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Prince of Darkness (1987) – Carpenter countdown #7

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With no-one willing to give Carpenter loadsamoney any more, he got a deal with Alive Pictures for a couple of low budget films. Ideas come cheap, none cheaper than 'adapting' some classics of horror/SF. If Psycho made people afraid of showers, and Jaws made people afraid of swimming in the sea, this one will have you wondering whether or not to touch that mirror…

Concept: 'Let's remake Quatermass and the Pit!'

An old priest dies. He has been guarding a key, which gets handed to Donald Pleasence (also seen in Halloween and Escape, of course) along with a cheerful journal saying 'the sleeper awakens'. The key turns out to open a church basement, home of the secret Brotherhood of Sleep, and he calls in help from quantum physicist Professor Victor Wong (from Trouble). The secret they've been keeping turns out to be a large ancient transparent-sided canister, filled with a swirling green liquid, which has just started to misbehave. Before long, newly together students Jameson Parker and Lisa Blount are asked told to join a mixed discipline group, including Dennis Dun (Trouble, again), Susan Blanchard, Anne Howard and Ann Yen, for a long weekend at the church. Watched by a group of homeless, led by Alice Cooper, a pile of equipment is brought into the church, and the work begins.

They discover that the canister's manual logbook contains 2,000 year old differential equations and lines like 'And the Prince of Darkness was Himself sealed' in it. Oh, and the canister can only be opened from the inside. One of them leaves the church and within a couple of minutes of spotting a crucified pigeon, is stabbed to death by Alice Cooper's broken bicycle. "So it's a John Carpenter siege movie," go the audience as Howard realises the canister is seven million years old. Say, what's that green liquid doing, dripping up from the canister onto the ceiling? Oops, some is squirted into her mouth, she becomes Zombie Howard and starts killing people and turning them into zombies too.

The others, being too busy to notice this, are discussing the history. The book reckons the contents were buried by its father in the Middle East long ago. Christ ("He was extraterrestrial, but in human form") came to warn humanity about it, but the Church covered it all up, and taught that evil was within man – not a canister they were hiding – keeping man at the centre of things. "We are salesmen after all," admits Pleasence. All of the team start to have the same dream – "This is not a dream" it says, showing a dark figure coming out of the church. There's a lovely bit where Pleasence asks Wong, "What were you dreaming?" only to be told that, "Your kingdom, Father, does not include my unconscious. It's mine."

Zombie Howard clambers on top of one of the other women – who's developed a mark on her arm just like a symbol in the logbook – while she's trying to get a quick nap, squirts into her mouth, and before long new zombie is typing "I Live!" a lot, along with lines like "You will not be saved by the Holy Ghost. You will not be saved by the god Plutonium. In fact, YOU WILL NOT BE SAVED!" while outside one of the other zombies is saying '"I have a message for you, and you're not going to like it: pray for death!" Before long, the humans are down to just six of them in three locations and the zombies are showing a fascination with mirrors. Just before the end, Blount has to choose between helping Parker in his life or death struggle with one of the zombies or sacrificing herself to stop the devil getting into this world from the dark side. But will what she chooses work?

What’s good: The structure. Act one: growing sense of menace: strange skies, insects, the homeless gathering etc. Act two: it begins to go wrong and people start turning. Act three: green stuff hits the fan ceiling and it's a life or death struggle. The end. Each section works, particularly the first and last acts, and the ending is perfect for the film.

Nearly all of the ensemble cast are very good, Donald Pleasence especially, particularly when dealing with his loss of faith (and leaves it nicely open as to whether he gets it back).

The cinematography. I was impressed to see that this was Gary Kibbe's first feature as Director of Photography, and he went on to do most of Carpenter's subsequent films. The lenses used give a distortion at the edges of the picture, reinforcing the 'there's something not quite right here' feeling, particularly during the external shots around the church.

The music.

What’s not so good: There's a reason his scripts usually skip the astrophysics / mysticism. "The outside world doesn't want to hear this kind of bullshit!" Quite. Others disagree and think the mashup of science and religion is great, but argh some of it is so clunky. Does someone doing a physics PhD need to have the basics of Schrödinger's Cat explained to them? Not unless the US education system is really, really bad.

Jameson Parker may have been the co-lead in a US TV comedy drama for eight-ish years, but he's not really leading man quality here. Especially in the romance aspect. You could say 'typical physics student', but it's the Tom Atkins issue all over again. I've just realised – both have moustaches! Now Carpenter certainly had one when doing Fog, I wonder if he had one for this… Ordinary looking guy with 'tache gets the young beautiful woman… Hmm, wishful thinking on the part of the writer/director or what?

Music: Improvised 'in association with' Alan Howarth for the last but one time, this is the last truly great Carpenter score with some fabulous sounds from Howarth. Pounding synth bass rhythms, twinkly synth sounds on top, synth voices. This is how to use 'aaah' voice synth sounds properly and the contrast with the 'aaah's in Starman is particularly striking.

As well as the soundtrack CD linked to here, there's a double CD version which – as well as the contents of the earlier release – has the 'This is not a dream' and 'Prepare to die' sounds, new tracks, plus expanded and alternate versions.

Miscellany: Martin Quatermass, credited with the script, is perhaps the most obvious pseudonym he's ever used. Particularly as it's supposed to be Kneale University that Jameson Parker's come from.

Neither the credits nor IMDB say, but if it's not Carpenter's distorted voice doing the 'This is not a dream' sequences, I'd be very surprised. (You can tell that I've heard his voice a lot recently, can't you?)

The mirror effects were done with mercury borrowed from various bits of film equipment.

Post-production was done at Walt Disney Studios!

Overall: My summary of the concept is perhaps a bit cynical, but it's impossible to deny that it shares the basic ideas of the Quatermass stories, especially Pit. Here, it's the 'real' devil rather than extinct Martians behind it all, but we have an ancient artefact uncovered underground and it begins to control people, with the aim of taking over the planet, plus it turns out that alien visits are behind much of religion. The $3m budget meant that the struggle couldn't extend across a city, so it's crossed with a Romero-style zombie siege. But unlike They Live, the budget matches the brains – green liquid is so much cheaper than 'real' aliens – and it looks wonderful and sounds great.

It's only because the top six are so good that this is at number seven. Most directors have never made a film as good as this (especially for this sort of budget!) and there's a lovely line in one of the other reviews of this film that it's one of the very few horror films that becomes scarier, the more you think about it. It made money too.

TL;DR It was downhill from here, but it lives!

Film: 4.5/5
DVD: 3.5/5

Chatty commentary along with Peter Jason including covering the music and the basic 'how to' quote: "All a director has to do is have an answer!" – plus trailer. Watch that after watching the film: it gives away what happens at the climax and suggests the ending was different (worse) at one point.

DVD (more expensive than some versions, but even if you don't want the commentary, this is the one with the best picture), basic soundtrack CD, and the currently unavailable – clearly all of us with copies are holding onto them! – expanded 2CD set:

Written by Ian

June 22nd, 2011 at 7:59 pm

Posted in Cinema,Countdown,DVDs

Starman (1984) – Carpenter countdown #8

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Christine has the second best romantic relationship in a Carpenter film: this has the best. Apparently, Columbia were offered this script and the one for E.T. and didn't want to do both. So Spielberg went to Universal, E.T. came out first and… (to be continued!)

Concept: There are nice aliens too.

Unmanned probe Voyager II goes out into space with an invitation to visit Earth. It is taken up. The arrival of the alien craft is noticed by the US military who attempt to destroy it, and it crashes near widow Karen Allen's remote house in Wisconsin. She's still obsessed by late husband Jeff Bridges and wakes up to discover the alien adopting the shape of him. Unsurprisingly, she's a bit shocked, but he needs her to get to Arizona to meet up with a second alien craft. She starts out terrified at being kidnapped, but gradually, as she teaches him more about what it means to be human, she falls in love with him. At one point, Allen's about to abandon Bridges at a service station, but sees him resurrect a shot deer and rescues him from the hunters attacking him. Not long afterwards, she's shot and he uses the sixth of his seven alien artefacts (in the style of Arthur Clarke's saying, they work like magic to protect him) to save her.

Meanwhile, as soon as they realised what's happened, the US military plus SETI scientist Charles Martin Smith started to go after Bridges and it becomes a chase. The government want Bridges dissected or dead, while Smith wants to learn from him without cutting him into bits. Who will win?

What’s good: Jeff Bridges' performance, showing the humanity seeping into the alien, typically just through physical movement. He was rightly nominated for an Academy Award (shamefully, the only time a Carpenter feature film has been nominated in any category) but this was Amadeus's year, and despite having the vote split between its two leads, its F. Murray Abraham won.

Karen Allen is, as ever, very good too (she was by far the best of the Indiana Jones heroines) and the rest of the cast is fine.

The humour of the script. At one point, having learnt to drive by watching Allen, Bridges nearly kills them both at a set of traffic lights. She's furious, but he explains, "I watched you very carefully. Red light: stop. Green light: go. Yellow light: go very fast."

What’s not so good: Some of the supporting characters are two dimensional – the evil government agent stands out here. Why do they want to cut Bridges up? It's not explained anywhere.

Music: By Jack Nitzsche, mostly on a Synclavier. It sounds more like something you'd expect to hear in a funeral parlour for my taste, but there's not much of it and it does add to the other-worldliness of the situation.

Miscellany: The script supervisor was his future wife and producer, Sandy King – this was the first time they worked together.

"Other than the Voyager Satellite (sic) expedition depicted in this Picture, which expedition actually occurred (sic), the characters and incidents portrayed .. are fictitious" say the end credits. It's not a satellite and it's still going…

Comparing the contemporary footage with that on the Christine DVD, we can see this is the point at which his hair started seriously going grey (or he stopped dying it!)

Overall: Carpenter calls it "a girls' film" and it is different from the rest of the cannon. As a result of this film, Carpenter was offered Santa Claus: The Movie but made too many demands on the producers. It would have been interesting to see what would have happened to his career had he done it (a musical?) even if I'd miss two of the films he subsequently did make very much.

TL;DR Carpenter proves he can do a love story

Film: 3.5/5
DVD: 4/5

Good commentary with Jeff Bridges with plenty on Jeff's way to get into a part, contemporary 'making of' and a music video(!) with Bridges and Allen.

Apparently out of print UK DVD (which doesn't mention the Academy Award nomination anywhere on the packaging?!), imported Dutch DVD, Blu-ray, soundtrack album and novelization:

Written by Ian

June 21st, 2011 at 4:30 pm

Posted in Cinema,Countdown,DVDs

Christine (1983) – Carpenter countdown #9

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At the time, Stephen King was an enormously successful horror writer and the rights to Christine were bought (and the film started production) before the book's publication.

Concept: The film of the Stephen King novel.

A red Plymouth Fury car is being built on a 1957 assembly line to the anachronistic sound of Bad to the Bone. Someone hurts their hand when the hood falls on it, while another person is killed while smoking in it during a break. Twenty-one years later, nerd Keith Gordon spots the car as a barely mobile wreck and falls in love with it despite the advice of cool friend John Stockwell who goes on to discover that the body count has increased in the intervening years. By that point, it's too late: Gordon may be unable to open his school locker without help, but he proves able to fix the car at the local junkyard cum garage.

Before long, he's dating the most gorgeous girl in the school, Alexandra Paul, and distracting Stockwell enough to help cause a serious football injury. Paul nearly chokes to death inside Christine, and when she gives Gordon a 'me or the car' ultimatum, he picks the car. But before long, the school gang of bullies has completely trashed the car. Oh noes! Gordon's reaction is to call Paul a 'shitter' and his father a 'motherfucker', but is delighted to see that Christine can repair herself. The gang is then hunted down: chased, crushed and crisped by car. Despite sustaining serious damage each time, Christine is restored. Concerned about Gordon, Stockwell and Paul get together and decide to save him, even if that means destroying Christine. But will he let them do that? And will she?

What’s good: The cinematography, this time by Donald M. Morgan, is excellent and it has lots of Carpenter's fluid camera work.

For almost unknowns, the leads are all very good. Gordon's transition from nerd to cool, and from nervous virgin to sexually confident (but still possibly a virgin) is done particularly well, both with his acting and the visual design. The supporting cast, including Harry Dean Stanton, is even better.

The question of whether or not Gordon is behind the wheel as Christine attacks the gang that trashed her is kept nicely concealed until the reveal.

Typically, the 'why' for Christine being evil is simply handled. In the book, it's the ghost of a previous owner encouraging the bad stuff, but here, Christine is just evil from the assembly line. No explanation, much better.

What’s not so good: Not much actually. The main problem is that, for a film sold as horror, it's simply not scary and there's not enough tension either. There are a couple of effective 'boo's, but ultimately, the story is silly. It's also a tiny bit long at 1h45m.

Music: Improvised 'in association with' Alan Howarth. At the time, I wasn't convinced. There's no main title music (there's just the sound of the car's engine running over them) and the best section – Christine Attacks – is an hour in. But it is very atmospheric and the use of other music is well done (Christine's radio will only play 50s music) such as having Little Richard's Keep A-Knocking ('but you can't come in') is used when Stockwell tries to open the door. There's a lovely transition between the Buddy Holly Not Fade Away and a modern cover version as the film moves from 1957 to 1978.

Miscellany: There's not much gore. In order to get the US 'R' / UK 18 rating that the makers thought horror fans would expect, lots of swearing was added. Without that, I suspect it'd be a 12A.

The leads are one of the very few in Carpenter films who don't smoke on screen.

Overall: The first and easily the best of Carpenter's 'films of the book' (the others being Vampires, Memoirs and Village, so that's not hard), this is much better than I remembered. Part of the problem was that it directly followed two of his very best films, and as mentioned, the marketing was misleading as well. I wouldn't characterise it as a horror film – the car doesn't scare me – more a supernatural drama. The commercial flop of his previous film meant that this was the only thing on offer, but he ended up doing a very good job.

The love between Gordon and the car comes across as the second best romantic relationship in a Carpenter film. The budget it had in comparison to Carpenter's early films shows, the pre-CGI effects work well, and almost the only thing that looks dated is Alexander Paul's hairstyle. Easily a contender to be the fifth best of the many adaptations of Stephen King's work (Carrie, Stand By Me, Misery, and The Shawshank Redemption have the top four places).

TL;DR It's hard to believe that the same person did this and Memoirs / Village

Film: 3.5/5
DVD: 4.5/5

Commentary with Keith Gordon (a mix of reminisces and technical info), deleted / extended scenes and three modern featurettes. Excellent visual quality for its age.

DVD and the Carpenter/Howarth score:

Written by Ian

June 20th, 2011 at 7:57 pm

Posted in Cinema,Countdown,DVDs

The Fog (1980) – Carpenter countdown #10

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While making a TV movie, John Carpenter was surprised to be offered a two picture deal by Avco Embassy – he apparently hadn't realised that Halloween was breaking records and that he and producer Debra Hill were hot properties. So what to do for the follow-up? Horror, yes, but they decided on an old-fashioned ghost story.

Concept: 'What if there's something in the fog?'

It's nearly midnight and John Houseman is telling ghost stories on the beach to some children. Tomorrow will be the 100th anniversary of a shipwreck, when a ship in the fog mistook a fire on the beach for the guiding light it was looking for and was destroyed on the rocks. When the fog returns to the bay, the men who drowned will return, looking for revenge. Sleep tight, little ones…

The alcoholic Father Hal Holbrook is startled when a bit of the church wall falls out, revealing the 100 year old journal of his grandfather. 'Midnight to one belongs to the dead' it says. Elsewhere in the town, supernatural things start happening, such as things moving by themselves. Outside the town, Tom Atkins picks up hitch-hiker Jamie Lee Curtis. Suddenly, the truck windows are smashed. Local radio owner and DJ Adrienne Barbeau gets a call from meteorologist Charles Cyphers. There's fog coming, warn the ship out there. She does so, and 'Ha', go the three on board, but then it comes. The fog disables their engine, a sailing ship comes alongside, and with it, the sailors who massacre the crew. The fog then moves west despite the wind blowing east. Meanwhile on land, Atkins is in bed having a post-coital chat with JLC (only at that point do they exchange names!) A ghostly visitor arrives at the door, but goes away as one o'clock strikes.

The next morning, Barbeau's son sees a gold coin on beach, but it is covered by a wave and becomes an old piece of wood, with the word 'Dane' on it. Meanwhile, Janet Leigh is trying to arrange the celebrations for the centenary of the town, and Father Holbrook reads some of the journal to them: a wealthy leper called Blake wanted to move a leper colony near to the settlement, via the ship Elizabeth Dane. To stop this, and to use Blake's gold to build the church and create the town, the grandfather and five other people decided to light a fire in the wrong place so that it would go onto the rocks. Aided by a mysterious fog, it worked. 'We're honouring murderers,' Holbrook tells them. While this is happening, Atkins and JLC are on the overdue ship, where it turns out that the generator is full of water but the deck is dry as a bone. They discover a body when it falls out onto JLC. He's drowned, despite being in a locker. Oh, and his eyes have been put out. As they're returning to shore, the piece of wood Barbeau's son found suddenly starts seeping water, and the writing changes to '6 must die'. While medical examiner Dr Darwin Johnson is talking Atkins about how strange the case is, the body gets up and starts moving towards JLC… it falls down, leaving a '3' mark on the floor, the number of deaths so far.

Come midnight that night, there soon two more deaths (Cyphers and the woman babysitting Barbeau's son). That brings the count up to five and it's time for the final confrontation at the church built with the gold Blake, the sailors and passengers were murdered for.

What’s good: Dean Cundey's cinematography is stunning, especially at night. The daytime views, with the space of the Californian coast and the setting of the lighthouse/radio station, also contrast beautifully with the confined feeling in the night fog. The music is equally good and the effects still work 31 years on.

Most of the cast is fine. Adrienne Barbeau's voice is perfect for radio, Jamie Lee Curtis has the combination of screaming and strength she brought to Halloween, and the support is good throughout.

What’s not so good: While the lines are good ('Fog bank out there?! There's no fog bank out there… Hey, there's a fog bank out there!') there's not much in the way of character development. Despite being co-written with Debra Hill, JLC is the hitch-hiker of male dreams – gorgeous, sleeps with you that night, and sticks around to help save you from ghosts! (Apparently she wanted a different sort of role from being the virgin in Halloween.) There's also the problem of the body count: the ghosts are after six descendants of their murderers, and towards the end they've killed five, so why are they still after at least two different people? Plus why does the body move (apart to go 'boo' at us)? But one of the points of ghost stories is that they don't make sense.

Tom Atkins is a fine supporting actor, but I don't believe anyone thinks of him as a romantic lead. (See the Carpenter/Hill produced Halloween III for another – the only other? – example of trying.)

Music: One of his most atmospheric scores. Parts of it have been reused by theatre and TV shows endlessly.

There's a 'complete score' CD available from a specialist source, but many of the extra tracks are the background jazz on the radio, and it's one for completists only.

Miscellany: It has possibly the highest number of in-jokes in the cannon. Lots of the characters in the film are named after friends (Nick Castle, Dan O'Bannon, Tommy Wallace, Elizabeth Solley) or characters from films (Dr Phibes).

Many of the cast and crew were, or would become, regulars. One actor who wouldn't is Carpenter himself – he has some lines at the start, but this would be the last time he'd attempt to do more than a "Roger that" speaking part.

Partly because the original cut didn't work and partly in reaction to Scanners coming out with its exploding heads, the more explicit horror scenes were added just before the deadline for releasing the film.

He made (his then wife) Adrienne Barbeau smoke, so she'd look more like a Howard Hawks heroine.

Overall: It's still an effective bit of story telling, and definitely in the second tier, but watching it again, I get the feeling it could be overtaken in the list as others move up over the years. Having said that, one of the measures of how good it remains is how much better it is than the awful remake. It still looks and sounds great.

TL;DR A solid ghost story, miles better than the remake

Film: 3.5/5
DVD: 4.5/5

Informative commentary with Debra Hill talking about the joys of low budget film-making and effects work before CGI, a look back at the film, a contemporary 'making of', out-takes, trailers, short storyboard to film comparison, and photos.

DVD, Blu-ray, import CD

Written by Ian

June 17th, 2011 at 9:01 am

Posted in Cinema,Countdown,DVDs

The Ward (2010) – Carpenter countdown #11

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On to the five 'second tier' films. This one was his first feature length film since 2001's Ghosts. It got a short theatrical run in the UK – it ran for one week at my local – but looks to have gone straight to video in the US. This is based on a single viewing at the cinema in January (the DVD isn't out here yet – it's due in October!? – never mind cheap enough for me to want to buy) so it may change position on a re-viewing.

Concept: An American 'J-Horror' ghost story.

On a dark and stormy night, the camera moves though an old dark house psychiatric hospital. Footsteps approach Tammy's locked room, then something is inside, lifting her off the floor and breaking her neck. Titles. It's daytime in Oregon in 1966. Amber Heard is running through the forest in her undergarments. She sets a farmhouse on fire and stands there watching it burn until the police arrive and take her to The Ward. There, she's stripped, showered and locked in Tammy's old cell. Nurse Ratched Susanna Burney doesn't like the way she doesn't want her meds, while Dr Jared Harris is a bit more sympathetic. The other young women in the ward are (possibly bi/lesbian) 'Artist', 'Bitch', 'Child' – a girl who has regressed to being a young child again – and 'Kooky'. That night, after faking taking the meds, Amber is on her first escape attempt. She gets as far as the ward door before being caught. There's another storm, and the footsteps are back.

The next day, she tells the others that she saw one of them at night. Impossible, she's told. That evening, during yet another storm, they're dancing to Run Baby Run when the lights go out. 'Bad things happen in the dark'. The lights go back on, and it's time for a rummage through the unguarded nurses' station then into the showers. Everyone else has finished, but who's that figure in the steam? Before you can say 'Ghost!' it has Heard by the neck. She screams, and Nurse Burney is there while the others look on. No-one believes her. Jabbed with sedatives, she passes out before waking up tied to a table about to have a session of ECT from that nice Dr Harris. Come morning, and Artist thinks she's going to be released, but in her session with Dr Harris, she's hypnotised, falls asleep and is left in his office. Oh, where's she gone? Taken by Ghost to the ECT room and nastily killed, that's where. Looking through her book of sketches, Heard finds a portrait of someone called Alice – oh, that's what the letters of a broken bracelet spell – and Ghost Alice. There's an Iris who's not around now too, what happened? Dr Harris won't say, and later the other women aren't helpful either, beyond saying that Ghost Alice doesn't let people leave alive…

While Dr Harris rings someone for help, Heard and Kooky prepare another escape attempt. Come night, they're crawling through the air ducts, through another ward and into the morgue. Quick someone's coming! Hide! Unsurprisingly, Ghost Alice is around, Heard wakes up on the floor and is having flashbacks of being tied up in a room about to be raped / beaten. Next day, it's Bitch's turn to see Ghost Alice and before long, she's dead in another nasty way. Then there were three. Oh look, Child's soft toy has Alice's initials on. It turns out that the other women ganged up and killed Alice. Soon, it's then there were two. But what's going to happen when there's just one?

What’s good: Nice pre-title and title sequences (the latter is black and white images of the historical treatment of the insane on glass shattering in slow motion).

He's done strong women characters before, and all male character films, but this is his first largely female ensemble film. It turns out he can do those and the cast is all fine.

The cinematography is good, with a faded look to the colours, lots of dark corners, and fluid camera movements.

What’s not so good: The ending has been used before, but plot originality is not necessarily what we expect. If you told me this was based on a Japanese or Korean 'J-Horror' film (where they love ghosts putting young women in peril) I wouldn't be a bit surprised.

Music: By Mark Kilian. It's better than several of Carpenter's, while sounding not unlike him.

Miscellany: It'd take a look through IMDB, but I don't think any of the crew have worked with him before. Oh, the stunt coordinator is old favourite Jeff Imada.

Overall: It's been a looong time since I left a cinema having seen a new Carpenter not feeling disappointed. Being able to do that this time is what's got it rated this highly here. Time will tell if it really is one of the second tier for being that good or if it belongs below some of the ones in the previous section because my expectations were so low. Is this really his best film for, gasp, over twenty years? It's certainly not the most ambitious, but this is entirely competent J-Horror stuff managing both creeping dread and 'boo!'s well.

TL;DR Certainly better than anything of his in the 90s, it will be interesting to see if it works on second viewing

Film: 3.5/5
DVD: ?/5

It looks like the extras will just be interviews with cast and crew.

DVD and Blu-ray:

Written by Ian

June 16th, 2011 at 9:44 am

Posted in Cinema,Countdown

They Live (1988) – Carpenter countdown #12

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By far the most political thing he's done, but its ambition is bigger than its budget allowed. Made at the end of actor Ronald Reagan's presidency, it grew in reputation during puppet George W Bush's.

Concept: 'I hate Ronald Reagan's policies'.

Roddy Piper walks into town looking for a construction job, but there's not much going. He passes a blind preacher telling it like it is – 'Why do we worship greed?' – and TVs with their promotion of greed. With no money until pay day, fellow worker Keith David points him to a squatter camp. Even there, there's a TV… which starts broadcasting a message from TV hackers saying that 'we are cattle, we are being bred for slavery', but the reaction of viewers is to complain of headaches. It turns out the signal is being sent from the church near the camp and before long the church is being raided by the police while the camp is bulldozed. Piper escapes, passing the police beating up the blind preacher. Returning to pick up anything that's left of his possessions, he looks into the church and collects a box, hoping it will be important or valuable. It turns out to just contain sunglasses, so throws all but one away… and discovers that they show the world as it really is. Ads cover words like 'obey', 'marry and reproduce' and 'no independent thought', while money has 'this is your god' on it. Oh, and some smartly dressed people look like aliens when seen through the glasses.

Before long, the aliens are talking into their wristwatches, 'I've got one who can see'. The police – two aliens – turn up, corner him in an alley and want to know where he got the glasses from. He kills them both – 'You bastards die just like we do' – and takes their weapons. More police arrive, so he ducks into a building.. which turns out to be a bank. It's time for the film's signature lines: 'I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I'm all out of bubblegum.' He shoots the aliens there, but one is able to disappear. He kidnaps TV assistant Meg Foster to escape, but for some strange reason, she doesn't believe that he's fighting the forces of evil that can only be seen with sunglasses. Odd that. Before long, she's twacked him over the head and he's flying through a window.

His sunglasses were left in her house, and so he goes looking for the rest. Just after he's got them, David turns up to offer him some money. Obviously, Piper wants him to try the sunglasses. Thinking he's talking to a killer and not wanting to get further involved, David declines. There's a fight, with Piper trying to force them on him. Eventually, the glasses are on, and then there are two. They're contacted by the resistance who escaped from the church, and go along to a meeting. Foster is there too, but just as she apologises for not believing him, the wall is blown in and the police come in shooting at anything that moves. Piper and David get away, thanks to an alien device, and discover there's a network of tunnels underneath the streets. They walk into a banquet meeting for the rich ('income up 36% this year') and the aliens. Oh, look who's there: one of the homeless, now rather richer and in a tuxedo. Assuming that they have sold out too, he gives them a tour of the operation, from starport to the TV station which is beaming the signal controlling everyone. Time to destroy the transmitter, but there's one twist first. Eventually, the signal is stopped and everyone can see the truth.

What’s good: For a wrestler, Roddy Piper is a pretty good actor and in this is better than subsequent 'wrestler turned actors'. The highly scripted and faked world of professional wrestling probably helped, but he's clearly bringing personal experience to some of the role. Keith David, previously in The Thing, is as good as ever.

The fight. It lasts just over five minutes. As you can imagine just from the length, it's over the top in several ways. What makes it a bit special is the context – two friends getting progressively dirtier but realising that they are not, in fact, out to kill each other. At one point, Piper apologises for getting too nasty, but continues to go at him anyway. Apparently, it was rehearsed between the two for over a month.

The politics. Lines like 'We gave the steel companies a break. They gave themselves pay rises' ring just as true today as they did then, especially if you change it to the banks. So too the treatment of globalisation ('There ain't no countries any more') and corporate disregard for the environment (greenhouse gases are being used to change the planet to be more to the aliens' liking). We also see Los Angeles from a very different angle than usual – this is a city with a very large underclass, not just the angels.

The respect for the audience's intelligence. The sunglasses reveal section is almost wordless. Typical for a Carpenter script – Frank Armitage is a pseudonym – the difficult bits are skipped over in a simple way. 'I'm not too familiar with it myself' says their guide, and we accept that better than a minute's pseudo-scientific explanation or mystical crap (yes, The Matrix, I'm thinking of you!)

What’s not so good: The low budget really shows, particularly in the aliens who just have a zombie / bare flesh mask. The long-time Carpenter stunt co-ordinator played most of them himself, because he fit the main mask.

There are times when the intelligence is abandoned for an action scene.

Music: As with almost all of his 1980s films, it's composed and played with Alan Howarth. This one's a solid working class blues score.

Miscellany: Most of the homeless people in the film were really homeless – feeding and paying them was part of the political statement.

'We all sell out every day' was apparently a line from a studio exec who didn't see what the threat the heroes were fighting against was.

Unsurprisingly, getting permission to use any real ads or media in the film was almost impossible. Kudos to Control Data for being the exception.

Overall: Another one with more intelligence than in most Hollywood films. What it would really love to be is the 1980s equivalent of the 1950's Invasion of the Body Snatchers which used SF to show McCathy's America, or the 1970's The Parallax View which fit into the 'conspiracy at the heart of the US government' mould. Sadly, it's not quite there and the 1980's film which nailed the rich better was Society while RoboCop did the corporations. Even so, you'll never watch TV in the same way again. Especially the aspirational crap.

This was the last one with Larry Franco as producer as well as the last time the soundtrack was done with Alan Howarth. (Future wife and producer Sandy King was associate producer.) There's an argument that this is the last classic Carpenter and it's another one which IMDB users rate higher than the ones in my next batch. Apparently it's being remade, but flawed as this one is, I can't imagine a new one being better.

TL;DR As the situation it was talking about in the real world has got worse, this film gets better

Film: 3.5/5
DVD: 4/5

An informative and chatty commentary with Roddy Piper and a 'making of'.

DVD, the 'coming soon' Blu-ray, and soundtrack:

Written by Ian

June 15th, 2011 at 3:25 pm

Posted in Cinema,Countdown,DVDs

Vampires (1998) – Carpenter countdown #13

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Back to the 90s, but this is the last (best? least worst?) of them.

Concept: The Wild Bunch meet Vlad the Impaler.

A team of armed men lead by master slayer James Woods arrive at an old farmhouse in New Mexico. It turns out that they're hunting wabbit vampires and have a priest in tow. Several vampires are indeed inside and, after a fight, are exposed to sunlight, catching fire. That night, the team are at a motel, celebrating with drinks and hookers, when the master vampire they have been looking for turns up. He slaughters all but two of them. You can guess one of them, and the other is Daniel Baldwin. They have Sheryl Lee with them, but she's been bitten (on the thigh) by master vampire Thomas Ian Griffith and will soon have a psychic link with him, so she's taken along as bait. After cutting heads off and staking the bodies of the team, they head off for a meeting with Catholic cardinal Maximilian Schell (Woods) or a hotel (the other two). It turns out, as it so often does, that the church knows a bit more than it is saying and that, having created the master vampire with a botched execution for heresy in the Middle Ages, they've spent the past few hundred years trying to wipe out vampires. Except that if you no longer believe in the church's teachings, the prospect of eternal life another way would be awfully tempting, wouldn't it? So it becomes a race between Woods trying to find and kill the master vampire and its search for the cross to perform the ceremony that will enable it to survive sunlight. Who will win? Who do you think?

What’s good: The opening sequence is possibly his best work in the 90s and all the action sequences are handled well.

None of the good guys are nice. Woods is potty mouthed (as we now know Natasha Henstridge would say) and as dangerous as the vampires he's after. Baldwin is quite capable of hitting Lee, but also ends up falling for her, despite the consequences. About the only good thing the two of them have going for them is their relationship and you could read it as homoerotic quite easily. Woods will keep talking about other men's penises after all…

Most of the effects are good, particularly the fire and the splatter ones.

What’s not so good: The plot's got the huge problem of trying to explain why the oh-so-valuable cross is known to some, but not protected even half way decently by anyone. It doesn't bother.

The rest of the plot.

Music: It's not his best, but it's good enough to be one of the things that makes me rate this one above Ghosts. It's a collection of blues and Mexican themes, with guitar played by Carpenter successfully trying not to disgrace himself in a band featuring, amongst others, Steve Cropper and Donald 'Duck' Dunn, the legendary session players featured as part of the backing band in The Blues Brothers. Some of it is written by Cody Carpenter, John's son.

Miscellany: The DVD back cover says 'In the blood-chilling tradition of HALLOWEEN and VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED'. The first I can obviously understand wanting to reference, but I'd want people to forget the latter personally.

People who have read the book about a group of vampire-hunting mercenaries, Vampire$, that this was based on tend to like the film a lot less. There's a quote from its author, John Steakley, saying that they kept much of his dialogue and lost his plot, which may explain why. I haven't read it, but I wouldn't be amazed if its plot was better than the one we're given here.

Overall: Like Ghosts, a lot depends on your expectations on coming to this one. It's a low budget action picture rather than horror and if you treat it as such, it's ok.

If you're going to watch a John Carpenter vampire film, this is your only choice. I'm not sure whether that's a good thing or not. There are certainly a lot better Carpenter films and a lot better vampire films out there. But there are also a lot worse, including the first three films in the countdown and the two sequels to this one.

TL;DR Yet another disguised Western from Carpenter, with a reasonably interesting twist

Film: 3/5
DVD: 3.5/5

Solo commentary, quite a thoughtful one, plus trailer and 'making of' promo.

DVD, the trilogy, the better option of this plus Ghosts, and the soundtrack:

Written by Ian

June 14th, 2011 at 9:59 am

Posted in Cinema,Countdown,DVDs

Ghosts of Mars (2001) – Carpenter countdown #14

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We're out of the 1990s for a film that is certainly watchable but which could and should have been better. It would be his last feature and his last film to get a theatrical release for nine years – and The Ward was straight to video in the US.

Concept: 'Let's remake Assault on Precinct 13 – not that we'll admit it – and set it on Mars.'

It's 2176 and Mars is being terra-formed. Something has been uncovered in South Valley and is moving towards the main city, 'leaving behind only silence and death'. A train on autopilot from the valley arrives at the main city, with just Natasha Henstridge, handcuffed and asleep, on board. It turns out that she's a police officer, part of the team sent to bring in Ice Cube as notorious criminal Napoleon Wilson Desolation Williams, and the story is told via flashback as she gives evidence to the inquiry. When they got there, the place was a mess, with lots of bits of dead bodies, and only Cube and a few other people in the jail are alive. There are a few others, but they're now possessed by something and before long Grier's head is on a spike and a couple of hundred LA gang members possessed miners are attacking the jail. Cops and criminals are forced to work together to survive against a foe you can't negotiate with. It turns out that a nearby mine uncovered remains of an ancient Martian civilization. When investigated, the ghosts came out, possessing the humans. When their host is killed, they look for a new host. At one point Henstridge is one, but it turns out that her altered states drug of choice drives the ghosts out. But it's soon back to the shooting as they escape, go back to explode a nearby nuclear reaction, escape, and meet up again when the ghosts reach the main city on Mars…

What’s good: The cast. Amazingly, Natasha Henstridge was brought in a week before shooting started and we should all be grateful that the original choice, Courtney Love, couldn't do it. Ice Cube is good, Jason Statham gets to do macho prick once more, and I can't think of a bad casting choice.

The cinematography is very good, the effects are fine, and I also like the script's sense of humour. In particular, Cube's sidekicks ('Uno, Dos and Tres') aren't that clever and get treated with the lack of respect they deserve by everyone.

There's an interesting approach to drugs – Henstridge uses 'clear', a mix of LSD and ecstasy, and this saves her.

What’s not so good: I'm almost tempted to restore the 'bad' section for the first problem, the music. It opens with a very typical Carpenter theme over the main titles – it could easily make the 'John Carpenter's Greatest' compilation. The music for most of the first fifty minutes (the build up) is fine, but whenever we see the possessed (much of the rest) it's some awful heavy metal played by Anthrax. I can almost get it, artistically: the ghost possessed are noisy and nasty.. so let's make the music noisy and… But it's a distraction, not an enhancement.

The nature of the threat could have been better. The ghosts are insubstantial on their own, and we see that they can be exorcised by recreational chemistry. Is that built on? No. Is the description of the place somewhere where everyone goes to do drugs? Yes… so why didn't more of them escape infection? There's no negotiating with the possessed and they're a dangerous foe, but they're not actually frightening in the way that they could have been. It's usually a bad idea to show too much of the monster, and here, we see the lead possessed, 'Big Daddy Mars', but he doesn't get to do much except scream and point the rest of the possessed the right way. It'd have been a lot more interesting to show armed Americans and Brits in uniforms trying to police a desert state and being assaulted by oh, the rational Mars Liberation Front fanatics, with the 'It's their planet… we are the invaders aliens' tagline and realisation that the stars come to.

Some of the ideas in the script, like the matriarchal society are thrown away – it's almost as if it's only an excuse for Grier to make a pass at Henstridge, because everyone is expected to think that women in charge = lesbianism.

The physics aren't great either. There's a mention of the issues around breathing a not-yet-Earth standard atmosphere, and that a Martian year is about twice an Earth one, but you'd never know the gravity on Mars is less than 40% of that on Earth. You don't make a nuclear reactor into a bomb that easily either (the core would melt, creating a highly radioactive mess and cloud, rather than have a two mile blast radius), and the explosion is waaay too big on the orbital view.

Music: Credited to him alone. Arrggghhhh. See above. For some reason, the soundtrack album just has the main title, one ok track (from her tripping), and the crap. It'd be interesting to hear some of the build up music separately. I'd also love to have had a 'music only' audio option on the DVD, so you could use that to subtract most of it out of the film and replace it with something better.

Miscellany: Originally, this was going to be told as a linear story, starting with uncovering the ancients. It works better the way it was made.

This film apparently has Stratham's first screen kiss. No, I wouldn't either.

I cannot find Carpenter admitting this is a remade Assault anywhere. Is he really the only person on this planet who doesn't think that's what this is a remake of, or is this a contractual issue – having been paid for the remake rights, he can't say he remade it too?

Overall: According to's rating system, this is the worst Carpenter film by far with a shockingly low rating of 4.8 – half a point lower than the incredibly dire Village and awful Escape from LA, and a full point lower than the meh Memoirs. It's much better than that. It's far from his best, but it's a fun 'Western on Mars' action picture.

As I said, this section took a lot of shuffling about to get them in order. I am almost tempted to promote this one a slot or two – having watched it again for the first time in ages with commentary, I immediately watched it again again with the proper audio (and even the music didn't sound that bad!) It gets better over time. So thinking about it, one reason it's down here is that throughout the nadir of his nighties, I said that what someone should do is give him a little money and have him remake Assault, because it'd have to be good. Someone did, he did and it's not as good as Assault despite looking better. It felt like a personal insult when I first saw it.

TL;DR It's considerably better than the official remake, but argh, the music.

Film: 3/5
DVD: 4/5

A very good commentary with him and Natasha Henstridge being very chatty – even if you don't usually do commentaries, this one's worth listening to (and you get to escape the music!) At no point does either mention Assault although she does challenge him on the music. Features on the music, effects, and the desert night shoots in a gypsum mine with lots of red dye.

DVD, Blu-ray and soundtrack CD:

Written by Ian

June 13th, 2011 at 10:31 am

Posted in Cinema,Countdown,DVDs

In the Mouth of Madness (1994) – Carpenter countdown #15

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Well, we're out of the three really bad ones and into the four that have their flaws, but which are watchable without wincing throughout. The order of these has been shuffled round more than any other section, because there's stuff to like about each of them.

Concept: An HP Lovecraftian 'Elder Gods' story of someone being driven insane by seeing the world as it really is.

Sam Neill is brought into an insane asylum. It turns out that he's not quite recovered from being in Memoirs a cynical insurance investigator who was asked to find a missing horror author, Jürgen Prochnow's Sutter Cane. Cane's books are extremely disturbing, and many of their readers go insane – one example attacks Neill with an axe in a restaurant. But the books are also extremely successful and business is business, so the publisher Charlton Heston wants to find him because he's after the rest of the manuscript for the next, In the Mouth of Madness. Only two people have seen any of it, editor Julie Carmen and Cane's agent – the man who attacked him with an axe… So as the world around him begins to go wrong, Neill starts reading the novels and realises that they reveal their fictional setting, Hobb's End, to be somewhere in New Hampshire. Carmen and Neill set off, get lost, and mysteriously find it. Everything is as in the novels, right down to a loose floorboard in a hotel, and of course, everyone in it is being turned into monsters. They meet Cane who declares that he's just writing what the Elder Gods tell him so that more people believe in them and they can end the world. Hobb's End is impossible to escape from, but having been given the manuscript, Neill is sent back into the 'real' world where he destroys it, only to be told that Carmen never existed and that he gave the manuscript in months ago. The world goes mad, Neill escapes the asylum and ends up laughing while watching the film of the book… the film we have just been watching.

What’s good: The 'something's not quite right' sections are very good, such as the group of children chasing a dog… later seen with only three legs and with the children having bloody, deformed mouths. The samples of other Hobb's End storylines – the lovely old owner of the hotel who's got her husband chained up naked and who is growing tentacles, the Thing in the Greenhouse, the child taken for sacrifice in the church – are all good stuff.

There's more intelligence here than the vast majority of horror films. The issue of what's reality and what's in Neill's head is left nicely open: 'Reality isn't what it used to be!'

What’s bad: Nothing really, which is why we're out of the dire group.

What’s not so good: The reveal isn't as good as the build up. Other films have this problem too, of course. By far the best bits of the Kubrick version of The Shining are the shots of the boy cycling around the hotel: you know something horrible is going to happen, but not what or when. In contrast, Jack Nicholson finally going wild with an axe is amusing rather than frightening. Here, we're treated to some not terribly convincing wobbly tentacled beings which are supposed to send you insane just by looking at them. They don't.

The structure doesn't quite work. There's a fanedit that recomposes the film into a linear story, losing the occasional flashes of the other bits of the story, and it works much better that way.

The casting isn't quite right either. Neill does cynical investigator much better than madman, while Carmen is better asleep (or as a model head on an acrobat's body!) than awake. In contrast, Prochnow doesn't really get a chance to show his talent.

Music: Co-composed with Jim Lang. It's one of the better later ones, with an interesting mix of 'rock', 'blues' and moody 'synth' tracks.

Miscellany: Carpenter reckons this is the third of a trilogy of unconnected 'apocalypse' films (the others being The Thing and Prince of Darkness). While all have 'end of civilization as we know it' themes, the others are better.

Hobb's End was the name of the fictional London Underground station in Quatermass and the Pit.

Overall: This has more ambition than the previous three films (and the next) added together. It's just a pity that it doesn't quite work. The 'it can't be true… but it is!' genre has produced some better films than this and similarly the 'you are just a character in my book' twist has been done better too.

This has a surprisingly high 7.0 rating on, higher than all of the films in my next section, so clearly there are people who appreciate it more than I do. It is certainly striking and memorable, but I'd just like it to be better.

Part of the problem is that no-one's done a good commercial 'Elder Gods' type film. The best effort is from the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society, who were behind the 2005 b/w(!) silent(!!) Call of Cthulhu, and no-one's going to spend $20m on making that.

TL;DR A good effort at filming the unfilmable.

Film: 2/5
DVD: 3/5

For some reason, this isn't available on DVD in the UK. There's a R1 (USA / Canada / etc) release which has the most technical commentary he's ever done – it's with the lighting cameraman director of photography, and at times goes into details like which gels were used in front of which size of what sort of lights from what direction. Director's commentaries are sometimes called free film school lessons, and this one certainly qualifies for anyone thinking of making a film themselves.

The imported DVD and the soundtrack CD:

Written by Ian

June 10th, 2011 at 9:34 am

Posted in Cinema,Countdown,DVDs

Escape from L.A. (1996) – Carpenter countdown #16

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Another one from Carpenter's dire 1990s.

Concept: Surely a sequel to Escape from New York can't go wrong?

Much of Los Angeles is destroyed in an earthquake in 2000 and it becomes an island. The right-wing religious presidential candidate who predicted the earthquake is elected, made President for life, and turns LA Island into a dumping ground for immoral ex-citizens. Once again, once you go in, you don't come back. It's now 2013 and once again Kurt Russell's Snake Plissken is about to be deported, this time having been convicted of 27 moral crimes, when once again it turns out that US Police Commissioner Lee Van Cleef Stacey Keach needs someone to do a rescue operation. This time, it's the President's rebellious daughter along with a doomsday device. Once more, if he doesn't come back within 24 9 1/2 hours, he's automatically dead, but this time the authorities are only interested in the device… Does he succeed? Of course.

What’s good: The setup's fine, up to the point of the submarine journey to the island. The basketball scene is good, especially if you know Kurt Russell did all of the basketball shots himself. It's nice to see Snake again.

The politics are interesting and they must have known that being explicitly rude about right wing Christians (the President is happy to kill his own daughter because she won't obey him and spends some time time hiding under a table during a minor quake while everyone else gets on with it, before going off to pray) wouldn't help at the box office. On the other side the Duke of LA Che Guevara lookalike 'Cuervo Jones' looks attractive, but likes to kill people for fun. Given freedom from the rules of the US theocracy, all the inhabitants of the island want to do is kill each other, while Snake is prepared to send the whole planet back into the Dark Ages. Hmm.

What’s bad: The budget is clearly bigger, but the imagination isn't. 'If in doubt, have a shoot-out' seems to have been the guiding principle.

Despite Carpenter's claims before it was released about it having more ambition, ambition is one of the big failures: it's really an attempt to re-do the original rather than be better. So there's a Brains equivalent (Steve Buscemi's Map to the Stars Eddie), an 'in the ring' equivalent (the basketball court at the noticeably underpopulated LA Memorial Coliseum), a Girl in Chock Full O'Nuts equivalent (Girl in the bushes), a 'I thought you were dead' equivalent ('I thought you'd be taller'), etc etc etc.

Plus some of it is just plain silly (I'm thinking of the surfing in particular, but the submarine journey isn't far off) and when an interesting idea is there, usually nothing is done with it (Bruce Campbell's Surgeon General of Beverly Hills, seeking to do live cosmetic surgery transplants, is the main example).

Technically, there are problems too. The wide effects shots are especially poor – when other reviewers wonder if this is a deliberate tribute to the 1980s, you know you have problems. The cinematography and lighting could also be a lot better (it's noticeable that Dean Cundey wasn't on board).

Music: Co-composed with Shirley Walker. I have the soundtrack CD for this one (it was 10p second-hand somewhere, and that's about the right price) and it helpfully says who composed which bit. The tracks he did are better, mostly because they're closer to the simpler music from the original rather than full orchestrations. For some reason, the opening title music (a reworking of the Escape theme) has whooshes over it. They're not on the soundtrack CD and it's much better as a result.

Miscellany: If it's true that Kurt Russell did the basketball shots live, why on earth didn't they take a leaf out of Jackie Chan's book, and show the outtakes for this (and other stunts) over the end credits?

Where's the electricity coming from? There's way too much light around.

Overall: The original John Carpenter / Debra Hill script is available online and there's more interest in comparing it with what was filmed (where the script was credited to Kurt Russell as well) than watching the result. At one point, a remake of Escape From New York was on the cards, staring Gerard Butler. Obviously it would have been very bad, but I am not sure it would have been worse than this.

TL;DR They had more fun making it than anyone had watching it.

Film: 1/5
DVD: 1/5

You get the film and trailer.

The DVD, Blu-ray, score CD and 'soundtrack' (i.e. assorted tracks by other people featured or 'inspiring' the music in the film) CD

Written by Ian

June 9th, 2011 at 10:32 am

Posted in Cinema,Countdown,DVDs