Sep 30, 2019

JOHN CARPENTER'S LEGACY


The list of great filmmakers this world has given us is a long one; however, the list of filmmakers who have gone on to affect pop culture in general – who have contributed previously untapped resources, as well as created icons and sub-genres that are still in use today – well, that list is much smaller. John Carpenter’s most famous films are arguably from the first act of his career (Assault on Precinct 13, up to and including They Live), and these titles usually make the shortlist of Carpenter fan favorites. His influence in cinema goes well beyond the go-to slasher movie clichés created in Halloween (the virginal heroine, the “he’s not dead!” moments of shock, the embittered Dr. Frankenstein forced to chase down his nemesis, the sex-and-you’re-dead mentality). Michael Myers was not the first killer to wear a mask, nor was Halloween the first movie through which we witnessed acts from the killer’s point of view, but the cheapie 1978 slasher’s influence on the horror genre cannot be denied.

But we know all this. Just like we know that The Thing (very under-appreciated at the time) proved how physical, in-camera effects could shape a film and make it legendary, or that his uncanny ability for creating simple but effective music drives many of his films into excellence, or that Snake Plissken is one of the most bad-ass anti-heroes of all time.

However, there are not-so-obvious inspirations out there as well. Carpenter helped to set trends more than he, or the general public, might realize (and should he ever stumble across this article, it’s safe to assume he’d call “bullshit” halfway through and click off, because his bluntness is matched only by his humility). Some theoretical, some factual, and some based on rumor, the below contributions to modern pop-culture exist because of him.

In no particular order:

 “Bad to the Bone”


Probably one of the most recognizable tunes of all time, “Bad to the Bone” by George Thorogood has been used countless times in film and television to enforce, with his or her first entrance, that one character in particular is a total bad ass. One of the most famous uses of the tune is likely the T-800’s first (er, fully-clothed) appearance in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, while Oliver Stone also used the song in 1988’s Talk Radio as his victimized radio host’s theme song.

But the first time it was ever used was in Carpenter’s 1983 adaptation of Christine – more specifically, when the eponymous car rolls down its Detroit assembly line for the first time…and right before it claims its first victim. Even on the commentary track for the film that Carpenter recorded with actor Keith Gordon, he comments on the use of the song, saying, “I’m pretty sure we were the first to ever use that song in a feature.”

Though use of the song eventually descended into parody (it was used in both Problem Child as well as countless episodes of Married with Children), at one time it was legitimately used to audibly label something or someone as “bad-ass.”

Team Carpenter was the first.

 Alien


Carpenter directed and co-wrote with Dan O’Bannon 1974’s Dark Star, an offbeat and quirky strange space adventure. Originally a student film, an investor provided the filmmakers with additional money, and the short was expanded into a feature. The plot is as follows: a group of increasingly bored astronauts, who interact with an A.I. computer throughout, accidentally unleash an alien onto their spaceship. The alien (played by a bobbing beach ball and seemingly voiced by a Killer Tomato), picks off the crew members one by one. In 1979, O’Bannon (sans Carpenter) would take that basic concept and go on to write the legendary film Alien, in which a group of increasingly bored astronauts, who interact with an A.I. computer, accidentally unleash an alien onto their spaceship, which goes on to pick off the crew members one by one. Though neither Carpenter nor O’Bannon would go on record discussing the bad blood that allegedly ensued between them (although in a later interview with Fangoria, Carpenter would describe the man as “complicated”), the two men, once friends, fell out after Alien's release. Though a character of Carpenter’s own The Fog was named Dan O’Bannon, said character would go on to be violently killed by the murderous William Blake. But Carpenter, having a macabre sense of humor, may not have necessarily named one of his victims after his old friend to make a statement; with The Fog being released not even one year after Alien, it’s entirely possible Carpenter had no idea Alien was even in production until it was too late to excise O’Bannon’s name from his film.

Whether or not O’Bannon was heavily inspired by Dark Star's script when it came time to write the classic Ridley Scott film, at one point he was quoted as having said, “I didn’t steal the concept for Alien from anyone, I stole it from everyone!”

Hrm.

(To take this further, without Alien, there would be no Aliens…and so, would there be a James Cameron? Fight me on it, nerds!)

Jason Voorhees / Friday the 13th / The Entire ’80s Slasher Movement


Those well-versed in horror trends and origins know that Halloween basically gave birth to the slasher movement of the ’80s. Any holiday up for grabs soon had a poster featuring pointy weapons, masked men, and dripping blood. Christmas, New Year’s, Valentine’s Day…no holiday was safe. However, one can argue there’s a difference between inspiration and a flat-out re-titled carbon copy. Further, anyone can power up Friday the 13th and snidely deride it as a Halloween ripoff. Well, they would be right to do so – it doesn’t take a genius to see that, really – but it helps to have the filmmakers of that film agree. Friday the 13th screenwriter Victor Miller has never played coy with the fact that director Sean Cunningham one day called him up and said, “Halloween is making a lot of money, let’s rip it off.” And so they did. And Friday the 13th – a series that would go on to out-sequel Halloween – was born. Though Jason Voorhees would not appear until Friday the 13th: Part 2, he obviously would not have existed without Part 1. And that, as proclaimed by its own filmmakers, would not have existed were it not for Halloween.

Jason Statham: Action Hero


Ghosts of Mars began life as Escape from Mars, aka the third chapter of the Escape from New York saga, but following the box office disappointment that was Escape from L.A., studios weren't eager to risk replicating that kind of fallout. After some tweaking, and with Snake Plissken being find/replaced in the script with James "Desolation" Williams, Ghosts of Mars was born.

Regardless if you consider this a good or bad thing (it seems that most people enjoy seeing the bald Brit kick ass in one mindless film after another), Carpenter had the foresight to cast Statham in his much-maligned 2001 action/horror flick. Cast as Jericho – a no-nonsense, Natasha-Henstridge-wanting sergeant – Statham kicked ass and took names alongside Ice Cube, blaxploitation legend Pam Grier, and Clea DuVall. Up to this point, Statham had established a small cult following for having appeared in Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock, & Two Smoking Barrels and his more well-known crime caper Snatch, but it wasn’t until Carpenter intervened that Statham was able to show off his bad-ass chops. And the man hasn’t stopped since. After his face-smashing turns in multiple action series, such as The Expendables, The Transporter, and Crank, his new status as action hero became widely known (and enthusiastically accepted). He's most recently been part of the Fast & Furious franchise, which makes a bajillion dollars at the box office with every release, so perhaps you’ve heard of it.

Duke Nukem


If you’ve seen They Live, and played Duke Nukem, this isn’t much of a stretch. Much like They Live's John Nada (Roddy Piper, RIP), Duke Nukem wanders the desolate and seedy streets of Los Angeles while blowing away the aliens that have come to enslave our planet, not to mention utter the truly iconic catchphrase, “I have come here to chew bubble gum and kick ass…and I’m all out of bubble gum.” They even sport the same blue-collar make of average intelligence along with those same black sunglasses. While Duke is an amalgamation of pretty much every ’80s action hero (including Snake Plissken), there is no denying Carpenter’s influence on the character. One might even argue the name derives from the Duke (Isaac Hayes) from Escape from New York. Plus Duke fires off the same cornball-but-awesome one-liners that Nada did with little effort.

Ghostface / The Scream Series


Screenwriter Kevin Williamson wrote Scream as a love letter to Halloween, the film which gave rebirth to the slasher genre – a genre that had grown so tired that he (and director Wes Craven) created a self-aware parody about teenagers aware of slasher clichés but who fell victim to them anyway. Numerous references to Halloween are scattered throughout the film: Drew Barrymore describes it as her favorite horror movie; the infamous Halloween theme is very subtly applied in Marco Beltrami’s score during the first act as she cowers behind her television set; Rose McGowan’s Tatum claims that her hysterical friend’s paranoia is starting to sound like “a Wes Carpenter flick;” Jamie Kennedy’s “horror movie rules” monologue that he recites as Halloween is paused on a television behind him; the last act unfolds as the sounds of Halloween play on the television in the background.

Scream was a clever, meta look at Halloween, the clones it inspired, and the rules it created; ironically, Halloween: H20 would come along two years after Scream, which had revitalized the horror genre, and played out with a very Scream-like sensibility. (Carpenter almost directed personally, but declined, due to series producer Moustapha Akkad balking at his director’s fee, which Carpenter had padded with additional monies that he felt was owed to him from the many years of sequels.)

In 1978, Halloween came along, blew everyone’s mind, and created a sub-genre – the slasher film. That sub-genre grew so tired and dull that it literally died at the end of the ’80s, temporarily taking the horror genre along with it. It would take Scream to breathe new life into the sub-genre, itself being an homage to Halloween. In conclusion, Carpenter’s 1978 fright flick breathed new life into the horror genre not once, but twice. Pretty impressive for a $300,000 indie.

Modern Filmmakers & Their Homages


Everyday, it feels like more and more films and filmmakers – from every spectrum – are taking their cues from Carpenter’s career. From the very low brow to the very high, and in the same way Carpenter was inspired by filmmakers Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock, the new generation have since been inspired by the once-inspired. To cover every instance would keep us here forever, but the more notable titles bare a signature Carpenter style, theme, and sound.

Jim Mickle’s Cold in July has taken a page out of Assault in Precinct 13 by making what’s essentially a modern-day western, including the leery alliance dynamic, and which boasts an incredible musical score by Jeff Grace, who seems to be full-on channeling Carpenter’s score for The Fog.

The Irish production Let Us Prey (starring Liam Cunningham of Game of Thrones), probably the most underrated homage of them all, is the rare title that seems to be honoring the latter portion of Carpenter’s career where his storytelling became pulpier and his images grislier; again, the score by Steve Lynch nails that infamous synth-based style with a killer main theme.

The celebrated It Follows mashed together the suburban terror aspect of Halloween with an infectious growing threat that’s amassing an army of zombielike silent killers a la Prince of Darkness, once again bolstered by an electronic score by Disasterpiece.

After Luc Besson became Taken with Liam Neeson, he wrote Lockout, which may be the closest we ever get to Carpenter and Kurt Russell’s long-mooted Escape from Earth: a bitter and sarcastic anti-hero (“Snow,” not “Snake,” played by Guy Pearce) is forced into a rescue mission to locate and retrieve the president’s daughter from a space station prison. (Carpenter himself noticed the similarities between his Escape films and Lockout, as he recently sued Besson and the writers – and won – claiming copyright infringement.)

The Guest, one of the best titles on the list, combines Carpenter’s Halloween with Roland Emmerich’s Universal Soldier to present the story of an unstoppable killing machine with an emotionless demeanor; taking place during Halloween week, and even offering several homages to, of all things, Halloween III: Season of the Witch (along with another synthy store by Steve Moore), The Guest is wickedly funny and boasts a strong Laurie-Strode-like heroine in Maika Monroe’s Anna. (Keeping the Universal Soldier/Carpenter connection going: in my interview with filmmaker John Hyams, he admits to his Carpenter influence on his two Universal Soldier films, Regeneration and Day of Reckoning.)

The critically lauded Jeff Nichols (Mud, Take Shelter) made Midnight Special for Warner Bros., which he described as a “John Carpenter chase movie” (because a “chase John Carpenter movie” would just be weird, even though I’d watch the hell out of that).

It’s this final example of John Carpenter’s influence on the world of film that should give us all a bit of consolation. If you’re like me, it’s become somewhat disheartening to read an interview with Carpenter where he muses on potential future projects with a “whatever happens, happens” mentality; with each passing day, it seems like Darkchylde, or The Bloody Benders, or the handful of other projects to which he was tenuously attached may not happen. Carpenter has been enjoying his semi-retirement off and on since 2001, and with his films constantly being announced for remakes and sequels, and with those royalty checks steadily flowing in, he’s not in a terrible hurry to get back to work. (I don’t blame him.) So if 2010’s The Ward is to remain his swan song, we can at least take comfort in the fact that a legion of filmmakers are ready to take up the mantle and keep fighting the good fight. And if John Carpenter really is done as a director, then all I can do is quote James “Desolation” Williams from Ghosts of Mars

See you later, you big motherfucker.

Sep 28, 2019

BEWARE THE CHILDREN

God said, "Let us make man in Our image, after Our likeness.” But image does not mean outer image, or every statue or photograph would be man. It means the inner image—the spirit, the soul. But what of those in our midst who do not have individual souls? Or spirits? They have one mind that they share between them—one spirit. They have the look of man, but not the nature of mankind…


Sep 27, 2019

JOHN CARPENTER: LIVE RETROSPECTIVE


"I'm a director of horror movies. I love horror movies. Horror movies will live forever." 
After thirty years, John Carpenter is finally getting his due. And he's having fun again.

For those who have followed the trials and tribulations of the cult director, everyone knows that he's a man who has consistently proven to be ahead of the times. One of his most celebrated films, Halloween, was met with critical dismissal and audience disinterest upon its initial release, but which saw a total reversal on both of those fronts over the coming months. It was "the little indie film that could," as the dearly departed co-producer/co-writer Debra Hill once put it, and it would go on to become one of the most respected horror films of all time and spawn a franchise comprising eleven films, with two more entries on their way. A similar fate would befall The Thing, perhaps the director's most respected film, which would not only have its own reversal in the minds of critics and hearts of audiences, but nearly derail Carpenter's career, putting him on a different path of safer studio fare (Christine, Starman) to show audiences he was capable of telling less icky, mean-spirited stories.

But the 2010s have shown that Carpenter's impact hasn't just been on audiences, for whom he's provided decades of nightmares, but on a legion of filmmakers who have grown up under his tutelage. Adam Wingard with The Guest. Jim Mickle with Cold in July. Jeff Nichols with Midnight Special. David Robert Mitchell with It Follows. And this list is endless, as new films are announced all the time that cite Carpenter as their inspiration. None of these filmmakers hide their love and respect for a man who, for much of his career, received too little of both. The current iteration of Hollywood, which so far has remade four of Carpenter's best efforts, with more on the way, and where Halloween and Vampires have been sequelled into mediocrity, is the same land where Carpenter can't find funding for his own projects. To film fans, that can be especially aggravating. But as he's so far proven during his John Carpenter: Live Retrospective tour, he has gotten the last laugh, night after night. Because try as producers might to keep re-purposing Carpenter films through remakes or sequels in a blind effort to achieve mastery through affiliation, they will never even begin to touch the majesty of seeing him perform his most famous themes as part of a six-piece band (which includes his son Cody Carpenter, Daniel Davies, John Konesky, Scott Seiver, and John Spiker).

In July of 2016, I got my chance.


Much like Carpenter's filmmaking style, musical style, and much like the man himself, John Carpenter: Live Retrospective featured zero bullshit. There was no opening act, and no intermission. There were no pyrotechnics, no surprise guests, no gimmicks. The presentation was simplistic, to the point, and somewhat dorky (said in the lovingest way possible). During performances of his film themes, a large screen behind the band played a muted montage of the appropriate title. And for cuts from his two Lost Themes albums, that screen either displayed abstract light shows, or nothing at all. During The Fog, the stage filled with...you guessed it...fog. For They Live, the band paused after the song's intro to slip on some Ray-Bans. During Big Trouble in Little China, which Carpenter introduced as being a search for "the girl with green eyes," the lights illuminated solid green. And for every single one of these tracks, film themes or otherwise, Carpenter was chewing gum and dancing adorably behind his keyboard. He was beckoning to the crowd for rhythmic hand claps, the devil horns, and during Big Trouble in Little China's "Porkchop Express," the hand gesture shown off by several of its characters, known as the "Buddha finger." And the crowd, who waited with bated breath for the most recognizable horror theme of all time, lost their minds as the band launched into the main titles for Halloween, which they followed up with In the Mouth of Madness, likely the closest thing to rock 'n roll the director has ever scored. Even cuts from the surprise album "Lost Themes II," which is quite different from its predecessor, demanded new evaluation when presented so intimately and enthusiastically by its musical personnel. "Distant Dream" alone proved this.

In a night filled with surprises, the band chose to end the show with an unexpected choice: a track from Christine, a less celebrated title with a less celebrated soundtrack. But as the band performed, you could see why: because they enjoy the hell out of themselves as they play it--more than any other song in their set list.


Some film tracks, such as The Fog, are as you remember them. But so many others, now with the use of a full band, sound electrifyingly new. Never have the main titles from Escape From New York, confined so long to merely synthesizer, sounded so full and tremendous and utterly bad-ass. And with scenes from the film playing out on screen featuring Harry Dean Stanton's Brain and Donald Pleasence's President of the United States, the crowd was reminded that they don't just love Carpenter's films, and they don't just love his music, but they love his music because of his films, and they love his films because of his music.

Seeing John Carpenter embark on a tour during which honors his own legacy--one so often disregarded unless it's being exploited--offered another stark reminder: in this world of endless sequels, remakes, and loving cinema homages, there will only ever be one John Carpenter. The John Carpenter: Live Retrospective tour has come to an end, but a second tour that promoted his movie themes, was immediately announced. Will Carpenter and co. tour again? Never say never. If they do, and you haven't yet had the pleasure, don't miss out. (Or, of course, you can pick up a Blu-ray of the tour from Storm King Productions.)

Set List
Escape From New York (Main Title)
Assault on Precinct 13 (Main Title)
Vortex (from Lost Themes)
Mystery (from Lost Themes)
The Fog (Main Title)
They Live (Coming To L.A.)
The Thing (Main Theme - Desolation) (Ennio Morricone cover)
Distant Dream (from Lost Themes II)
Big Trouble in Little China (Pork Chop Express)
Wraith (from Lost Themes II)
Night (Daniel Davies solo; from Lost Themes)
Halloween (Main Title)
In the Mouth of Madness (Main Title)
Encore:
Prince of Darkness (Darkness Begins)
Virtual Survivor (from Lost Themes II)
Purgatory (from Lost Themes)
Christine: Christine Attacks (Plymouth Fury)


Sep 26, 2019

ONE MORE STORY...

 
"In five minutes, it will be the 21st of April. One hundred years ago on the 21st of April, out in the waters around Spivey Point, a small clipper ship drew toward land. Suddenly, out of the night, the fog rolled in. For a moment, they could see nothing, not a foot in front of them. Then, they saw a light. By God, it was a fire burning on the shore, strong enough to penetrate the swirling mist. They steered a course toward the light. But it was a campfire, like this one. The ship crashed against the rocks, the hull sheared in two, mars snapped like a twig. The wreckage sank, with all the men aboard. At the bottom of the sea, lay the Elizabeth Dane, with her crew, their lungs filled with salt water, their eyes open, staring to the darkness. And above, as suddenly as it come, the fog lifted, receded back across the ocean and never came again. But it is told by the fishermen, and their fathers and grandfathers, that when the fog returns to Antonio Bay, the men at the bottom of the sea, out in the water by Spivey Point will rise up and search for the campfire that led them to their dark, icy death."

Sep 24, 2019

THAT THING WANTED TO BE US


STARMAN (1984)


The beauty of Starman is not just the film itself, but who made it — horror director John Carpenter, who just a few years earlier had been lambasted and nearly run out of Hollywood for having directed The Thing, a nasty, gooey, and bleak alien thriller that had the misfortune of coming out not long after E.T., an admitted juggernaut that had audiences feeling the warm and fuzzies about alien lifeforms. Starman was Carpenter’s apology to audiences, which allowed him to show off a much different side of him than was essayed by his filmography up to that point. Produced by Michael Douglas and featuring perhaps the best cast ever assembled for a Carpenter film, Starman is a feel-good hybrid of nearly every genre there is — sci-fi, romance, drama, adventure, and comedy, all wrapped up into one of Hollywood’s oldest and most relied on locations: the open road.

Carpenter directs Starman with a gentleness not yet (or since) seen from the filmmaker, which is what makes the finished film so inspiring: from beginning to end, Carpenter willfully, gleefully embraces the romantic inside of him he modestly claims not to possess, and crafts, frankly, a beautiful story about love, loss, and hope, with a message that even he doesn’t believe in, but which is a touching way to end his story: when the Starman (Bridges) tells Charles Martin Smith’s scientist, “Do you know what I find most beautiful about your people? You are at your best when things are at their worst.” To echo Carpenter’s sentiments, it’s not at all true, especially during this particularly hateful era, but it is a beautiful way to end a film constructed on the most otherworldly love story one could imagine.


Along with a decidedly non-horrific, non-R-rated tone, Carpenter also eschews his scoring duties, allowing famed composer Jack Nitzsche to take on the task; he creates a gorgeous, ethereal score, some of which consists of vocal samplings from his wife and which are turned into galactic, unearthly tones.That aside, and the lack of usual Carpenter D.P. Dean Cundey, don’t think that Starman doesn’t feel like a Carpenter film, because it absolutely does — look no further than the tracking shot rushing in on Starman as a handful of good ol’ boys rush him in a truckstop diner parking lot.

I often wonder what could've been for John Carpenter, had The Thing been recognized on the spot for its brilliance and unrelenting horror, rather than taking years and years to develop the critical devotion and cult following that it's gone on to achieve. Would he have embraced more studio fare, working with increasingly bigger budgets? Would he perhaps have made the long mooted remake of The Creature from the Black Lagoon? Maybe. But his frustration with the studio system, and his desperation for any job after The Thing nearly derailed his career, wouldn't have led to his independently produced features Prince of Darkness and They Live, and wouldn't have led to Starman, the sweetest film from a director not known for sweet things. Knowing what would be at stake, maybe it's best to step back from wondering what would've been, and instead, focus on what is


Sep 21, 2019

VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (1995)


It goes without saying that John Carpenter gave the world the absolute greatest horror remake with The Thing. I highly doubt you could find many individuals willing to contest that. Fourteen years later, he gave the world another remake of a classic from the golden age. Utterly reviled upon its release (much like The Thing), Village of the Damned enjoyed a fine opening weekend at the box office and made enough money to be considered a success. But unlike The Thing, most critics and fans have not done a 180 as far as Village is concerned. They hated it then and they hate it now. Their reasoning for their distaste runs rampant: miscasting, a severe lack of character development, a thinly-plotted and inconsistent script.

I can’t say I disagree with any of that. But more on that in a minute.

A quick rundown of the plot for those who have never seen it (and you should be warned, spoilers abound from here till the end): the town of Midwich falls victim to a mysterious black-out of sorts that causes everything with a pulse to pass out. For hours, all lay crumpled on the floor, or the ground (or yikes...the roaring grill). They eventually awake, unsure of what’s happened, but try to get on with their lives...until it’s revealed that all of the women in town are now mysteriously pregnant, including the virgin, or the biologically barren. The government catches wind, shows up to see what’s the what, and once there, never actually leaves again. The children are born with blonde hair and a very special skill set: they have the power to control your mind and make you do things you would never normally do - to others as well as yourself. Carnage, as always, ensues.


Even the most ardent Carpenter fan (and I certainly count myself as one) has to admit that he peaked with The Thing, and after They Live, never quite reached the same heights of quality again. (In the Mouth of Madness is the only exception.) And Village of the Damned is nestled somewhere in his run of entertaining-but-maudlin offerings of the 1990s.

Nothing against Christopher Reeve, but he doesn’t quite bring his A-game to this production, and I doubt it was an indifference to the material, considering (and not to speak ill of the dead) that he wasn’t really one of the more celebrated thespians of his generations for a reason. Still, he’s perfectly satisfying as Dr. Alan Chaffee, and from time to time even feels more at home playing the father of an evil alien leader than he ever did as Superman. Given their working relationship and lasting friendship, it’s way too easy to picture Kurt Russell in the Chaffee role - that kind of simple fan-casting has the power to make you look back on the film with incredibly different, what-could-have-been eyes. Linda Kozlowski (mostly known for the Crocodile Dundee franchise) also provides a perfectly serviceable performance as Jill McGowan, but spends most of the film looking dour and downtrodden. The only one apparently having any fun is Kirstie Alley as Dr. Vurner, the cigarette-smoking, fed-clothes wearing bitch who seems to know from the very beginning just what is happening to the town of Midwich... but doesn't feel the need to clue in anyone else until it’s basically too late. (Oh, let's not forget Mark Hamill, cheesing it up as Reverend George, just pleased as punch to be part of a major studio production again.)

The problem is there is barely any interaction between characters in this film. Reeve has scenes with everyone, but the other supporting characters barely speak to each other. Though they both have major roles, Kozlowski and Alley don’t exchange a single word to each other. Perhaps it was a purposeful choice to limit Dr. Vurner’s interaction with other members of the town, but there doesn't seem to be an endgame to support it. Much more information could have been fed to the audience; more opportunities for human drama were missed. For instance, Vurner wants to dissect the kids, knowing that they're evil. Yet, Jill's blond son seems decent and good. Right there could have been an interesting conflict worth pursuing.


The biggest flaw with the script by David Himmelstein (including an uncredited rewrite by occasional Carpenter writing partner Larry Sulkis [Ghosts of Mars] and Steven Siebert) is that it feels like whole sections were removed - either in the writing stage or the editing stage. Obviously there have to be leaps through time in order for the newborns to age, from infant to toddler to elementary-school age, but often time it feels as if important developments are also being left behind. For instance, at a town hall meeting, Dr. Vurner confirms that every fertile female in town has become mysteriously pregnant, and therefore has attracted government attention. She presents them with a choice: Have an abortion and the government will pay for it, or carry the children to term and the government will pay for that, too - along with a monthly allowance of three thousand dollars. (The catch for this second choice is that Dr. Vurner or her team of scientists would like access to the children on a weekly basis for research purposes.) After the pregnant women have dreams featuring some really bad ‘80s music-video-inspired set dressing, they all decide to keep their kids. This really fucks up Vurner’s plan to cut open one of the aborted fetuses to see what they’re made of. Long preamble aside, this is the point: All the women in town are pregnant. Earlier I described them as “fertile” women, but that’s really just an assumption. It’s never stated if it really is every woman (the young? the elderly?) or just the ones biologically capable of carrying to term. Vurner confirms that “all [the women] have decided to keep their babies.” When the time comes, dozens (dozens!) of women go into labor. There is only one confirmed miscarriage. But yet, we jump through time, and there are only nine of the special children. So what happened to the rest? Were there more? Did the others die? Were the other children born normally? If so, where are they? And why wasn’t this ever mentioned?

Speaking of the one woman who miscarried, why is so she so upset about it? At this point it’s well-established that there is something off about the kids - and that they’re kinda jerks. So why wait five or six or seven years to blow her head off? One would think she’d be relieved she didn’t squeeze out one of the little blond turds.

But hey, we’re here to defend Village of the Damned, right?


It’s no surprise that, muddied screenplay aside, Carpenter’s direction and choices manage to shine through and make some of the more absurd aspects of the film interesting. For someone who questioned his ability as an "actor's director" in the beginning of his career, his ease with successfully utilizing children - nine, in fact - is cause for celebration.

First, it's rare when the performances by a child outshine those of their adult counterparts. Lindsey Haun as Mara, the children's ringleader, is quite good. Her role is atypical, and her task is memorizing large chunks of somewhat complicated and technical dialogue while removing any semblance of emotion from her voice. She very much manages to be eerie and intimidating, and as far as evil kids go, is far more effective than the kid from The Omen

Playing the thorn in Mara's side is the young Thomas Dekker as David, the only of the children seemingly born with humanity. His role is actually surprisingly complex in a philosophical aspect. He questions himself constantly, confused by these "emotions" he sometimes feels. He questions why he mourns for someone he's never met - that of the baby which miscarried, which would have been his "partner." From the very beginning he seems different from the rest, and his mother recognizes this. Dekker is quite good as well, and would go on to have a rather successful career for a young actor, his most high profile role as that of John Connor in television's "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles." (Although, to me, he'll always be the hospital-bound Bobby in the episode of "Seinfeld" who demands that Kramer tell Yankee Paul O'Neill he needs to hit two home runs.)

(As an aside, I'll mention that one of the other children is played by Shawna Waldron, best known as having played Icebox in Little Giants. She has one line of dialogue - it's not bad. The end.)

There's an especially well-constructed montage which takes place at the funeral of the young woman who opted to remove herself from earth following her miscarriage. Reverend George gives an impassioned eulogy for the departed, all the while (and it would seem, for the first time), acknowledging the evil that has plagued their small town.
God said, "Let us make man in Our image, after Our likeness.” But image does not mean outer image, or every statue or photograph would be man. It means the inner image—the spirit, the soul. But what of those in our midst who do not have individual souls? Or spirits? They have one mind that they share between them—one spirit. They have the look of man, but not the nature of mankind…
It's the first and perhaps only time in the film a parent attempts to reach out to the other parents and ask them, basically, "Our kids are the fucking devil. Is there anything we can do?" Juxtaposed against this scene are the children out and about, doing some single-file marching. It sounds stupid, and Hammil's monologue borders on the cheesy, but with Carpenter's eye and music, it works quite well.

The visual effects by Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) is impressive. What was a somewhat hokey effect in the original Village has been re-imagined, utilizing the full color spectrum that changes in accordance to the children's level of intensity they are exhibiting, and sometimes even revealing the children's interior physical structure at key moments. Granted, what looked impressive in 1995, compared to the CGI extravaganzas of today in which entire countries are eviscerated, might seem somewhat simple, but ILM, who worked with Carpenter previously on Starman and Memoirs of an Invisible Man, does nice work here.


Ohhh...and the finale. How I love this finale. Once again, the use of Carpenter’s superior musical skills (sharing duty with Dave Davies) makes the finale incredibly affecting. From the first shotgun shell to the final explosion, the music, the quick (and quickening) cuts, and the jumping back and forth among the carnage outside - it’s all immensely suspenseful and satisfying. It gets your blood pumping and works on a very simplistic level - it appeals to what Carpenter calls “the lizard brain” the human race still possesses from our very early genetic roots; our need for destruction and domination. The finale is quite literally a race against time, permeated by the ticking clock counting down to the detonation of the explosives hidden inside Chaffee’s briefcase. And the brick wall he envisions in his head to block the children from seeing his motivations for keeping them in the old barn begins to slowly chip away. The music builds and builds and - in one of my favorite moments of any Carpenter film - finally ceases, a small choir on the soundtrack lets out a single sigh, all goes quiet, the kids look at the clock realizing this has been his plan all along...and quite literally, the roof is blown off the place. It's the stuff of film boners.

I remember reading at one point that Wes Craven was attached to this remake, a stipulation of his current contract with Universal Studios, and John Carpenter offered to Craven that he would take it on instead. This knowledge, coupled with his own comments on the original movie calling it "hilarious," would make one think that Village of the Damned wasn't exactly a passion project. But the aforementioned finale on which I heaped all my praise was evidently enough for the filmmaker to take on the assignment.

He said:
"The reason I wanted to remake The Thing was because of the blood test [scene]. The reason I wanted to remake this one [Village] was because of the brick wall scene."
When I was a wee one, I remember sitting down at the dinner table with my family and listening to my parents discuss the winners and losers at that year's Academy Awards, which had aired a night or two before. (Braveheart took home best picture.) I remember asking, in all of my naivety, if Village of the Damned had won any awards (as I had just seen it on video that week). My father gave me a funny look and asked, "For what? Worst movie of the year?" Also during this time, I had known someone personally who had gone to see Village in theaters, and had become so terrified that she began having a panic attack and an ambulance had to be called. This was kind of a defining moment for me as a film fan. At this young age I realized there was a real chasm between films that critics liked and films that general moviegoers liked - and an additional chasm strictly between moviegoers, who have never and will never agree on the quality of any one film.


I would never call Village of the Damned a great film, because, to be honest, it's not. But there are enough good things about it to justify its own existence. 

Sep 20, 2019

BIOLOGICAL OBLIGATION


"If we coexist, we shall dominate you. That is inevitable. Eventually you will try to eliminate us. We are all creatures of the life force. Now it has set us at one another to see who will survive."

Sep 18, 2019

VAMPIRES (1998)


  
John Carpenter grew up watching westerns. 

One of his very first short films, The Resurrection of Billy Bronco, was inspired by them. And although known as a horror director, he’s really been making westerns since the very beginning: Assault on Precinct 13, They Live, Escape from New York/L.A., Ghosts of Mars and there are even more. But when it comes to the weary and embattled few taking on many in the dusty, sandy landscapes of the Midwest, complemented by the appropriate acoustic-guitar-driven musical score, it’s Vampires that claims the top spot as the western Carpenter always wanted to make. Sure, the enemy might be sunlight-avoiding bloodsuckers, but they spring up from everywhere – from behind buildings, or elevator shafts – and it’s up to Woods’ Malcolm Crow and his desperadoes to mow them down with a glorious collection of weaponry. The only thing scarier than facing your certain death in the OK Corral at sundown is being out there in the New Mexico desert at all once the sun begins to set, allowing the legion of vampires beneath the sandy surface to rise, looking for necks to suck on.


Vampires is a hell of a lot of fun – the type of fun of which only Carpenter is capable – the type of fun that is completely without pretension, and which only wants to entertain, emboldened by that “to hell with mainstream audiences” mentality that Carpenter has been rocking since The Fog. It’s never spoken of fondly among cinephiles, but for the ardent Carpenter fan, it’s generally regarded as the last great feature from the filmmaker. It opened # 1 at the box office its debut weekend and enjoyed a laudable collection of favorable reviews – again, and sadly, it may be the last time of Carpenter’s career. To follow would be the box-office and critical bomb Ghosts of Mars, followed by the little-seen The Ward, and then endless speculation of just what projects Carpenter might tackle next, should the necessary funding come together (which seems more and more like a red herring as time goes on).

Carpenter films contain a certain energy and swagger that’s not commonly seen in other films of the genre. There’s something about the way he crafts the story and develops the lead that feels different – that establish their own identity. His siege-like tales always center around that one strong lead fighting back against adversity; heroes either anti or reluctant leading a small squad of people against the threat coming down hard upon them; heroes taking on the establishment with little hope for success.


Malcolm Crow is among them, and he is brought to boisterous, cigar-chomping, scenery-chewing life by James Woods, not only enjoying a rare lead performance, but enjoying one in which he gets to play the hero. And man is he shooting for the rafters. Woods’ performance exudes a kind of energy rarely seen in a genre project within the confines of a major studio release. (Watching him stake vampires while screaming, “Motherfucker, die! Die!” over and over is the stuff of dreams.) This wasn’t just a relatively unknown Kurt Russell taking on Snake Plissken, free of the constraints of having achieved mainstream success and straddling that line between risk-taking and reputation-maintaining. This was James Woods, a twice Oscar-nominated actor (the second nomination having been the year prior for Ghosts of Mississippi); who had, in the few years leading up to Vampires‘ release, worked with Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone, and Robert Zemeckis; who, in the following year, would work with Clint Eastwood. Not to belabor the point, but this was an actor who had a lot to lose, creatively, by taking on a project of such potential embarrassment. But he threw caution to the wind, likely so he could let back his proverbial hair and just have fun.

And man, that’s what Vampires is. It’s fun.

As for the supporting cast, Daniel Baldwin (the most underrated Baldwin, for serious) as Montoya doesn’t get enough credit for his abilities as an actor. His contributions to the film are to offer a believable and somewhat restrained counterpart to Crow’s eccentric and bigger-than-life persona. That he begins to slowly fall for Katrina (Sheryl Lee), a prostitute bitten by the film’s main baddie, only adds to his likability. He’s written as the loyal and dependable partner – the ideal person to have in your corner when you’re up against it – and you completely buy the rapport he shares with his fellow vamp-killer. 


Thomas Ian Griffith also does a fine job retreading very old and established ground with his take on Valek, likely the fifth hundred vampire to hit the screen since the film medium began. With one foot each in the sexual-being and the monstrous-killer camps, his Valek is an interesting addition to the vampire sub-genre, which, by now, is in desperate need of rejuvenation following too many years of so many pretty bloodsucking boys. (Also look for brief appearances by Mark Boone Junior of Sons of Anarchy and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, a.k.a. Shang Tsung of Mortal Kombat.)

To suggest that Vampires is within throwing distance of Carpenter’s top films wouldn’t be accurate, but it’s deserving of so much more respect than it receives – not just from the genre community, but audiences in general. Allegedly, Carpenter, at this point in his career, had become burned out by the filmmaking process; however, it would be his experience making Vampires that would cause him to reassess his feelings and decided to stick with it. Only when Ghosts of Mars came along three years later would the director lapse into a half-retirement/hiatus for nine years before returning to feature filmmaking with The Ward.

Spoiler.
With each passing day, as Carpenter prefers to focus on graphic novels, video games, and his beloved Lakers, it seems more and more to be the case that he could very well be done with the film business for good. While it would be terrible for The Ward to serve as his swan song, perhaps it would offer the opportunity for the ’90s portion of his career – one not nearly as celebrated as his two previous decades – to enjoy the same kind of rightful adoration. Second only to In the Mouth of Madness in terms of ’90s era-Carpenter, Vampires is deserving of that kind of adoration.

If, for whatever reason, you may have dismissed Vampires after a one-time viewing, or perhaps none at all, it's time for you to consider a reevaluation. A manic performance from James Woods, a healthy dose of violence and blood-covered grue, and a full-on embracing of western aesthetics makes Vampires an underrated addition to Carpenter’s filmography and one of the more unique contributions to the vampire genre.


Sep 17, 2019

DO YOU READ SUTTER CANE?

SUTTER CANE TAKES US HOME TO HOBB’S END FOR THE FINAL CONFRONTATION. THIS TIME NO ONE GETS OUT OF HERE ALIVE AND THAT INCLUDES YOU! 

Excerpt: And then, suddenly, he felt a greater terror than that which any of the Forms could give – a terror from which he could not flee, because it was connected with himself. In a chaos of scenes, whose infinite multiplicity and monstrous diversity brought him close to the brink of madness, were a limitless confusion of beings which he knew were himself. Forms both human and non-human.

He reeled in the clutch of supreme horror. He was no longer a being distinguished from other beings. He had reached the nameless summit of agony and dread…

The picturesque town hadn’t changed much since the turn-of-the-century. Even the people seemed out of time. There’s something about being in a small, rural community which Carl found both refreshing, and at the same time, a little unnerving. But there was something about this place which was making him feel more unnerved than anything else. Helen said it was withdrawal, not enough neon and police sirens. Maybe she was right, maybe Carl was just wound a little too tight. But Carl’s gut said otherwise, and it was never wrong. He had made a fortune relying on his instinct, and now it was telling him that here was something very wrong with this place. Helen called it nervous stomach, a symptom of post-retirement withdrawal. But Carl wasn’t nervous, he was scared. There was something in Hobb’s End which was making him sick. Maybe this was one of those quaint little towns which was being used as a dump site for toxic waste. That could explain the bleeding ulcer which was devouring Carl from the inside out. But the truth was far more terrifying than industrial pollutants. Carl knew the truth, always had, it was ingrained deep within his psyche. Psychologists called it social conscience, Carl called it his gut, and it was as much a part of his genetic makeup as the gene which had given him his white forelock. Unfortunately, Carl had also inherited the gene for male patterned baldness and lost his distinctive white forelock, along with the rest of his hair, several years ago. But he hadn’t lost the knowledge. He couldn’t. It was a part of him, and every other member of his species. It was what they had been created for.

IF THIS BOOK DOESN'T SCARE YOU TO DEATH... 

YOU’RE ALREADY DEAD.

The sleepy colonial town of Hobb’s End was right out of a Norman Rockwell painting. 

It seemed like the perfect retirement community for Carl and Helen Pickman, who had always dreamed of running a cozy little bed and breakfast inn. 

But there is something which is making Carl sick to his stomach… something which is changing his wife.

IT KNOWS NO FEARS.

IT HAS NO WEAKNESS.

IT LIVES TO KILL.

WHATEVER YOU DO, DON’T GO DOWNSTAIRS 

After losing both her job, and her boyfriend, Lauren Mitchell is confronted with her worst fear – she must move back in with her parents. But her nightmare is just beginning. For things have changed back home. Her parents have a new border living in their basement, and he’s not very friendly. In fact, he’s not even human. But that doesn’t stop the ghastly creature from wanting Lauren for it’s mate. It has chosen her to bear it’s parasitic offspring - a hideous new brood of creatures – a vicious new breed of evil. Lauren isn’t giving up without one hell of a fight. But even then, she may wind up dead… if she’s lucky.

THE REIGNING KING OF HORROR IS ABOUT TO TAKE YOU TO HELL… HANG ON FOR YOUR LIFE!

Tourist guides say that it was part of the underground railroad – a secret route to freedom for Southern slaves. But there are those who know otherwise. Many families fled into the tunnel in a desperate flight to liberty, but very few ever came back out. 

Jesse Washington’s grandfather was one of the few who survived. He told stories of a cavernous labyrinth which led to the very bowels of the earth… And of something living deep within the darkness, more terrifying than death itself; something which fed upon his entire family. But Jesse never paid much attention to the old man’s stories. The tunnel had been closed up long ago for safety reasons, and no one had ventured inside for years. But it was sealed not to keep people out, but to keep something in. And that something has gotten lonely over the years… lonely and hungry. And now it’s coming to the surface to hunt… and to feed. Now Jesse believes, but now it may already be too late…


SIX-YEAR-OLD JOSH TANNER LIKED HIS DOG SCOUT. BUT THE LITTLE BEAGLE DIDN’T TASTE NEARLY AS GOOD AS MARY WALKER’S CAT… YOU MAY NEVER WANT TO BABYSIT AGAIN

Summer has finally come, and for the first time since the divorce, Jack Sullivan is getting custody of his two children, Max and Amanda, for an entire month. But soon after the arrival, Jack notices a sudden and dramatic change come over his children. The games they play grow increasingly dangerous. And their behavior becomes more violent and cruel with each passing day. But it’s not just Max and Amanda. Every kid in town is changing, becoming more and more vicious. In desperation the town’s people gather to decide upon a plan. But the children have already chosen their fate. It’s time to get rid of the adults once and for all, by any means possible. Jack and the rest of the adults soon find themselves being hunted down by sadistic hordes of their very own children. And what the children have in store for them is even more horrifying than the most frightening childhood nightmare.

THE WEATHER BUREAU IS CALLING IT, ‘THE MOST VISCIOUS STORM OF THE CENTURY.’ THEY DON’T KNOW HOW RIGHT THEY ARE

Plague and Pestilence, War and Famine… Throughout history, mankind has been ravaged with horrific tragedy. And on each and every occasion it was there, gorging itself on humanity’s pain and suffering. Since the dawn of civilization, it has haunted the shadows of human existence, infecting agony and death upon all it embraces. It has been more than a hundred years since the darkness fell upon the new world. But the hour of evil is upon us once again. There is a vicious storm brewing, bringing winds of torment and a rain of terror. And with it comes the haunter, a parasitic monster who feeds on man’s most primal emotions; seeking ecstasy in the torturous throes of human misery. No man, woman or child is safe from its wickedness. And only the strongest will survive… The question is, survive as what? 

SUTTER CANE WELCOMES YOU TO THE PLACE WHERE NIGHTMARES ARE BORN AND DEATH COMES IN A WHISPER

The rugged wilderness is a haven for hikers and nature lovers who enjoy it’s natural beauty and unspoiled majesty. And as autumn sets in, the forests come alive with their beautiful palettes of fall colors. But there’s something else which comes alive as the sun goes down, and the woods become a nocturnal playground for the creatures of the night.

Cody Youngblood’s people also believed the Wanago could come into the land of the living if enough people shared the infectious nightmares. Cody, however, has spent his entire life trying to distance himself from his native roots. But as his nightmares, and those of his friends, start taking shape in the real world; he soon finds himself forced to embrace the Shamanistic teachings of his ancestors. To save himself and the ones he loves he must believe in the Indian magic he denounced as a young man. And even that may not be enough to save them from the savage terror which whispers in the dark.