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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

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