Friday, December 03, 2010

We interrupt this blog for a little genre movie madness: A casual John Carpenter retrospective

Technically it’s not really an “interruption” per se, since as you can see from the date on the last posting, it has been a good long while. What can we say, the Fall is always a hectic time and now the mad rush of the holiday season is upon us (whether we like it or not). Mutt and I are hoping to get our third literary chat session up here before the end of the year, actually... but before that, I thought I would share a few thoughts about some movies I’ve been watching. Specifically, the films of a legendary genre filmmaker best known for his work in the 70’s and 80’s – John Carpenter.

Recently I decided I would conduct my own little marathon of John Carpenter movies, because it dawned on me one day that so many of the films he is known and revered for in genre movie circles – Assault on Precinct 13, Escape from New York, Starman, Big Trouble in Little China – I had never seen. These are titles that are referenced constantly in movie discussions and by the “fanboys” (a term that almost seems to work regardless of the actual gender of the movie geek) and it kind of surprised me that so many of them had gotten past me.

Carpenter has an almost-mythic, god-like reputation in genre circles, but my impressions of his work from what I remembered was a pretty mixed bag. Of course there are the two horror films he is best known for – Halloween and The Thing – and I among those who consider both of these to be bonafide classics of their time. But I also had seen back in the 80’s movies like They Live and Prince of Darkness, which some people love but I think are pretty silly, badly written and horrendously acted offerings. It had been a long time since I had seen either of those, and I was interested to see how they held up. So there was a lot I wanted to either see for the first time, or revisit after many years. It seemed like a Carpenter festival would be fun way to spend some of my movie-watching time.

Here’s the lineup of films I decided on for my marathon. I’ll put an asterisk next to the movies I was seeing only now for the first time. I tried to watch them in chronological order (of when they were made) to get a sense of the direction and/or development of his filmmaking over time.

Assault on Precinct 13*
The Fog*
Escape From New York*
The Thing
Big Trouble in Little China*
Prince of Darkness
In the Mouth of Madness*

There are titles of his I decided to skip, because of over-familiarity (Halloween), lack of interest (Vampires; his made-for-TV biopic Elvis) or just plain gad-awful reputation (Ghosts of Mars). I should also note that as of this writing, I have not quite finished this project… I still need to catch up with the final film, In the Mouth of Madness, which I am actually looking forward to because it sounds mildly interesting and I know some people consider it to be an underappreciated horror tale. We’ll see if I concur with that assessment… I know some people say the same about Prince of Darkness, which you will soon see is a view I definitely don’t share!

Of course with all that buildup now behind us, there’s no way I will have the time or the space here (no one wants a post that scrolls on for half a mile) to really get into all that I think of each of these movies. And I’d be shocked if anyone really wanted to sit here and read a film-by-film analysis of each. Instead, I’ll just touch on some highlights, and try to arrange my impressions into categories that might make for a little more interesting reading.

Best overall John Carpenter film: For my money, it’s The Thing, even though Halloween is the film that made his reputation and pretty much started off its own very successful (and ridiculously lucrative) genre – the slasher flick. Halloween is a very effective, well-made movie all the more impressive for its tiny budget and relatively unknown cast. But with The Thing, Carpenter had more money and resources to work with, and he delivered a truly frightening, claustrophobic science fiction thriller whose unforgettable setting (a convincingly bone-chilling Antarctica) and uncompromisingly grim ending leave a powerful impression on the viewer to this day, no matter how many times you’ve seen it. And the legendary special effects work, though slightly over-the-top in my opinion, has lost none of its power to both revolt and entertain.

Worst overall John Carpenter film: Of the ones in this list, it’s no contest – Prince of Darkness. Now I remember my friends and I renting this with glee from the local video store as teenagers, and we must have watched it more than once because I still recalled certain scenes from it as if I’d seen them several times over. So I thought going back to watch this would be pretty fun at least from a nostalgia point of view. Well, I knew it wasn’t Citizen Kane or anything, but I was surprised at how utterly lame and absurd this movie was. It’s not scary, it’s not original – hell it’s not even coherent. And it features some of the worst dialogue and most egregious overacting (in one case from a respected actor too – Donald Pleasance!) I’ve seen in a long, long time. I don’t know if Carpenter lost his abilities or got too jaded and just stopped caring in the late 80’s, but whatever the case he really fell hard after at least a decade of energetic and inventive filmmaking.

Biggest surprise: I’m going to go with Starman, because my expectations for this one were pretty low. All I knew about it was that it was a love story involving an alien (!), starred Jeff Bridges and was supposed to be Carpenter’s attempt at something at least resembling “family fare.” Well, it’s not perfect by any stretch and it wallows in some pretty ridiculous sentimentality at the end, but this movie has its interesting and unexpected aspects. As a kid in the early 80’s I remember being captivated by hype surrounding the Voyager spacecraft launchings, and so I was intrigued to discover that Carpenter chose to make them an important element of the plot (never knew that). I also like how in the first half of this movie you’re never really sure of the alien/man’s intentions, whether they’re hostile or not – makes for some nice tension. And there are a few surprisingly unsettling moments in this thing early on that make an impression.

Hardest to classify (and therefore, kind of admirable): If you’ve seen it, you know the answer: Big Trouble in Little China, without a doubt. How the idea for this movie was ever pitched, accepted and then funded by a big studio is totally beyond me (though it’s worth noting that it was such a commercial failure that it remains, to this day, the last major studio film Carpenter ever made). “Hey, let’s have Kurt Russell star as a buffed-up truck driver, who thinks he’s Indiana Jones but is really an idiot, who gets involved in an attempt to rescue a Chinese man’s green-eyed fiancee from rival gangs of the Chinatown underworld in San Francisco. The reason she needs rescuing is that a 2000-year-old man named Lo Pan wants to marry her, and then sacrifice her, so that he can get an immortal curse lifted from his head, and by the way watch out for those three supernatural spirit-warriors, Thunder, Lightning and Rain, who appear randomly to kick everyone’s ass without scruple.” Part action movie, part spoof of kung-fu cinema, part romance and part comedy… no wonder this one has gained a considerable cult following. It’s an utter train wreck - but the looney-tunes plot, cheesy effects and especially Kurt Russell’s goofily likable performance make it a lot of fun.

John Carpenter MVP: Kurt Russell, easily. Without his central performances in China, The Thing, and Escape (probably the LA version too, though I haven’t seen it) these would all be much lesser movies. I’ve heard he gives a solid performance in the titular role in Elvis, too. Maybe he could have salvaged something from the wreckage that is Prince of Darkness

Recurring themes and Carpenter hallmarks: It’s worth pointing out that Carpenter had a habit of shooting everything in anamorphic widescreen, regardless of what type of movie or story it was. I say this because just about every Carpenter film is really nice to look at, and if you’re into truly ‘cinematic’ filmmaking this will make a difference in your experience. For example, as bad as Prince of Darkness is, it’s still pretty cool to look at with its wide-angle shots looking up at a church steeple superimposed over an ominous moon, or an altar lit up only by flickering candles and shadows. Just about every one of these movies have scenes that look amazing – Carpenter is great when it comes to creating an atmosphere. (The scenes of the creeping, titular Fog slowly invading over a seaside town are a good example of what I mean.)

Also, Carpenter’s got a thing for people being holed up inside an area, usually a building, with enemies storming the gates. He’s said many times that Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and Hawks’ Rio Bravo were both key influences for him, and that certainly comes out in films like Assault on Precinct 13, The Fog, Escape from New York, The Thing and even Prince of Darkness. It’s actually kind of surprising that Carpenter, as far as I know, never made an all-out Western considering how important they were to him as a young film fan.

Other notable Carpenter movies I haven’t covered: They Live, Dark Star (his feature debut), Christine, Vampires, Ghosts of Mars, and actually there is a new one out this year, The Ward – though as with just about all of his post-80’s movies, sadly, it’s getting terrible reviews and looks unoriginal and half-baked.

So that’s one man’s brief, bird’s-eye view of the films of John Carpenter… if you’re a fan of genre movies and movies that don’t quite fit into cookie-cutter bins and patterns, you’re probably already a fan of Carpenter. Overall I would have to conclude that Carpenter is an interesting, fun, but probably overrated and overpraised filmmaker. However, his best films like Halloween and The Thing certainly shouldn’t be missed by any genre film buff. The Thing sets the gold standard, so far anyway, for horror movies set in cold places. There’s one Carpenter film that I think is going to be watched and enjoyed for a long time to come… maybe even as long as we’re watching movies.

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