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)

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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!

Halloween Scene: Night Of The Creeps (1986)

night of the creeps tom atkins

The fist time I saw Night Of The Creeps was at a Manly Movie Mamajama with the Wizard gang several years back. As it happens, that’s also how I saw another Fred Dekker film, Monster Squad, for the first time. The other two films in that particular triple feature were Night Of the Comet and Nightbreed (still the only time I’ve ever seen that one). As it turns out, I remembered the least about Creeps because, as I watched this movie on Netflix in the past few weeks (it took me several viewings to finish because I take care of two very active children all day), most of the film was a surprise. Let’s blame that more on the length of time between viewings and not the presumed gallons of beer I probably drank that night.

night of the creeps poster 1The movie kicks off with some strange looking aliens fighting over a canister that gets knocked out the ship and heads towards Earth back in 1959. The canister lands in front of an escaped mental patient, infects him with its worminess and leads to him hacking up some kids with an axe. Flashforward to the 80s and we’re introduced to college students Chris (Jason Lively) and J.C. (Steve Marshall), the young stars of the film. Chris wants to get with a girl named Cynthia (Jill Whitlow) who’s dating the head of the D-bag fraternity, so they rush. They’re then tasked with finding a dead body, so they sneak into a nearby morgue (overseen by David Paymer!) where they find the body from the beginning of the movie in suspended animation. They get him out of there and wind up unleashing the worm-like aliens on their college campus. Enter wise cracking, jaded detective Ray Cameron (Tom Atkins) who was the cop who found the maniac in the first place back in the 50s.

night of the creeps poster 2

I mentioned above how this film took me several watches to get through. Most of that is because of the kids, but there was also a bit of a barrier for me as I tried to get into this film. I think that boils down to the film’s tone, specifically in regards to Atkins’ character. I’ve become a huge fan of that guy’s work, thanks mostly to Halloween 3: Season Of The Witch, but I just couldn’t get into his catch-phrase spouting wannabe hardboiled detective in this movie. He says “Thrill me,” so many times and it never once sounds like the kind of thing this guy would actually say.

On the other hand, I really enjoyed Lively and Marshall as the two geeky college students. They have a very realistic relationship that reminded me of the kind of thing seen more in the raunchy 80s comedies that you all know I’m a fan of. These young actors are very believable and I like the ways they got to express their characters as the story progressed. And, how can you not love a film that ends on the night of a fraternity formal with a boy in a tux and a girl in a fancy dress wielding shotguns and flamethrowers?

At the end of the day, I really want to like this movie because it mixes that great 80s comedy set-up with some pretty high quality horror special effects. It’s really too bad that Dekker — who also wrote the screenplay — decided to turn Atkins, who can handle a ton of levels even in fairly odd movies like this, into such a corny, one-note character. Just imagine if he was able to play this a little closer to Daniel Challis from Season.

It’s kind of interesting timing that I watched this Dekker film not only after he was announced as the helmer of the new Predator movie writte by Shane Black. These guys wrote Monster Squad together which is a real classic, so I’m excited to see what they can do all these years later.

Rad Review: Drive Angry (2011)

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It seems impossible to tell if Nicolas Cage is a good actor. Instead of playing a character, he just controls how much of his inner lunatic he decides to let the camera see. Drive Angry from director Patrick Lussier (Dracula 2000, the My Bloody Valentine remake) lets Cage unleash the full flow of insanity as Milton, a guy who escaped hell to get revenge on cult leader Jonah King (Billy Burke), who killed his daughter and snatched his grandaughter. Along the way he teams up with Amber Heard’s Piper, a tough young woman without much going on in her life aside from a cheating boyfriend and a crappy waitress job. As they operate their automobile in a perturbed fashion, Milton and PIper also have to stay several steps ahead of The Accountant (William Fichtner), an agent of Hell looking to bring back the escaped Milton.

amber heard drive angryLussier — who co-wrote the script with Todd Farmer (Jason X, the My Blood Valentine remake) — does a great job of having fun with this story. It’s not overly gory, but plenty of blood is spilled and bullets fired. The gore effects that do exist look just as gross as they should considering the wounds inflicted and the over-the-top style of the film. While the movie doesn’t get into hand-to-hand combat too often there’s plenty of excellent driving scenes, lots of gunplay and a few run-ins that show just how silly it is for regular ol’ humans to go up against supernatural entities.

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Actually, Heard gets her fists dirty more than anyone else in the movie and does a pretty serviceable job going up against dudes much bigger than her. She smacks around the woman her boyfriend’s cheating on her with before trying to give him the business end of an ass kicking. Later on, she throws down with King on an RV. After saying he’s going to kill her she drops this fantastic bit of dialog: “Between now and then, I’m gonna f*ck you up.” You might not think it to look at Heard in her other roles, but she delivers it like she means it, then backs it up. Good for her.

When it comes to the chase scenes, of which there many, Lussier gets pretty inventive with the car-eography. After a lifetime of watching car chases on television and in movies, they can get a little boring, but this one uses a lot of fun elements like the Accountant driving a Hydrogen truck into a small army of cop cars, stepping out on a truck and Milton driving just so to avoid the explosion. Sure, it looks a little CGI-y on Blu-ray, but it’s over pretty quickly and the idea is cool enough to outshine some execution flaws.

Speaking of of the Blu-ray presentation, it’s possible this movie looks too good. This is completely subjective, but since the film takes a lot of its cues from the grindhouse flicks of the 70s,  you sometimes want it to look a little less clean and pristine. It’s kind of like listening to a completely remastered version of a live Ramones show. Everything’s still there, but the grit is gone. That’s not to say this is a clean movie, there’s lots of death, carnage and nudity to go around, it all just looks really crisp and clear.

A few other highlights from the film include Tom Atkinson’s role as a local police captain. That guy’s pure gold in everything. Speaking of being great in everything, watching Cage and Fichtner on screen together is delightful. The fact that this is an original story with some big stars and a fairly good effects budget is also cool and something we’re seeing less and less of at the movies. After being disappointed with how Parker didn’t add much to the revenge/heist genre, it’s good to watch something like Drive Angry that did as much as it possibly could with the materials available.

Finally, did anyone see this in 3D? It was shot that way, but the Blu-ray rental from Netflix didn’t have the option. Drop a comment and let us know.