Saturday, October 30, 2010


John Carpenter: creeping people out since 1976

It's October, the month of Halloween of course, so naturally I figured who better to feature than John Carpenter, the B movie maestro? Whether or not Carpenter should be relegated to second tier status could be the subject of an endless debate among film geeks. He's not considered a serious film-maker in the same vein as some po-faced European artiste like Lars Von Trier or Michael Haneke but the guy has made some truly memorable movies and influenced a ton of aspiring film makers. Halloween, the original slasher flick, has spawned so many sequels, remakes and imitators it's impossible to count them all. And yet the film itself is remarkably simple, features hardly any blood or gore and seems almost quaint compared to what passes for 'horror' today. (In fact, most of his movies are pretty tame in the blood and gore stakes.) And yet they endure.... perhaps because Carpenter has the magic touch when it came to story telling. He just keeps the story moving along, no stopping to dilly dally along the way. Keep it lean and mean and let the action tell the story. And it's precisely by vitue of that simplicity and discipline and a huge dollop of serious craftsmanship that he has managed to create unforgettable classics in the three most popular genres of Action, Sci-Fi and Horror. And at the same time he has entertained the hell out of his audiences. How many other directors can lay claim to that?

Halloween (1978)

Director: John Carpenter
Screenwriter: John Carpenter
DOP: Dean Cundey
Players: Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasance, PJ Soles, Kyle Richards

One of my most vivid memories as a kid is being told I wasn't allowed to watch Halloween under any circumstances. This was very upsetting to me. There was quite a buzz around this film. It upset a lot of people. Apparently, it was some real heavy shit. All of which was irresistable for a young kid. Watching it would no doubt be a life-changing experience. But the lockdown on cinemas was pretty tight in those days and I had no way of breaching the walls to gain access to this cultural phenomenon. Movie age restrictions were strictly enforced back then (the maximum 2 - 21 was imposed for Halloween and I was a long way from 21 in 1978) and there was no such thing as video, DVD or satellite television. So it was the cinema or nothing. In any event, I didnt get to see this film until MANY years later - for some reason the original is hard to find in DVD rental stores - so I finally just bought a copy. Suffice to say I was a little dumbfounded as to what all the fuss was about (a LOT has changed in horror movies since 1978) but on my second viewing I finally began to appreciate what Carpenter had achieved with Halloween, and why the movie has spawned so many imitators.The beauty of Halloween lies in its simplicity. The rest is atmosphere. From the moment the now famous score (composed by Carpenter, who wrote the music for most of his films) kicks in you know that nasty things are going to happen. Carpenter keeps the story tight, no messing around. Jamie Lee Curtis and Donald Pleasance do sterling work, as do the rest of the cast. The other force that comes into play with palpable effect is Dean Cundey's amazing camera work. Its nothing fancy, no trickery or whoop de doo but its never less than mesmerising. The POV effect is still gripping and probably influenced a lot of video game designers. The location just works a treat. It's a totally wholesome, whitebread small American town, and like the best work of Stephen King, that only makes what happens in it all the more shocking.

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

Director: John Carpenter
Screenwriter: John Carpenter
Cinematographer: Douglas Knapp
Players: Austin Stoker, Darwin Jonston, Laurie Zimmer, Martin West, Tony Burton, Charles Cyphers

Carpenter brought his ability to do a lot with very little to another drive-in classic - Assault on Precinct 13. In it he used a plot device that he would return to with even more success in sci-fi classic The Thing - a group of disparate individuals trapped by circumstance with the pressure piling on as the minutes tick by. In this case, it's a soon to be abandoned police station on the outskirts of LA that becomes the target of a coordinated attack from a vicious street gang. The scumbags even have silenced revolvers! Carpenter ratchets up the tension as the gang, hell-bent on destruction, tries every which way to get into the building.  The movie owes a huge debt to Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo and Carpenter freely admitted that he wanted to re-make it as an urban western. Naturally there has to be a hero, and in this case its Lt Ethan Bishop (Austin Stokes) who's been given the job of watching over the building and the few remaining people in it. His main charge is a prisoner named Napoleon played with sardonic wit by Darwin Jonston. The interplay between the two leads provides an amusing diversion from the tension, as the grimly silent gangbangers do their best to find a way in. Carpenter uses the desolate urban setting to maximum advantage and there are plenty of twists and turns to keep it interesting. A tidy little potboiler with plenty of laughs (some unintentional) and action to keep you interested... 

Escape from New York (1981)

Director: John Carpenter
Screenwriter: Nick Castle, John Carpenter
Cinematography: Dean Cundey
Players: Kurt Russell, Lee Van Cleef, Harry Dean Stanton, Adrienne Barbeau, Ernest Borgnine, Isaac Hayes

Undoubtedly one of Carpenter's top two outings (along with The Thing) and starring his favourite lead dude, Kurt Russell, Escape From NY is one of the all-time B-movie classics. The plot set-up is fantastic, the characters brilliantly sketched and Snake is a truly wonderful creation that turned Kurt Russell from a little known B-movie character actor into a pretty well-known B-movie character actor. Hey, don't get down on Kurt, the guy can bring it when he needs to. Just check out 1997's Breakdown, for example, where he holds his own against the late - and very great - J.T. Walsh. In Escape from New York Kurt plays Snake Plissken, a bank robber who is given a free pass by government flunkeys if he agrees to break into NYC and rescue the US Prez, who's plane has 'gone down' into the city, which has been transformed into a maximum security prison. Well, I guess folks who live there now would say its not far off, but that's the subject for another discussion. So naturally Snake agrees but the catch is he gets this explosive device injected into his neck. Once false move and the device explodes, leaving Snake with a very bad headache and minus one head. So Snake gets into a glider plane and gets dropped into NYC and numerous adventures ensue. All the way through there is a very funny running joke about whether he is dead or alive and he gets to hook up with some pretty bizarre characters played by the likes of Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine and Harry Dean Stanton. For good measure, there's also a busty broad played by Adrienne Barbeau. It's all great fun and Kurt Russell plays it for yuks extremely well. Plus he has an eye patch so you know it's gonna be a winner right off the bat.

The Thing (1982)

Director: John Carpenter
Screenwriter: Bill Lancaster
Cinematographer: Dean Cundey
Players: Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, Keith David, Richard Dysart, Richard Masur, David Clennon, Thomas G Waites, Charles Hallahan

Carpenter's finest hour would be another remake of a movie from one of his favourite directors, Howard Hawks. The Thing also showed how effective he was at spotting talent. One of the crowning achievements of The Thing is its special effects, none of which were computer generated and which still stand up to scrutiny today. This was the work of both an established legend, Stan Winston, and a young 21-year-old kid called Rob Bottin, who practically lived on the set of The Thing for two years while he devised some of the most fantastic creature effects ever committed to screen. Bottin used some truly 'creative' methods to achieve the end result and one of the real highlights of the interviews that can be found on the Special Edition release of the DVD is hearing him recount how he pulled it off. The story of The Thing is classic Carpenter material. A bunch of dudes are stranded in a remote scientific research station in the Arctic circle while a very scary creature from outer space, which has the handy ability to imitate anything, decimates their numbers one by one. Kurt Russell plays MacReady, the base's helicopter pilot, who assumes a leadership role almost by default and attempts to outwit the creature, which always seems to be one step ahead of him, until the explosive finale. A great ensemble cast of B-players pretty much serve as cannon fodder as they get taken out in increasingly spectacular fashion. The atmospherics of the station are brilliantly realised, through canny use of the location and sets. It's a true classic that combines both paranoia and claustrophia in equal measure. Sits right up there with Alien (to which it owes no small debt) as one of the two great sci-fi classics of the 80s.