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Coen brothers countdown

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OK, it's time for another one of these, this time featuring the films of Joel and Ethan Coen.

Written by Ian

October 3rd, 2011 at 4:31 pm

Posted in Countdown

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

Halloween (1978) – Carpenter countdown #5

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Having seen Assault, a Jordanian financier offered to put up the money for Carpenter to do another film – the whole $320,000 budget was what he spent per day on his 'real' films. The producer wanted a story about a killer stalking baby-sitters, which Carpenter and then partner Debra Hill started to write, then the producer suggested a good time to set it: no-one had ever done a film on Halloween before…

Concept: "Boo!"

Halloween 1963. In a long fluid point of view shot, someone looks into a window to see a teenage couple making out. They go off to have sex upstairs, and the viewer goes around to the back of the house, getting a big knife from the kitchen. The boyfriend is already leaving (that's teenage boys for you!) and the viewer goes upstairs where he picks up a clown mask, and, through the eye holes, sees the girlfriend brushing her hair. She recognises him as 'Michael', and is stabbed to death. Michael goes downstairs, out the house, and is met by the girlfriend's parents. They recognise him too, his mask is taken off and, for the first time we see who it is: a six year old boy, still holding the bloody knife that's killed his sister.

Fifteen years later, on the night before Halloween, Dr Donald Pleasence is driving in the rain to collect Michael for a hearing. He is determined that he never be released. But Michael has other ideas, and as the car arrives at the hospital, they see patients wandering around and before long Michael aka 'The Shape' is on top of the car, then driving it away. The next day, Jamie Lee Curtis ('JLC') is walking to school. Her father is an estate agent, and is finally selling the Myers house, scene of the killing fifteen years ago, and wants her to drop something through its letterbox. Guess who's inside? The boy she will be baby-sitting that night is bullied at his school by some other pupils, who tell him that the bogeyman is going get him. They then run off, and one runs – 'boo!' – into a figure we know is this film's bogeyman.

The Shape starts following JLC and her two friends. Then he starts killing them…

What’s good: The camera work. One reason for using Panaglide was that it was quicker (and so cheaper) than setting up dolly tracks for all the camera moves. The result is beautifully fluid and Dean Cundey's cinematography is, as ever, wonderful. Carpenter's use of the 2.35:1 widescreen format is, again, masterful. Comparing it with the 4:3 'pan and scan' version ('Academy' ratio as used on ordinary TVs) shows the huge difference between the two – there are far more places for the 'boo' to come from in widescreen. It not only looks better, but is scarier too.

The music. Famously, he showed the film to an executive before the music was added and it didn't work.

The script. Combining humour, both light (PJ Soles' use of "totally") and dark (JLC's "I'll kill you if this is a joke" while Soles is being strangled in the middle of a phone call), and the trademark 'let's skip over the messy details' (how could The Shape drive 150 miles, having been locked away since he was a small boy? "He can't drive a car.." "He was doing very well last night!") it builds tension like few other films as well as containing some great lines: "It was the bogeyman", "As a matter of fact, it was". The ending's great too.

The cast. Few actors could 'sell' evil like Donald Pleasence, and Jamie Lee Curtis does caring, embarrassment, thinking and screaming well. Nick Castle's mime work as The Shape is also excellent.

What’s not so good: The budget shows in the little things – it was shot in California in the spring, not the Midwest in autumn. So there's an occasional palm tree in shot, the deciduous trees have lots of green leaves, and the few fake brown leaves on screen had to be gathered up each time for reuse in other scenes. One reason the body count isn't higher is that having more actors with speaking roles would have cost more.

Music: Another one of the classic scores, done in just three days. Based on a 5/4 rhythm taught to him by his father, the main theme is disturbing right from the start because, compared to the vastly more common 4/4, it has 'too many notes'.

Miscellany: Although one of the frequent comments / complaints is that 'it's shot the from the killer's point of view (POV)', actually only the initial killing is POV and that's necessary to conceal who it is doing it until the reveal. It's far more common to be 'over the Shape's shoulder', and lots of the 'boo!'s are due to the Shape appearing in the frame, something that's obviously not possible with POV.

There are lots of references to friends and influences in the character names. Sam Loomis is, of course, the name of Janet Leigh's boyfriend in Psycho, Michael Myers was Assault's UK distributor, Leigh Brackett was a screenwriter for Howard Hawks, including working on the Rio Bravo Carpenter had just updated etc etc.

Until the unscary headache that was The Blair Witch Project came along, this was the most profitable independent film ever.

When NBC bought the US TV rights (for twelve and a half times what the film cost to make) as well as wanting various cuts (a view of one of the women's panties, the Shape being shot, that sort of thing) they wanted it to be longer. So during the making of the sequel, extra footage was shot, including a nod to the twist in that film (JLC is the Shape's sister, gasp, no matter how silly it makes some of the first film). None of it adds anything positive and the best bit is knowing why JLC has a towel around her head in the new scenes: they needed to hide her new hairstyle.

Overall: Everyone should see this, unless they have a serious heart condition and can't survive being scared.

As by the author being talked about in one of JLC's classes, in this film Fate is personified. The Shape has no lines, just simple actions. In Jaws, Great Whites are described as only swimming, eating and making baby sharks. The Shape doesn't even make babies, just stalks and kills. Why does he do this? Unlike the awful remake, there's no reason given: he's just evil and nowhere is safe. Apart from the wonderful Donald Pleasence, Jamie Lee Curtis is the only one smart enough to realise what's going on, which is why she survives rather than her boy-obsessed friends who don't even notice when The Shape is in the same room.

The 'slasher' films that followed had to rely increasingly on splatter effects and wiping out entire classes of teenagers. That's because most of them are nowhere near as good at raising the tension, then keeping on raising it some more. In this film, it's the tension that goes to 11, not the gore or the body count. And as director, co-writer and composer, that's down to Carpenter. There's a line from him in the 25th anniversary edition that it "got me branded as a horror director .. but, hey, I got to become John Carpenter. How cool is that?"

TL;DR Better than all of its sequels, the awful remake, and virtually all of its imitators

Film: 5/5
DVD: 4.5/5

There are lots of different editions. The one I have is an Anchor Bay release which looks great (new transfer approved by Dean Cundey) and sounds great (5.1 mix from the original music and dialogue and effects tapes). It also has a second disc with a version with the scenes added for the US TV version (although, fortunately, it doesn't lose the stuff that was cut) and the opportunity to see how much you miss in 4:3, plus a short documentary and various trailers etc.

The 25th anniversary edition, also by Anchor Bay, has a commentary track with him, Debra Hill and Jamie Lee Curtis, but it's clearly edited together from three separate sessions. It's quite thoughtful and there's a very good point from JLC that at one point she throws away the knife that the Shape has been using not because her character is stupid but because she's repulsed by it. There's also a 87 min look back on the history of the film (expanded from the shorter one above) which is worth watching, along with a look back at the locations now plus assorted smaller stuff. But but but the picture has been noticeably changed in colour, including lightened (apparently it was approved by Carpenter rather than Dean Cundey) and isn't as good as mine.

The DVD I think I have, the 2003 '25th' DVD, Blu-ray, and the best version of the soundtrack:

Written by Ian

June 24th, 2011 at 8:59 pm

Posted in Cinema,Countdown,DVDs

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) – Carpenter countdown #6

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On to the six undoubted classics. Again, it's been difficult to decide on an order for these.

Concept: 'Let's do a modern adaptation of Rio Bravo!'

Six people with guns are going through an LA alley at night. "Freeze, this is the police," they're told, then they are gunned down by shotguns. As the police commissioner talks about the problem of gangs now having automatic weapons on the next day's radio news, four gang leaders take a blood oath to take revenge. Late in the afternoon, Austin Stoker is about to start his first shift as a police lieutenant. Disappointed that his assignment is to look after a police station that's just been closed, he's told that "There are no heroes any more.. only men who follow orders."

Meanwhile, Charles Cyphers is picking up three prisoners to transfer, including Tony Burton, someone with a cough, and Darwin Joston's Napoleon Wilson who is on his way to death row. The warder knocks Joston out of his chair, "I don't sit in chairs as well as I used to," says Joston before getting his revenge later. The final group of participants are a father and daughter who are driving around looking for the turn off for his mother's house. She suggests asking a policeman for help, and he poo-poos the very idea. Lt Stoker arrives at 'his' police station, looks around at the sunset – neatly establishing that in the middle of the city there are no close neighbours – and we're introduced to Laurie Zimmer and Nancy Loomis as two of the four skeleton staff remaining before the captain goes off duty, leaving Lt Stoker in charge.

Meanwhile the gang leaders are driving around with some of their new toys, and it turns out that they're looking for someone. While her father is on the phone getting directions, the daughter spots an ice cream van, and goes over and buys one just before the gang leaders arrive and start on the seller. She realises she's been given the wrong sort, goes back and is coldly executed. Before dying, the seller tells the father about a gun in the van, and the father chases off after the gang leaders, shooting one of them (as it happens, the one who killed his daughter).

When coughing convict gets worse, the prison bus pulls into the station, and the prisoners are put in the holding cells in order to call a doctor. But it's the father who arrives first, followed by the gang, just as the station's phones are cut off. Then the power goes. The station's sergeant is killed going out to get to a radio, but the police realise they're being attacked too late to save everyone bar Joston and Burton of the prison transfer group who are in the process of leaving in disgust at the lack of facilities. Before long, with just six people on the inside (and one of those a gibbering wreck), police and criminals are forced to work together to survive…

What’s good: The action sequences. The second assault in particular is amongst the best ever filmed, and the look on Joston's face when he realises he's got a shotgun in his hands – and on Stoker's when he realises he's given him one – are priceless.

The script. Repeated lines (Joston gets them here, including "Got a smoke?" and declining to say where he got the name 'Napoleon' from) would become a Carpenter signature, but there's also good moral dilemma moments – Loomis wants to hand the father to the gang – and lots of humour. The two criminals use 'one potato, two potato' (later sampled by PWEI) to decide who goes out to attempt to get to a car. "Gonna wish me luck?" "Good luck." "Look at that, two cops wishing me luck, I'm doomed…"

The casting is inter-racial, on all sides: gang, police and criminals.

The music and editing.

What’s not so good: The $100,000 micro budget shows in a couple of places and Zimmer is a bit static. But both these are forgiveable (she's been shot!)

Music: By Carpenter on a simple synth setup. I first saw this in a late night double bill with Halloween, but famous as the music for that is, it was the Assault main theme that I was humming as I left the cinema. Its 'boom boom ba-a-boom-boooom' bass line has been ripped off endlessly by other people.

The soundtrack was unavailable on disc for over 25 years, and now you can get it, it's a bit too repetitive. A variation is used for the actual assaults, there's another theme on an electric piano for the quiet bits, and lots of sustained synth strings for the tension building. But he did it in a couple of days and, more importantly, in the context of the film it works superbly well.

Miscellany: It's actually Precinct 9, Division 13.

As well as writing, scoring and directing the film, the editor is Carpenter under a pseudonym ('John T Chance' was the name of John Wayne's character in Rio Bravo). Famously, he took out the shooting of the daughter before submitting it to the US ratings board, knowing they'd want it cut for an R-rating, and put it back afterwards.

It did poorly on its US release, but was included in the 1977 London Film Festival, where it was a lot better received. One of the people who saw it was impressed enough to ask Carpenter to make another. That turned out to be Halloween

Script supervisor (and assistant editor) was girlfriend and future producer, Debra Hill.

Overall: Everyone should see this. It always comes as a surprise to me that as many as forty minutes elapse before the assaults start and the whole thing moves along at a great pace. The official remake added a twist – one of the ones on the inside is working for the people on the outside – but is vastly inferior despite having much more money thrown at it. The original is also a lot better than Carpenter's second go, even without Natasha Henstridge. That one used people taken over by ghosts to provide the opposition, but this gang is far more believable and mysterious – the only three lines any of them ever say are during the blood oath ceremony. There's no negotiating with this bunch despite them being human.

To do one of the writing, editing, scoring, and directing as well as this would be an achievement. To do all four proved beyond any doubt that a major talent had arrived. There's another review that points out that virtually all the other 'exploitation' films of its day looked awful and/or had nudity and have since dated horribly. None of those are true here. It is wonderfully framed in widescreen, there's only some mild flirting, and the only way it's really dated is that none of the characters can pull out a mobile to call for help.

TL;DR It has way more than its fair share of moments.

Film: 4.5/5
DVD: 3.5/5

Very good picture and sound, a booklet and the trailer. For once, I have the edition without a commentary…

The one I have, two ones with a commentary (in their US versions at least), Blu-ray, and the soundtrack:

Written by Ian

June 23rd, 2011 at 11:02 am

Posted in Cinema,Countdown,DVDs