Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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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+]

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