Dave's Movie Hall of Fame: June & July '18

In the Mouth of Madness

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

Even at this early stage in his career John Carpenter shows his unique knack for setting mood. With an economy of cinematic tricks and a stripped down synth score he establishes a brooding edge of unease in which the uncanny is intertwined with the grounded sensibility of a western. In many films Carpenter, who loves westerns, honed this tone. His characters take practical action when faced with the impossible. In the face of an alien invasion, for instance, a character of his might simply spit into the dust, down a beer, and load up his shotgun. The whys and hows are are put on the backburner to deal with the immediate threat. This film takes place in a strange, anarchic reality in which a silent army of causeless thugs lay siege to an isolated police station in unending droves like a gang war version of the Alamo, and in the moment it seems unnecessary to question how or why. Apparently inspired by Rio Bravo and (perhaps unintentionally) Night of the Living Dead, but where the characters of Romero’s Night disintegrate into numb shock and divisive bickering, the characters here form a kind of warzone comradery. From the law abiding cop to the renegade criminal to the time clock punching secretary, they are bonded in the extremity of their situation and need to survive. So while the allegory of Night suggests our differences would destroy us Assault seems to say that all that crap becomes meaningless in the face of primal forces. Stock full of prototypes of characters and themes Carpenter would explore more in later films it combines outlaw energy, working class ethos, and genuine suspense to make a low budget thrill ride that is greater than the sum of its parts.

 

They Live (1988)

Obey! Do Not Question Authority! Consume! Conform! Stay Asleep! Watch TV! Submit!

Paranoia and Politics are at the center of this secret alien invasion plot. The aliens control the media and advertising and live among us as seemingly everyday people to control what and how we think and what we desire in order to coerce us into giving in to their authority by becoming complacent. In this entertainingly unsubtle premise Carpenter takes the usual social angst he infuses into his sci-fi pictures and pushes it fully into the Social Science Fiction territory of Orwell’s 1984 and Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Aiming his ire not so much at oppressive regulators as much as a populace of self satisfied and thoughtless consumers. In this way the underlying message of the film is somewhat closer to Bradbury’s work than Orwell’s. The people have given up freedom for comfort while ignoring things like poverty, war, police brutality, or anything that might cause them discomfort by having to think about or deal with. In return the aliens get to guide the world unseen according to their own interests. As I’ve stated before, with Carpenter the hows and whys aren’t the focus, it’s about characters facing the threats head on. Out of this human livestock rises a lone wolf to become our underdog hero. And, because it’s a Carpenter film, this hero is a pro wrestler sporting cheap sunglasses who drops lines like, “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass... and I’m all out of bubblegum,” right before blowing an alien away with a double-barrel in a crowded supermarket. In the end this character, an individualist with a working class ethos who should more properly be classified as an antihero, chooses to plunge the work into anarchic chaos rather than allow the aliens to maintain their manipulative illusion. Carpenter would repeat this kind of action years later for the ending of Escape from L.A. and it doubtless inspired the ending for Edgar Wright’s The World’s End. In film the rest of the world can burn as long as the main characters fulfill their story arc to the viewers satisfaction. There’s some catharsis in this if nothing else. Not surprisingly mainstream audiences didn’t take to this movie, probably because the whole thing is a giant middle finger to mainstream audiences, but it’s an indelible cult classic beloved by fans that has been often referenced in music, video games, and, appropriately, political art. From reading into themes like the aliens representing people who are ugly on the inside or how the outcasts of society see things for what they really are because they haven’t bought into the systemic rat race (and then find themselves ranting about alien conspiracies), to simply highlighting the overlong, yet still impressive fight scene that dominates the halfway point of the movie, there’s more to write about this film than I can possibly put down here. If you’re someone who likes to think about what you’re watching (why would you be reading this if you weren’t?) then this is well worth checking out. While I’d never rank it as one of the greatest films ever made, it’s one that anyone who watches it will never forget.

 

The Fog (1980)

Carpenter is responsible for two of the biggest Horror movies of all time: Halloween and The Thing. Between these giants of the genre he made this. Being a filmmaker who wears his influences proudly in his work (Howard Hawks Rio Bravo for Assault on Precinct 13, Hitchcock’s Psycho for Halloween, classic sci-fi and more Howard Hawks for The Thing, etc) he here was inspired by the atmospheric power of Val Lewton’s 1940s Horror productions. By his own admission he didn’t pull this off, by the end of the production he realized that atmosphere alone would not suffice, and, with massive reshoots, decided to show the monsters and get the blood flowing. A realization that probably had an effect on his production of The Thing. With a premise that involves a hundred year old curse on a coastal town and characters that include a late night DJ, her son, a hitchhiker, and a priest, it strongly resembles a Stephen King story. No doubt King was having a lot of influence on the genre at the time from his novels to the adaptations of Carrie, Salem’s Lot, and The Shining (which was released the same year as this). Carpenter himself would only a few years later direct King’s Christine as a feature. The ending, with the ghosts breaking into the church and the lighthouse, also recalls Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13. I wouldn’t call this film obscure, even a casual Horror fan has at least heard of it and it was remade during the PG Horror faze of the aughts, but as a solid Horror outing that was neither groundbreaking nor bad enough to earn a cult following it feels somewhat overshadowed today. We remember it fondly, but it rarely becomes part of the conversation. It doesn’t even fall into Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy (The Thing, Prince of Darkness, and In the Mouth of Madness) the two latter films benefiting from the popularity of the first. As a fan of Carpenter, and as someone who prefers eerie and atmospheric Horror, it may rank higher for me than it does for other Horror aficionados. It may never be a classic, but it holds its own as a worthy Horror entry.

 

Dark Star (1974)

I hold a special affinity for this film as it has so many parallels with my own creative output. John Carpenter made this as a student film, and while I was in college my friends and I made an incredibly similar space comedy even though we hadn’t seen this yet. While you could chalk this up to mere coincidence some parallels are downright uncanny, including identical lines and production stories. So my appreciation of this film largely comes from the gobsmacking experience of discovering these similarities after the fact. But that aside, there’s still a lot to be revered here for general movie fans. Though a student film that later got the budget to be padded out to feature length and wouldn’t get wide release until 1979 it is still considered Carpenter’s directorial debut. Considering its limitations it it very well made and entertaining, though this perhaps works best for those more versed in films than not as understanding it’s a parody of Kubrick’s 2001 is key to getting the humor. Most importantly of all is that without this we never would’ve gotten Alien. Dan O’Bannon not only wrote both, but reworked some of the ideas from this film into his script for Alien. I doubt at the time that the group of friends making this would’ve suspected that their beach ball with claws would evolve into the iconic xenomorph designed by H.R. Giger. And even though this is a comedy, it’s tonally and stylistically similar to Alien. This was such a creative launching point, I only hope my friends and I can parallel that career trajectory as much as we did the film itself. Perhaps I should start writing the script for a western style siege movie, or maybe a Hitchcockian thriller? Hmmm…

 

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)

This is a meta narrative horror film with more layers than Inception. The main character, played by Sam Neill who relates the bulk of the film as flashback from his cell in a mental institution, is a character in a book that doesn’t know he’s a character in a book, who’s hired as a detective to find the missing author, who created him, and deliver the manuscript of the book that’s the book he’s in which is also the story that’s being told that was adapted into a movie that is the movie you’re watching and the character becomes aware of all this and, naturally, goes insane from that knowledge. Confused? There’s a reason this didn’t do well at the box office. Still, I, among others, consider this to be Carpenter’s last great film. He clearly put a lot of thought and work into it, but did so in a way that made the film difficult to grasp, only satisfying those who put in the effort of multiple viewings, like myself. It simply must be seen multiple times to be appreciated, and that sounds more like work than entertainment to most. The central concept of the story also has literary sources embodied by the author character Sutter Kane, an amalgam of Horror authors H.P.  Lovecraft and Stephen King, who comes to believe he’s a conduit to another dimension that can be accessed through his writing, and that the more people who read his books and learn of it (the more who believe in it and therefore go insane) the more power it gives for those things to enter our world and bring about the apocalypse. Still confused? Yeah, it does that. Perhaps these days, when meta narratives are more common and have popularity through shows like Rick and Morty and fourth-wall breaking characters like Deadpool heading up blockbuster films, this might fair a better chance with audiences. Carpenter makes this high concept horror thriller a lot of fun. As per the usual with Carpenter characters Neill’s tries to find a practical solution to this threat, like destroying the book, but as it becomes clear there’s nothing he can do as his reality is defined by a madman, he gives into the full crazy of it all. At the end Sam Neill goes to a theater in the midst of armageddon, and while eating popcorn watches the movie that just happened and laughs. If you’ve managed to follow along you’re laughing too, though if the narrative has left you in the dust I’m not quite sure what you’re experiencing at this point. I’ve championed this film for a long time and I really hope that fans continue to discover it as Lovecraftian Horror ekes its way into the mainstream. I want nothing more than movies that are this cool and this ambitious to get the love they deserve.

 

*Bonus Short: The Music of John Carpenter

Doesn’t quite fit into the definition of “Short”, but whatever. My blog, my rules. Along with directing Carpenter almost always composed the scores for his movies. They’re iconic, sometimes achieving recognition beyond the films themselves as with the Halloween theme. Halloween, famously, didn’t work for audiences until the theme was put in. It speaks to his dedication to the craft, particularly in the moods and tones that make his films so stylistically unique, that he composed the music himself. It’s extremely rare that a director does that. There are many notable director composer pairings (Hitchcock and Herrmann, Spielberg and Williams, Leone and Morricone), but Carpenter was his own best collaborator when it came to scoring his films. His driving rhythmic synths were often imitated, and often poorly, so much so that cheesy synth scores became a staple trope of 80s films. Only more recently have there been quality synth scores in the same vein (the Stranger Things theme almost feels like the best score he never wrote). Alongside Halloween is his groundbreaking synth score to Assault on Precinct 13, which is a slowed down version of Led Zeppelin's Immigrant song, and throughout he continued to hit with his themes. My personal favorite is the score for Escape from New York. All the mystique, angst, and adventure of that film are summed up perfectly in the sensations of that score. Notably, a film of his he did not score was The Thing, in which he stepped aside for great Ennio Morricone, and yet the sensibility of Carpenter’s work is so strong that even the master Morricone bent to it, turning in a remarkably Carpenter-esque sounding score. Now that he has retired from making films Carpenter has focused more on composing original music and even touring with a band. I would consider it a high point in my fandom to get to experience his music live. He is, and very well may always be my favorite composer.