Halloween Scene: Shock Value By Jason Zinoman

shock-valueIf 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

Halloween Scene: Old School Round-Up

bride-of-frankensteinAs 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!

Continue reading Halloween Scene: Old School Round-Up

The Chronological Carpenter: Christine (1983)

ChristineJohn 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.

stephen king christineFor 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.

christine-USTake 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!

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!

The Chronological Carpenter: The Fog (1980)

the fog

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 fog poster 2The 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.

the fog jamie lee curtis posterYou’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!

The Chronological Carpenter: Someone’s Watching Me (1978)

someone's watching me shotHey, 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.

someone's watching me dvdLeigh 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.

someones-watching-me-movie-posterThe 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 Chronological Carpenter: Assault On Precinct 13 (1976)

??????????

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.

stout-assault-on-precinct-13-red-2 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.

assault on precinct 13 poster 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!

The Chronological Carpenter: Dark Star (1974)


dark star poster

It’s probably not the best idea jumping into a new project like The Chronological Carpenter especially considering that I have trouble getting a full movie in each week and it’s been nearly three years and I’ve only gotten through a handful of Spielberg’s films while trying to do something very similar. And yet, here we are.

I just can’t stay away from John Carpenter’s films. Halloween is one of my all-time favorites — not just horror, but in all of film — and the guy has just made some of the most interesting, fun and imaginative movies out there. Plus, I’m at a place where I’ve seen about half of his filmography at least once, so it seems like a good time to go back to the beginning and scope everything out in order. It also helps that I’ve reviewed surprisingly few of these movies here on the blog like Escape From New York and Big Trouble In Little China. Heck, I’ve owned Starman for six years or so and never watched it (there’s a fun little story there, but all in due time).

dark star b&w posterWith that in mind I went back to where it all began for Carpenter and that’s Dark Star. The script and first draft of the film were penned by USC film students Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon (Alien). They filmed the script with O’Bannon starring in the picture and started showing it around at festivals. Eventually a producer got involved, 10 more minutes were shot and theater-goers got the longer version seen on DVD these days. The plot of the film finds a quartet of astronauts hanging out on a ship called Dark Star. Their mission is to destroy unstable planets. While doing all that they wind up going through a series of calamitous events that includes a run-in with a beach ball-shaped alien, a trip down an elevator shaft and trouble with a missile.

The movie’s incredibly slow at times — the elevator scene itself was a bit excruciating — but the ideas behind the film and the ingenuity put into actually getting it made are admirable. This is basically a student film and a comedy, but the model work still looks pretty great and I give them a lot of credit for coming up with creative ways to make aliens and elevators look, not real, but filmworthy.

The main problem with the film, aside from the fact that it looks like a student film from the early 70s, is the tone. It’s supposed to be a comedy, but doesn’t come off as one much of the time. It’s hard to tell if the joke is “people take goofy things and make them monsters, isn’t that funny?” or “we’re working with what we’ve got, isn’t that hilarious?” There are certainly some on-point moments of satire, especially with the destruction-obsessed astronaut, but overall it felt a little off balance. All of which makes Carpenter’s next two films, Assault On Precinct 13 and Halloween all the more impressive when you think about it. Those are some huge steps to make in just four years. All in all, it’s also a little boring.

dark star posterConsidering I’m focusing on Carpenter here, t’s kind of funny that Dark Star actually shows off a lot more of Dan O’Bannon’s sensibilities than Carpenter’s in this film. The whole alien plot was basically lifted whole-hog for Alien. However, you can definitely feel some of Carpenter’s biting social commentary, especially in that opening scene about not sending radiation shielding. This would come to the forefront in They Live 14 years later (and maybe sooner, I guess I’ll find out). Anyway, while Dark Star is obviously an important film in Carpenter’s journey to become one of the greatest directors around, I wouldn’t say it’s necessary to watch if you’re looking to convince someone how great he is. In other words, this one’s for the more hardcore fans.

From here I get to jump into the wonders of Assault On Precinct 13 and Halloween before deciding on whether I should check out his two TV movies from that time, Elvis (his first movie with Kurt Russell) and Someone’s Watching Me (his first with Adrienne Barbeau). After that I’m looking forward to checking out The Fog, but only if I can get my hands on the recent Scream Factory release. Anyone want to let me borrow it?

Halloween Scene Blu Review: Scream Factory’s Body Bags (1993)

body bags I love seeing horror movies that I’ve heard about over the years but never actually seen. I also love the TLC that Shout Factory’s Scream Factory imprint gives to films like that as far as presentation and special features go. So, as you might expect, I loved Scream Factory’s recent Body Bags Blu-ray.

Originally conceived as a Tales From The Crypt-like horror anthology series for Showtime. Body Bags features director John Carpenter as The Coroner, a creepy, pun-loving ghoul who opens various black bags in the morgue and tells the person’s tale. Carpenter directed the first two installments, “The Gas Station” and “Hair” while Texas Chainsaw Massacre mastermind Tobe Hooper came in and did “The Eye.” As with most of the horror anthologies I’ve seen — like Cat’s Eye or Creepshow 2 —  this one features two solid stories and one weaker one.

I loved “The Gas Station.” It’s about a young woman named Anne (Alex Datcher) working over night in a gas station in one of those small booths so she can take money and sell cigarettes. While there she encounters a few creepy regulars, a few nice guys and a bum-murdering adversary who wants to add her to his kill list. Carpenter does a killer job of making this whole thing feel tense and dangerous. There’s a scene where Anne locks herself out of the booth and has to go find keys in the main building. I got super nervous during this portion of the short. Then you’ve got the end where she actually faces the killer. It’s great how Carpenter never leaves the gas station and makes it seem both cramped and huge depending on the scene.

There are a lot of fear elements here, many of which are simply related to work. She’s new, wants to prove herself and also make herself seem super capable. This seems like less of a pride thing and more a need for cash to keep putting herself through school, which is super important to her. You’re also dealing with the claustrophobia of the booth which goes from safe zone to cage and the seemingly expansive space between it and the main building.

Sometimes with anthologies or shorter form horror stories, they feel like truncated films, but I thought this story was perfectly suited for this format and used the timing well. Too much longer and it would be filled with too many fakeouts and lose suspense, which it has in spades.

SPOILERS THIS PARAGRAPH I want to talk a bit about the killer reveal in this one. Carpenter set up several possibilities for the killer in the forms of various customers — including a super-creepy Wes Craven — but I’ve got to say, I never once thought it was going to be Anne’s fellow employee played by Revenge Of The Nerds star Robert Carradine. He got me there. Even though I didn’t recognize Carradine right away, I knew he was a nice guy and didn’t even think about him again  I also liked how Carpenter included a few nods to his other films like when Carradine’s character does the background sit-up Michael Myers style with Anne in the foreground.

I wasn’t nearly as interested in “Hair” which stars Stacey Keach as an aging rich business guy who becomes obsessed with his thinning hair. I understand that this is something that does get into peoples’ heads, but it’s not really on my radar. Anyway, Keach goes to Doctor Lock whose method for hair growth seems to work really well, so well in fact that hair starts growing everywhere. I won’t get into the end reveal, but I’ll say it didn’t do much for me. I’ve actually gone back and watched this segment with an eye for the satire of it all and enjoyed it a lot more. 

Thankfully, I enjoyed the third installment, “Eye” starring Mark Hamill and Twiggy. Hamill plays baseball player Brent Miller who gets into a car accident that leads to the loss of an eye. He gets a transplant, but soon comes to realize that this new organ might be a bit defective as he begins seeing morbid scenes some of which are genuinely spooky. As it turns out the new eye came from a misogynistic killer who starts taking over his body which doesn’t work out so well for his wife. This is definitely the darkest, most intense entry in the series as Hamill struggles for his sanity.

It’s funny, while watching the movie again with audio commentary, “The Gas Station” whizzes by. The first time I watched, I was so absorbed and freaked out that it felt like a feature. Carpenter also points out that he used a station out in the middle of nowhere so it would feel even more remote and lonely. He also pointed out a number of shot set-ups that add to the feel of the picture. Carradine also joined in on the fun. The pair caught up a bit and talked about a few other things, but mainly stuck to the story at hand offering lots of insider details.

Keach comes on and does the same for “Hair” and it’s a ton of fun listening to these two longtime pros talk craft. More than that, Keach says that this story was very personal for him because his parents always told him to wear his hairpiece in part because his dad thought he didn’t make it as an actor for being bald. They even went off on a bit of a tangent about zombie movies after pointing out effects artist Greg Nicotero in a quick shot which was a lot of fun. Listening to this track actually framed the story in a better light for me which will definitely make repeated viewings more fun.

For “Eye” Hooper wasn’t available, so producer (and Carpenter’s wife) Sandy King and Justin Beahm talked about not only his segment, but also some of the goings on behind the scenes that went into filming the various segments and how the movie came to be. This one’s a bit more dry, but still really interesting.

The last major bonus feature on the disc is a doc called Unzipping Body Bags. Carpenter and King get a little more into the background of the show, which started out as an anthology script that they presented to Showtime who bit. So, they decided to do the first one without much thought to anything beyond this first offering. Carradine and Keach also joined in on the doc, which adds a lot of depth to the proceedings.

I’ve been on a John Carpenter kick lately and this movie just continues to build my feelings of affection for this director who has such weird, great sensibilities that have resulted in some of the most fun, creepy and adventurous films around.

Halloween Scene: The Halloween Marathon

halloween poster I wasn’t very creative when it came to my Halloween movie marathon this year. On the 30th, I was flipping through Netflix to see what was available on Instant when I realized I should ring in one of my favorite holidays with my favorite slasher movie, Halloween. As it turned out, I was too tired to finish the film (I seem to be turning more and more into an old man with each passing day), but I did wind up watching the rest of the original, 2, 4, 5 and Curse on Halloween. I popped the discs in my computer and watched them pretty small, but with a toddler running around, it’s not like I can watch these movies on what she calls “the big TV.”

As I mentioned in my list of movies that scared me, the original Halloween still gets to me. Since I’ve reviewed all of these movies before, though, I’ll probably just drop a few highlights and things I wanted to point out. I can’t believe I didn’t point this out before, but most of the kids in Haddonfield are complete asshats and are throughout the series. I also like how you don’t get much explanation for why Michael is the way  he is or how he can do the things he does. Also, it’s crazy how much you see of Michael in this film.

One question was answered for me on this watching. I’ve always thought it was crazy how Michael could plan out his kills so well and pose them and all that. This time, I noticed that Loomis said he’d been basically planning this night for 20 years. Makes sense to me! Here’s something else to think about: while Michael was planning, do you think he knew that he couldn’t be killed or did he go in thinking he was human?

I also realized another reason why this movie is so effective: it has so many different scary elements going on. There’s Carpenter’s score, the sense of being followed in broad daylight, the primal fear of the night, the kills, all of the performances from the young women, everything about Michael from his size to his faceless appearance, the fact that Laurie’s protecting children (something I never really thought about before). Chances are pretty good, this film hits on at least one of your fears.

halloween 2 poster Halloween II, which was penned by original writers John Carpenter and Debra Hill with Rick Rosenthal directing, carries on that legacy of combining multiple fears, this time adding in new elements: the fear of hospitals, the fear of being drugged and helpless and that sense of dread that comes from knowing what Michael can do and him still being loose (if that makes sense).

One big story detail that I never really thought about much was how young Michael Myers is. Loomis says he’s 21. That’s super young! Also, while the first one felt a lot more planned out — because it was, as noted above — Michael is a lot more reactionary in this one, trying to get the one that got away. This movie also picks up on something else I thought about while watching the first movie: Michael wasn’t super secretive about being out on Halloween, so people must have seen him, right? That’s mentioned a bit in this film.

I think this is a pretty solid sequel, but it lacks a little focus when it comes to characters. First it seems like the one nurse is the focus, then it switched to the one who gets drowned/burned, then back to the blonde nurse. Laurie’s of course up for the part, but she doesn’t really do much throughout the film until the end. And, as usual, Loomis is all over the place. That plus, the fact that Rosenthal’s no Carpenter, makes this movie not quite as good as the original, but still a solid offering in my opinion.

halloween 4 poster I skipped Season Of The Witch because I watched it casually a few weeks ago and it also holds no bearing on what I like to call the main series. For what it’s worth, I still love that weird movie. Anyway, the slasher’s story continued with Halloween 4: The Return Of Michael Myers. This one introduces Laurie Strode’s daughter Jamie who shares a strange connection with her uncle Michael who has been kept in an asylum for the ten years between 2 and 4. First and foremost it needs to be said how damn good Danielle Harris is as Jamie in this and the next film. She has a heaviness to her that doesn’t come easy for actors, especially child ones.

Anyway, this film continues a few of the themes I’ve noticed. The kids in this movie are even worse than the ones in the original. They straight-up make fun of Jamie for having a dead mom. Even worse, one of the kids sullies his MASK costume by being a total jerkwad. This film also expands on the parties involved in the Michael Myers threat. In the first one it was Loomis, teenagers and eventually the cops. With the second the teens were swapped out for hospital employees. In this one you get the hick-ish lynch mob as well. Plus, since we’re dealing with a story that takes place 10 years after the original, there’s people who have lived with that initial tragedy. I think there’s an interesting commentary here about how we bury our past to the point where it can come back and stab us with a shotgun.

Another more esoteric thing that came to mind while watching these movies is that they’re as much about regular people trying to comprehend the idea of an unkillable man as they are about the man himself. In the real world you can write certain things off as tricks of the light or your mind playing tricks on you, but in these movies, some of the characters discover that those things might also be Myers. They also have to deal with the insanity that comes from experiencing these things. In Loomis’ case, these recurring meet-ups have clearly played with his sanity.

Halloween 5 poster

Halloween 5 picks up where 4 left off, showing how Michael survived the end of the previous film and catching us up on Jamie since she stabbed her step mom. She’s not speaking now, which leads to some super creepy and sad moments, but now shares an even stronger connection with her recently revived uncle.

I actually don’t have too much to add to my initial review of this film. Harris is still awesome as Jamie. Michael’s still scary. Loomis is still increasingly crazy. One element of this film that really stood out to me this time around was how dangerous it felt. In addition to terrorizing a child, Michael kills Rachel, a character you would think was off limits.

While watching this movie I realized that one of the great things about the Halloween series is that the sequels are so easily distinguishable. After a while the Friday The 13th films get really confusing, same with the Nightmare movies, but each Halloween flick is different enough that they’re pretty easy to keep straight.

Halloween-The-Curse-of-Michael-Myers-movie-poster

The first time I went through and watched the sequels, I was surprised with how much I liked 4 and 5, and wound up not liking Curse. Much like my recent re-watching of Jason Goes To Hell, though, I found myself liking this film a lot more the second time around. I think a big part of that is knowing that it’s not super great and having lower expectations. Paul Rudd is stellar in this film, bringing a crawling intensity to his portrayal of an older Tommy Doyle. I will say that this film tries a little too hard to make connections to the previous films though. Jamie (not Harris) is in the beginning, her baby is a major part of the story, then you’ve got the Strodes inexplicably living in the Myers house (was her dad unable to sell it and just had to move in?). I think there’s a real tragic story behind Mr. Strode’s decent into assholery.

Even though this isn’t a great movie and I didn’t see it until much later, I feel like I can relate to aspects of it a lot more because it was filmed in the 90s which were a very formative decade for me. There’s a Power Ranger in the kid’s bedroom. Plus, the music and clothes are of my youth, so even though I know it’s not great and I’ve only seen it twice, there’s a familiarity there that I relate to on some level.

And with that, we conclude what I consider the main Halloween series. When Jamie Lee Curtis returned for Halloween H2O and Resurrection, those films ignored parts 46 which I still think is kind of lame. Anyway, Michael Myers is still my favorite slasher and I think this series still holds up pretty well, especially if you think of the original as more of an outlier of quality (in the positive direction) than an indicator of the whole series which is far below that. This season I also watched every single Friday The 13th film for a list I did on Topless Robot called The 20 Most Deserving Victims In The Friday The 13th Films and I can easily say that Halloween is the more solid franchise, though there will always be a soft spot in my horror heart for all the classic 80s slasher franchises.

One last quick thought about the series. Whether conscious or not, I think these films share a lot of connections with Night Of The Living Dead. I know they’re completely different, but the opening scenes of both movies reminded me of one another. Night starts with that long shot of the car slowly driving up the winding road while Halloween has the long POV shot of young Michael taking out his sister. Then, in the second film someone’s actually watching Night. Plus, as I noted above, these films focus on regular people dealing with horrific elements that challenge their traditional thoughts on death.