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: Ten Notable Movies That Scared This Jaded Horror Fan

I’ve seen a lot of horror movies since I started getting into the genre around the age of 16. Like a lot of horror fans, I feel like I’ve become somewhat jaded over the years. Once you see enough of these things, you can see the Matrix a little bit and know when a scare is coming — if you can tell the difference between an impending jump scare and a legit one, you’ve got the super scardar. And yet, there are still the scenes that scared us when we started out and even though they’re fewer and farther between these days, the new films that still give us the willies or come out of nowhere to spook us. I figured with Halloween still in the air — and inspired by awesome horror blogger Stacie Ponder doing something similar over on her excellent Final Girl blog — I’d run down the ten movies that scared me over the years. I’m sure there’s more out there in the world, but these are the ones that came to mind, either because they entered my life at just the right time, scared me for a moment or created an atmosphere that still ooks me out to this day. So, in no particular order, here’s the ten movies the still spook me in no particular order. Consider yourself warned, spoilers abound after the jump!

Continue reading Halloween Scene: Ten Notable Movies That Scared This Jaded Horror Fan

Scream Factory Announces Assault On Precinct 13 Features

assault on precinct 13 blu-rayThe Scream Factory imprint over at Shout Factory generally sticks to horror films, as is fitting of their name, but every now and then they get their hands on a classic action film and give it the awesome special features treatment they’re known for. Just today they announced the full slate of special features on the upcoming Blu-ray and DVD release of John Carpenter’s Assault On Precinct 13. Usually we’d condense everything for you, but this is worth a read as-is. You can pre-order the disc right now.

ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 Collector’s Edition Blu-ray™

Delivering more terrifying perils and action suspense, John Carpenter’s acclaimed pre-Halloween thriller ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 all-new Collector’s Edition Blu-ray™ hits home entertainment shelves everywhere on November 19 from Scream Factory. This definitive edition release of ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 boasts a bounty of all-new special bonus content, a collectible cover featuring newly rendered retro-style artwork, a reversible wrap with original theatrical key art and much more!

Isolated and cut off from the city inside a soon-to-be-closed L.A. police station, a group of police officers and convicts must join forces to defend themselves against the gang called Street Thunder, who have taken a blood oath to kill someone trapped inside the precinct.

From John Carpenter (HalloweenThe Thing and Prince Of Darkness), Assault On Precinct 13 combines the elements of a classic western and a modern thriller to create a riveting cult classic.

A CKK PRODUCTION “ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13”

Starring AUSTIN STOKER

DARWIN JOSTON, LAURIE ZIMMER

Executive Producer JOSEPH KAUFMAN

Produced by J.S. KAPLAN

Written and Directed by JOHN CARPENTER

ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 Collector’s Edition Blu-ray™  Bonus Content:

Audio Commentary with writer/director John Carpenter
NEW Audio Commentary with Art Director & Sound Effects Editor Tommy Lee Wallace
NEW interview with actress Nancy Loomis Kyes
NEW interview with actor Austin Stoker
Interview with John Carpenter and Austin Stoker
Theatrical Trailer
Radio Spots

A new John Carpenter commentary is probably worth the price of admission along, but there’s an awful lot of other goodness on there that will surely appeal to fans of Carpenter’s and film in general. Scream Factory’s Assault On Precinct 13 hits stores on November 19th.

Predator, Prometheus & The Thing Mondo Posters

When it comes to limited-run posters, Mondo’s one of the biggest names in the game. The reason why? They get some incredibly talented artists to create images based on some of the greatest movies of all time. Tomorrow, they’ve got another trio of offerings that will surely fly off the virtual shelves.

As detailed over on their blog, quick clickers with disposable income will have the chance to purchase a Predator poster by Ash Thorp, Ridley Scott’s Prometheus by JC Richard  and Jock’s interpretation of John Carpenter’s The Thing.

As per usual, the best way to keep up on when the posters go on sale, follow @MondoNews on Twitter.

Friday Night Fights: Nada Vs. Frank In They Live (1988)

*Friday Night Fights does presents crazy fight and battle scenes from movies with little-to-no context. If you haven’t seen the movie, you’ll probably want to skip the clip. *

This one’s pretty self explanatory. If you’ve seen John Carpenter’s They Live you know how rad the fight scene between Roddy Piper’s Nada and Keith David’s Frank is. If you haven’t, get your hands on the Shout Factory release. It’s fantastic.

They Live Is Awesome

they live scream factory Guys, I’m embarrassed to tell you that I’m fairly certain last night was the very first time I watched all of John Carpenter’s 1988 classic They Live in one sitting. I can’t imagine never renting it back in my heavy VHS rental days at Family Video, but I was notorious for putting a movie on in the living room and then getting on the computer and AIMing with folks for hours only turning around and checking out what was going on in the film every once in a while (when sitting at the computer, your back was to the TV as the room was set up). I’ve seen huge chunks of the movie, though, but that whole first bit where Roddy Piper’s unnamed-in-the-film hero is walking around Rambo style, looking for a job and digging with his shirt off seemed brand new to me. I have no real excuse, so I’m just going to embrace whatever ridicule you might feel the need to foist upon me.

Okay, we all good? After spending a week in Disney World and really enjoying myself, I figured I’d watch something kind of action-y and horror-y to get back into my usual mindset. I was perusing my DVD rack which is piled with unwatched discs and was shocked to discover that I had a copy of Scream Factory’s recently released They Live DVD (I requested it from the fabulous folks at Shout Factory mere weeks before finally getting a Blu-ray player). So not only was I excited to give the film a full watch, but also to dig into the special features which, as you might expect, are fantastic.

If you’re unfamiliar with the story, They Live follows Piper’s character — who’s only referred to as Nada in the closing credits — as he strolls into town looking for work. At first it seems like you’re just looking at a crummy part of town, but soon enough you begin to understand that something’s going on with this world. The middle and lower classes are being kept down by what appears to be television brainwashing, though a few people seem wise to the plot and are trying to do their best to enlighten the disinterested populace. Nada stumbles upon their main way of showing people what’s going on: sunglasses. These shades allow the wearer to see what’s really going on and it’s not pretty. The world is actually packed with subliminal messages bestowing the virtues of all things 80s (worship money, settle down and breed, etc.) AND zombie-looking aliens. As it turns out the aliens have teamed up with the rich to sell out the lower classes so the aliens can abuse the Earth’s resources while the main populace is none the wiser. Nada teams up with Frank (Keith David) to try and take care of the problem.

they live posterWhile the most iconic and well-remembered part of the movie, is probably the epic five minute fist fight between Piper and David (which I wrote about in a fun Topless Robot list called The 10 Longest And Awesomest Movie Fight Scenes of All Time), I’ve got to say that the themes of the movie really hit me and actually got under my skin a bit. That whole idea of evil living among us and not having any idea has always been a very effective one on me. Plus, you’ve got the general idea of brainwashing the lower masses while the rich take over and do whatever they want with the world. It’s an obvious metaphor for the 80s, but you can also see how those themes still carry over to this day. There’s a “How can we fight such a massive foe?” quality to it that can lead to either hopelessness or a unique trust in change and goodness. So, even while some of the effects or shots might look a little corny, there’s still a message going on here that’s the clear mark of quality in science fiction.

If you get the Scream Factory version of this movie, you can actually see and hear John Carpenter talk about his intentions going into the film, which basically revolve around rebelling against the establishment. It’s a really neat interview, especially if you’re like me and don’t know a ton about the genesis of this flick. I didn’t get through all the special features — there’s a commentary with Piper and Carpenter that I’m really excited to listen — but I did watch the featurette about the sights, sounds and special effects of of the film as well as an interview with Keith David about the film. As with just about every Shout Factory disc where they go the special features route, this one has all kinds of extra rad stuff to absorb for fans. The disc actually came out last November (where does the time go?) so if you’re a They Live fan, you probably already have it, but if you’re like me and increasingly out of touch with what’s going on, do yourself a favor and pick this one up!