In the Mouth of Madness (1995)

In the Mouth of Madness (1995) movie poster

director John Carpenter
viewed: 08/29/2016

When I first saw John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness, I hated it.  I can’t tell you much more about what my thinking was at the time, but it seemed a sure sign that one of the “Masters of Horror” as he had been dubbed, was on a downturn in his career.

The question of Carpenter’s career arc is one I’m revisiting, though sporadically.  And as part of this revisiting, I re-watched In the Mouth of Madness and can certainly say that I see it differently now.

Sam Neill plays investigator John Trent, who is hired to find a missing horror writer, whose books have become more and more influential on his readers.  We find this out in a long flashback, because the film opens with Neill being dragged into a sanitarium, straight-jacketed, and loony.  What unfolds though is a film full of dream/nightmare images, arranged with the logic of a dream.

Some have compared it to David Lynch, and while that is a stretch, it’s possible to see the surrealism and its effect on the psyche.  And some of what results are some striking images and unusual turns.

Having more recently watched Prince of Darkness (1987) and  They Live (1988), I feel it’s safe to say that In the Mouth of Madness is not Carpenter at his best, but even as a lesser Carpenter flick, it’s got its merits.

Don’t know what was wrong with me in 1995.

Prince of Darkness (1987)

Prince of Darkness (1987) movie poster

director John Carpenter
viewed: 08/19/2016

Back in 1987, I saw John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness, and unlike the critics of the day, I really kind of liked it.  That was nearly 30 years ago now, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t see it again in that time frame.  But I always recalled that spinning miasma of green evil and some convoluted but totally interesting story.

The story, though, is a germ of inspired physics meets metaphysics, played out by a worried priest (Donald Pleasance) and a college professor (Victor Wong) and a bunch of grad students who really had no idea what they signed up for.  The set-up is kind of rickety but holds together in large part because of Carpenter’s masterful seething ocean of dread.

The film opens slowly over credits interspersed pretty deeply into the film, building slowly, against the soundtrack by Carpenter and collaborator Alan Howarth.  It’s the apocalypse, but some weird science-y, religious-y apocalypse that doesn’t get well spelled out, but keeps the viewer teasingly curious.

It’s easy to see how this could be a favorite of a true Carpenter acolyte.  It’s also somewhat easy to imagine this idea being re-made probably these days into a television show.  And as I say that, I hope that no one is listening.

I am guessing that where this falls in your personal Carpenter pantheon says a lot about what kind of a hardcore Carpenter fan you are.

The Ward (2010)

 

The Ward (2010) movie poster

director John Carpenter
viewed: 06/26/2016

The Ward may come to be known as horror legend John Carpenter’s final feature film.  Or it may not.  Who knows?  At this point, Carpenter has turned to his music and The Ward may be his last outing in cinema.  He’s only 68, so who knows what the future holds?

It takes place in 1966, in an all female mental ward in Bend, Oregon.  The star of the film is a pre-Johnny Depp Amber Heard.  She’s just burned down a farm house and gets placed in the old facility, only to quickly become beset by spooky happenings and a gnarly old lady ghost thing.  She’s ensconced in a room that belonged to a girl who mysteriously disappeared.

She’s surrounded by thinly drawn inmates who are all a little too pretty, some have more quirks than others, and are slowly getting picked off by the weird evil of the place.

The whole thing pivots on a twist.

Jared Harris provides a slippery presence as the doctor trying to help.

I concur with the majority that this film is no great shakes, but still is some improvement on Carpenter’s last feature film, Ghosts of Mars (2001).  It’s not completely terrible, but if it had been made by any other un-John Carpenter director, it would probably be completely unmemorable.  My biggest gripe was the really terrible editing, seemingly made to keep the pace rolling — again, who knows?

They Live (1988)

They Live (1988) movie poster

director John Carpenter
viewed: 05/28/2016

The mordant satire of John Carpenter’s 1988 movie They Live is evident most avidly if you happen to simply Google “they live artwork” or “they live poster“.  I’d been thinking about the image I’d seen by Mitch O’Connell, his They Live/Trump, but it’s evident that artists on any side of the political spectrum can don the shades and see alien ghouls behind any political figure.

While it’s now a cult favorite, I’ll have to be honest and say that when I saw it in the theaters in 1988, I didn’t totally dig it.  I didn’t dig it in part because I didn’t like Roddy Piper (or professional wrestling) at the time.  The now legendary wrestling-style fight sequence between Piper and co-star Keith David, the absurd length of it, it seemed comic but not entirely intentional.  And as far as kicking ass and bubblegum, some zingers get more amusing on repeat than on first delivery.   Just ask Baby over in the corner there.

They Live seems to have come at a turning point in Carpenter’s career, leaving behind the fecund 1970’s and 1980’s and heading over into mediocrity and a pointed lack of invention.  Maybe it was the disappointment of They Live that engendered that in some part.

But They Live now lives much more than in 1988.  It’s go-to Capitalist critique imagery is glib but utterly apt.  Would that political awakening were as easy as sliding on sunglasses to see behind the veneer of culture and society.

I’ve come around to Piper.  I thought at the time I first saw it that the film’s lack of dialogue was perhaps due to concerns of his performance.  Who knows?  The long moments that are dialogue-free wind up being quite effective.  The silliness of the alien ghouls works as cartoonish short-hand and has become iconic.

It may not be an entirely great film, but it has elements of greatness, and those elements elevate the picture and are the fodder for cultural references to the film ever since.

The Thing

The Thing (1982) movie poster

(1982) director John Carpenter
viewed: 08/26/10 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

Great f’ing movie.

John Carpenter’s re-make of Howard Hawks/Christian Nyby’s The Thing from Another World (1951) is doubtlessly Carpenter’s best film.  Tense and intense, straightforward and yet gorily over-the-top, there is a gritty earnestness to the film’s whole, a pared-down and energetic horror/action film that features some of the best of 1980’s special effects courtesy of Rob Bottin and Rick Baker.

When it came out in the 1980’s the gore/effects were so shocking that there were lots of rumors or stories about people throwing up in the theater.  The effects are strange and extreme, innovative and shocking, still holding great power today, which is owes no small debt to the overall film and its effectiveness.  Many of the best scenes are that in which the “Thing” is morphing, exploding, oozing, whipping around tentacles, never finding a single, singular form.  It must have been quite the exciting challenge, an open ended interpretation of what the creature is going to look like at any given time.  One of the best is when the head of a dead man detaches itself from the body, whips out a long tongue, which it uses to grab on to something to pull itself to safety, and then sprouts antenna-like eye-protrusions and several spidery crab-like legs as it tries to scamper to escape.  It’s not just the grossness but the shock and weirdness and unpredictability of the designs that keeps you always unsettled.

The action is set in Antartica, and the film opens with a helicopter chasing a husky across the snow, shooting at it.  The immediate sequence gives no lead as to what’s going on (i.e., “why are they shooting at a dog?”), so it’s kind of disorienting, very effectively so.  The men in the helicopter chase the dog to the American base, unintelligibly speaking a foreign language, shouting and firing at the dog and wounding the Americans before they are shot and killed.   The dog is taken into camp.  The mystery is afoot.

Kurt Russell, in the best of his starring roles for Carpenter, is the American chopper pilot, who leads a search of the Norwegian outpost to try to figure out what happened.  Footage that is found shows that the Norwegians discovered a spaceship in the ice, and apparently a being as well, frozen for who knows how long.    And unfortunately for all involved, they find out when it thaws out that this creature is a parasitic impostor, a monster that absorbs other creatures and then turns itself into a replica of them.

Things go from bad to worse as the story unfolds, as they begin to understand what they are dealing with.   What comes about is an air of utter paranoia.  The American base team, a very strong all-male cast of character actors, suddenly doesn’t know who among them might be the Thing.  And this leads to one of the film’s best scenes, in which Russell tests their blood with a heated wire, because the creature’s blood will react as a living thing, not merely a bodily fluid.

I’ve been on a minor John Carpenter bent of late, watching his earliest films,  Dark Star (1974) and Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), and I’ve come to have a greater and greater appreciation for him as a director.  I remember that the last time that I watched The Thing, probably about 12 or so years ago, I was also duly impressed.  It’s a film with very little fat.  And with quite a bit of intensity, surprises, and excitement.  Heck, it’s probably one of the best of the 1980’s period.  Yes, it’s that good.

Assault on Precinct 13

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) movie poster

(1976) director John Carpenter
viewed: 08/13/10

Assault on Precinct 13, director John Carpenter’s second feature film, is a taut, wily, and clever action film, far outreaching its low budget means to make a seriously solid flick.  Frankly, this was another of Carpenter’s films that I’d never seen and that had languished on my rental queue for many a year, like his first feature film, Dark Star (1974), which I had just seen earlier in the week.  While Dark Star‘s charms exude from its low-budget, low-fi character, Assault on Precinct 13 shows greater ambition and greater rewards.

A rough re-telling of Howard Hawks’ western Rio Bravo (1959), Carpenter transposes the Old West onto the rougher neighborhoods of 1970’s Los Angeles which is plagued by violent multicultural street gangs.  An old police station is being moved, and the action takes place on the last night of this outpost’s tenure, operating with a skeleton staff and with its telecommunications being shut off.  When a gang member is killed in retribution for the killing of a little girl, the gang members hunt the girl’s father to the station where he seeks help and protection from the police.  And the station is also a temporary holding pen for some violent prisoners who are on their way to a penitentiary.  A motley crew of a local police lieutenant, the prisoners, and the secretarial staff have to fight off the gang and try to make it though the night.

The cast, mostly obscure to unknown actors, is tremendously strong.  Austin Stoker plays the lieutenant, Darwin Joston is “Napoleon” Wilson, a convicted murderer, Tony Burton is Wells, another convict, and Laurie Zimmer plays the secretary.  They all turn in solid performances, and Carpenter gives them good dialogue and a lot to work with.  It’s really quite a surprisingly strong cast all around.

Something else additionally interesting is that Carpenter makes the gang members very specifically multicultural.  Maybe this is to try to use the milieu without addressing any of the racial strife or challenges of Los Angeles of the period, I don’t know.  But the gang has four leaders, a “Hispanic”, “Oriental”, “Black”, and “White” kingpins, as they are described in the credits.  And they bond through a blood-letting and mixing ceremony, symbolizing their commitment to one another.  Interestingly, they never have any dialogue themselves, so their motivations are left a little up in the air and undefined.

Perhaps the film’s most potent scene, and one of its most controversial, is when a young girl is shot to death in a random act of violence.  She’s holding a vanilla ice cream cone, looking very innocent, and the blood splatters her body.  It’s a sudden, surpising event, duly shocking.  Still potent today.

I have to say, this film only further whetted my apetite for revisiting Carpenter’s  films.   So, don’t be terribly surprised to see more of them written up here in the coming weeks and months.

Dark Star

Dark Star (1974) movie poster

(1974) director John Carpenter
viewed: 08/11/10

Before there was Halloween (1978), before there was Alien (1978), before there was Escape From New York (1981), The Thing (1982), Lifeforce (1985), The Return of the Living Dead (1985), Total Recall (1990), there was Dark Star.

Having recently been revisiting Wes Craven’s more plum films, I was reminding myself that I had a number of films by another (and arguably more interesting) 1970’s-1980’s American horror filmmaker languishing in my queue, the honorable John Carpenter.  I’d never seen Dark Star, which was Carpenter’s first feature film, adapted and expanded from his student film, a drolly comic, low-budget science fiction movie that falls into no single clean category.  It had been recommended to me by a friend many years ago after we’d watched Carpenter’s masterpiece, The Thing, and were reveling in the fine qualities of that film.  He’d said that he’d always had a soft spot for this odd space comedy.  But it took me this long to get around to seeing it.

Dark Star is the name of the spaceship that is home to four Earthlings (and one dead suspended-animation Earthling), who are roving the galaxy with the sole goal of blowing up “unstable” planets (the captain at one point says something like “Don’t give me any of that intelligent life crap, just give me something I can blow up”), making outer space more friendly to colonization.  They’re in a bit of a time warp, having been away from Earth for 20 years but having aged only 3.  Their ship is slowly falling apart but their distance from Earth (and budget cuts) haven’t allowed them to return for repairs.  Their captain was killed in a technical mishap and his body was put into a deep freezer, where via radio signals, he can still be reached (in one of the film’s stranger and more interesting sequences).

The film is odd.  Tonally, there are some rather thoughtful and intellectual moments, like with the dead captain who speaks from another existential plane, or another character who is withdrawing from the others to just sit and stare at the stars, or in the film’s ending in which that same character is absorbed by a rainbow comet to travel space for all eternity and the captain surfs into a planet’s atmosphere, burning up as a falling star.  And then there is more outright comedy, most obvious in the strange alien sequence in which the alien is a “beach ball with claws”.  It’s such a silly thing and its comedic battle with the character Pinback (who is played by co-screenwriter Dan O’Bannon) is one of the weirder elements of the film.  And, of course perhaps most-amusing, is the discussion of epistemology between the captain and the computerized bomb.  The captain tries to convince the bomb that it doesn’t really know if the outside world exists and should therefor not follow its instruction to explode.

The visuals are low-fi, yet effective.  I mean, you’ll never confuse this film with cutting edge visual effects, but of what they have they make interesting use.  It’s low-budget quality gives it an air of low-budget 1950’s sci-fi, even while what it channels is a more humorous slant on 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).  And it’s that weird mixture of odd humor and the cerebral that give this film its unique flavor.

And in prefacing this entry, I mention not just Carpenter’s more notable films, but the notable films of writer/actor Dan O’Bannon.  I hadn’t been so familiar with O’Bannon myself, but he’s the best of the actors in the film, playing Sgt. Pinback, but as co-writer, he went on to write the screenplay for Ridley Scott’s classic Alien, apparently adapting aspects of this film (the beach ball alien) from comedy to horror, and in researching him, I found that he worked on a number of interesting, if not awesomely grand sci-fi/horror films.  Worth noting, so I noted it.

Vampires: Los Muertos

Vampires Los Muertos (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Tommy Lee Wallace
viewed: 11/01/02

Don’t ask.

No really…

Okay, I rented this almost solely because it has one of my big guilty pleasure actresses in it, Natasha Gregson Wagner (who here is billed simply as Natasha Wagner), daughter of Natalie Wood. Wagner bears a distinct resemblence to her late mother, though maybe less classically beautiful. She is also not a great actress. It’s an irrational sort of attraction thing, okay? I came to like her from seeing her in Another Day in Paradise (1998) and reconfirmed my liking in Modern Vampires (1998), which is probably one of my all-time guilty pleasures (and it’s pure pleasure and pure guilt there).

So,…I bit,…pardon the pun, I rented Vampires: Los Muertos.

It’s probably easy to see my interest in it, another vampire movie with Natasha (Gregson) Wagner. This film is a sequel to the mediocre, yet not awful Vampires (1998) which was directed by John Carpenter and starred James Woods. Woods didn’t come back for this sequel as the big star in the lead vampire-slaying role, but interestingly enough, a like character is played here by Jon Bon Jovi (a less fully campy selection than I originally thought it might be.) This film also featured Diego Luna, who I liked from Y tu mamá también (2001).The film was released direct-to-video, so as one would imagine, it’s no great masterwork of cinema.

As in the original, the film is a mixture of several genres, borrowing most heavily from the Western, but also, of course, from horror and science fiction/fantasy. The narrative follows a roaming bounty hunter (a lone hired gun) who rounds up a gang of misfits to fight the bad guys, who are in these scenarios vampires.

Bon Jovi’s vampire bounty hunter is meant to read as a tough, “cool” version of the Van Helsing character (who in many other more traditional vampire/Dracula films is often portrayed as a hero, but a very uncool one. This is part of the film’s angle on the traditions. The character is a secular hero, though he is often aligned with equally heroic Catholic priests and monks. Bon Jovi hunts vampires wearing tight jeans, t-shirt, a leather vest, and cowboy boots. He also travels with a surf board, that he never uses. Wagner plays a half-dead victim of a vampire, held in stasis from converting to the “undead” by some drugs that she picked up in Mexico City.

The film wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, but it was also a less campy than I expected, too. Instead, it’s somewhere in between. A guilty pleasure, but less guilty, and less pleasure.

Halloween

Halloween (1978) movie poster

(1978) dir. John Carpenter
viewed: 08/17/02

For those of you familiar with the film diary, you will realize that I have seen more John Carpenter films this year than from any other director. It’s part coincidence and part intentional look at a pretty interesting horror auteur.

This film was my pick for my nephew Jordan and my second mini-horror movie fest of the summer.

We had the misfortune of picking up the “extended edition” of Halloween which added in eleven minutes of extraneous footage, shot to pad out its initial television airing. Though the footage was apparantly shot during the filming of Halloween II (1981) and looks relatively in sync with the film, the padding only tended to “fatten” the film, which unfortunately took away from its leaner original form.

The narrative and backstory are filled out, which slows down the pace of the film and offers more “explanation” about the “origin” of Michael Myers, the film’s undying killer. For me, this lessened the film in two ways, slowing it down considerably, and offering unnecessary and contradictory explication.

The opening sequence is largely wordless. Seen through the eyes of the eight year old Michael Myers, the only conversations are overheard whispers. It’s never really explained as to why Myers decides to take a butcher knife to his sister, though he does witness her engaging in a sex act, an potentially explicit Freudian site of trauma. While this sequence maybe doesn’t explicitly quote Hitchcock’s Psycho, it echoes it both visually and thematically.

What does Myers represent in the film? The hand of an angry, vengeful “god”, punishing horny teenagers for their “sins”? Certainly there is that undercurrent to his initial murder and the murder of a few of the later characters, each either engaging in sex or planning to. That undercurrent is never explicitly examined by the film and no overt religious references populate it as a text. It is interesting to note that Jamie Lee Curtis, the protagonist and main stalking victim of the film, is virginal, yet motherly (baby-sitting sans boyfriend on a Saturday night while all of her friends are out looking for action), a bookwormy wallflower who is not sexually active. She, of course, manages to escape his murderous advances.

Donald Pleasance, who plays Myers’s utterly unsympathetic psychiatrist, touts Myers as the personification of evil. He explicitly describes him as less than human and seeks him out with a cold societal “vengence,” not unlike my above suggested reading of Myers himself. Pleasance represents a system that desires to hold an eight-year old boy for a murder until he is old enough to be tried as an adult. His monolithical protrayal of Myers as “evil” and “non-human” attempt to rip Myers’s humanity away.

Myers has little humanity depicted in the film. His face is shown twice, very briefly, both times in a literal “unmasking.” The first time, Myers is the little boy behind the clown mask and the carving knife, looking dazed and vacant, having just murdered his sister. He is later unmasked by Curtis as he fights her in the film’s striking finale. This time he wears a second mask beneath his largely featureless white “mime” mask that is his and the film series’ signature, he wears a prosthetic piece on his face where his eye had been gouged out. In this brief flash, there is also little expression on his face.

Myers is, of course, not human in other ways. He is super-human, unstoppable, ubiquitous.

So is Pleasance’s character meant to be espousing “truth”? Does Carpenter boil down Michael Myers as simply the personification of “evil”? Pleasance’s Dr. Samuel Loomis is ineffectual, ignored by his peers (though he appears to have been someone that they “should” have listened to), and ultimately impotent to stop Myers (his bullets only temporarilly fell the stalker).

The more I think about it, the less likely I think that Carpenter would have intended this “humanist” reading of his film that I am working towards, in which the system, represented by his heartless doctor ends up “creating” him, his inhuman superhuman, personification of evil.

Maybe my bleeding-heart liberal reading of this film is a personal “balk” at the notion of some simplified image of evil. But perhaps even that is some societal projection in the film?

Whatever the film’s meaning or significance, I would like to say that the opening sequence is excellent visual story-telling and the finale is both visceral and astounding, even now. Jamie Lee Curtis, huddled in the closet, seeing the shadow moving through the slats of the door is an Expressionistic image right out of 1920’s German cinema.

Escape From New York

Escape from New York (1981) movie poster

(1981) dir. John Carpenter

The thing about cable is the randomness of what is being shown. It’s always a crapshoot, usually offering up, just plain crap. This was a rare exception, a film that I liked that was coming on at a time that I could watch it. At 99 minutes, it’s a pretty tight little thrill ride.

The late-Seventies and early Eighties were a good time for low-budget science fiction/horror films, and at some point, John Carpenter had a pretty good grasp on how to make them. It seems like he’s been trying to regain his hand at it ever since he tried going “mainstream” with 1984’s Starman.

A midnight movie classic from its initial release, this film seems to have disappeared a bit in recent years. Carpenter made several films with Kurt Russell, the best of which is probably his gory remake of the classic Howard Hawks’ sci-fi flick, The Thing (1982). He also re-teemed up with Russell in 1996 to make a truly awful sequel, Escape From L.A., which missed the mark so incredibly. Luckily, the original still shines with its low-budget coolness.

Now, this is a film that I have seen several times, and actually, after re-discovering The Thing a couple years ago, I wound up renting Escape From New York at the time. So, in reality, it hadn’t been all that long since I had seen it…maybe a couple of years. So, this time around, the thing that stuck out the most was the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

A lot of movies feature the NY skyline and almost any that feature the WTC in any significance are now documents of the structures that no longer exist, as much as they are films…or at least for a while, that is perhaps how they will be seen. For this film, Russell’s Snake Plisskin lands his glider on top of one of the towers in order to infiltrate the world of Manhattan, a penal colony that reeks of anarchy, and what was, no doubt, in 1981, a humorous commentary on life in the city.

I suppose another irony would perhaps be the new “kinder, gentler, Giulianni-ier” New York that has taken place of this rather bleak, though comical view of “The Big Apple.”

Ernest Borgnine and Harry Dean Stanton show up in notable supporting roles.