The Chronological Carpenter: Escape From New York (1981)

escape-from-new-yorkGood golly, has it really been NINE months since I posted about a John Carpenter movie? Well, after checking out 1980’s The Fog last fall, I actually watched the next two films in relatively quick succession (for me at least). But, I never got around to writing about those films: Escape From New York and The Thing. I wanted to get back on this train, so I watched Escape again and here we go.

escape from new york poster 1The first thing that struck me about this film is the scope. All of Carpenter’s movies revolve around strange things happening in the real world (masked killers, ghost pirates, stalkers and voodoo gangs) which create these smaller, twisted realities. But, with Escape, he’s creating a whole world. The Big Apple has been abandoned, the island has been walled off and turned into a prison. On top of all that set dressing we also have characters who all feel like they’re as lived in and sometimes legendary as possible.

And a lot of that comes from Kurt Russell’s portrayal of Snake Plissken. The man doesn’t say much, looks cool and is known by EVERYBODY (even if he’s shorten than expected). He’s also got a deep history hinted at but never fully delved into. This is a nice trick that’s played in comics when it comes to characters like Punisher, Wolverine and John Constantine where we’re impressed (and possibly scared) by them because just about everyone else is. Russell fills the role with his own presence and created an iconic character who continues to inspire comic books and toys to this day.

escape from new york poster 2Adding to that, you’ve also got the denizens of New York, one of the strangest groups of people this side of Thunderdome. Creeps, weirdoes, evil geniuses, murderers and Cabbie? Seriously, why is Ernest Borgnine in this place?! He seems so nice (except for when he ditches everyone). Questions like that might not come the first time you watch the film, but pop up the more times you check it out which broadens the world.

On the surface, it might seem like Escape is an outlier in Carpenter’s filmography because there aren’t any supernatural forces at work, but if you look a little deeper you’ve got the clear influence of westerns (lone gunman with a reputation entering a place and getting the job done), the concept of being trapped by something nefarious and Carpenter’s growing cast of actors who appeared in several of his movies like Russell, then-wife Adrienne Barbeau and Halloween‘s Donal Pleasence as the president (who gives a great latter day Loomis performance here).

 

As much as I like this movie, I have a weird relationship with it. As it turns out, I think I actually watched the sequel Escape From LA first back in high school, so there are huge portions of that movie that live in my brain because that was back when I could absorb the most information. Because of that, I kept wondering when the map seller would show up or when the basketball scene would happen. The other problem is that I seem to fall asleep during this movie more than any other. I don’t know what it is, maybe the music or the subdued performances from many of the cast members. More likely, it’s the fact that I can barely stay up past 11:30 these days. Whatever the case, I’ve started this film more times than I’ve finished it and yet I still love the opening 20 minutes which sets everything up so well. I’d love to see this one on the big screen to really feel the full force of this huge, sprawling and yet subtle at times world that Carpenter crafted.

You might be expecting me to move on to The Thing next, but that won’t be the case. Much like with Halloween, I love that horror classic a lot and, as I mentioned above, watched it not too long ago. I find its best to not overdo it when it comes to favorite horror movies because they can lose some of their power if you’re TOO familiar with them. I think it’s also safe to say that I don’t have much in the way of unique thoughts on the masterpiece of stranded, paranoid beauty he created there (plus I wrote about it a bit back in 2011). That means I’ll be moving on to Christine in the near future!

Halloween Scene: Sleepaway Camp III (1990) & Return To Sleepaway Camp (2008)

In 2002 I was home from college working at the Bagel Place with my friend Shannon, the one who originally told me about Sleepaway Camp (as I mentioned yesterday). While working one day I made a joke about there being a Sleepaway Camp box set in the works with all three movies. It seemed like a ridiculous thing to say because who cared about these movies but me and her? Literally the next day I looked at the weekly Best Buy ad and, much to my shock, I saw that there was indeed a box set with all the movies, plus a disc of footage they shot of a proposed fourth movie that ran out of money. I bought it when it came out the next Tuesday, which meant that I got the one with the red cross on it and not the cleaned up one after the Red Cross sued. I’m pretty sure that was the first DVD set I bought and definitely the first horror one. As it turned out, the footage for the fourth movie was boring and repetitive, they included every scrap of film they shot, so you have like four takes of a girl running through the woods one after the other. It’s not very interesting.

In fact, neither is Sleepaway Camp III: Teenage Wasteland, unfortunately. I was shocked to read the other day that SC 2 and 3 were actually filmed back to back because Angela looks much older in 3 (maybe it’s that awful haircut). The story also just feels so much shittier, the characters even more one dimensional and a basic plot set up that feels exactly like that. Basic.

Here’s the deal, even though the events of the last movie only occurred a year ago (remember, every single camper and councilor was murdered) an older couple bought the camp, renamed it and decided on a theme: mixing rich suburban kids with poor urban kids in the woods! Meanwhile, in New York City, Angela kills one of the urban girls who looks very much like her (read: same awful hair, somewhat similar build) with a stolen garbage truck so she can take her place at the camp. Once all the good and bad kids are at the camp, they very conveniently split up. The horny old guy owner takes one group, the lazy woman take another and a third councilor, a cop, takes the last group and they all go to different places in the woods which are apparently far enough away from each other that one group can hear the other’s screams. By the way, the cop supposedly was one of the guys who arrested Angela in the first movie, his son was the Final Girl’s boyfriend in the second movie and now he’s got this desire to help kids not get killed…or something. It turns out that every single camper and the old couple all have some murder-worthy fault in Angela’s mind. The kills are a mix of good and bad. The ones where she runs the girl up the flagpole and drops her is pretty cool as is the one with the lawnmower, but those are the only two coming to mind and I just watched it.

Aside from those few fun kills, the movie just kept bugging the crap out of me. Angela and the other kids all seemed way too hammy and I didn’t care about anyone. The characters in the previous movie felt much more real and enjoyable, but not so this time around. Even the Final Girl wasn’t nearly as interested this time around. She was just so flat and boring and I should like her because she’s from Ohio, but I just didn’t care anymore. They gave her a little interesting bit of a twist at the end when she revealed to the dude who just helped save her life and who also wants to move from LA to Ohio to be with her that she has a boyfriend. That’s some cold shit.

I had two other problems with the movie that the movie tries to answer. First off, like I said before, Angela looks way older than a high school student. Many characters mention this and Angela comes up with a jokey explanation. My other problem is that no one knows what Angela looks like. She killed all these people last year, was in an institution for a while, yet no one knows what she looks like? The cop says her records were closed after she turned 18, but that doesn’t sound right to me. If I reopened an old murder camp, I wouldn’t let anyone who even remotely matches the description on my camp. Oh well, moving on.

I first watched Return To Sleepaway Camp, which was shot in 2003, but didn’t come out until 2008, with Rickey at my inlaws house over the Thanksgiving weekend a couple years back. My memories of that weekend, where we watched a boatload of horror movies are great and I remember being impressed with the movie. Watching it again a few years later, I still liked it, but man, this is one mean movie. Original writer and director Robert Hiltzik came back to the series he created with a sequel that ignores SC 2 and 3 completely. In this case, Angela has been locked up since the murders, but she’s not forgotten especially by Ronnie (one of the many returning characters from the first flick) who’s a junior partner to Vincent Pastore’s camp owner. The story really focuses on Alan, the camp’s whipping boy who seems to be getting crazier and crazier the more he’s picked on. Unlike Angela in the first movie, though, Alan’s not exactly a sympathetic character. In fact, he’s just as big of an asshole as everyone else. I was immediately not on his side because they introduce him as an asshole and then try to make him a victim, which doesn’t really work.

Soon enough, bad things start happening to Alan’s enemies, which draws our suspicion towards him especially after Picket Fences‘ Adam Wiley gets pumped full of gasoline and exploded with a cigarette. Ronnie starts thinking something’s up and brings up Angela to the funny looking cop who’s been hanging around lately. As more and more of Alan’s enemies get killed and our kind of sort of Final Girl Karen (Alan’s crush) almost gets killed, the tension gets ratcheted up until the final scene when SPOILER it’s revealed that Angela is actually the cop with the too-big nose using the external voice box. My biggest problem with the ending is that it ends on the reveal but doesn’t do anything with it. Ronnie’s standing there with Ricky (yes, the kid from the first movie has grown up to become a much worse actor) and another girl to see the reveal and then it’s over. I wanted to see Ronnie tackle her and maybe Ricky try to stop her, but nope, nothing happens. Game over.

The tag on the DVD box is “Kids can be so mean,” and damn if that’s not true. This movie has a kid skinning live frogs and throwing them at his step brother. But, the kills are pretty great, though the inclusion of some lame looking CGI is not appreciated (especially in the aforementioned explosion scene). On smaller horror movies like this practical is always better and I read that in the time between shooting and the movie coming out, the CG stuff was added. Not a good call. Aside from that, though, you’ve got a lot of assholes getting killed in various ways: explosions, nail bed, barbed wire neck tie and the like. The creative kills really help the movie. What I think hurts the movie, though, is the character of Alan. They really fumbled by making him such a punchable ass. You hate this kid from the minute he’s on screen and then you’re supposed to feel bad for him when he awkwardly fumbles after the hottest girl at camp? Come on. Wash your shirt, change your clothes and stop being a jackass and then I might care. I get that we’re supposed to think he’s capable of murder, but when you spend an entire movie hoping to see someone get killed for sucking and then he’s not even the bad guy, it takes something out of the movie.

All in all, I liked this movie, though it had it’s problems (oh, also, no nudity, I’m sure some of you were wondering about that) the gonzo kills put it in the plus column for me, which makes this series 3 out of 4 as far as me liking them, which is pretty good for a horror series. 75% goodness, not bad.