If you’re keeping track, and I’m not sure why you would be at this point, I’m still muddling through Stephen King’s The Stand. And yet, I stray away from time to time to check out other books like Jason Zinoman’s Shock Value, which I stumbled across while looking for various horror films in my library’s database. With a subtitle like How A Few Eccentric Outsiders Gabe Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, And Invented Modern Horror, how could I not bite, especially around Halloween! Continue reading Halloween Scene: Shock Value By Jason Zinoman
As I mentioned yesterday, I got to an early start when it came to watching horror movies this fall. So, I’ve got a lot to talk about! First, if you haven’t already, check out a pair of lists I wrote for CBR. One’s about movies and shows to follow Stranger Things up with while the other focused on the best classic horror movies to stream on Netflix and Amazon Prime!
John Carpenter was a machine in the late 70s/early 80s. Between 1978 and and 1984 he made eight movies, no small task for anyone, especially someone of his caliber. The second to last movie in that streak was Christine, an adaptation of Stephen King’s novel of the same name, which also came out in 1983. It’s about a car with a mind of its own and the dweeby kid it turns into a 1950s greaser. Apparently, I didn’t like it very much when I first watched it back in 2010.
I had a much better time with the film this time around. That first time, I didn’t really know anything about it and wasn’t very into the idea of a killer car movie, but this time, I was psyched about watching a John Carpenter Killer Car movie. I only remembered a few bits and pieces from that first viewing (and none of the negative feelings I had after that first viewing) and actually had a really solid experience this time around.
For what it’s worth, I haven’t read the source material and will not be comparing the film to that (maybe in a later Book Vs. Movie post down the line, but not any time soon). So, I’m going solely by the film itself and what it gives us. One aspect that must have slipped my mind the first time I watched it was the fact that the main action of the story takes place in 1978. That bit of information goes a long way to explain why parts of the story might sound silly, because it’s a person (whether King or Carpenter) going back into their memories and building on those.
As it turns out I just read Chuck Klosterman’s essay on the film Dazed And Confused in the Criterion booklet a week or so back. In that he talks about memory and how it plays into filmmaking and storytelling. He wrote: “Dazed and Confused is not a movie about how things were; Dazed and Confused is a movie about how things are remembered. This film doesn’t illustrate what it was actually like to be in semirural Texas in 1976, but I’m sure it evokes how that time and place must retrospectively feel to anyone who was actually there.” I think that’s at play quite a bit in Christine in the way the characters are handled and the way it was shot. I didn’t get that the first time I watched and felt like part of it came of as lame or old fashioned, but I think it’s a function of memory playing out on the screen.
Take our main character Arnie Cunningham (Keith Gordon) for instance. He’s a nerdy dweeb in the same vein as that kid from Grease. Heck, even his name immediately conjures up images of Happy Days. He’s a big glasses-wearing nerd who only has one friend — a nice jock played by John Stockwell named Dennis — and that’s about it. He’s basically helpless, gets threatened by predatory schoolmates and has parents who give him far too much trouble considering he’s a straight-A student with no life. Gordon plays him perfectly and continues to do so as his new car transforms him from powerless nobody into someone you should definitely not mess with. Now that I think about it, maybe Gordon’s near-perfect greaser looks are what made them go a bit over the top with the glasses and whatnot in the beginning, kind of like putting Rachel Lee Cook in overalls and glasses in She’s All That (weird reference, I know). Then again, I bet his overbearing mom wouldn’t let him out of the house wearing much else.
Last time I bagged on the kills in the film, noting that they seemed slow and easily avoided. It’s funny, that thought didn’t even cross my mind this time around (no, I didn’t read my review before this viewing). In fact, the one where the car smashes its way into a thin alley to kill the guy actually made me squirm a bit this time because it showed just how dedicated this car was to getting revenge. By the way, am I the only one who noticed how The Crow parallels this movie? I’m sure it’s just a coincidence, but that made me chuckle when the “hero” of the movie started hunting down the gang of jerks who wronged it.
In a lot of ways, Christine feels like even even bigger step away from Carpenter’s usual films than something like Escape From New York. Even with its supernatural leanings and the appearance of EFNY‘s Harry Dean Stanton, this one just feels out there. First off, we’re not really meant to like Arnie. We’re supposed to be with him in the beginning and feel sorry for him because he gets taken over or influenced, but unlike Snake or Laurie Strode, this is a “hero” who turns into a villain before our eyes. Meanwhile, the secondary lead steps up and becomes the real hero of the story. Now that I think about it Dennis is a lot like Laurie, he’s super nice and a little quiet, but nowhere near as mousey. This is also one of his few full-on adaptations even though it reportedly takes liberties with the story.
At the end of the day, I like Christine, but it took me a while to get there and understand if people who love Carpenter’s earlier horror films came out of it wondering what they had just seen. This one might take a little more thinking and contextualizing to really dive into the horror underneath. On the surface, the idea of a haunted car is pretty silly, right? But, look just a little bit below the surface and you’re talking about a mode of transportation that leads to tens of thousands of deaths a year. Cars are and can be very scary, but we treat them as these rights of passage, these simple things, but really they’re multi-ton behemoths being lead around by easily distracted drivers who could, literally at every turn, shift from cruising machine to combustion engine-fueled battering ram. Cars might not be haunted, but they’re dangerous because of the people who drive them and the miniscule and major things that can happen to them.
Up next we have a film I’ve owned for years, but never actually watched: Starman!
Good 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.
The 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.
Adding 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!
So far I’ve watched Dark Star, Assault On Precinct 13 and Someone’s Watching Me, in a fairly short period of time as part of this whole Chronological Carpenter thing. That experience, plus a fairly strong knowledge and memory of Halloween have given me a good idea of what Carpenter was doing in the late 70s and earliest of 80s. It seems like he was interested in telling the kinds of stories that no one else was really interested in or capable of at that time. I can’t speak to how many TV movies focused on crazy peeping toms in the 70s, but he basically kickstarted the slasher genre with Halloween and did the kind of cops and robbers movie others weren’t even thinking of with Assault. I think it’s safe to say that his next movie, The Fog, was in a league of its own as well what with its strange visitors attacking a town via weather anomaly.
The film finds a coastal California town besieged by a supernatural fog killing people while shifting focuses between a variety of groups and characters. You’ve got mother and DJ Stevie Wayne who spends most of her time in the light station-located radio station she owns. Then there’s local Nick (Tom Atkins) and his newfound friend Elizabeth (Jamie Lee Curtis) who meet via hitchiking pick-up and get swept along with all this craziness. Meanwhile, Father Malone (Hal Holbrook) discovers the dirty truth of his town and Mayor Kathy Williams (Janet Leigh) does much of the same along with her assistant Sandy (Nancy Loomis).
I went into The Fog with pretty low expectations. I’d seen it once before, but it just didn’t do much much for me. One of the few things I remembered about the film was one of the less interesting elements for me personally and that was “ghost pirates.” Even as a long time genre, comic and horror fan, there’s just something about those words that makes me snicker a bit. As it turned out, it took me about four or five attempts to actually watch the whole thing in the proper order. This was far more about my inability to stay up past 11:30PM than anything else.
Anyway, after finally getting through the movie, I came away with a much better opinion of it, partially because I had an interesting realization while watching. Instead of being a haunted house story, which is a kind of horror tale I don’t always enjoy, The Fog is actually a haunted TOWN story. Viewing it through this prism made the seemingly silly idea of ghost pirates more palatable because it all seemed upscaled for the larger setting of this haunting story. It also helped me develop something of a theory about all this. Maybe the pirates aren’t as important because they’re not the real threat. The fog is. They might be more like an anti-body inside the mist which is why they don’t ever get fully shown. That’s not really backed up by information I learned by watching behind the scenes stuff, but it’s an interesting read of the material as presented.
You’ve got to give the cast of this film a lot of credit. Barbeau is fantastic as she casually flips between regular person and sultry DJ. It’s a nice set-up for her character before she turns into scared mother and fueled fighter. Then you’ve got the always-great Atkins playing regular guy Nick like nobody’s business. Seeing Curtis as an adult dealing with insanity was actually a fun transition from my memories of her more girlish character in Halloween. Sometimes young actors don’t get cast in their actual age and it felt like she did here and really got to play in that field. I haven’t even gotten into Leigh or Holbrook who both bring their years of experience and greatness to their roles. Everyone really went for their characters and gave it their all which helps when dealing with a movie like this that isn’t as easy to categorize as some others.
It’s funny how just a few years have added to my perspective when it comes to watching a movie like this. Even a few years ago, I probably wouldn’t have understood Stevie’s absolute dedication to her job because jobs were just things I had to make money. But, in this film, she needs a job to take care of her kid. Plus, it’s not just a job, she OWNS the radio station, so the whole thing is riding on her shoulders. That’s a lot of pressure! I also plugged more into Stevie’s fear of being a witness to her son’s supernatural attack without being able to do anything about it. She’s just pleading over the radio waves for someone, anyone to help him without knowing if it’s working or not. That’s pure parent-fear right there mixed with unhealthy doses of helplessness.
If you’re looking for more traditional scares, the film has a few solid ones. The early one in the priest’s office got me. Actually, now that I think about it, Holbrook is pretty darn scary and intense throughout the film. There’s a bit where he pops out of the shadows at Leigh which is just amazing. There are some ghost scares that were effective, but it says something about a movie when I’m noting humans being scary and not the actual bad guys of the project which sets this pretty far away from something like the epically amazing Halloween.
I appreciated the film a bit more after watching behind-the-scenes documentary on the DVD called “Tales From The Mist” shot when the DVD was put together. They actually made the movie without the pirate ghosts and a lot of the more atmospheric haunting aspects at first. A lot of that stuff was added in after the fact. I also learned that Carpenter compared the project to old EC horror comics which is interesting considering this is a tale of past greed coming back to haunt people, a common theme in those books. There’s also a solid look at how they actually made the fog effects in the film which was one of the biggest questions I had while watching. It’s a super clever idea, too!
In regards to Carpenter’s career and the people he worked with The Fog features a lot of previous and future collaborators. You’ve got Curtis and Loomis from Halloween, Darwin Joston from Assault, Barbeau from Watching (who also married) and a variety of familiar character names like Dark Star co-writer Dan O’Bannon and editor/pal Tommy Lee Wallace. Carpenter also wrote the film with Halloween co-screenwriter and produce Debra Hill who he would also work with on Escape From LA. Oh, and Dean Cundey shot the film as he did Halloween, a slew of other Carpenter films and tons of classics from the 80s and 90s. On a musical note, Carpenter did the soundtrack for this film as well and while I don’t usually notice such things, it did remind me of the one for Halloween on several occasions.
Up to this point, this was Carpenter’s most supernatural film, what with the ghost pirates and everything, but it’s interesting how other elements from his previous films come through. There are all kinds of shadow killers in this movie; not just The Shape, but many shapes. The end of the film also features a group of uncanny killers laying siege to a fortified building, much like Assault. Oh, and of course, there’s an independent woman facing off against a male villain wielding a sharp object. Always more of that!
While I enjoyed this film much more this time around thanks to a new and different understanding of it, I will say that I’m curious about finally checking out the Scream Factory version. I’ve heard good things, but I haven’t been able to find a copy of that version on the cheap. If you’re a fan of either version, what are the differences? What makes one version better than another?
With The Fog behind me, I’m on to a pair of Carpenter’s films that I own, Escape From New York and The Thing followed by Christine, which I’ve seen once and Starman, which I’ve owned for years, but never watched!
Hey, wait a minute. The last film I wrote about for The Chronological Carpenter was Assault On Precinct 13 and now I’m doing Someone’s Watching Me. What about Carpenter’s finest effort Halloween? Well, I put the film on again last week and had a revelation: I know that movie so well that I have trouble tapping in if I don’t really want to watch it. Basically, I need to be in the mood and it just so happened that I wasn’t. I figured it was okay to skip over because I’ve written about the film not once, but twice, so we’re pretty well covered in that department.
I had also gotten the Someone’s Watching Me DVD from Netflix in the mail and didn’t want to sit on it for too long, so in it went. The film is an interesting one because John Carpenter wrote it as a feature script that was eventually turned into a TV movie that he wound up directing in about 10 days. The film follows a New York woman named Leigh Michaels (Lauren Hutton) moving into an LA high rise where she soon discovers she has a peeping tom stalker living in the building across the way from her.
Leigh can’t rely on the police to help her because, technically, this guy hasn’t broken the law, but she does rely on her friend and co-worker Sophie (Adrienne Barbeau) as well as her boyfriend Paul (David Birney) to figure out who it is.
The film certainly has some limitations. You can see that it was a TV movie, but I will say I was surprised when I found out it was filmed in so few days. It might look like a TV movie, but there’s lots of great lighting and camera tricks going on to the point where it seems like they had a lot more time. When it comes to the light, I was actually surprised with how much of the film takes place during the day. That probably took away some of the film’s potential suspense, but it makes sense when you find out how little time they had to make the film.
Overall, though, Someone’s Watching Me hit several of my personal fear buttons. Even though the basic plot feels a little archaic these days (or maybe just overly-trod) there’s still something primally scary about a predator constantly watching you from a distance, especially one as portrayed in this film who has so much power and control over not only what he can see and hear, but also the building in which she lives. She has very little agency until she really puts her mind to figuring out what’s going on, which is super empowering.
The other big fear on display in this film is having a big, life threatening problem that the authorities can’t or won’t help with. This is a huge part of the horror genre in general and probably one of the reasons I like it, because I can embrace that fear to an extent without it actually mattering in the real world. Leigh gets to the point where the cops are involved, but not actually doing anything, so she has to take the law into her own hands and figure out exactly what’s going on. I also kind of hate the sound of old phones ringing, especially at night. So there was a lot going on to give me the creeps
All of that leads to the final scene with her in her place with the watcher which is just a damn great few minutes of creepy filmmaking. In a way, it’s very reminiscent of Laurie’s final battle with Michael Myers in Halloween where the potential victim is trapped in a fairly small space with her attacker and just barely makes it out alive. Watching gives Leigh a lot more agency, though, by having her save her own self. Also, it sure looked to me like the killer was wearing blue coveralls. Remind you of anyone?
While this movie isn’t nearly as perfect as Halloween, it does have a lot of greatness, much of which comes from Hutton who carries the film. She goes from tough New Yorker to justifiably terrified victim to enraged investigator and lots of places in-between. I also really enjoyed Barabeau who played the lighthearted best friend instead of the more serious siren or bombshell that I’m used to. Both her and Hutton feel like fun people to hang out with because they’re actually funny and clever when joking around with each other which is not always the case in horror. It was also fun seeing Len Lesser, better known as Uncle Leo from Seinfeld!
All in all I really enjoyed Someone’s Watching Me. I won’t say that it’s this amazing find from Carpenter’s TV movie past like Spielberg’s ridiculously amazing Duel. However, I did really enjoy the film as well as the six or seven minute featurette of Carpenter talking about how he did this film the same year as Halloween AND Elvis. A few weeks after this film was done, he started work on Halloween, so fans of the latter owe a lot to this one for giving Carpenter more experience in the horror realm, which helped him figure out how to bring Michael Myers to life.
Moving forward with The Chronological Carpenter, I SHOULD watch Elvis, but that movie’s 170 minutes and there’s no way I’ll be able to get through that in more than a dozen sittings, so I’m going to pass for now. That will most likely be the last part of Carpenter’s filmography that I skip over. Up next I’ve got The Fog, a film I haven’t liked in the past, but hopefully I’ll be able to get my hands on the recent Scream Factory release which I hear is much better. Maybe I’ll watch both versions and see how they’re different. We shall see how that shapes up.
The leap that John Carpenter took from Dark Star to Assault On Precinct 13 is just bananas, especially if you watch both films in relatively quick succession like I did. The former is super ambitious, but not particularly balanced in the ways of tone, while the latter comes out guns-blazing (puns!) and doesn’t let up for an hour and a half.
The plot is fairly simple with an LA police headquarters shutting down and a gang laying siege to it the last night it’s functioning. A few cops are hanging around including Bishop (Austin Stoker) and office manager Leigh (Laurie Zimmer), but the balance gets thrown off when a bus traveling between prisons stops there because one of the criminals is sick. This brings Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston) and Wells (Tony Burton) into the picture along with a whole lot more back-watching because we’re never quite sure if they’re going to turn those guns on the traditional good guys.
I know I’ve seen Assault before, but I didn’t remember too much of it. Of course, I knew about the ice cream scene, but I thought it took place much earlier in the film. Instead, it’s at about the 30 minute mark which makes it even more surprising if you’ve never seen the film before because there hadn’t been any violence since the very beginning of the film. That iconic and disturbing scene also happens to really kick the film into gear.
I got a little worried during the initial firefight between the cops and the gang members because it didn’t feel as intense as I remembered it. It was still good and there’s a rising sense of dread, but there was just something not grabbing me just yet. But, that didn’t last long. Once the first volley ended and you’ve got a much smaller group trying to figure out what the hell is going on in this blasted-apart precinct building, that’s when Carpenter really hits his stride with the kind of mounting fear and terror so built into his next film, Halloween.
From there, the movie’s all about this small group of cops, secretaries and cons (really one of each) trying to figure out a way to get out of there alive. It’s the dynamic between Bishop, Leigh and Napoleon that takes center stage here and gets to shine from a trio of actors I don’t know much about. In fact, I realized while watching this movie that it’s got to be the Carpenter film with the fewest famous people, right? Even Dark Star had screenwriter Dan O’Bannon in a role, but aside form future Real Housewives Of Beverly Hills star Kim Richards (the ill-fated ice cream girl), I couldn’t tell you anything about any of these people.
Anyway, this movie is said to be Carpenter’s nod to Rio Bravo and Night Of The Living Dead. I can’t speak to the former because I’ve never seen it, but I just watched the Night remake, so it was pretty fresh in my mind and fully see how influential that was on this film. The stuck-in-a-place-under-siege-by-an-unstoppable-group elements in both films are very clear. You could also draw parallels between Night‘s Ben and Assault‘s Bishop, but probably more in the remake than the original, because the race element doesn’t actually come into play in the story. Aside from that, there’s the joining of unrelated people to fight off something they don’t understand. And, that’s actually something I really enjoyed about this movie, the fact that these people have next-to-no clue about why these punks are trying to destroy them.
All in all, I’d say that Assault On Precinct 13 is really the place to start if you’re looking to go through Carpenter’s oeuvre. In addition to that, it’s just an awesome movie that should be seen. Whatever you think about Dark Star, it doesn’t really feel like part of his larger group of films. However, Assault is definitely right in there, even if it doesn’t have the mystical, supernatural, futuristic or sci-fi elements you might expect if you’ve seen his greatest hits like Halloween, Escape From New York, They Live and Big Trouble In Little China. I’m most familiar with Halloween, so it was cool to see how he went from following real people being attacked by other real people to real people being hunted by a supernatural killer.
I’ll be watching Halloween next, though I’m not sure how in-depth I’ll be going with the post because I’ve already written about it twice. After that, I’ll get his two TV movies Someone’s Watching Me and Elvis from Netflix which will be fun because I haven’t seen either of them!