Saturday, April 28, 2018

the Directors: John Carpenter

I’ve been afraid to cover John Carpenter in this column. Years ago, as I made my way through Carpenter’s films, I realized I did not like many of the John Carpenter movies people seem to adore. But a few years passed and a change occurred. I was discussing Carpenter’s work with my best friend (himself a huge Carpenter admirer), and he explained that Carpenter, like many directors, has different facets to his career, and if you acknowledge each aspect, you can appreciate his films.

Basically, there is serious, masterful John Carpenter; B-movie John Carpenter; and phoned-in John Carpenter. In the past, I’ve had trouble with the B-movie John Carpenter. I thought many of his intentional B-movies took themselves too seriously, and that blinded my appreciation for them. And while I certainly don’t love every John Carpenter film, I have turned a corner, and I’m eager to share my thoughts on his work.

Dark Star (1974)
John Carpenter’s first film is a low budget space flick heavily influenced by 2001: A Space Odyssey and other movies of its kind. Dark Star is split into three distinct acts. The first act is a slow brew that introduces us to the men who occupy the Dark Star ship. The men have been in space for two decades, and are tasked with destroying unstable planets. This opening bit is the slowest part of the film, which doesn’t bode well for a feature film running only 82 minutes.

The middle portion of is dominated by a battle between one of the astronauts and a seemingly kind alien on board the ship. The glaring issue here is that this alien ranks among the most poorly conceived alien “costumes” I’ve ever seen. It genuinely looks like an oversized beach ball. I assume that the poor design of the creature was intentional, but the joke doesn’t land. (It should be noted, however, that aside from the design of this creature, the special effects of Dark Star are rather impressive, especially given that the movie was made in 1974 for just $60,000.)

The final third of the movie has the men fighting against a rogue bomb that is threatening to blow up the ship. This is the best part of the film, and certainly where the influence of 2001 is most evident. There’s a wonderful pessimism to John Carpenter’s movies that I’m going to touch on a lot in this post. I say wonderful because Carpenter seems so interested in ending his films while his characters are facing certain doom, which is very rare for major directors do to so consistently. That starts with Dark Star, which hilariously features the line, “What a beautiful way to die. Like a falling star.” as one of its closing sentences. B

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
Much like Dark Star being influenced by 2001 (and later influencing Star Wars), Assault on Precinct 13 takes a huge note from Rio Bravo, while being the influence for dozens of films after, including From Dusk Till Dawn. Carpenter’s film is about a group of people (cops, criminals, and office assistants alike) trapped in a Los Angeles police station, who band together to fight off a gang who is relentlessly trying to kill everyone in the precinct. 

Assault on Precinct 13 is one of Carpenter’s very best films. It’s a tense, exciting, well-contained thriller that breezes by (it’s just 90 minutes), and looks great (on a budget of only $100,000). It’s the kind of fuckitall ‘70s thriller that helps make American ‘70s film so iconic. But holy shit, does this movie contain a shock. Early in the film, the gang ruthlessly murders a little girl buying some ice cream. The execution is so clinical, that it is genuinely startling, even by today’s standards of movie violence. Carpenter later said he regretted shooting the scene and didn’t think he’d include it today. I was stunned by it. If nothing else, the scene certainly prepares us for what’s to come. A

Halloween (1978)
For my money, John Carpenter’s Halloween ranks alongside The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as the finest horror film ever made. It’s simply that good, that iconic, that frightening, that real. Halloween is one of my all-time favorite movies; I can watch repeatedly and never grow bored.

When discussing a film this well known, I prefer to talk about context, as opposed to plot. As my parents tell it, no one had seen a movie like Halloween before, especially not released so widely in theaters. Halloween terrified everyone. People ran out of screenings, lost days of sleep, and were constantly tormented by the thought of Michael Myers slowly making his way through their neighborhood. Halloween proved that no one was safe from a blank, cold, emotionless man with the blackest of eyes. Michael Myers is the embodiment of pure evil, and since he first appeared on screen, the horror genre has never come close to being the same. A+

Someones Watching Me! (1978)
Shortly after Leigh Michaels (a confident yet frantic Lauren Hutton) moves to Los Angeles, she begins being stalked by a man who lives in the apartment building across from her. Although the stalker calls Leigh ceaselessly, sends her gifts, and threatens her well being, he’s very smart to not directly incriminate himself. All told, Someone’s Watching Me! is a generic, made-for-TV showcase film that has no lasting relevance. Carpenter does some fun stuff with the camera (I never got bored of Leigh’s apartment, which itself is no easy feat), and I enjoyed the calm confidence in which Hutton played Leigh, but you’re far better off watching When a Strangers Calls, or something similar. C-

Elvis (1979)
As far as TV-movie biopics go, John Carpenter’s Elvis is certainly above serviceable. It hits all the tried and true cliches of the genre (stars in troubled fame, jumps back to humble beginnings, tracks the rise, monitors the fall, etc.), but it should be noted that Elvis helped establish the beats of the genre, as opposed to merely repeating them. Sure, the film takes cues from Bound for Glory and The Buddy Holly Story (to name just two), but it’s crazy how the formula of Elvis is still applied (and mocked beautifully in Walk Hard) to music biopics today. 

The obvious highlight of the film is Kurt Russell, who gives the role of Elvis his all for every second of screen time. Russell was an acclaimed child star, and his work in Elvis feels like an obvious announcement. Russell was telling the audience, “I’m grown up now, and I’m here to stay.” And all of us (certainly Carpenter included) are better off for it. B-

The Fog (1980)
The Fog hits a lot of the same beats as Halloween, though The Fog set in California, not Illinois, and the killer isn’t a masked man, but deadly beings within a fog. One of the most significant aspects of The Fog is that it showcases Carpenter’s insistence on crowding his movies with too much exposition. For most of The Fog, I kept trying to keep track of the complicated lore of the story, as opposed to the action unfolding on the screen. In short, the plot of The Fog seems needlessly complicated at times, which is something that will ring true in some of Carpenter’s later films.

The Fog is about a coastal town celebrating its 100th anniversary while fighting off a deadly paranormal force that lurks within a thick fog. Carpenter tends to get bogged down in exposition when he explains the origin of the deadly force, in which, 100 years ago, the founders of the town downed on a ship. And now they’re back for revenge – lurking in the fog, eager to kill anyone who gets in their way! To be fair, much of The Fog is effective (especially when The Fog gets its hands on someone), but keeping up with the lore of the story felt like memorizing a history lesson. B-

Escape from New York (1981)
To fully enjoy Escape from New York (and many of Carpenter’s films), I believe it’s essential to view it in the context in which it was intended. And it’s clear that John Carpenter and his star, Kurt Russell, designed Escape from New York to be a thrilling B-movie. The film doesn’t pretend to be based in reality, nor does it attempt to dive into grandiose comments about our culture. It’s plain dumb fun. If you watch Escape from New York through that lens, the movie is B-movie bliss. 

Far off in the future of 1997 (love it), nearly a decade after Manhattan has been turned into a massive maximum-security prison, Snake Plissken (iconically played by Russell) is hired by the government to rescue the President, who is being held hostage within the prison city. The film is full of memorable action set pieces, including two scenes set atop the World Trade Center, which carry an obvious, inherent nostalgia. But the real pleasure here is Russell, who, as Snake, adopts a wonderfully charming, no-nonsense attitude that has been copied dozens of times over. Carpenter has fun with his setting (the costumes, sets, and dialogue are all perfectly camp), but Snake’s persona is the biggest takeaway from the film. One never tires from watching Russell chew the ever-loving shit out of a John Carpenter scene. B

The Thing (1982)
The Thing is as iconic as science fiction horror thrillers get. The movie is about a group of American researchers on Antarctica who come into contact with a deadly “Thing” that can assume the identity of whatever it inhabits, and kill everything around it. The two best aspects of the film are its jaw-dropping special effects makeup (which still rival anything in movies today), and the rapid distrust that plagues the surviving men. Who among them is now... The Thing?

The release and subsequent reappraisal of the film are fascinating. Carpenter’s movie was panned upon its release. Too violent! Too nihilistic! Too bleak! Which, today, of course, reads as: Too ahead of its time. Whether you like the film or not, I find it hard not to appreciate a director sticking so close to a vision that went against the norm. I’m able to see both sides of the argument. My first experience with the film wasn’t a positive one. The movie seemed full of plot holes, and I thought it relied too heavily on the wow factor of the violence to save face for a lacking story. But the more chances myself (and the general audience) gave it, the more we all came around. The Thing is a science fiction masterpiece. Hell, just writing about it now makes me want to watch it again immediately. And, perhaps more than any John Carpenter movie, the director’s love for pessimistic endings has never cut deeper than it does here. A

Christine (1983)
It’s the killer car movie! After a 1958 Plymouth Fury finds a new owner in 1978, the car begins wreaking havoc on anyone within its range. Except, of course, the car’s new owner, a high school dork named Arnie (Keith Gordon). In fact, the best part about the film isn’t that the vehicle inexplicably kills people at random, it’s that the car inexplicably transforms Arnie for a solemn dweeb to an arrogant asshole. Arnie goes from being nearly killed by bullies at school, to casually telling his parents to go fuck themselves, all due to Christine’s immense power.

Pairing John Carpenter with Stephen King seems like a no-brainer, but damn do I wish they had better material to work with. But look, Christine is insane, but at least it knows it’s insane. The movie is about a killer car, after all, and features such throwaway lines as, “Had it ever occurred to you, that part of being a parent is trying to kill your kids?” 

Carpenter said the only reason he made Christine was so that he could earn a career hit, following the disastrous box office returns of The Thing. That desperation shows, as Christine lacks the genuine tension Carpenter packed into many of his films. C

Starman (1984)
Starman is Carpenter’s most mature film. The movie is about an alien (Jeff Bridges) who crash lands on Earth, assumes the identity of a recently deceased man, and has the man’s widow (Karen Allen) drive him from Wisconsin to Arizona, so he can meet up with other aliens and catch a ride back to his planet. Essentially, Starman is a road movie about two beings who are forced to learn to understand each other. The plot go could any number of ways, but I’m so happy Carpenter decided to keep the film rooted in love and truth, as opposed to alien destruction.

Jeff Bridges is fantastic in the movie. His mannerisms and speech patterns help place him in the top tier of actors who have portrayed aliens lost on Earth. And there is never a wrong time to watch Karen Allen work. Their chemistry is palpable from their first scene on. Bridges was justly nominated for the Best Actor Oscar for his work, making Starman the only John Carpenter movie to receive an Oscar nomination. (The fact that The Thing wasn’t nominated for Best Makeup tells you precisely how much that movie was hated upon its release.)

Carpenter consciously chose to explore a new genre after the failure of The Thing. I’m glad he embraced romance. Not only is Starman Carpenter’s most mature film, it’s certainly his most endearing. A-

Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
Big Trouble in Little China is the main reason I was afraid to cover John Carpenter in my Directors series. The first time I watched this movie, not only did I fail to “get it,” I actively disliked it. I thought it was B-movie, over the top nonsense. And then it clicked – perhaps that’s exactly what Carpenter was going for. I let the film sit for a while then gave it another go, viewing it now with a new mindset. And I realized that when you watch the movie from an absurdist angle, the movie clicks into place.

My relationship with Big Trouble in Little China, however, is still a complicated one. Half of me sides with Harlan Ellison, who helped crack the film for me when he affectionally referred to it as a live-action cartoon (that is the best way to describe it). And some of me sides with Roger Ebert, who said that the characters in the film only exist to service the special effects (when it should be the opposite). Though I am now able to appreciate where the movie is coming from (and what it’s going for), I can’t say I’m a die-hard fanboy of the film. Kurt Russell is Kurt Russell – there is always something to take away from his work. Without Russell’s brooding Jack Burton, I’m not sure the movie would work at all. But thank God Russell carries it.

Perhaps it was Chris Cummins, who ended his recap of Big Trouble by playing with some of Jack Burton’s own words in the film. “Sooner or later, it rubs everyone the right way.” And hell, maybe he’s right. B

Prince of Darkness (1987)
Prince of Darkness is another example of a John Carpenter horror film that is needlessly bogged down by exposition. A priest links up with a team of quantum physics students to investigate a strange green floating liquid in a basement church. The fluid appears to make people do evil things, and could, in fact, be the incarnation of the Anti-God. The problem is that the movie is so needlessly long-winded that I had trouble keeping up with it for five minutes at a time. It’s a little too smart for its own good, and lacking in substantive frights. 

One mildly redeeming element of Prince of Darkness is the fact that everyone is trapped in the church. If they leave, they will be killed by the dozens of possessed homeless people who have surrounded the church outside. Keeping the cast contained to a single location gives us pleasant memories of Assault on Precinct 13. But that isn’t enough to make this movie worth it. And one final note of detraction: I’m a great admirer of Carpenter’s musical scores, but the ceaseless music in Prince of Darkness is insufferable. It rarely (if ever) stops. Relying almost exclusively on music as a source of tension never produces great results. D

They Live (1988)
My best friend (the huge John Carpenter admirer mentioned in the intro) describes Carpenter’s career as before They Live and after They Live. And, with a few exceptions, my friend is right. Most of Carpenter’s films up through They Live had something interesting to say. And most of the movies made after They Live are parodies on work Carpenter had already created. 

Still, we must not slight They Live, a balls-to-the-wall, ‘80s romp about how class, wealth, and corporate advertising are corrupting the American Dream. Shortly after a buffed-out drifter arrives in Los Angeles, he discovers a pair of magic sunglasses that expose a secret alien race living among us. The aliens have embedded our advertising with subliminal messages, instructing us to “Obey,” “Consume,” “and Conform.” Upon discovering all this, the drifter joins the resistance to fight back, and expose the aliens for all the world to see.

Yes, They Live is absurd, but it is intentionally and gloriously absurd. The film has some very amusing takedowns of how the one percenters control and attempt to ruin the rest of us. And it helps that the movie is hilarious throughout. Case in point: an extended alley fight between the drifter (played by professional wrestler, Roddy Piper), and his new friend (played by Keith David). The fight is so long and ridiculous, it feels like it takes up a third of the film, but holy hell does everyone involved go for it. As political satire, They Live is an absolute delight. B+

Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992)
Memoirs of an Invisible Man is a decent, sci-fi Sunday morning romance thriller. You could have it on while you clean up the house on a Sunday morning, and enjoy it as much as if you sat directly in front of the TV and hung on every word. 

Chevy Chase plays a smug stock market analyst who becomes invisible after living through an accident at a science lab. Sam Neill shows up (rather amusingly) as a ruthless CIA operative tasked with taking Chase down. Chase fits well into the role; the character’s arrogance makes it feel like Chase, himself no peach to work with, wasn’t acting much. Rather famously, Chase had the original director of the film, Ivan Reitman, fired after the director and star failed to get along. Replacing Reitman with John Carpenter doesn’t make much sense, as the movie rarely feels like a John Carpenter film. All told, Memoirs of an Invisible Man doesn’t add much to Carpenter’s canon. The film is harmless, mildly amusing, and weightless as air. C-

Body Bags (1993)
Body Bags is comprised of three short horror films, each about 30 minutes long. The first Carpenter-directed short, The Gas Station, is about a college student working her first graveyard shift at a gas station. After she discovers a dead body in the auto shop, the film quickly descends into convention horror movie troupes. The Gas Station is never remotely scary; even the final kill is laughably void of tension. It reminded me of the scene in Austin Powers when that security guard screams for the steamroller to stop from 30 yards away. Like, dude… move.

Hair is the other Carpenter-directed segment. Stacy Keach plays a man who is cripplingly insecure about his thinning hair, but after a radical surgery by a shady doctor, his hair comes back to life. The hair starts growing at a rapid rate, all over (mouth hair, anyone?). Keach becomes increasingly sick, and he realizes that his new hair is alive and evil. This is TV B-movie personified. I have to believe that Carpenter knew what he was doing here, but that doesn’t make it any better.

(For the record, Body Bags’ final segment, Eye, directed by Tobe Hooper, is the best of the bunch. The short is about a baseball player who receives an eye transplant and starts seeing visions of the eye’s original owner.)

Body Bags was intended to be Showtime’s answer to HBO’s Tales from the Crypt. But after the poor reception of the first Body Bags effort, Showtime scrapped the idea. Sadly, it’s easy to see why. D

In the Mouth of Madness (1995)
The opening credits of In the Mouth of Madness set the tone wonderfully. Heavy metal blares over images of a book being printed, with huge blue font lettering filling the screen. It feels so intentional, as if Carpenter is saying, “Yeah, that Memoirs of an Invisible Man shit wasn’t me. This is. Enjoy.”

In the Mouth of Madness is a somewhat effective, ‘90s B-grade horror thriller. It’s sarcastic and pessimistic in all the best ways and features amazing creature make-up and impressive special effects. The film is about a wise-ass insurance investigator (Sam Neill, giving it his all) who is hired to track down a popular horror novelist named Sutter Cane. Cane’s books are so popular, in fact, that after people read them, they tend to turn into insane, bloodthirsty killers. Neill is a very good sport here, just as he was in Memoirs of an Invisible Man. I enjoyed his transformation from sarcastic insurance investigator to scared shitless guy. The film itself is never scary, but maintains some thrills throughout. Sadly, much like The Fog and Prince of Darkness, In the Mouth of Madness gets too bogged down in the lore of its mysterious world, forcing viewers to think far more than is necessary. C+

Village of the Damned (1995)
Just two short months after the release of In the Mouth of Madness, John Carpenter’s Village of the Damned hit theaters to very little fanfare. The film is a remake of a horror flick from 1960, about a group of alien children posing as humans who terrorize a small town. The movie posits an interesting concept: One day, everyone in the town falls randomly unconscious. When they wake six hours later, 10 women (including a virgin) are somehow pregnant. All of the kids are born on the same night, and they quickly begin to terrorize the town.

It’s so great to see Christopher Reeve (as the town doctor) in his final performance before he was injured. Any movie Reeve was in is a movie worth watching. And Kirstie Alley (as a government scientist investigating the children) has fun hamming it up. Village of the Damned is not a good movie, but it is, unmistakably, a John Carpenter movie. For better or worse, Carpenter’s brand is all over this. D+

Escape from L.A. (1996)
Escape from L.A. is the kind of movie that fascinates me. Not so much because of what it’s about, but the way people reacted to it. The film is mostly the same exact movie as Escape from New York, but with an updated time and geographical setting. Escape from L.A. was an outright bomb, both critically and commercially, but something interesting has happened in the decades since it was released. First, Roger Ebert was adamant in his praise for the film, saying it worked well as satire and was superior in many ways to Escape from New York. (Ebert was no stranger to opinions like this. Remember when he said Scarface was better than The Godfather: Part II?) And then there’s Carpenter himself, who, in 2015, stated unequivocally that Escape from L.A. is better than Escape from New York. “Ten times better. It’s got more to it. It’s more mature. It’s got a lot more to it.”

If you let go of your nostalgia for Escape from New York and watch Escape from L.A. through Carpenter’s lens, you can see where he’s coming from. Escape from L.A. is far crazier than its predecessor. It’s more outlandish; cartoonish and absurd. It isn’t a good movie by any conventional standard, but it is successful at being a B-movie farce, which was, perhaps, precisely what Carpenter was going for. I’ll say this: I believe Escape from New York is the better film, but I firmly believe Escape from L.A. is the more entertaining one. B-

Vampires (1998)
John Carpenter’s Vampires is ham central. This movie is a batshit crazy effort that features James Woods and Daniel Baldwin doing their best to even show up. The cheesiness of the film is established in its first scene, when Woods and his merry band of vampire hunters assemble to take down a vampire nest in New Mexico. Woods, wearing what appear to be freshly-purchased blue jeans from Wal-Mart, delivers a “Go get ‘em!” speech with laughable gusto, as his men assemble their weapons, which look like cheap plastic toys that have just been opened.

The group attacks the nest, and later that night, in the film’s only good scene, the most powerful vampire on Earth finds the group partying in a motel room and wipes them out. For the remainder of the film, we follow Woods and Baldwin around as they seek revenge on said vampire. This movie is camp filmmaking at its most egregious. I pray that Carpenter wasn’t trying to make an actual horror film. The only way this movie partially succeeds is if it understands just how bad it is. And even then, “partially” is a keyword. D

Ghosts of Mars (2001)
Ghosts of Mars is a heavy metal sci-fi romp that wants to be way more badass than it is. After Escape from L.A. and Vampires, Carpenter is now in full-on camp mode. The movie is about a bunch of miners on Mars who have been possessed by an evil spirit, and the innocent group of who must fight them off to survive. 

The movie feels like it was pitched as From Dusk Till Dawn in space, told in flashback (or something), but none of it works. It’s always great to see Pam Grier (who shows up too briefly as the team leader), but the film is too stupid for its own good. The movie failed to reach critics and audiences (though, again, Roger Ebert was a fan), which contributed to Carpenter taking a rather long hiatus from filmmaking. D-

The Ward (2010)
Carpenter’s insane asylum horror thriller, The Ward, may not be a great movie, but damn if it wasn’t nice to see Carpenter embracing full-on horror again. After nine years away from making feature films, Carpenter returned with a flick that ditched the camp and went for straight scares. The movie is about an anguished young woman (Amber Heard) who is mercilessly stalked by an evil force in a psychiatric ward. 

Heard gives the movie her all, as does Jared Harris, who plays Heard’s dedicated therapist. The problem is, The Ward adds nothing to the dozens of insane asylum horror films of its kind. Despite the talented cast, the movie feels phoned in, and it features an all-too-predictable ending. It’s the type of ending that is mocked relentlessly in other movies (the long monologue of explanation, the obvious reveal, etc). In many ways, The Ward feels like Carpenter was ready to direct again (maybe for money, maybe to stave off boredom, maybe both), and decided to make something quick and easy. I certainly hope this isn’t the last film John Carpenter directs. We know the man is capable of so much more. D+

In Summation
Masterful
Halloween
The Thing 

Great
Assault on Precinct 13
Starman
They Live

Good
Dark Star
Elvis
The Fog
Escape from New York 
Big Trouble in Little China
Escape from L.A. 

Eh
Someone's Watching Me!
Christine
Prince of Darkness
Memoirs of an Invisible Man
In the Mouth of Madness 
Village of the Damned 
The Ward

Just Plain Bad
Body Bags
Vampires
Ghosts of Mars 



25 comments:

  1. Carpenter is hit-or-miss with me, as well. When he's on, he's amazing. When he's not, yeesh.

    I recently watched Big Trouble for the first time. I thought it was fun, but I was a bit disappointed in Jack Burton. From, a plot-driven viewpoint he is completely irrelevant to the proceedings. He actually does nothing beneficial to the cause. From the watchability side, however, he's a blast, by far the most interesting character.

    I still need to see They Live and Starman.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. By any measure, he's had a pretty eclectic career. He's made uncontested masterpieces and objective duds, but he remains such a iconic film figure. I hear you on Big Trouble, certainly. It's a tough film to love the first time out, but I'm glad I gave it (and other Carpenter's films) another chance.

      Delete
  2. Here's my list of John Carpenter's films ranked as I think pretty much anything he did from The Fog to They Live is untouchable. They all have elements of horror that is chilling but also never takes itself seriously as well as being very funny.

    In the Mouth of Madness I think remains one of the most underrated films of the 1990s as the way it blurred fantasy and reality really astonished me as it also played into the elements of H.P. Lovecraft and do it in an odd way. I'm also a fan of his work in the 70s including Assault on Precinct 13 as that ice cream scene was fucking nuts.

    He is really one of my favorite filmmakers as I do hope he can create one more film.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That is a great list. And thanks for such a constructive comment. I know you're a huge admirer of his, and I appreciate that you respect my thoughts on his work. I really hope he isn't just doing music, and will no longer direct films. Whether I've liked all of his work or not, there is always value to be found in a John Carpenter movie.

      Delete
  3. Nooo my previous Village of the Damned got a D+? lol

    Actually, that's probably about right, but I had a weird obsession with that movie as a kid. I watched it all the time and had no idea it was a remake until I was older.

    I realize in going through this list that I actually haven't seen as many of Carpenter's films as I thought I had.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I liked that movie as a kid too! I don't know why it was always on, but I remember watching it a ton haha. Though, going back and watching it as an adult is rough. It just isn't good. But, still, what a joy it is to watch Christopher Reeve (and Alley really is a trip in it).

      Delete
  4. As the first person to comment a suggestion that you do JC way back in the day, I just want to take all the credit for this. (lol).

    I consider myself a big fan of cult/exploitation cinema, and Assault on Precinct 13, along with Romero's (curious what you think of that guy) Creepshow and Night of the Living Dead, was among the first films to get the ball rolling on that fascination. Holy crap, that ice cream scene. "I wanted vanilla twist".

    For me, the Big Three of John Carpenter goes like this: Halloween's good, Assault on Precinct 13's better, and The Thing might be the best. I also like Christine more than you did. Sure it's cheesy, but it kinda works, for me anyway. We're about the same on Escape from New York. Snake's badass, but the film feels a little cold. Not bad, just nothing that gets me excited. Escape from LA was goofy as all hell, and I'm on the fence about that one.

    As for the lore/exposition thing, I think that stems from the HP Lovecraft influence. Lovecraft had some fascinating, freaky ideas, but holy crap I can barely get through his stories because they're literally all exposition. Yikes.

    Also, cool new banner. I can spot: Casino, The Silence of the Lambs, Raging Bull, Eyes Without a Face, Heat, Apocalypse Now, Shame, Vertigo, Love, Melancholia, You Were Never Really Here(?), and... Stan Brakhage?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ohhh that's right - it WAS you! Well thanks for the push. Like I said, I was too nervous to cover him back then, because I honestly thought I was missing something (and I was).

      I'm a huge admirer of cult/exploitation/blaxploitation/sexploitation films, but, I think, they need to be viewed and judged as what they are. I had trouble doing that in the past. I thought all cult/etc films should be judged equally to the heaviest of dramas. But it's okay to look at things through a different lens.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts on his work. I appreciated that info about Lovecraft. I knew JC was a fan of his, but I didn't know so much of Lovecraft's prose was exposition. I can handle exposition a little better in a book, but in a two hour movie, there is definitely a fine balance to toe.

      And thanks about the banner! Row 1: Apocalypse Now, Phantom Thread, Heat, Love, He Got Game, Suspiria, Casino

      Row 2: Raging Bull, A Place in the Sun, Saboteur, Eyes Without a Face, Polytechnique, Vampyr, High and Low

      Row 3: You Were Never Really Here, Point Blank, The Silence of the Lambs, Melancholia, Black Narcissus, Fish Tank, Vertigo

      Delete
    2. Well, Point Blank just jumped high up on my list. Really looks like a frame from one of Brakhage's paint on film experiments.

      Delete
    3. Oh man, it's incredible. I saw it for the first time only recently, and 10 minutes in, I got that feeling. That oh so rare feeling you get when you know, right away, that you are watching pure brilliance. And Soderbergh does a commentary with Boorman on the Blu-Ray that is exquisite. Let me know what you think of it!

      Delete
  5. I agree with you on the top picks. No arguments from either group there. In particular, I'm glad to see that you're also such a fan of Assault on Precinct 13. It's a really strong movie so early in Carpenter's career. I'll admit that I love Big Trouble in Little China. Russell is such an over-the-top dummy and great at playing that character. His friend saves him over and over, yet he still acts like the hero. It's brilliant.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Dan! I do LOVE that about Big Trouble. Absolutely hilarious. I really think that one will reveal itself more to me the more times I watch it. I'm so glad I gave it a few more chances, because I was not a fan of that movie when I first watched it. Assault on Precinct 13, however, had me from minute one. What confident and audacious filmmaking.

      Delete
  6. Replies
    1. I remember reading your views on The Thing years ago, seemed like you hated it! Was the same for the first few times but now, as you say, its infectious. An incredibly watchable piece of work.

      Are there ANY good Lovecraftian films?

      Delete
    2. Yeah I did go in on it, because I was so damn baffled watching it the first time! And, to be fair and balanced, that movie does have some plot holes, and a few things that genuinely don't make sense. But once you give yourself over to it, yeah, it is incredibly watchable.

      I wonder what many of Carpenter's films would be like it they ditched the Lovecraft exposition. Oh welllll.

      Delete
    3. Indeed. After liking The Shape of Water I'm curious to see if Del Toro can finally get his Cthulu flick off the ground though

      Speaking of which, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is finally happening :D Can't wait

      Delete
    4. Man, I HOPE The Man Who Killed Don Quixote happens haha. It may not be able to screen at Cannes because it's tied up in a lawsuit. Everything about that film is fascinating. I can't believe he's stayed with it for so long.

      Delete
  7. Agree Assault on Precinct 13 has aged well as an tense thriller, the shock scene reminds me of Henry Fonda in Once Upon a time in the West (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QqTfBysL0wE)
    Starman to me is Carpenter's most emotionally satisfying film, and yes the chemistry lifts it above average. Prince of Darkness was a mess. I like Big Trouble in Little China for the tongue-and-cheek humor which was common in the 80s. I recently enjoyed Christine (1983) which drew me in, even though I'm aware Stephen King is basically rehashing Carrie, instead with a male in the lead.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. LOVE that scene from Once Upon a time in the West. That is a reveal to end all reveals. The good man, gone bad. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on some of Carpenter's work. I love hearing everyone's take on his work.

      Delete
  8. The only thing I remember about The Ward was how cheap the creature looked, good God this must have had really tiny budget. I remember Heard being pretty good in this, man, I hope she does well in Aquaman she was pretty good in that one scene in Justice League but her eyes should be in fire from looking at Momoa. Hopefully Wan directed her to a good performance.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I hope she does well in Aquaman too! I've always rooted for her, even in The Ward, which she is rather good in. Very curious to see how she performs in such a large-scale movie.

      Delete
  9. Awesome post! Watching this I’ve realized I saw some of those films when I was a little girl/teen and I totally forgot they were directed by John Carpenter. Don’t really know why exactly but when I was a kid (8/10 years, I guess… maybe there fits the absurdist angle) I liked a lot Big Trouble in Little China, whenever it was on TV I watched it.

    It’s such a huge list… but I think the ones I liked the most are Assault on Precinct 13, The Thing and Halloween. You've mentioned The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and I think that one is the film that has scary me the most alongside Rec when I watched it on the cinema (didn't have the same effect on TV... but on the cinema I almost had a heart attack haha). My other favorite horror films have to be the Dario Argento’s 70s/80s films… different kind of ‘horror’ but loved them. And they're not usually considered that kind of film, I was terrified with the guy showing up in the house on Lost Highway and some Bob/Leland parts from Twin Peaks and Fire walk with me… Lynch really knows how to makes me scared!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Lynch is so good at delivering random, chilling thrills. I love when his movies and shows toe that line of suspense and horror. So glad you like Texas Chainsaw as much as I do, and I completely agree that Rec was TERRIFYING in the theater. I genuinely had no idea what that movie was about when I first saw it, and it scared the shit out of me.

      Delete
  10. I love John Carpenter. He has made a lot of bad to mediocre movies, but when he makes a good one, it's really good. Halloween and The Thing are both two of my all time favorite movies. If i were to rank the movies from him i have seen it would go like this:

    1. Halloween 10/10
    2. The Thing 10/10
    3. Big Trouble in Little China 8/10
    4. They Live 7/10
    5. Escape from New York 7/10
    6. Christine 7/10
    7. The Fog 6/10
    8. Escape from L.A. 5/10
    9. Dark Star 5/10
    10. The Ward 4/10
    11. Ghosts of Mars 1/10

    I still really need to check out Assault on Precinct 13 and Starman as well. Anyway, are you looking forward to the new Halloween movie coming out this year? I usually wouldn't care about another slasher movie sequel, but it's apparently gonna be a direct sequel to the original Halloween and it's gonna be scores by John Carpenter again so that peaked my interest a little. At least it can't get any worse than the Rob Zombie movies.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Love your rankings - thanks for sharing! So cool that Halloween wins out for you as well.

      Okay, as for the new Halloween... yes, in general, I am excited. But man, I find it harder and harder to keep up with all these prequels, sequels, reboots, reimaginings, remakes, etc. I watched that preview and it made absolutely no sense, because I had no idea the movie took place directly after the first movie. So, I dunno, part of me thinks that's weird, to pretend like the other, JLC-starring films didn't happen (I actually really dig H20), but part of me is down to see them "start" again.

      Delete