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: 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?