Thursday, July 14, 2011
Master Of Fear!
I'm a big John Carpenter fan. I love the kind of relatively low-budget, slightly cheesy genre movies that he produces or perhaps it better to say these days produced. Beginning with Escape from New York I became a fan, and looked forward to more of the kinds of flicks from him that pushed my pulpish tastes. I recently picked up this four-movie set of some of his best, and gave them some fresh screenings.
The Thing From Another Planet rivals King Kong as my fave all-time movie. So to see one of my favorite flicks remade by one of my favorite directors was a treat. The Thing pays homage to the Howard Hawks original with several scenes which neatly evoke the original without imitating it directly. This movie blends the Red Scare classic with the more subtle John Campbell original story to create a neat and effective synthesis of the two. Kurt Russell is ideal in the lead role of hard-bitten MacCready, the classic Carpenter reluctant hero who has to make hard choices because he's able to do it. That kind of storytelling is a callback to the tough movies of both Hawks and John Ford, stories about hard men in hard times. And this movie has the cast to carry off this very well. It's become a classic on its own. I will say that I'm less thrilled with the special effects, even at the time, but seeing them again after many years they held up reasonably well. But The Thing for all its visuals is not a special effects movie, and that's what makes Carpenter ascend above his peers.
Prince of Darkness is not one of Carpenter's best films, and it wasn't much of a financial success at the time as I recall. But I've always liked its extreme atmosphere. The story unfolds leisurely and as the creeping crawling menace slowing extends to overwhelm the rather large cast. The setting is spare and again effects are not the point. This one though is let down a bit by some rather uneven acting by folks asked to do quite a bit with some tough material. Alice Cooper's grim visage adds lots of visceral sauce to this stew, but thankfully he doesn't have to talk and spoil it. The lead actors are not as charismatic as one would hope, though they are workmanlike in their approaches. This movie, a homage to the Quatermass flicks from Britain, succeeds in its mileau, but is let down a smidge by its performances. Nonetheless I like watching it, it's genuinely creepy at times in a really smart way.
Village of the Damned is my least fave of these flicks, but I really gathered a renewed respect for it on this watching. The relentless nature of the story (which I've since seen in the original black and white format) does a good job of translating John Wyndham's The Cuckoos of Midwich to the screen. The remote country setting of the town works to decent effect, and the children are pretty strange for sure. The first hour of the flick is best as the mystery of the blackout and the pregnancies unfolds. After the kids show up it gets a tad sappy for my tastes, but Christopher Reeve gives a pretty decent performance here in a very hard part. This movie demonstrates as well as any of them what I like best about Carpenter's horror, a restraint which is sadly missing from many of his peers. They are all too eager to show gore and ooze, while Carpenter will show it, but is more impressive when he suggests it.
Finally we have They Live starring "Rowdy" Roddy Piper. Piper's acting in this one is serviceable at best, and thanks to Keith David he's got a partner in crime who can salvage most of the scenes which slide off track. But it's the story here that I love even more than the presentation. The notion of aliens hiding in plain sight, keeping control of the human populace with subliminal messaging on television and other media is a paranoid fantasy of epic proportions. Again the awesome unsettling beginning is the best part of the story as we discover the underworld which informs the movie's message. Piper is a watcher through most of the early movie, saying little but seeing beneath the veneer of society. An isolated man who's cut off from his community, he's ideally suited to detect the truth, and then he's strong enough to respond. The movie's climax is clunky admittedly, but the closing scenes of the aliens being found out are hilarious, especially the final symbolic image of the alien literally screwing the human being. This ain't no classic flick, but like much of Carpenter's stuff it's tons of fun in an atmospheric and sometimes even subtle way.
Overall, Carpenter's movies are often flawed, but as a movie maker who actually makes movies and not events, I love to dabble in his storytelling. It's compelling.