of sunglasses, “They Live” comes to its most brilliant narrative device. The ominous, omniscient “they” of the title has manipulated human kind with super-subliminal messages all around us. Billboards are actually labeled “OBEY,” money is marked with “This is Your God,” magazines read “Watch TV,” “Don’t Question Authority,” and “Consume and Reproduce.” It’s both hilarious and kind of subtly terrifying. From that point on, “They Live” will have any viewer all ready on its wavelength totally hooked.

Though that element of the film is widely referenced, it doesn’t actually factor much into the film after that first half-hour. “They Live” is actually fantastically paced. Its first act is rather slow, focusing on Nada’s situation and the general social situation, slowly revealing the conspiracy. After the sunglasses go on and the conspiracy is revealed, “They Live” ramps up into an awesome action-packed violence-fest. The glasses are actually just a launching pad for this action. Roddy Piper launches into what would be, out of context, a random shooting rampage. That it works is a testament to how much Carpenter has put the audience on the character’s side, the general fantasized tone of the film, and Piper’s natural charm.

The second act is so brilliantly paced, alternating brutal, hugely entertaining action scenes with slower scenes dripping with quiet tension, that the final act comes off as slightly sloppy. Our characters drop into the center of the villain’s lair a little too easily. From a screenwriting perspective, it’s too smooth a solution to a problem presented as wide and insurmountable. Despite this, the ending is actually perfect, showing its everyman hero defeating the conspiracy while also supporting the film’s smart ass sense of humor and tough guy philosophy.

“They Live” features some of John Carpenter’s best action. It’s stronger then that seen in “Escape from New York” or “The Thing,” playing like something of a cross between “Rambo”-style machine gun murder and Hong Kong, heroic bloodshed bullet ballet. The first real action scene, the scuffle with the street cops, is nicely edited and defuses any unpleasant overtones with cathartic bad-assery. The bank shoot-out is an early highlight, with some nice shot gun brain scattering and creative blasting. Nada and Frank holding off alien forces in a back aisle also works well, with Roddy Piper being adapt at making gunning down bad guys an entertaining visual. The final raid is pure, eighties action cheese. Two heroes, armed with machine guns and bottomless magazines, successfully break through enemy arms. The movie comes close to falling into the “guns go off, people fall down” doldrums during this sequence but there’s enough creative gun-slinging to prevent this and keep things fun and interesting.

And the fight, of course. “They Live’s” most enduring contribution to action cinema is the legendary man-on-man wrestling match between Roddy Piper and Keith David. Going on for nearly six minutes, the fight scene continues pass the limits of absurdity, stretching into pure one-on-one theatrics. The two guys struggle, bleed, bash each other senseless, push against walls, and land hard on concrete. It’s easy to believe that Piper and David really did beat the shit out of each other. Though bare-knuckled and intentionally direct, lacking the finesse of kung-fu choreography, the scene flows nicely from an action standard. It’s a beloved sequence in cult movie history for a reason.

It’s worth asking: Just how much of the movie is meant to be taken seriously? The social commentary is an honest critique of public apathy and media manipulation. At the same time, it’s intentionally exaggerated to smart-ass levels. The movie, with its one-liners and over-the-top action, is quite funny, sometimes hilarious. The final scene, when the masquerade comes down, is obviously a piss take. (Including some blatant T&A and a probably friendly jab at Siskel and Ebert.) While Regan-style Republicans were obviously a target, the movie snipes more keenly on general human greed and lack of ethics. A minor character sells out humanity in exchange for fame and riches. There’s less hostility towards the upper class then there is a general willingness to relate to the plight of the common man. If anything, Carpenter’s rage at the rich and well-to-do of the world seems more sparked by people unable to find work and middling in poverty. Exhibit 1: The scene where characters are discussing businesses going under, people getting laid off, and company presidents getting raises.

The movie’s stand on pop culture is even cloudier. It gladly points at television as a means to pacify and placate the masses, despite the director, you know, working in that industry. Perhaps we aren’t meant to read too much into this. Either way, the movie’s theme certainly hits a nerve. (Especially since very little has changed.) It predated, predicted, and possibly influenced several conspiracy theories people actually believe.

The film doesn’t have a wide cast, instead focusing on three central characters. “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, of course, got his start in the pro-wrestling rings and could never be commended for his range. However, in “They Live” and Nada, he found a good home for his humble, everyman charms. He looks like a real hard labor worker and never seems less then genuine. His physicality is well-suited to the part. He makes completely ridiculous one-liners hit with humor and energy. While the film probably should have made the easily charming Piper an action superstar, his acting career never really took off. To give you an idea of these diminished returns, his later films had him playing sidekick to Billy Blanks and Don “The Dragon” Wilson.

The cynical sidekick to Piper’s hopeful hero is Keith David’s Frank. Keith David is, traditionally, awesome in everything and anything. His massive voice brings a natural level of respect while he’s more then willing to jump into the bad-ass action required of this part. David and Piper play off of each other nicely. Meg Foster is the far corner of the character triangle, playing the film’s femme fatale. Foster’s steely beauty and penetrating blue eyes had always typecast her as an evil woman in numerous films. Her part is, honestly, a bit underwritten here even if Foster (whom, by the way, I’ve met) brings her expected level of professionalism to the part. Carpenter regular Peter Jason also gets a bit part as one of the leaders of the rebellion.

In addition to solid action, Carpenter deploys some strong style here. My favorite is the brief use of Bava-esque purple colors washing over a few scenes. His POV shots are attached to gun barrels this time. While the aliens aren’t the greatest special effects, their designs are effective never the less. Their big bug-eyes attach them to expected alien clichés, as does the blue skin, while their appearance intentionally recall skinless bodies and skull-like death-heads. With a little more money, the creatures probably could have been genuinely creepy visuals. The cherry atop the Carpenter style sundae is his bluesy, moody score. It’s one of his best, with the jazzy tones linking to the common man characters.

Though the film was met with something of a shrug from mainstream audiences like all of John Carpenter’s post-“Thing” films, the movie has become perhaps the director’s most cultishly beloved film. The “all out of bubblegum” ad-lib has taken on a life of its own, being referenced countless times throughout multiple mediums. (In addition to naming one of my favorite websites.) The back-aisle brawl has taken on memeic status, most infamously recreated clothesline-for-clothesline, bodyslam-for-bodyslam on an episode of “South Park.” The movie is a fairly frequent fixture on cable channels and widely regarded as a classic of the action and sci-fi genre. It’s a personal project for Carpenter and also a lot of fun. They live, we sleep, and this movie kicks ass. [Grade: A-]

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Director Report Card: John Carpenter (1987)

12. Prince of Darkness

“Prince of Darkness” is, perhaps, the oddest film in Carpenter’s filmography. The central villain in the film is a giant canister of swirling, green fluid. The green fluid is self-aware and intelligent. Also, it’s literally Satan. A Satan that controls insects, earthworms, and hordes of schizophrenic homeless people. A devil that turns people into blank-faced zombies that spray slime at people out of their mouths. There’s dream sequences, an Anti-God living on the other side of the mirror, threatening messages typed out frantically on computer screens, a man made of beetles, and some other weird stuff. Even in a career that featured beach ball aliens and evil automobiles, this one sticks out for sheer oddness alone.

The story, revolving around a group of advance physics students investigating strange events at an old church, features a tantalizing concept at its core. The script explicitly links the metaphysical with the blatantly religious, justifying a belief in both. There are subatomic levels so far out there and obscure, that our minds aren’t capable of comprehending them. There are worlds beyond our physical perception. The Devil is real but he’s somehow simultaneously an abstract concept and a literal, physical being. Religion is a lie but not for the reasons you think. Jesus really was the Son of God but his real reason for coming down here was to warn us about the Satan Slime, who fell from the stars, a concept that can be read both as religious metaphor and science fiction. Also, Satan Slime is just the second worse guy around. His Dad from out of town is way worse. “Prince of Darkness” shows pure horror and pure sci-fi coming together.

It’s a mishmash of divergent influences. A group of logical, scientific researchers investigate an ancient, insidious, alien evil, finding things that challenge their beliefs. This is straight out of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass films. Carpenter upfront acknowledges the influence by crediting his screenplay under the pseudonym of ‘Martin Quatermass.’ Said ancient, alien evil, which definitively comes from the stars, links to an alternate dimension, occupied by a great, overseeing wicked god, as spoken of in an arcane book of forbidden knowledge. Another example of Carpenter’s great debt to H.P. Lovecraft. There are moments of the film, with arms exploding out of walls and masses of deadly writhing bodies that remind me of a George Romero zombie flick. Other minutes, with demonically possessed people running around trying to spread their disease, seems out of “Evil Dead,” while the image of a devil-possessed, scarred up, bedridden woman seemingly intentionally recalls “The Exorcist.” Carpenter even manages to slip in a scissor stabbing murder, involving an elaborate tracking shot of the blades, that wouldn’t be out of place in an Argento giallo. Despite drawing from so many different sources, there’s something distinctively Carpenter about “Prince of Darkness.”

Maybe it’s just the cast, which features several of the director’s veteran performers. Donald Pleasence headlines as a priest, tossed headlong into an uncertain world. Pleasence plays the part roughly along the same wavelength as Dr. Loomis, a wizened knower of evil that seems rather ominous himself at times. The big difference is that unlike Dr. Loomis, the unnamed priest goes on an arc of recovering his faith. Just like the film, he makes room for both angels and demons. Victor Wong has a good role, very different from “Big Trouble’s” Egg, as a physicist equally seeing his beliefs challenged by his strange experiences. If anything, Wong fills the Dr. Loomis role a little better then Pleasence does. Fellow “Big Trouble in Little China” alum Dennis Dun plays one of the students, whose constant horndog pick-up lines, bad jokes, and panicked screams make him the film’s comic relief most of the time. Peter Jason as a smart alec doctor running the research trip provides the rest of the relief. Jason’s part seems like it could have been played by Charles Cypher. Similarly, the mustachioed leading man, played by the undistinguished Jameson Parker, probably would have been played by Tom Atkins a few years earlier. I’d be remiss not to mention Alice Cooper’s extended cameo as the leader of the killer bums. (Cooper also contributes a pretty awesome song to the soundtrack, by the way.)

The reason “Prince of Darkness” has such a cult following, aside from its general off-beat tone, is because it builds up several effective horror set pieces. The opening credits, which last ten minutes, cuts between the story’s set-up, characters discovering disquieting things, with the white on black titles, Carpenter’s pounding synth score droning along creepily.

Despite some heavy-handed exposition, the movie builds some decent feelings of dread as things build towards the end of the first act. The image of the green slime pooling upside down on the ceiling is oddly off-putting. There’s creepy or gross images like a crucified dove or worms clinging to a window. The image of an evil woman crawling over someone’s bed, waiting to deliver a deadly kiss, reminded me of the Old Hag. My favorite bit involves a corpse brought to life by mass of beetles, quivering out a message before collapsing in on itself. A scene of a character caught between two oncoming crowds of madmen delivers a genuine thrill. A man stabs himself to death after finishing a hymn.

Soon, the film becomes a reverse siege picture of sorts, people besieged by things from inside their fort. Arms pushing through doors and walls recall zombie flicks and Carpenter’s own “The Fog.” The movie manages to build some decent tension and the last act is genuinely creepy, as the film throws more strange images at you. Right before the disquieting end, we get a really strong jump scare, of which the movie has a few. Most famously is the reoccurring dream images, which we see more of with every nap, getting more ominous with each repetition.

Given the film’s go-for-broke wacked-out-ness, not all of it works. The ensemble cast is large enough that some characters don’t receive much characterization, some of them obviously being more or less monster fodder. The computer typed message of doom pushes into melodramatic goofiness. The pasty-faced zombies spitting on people is just as likely to amuse as put off. There’s a stretch in the middle that drags, when the characters are standing around, waiting for the apocalypse to come. The love story proves the film’s biggest problem. Jameson Parker and Lisa Blount quickly go from classmates to lover, falling in bed with each other within a single night. Her eventual fate sets up the climax’s entire emotional crux. While creepy taken on its own, the love story is never convincing. Parker and Blount don’t have much chemistry, Blount is kind of flat in general, and both characters are written slightly thin.

“Prince of Darkness” is just strange enough, just spooky enough, to overcome whatever flaws it has. As the middle chapter of Carpetner’s Apocalypse Trilogy, it feels undeniably apocalyptic, dredging up a real sense of dread before the end. It strikes me as an oddly personal project for the filmmaker, with him throwing together a lot of the things that fascinate him, even if it doesn’t make much sense. There are a few of his trademark tracking shots and the score is pretty decent. It’s probably one of the filmmaker’s less seen movies. Somewhat uneven but fascinating never the less, I’d recommend it. [Grade: B]

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Director Report Card: John Carpenter (1986)

11. Big Trouble in Little China

“Big Trouble in Little China” is a true cult classic. Soundly rejected by the public upon release, it has since built up a huge fan following. Many Carpenter fans consider it their favorite movie. The movie’s box office failure shouldn’t have come as any surprise. Even in today’s market, where low-genre homages are a cottage industry and produced some big hits, an oddball comedy take on Hong Kong kung-fu/fantasy flicks would probably be a dicey proposition. With “Big Trouble in Little China,” Carpenter let his wacky side out for the first time since “Dark Star.”

Conceived as a western that somehow became a homage to the wilder Hong Kong kung-fu films of the sixties and seventies, “Big Trouble in Little China” owes a debt to both genres. Like in a western, the lone hero rides into town and finds an adventure. In a modernized move, the hero is a trucker, though still very much a cowboy in attitude. San Francisco’s Chinatown makes for a colorful setting. Pretty quickly a plot involving a kidnapped girl, an immortal sorcerer, and Chinatown’s criminal and magical underground follows, with all the magic, monsters, gun play, and kung-fu fighting that implies.

With tongue always firmly planted in cheek, the plot slowly ups the ridiculousness. At first, Jack Burton’s comic faux-machoness is the only indication. Soon, Chinese gangsters in leather jackets, sunglasses, and bandanas show up, along with a strong single female lawyer. A car chase dead ends in an alley way and a gangland gun fight follows. That would be enough for most action movies but this one is just getting started. Three super powered Chinese supervillains quite literally fall out of the sky, massacre both sides, and we get a glimpse at the movie’s main villain. We’re off. The story only gets wilder as it progresses. With every descent deeper into the ground, more oddities are revealed. The story is actually fairly straight-forward once you strip away all the hoodoo but there’s enough room to make the accusation of plot holes. The movie barrels along, not really noticing or caring if every little detail doesn’t perfectly line up. It’s too energetic to be sloppy and lends an exciting edge were anything can happen.

Perhaps the film’s best attribute is its protagonist. Jack Burton is, in the simplest of terms, fucking awesome. He takes the cowboy shtick Kurt Russell trotted out as Snake and turns it on its head. Jack Burton is a blowhard and kind of an idiot, prone to making wide, sweeping, vaguely metaphoric statements that make little actual sense.

He sees himself as the hero of the film. He’s not. This is hinted at when he’s rambling “You know what ol’ Jack Burton says?” statements are met with confusion and bewilderment. It becomes obvious in a few of the sequences where Burton’s over-the-top attempts at heroics go awry. He grabs a knife out of his boot but accidentally tosses it across the room. By the time he’s retrieved it, his hyper-confident partner has dispatched all the bad guys. Shooting a machine gun into the air willy-nilly turns out not to be a smart idea. Jack spends almost the entire climatic battle pinned underneath the dead body of a big guard. The main joke of the story is that Jack thinks he’s the hero when he’s actually the comic-relief sidekick. High-kicking buddy Wang is the real badass. While this could have potentially been annoying, Russell’s comedic timing and natural charm makes Burton wholly endearing. The script doles out enough moments of actual competence to keep Jack from being a total loser, even if he’s still an idiot. It’s the kind of role only the exclusive few like Russell or Bruce Campbell could pull off and remains the actor’s best part.

Any of Jack Burton’s potentially aggravating characteristic are further reduced by the fact that this is an ensemble film. The cast is top lined by two of the most memorable Chinese-American character actors. James Hong as Lo Pan is awesome. When playing a Fu Manchu-like undead evil wizard, most would expect a fairly serious, intimidating performance. Hong plays it for comedy. Lo Pan is a smart-ass, thoroughly modern wizard. Perhaps this was unavoidable, since Hong’s distinctive voice has an inherently humorous quality to it. Either way, Lo Pan is just as memorable and entertaining a character as Jack Burton is. For further points, Hong has no problem acting under either of the heavy make-ups the part puts him in.

Victor Wong, though frequently cast in serious roles like “The Last Emperor,” was a gifted comedic actor. His oddball looks and ability to gift even the most mythology-laden lines with a sarcastic sense of humor puts him at the film’s forefront. Dennis Dun’s character of Wang Chi seems to have been inspired by Jackie Chan, if his acrobatics and way with a one-liner is any indication. Of course, Dun is nowhere near the martial artist Chan is but the film makes it work anyway. Kim Cartrell, whom I normally don’t like, shows a good sense of humor. She makes her character more then a damsel in distress anyway. (Which is more then we can say for Suzee Pai as Wang’s defenseless love interest.)

While none of the actors playing the Three Storms have much to do from a thespian perspective, all three are pretty awesome. Carter Wong is probably the one who does the most acting. Check out those angry faces during the mostly inexplicable sword dance sequence. Lightening is definitely the coolest though, floating around and tossing electrical bursts, and would blatantly inspire Raiden from “Mortal Kombat.” The most I can say about Peter Wong as Rain is that he looks a lot like David Chiang and somehow doesn’t look ridiculous flying through the air on wires. It’s fair to say the cast is maybe a little too big, since Kate Burton’s nervous news reporter and Donald Li’s laidback Eddie Lee get something of the shaft, but both characters are still very amusing even with their lack of screen time.

The movie is immensely funny, mostly due to the performances and the quick-witted dialogue. My favorite moment is, after the heroes take an invincibility potion. Most movies would cut directly to the battle. Instead, “Big Trouble” takes the time to show the characters' hilarious small-talk banter as they ride down the elevator towards battle. That scene gets me every time. A good reoccurring gag revolves around repeated mention of all the different Chinese Hells, which pays off nicely when Dun messes with Jack over the writing on a door.

Despite its comedic elements, the film is still quite effective as an action movie. There’s a number of thrilling sequences, such Wang cutting loose on the goons in the pottery room, or Jack tittering over a pit in a wheelchair. That wonderfully creative wacky streak leads to so many great moments in the last act. There’s a bunch of weird ass monsters that appear, like a long-armed red-haired ape monster, a giant fish creature leaping from walls, or, best yet, the floating eyeball monster. That final battle is when the action kicks into high gear. Victor Wong banishes scores of enemies with magical grenades before having a psychic beam-o-war fingernail magic battle with Lo Pan. Meanwhile, Wang sails through the air like a Shaw Bros. hero.

Not to mention the fantastic, horror-meets-neon-lights-Chinese-buffet set design. Which do I like better? The giant skull escalator? The multi-armed Buddha elevator? The black blood of the Earth? It’s all so good. You can’t really call the intentionally campy aspect ironic, since John Carpenter and his crew are fully enjoying themselves.

All the energy and off-beat humor present in the film shouldn’t come as a surprise once you realize W. D. Richter, the same guy who brought us “The Adventures of Buckaroo Bonzai Across the Eighth Dimension,” was heavily involved in the scripting. Like that film, “Big Trouble in Little China” was too joyously weird to be anything but a box office bomb. It was destined for home video cult classic status more or less immediately. All of this is a shame since a sequel could have been incredible. In the unlikely chance that a big-shot producer type is reading this, I’ve had an outline for one called “Return of the Pork Chop Express” on my hard drive for a while now. Sit back, listen to the awesomely silly theme song, and wonder what might have been. [Grade: A-]

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Director Report Card: John Carpenter (1984)

10. Starman

After “The Thing” collapsed at the box office and with critics, John Carpenter was in work-for-hire mode. “Starman” was hardly a personal project for him. The film had passed through directors as divergent in style and approach as Mark Rydell, Adrian Lynn, John Badham, Tony Scott, and Peter Hyams before finally arriving at Carpenter. The director was apparently looking to distance himself from the exploitation genre, you can’t help but get the impression that “Starman” wasn’t much more then a job for him.

If anything, the movie almost feels like Carpenter publicly apologizing for “The Thing.” Often described as “E.T. for grown-ups,” though actually pre-dating that project, “Starman” is a sappy extraterrestrial love story. An alien who appears to be made of pure light, an interesting idea the film explores in no way, crash-lands on Earth, before stumbling into the cabin of grieving widow Karen Allen. Luck would have it that all the photographs, home movies, and a lock of hair of her late husband just happens to be left out. Using these resources, the alien grows a human body from infancy to adulthood in minutes, the movie’s sole moment of interesting special effects. Shocked and thoroughly confused, Allen and the Starman, now played by Jeff Bridges, head out on an adventure, to get to his emergency pick-up ride in three days. The two strange-strangers come to understand and eventually love each other is inevitable. The duo is pursued by a military general who acts like an asshole pretty much for no good reason.

I don’t hate “Starman.” There are plenty of likable elements to the film. The film managed to do the unthinkable by earning an Academy Award nomination, despite being in the science fiction genre. Bridges’ critically-lauded title performance certainly is very good. In modern language, he goes “full-alien,” not being afraid to play his character as occasionally off-putting, uncanny, or odd. His motion is stiff and robotic, right down to unblinking motionless eyes, capturing something inhuman in a human body quite well. Honestly, he comes very close to over-doing it, as his body language is frequently distracting. However, Bridges still manages to make the character relatable, most notably in a scene where the alien first taste Dutch Apple Pie. One of Bridges’ best tools as an actor is his innate likable and that is what makes the Starman memorable.

Yet a part of me can’t help but like Karen Allen’s performance more. It’s the less showy role. Though the film comes dangerously close, Allen is never reduced to just reacting to the amazing things around her. Early on, her grieving and tears are heart-breakingly real. Even if the script is hopelessly hokey, the affection she comes to feel for the title character comes off as genuine and likable, as is her initial fear and surprise. It’s fair to say the two lead performances are the best thing “Starman” has going for it. I also liked Charles Martin Smith as the reasonable SETI agent, who manages to make a hackneyed role a friendly presence.

Really, it’s the script. From the moment they meet, you know these two are going to fall in love and change one another’s life. The emotionless alien will learn how to love. The human will be given hope once again. (It’s a testament to Bridges’ performance that he can make haury lines about how special humans are touching.) When Allen mentions in passing that she can’t give birth, it’s inevitable that Starman’s mystical, far-reaching powers will gift her with a miracle child. Why exactly does the alien have magical powers? He can bring a dead deer back to life, walk unharmed out of a massive fireball, and seems to have a death ray in his pocket. The character has three magical metal balls he carries around, which seem to be portable deux ex machinas, since they can do anything. Which is weird, since the character’s innate powers seem more-or-less limitless.

My biggest problem with the story lies with the evil military forces tracking the two. Obviously, if an alien landed in Wisconsin, the government would want to track it and capture it. But that doesn’t explain their unerringly hostile reaction. The most groan-inducing moment comes when helicopters open fire on the two. (They somehow manage to miss.) Did aliens kill Richard Jaeckel’s parents or something? Why the hate-on for E.T.? The hostility extends down to minor characters as well. Rednecks beat up the alien after resurrecting their deer, without questioning the guy’s magical powers. A pair of local cops are total cowboys, going on high speed pursuits and jimmying car doors open.

For every character that is a hindrance, we have another that is oddly helpful. A dinner waitress is unusually invested in her customers. A cook that picks up the hitchhiking Starman is very accepting of his passenger’s quirks. Similarly, another random motorist is willing to set off a huge explosion as a distraction. “Starman” exists in a world of clichés and contrivances.

While the practical special effects work fairly well, the digital effects have aged badly. There’s very little sign of Carpenter’s trademarks, unless the unseen light being’s POV shots count. The ending is hopelessly abrupt. Jack Nitzsche provides a droning, electronic score. Despite its many problems, “Starman” still occasionally works. It’s the small, humorous moments that stick with me the most: The alien’s gleamed understanding of traffic lights, his total joy at experiencing human dessert, the way he beats the house in Vegas. Those memorable, likable moments paired with two strong lead performances rescues the film from mediocrity.  Despite “Starman’s” positive reception, I think it says a lot about the movie that Carpenter has never returned to the romance genre since. [Grade: C+]

Monday, April 1, 2013

Director Report Card: John Carpenter (1983)

9. Christine

Carpenter is pretty open about the fact that he only made “Christine” because he needed the work, following the financial collapse of “The Thing.” Despite that, “Christine” is far more attuned with Carpenter’s sensibilities then, say, “Starman.” Considering they are both two of the best known names in the horror genre, Carpenter and Stephen King coming together at some point seems almost inevitable.

You wouldn’t be criticized for forgetting “Christine” is a Carpenter joint. The whole premise is very Stephen King. The movie is about high school students which, “Halloween” aside, isn’t something the director usually does. However, repeated watching reveals deeper connection to the director’s overall aesthetics. Christine the car is a force of natural, pre-existing, unknowable evil, just like Michael Myers or the street gang in “Assault on Precinct 13.” Also, like Michael Myers, the car is invincible and undying. Beyond the story, the director owns the material wholly. We get several of the trademark first-person(car?)-perspective shots. They are extremely well used and, watching Christine’s victim flee on foot in headlights, builds atmosphere and tension.

Moreover, it really sells the concept. A killer car is probably one of King’s more widely mocked premises. Even as somebody who loves killer car movies, I can see the validity in the criticism. Any time you have something inanimate coming to life, especially something that is an everyday object, it strains believably. A number of things are done to work through any potential awkwardness. Christine is treated as a real character. The car is shot in incredibly dynamic ways. It helps that, with the smooth red hood and hot wing tips, the car is a naturally dynamic shape. She’s shot at low angles, with focus on the headlights and fins, adding to the general character of the car. The truly impressive part is that the car is even driven with attitude. Christine banks slowly, slams around, grabs other vehicles and throws them. Her mean streak is visible. Kudos to the crew of drivers who worked on the film. Finally, the golden oldies pop songs used to describe Christine’s emotions might be considered heavy-handed but I like it.

The revelation that the car is a self-propelled motor of evil is held off as long as possible. We know Christine has always been bad, right from the first scene. However, it’s about forty minutes in before the car does anything overtly sinister and almost exactly an hour before the car starts killing people. Even then, it might be Arnie behind the wheel. It’s not until the climax when we realize exactly what is going on.

Whether or not that is a good thing is probably debatable. Like “Halloween,” “Christine” takes its time setting up the story. Unlike “Halloween,” that first hour is less devoted to creating an atmosphere of tension and more about exploring the characters and their lives. It’s not bad. Arnie and Dennis, despite being on opposite ends of the high school popularity pool, have a realistic chemistry and friendship. Arnie’s evolution from nerd to asshole is given air to grow naturally. The family and high school drama is fairly captivating. Still, after a while, you have to wonder when we’re going to get to the fireworks factory.

The movie’s biggest problem is that it has two protagonists. For the first hour, it would appear Dennis is the main character, the studly football star that is going to have to watch his unlikely best friend change horribly. A big dramatic plot point happens half-way through, which sidelines Dennis and puts the focus on Arnie. Both characters are interesting, more so then you’d probably expect, but the sudden change is still a little awkward. Another issue is that neither boys’ romance with Leigh is well developed. Arnie and Leigh’s relationship begins completely off-screen. Dennis and Leigh develop over the course of two scenes. Once the killer car action starts, the movie gets a lot better.

The first two attack scenes are fantastic sequences. They establish how powerful a force Christine is and how helpless her victims are. Her headlights jump to life over someone’s shoulder, the first real jump scare in the flick. Narrow alleyways can’t stop her. The car squeezing into such a tight space is both a cool visual and also inventive from a horror death scene perspective. The tight camera angles on the panicked victim help too. Exploding gas stations can’t stop her either. The second attack is the film’s centerpiece. The movie never quite tops the image of a burning vehicle wailing down the road nor the thrill of Christine dismantling the gas station with ease. The movie’s special showcase, the sequence of the wrecked Christine morphing back to life, is also a fantastic moment. These bits make up for some of the weaker kills, like Darnell’s death, and the slightly underwhelming climax.

The movie is character driven and gets decent performance out of the cast. Keith Gordon looks like a real life nerd in the beginning but also manages to sell his transformation into a different character. Gordon sells Arnie’s conflicts with his parents and friends well. John Stockwell seems likable enough as Dennis, to the point were I wish his character was a little more nuanced. Alexandra Paul, as the third part of the love triangle/central trio, is easily the weakest. Paul lesser character has more to do with a weakly written part then her performance. The movie is smart to front-load the supporting cast with great character actors. Harry Dean Stanton’s character pops up out of nowhere and contributes little to the plot. However, he’s Harry Dean Stanton so Detective Junkins is charming, hilarious, and immediately likable. Robert Prosky gets the best lines in the movie as the grouchy, vulgar Will Darnell. That is, if Robert Blossom doesn’t get the best lines as old man George LeBay. It’s very much the kind of creepy old man part Blossom specialized in and he has the thankless job of delivering exposition, via funny, casual dialogue. The only cast member that truly doesn’t work is William Ostrander as bully Buddy. Not only does Ostrander look like he’s missed a few grades, he’s mostly an undistinguished asshole.

“Christine” taps into a powerful vein. Cars… And sex. Which are one and the same. Some people, let’s face it, some men, are really into their cars. They name them, baby them, but it’s all about sex, isn’t it? The car itself, especially a big, shiny, pointy one like Christine, is a phallic symbol. The power and independence of having a car is all wrapped up in the sexual awakening of being a teenager. After getting a car, he argues with his parents, starts dating, alienate his old friends, and starts acting erratically. He changes. “Christine” stands among the ‘Teens are Monsters’ sub-genre, alongside King’s own “Carrie,” “I Was a Teenage Werewolf,” and about a hundred different slasher flicks.

The sexual connection is even more obvious. One of the earliest conversations in the film revolves around three horny high school boys drooling over the hot new girl. Arnie’s virginity, and desire to get laid, is brought up frequently. Old Man LeBay compares new car smell to… Another notable scent. Arnie and Christine are in love. They can’t have sex so, instead, Christine “performs” for him, in maybe the film’s best scene. The car eventually becomes a surrogate for any other romantic opportunity in Arnie’s life. The director himself has admitted that the climatic scene of the Plymouth Fury being crushed under a bulldozer is meant to represent a rape. All of this obvious dangling subtext adds extra flavor, texture, and strength to a story that, on its surface, might be a little silly.

A great score further helps the film. An occasional bluesy guitar riff, intentionally recalling the fifties classic rock, is packed in among the throbbing, intense electronic melodies. “Christine” is always a little better then I remember. It’s a bit overlooked, underrated even. While it’s far from the best John Carpenter movie or Stephen King adaptation, it has a number of surprises in store and plenty to recommend. [Grade: B]

Bangers n' Mash: Pop Culture Mash-Ups

Here's another episode of the podcast nobody likes or listens too. This actually went up a few days ago so I still met the "two episodes" a month. (Seriously. You can check the Youtube publishing date if you don't believe me.)

Anyway, JD came up with this episode's topic and we more-or-less threw it together in an evening: Pop Culture Mash-Ups. Which, in this case, means cartoons that cross over with other cartoons. Maybe I should have called "Animated Crossovers" or something.

This episode is mostly worth listening to if you want here us make fun of "Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue" and listen to the post-traumatic stress syndrome "Foodfight!: The Movie" left JD with. Anyway, another one of these things coming soon, probably