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The Thing (2011)

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Concept: We won't remake the Carpenter classic The Thing (1982) because it wouldn't be as good, and doing a sequel would be difficult without Kurt Russell, so…

It's Antarctica 1982. Three Norwegians in a Snowcat are looking for the source of a signal they've picked up. Two of them have just finished telling a rude joke when, crash, gosh, a spaceship under the ice.

A US lab, 48 hours later. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is recruited to go to see a 'structure' and a 'specimen' frozen in the Antarctic ice. Before too long after she arrives, the latter is awake, running around doing what Things do best and no-one trusts each other.

What's good: It moves nicely along. It doesn't feel long before we're into the action, and once we are, it is well paced. The editing style, reminiscent of Thing (1982) rather than the more frantic modern style helps.

The 'test' scene in Thing (1982) is a complete classic and the one here can hold its head up against it.

There's clearly been an attempt to keep continuity with Thing (1982). Sometimes, it works very well – the conjoined headed Thing – and sometimes it feels a little forced – the axe.

The acting is fine, no-one does anything unbelievably stupid, and it was good to use so many Norwegian-speaking Scandinavian actors for their bits.

What's not so good: The effects. Despite the possibility of doing anything, unrestricted by having to do physical stuff on the set, there's no 'wow' / "You've gotta be fuckin' kidding" factor at all. They're also a bit dry looking (Thing (1982)'s wetness being harder to do in CGI) and Thing blood doesn't behave like it should.

The characters are not as well drawn, and some feel like Thing fodder rather than individuals.

Despite the efforts to maintain continuity with Thing (1982), it fails to include the two things we do see this lot doing there, via video tape: standing around the spaceship in its crater and, later, blowing it up! In contrast here, for all but the end, the spaceship is under the ice.

One of the most memorable images when the Thing (1982) characters visit the Norwegian camp is a frozen corpse of someone who has committed suicide. It's part of the rising tension there: a sign of just how bad things (and Things!) are. The suicide is skipped here and we see the end result, but not the awful drama of the event.

Other continuity issues include having a Russian base within 50 miles – the same distance as the US base – and the whole idea of an American team turning up here without the nearest US base knowing about it. I haven't counted the number of Norwegians, but if you do, it's supposed to be ten.

The makers acknowledge that, partly to provide a contrast to Kurt Russell's MacReady, Winstead's character is in part modelled on Alien's Ripley (because there is only one model for a female heroine in a SF action film, right?) and it sometimes feels like Thomsen is channelling Ash from the same film.

The ending. Not the two Norwegians setting off trying to stop the Thing-dog escaping, but what happens to Winstead? She's left in a Snowcat close to the spaceship, nowhere to be seen in Thing (1982). It's almost as if the makers hope to make a second prequel …

Music: It's ok, but the use of Morricone's 'Humanity' theme at the end reminds us that, once again, Thing (1982) was better.


Overall: It could have been a lot, lot worse and I think it's clear that it's the best remake / adaptation of a Carpenter film, but that's not saying much.

Does it work as a prequel? It does its best, but there are always going to be problems. When a character is introduced as not speaking English, we know they will survive to the end. If they didn't, they wouldn't be able to be at the start of Thing (1982).

Does it work as a stand-alone film? I am probably not the best person to ask, but I suspect not. The ending is unsatisfactory in this context, for one thing.

So a film that doesn't really work for people who haven't seen Thing (1982) or for the people who have and love it. That leaves those who have and didn't think it was great. No wonder US box office receipts look so-so.

TL;DR See it with low expectations, and you'll be happy

Film: 3/5
DVD: ?/5

Written by Ian

December 4th, 2011 at 5:18 pm

Posted in Cinema

Junior Bonner (1972)

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Concept: A gentler 'end of an era' film from Sam Peckinpah.

Steve McQueen is in the title role, a fading rodeo rider, moving from event to event. Injured in one when thrown by a bull, he goes to visit his father but discovers that the house is being demolished to make way for a gravel pit owned by his brother, Joe Don Baker.

His father is recovering in hospital – he wants to go to Australia, but has spent the money from Baker and McQueen is broke. The two brothers fight, with Baker punched through a window.

Believing he can be the first to conquer the bull that threw him, McQueen bribes the rodeo owner to rig the draw for that event. With that done, he and his father ride out of the promotional Independence Day parade to get a drink.

Come the rodeo, McQueen just fails to win two events before it's time to see if he can last the full eight seconds on the bull…

What's good: Peckinpah's use of slow motion is as good as ever, except here it's used for machinery vs a home and man vs horse/cow/bull rather than people being shot.

There's a nice sense of humour – an extended bar fight is stopped by the band playing The Star Spangled Banner.

Some of the best of the story-telling is done very economically: we see how successful McQueen isn't by comparing his car and horse trailer with a rival who over takes him.

What's not so good: It wasn't what the audience was expecting: action and killing.

Too much of the story-telling is too slow moving: there's a lot of padding.

Music: Forgettable.

Miscellany: While some of the catching cows rodeo footage visibly do involve McQueen, the shots of 'him' on a bucking horse or bull are clearly a stunt man: they're shot from much further away than all those of the other contestants and 'his' face is obscured.

Overall: It's a kinder, gentler end of an era film from Peckinpah – it's a PG! – and the more violent films are better.

There was one quote I was tempted to add to this, but I could not be bothered to go back to find it (and IMDB doesn't have it either…)

There are better Peckinpah films, better Steve McQueen films, and a better Peckinpah film with Steve McQueen, but if you're not in the mood for a bloodbath, this is the one for you with another effortlessly cool performance from McQueen.

TL;DR Once is enough, but worth seeing once

Film: 2.5/5
DVD: 1/5

OK, I saw it via a cover disk, originally free with a newspaper, but the 4:3 format ruins the cinematography.

The region 2 (also 4:3) and, ah ha, it looks like you need to get the US version:

Written by Ian

November 30th, 2011 at 10:52 pm

Posted in Cinema,DVDs

The President's Analyst (1967)

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Just to show I do see films by someone else 🙂 There was a string of paranoia films involving government conspiracies in the late 60s and early 70s. The Parallax View is possibly the most famous, but this one's the best.

Concept: It's not paranoia if they are out to get you.

We pull back from an enormous zoom on an American flag, with a disclaimer that the FBI FBR and CIA CEA did not approve of this film. We're somewhere in New York's garment district. One spy passes a folder to another and they walk off. An African American, Geoffrey Cambridge, is pushing a rack of clothes along. He gets to one of the spies, stabs him and drops the body into the bottom of the rack. Meanwhile psychoanalyst James Coburn is on a couch, talking to his analyst, before listening to a string of clients himself. The last one is Cambridge. He talks about killing the Albanian double agent, comes out as a CEA agent and says that he's bugged the office. They go to his car where Coburn is told that he's to be the President's analyst. His reaction is to do the NY sights, have sex with his divorcee girlf, and propose.

Washington airport. The CEA director and the head of the FBR tell him he'll be topmost secret, and the FBR objects to his sexual morals – having sex with someone he's not married to. Soon Coburn's driving an electric buggy down the underground tunnel between his new office and the White House for the President's first session. He's about to start with his girlf, when he's summoned for another session. And again. And again. And again. Before long, the FBU have the girlf taken away to a hotel – Coburn violates the National Security Act by talking in his sleep.

Soon, Coburn's noticing people looking at him. Even when no-one is, he thinks they are. He goes to lunch at a restaurant with his girlf and complains that now he has no analyst he can talk to. He can't quit, because everyone will be after him to get the President's secrets. He fakes being shot and sees that everyone else in the room is pulling guns on each other, including his girlf. He wakes up from the nightmare and rings her. It turns out that his girlf is indeed recording him, although she's not happy about it. It's time to get out.

Coburn joins a party of tourists on the White House tour, and tells William Daniels' New Jersey family he's surveying their opinion on behalf of the President. As he leaves with them, he's being watched by the FBR and everyone else. Soon the Russians, Vietnamese, an African nation, and the British want him alive, to get the President's secrets. The FBR want him dead. The CEA are bugging the FBR and would prefer him alive, but Cambridge is ordered to kill him if anyone else is going to get him. Coburn is finally caught, but by whom?

When the FBR finally catch up with Coburn, there's a problem: the agent with the licence to kill has run out of bullets killing someone else. It'd take too much time to get more – he's promised his wife he won't be working late – but the other agent can't lend him his gun, because it's against regulations: "Field manual C, page one one two, paragraph heading 'Having licence to kill', sub-paragraph three." Coburn's protestations that he's a citizen of the United States who hasn't broken any laws and "there's a constitution that prevents you going around killing people!" are ignored. "I don't know what you did, I don't know what you didn't do. All I do is follow orders … The FBR does not make mistakes."

What’s good: Theodore J Flicker's direction is fine, even if he does love his zooms a bit much. But his script is wonderful, especially given the politics of the time it was written. Take Cambridge's session with Coburn when he talks about learning about niggers – he was five, and a bunch of his schoolmates started yelling, 'Run, run, here comes the nigger'. He joined in, running up to his older brother. "And he hit me. Then he did something worse – he told me what a nigger was. .. I hated him and I hated me." So it's perhaps not surprising that his best relationship is with the Russian spy rather than anyone in the FBR ("Hope you don't mind if I have to eliminate some of your FBR…" "Mind? Surely you jest!")

The family boast of being liberals, sponsoring the 'Negro doctor' to be allowed to live in their neighbourhood – the 1968 Civil Rights Act which banned racial discrimination in housing would not be passed until next year – and complain of the right wing neighbours who dare to fly the flag every day: "Real fascists, ought to be gassed!" The son is bugging the home phone with his junior spy kit, reports Coburn to the FBR, and is delighted with their planned murder. "You going to kill (him)?" "Yes son, we're going to kill him." "Oh boy!"

There's also a great section where Coburn is making out with someone in a field, and there's a string of killings as various spies eliminate the competition, get close and are eliminated in turn. They've spent too much time killing each other for the survivor to get him.

Coburn, who'd done the 'Flint' series of Bond-spoofs, is good, but much of the rest of the cast is wonderful, particularly Cambridge.

What’s not so good: While the basic plot and much else remains bang up to date, some sections have dated, particularly the hippies and their music.

The interior scenes on the boat were clearly shot nowhere near water.

It could also easily be ten to fifteen minutes shorter without losing anything significant.

Music: One of Lalo Schifrin's orchestral scores, trying to be 'swinging' and 'hip'. It's ok.

Miscellany: It's sometimes obvious that the actors are talking about the FBI and CIA – the change to the fictional organisations was done in post-production after complaints by the FBI.

You can tell it was made by Paramount – the sound effects used for the lift doors are the same as used in their Star Trek TV series.

Overall: It's absolutely a film of the late 60s, but take out the hippies and it hasn't dated. The President is even worrying about Libya, and the Russian spy talks about how his spy father could be Premier of Russia with a bit more ambition. That's before we get to inter-service rivalry, the problems of bureaucracy, the US agencies' unconstitutional assassinations and bugging of everyone, and how the enemies of the US benefit from American actions…

Like Brazil, it's almost a documentary now, but unlike Brazil, amongst the deeply cynical black humour, there's hope. The Russian spy predicts, "Every day your country becomes more socialistic, my country becomes more capitalistic. Pretty soon we will meet in the middle and join hands." And everyone still hates the phone company.

TL;DR Very cynical, very funny, but also very hopeful.

Film: 4/5
DVD: 2/5

Widescreen, the picture is somewhat desaturated (turn the colour settings up!) It'd be fascinating to hear the director / author talk about it – was the initial killing filmed via 'candid camera' with real New Yorkers going past? – but nope.

UK DVD, and cheaper US and European imports:

Written by Ian

July 6th, 2011 at 2:56 pm

Posted in Cinema,DVDs

Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) – Carpenter meddles countdown #1

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In the optimistic hope that Michael Myers was finally dead and that they could use the brand to do a series of films based around Halloween rather than a single serial killer, Halloween III's story was completely unrelated story to all the others. There's no witch in the film either.

Concept: "You don't know much about Halloween…"

After the titles, a man is running from a car, eight days before Halloween. He gets to a deserted garage, where he is found by a man in black from the car, but escapes by having him crushed. One hour later, in another garage, someone's watching the TV: someone's stolen one of the bluestones from Stonehenge, then there's an ad for Silver Shamrock (SS) Halloween masks. In comes the man being chased. "They're coming", he says before collapsing with a mask in his hand.

Divorced dad Dr Tom Atkins disappoints his kids with his gift of masks – they're not SS – before being called into the hospital to see the man. "They're going to kill all of us", says the man on hearing another SS ad. Atkins sedates him and goes off to have a nap. Another man in black appears in the nearly deserted hospital – this is the link with Halloween II! – and kills the man by forcing fingers into his eyes. He's discovered, goes outside to his car, and pours petrol over himself before lighting it. Next day, the man's daughter Stacey Nelkin appears, understandably upset.

Friday 29th. Nelkin and Atkins meet in a bar. It turns out that the man ran a joke shop and the last thing he's known to have done is go to the headquarters and factory of SS in a small town called Santa Mira. They head off there. It's a company town with – shockingly for Americans, and way ahead of its proliferation in the UK – CCTV covering it. The pair decide to pose as buyers and check in as a couple to a motel… where it turns out that her father stayed. The SS owner, Dan O'Herlihy, goes past just as a family arrive. They're real buyers, as is another late arrival, a woman. Once again, it turns out that Atkins is with a young woman who's a very easy lay.

There's a 6pm curfew in the town, announced over the loudspeakers, but one drunk doesn't like it – the factory is staffed by outsiders – and is determined to burn the factory down. He gets about a block before the men in black have wrenched his head off. The woman buyer isn't happy with the quality of the last batch of masks – their logo came off. Say, there's a funny circuit on the back, what happens if I prod it with something metal…? Oops. She's taken off to the factory's medical treatment centre by a group of men in black white coats, despite Atkins' "I'm a doctor"-ing. O'Herlihy turns up, says everything's going to be fine and is overheard being told that it was a "misfire".

Saturday 30th. The family and our pair get a tour of the factory and it turns out that O'Herlihy is a big fan of automata, but not even his best salesman, the father of the family, get to see the masks' "final processing". Say, what are those men in black doing standing around? And what's Nelkin's father's car doing inside the factory? The remains of the burnt man in black turn out to be metallic. The call to the lab is bugged and later, say, who's that at the lab's door? Oops. Further phone calls can't be made, soon it's night time again. Nelkin goes missing and a lot of men in black start chasing Atkins around the town. He makes it into the factory, where he discovers what's really going on…

What’s good: All the intelligence that was missing from Halloween II's script is here. There's also the trademark Carpenter "a good magician never explains.." 'skip over the difficult bits'. How did they get the bluestone? "We had a time getting it here! You wouldn't believe how we did it", laughs O'Herlihy. What more do we need to know? As with Prince and They Live, it builds nicely from 'there's something not quite right' to a delicious ending. Keeping the tension going twenty five minutes after the big reveal is a feat in itself.

Dan O'Herlihy. He reckons you can tell how much he enjoyed being in a film by his accent. As with Robocop, he clearly enjoyed this one a lot. Unsurprisingly, he knows how to pronounce Samhain ('Sow-an' – sow as in 'female pig') too – in Halloween II, it sounded like Pleasance was talking about someone called Sam Hain… He's rare in Carpenter films: a threat you can talk to and that's one of the things that makes him so evil. Why do this? "Do I need a reason?"

Dean Cundey's cinematography, once again.

The music, even the SS ad music 🙂 an annoyingly catchy version of 'London Bridge is Falling Down'

What’s not so good: He's likeable and better than in The Fog, but Tom Atkins is a weak point – O'Herlihy is more likeable – and Stacey Nelkin isn't particularly good either. Their relationship is about as credible as the one between Atkins and Jamie Lee Curtis in the earlier film too.

The budget shows in some places. The incredibly suspicious discovery found in the lab is the inside of an old fashioned bicycle bell…

One big reason Kneale wanted his name off the credits was the splatter. It's fun, but unnecessary (but that doesn't stop me being annoyed when it's censored, see below!)

Music: Another one of the great scores with Alan Howarth. Uniquely, I think, this one is credited to 'John Carpenter and Alan Howarth', rather than being 'in association with' him. There's an expanded 'complete' CD… which I don't have, but I understand that it's the original release with some never previously released 'bonus' tracks that don't really add very much.

Miscellany: The script is credited to the director, long-time Carpenter friend, Tommy Lee Jones. It's actually very much based on a Nigel Kneale script, but Kneale wasn't happy with what Carpenter did to it and wanted his name off the credits. Writers Guild rules would mean that Carpenter didn't get credit either.

Atkins' ex-wife is Nancy Loomis / Kyle, as seen in Assault, Halloween and Fog, and married to Tommy Lee Jones.

Santa Mira was also the setting for the original (and best) Invasion of the Body Snatchers – "You're next!" 🙂

Overall: This has an incredibly low – 3.8 !?! – rating on IMDB. This tells you more about the people who've voted than the film. They want Michael Myers and The Shape is only to be seen on the extracts of the original shown on TV before the 'big giveaway'. Instead what we have is intelligent SF horror mystery – just like Prince of Darkness and They Live.

If we put this in the main countdown, it’d be well in middle of the second teir at #8 1/2 – just behind Starman, thanks to the relative merits of Jeff Bridges and Tom Atkin's performances.

TL;DR Much better than any other Halloween sequel/remake, assuming you don't want Michael Myers.

Film: 3.5/5
DVD: 1/5 (Sanctuary) 1.5/5 (MIA)

Choice time. The 2002 Sanctuary edition is widescreen (so you miss some of the original 2.35:1 frame) and has good quality picture and sound. It also has a commentary, albeit one by two Brits, Stephen Jones and Kim Newman, talking about what they're seeing. The 2000 MIA edition is 4:3 (after the titles) so lots is missing, and is grainy, but has the bits cut from the initial VHS versions (to get the 15 certificate it had on theatrical release) and the Sanctuary release. (So the MIA one has five bits of 'fingers in eye sockets' in the hospital killing vs the Sanctuary one's two, there's a lot more of the 'misfire death', etc..) Hence the low rating for the DVD – you shouldn't have to make this choice. Neither have subtitles, and I've knocked more off for a fundamental dishonesty from the Sanctuary commentary – there is no way that those two do not know that they're watching a censored version, but when they talk about the censorship of the initial video releases, they talk about a sequence – the decapitation and subsequent blood spray of the drunk – that is in the Sanctuary release. The impression they want to leave is clear: this one is uncensored. It's not – it's lost about a minute compared to the MIA one.

The better looking DVD, the complete but 4:3 version, soundtrack CD, and expanded version CD:

Written by Ian

July 4th, 2011 at 2:04 pm

Posted in Cinema,Countdown,DVDs

Halloween II (1981) – Carpenter meddles countdown #2

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Perhaps the most surprising thing about this one is how long it took to get to the screens, a full three years after the original.

Concept: They're going to make the sequel anyway…

It starts just before the end of the original Halloween. After the TV version of the final confrontation (most of Donald Pleasence shooting The Shape is seen from outside the house), the first non-musical change is that Pleasence comes out of the front door, not the balcony, to see that The Shape has gone. Mistake #1 is that he looks surprised, rather than his 'I knew it' of the original. This is the point at which it should be obvious that it would be a good idea to stop watching now. There's blood on the grass, and he looks around. Now there are neighbours coming out – their failure to help Jamie Lee Curtis (JLC) is one of the great bits of the original. "You don't know what death is" says Pleasence to them before running off and we cut to the titles. There we see Dino de Laurentis is involved (always a danger sign), that Pleasence and JLC get equal billing in the 'he's bottom left, she's top right' way, and the pumpkin opens to show a skull. The main title theme is done very well though.

Then it's straight into Panaglide Shape POV wandering round the back streets (which look like a different area from the street we've just been in). Night of the Living Dead is on the TV when it's interrupted by a (very early – the police have only just arrived there) on the scene TV newsflash, and The Shape uses that to get another knife from someone's kitchen. For no very good reason, he walks into another house with a lone teenage woman and kills her. For the first time, we see blood splatter. JLC is taken to hospital going 'Don't let them put me to sleep!' and we get, for the first time, JLC POV a few times. She is indeed, put to sleep.

Pleasence and Charles Cyphers are driving around arguing when Pleasence spots The Shape. They get out of the car and as The Shape walks away from them across the road, he's hit by another police car (with apparently really bad brakes) and crushed against a van. Which then explodes. Before long, the media are reporting The Shape is Michael Myers and that he's been burnt to death. Of course, he's not dead (it wasn't him for one thing) and he's soon walking around the busy middle of the town to one of the most under-staffed hospitals ever having heard that's where JLC is. Before long, he's disabled the phone system, leaving open padlocks for the single security guard to find, and working his way through the staff.

What’s good: The music.

That some people who'd done Halloween for peanuts got a pay day.

Some of the cinematography (Dean Cundey again) is good.

What’s not so good: The script. There were always going to be problems, but the intelligence has gone. From the big stuff (JLC is The Shape's sister), through the middle (despite knowing there's a killer on the loose, no-one sees anything until its too late) to the little (it's fifteen minutes of running time, more in 'real time', before Pleasence reloads his empty gun (the one that in this version has just shot seven times, despite all his shouts about six!) It is ten minutes between the media reporting the discovery of three bodies from the first film and anyone bothering to tell the Sheriff, even though one is his daughter. Just about the only intelligent bit is JLC's question "Why won't he die?" after the Shape gets shot at close range by Pleasence another five times. Being shot twice – once in each eye! – by her doesn't stop him either. The ending of the final confrontation is telegraphed repeatedly – see how many times Pleasence uses his lighter, despite not smoking.

The characterisation of The Shape. Would the original's Shape be unable to stop a lift door closing? No. This one is. He will kill a random teenager for no reason, then walk through a busy town centre without touching anyone. He's become a 'slasher' film baddie and the kills are clearly 'show kills' (let's hit someone in the head with a hammer / stab two in the eye with needles / hold someone under hot water / etc etc) rather than any attempt at pretending this is 'real'. It doesn't help that it's stuntman Dick Warlock not Nick Castle playing him (you can easily tell from the movements – this is zombie Michael). I'm not sure why it wasn't Castle again – he'd co-written Escape, so he was still talking to Carpenter despite only being paid $25 a day for his work on the original film!

The characterisation of Laurie. She's just a victim here.

The cast is larger (the budget was much bigger) and not all of them are good. Even Pleasence is much better in the original.

Music: Updated from the original, 'in association with' Alan Howarth. The reworking of the main theme is particularly good, but the score is basically a remix.

Miscellany: Although the director is Rick Rostenthal, Carpenter is said to have reshot several scenes himself including adding much of the splatter.

As I've said, there aren't many staff in this hospital, but where are the rest of the patients? There are at least two babies in cots: where are the mothers?

Overall: Unlike the original, this is a 'let's set up a series of unusual kills' run-of-the-mill slasher film. Its basic problem is that it's not a good one. Relying on splatter for its shocks, there's not enough to satisfy that market. It doesn't work as suspense either – we don't care about the victims and the question isn't 'where is The Shape?' or 'what's going to happen next?', it's 'what method is he going to use to kill this one?' Amazingly, nearly all of the subsequent sequels managed to be worse, not least because the continuity of the 'Michael Myers' series really went to pot with the reappearance of Donald Pleasence in the next one.

In one of the documentaries on the Halloween DVDs, Carpenter admits his involvement was just down to the money. After the original was a huge hit, a sequel was going to be done with or without him and Debra Hill, so they sold out. It shows. If we put this in the main countdown, it'd be at #15 1/2 – it's less painful than Escape From LA but nowhere near as interesting as Mouth.

TL;DR A pale imitation. Given how much he had a hand in it, it's probably counts as Carpenter's first bad film.

Film: 1.5/5
DVD: 2/5

You get the film. Pick the right one, and you get it in widescreen.

The widescreen DVD, with commentary by Stephen Jones and Kim Newman, neither of whom had anything to do with the film, and the soundtrack CD:

Written by Ian

July 4th, 2011 at 11:21 am

Posted in Cinema,Countdown,DVDs

John Carpenter countdown – lessons

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What have we learnt, especially if you've watched all eighteen too?

The most obvious lesson is to avoid anything he did after 1988, with the possible exceptions of Ghosts (mostly for Natasha Henstridge, but Assault is better), Vampires (mostly for James Woods, but there are lots of better vampire films) and The Ward (but there are lots of better J-horror films).

Just what did go wrong with his career? There is an article on George Romero which talks about the series of interesting to bad films he did after Night of the Living Dead, and the way he was going to quit until someone offered to fund another film. They reckoned, rightly, that anyone who could make Night was seriously talented. The result, the original Dawn of the Dead, proved them right (and made them money). Carpenter had a much longer string of fabulous films, but once they finished, he's never come close to matching them. To be fair, neither has almost everyone else and the second most obvious lesson is to avoid all the remakes of his films by other people.

The lure of easy money for those remakes is one problem – he's described his role as producer on the awful Fog remake as being "Go in, say hello to everyone, take the money and go home"! Why put up with the pains involved in making your own films good when you can just laugh your way to the bank and let someone else fail? (Artistically, anyway. Some of the remakes, particularly the recent Halloween ones, have been commercially successful: the third of the new line is apparently coming, argh.)

Was it that the commercial success stopped happening for him, and the resulting series of low budget films stopped being fun? It is extremely noticeable that he never directed a 'real' Western, despite having two scripts filmed by other people (El Diablo which I liked, and Blood River which I don't think I've seen) and having made lots of updated or adapted ones.

Is it the budgets or personality clashes (or a combination) that meant he stopped working with many of the crew that helped create the greats? Debra Hill and Dean Cundey both went on to bigger things, for example. I can't find what happened to the working relationship with Alan Howarth which was behind most of his best scores. But from what he's said since, Howarth seems to bear no grudges, unlike Dan O'Bannon's annoyance that their original agreement to swap places in the director's chair in a series of films after Dark Star never happened.

A few years ago, I went to a 'masterclass' he gave at the National Film Theatre in London, where he talked a lot about one of his heroes, Howard Hawks, producing a string of good to great films on a wide variety of subjects in the old studio system. Maybe the feeling of being born out of time got to him…

To come: the TV movies and, first, the two films which he didn't direct, but co-wrote, scored, produced and, it is said, interfered with the direction of.

Written by Ian

July 3rd, 2011 at 8:54 pm

Posted in Cinema,Countdown

Escape From New York (1981) – Carpenter countdown #1

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One of the reasons Escape from LA hurts so much to watch is how good the original is.

Concept: Kurt Russell does Clint Eastwood

It is 1997, and Manhattan has been walled in and turned into a maximum security prison. Once you go in, you don't come out. Unfortunately for the police state, US President Donald Pleasence's plane is hijacked on the way to a summit to end World War Three and crashed into the city. When police chief Lee Van Cleef goes in with his troops, it's too late: the inhabitants have got him. So he has to turn to his only other option, offering special forces hero turned bank robber Kurt Russell's Snake Plissken an amnesty if he can get the President plus a cassette tape with the secrets of nuclear fusion out in time to make the summit before it finishes. Oh, and just to make sure, Russell is injected with a pair of explosive charges which will kill him in less than 23 hours if he doesn't come back with both.

What’s good: The script. It's stripped down – look at how little dialogue there is in much of the film, particularly if you take out all the people who tell Plissken they thought he was dead 🙂 – but manages to have a series of memorable characters. Snake Plissken is one of the great anti-heroes, an individual in an age of conformity.

The production design. They were able to take advantage of a major fire in East St Louis which had devastated a large area of the city and left a perfect location for a film of a city abandoned to criminals. Despite having a fraction of the sequel's budget, it looks better and is more believable.

The cinematography is stunning. Dean Cundey shows he's a master of night work yet again and just look at how far back the exteriors are lit.

The performances. All of the cast are fine. Russell is clearly doing his Clint Eastwood impression and it's fun to watch, but incredibly he was not the one the studio wanted (Charles Bronson!?! or Tommy Lee Jones) and he had to be argued for.

The music.

The car. You'll know which one I mean 🙂

What’s not so good: The MacGuffin of the tape is a bit silly – there has to be a written copy of the speech somewhere.

There's a small pile of continuity errors, particularly around the countdown timer. Fortunately, it moves so quickly that they don't matter.

Music: Another fabulous synth score in association with Alan Howarth. It's so good, large sections were ripped off for Beverly Hills Cop II.

A few years ago, a CD with an expanded version of the soundtrack was released, with the music that was deleted from the original opening ('bank robbery') and end credits (the 'Snake Shake'). It also has dialogue extracts, but… a) not the Issac Hayes "I heard you were dead" and b) some of the tracks sound very different from the original CD release and, to my ears, the actual film soundtrack. They've been played with and not necessarily to their advantage. Real fans have both 🙂 but it's increasingly hard to find the original release.

Miscellany: The introductory graphics and voice-over were added when it was realised that many of the audience didn't realise that Manhattan Island is an island!

Lots of the cast and crew had been in his earlier films. The stewardess who hijacks Airforce One was one of Laurie's friends Marion in Halloween, the punk was the ice cream seller in Assault, the medic was the person cleaning the shop at the start of The Fog which also featured the bum with the President's vital signs monitor etc etc. That's before we get to regulars like Russell, Barbeau, Pleasence, Cyphers and Atkins.

The secret service agent trying to break down the Air Force One cockpit door was Steve Ford, son of former US President Gerald Ford.

There are no computer graphics in the film – they would have been too expensive at the time. The 3D wireframes of the city were done by lining the edges of a model with tape and filming that, and the other graphics were all hand animated.

Overall: It's my list and I can have this as #1 if I want 🙂 True, while it's been tremendously influential visually – think Metal Gear Solid – it didn't revitalise an entire genre like Halloween. And nothing in it is as ground breaking as the effects in The Thing or as funny as Dark Star. But it's a film where so much came together – script, cast, production design, music – so well. It's knowingly cheesy. We know Kurt Russell is channelling Clint Eastwood, and they know it, but it's played straight.

Is this a film you can only love if you were old enough to see it in the early 80s? Some reviews seem to think so, but I hope not. Like The Thing, part of the appeal is how it was done, and that will never change.

Yet another disguised Western? Well, co-writer Nick Castle says yes 🙂

TL;DR Better in just about every way than the sequel, I've seen this more often than almost any other film.

Film: 5/5
DVD: 5/5

Commentary with Carpenter and Kurt Russell, plus one with producer Debra Hill and production designer Joe Alves. The latter's a masterclass in making a relatively low budget film look much more expensive (the top of the World Trade Centre was a platform in the desert – they couldn't afford a sound stage to build it on!) Occasionally, the two commentaries disagree on where something was filmed, and I suspect Alves is the one who is right… There's also the original opening scene, a bank robbery, that's ok but was (rightly) deleted, and a 20-something minute look back at the film. The later DVD versions of the film have excellent picture quality – don't get an earlier release – but some of the reviews on Amazon are not at all happy with the Blu-ray version. Caveat emptor (I'm never going to get a Blu-ray player…)

The DVD I have, the later release that seems to differ only in the cover, the Blu-ray, a possibly better US Blu-ray / DVD combo, the expanded soundtrack CD, and the original CD:

Written by Ian

June 30th, 2011 at 9:57 pm

Posted in Cinema,Countdown,DVDs

The Thing (1982) – Carpenter countdown #2

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In the background of Halloween, the TV is showing one of Carpenter's favourites: The Thing From Another World. It was based on "Who Goes There?", a short story by John W Campbell about a base in Antarctica uncovering an alien which could change shape and imitate others, but 1950s effects were too primitive to attempt that aspect. By the 1980s, effects had moved on…

Concept: 'Which of us is human?'

A flying saucer approaches Earth and enters the atmosphere above Antarctica. Cut to Antarctica 1982. A Norwegian helicopter flies over the bleak snow-covered scenery, chasing (and shooting at) a dog heading towards a US base. There, pilot Kurt Russell is losing badly at computer chess, while others are working or playing table tennis. The noise of the 'copter attracts their attention and the dog rushes up to them, still being shot at. One of the Norwegians accidentally blows himself and the 'copter up, while the other one is shot dead by the US base commander. Russell is asked to fly the base's doctor to the Norwegian base to see what's happened.

When they arrive, they discover the base has been destroyed and everyone's dead. One person committed suicide, but WTF is that there? There's also a giant lump of ice with something scooped out of it. They take the WTF, and some video tapes, back. The WTF is revealed to be a mix of creatures, including two human heads fused together, but pulling apart, some unknown and some dog. Say, what happened to the dog they were chasing? It's put in with the rest of the base's pack and soon demonstrates that it's not really a doggie… Fortunately, it's discovered before the pack is taken over and it's stopped (but not killed) by burning it. The video shows that the Norwegians discovered a 100,000 year old flying saucer in the ice, and dug something out of the ice nearby. So, they found a hard to kill shape-changing alien which can take other creatures over and imitate them perfectly. Ah, we don't want that to get away from the base. It's soon clear to everyone that not everyone else is still human and at least one of them is a Thing. Before long, no-one trusts anyone else, but they need to work together if they – and humanity itself – are to survive. Will they manage it?

What’s good: The effects. In particular, the heart-attack scene. One character's line at the end, "You've gotta be fuckin' kiddin'", not only breaks the tension, but reflects exactly what the audience is thinking. They hold up nearly thirty years on and the transformations will never be bettered in terms of old school physical effects. (It'd be CGI morphing now, not something you could kick on the set.) At no point in the crucial shots do you think 'that's someone in a rubber suit' (which is exactly what happens when the creature is revealed in Alien).

The script. In particular…

  • The double isolation. Not only are they physically isolated from the rest of the world, they're isolated from each other.
  • The building paranoia is great. At one point, a character says if someone else is killed and turns out they're human, it's tough. (They later accuse someone else of murder when they kill another human!)
  • The test scene. The reason Carpenter wanted to do the film. Again, the end line is fabulous.
  • The end. I will admit I groaned when I saw it the first time, but it was absolutely the right ending for the film.

The performances. It's an all-male cast and they spend most of the time wrapped up against the cold. Despite that, there are a dozen identifiable and believable individuals. Even the dog is great.

The production design. For interiors, refrigerated sets were used to ensure everyone's breath was visible, and a set was built by the edge of a glacier to get the exterior of the camp. Most of the snow you see in the film is real.

The cinematography. Another wonderful job by Dean Cundey.

What’s not so good: The film's release date. Two weeks after E.T. came out – from the same studio!?! – aliens were supposed to be friendly and cute. It was also the same weekend as Blade Runner. Hmm, which is going film is going to have problems? A cute alien all the family can see, SF with a happy ending, or the mean nasty alien in the very bleak one? If The Thing had been released first, it would not have been the smash hit E.T. was, but it's hard to believe that it would not have done better (and, coming as light relief, E.T. wouldn't have been hurt either).

Music: By Ennio Morricone, in a style very like Carpenter. It works superbly well in the film, but unlike Carpenter's – or indeed Morricone's – best scores, doesn't really work when listened to alone.

Miscellany: The opening title graphic was made to look as much like the original's as possible.

The similarly with AIDS can't have helped at the box office either: in 1982 it was fatal, you can't tell who's infected without a blood test, and it could wipe out the entire planet.

The university I went to put the heating on according to the calendar, not the temperature. 'Flix', the film club I helped run there, showed this one on what turned out to be a very cold night just before the heating was turned on, so we had live 'cold' effects and you could see the audience's breath as well as the cast's!

After one mid-80s showing by the UK's Channel 4 cut two out of the three lines with the word 'fuck' in them, including both of the critical tension-defusing ones, I wrote and asked why they didn't have an on-screen warning that this was not for everyone. Some months later, they started the 'red triangle' series of film showings, which had a red triangle in one corner of the screen indicating exactly that. Coincidence? Quite possibly, but who knows?

Overall: This is the highest rated Carpenter film on IMDB, but it's not for everyone – the effects (including the autopsies and cutting people's fingers) will not be to everyone's taste. Given that, it's a tribute to how good it is that it's (currently) one of the top 200 highest rated films on IMDB. The people who like it, including me, love it and recognise it for what it is: a stunning bit of film making. Like Halloween and Assault, there's no negotiating with the enemy, they could come at any time, and they have to be defeated if you are going to survive. As with Halloween, they could be anywhere and nowhere is safe.

It's his best film, but it's my list and it's not my favourite…

TL;DR This is how to do a remake.

Film: 5/5
DVD: 5/5

Very good commentary with Carpenter and Kurt Russell, an 80 minute look back at the making of the film, plus outtakes (for once, I'd have been tempted to keep some of them in), trailer and lots and lots of photos and notes. The picture is not perfect (some vertical resolution is lost in windowing) but we do see all of it.

DVD, Blu-ray (apparently the picture is great, but most of the DVD's extras are not included), and soundtrack album (currently only available for silly money):

Written by Ian

June 29th, 2011 at 11:11 pm

Posted in Cinema,Countdown,DVDs

Dark Star (1974) – Carpenter countdown #3

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This was to be John Carpenter and Dan O'Bannon's graduation film at the University of Southern California film school. It was Carpenter's first as a director (he also co-wrote it, edited it and did the music), with O'Bannon starring, co-writing, and supervising the special effects. When another student film Carpenter had worked on, The Resurrection of Broncho Billy, won the Academy Award for best short, the university kept the Oscar and reminded everyone they owned the film. Not wanting this to happen to them, Carpenter and O'Bannon removed their unfinished film from USC one night and took it to an independent outside producer. He put up the money to complete it, including adding extra material to bring it to feature film length. It was possibly the best use of $60,000 in the history of cinema.

Concept: Truckers in space.

Scoutship 'Dark Star' is about fifty light-years from Earth, twenty years into its mission of destroying unstable planets that may get in the way of future colonists. They do this via intelligent bombs and we see the nineteenth such destruction go off perfectly. The crew are listening to surfing music when the computer tells them an asteroid storm with an electro-magnetic energy vortex is on the way and they have thirty five seconds to activate all defensive systems. They manage to do this, but a communications laser is damaged in the storm and bomb #20 thinks it has been given the command to deploy. The computer tells it that it is an error, and it goes back into the ship, but you can tell that it's not happy…

Then it's time to feed the alien while en route to their next destination, and once they've arrived, an attempted repair to the communications laser goes wrong. This means that bomb #20 cannot be dropped even though it is utterly determined to go off in fifteen minutes. But how does it know that it has been given the order to detonate?

What’s good: The script. The final 'bomb #20' act is particularly well written. Even I've sampled it.

The setting. In contrast to the gleaming white expanses of the spaceship in 2001 A Space Odyssey, Dark Star is a cramped pigsty. Its computer is just about the only thing that is working and optimistically thanks the crew for observing all safety procedures. It doesn't help morale that Mission Control is very sorry, but they can't afford to send any radiation shielding or that the storage area containing the ship's entire supply of toilet paper has recently self-destructed. The crew sleep in a food storage locker because they can't be bothered to repair their real bedroom and the electrical fault that killed the ship's captain remains unfixed.

The script. It also has some pathos – not only can the rest of the crew not remember what Talby's first name is, Lt Doolittle cannot remember his own. The captain is sad that no-one bothers to talk to him now he's dead, except in emergencies.

The performances. O'Bannon's Sgt Pinback is particularly good. (He's not actually Pinback – you needed to score 700+ on a test to become an astronaut and he got 58 – but there was a problem at launch and people assumed he was.) He's the source of much of the humour and the 21 minute long 'Pinback and the alien' middle section is a complete classic. Brian Narelle's Lt. Doolittle is also good, especially given what he was put through (the spacesuit was not designed for breathing and the cold mist was kerosene!) The uncredited Nick Castle's acting as the alien's feet is great.

The script. Whether it's lines like "I show a 95% probability of intelligent life in the Horsehead Nebula sector." "Don't give me any of that intelligent life stuff, find me something I can blow up!" or the little things: O'Bannon reading a teenage girls' romance comic.

What’s not so good: It needed to be expanded to be released as a feature film, and some of the 'new' footage is clearly padding. Apparently, one scene that Carpenter and O'Bannon tried to get producer Jack Harris to accept was one of the crew staying in bed, ignoring the computer's instructions about being time to wash or clean, until the computer announced it was breakfast. That would probably have been better than, say, Lt Doolittle playing music on a home made instrument which did make it in.

The budget shows, but what do you expect for $60,000?? How some of the effects were done is obvious, but so what? It was shot on 16mm, without much light in many cases, then blown up to give a 1.85:1 ratio, so is rather grainy in places.

Music: By Carpenter on a synth of course. It's ok. The soundtrack album is a cut down audio version of the film, with much of the dialogue, rather than a 'here's theme one, here's theme two' etc.

Miscellany: Nick Castle and Tommy Lee Wallace would go on to be involved in lots of other Carpenter films and, like O'Bannon, also became directors

The knife game that Boiler plays is real – including the injury – and was unscripted.

The only Carpenter feature not shot in widescreen 2.35:1 ratio.

Overall: Everyone should see this. I first saw it around 1976 during an autumn season of SF films on BBC2. The previous week had seen Silent Running, an ecologically aware film with Bruce Dern on a space greenhouse looking after the last remaining plants, assisted by some robots. (Memory tells me one of the robots looked not unlike R2-D2.) It was very worthy, and it has clearly influenced WALL-E, but it was not particularly entertaining. In contrast, Dark Star is not just one of the funniest SF films ever, but one of the funniest films, full stop. If Halloween led to hundreds of inferior copies, Dark Star led to Red Dwarf and you can see it .

It's probably a more accurate prediction of the future too. The increase in computing power will mean that before too long, any bit of kit will have the sort of intelligence that the bombs have here. The problems that brings here will doubtless be repeated in real life.

Sadly, Carpenter and O'Bannon fell out over the film that launched both their careers. Both wanted more control and no film was ever going to be big enough for the both of them again. Oh for what might have been…

TL;DR Most people never make a film as good as this, even with budgets a thousand times larger

Film: 5/5
DVD: 5/5

The original and expanded editions, plus a very good documentary on the history of the film. There are several other releases out there, and while they're much of a muchness with not very good picture and sound quality, they're still better than not seeing this.

Best DVD and soundtrack audio version:

Written by Ian

June 28th, 2011 at 10:38 am

Posted in Cinema,Countdown,DVDs

Big Trouble in Little China (1986) – Carpenter countdown #4

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Halloween would be by far his biggest financial success and two of my top four lost millions at the box office. All have received their reward in film heaven, also known as the home video market, though. This is the best of his 'greater ambition than time or budget allowed' films, an attempt to bring to US mainstream audiences a genre that was new to them.

Concept: An American trucker walks into a Hong Kong magical action comedy.

Trucker Kurt Russell drives a load into San Francisco's Chinatown, stays to gamble with friend Dennis Dun, and wins. Before he can collect his winnings, they have to go to the airport where Dun needs to meet his fiancée who is arriving from China. As she enters the arrivals lounge, she is snatched by members of the Lords of Death gang, and the two friends chase them into the middle of Chinatown… just as a gang fight is starting. Arriving from the sky into the middle of the mêlée come three mysterious figures with magical powers, 'Rain', 'Thunder' and 'Lightning'…

… and at this point, you either 'get it' and enjoy the ride – which involves a long dead Chinese villain's search for a woman with green eyes so he can live again – or you don't, and should give up now.

What’s good: The going against expectations. In contrast to the vast majority of US films, the big name white American 'lead' is really the dumb sidekick and it's the Chinese immigrant 'sidekick' who's the hero. Much of the comedy is based around the way Kurt Russell's character thinks he's John Wayne but is really several cans short of a six-pack. At the start of one fight, he knocks himself out and in another, he fumbles his knife and, by the time he's got it back, Dun has knocked all their opponents out and the fight is over. When Russell finally manages to shoot someone after forgetting about the safety catch, he's asked, "First time you ever plugged somebody?" and replies, "Of course not!" but we know it is. Do the two white American stars get together at the end? No, he walks off without even the offered goodbye kiss.

The script. There are lines that have been sampled repeatedly ever since amongst some deliberately cheesy exposition: "You mean the David Lo Pan that's chairman of the National Orient Bank and owns the Wing Kong Import Export Trading Company but is so reclusive that no-one has even laid eyes on this guys in years?"

The performances. As in many of the best comedies, everyone plays this absolutely straight, no matter how silly it is. Russell spends half the climax with Kim Cattrall's lipstick smeared across his lips.

The music.

What’s not so good: If you're not prepared to suspend disbelief, the whole thing.

One of the reasons Carpenter was asked to direct was that the studio knew he could work quickly. The production was rushed in order to beat The Golden Child into the cinemas and it shows. You can very clearly see when it shifts from real San Francisco to the sets. Do we believe some of those walls are solid stone? No. Are any of the monsters in any way credible? No. But the films it's based on had very patchy production values too.

Music: Yet another classic Carpenter score in his 'in collaboration with Alan Howarth' phase. It's more complicated than nearly all of the rest of his work and goes for synth and guitar rather than the usual 'American version of "Chinese" music' clichés.

Miscellany: The pre-title sequence was made because the studio didn't think the audience – like the lawyer questioning Victor Wong – would believe in the film's basic premise: magic is real.

One of the Lords of Death, Jeff Imada, would be Carpenter's stunt co-ordinator in virtually all of his later films.

Overall: Yet another disguised John Carpenter Western (the original version of the script had a cowboy riding into Chinatown in 19th Century San Francisco) this was years ahead of its time. An awful publicity campaign didn't help either and the film flopped badly on release. As the years have gone by, the video and DVD sales have grown and grown though, thanks in part to the way Hong Kong and Chinese stars, directors and films have reached the US mainstream.

Is this better than Halloween? Of course not. It is more fun though, and it's a sign of how ambitious it is that that no-one's attempted to remake it. The Hong Kong 'heroic gunplay' genre has been successfully transplanted, but the magical action comedy one has proved a lot harder for western mainstream audiences to get.

TL;DR Too much dried seahorse to be a commercial success, you either get it or you don't

Film: 5/5
DVD: 5/5

A very chatty commentary with Kurt Russell which sometimes gets back to what's on screen. Lots of deleted / extended scenes (apart from one joke, they were rightly deleted), a couple of featurettes and various other small stuff, including a hilariously bad music video featuring John Carpenter, Nick Castle and Tommy Lee Wallace as The Coupe de Villes playing the end title music.

Double disc DVD, single disc version (but if you're going to like this film, only the better one will do), Scandinavian Blu-ray, US Blu-ray, and two listings for the full soundtrack (as with Prince, this is clearly one where people with copies are keeping them and there doesn't seem to be definite listing for the shorter soundtrack that was released at the time):

Written by Ian

June 27th, 2011 at 7:30 am

Posted in Cinema,Countdown,DVDs