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Posts Tagged ‘John Carpenter’

If you were going to nominate someone as the exemplar of the Great Cult Movie Director, you could do a lot worse than choose John Carpenter, I would suggest. This is not to suggest that Carpenter never had any kind of mainstream career, or indeed commercial success, but if you make a list of all his best films – including, I would suggest, The Thing, Escape from New York, Halloween, The Fog, Assault on Precinct 13, They Live, the list goes on and on – they are all cult favourites. That’s a Moviedrome season right there, in fact, perhaps a little heavy on the SF and horror, but those are the genres in which Carpenter routinely worked his particular magic.

As I’ve said before, the thing about John Carpenter’s career is that you have seven or eight really good years at the start, and then things start to go increasingly wrong as time goes by – of the films mentioned above, only They Live was made after 1982. Were it not for the fact that one of his very best movies, The Thing, came out in that year, you might even suggest that the law of diminishing returns was in effect right from the very start.

Carpenter’s first fully professional movie was the original version of Assault on Precinct 13, in 1976, but two years earlier he managed the notable achievement of getting a project he started as a student film released in theatres. The film in question is Dark Star, which in its final version is basically a combination of SF spoof and stoner comedy.

The film follows the mission of the Earth scoutship Dark Star, on its mission to prepare the galaxy for human colonisation. It does this by blowing up potentially hazardous planets with enormously destructive artificially-intelligent bombs. The mission has been in progress for twenty years (it’s suggested this may be on Earth, with relativistic dilation meaning the crew has experienced much less elapsed time), and time has taken its toll on things – the original commander has been killed in an accident with a faulty chair, leaving the reluctant Doolittle (Brian Narelle) in charge, there have been various other system failures, and the ship’s entire supply of toilet paper has self-destructed.

The wonders of space and the possibilities of the infinite universe no longer hold any appeal for the crew – ‘Don’t give me any of that intelligent life crap, just give me something I can blow up,’ snaps Doolittle, when informed of the possibility of non-human civilisations in their vicinity. Instead the crew bury themselves in obsessive pastimes. Even the alien creature they have brought on board to boost morale has become not much more than an extremely annoying nuisance.

Things start to come to a head when, en route to another bomb delivery, the ship is further damaged and the detonation sequence for one of the AI bombs is started by mistake. The bomb itself does not take kindly to constantly being ordered to power up and then stand down, and decides that it’s not going to be messed about any more like this…

Dark Star was made in the early 70s and eventually released in 1974, following the addition of extra footage to bring it up to feature length. It surely goes without saying that at the time, the SF genre was still overwhelmingly influenced by Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey – most films, whether consciously or not, were either trying to emulate it or reacting against it. Dark Star is obviously in the latter camp, and intentionally so – the film’s poster suggests it is ‘the spaced out odyssey’. Certainly the way in which the main plot (for want of a better word) is resolved by an epistemological discussion between an astronaut and a talking bomb feels very much like a parody of the cerebral concerns shot through the Kubrick film.

That said, Dark Star itself turned out to be a hugely influential film in its own right, thanks not just to Carpenter but his main collaborator on the film, Dan O’Bannon (O’Bannon plays the luckless crewman Pinback, in addition to co-writing the script, doing the special effects, and providing various additional voices). If Dark Star ultimately feels like a slightly atypical Carpenter movie – he’s not noted for making flat-out comedies, and it doesn’t have the synth score you’d expect either, but a rather catchy country and western number as its main theme – then it’s almost certainly down to O’Bannon’s contribution.

O’Bannon was hired off the back of Dark Star to do computer animation on George Lucas’ first stellar conflict movie, but rather more significant was another film directly inspired by Dark Star. In the centre of the movie is a long and improbably amusing sequence in which Pinback is tormented by the ship’s alien mascot (the creature is cost-effectively realised using an inflatable beach-ball and a pair of flippers), which lures him down various air and elevator shafts. Audience response was somewhat muted, and it occurred to O’Bannon that there was the basis for a serious film here. Five years later, Alien was released, co-written by O’Bannon, and you can see Dark Star was a huge influence – the shabby, blue-collar astronauts of the Nostromo are a less eccentric version of the Dark Star‘s crew, and the two useless computers in the films could be identical.

Not that it’s only Alien which owes this film a huge debt – any film which suggests space is simply a dull or dangerous place to work is operating in the Dark Star tradition. Is it stretching a point to suggest that the ‘used galaxy’ aesthetic which is so central to the look and feel of Lucas’ stellar conflict films was also taken from this movie? Whatever your thoughts on that, it’s very difficult not to see the long-running sitcom Red Dwarf as simply Dark Star retooled as a TV show – it has bored, slovenly crewmembers, less than helpful AIs, a dead crew member as a key character, and a ridiculous ship’s ‘pet’. It’s not even as if they try that hard to hide it – a red dwarf is a dark star, after all.

For a new viewer today, Dark Star is not quite the polished production one might expect from a contemporary SF movie, simply because it is ultimately a student movie given a cash injection – ‘the world’s most impressive student film… became the world’s least impressive professional film’ O’Bannon somewhat ruefully observed, many years later. It does look primitive, and the fact that none of the performers involved went on to have any real acting career afterwards should tell you something. But the film is still funny and charming, in an offbeat way – almost certainly still worth watching on its own merits, and absolutely worth watching as an enormously influential film in the history of the SF genre.

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Making any kind of film, even a bad one, is quite difficult. Relatively speaking, though, it’s much easier to make one good film than a whole series of them, which may be why the cinematic landscape is littered with the remains of those who made an impressive directorial debut and then quickly ran out of puff. Many people just don’t have the legs.

I wonder if this is the category into which we should put John Carpenter. Any decent history of American horror and SF movies would have to make a clear acknowledgement of Carpenter’s massive influence on both genres – providing the model for Alien, sort of, in Dark Star, then inventing the modern slasher movie in Halloween, and creating some sort of masterpiece with his version of The Thing – but the fact remains that after a brilliantly productive first decade, since the mid-80s Carpenter seems to have gone off the boil in a fairly definitive way. He himself apparently blames it on the commercial failure of The Thing; I still think there are good movies after that (for instance Starman and They Live), just precious few of them, and none after about 1990.

So approaching a latterday Carpenter film is always a somewhat charged experience. Could this be the one where he gets his mojo back? Possibly, but you know deep down that it’s almost certainly not going to happen and you brace yourself for a once-major talent groping about trying to recapture past glories. Some times more literally than others, which brings us to Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars, from 2001: something which even the director found such a gruelling experience he didn’t make another film for nearly a decade.

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Set in the late 22nd century, the film is set on (duh) Mars, which has been colonised and terraformed (this seems to be a form of stealth terraforming where the appearance of the place hasn’t changed at all but everyone can now miraculously breathe and not freeze to death). The structure of the film is somewhat complex, something we will come back to, but concerns the travails of a squad of cops sent off to a remote mining outpost to collect wanted criminal Desolation Jones (Ice Cube).

In charge of the squad is Pam Grier, with Natasha Henstridge second-in-command, and technical support coming from a lecherous sergeant played by Jason Statham (and you should now understand why it is I was bothering to watch this film in the first place). On arrival at the camp they find the place initially deserted, but then discover large numbers of mutilated corpses, and a few colonists who are acting, shall we say, somewhat oddly.

‘It’s as though they were possessed!’ observes Henstridge’s character, which is the script’s remarkably subtle way of foreshadowing the fact that the miners will all turn out to have become possessed. This is courtesy of some recently-uncorked ancient Martian spirits who are big on orgies of violence (perhaps the faintest shades of Quatermass and the Pit here). Unfortunately for the cops and a few other survivors they encounter, the Martians and their hosts are still around, and Henstridge soon finds herself leading the others in a battle to survive.

Let’s cut to the chase: Ghosts of Mars is a really bad film, so bad that I actually considered bailing out of it halfway through, which I almost never do. What’s not very obvious, however, is just why it should be such a stinker: it’s the kind of genre mash-up (SF-horror-action-western) which Carpenter had shown some facility for in the past, while the plot itself recalls other scenarios with which he had had considerable success – remote outpost menaced by amorphous alien threat, and cops and crooks besieged by an army of fanatical psychos. So why does it fall so flat?

Well, it looks painfully cheap, for one thing, especially the special effects, and the cinematography is like something from a TV programme: it’s colourful but flat, and not exactly atmospheric. Most of the rest of the film operates on the same barely-competent level. Major characters die off-screen, and when the principals figure out very early on that killing one of the possessed miners just releases its Martian passenger to hop into someone else, do they stop to consider that this may require a change of approach? No, it’s shotguns and hand grenades all the way regardless! The story is bizarrely structured, with a barely-necessary frame story about Henstridge reporting back to her superiors, but various other characters within that launching into recollections of their own. At one point, and I think I’ve got this straight in my head, we are watching a flashback inside a flashback inside a flashback, for no very essential reason. (It looks like the concept of the second draft didn’t make it to Mars.)

Most irksome of all is the fact that top billing goes to Ice Cube, who gives a performance that seems at best disinterested and at worst tranquilised. The character of Desolation Jones, wanted criminal who teams up with a cop against marauding psychos, is perhaps not a million miles away from that of Napoleon Wilson, wanted criminal who teams up with a cop against marauding psychos in Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13, and if you want to appreciate just how duff Cube’s performance is, compare it to that of Darwin Joston in the earlier film: Joston is witty and charismatic, while Cube just sounds like he’s reading out his lines off cue cards. What makes this even more annoying is that Cube was inserted at the insistence of the studio, displacing the actor who was originally cast – Jason Statham. Now that’s what I call studio interference.

Oh well. This was very early days for the great man, though – he still has a surprising amount of hair – and in any case Henstridge is clearly playing the lead role (it is, needless to say, that of ass-kicking babe). Nevertheless – and I know I am biased – Mr S still looks like someone going places, and he has more presence than most of the other people in the cast.

What else can one say about Ghosts of Mars? Well, I have to say that for a bad film, it’s either proved surprisingly influential within the genre, or else is tapping into some other source of ideas with which I am not familiar, for watching its army of crazed, self-mutilating psychos I was immediately reminded of similar menaces from Serenity and certain episodes of Doctor Who from the 2000s. Possibly a coincidence, possibly not.

Ghosts of Mars seems content to sit very firmly within the boundaries of genre convention, anyway. No boats are being pushed out, no risks taken. As mentioned, the main character is that stock figure of low-budget genre action movies, the ass-kicking babe, and this to some extent obscures the fact that the single most interesting thing about the film is its decision to cast women as every authority figure in it, from the squad leader, to Henstridge’s superior back at base, to the scientist who fills in the back story. I can’t help but think, though, that the film somehow messes this up by pointing out from the start that Mars has a ‘matriarchal society’ – the message presumably being ‘relax, guys, things are still normal back on Earth’ – and also by suggesting that at least some of the senior women are predatory lesbians.

The fact that Ghosts of Mars can’t even get a relatively minor piece of colour detail like this right is, though, quite indicative. A bit of a Hollywood maxim has developed that films about, or set on Mars, are virtually guaranteed to lose money – this one, Mars Needs Moms, Mission to Mars, John Carter, and so on – almost as if the fabled curse of the Red Planet had spread beyond NASA to the film industry. I suspect this is not down to vague astrological influences so much as simple bad film-making, and this at least Ghosts of Mars is a very good example of: it is inept in virtually every single department.

 

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Our look at the shape of Things gone by continues as we look, with some degree of inevitability, at John Carpenter’s 1982 version of the famous story. This is a movie which was a fairly spectacular flop on its original release, marking the end of Carpenter’s time in the top flight of Hollywood directors, but the years and word-of-mouth have been very kind to it and these days it can boast an enviable reputation.

Certainly, when I was but a lad, The Thing was the subject of much awed discussion around school – said discussions mainly revolving around whether you were hard enough to watch it all the way through without crying or being sick. ‘What about that bit where it comes out of the dog!’ was a commonly-heard utterance, spoken in a tone of awed disbelief.

Lacking in physical, moral, or intellectual courage, this sort of thing put me off a bit and I managed to avoid seeing the film all the way through until many years later – although a TV documentary on the history of special make-up effects helpfully introduced me to most of the key sequences. And then when I did see it, it was a hacked-about TV edit that really did the coherence of the movie no favours.

What I’m really trying to say here is that I’ve always had a slightly ambivalent attitude towards this film and wasn’t particularly impressed when I eventually caught up with it. If it weren’t for the release of the 2011 remake I probably wouldn’t have gone back to it at all. However, more than once in the past it was only on the second viewing that I really understood when a film was coming from. And in this case…?

Hmmm. Winter, 1982, and the personnel at a US research outpost in Antarctica (quite what they are researching is never made clear, but they are well-provisioned with flamethrowers, dynamite, roller-skates and Stevie Wonder tapes) are surprised to find their camp receiving an unscheduled visit from some Norwegians from down the way. The Norwegians are frantically shooting and lobbing bombs at a dog, for reasons which are not immediately apparent, and not being especially good at this sort of thing it does not end well for them: one of them blows himself up and the other is shot dead by one of the Americans on health and safety grounds.

The outpost’s chopper pilot, MacReady (Kurt Russell), wisely attempts to discover what the Norwegians were up to, while the rest of the camp, unwisely, adopts the dog. MacReady visits the Norwegians’ own base and find it in ruins, uninhabited except for a team of researchers making notes for the prequel. He also discovers videotapes of the Scandinavians re-enacting scenes from the 1951 version of the story.

The Norwegians discovered an alien ship entombed in the ice, and the frozen remains of an occupant not far away. The alien, it appears, thawed out and wreaked terrible havoc before being incinerated. But why were the last two survivors so fixated on shooting the dog…?

Well, once again I must put my hand up: whether you view this film as an account of a terrifying incursion by a hostile extraterrestrial life-form, or simply an unfortunate misunderstanding between an innocent alien missionary and some limited and ignorant Terran bipeds, this is a film which demands to be taken seriously.

One can kind of see why the film was so negatively reviewed on its original release – I can barely imagine the effect watching it would have if you went in completely unsuspecting what awaited you. Famously, it came out on the same weekend as E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial – now that’s what I call providing consumer choice! – and there’s no question as to which film has wider appeal: all The Thing wants to do is freak you out and mess you up, offering only the faintest grace notes of humour and hope throughout its running time.

The most striking aspect of The Thing is the creature itself. The sequences where it physically manifests are, to put it mildly, memorable – although there are only a handful of these moments in the film, they brand themselves into your memory and you come away thinking there are far more than is actually the case. It’s the inventiveness of their conception as much as their visceral goriness which make them work as well as they do – even after multiple viewings, the defibrilator moment and its aftermath is still an astounding feat of film-making.

Even this, though, is made possible by the concept of the Thing itself – a form of life so utterly alien and different that it almost defies description. The Thing operates like a viral infection more than a traditional in-the-flesh monster, and it’s this that makes it so frightening. The film strongly suggests that individuals infected/replicated by the entity aren’t even aware of the fact – even that its powers of mimicry extend to features such as psychological flaws and weak hearts. Is the Thing even conscious, as we understand the idea? Does it have an agenda of any kind? Quite properly, we are left to ponder.

However, The Thing is an 109-minute film, and – although I haven’t got my stopwatch out – I would be surprised if the entity itself is doing its spectacularly disgusting thing on-screen for a tenth of that time. The gore freak-outs are really just punctuation points in a story which for much of its running time relies on atmosphere and character to keep the audience gripped.

Kurt Russell gives the performance of his career as MacReady, but there’s a terrific ensemble performance from everyone involved – Keith David gives an eye-catching turn, and there’s solid support from veterans like Wilford Brimley and Richard Dysart. The developing narrative of the film, and with it the increasing distrust and paranoia between the members of the team, is relentless – as it surely had to be – and very tightly focussed.

For most of its length, this is an intensely economical film – another reason why the pyrotechnic excesses of the special effects are so striking. Even Ennio Morricone’s score eschews lavish arrangements for a very spare theme which, to be honest, strongly suggests the great man is pastiching the style of John Carpenter’s own compositions!

One thing that The Thing doesn’t do is try too hard to ape the 1951 version of the story – the full-body burn sequence from the original is recreated, and the Norwegians’ home video shows them repeating a key scene, but that’s really it. The conflict between the military and scientific philosophies and the close camaraderie of the human characters are both completely absent. I say this not as a criticism, because I think every film’s first objective should be to work on its own terms, and surely one of the reasons why The Thing works as well as it does is because it isn’t afraid to follow its own path.

Well, no matter what the quality of the new Thing is, it has at least made me come back and look again at this version, and I’m very glad I did. This still isn’t my favourite John Carpenter movie – for which, see 1976’s Assault on Precinct 13 – but it seems positively perverse that such an accomplished and impressive movie was so badly received that it effectively crippled his career. And as to whether it’s better than The Thing from Another World… I don’t know. I have such a fondness for that movie, and the two are so different. But the next time someone tells me that The Thing is a classic of both horror and SF film-making, I will happily agree with them.

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