This has been slowly garnering some brutal buzz, as a modern Lovecraft interstellar eldritch horror in the vein of early Carpenter or Cronenberg. Pun intended;
The celestial saviors seem to be descending into our atmosphere thick and fast at the moment, and judging by the increasing venality and corrosive incompetence of our political ‘leaders’ their arrival is not a moment too soon. Two years after his exhausting failure of The Thing oozed from the screen Carpenter needed a hit, and with the popularity of certain non-belligerent aliens in the cultural firmament following a certain Spielberg behemoth he had a stockade of studio scripts to pick from. Karen Allen, still a hot property after her appearance as the spirited Marion in Raiders Of The Lost Ark stars as Jenny Hayden, a young, working class Wisconsin dame whom is mourning the recent loss of her husband, genial handyman Scott Hayden (Jeff Bridges). A miracle arrives in the form of a downed extraterrestrial entity whose craft is disabled by the suspicious USAF, the creature replicating from hair follicles the DNA and physical appearance of the deceased Scott, a simulacrum for the intelligence to explore and experience our environment. The cherubic civilization from which the so-called Starman hearkens has stumbled across the Voyager probe whose co-ordinates led them to our meek and wet planet. Contained within the craft was its multi-lingual United Nation peaceful greeting which doesn’t exactly mirror the interstellar interloper’s experiences of our cruel and primitive species, as he and Jenny embark on a desperate road-trip rendezvous at a vast Arizona asteroid blasted crater, before his avatar succumbs to the poisonous plumes of our atmosphere. So far, so traditional when it comes to the cycle of misunderstood aliens, their morals and scientific discoveries centuries beyond ours showing us the error of our ways, which can be traced back to the classic The Day The Earth Stood Still. Starman however also comes equipped with a romantic sub-plot which is quite the change of pace for Carpenter, whom is more likely to extract beating hearts from their exoskeletons with a maniac wielded kitchen knife, rather than with a tear-jerking SF-Rom-Road-Movie-Com.
Is there something in the water for the Menagerie after Midnight Special, Arrival and now this retrospective screening? It’s pure coincidence of course, and its a nice thought to think that there is intelligence out there more refined, less violent and intolerant than ours, if they don’t succumb to the plausible sounding Fermi paradox if the trajectory of our upright shaved apes journey is anything to go by. If I was going to be a little unkind I’d reduce Starman to E.T. with adults, it ambling trajectory mapped to the open, almost existential possibilities of the road-movie, tracing an episodic structure which provides the framework for Jenny to overcome her initial disorientation and warm to the savior in her midst. There is some padding with this design and a few issues with pacing toward the final splutterings of the film, Charles Martin Smith’s good-guy scientist whom is sympathetically on the trail of the visitor feels a trifle undeveloped (not dissimilar to Adam Driver in Midnight Special), while the wicked NSA Director George Fox (Richard Jaeckel) is channeled directly from 1980’s, mustache-swirling, WASP villain central casting. Nevertheless for the most part it works as a modest chase movie and there is a modicum of chemistry between Allen and Bridges, with the alien’s half dozen magical silver ball bearings the instruments of his divinity and narrative deployment markers, performing miracles on earth such as resurrecting felled animals and walking not on water, but through flame. If you so choose there are further biblical allusions which serve the semiotic theologies, the consummation of Jenny and Scott’s relationship in a modest hay carpeted railway car with no crib for a bed suggests a certain festive myth, not to mention the holy one’s seed performing an immaculate conception on Jenny’s infertile frame……
As usual Bridges is great, a masquerade in human form, aping birdlike figure movements and seeming fully uncomfortable and, well, perpetually itchy in his newly acquired body. Remarkably he received an Academy Award nomination which is as rare as a SETI communique for a SF film, apart from Bullock in Gravity I can’t recall another genre SF film which has been blessed with such a performance driven accolade. Whatever happened to Karen Allen? A good question as after this with the exception of Scrooged her screen presence diminished, before returning to the A list with the ill-received third Raiders sequel in 2008. It seems she tired of the industry and went into the theater while pursuing other interests, having rejected the machinations of the Hollywood culture, I wouldn’t be surprised if she was only offered the wives or girlfriends roles given her age and demeanor, which quite rightly didn’t satisfy her ambitions or expectations. This being JC we naturally have to talk about the soundtrack, right? Well, this was the second film in a row that Carpenter abandoned scoring duties. With The Thing he relinquished the critical task to Ennio Morricone, possibly as the studio wanted a ‘big-name’ to herald the quality and prestige of their assimilating horror. I’m not sure a similar contract provision wasn’t enforced here, as although Jack Nitzsche’s score remains memorable like the now legendary Morricone piece it does sound like an initial draft was filtered through Carpenters emulator equipment, giving a more synth based pulse to proceedings. In any case it still works well and provides a choir chanted commentary on the narrative, particularly in the celestial, tear stained finale. Less successful are some of the bizarre plot contortions toward the end of the film, where contrivances seem to conspire to get our heroes in position for the final climax – I’m not sure why a young Arizonan native would suddenly become a petrol bomb hurling diversion for a woman he just met in some remote dust blasted diner, grabbing the authorities attention while they slip away down some poorly guarded storm drain, no matter how cute she is. Now, in terms of style let’s set some context, so here is a concise primer on Carpenters specific visual permutations;
It’s interesting, I was watching the new Blu-Ray of Christine last week and that stabilizing style and coverage leapt from the screen in certain sequences, the use of the widescreen framing coupled with the character gliding viewpoint really buries you into a scene and thus the film as a whole once the metronome plot gets ticking, although his more expressive flourishes do seem reigned from, say the dramatic eruptions in Halloween or The Thing. If he seems to have been reigned in, then this is a self-conscious decision rather a studio mandated dilution, a couple of SFX flourishes aside JC knows to step aside and let the blossoming relationship between Jenny and Scott to take center-stage, as empathy rather than any political or metaphysical theme is the primary drive of the picture.
Screenwriters Bruce Evans and Raynold Gideon went on to pen the beloved Stand By Me two years later which is a testament to their ability to harp on the heartstrings, even if some of the plot contortions stretch character credulity. SFX wise the film holds relatively firm, there’s some fairly obvious travelling mattes and fragile optical work in some of the sequences, but the opening Voyager assimilation is convincing in its celestial purity, and its also a bit of an oddity in utilizing the unholy triumvirate of Rick Baker, Stan Winston and Dick Smith on design and execution duties during the reasonably convincing birth sequence. In terms of the most amusing trivia my research has revealed that there was an ill-fated TV spin-off which aired for a mere season in 1986, featuring the never to be taken seriously Robert Hays in the title role, somehow I don’t think I’ll bother tracking that DVD down. Naturally the film is being considered for a remake with Shawn Levy in the directors chair according to announcements made back in April of this year, I don’t think I’ll be re-calibrating my google sensors to trace every excited development of that pre-production pathway. Is Starman a classic? No, and at best is second tier Carpenter, but for us acolytes it is a genuine thrill to finally catch these oft-seen projects on the big screen, in full anamorphic 2:35 scope which can be a revelation after decades of poor quality pan-and-scan VHS and DVD transfers. I’ll never forgot the first time I saw the film and was devastated by its absolute killer ending, with a haunting mix of score and simple, appropriate close-ups which I’d champion as one of Carpenter’s most skillful and considered climax’s – stop the world, I wanna get off;
‘Snake Plisken? I’ve heard of you boy…(Pause)…I heard you was dead’ – Nothing has put a wider grin on my haggard face that writing the title of this beloved John Carpenter classic in the blog post title field above, a film I have waited roughly thirty god-damn years to finally see on the big screen. When it comes to Carpenter I think we can elect The Thing as his ultimate masterpiece, no doubt many fans would argue the case for Halloween which is obviously iconic and bloodily carved out an entirely new movie genre, but I think The Thing is where all his skills, collaborators and instincts synthesized to a perfect pitch, to craft a timelessly resonant work that matures with age – plus it has just assimilated it’s ultimate edition yet. For me the next tier down contains Assault On Precinct 13 (my personal favorite) and Escape From New York, a film I have seen somewhere in the region of fifty or sixty times, from my formative days of the £5.99 VHS sell-through copy I replayed to exhausted ribbons, through to the various DVD and Blu-Ray iterations that have followed since. Words alone cannot express just how excited I was, even in those fledgling internet days to learn that the infamous abandoned opening sequence was going to be a special feature on the then technological marvel of Digital Versatile Disks®. Then that was still very much the stuff of a cinematic El Dorado, a Carpenter curates cup of cinematic catnip, if you will. There has been, to the best of my limited knowledge, precisely one public screening of the film since I moved to London, as part of the reasonably regular Carpenter themed all-nighter’s hosted by the Prince Charles cinema. I was intrigued, I’ll admit it, but with the best will in the world I didn’t think waiting to see some Blu-Ray copy projected to a snoring crowd of fellow geeks at 2:00am in the morning was quite the optimum conditions to apprehend one of my all time, most cherished genre missions. My patience has finally yielded fruit, as when the film was announced as part of the BFI’s Cult of Carpenter I was certain of the conquering of a long mooted foe, and when I realized it was also going to be a 35mm print I nearly passed out, the perfect complement to my earlier efforts in the year which is pretty much warping into the year of the Carpenter.
‘You touch me… he dies. If you’re not in the air in thirty seconds… he dies. You come back in… he dies’ – The premise, of course, is completely ludicrous. In the then unheard of futuristic sounding 1997 the crime rate has recently risen 400%, inspiring the embittered fascist government to convert Manhattan into a self-contained prison, exiling all criminals to fend for themselves in the apocalyptic archipelago. Hubris has a sense of humor however, when the President (Donald Pleasence) finds himself jettisoned into the hockey-armored arms of those he has abandoned to rot, after Air Force One is hi-jacked by left-wing guerrillas and plunged into the skyscraper skyline – hmm, I have a bad omen about that. Enter our rasping anti-hero Snake Plisken (Kurt Russell, iconic), the ex-special forces legend, holder of two purple hearts from the intriguing sounding Leningrad and Siberia campaigns, whom has been is sentenced to the prison for the aforementioned opening sequence botched robbery. Fate it seems smiles warmly on our stoic anti-hero, as he is offered one chance at a pardon by Prison Warden Bob Hawke (snake eyed Lee Van Cleef) – to infiltrate the site and exfiltrate the president and the occupants of his top-secret briefcase, in order to attend a critical Soviet summit on which the possibility of World War III is hesitantly hovering.
‘Call me Snake’ – The film was the result of a deal Carpenter struck with Embassy pictures, still bathed in the financial glow of Halloween which was until that point the most successful independent film ever made, and although previous effort The Fog hadn’t performed exceptionally well he was still contractually tied to a two picture deal. Rifling through his papers he revisited his post-Watergate scribed 1976 script, allegedly inspired by the Harry Harrison novella Planet Of The Damned, I don’t know about you but having reviewed that synopsis I can’t really see the connections. So, a quick detour to a a fun fact – under the watch of AVCO Embassy’s then president the studio also produced The Howling, Phantasm and Scanners during this grisly epoch – three other cult classics which are all primed for reboots and lavish re-issues. So where to begin in my unyielding love for this picture? Let’s begin with the esoteric, as I adore opening design titles in his trademark Albertus font, and I’ll just repeat my usual point about films of this period taking their time with the titles, just giving us the cast details, as the score soothes and eases you into the cinema experience. The wire-frame filming technique, primitive by today’s standards (and not computer generated which was spectacularly expensive in 1981) are quite direct and explicit in their iconic simplicity, and overall this works as a very effective, two-minute precis of the world we are about to enter – a deft, compact, economic approach, typical of a Carpenter construction. Then of course we have the soundtrack, let’s get that out-of-the-way lest we risk repetition from my last post, as it is absolutely one of his best. Draping the film with the ticking timeline is a stroke of genius, not just the President’s world saving summit appearance but also the explosive charges placed into Snake’s veins. Sure, it’s a little implausible but it powers the film with an accelerating tempo, an audience guide track which drives the plot, a sense of urgency which when utilized effectively can make or break a project. Even though you see very little of the 1997 world beyond the Manhattan ruins it somehow feels like a living, breathing entity, presented in a comic book way of course, but still strangely convincing and compelling that genre movies with ten times this budget fail to manage these days with all their wide-vista cross cutting possibilities, all the digital bells and whistles which are available. Of course, by 2016 it is simply unthinkable that America could elect a right-wing, proto-fascist demagogue who rants of erecting walls and exiling undesirables to perish in their own slums now isn’t it?
‘When I get back, I’m going to kill you’ – The cast is a rogues gallery of Carpenter comrades and then popular character players, from musician Isaac Hayes as the bling bungled Duke to the streetwise Ernest Borgnine as Cabby, trading in his earthy drama and horse-opera appearances for another SF picture a couple of years after he’d fallen into a The Black Hole. JC regulars Adrienne Barbeau, Charles Cyphers and Tom Atkins are always a pleasure, while the heavyweights weigh in with Menagerie favorite Harry Dean Stanton as the weasely
Harold Hellman Brain, and the gimlet eyed Lee Van Cleef who underscores the movies Western credentials – more on that shortly. In terms of minutia and obsessive lore I’ve always had a test for the real Carpenter fanatics, as there are essentially two kinds of acolyte in my book – those who nod and smile when you urge them to name two Frank Doubleday* pictures, and those who tremble and burst into tears. Now, of course you wise purveyors of the Menagerie recognize him from Assault, right? He was the mute ganglord murderer of the girl and in this joint is another memorable and ghastly side character whom you can mentally spin an entire origin story around, purely on the strength of their demeanor, costume and attitude – in this case Keith Flint from The Prodigy crossed with a troll doll. The film, despite its modest $6 million budget also excels in world building which makes the alternate history breathe, courtesy of the exemplar talent of Joe CE3K, Jaws, Freejack Alves. He brought the sense of those ruined, debris strewn Manhattan streets to the actual location of St. Louis which had suffered a major urban fire in 1976, thus served as an ideal fulcrum to paint a portrait of a ravaged New York. Matched with cinematographer Dean Cundey’s deep ochre and cobalt Panavision framing this is a film which coils in the crepuscular details, the miniature oil derrick pumping gasoline in Harry Dean Stanton’s Public Library rat-hole, the black jack-boot fatigues and elongated obsidian blast masks of the fascist authorities, the now retro-futuristic signage decals, these all thread a quasi realistic world which hook the audience into the action.
‘The president of what?’ – So, narratively speaking Escape From New York is a Western of course, Carpenter’s specialism was always decanting the design and iconography of these narratives and placing them in new genre templates, with our grizzled anti-hero entering extremely hostile Comanche country in order to rescue a figure of civilizing authority, and assembling a rat-tag posse of ne’er-do-well’s during his escapades. But this is not that simple as Carpenter has always harbored an anti-authoritarian streak that runs like a virulent Occupy march through his work. In this script, written as America was still reeling from the Watergate souring of the political class and the remnants of the Vietnam insurrection the rescue of the figurehead of the republic strikes a deeply sour note, with an elite political class barely acknowledging the sacrifice of his minions – in such an environment what is a man of quiet principle to do? There are so many favorite little film moments that I can’t justify with any film theory gobbledygook, just the tracking shot of the equipment of our resourceful anti-hero makes me grin, or Plisken taking a moment to correct an upturned chair in order to have a sit and think by the burning wreckage of Air Force One, or the expertly choreographed final race against time – it’s just simple, unadulterated genre film nerd nirvana, and if anyone would like to gift me the ultra-rare film novelisation I’m all ears.
‘You’re the… Duke, (quietly) You’re… A-number one’ – Must I remind you of the presence of a certain James Cameron esquire as one of the matte technicians and model craftsmen on the film? I hear that he went on to work on some popular pictures throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s? It’s not possible to watch the film and the utilization of the twin towers as the site of Snake’s clandestine entry and potential egress without some grim internal reckoning, but that’s always the case when you see any movie with them still standing erect, even in the distant background. Technically speaking its unusual for the period to shoot in wide 2:35:1 Panavision which certainly graces his films of the era with a wider vista, a more ‘epic’ feel, it steroid enhances the experience and drama and distinguishes them with a little more class and prestige through a frame more favored by the art-house brigade. The 35mm print was a little ragged and jerky at some points, particularly, as always, around the reel changes, but that was part of the whole electrifying experience, like a revisit to some grind-house or drive-in which this print must have played back in the last century. Colour and balance wise it was as strong as a digital scan, and most importantly the sound was fantastic, roaring out of the BFI’s modern Dolby tweakers during the action scenes or prompting giggles when dialogue exchanges got tough-guy taut. I’m slightly ashamed of my initial apprehension of seeing the film in the NFT3, I don’t know if they have upgraded this venue recently but the screen was much larger than I remembered, with equal coverage and better seat pitch and sight-lines than NFT2 so my hostility to this room has now evaporated like a triffid in a thunderstorm. Overall this was one of the greatest screenings I’ve ever managed, just to finally see this beloved picture in full frame anamorphic as opposed to the criminal pan-and-scan atrocities of those early VHS releases and TV transmissions still blows my mind, and in a well-preserved 35mm print with good sound and a respectful crowd to boot – an undeniable pinnacle of the ten years of the Menagerie.
‘…..The names’s Plisken‘ – So we slither to ole Snake Plisken himself, arguably Kurt Russell’s finest couple of hour’s in front of the camera. It’s no surprise that the studio was somewhat reticent to cast a former Disney child star in this incarnation of a lethal nihilist bad-ass, instead they pushed Charles Bronson on Carpenter as a preferred choice (was he ever in a SF movie? I can’t picture it) and also the gruff landscape gardener Tommy Lee Jones, but Carpenter stuck to his guns and the rest, as they say, is machismo history. It’s important to reflect that the movie was released in 1981, before Stallone, Ahndolt and Van Damage fully launched their carnage strewn careers, before the sort of super-macho, ubermensch model of that particular phase of genre cinema had fully taken hold. You can draw a clear line from Eastwood, James Coburn and Lee Marvin in the 1970’s through to this stoic anti-hero, I see him as very much a linking figure, with his alternating catchphrase and indiscriminate disrespect for authority. As such he’s an early precursor of the protagonist with whom one does not fuck, who uses unconventional methods to get the job done, except Snake would never respect the conventions of any system in the first place. I’m sure he comes across as a laughable parody to contemporary audiences, especially with the pirate eye-patch and studious rasping voice and sneering coolness, but I love the whole cartoonish demeanor. The less said about Escape From L.A. the better, for my sins I used to defend it as having some moments of amusement, but having re-watched it again earlier this year I’m fighting a losing cause here, as frankly it is bloody atrocious. The saga of the potential remake of EFNY limps on and on, year by year, and let’s face it will be a bloody awful – I’m calling it now. If they cast someone with the star persona of Gerald Butler, appoint the team behind the likes of the White House Down then really what do we expect.
‘You gonna kill me now Snake?’ ‘Not now, I’m too tired’…..(Pause)…..’Maybe later’ – But we’ll always have
Paris New York, if you judge a genre film by the breadth and longevity of its imitators then this is one of the gems, with the American and in particular Italian schlock peddlers carving out an entire dystopian sub-genre of film throughout the 1980’s – Bronx Warriors, 2019: After The Fall Of New York, Battletruck Megaforce, The New Barbarians, and Neil Marshall’s most recent Doomsday, although to be fair some of those took equal cues from the companion piece Mad Max 2 and I’d cite The Warriors as the final piece in a perfect movie trilogy. The final word is this screening was a quasi-religious experience for me, similar to that fealty to Assault On Precinct 13 earlier in the year, and I’m so, so happy to have finally apprehended a film I’ve been agonizing to see for, well, something in the region of thirty fucking years – and there was me thinking that my bloated A.I. review was the longest piece I was going to publish this year. Carpenter is somewhat renown for utilizing open endings, we the story would continue in its own little parallel dimension, just thing of the final verbal confrontation in The Thing which still provokes spirited debate, or the dream-shock climax of Prince Of Darkness, which is somewhat less successful. Escape From New York however champions one of his best finales, we exit stage right, limping and dragging upon a defiant cigarette, as through the bleak nihilism we fade to black as a jazz score recedes in the distance, as some bad-asses just don’t care if the world burns….
* Holy fucking Christ in a sidecar, discoveries like this are why we keep this ridiculous blog going – through my research it turns out that Frank’s daughter Portia just happens to be in the phenomenally brilliant Angela in Mr. Robot, the series I consider the pinnacle of storytelling entertainment of 2016, what a beautiful connection….
This meme has mostly been representing my reaction to Halloween this year, although I have enjoyed American Horror Hotel Season 5 which I veinjacked this weekend – great soundtrack choices, including faintly obscure Cure, Depeche Mode, Sisters Of Mercy and Tangerine Dream drills, the latter running as a barely cloaked evil epiphany throughout the entire season. Still, tonight, soundwise the Menagerie finally sees John Carpenter and all his acolytes in all their gruesome glory, which is beyond immortal imagination. I will have a review of this and a recent Carpenter classic screening to follow;
….and this has made me discover that the brilliant Near Dark is only available in Blu-Ray region 1, what unholy travesty is this? Still, my old-school DVD double pack is my tribute to the pagan hangover of choice, ‘pray for daylight’ indeed, and just to gloat it looks fantastic, some might say freshly blooded on my upscaling A/V system…..
Oh yes, we are starting to get excited now for the Halloween event, and be assured that there is more Carpenter to come;
Just checking in to say I’m immensely excited at some localised movie news this week, coinciding with the arrival of this months Sight & Sound and the programme for this years LFF which just peeked through the virtual letterbox. Firstly, we have a expansive article on JC which looks like a lot of fun, and more power to his raising stature in the critical firmament. From the postscript of this piece I have learned that the BFI are devoting a full two month retrospective to his work in the Autumn, no doubt timed to coincide with the live soundtrack gigs, although the prospect of a Southbank Q&A remains elusively unconfirmed – I’m sure they are working on it. In other news the LFF schedule is fairly interesting considering my self-enforced civilian status this year, I’m aiming at about ten films I want to see that I have churned into the ballot, I guess we’ll see how that goes. There is one specific event for which I am praying for tickets however – I’m not going to elaborate for fear of a jinx other than to say this. I’ll try to craft something a little more substantive on the whole LFF schedule after the weekend, but until then, this;
The hideous horror of balancing an eldritch exhausting day job and this squirming corner of the internet continues – look, I’ve been busy, OK? It’s not just that full reviews have been scant on the ground, finding the time to even get to the cinema has also been scant, but I’m hoping to correct that before the weekend. In any case we still have an earlier expedition to explain, returning once again to the creepy canon of John Carpenter with the underappreciated oozing Prince Of Darkness. Like many of my first viewings of his corpse choked chillers initial memories are of the effect on the audience, not surprising given Carpenter’s expert manipulation of space, cause and effect, and the mischievous masking of double bluffs to relieve the audience before driving the blade home. I will never forgot my first viewing of The Thing – who does? – at around the age of 13 when I staggered home from a post-school-friends-house screening to confront my growling dog, remaining somewhat wary around her for the next 48 hours 9 years. As reported during the last slice of Carpenter coverage I also recall Big Trouble In Little China at the cinema during its initial run, swooning over a contact high of martial arts mayhem and action movie antics. I remember with fond lip-smacking affection the raspberry slushy I consumed when watching Starman for the first time, a family Saturday night VHS viewing, the soundtrack of which haunts me to do this day. I remember seeing the The Ward just a few years ago as the only punter present in the 400 seater Empire Leicester Square, a lonely, mania inducing experience which immediately reminded me of this. Finally when it comes to Prince Of Darkness I remember a mullet of my oldest friends clustered around the film in pitch darkness just after the movie had hit VHS, his mother ‘chaperoning’ our BBFC violating viewing which in this context means clutching two pillows in front of her face and screaming at every creaking door and bout of vagrant violence. So when the Prince Charles cinema announced a screening of all three of Carpenters so-called Apocalypse films – The Thing, Prince Of Darkness and In The Mouth Of Madness – as the climax of this season I cackled with hideous delight. As you may recall I have seen both The Thing and Madness at the cinema already but the chance to revisit Prince and complete the hideous incantation was simply not to be missed, especially since I haven’t worshipped the film at in any format for many neglected years. Hmm, ‘Thing’, ‘Madness’ and ‘Prince’ – sounds like a appropriate summary of this year’s popular culture headlines…..
As the bearer of an extremely mild OCD personality I’ll always admire how this series of films are prologued with an aligned title sequence design, the same font set against the same stark background, just like Stanley’s beloved sans serif. Even as a kid unwise to the worlds of typography and graphic design it unconsciously developed a sense of a coherent and connected body of work emanating from the same warped mind, all interlacing and retracing back on each other like tachyons ricocheting across time and space. Deeply influenced by the Quatermass stories of Nigel Kneale – and in retrospect the Nolan brothers might have absorbed Prince Of Darkness as part of their Interstellar programming – this is a film interested in the pivot between scientific rationality and the insubstantial rhapsodies of faith, the tangible material versus the ethereal immaterial. Although it suffers from one of Carpenter blandest leading men in the form of Jameson Parker the premise overshadows the charcoal etched characters, our main man playing a theoretical physics student finalizing his Ivy League dissertation. His lecturer Professor Birack (Victor Wong, fresh off wise sage duties in Big Trouble In Little China) gives a little speech to his class about quantum mechanics and the collapse of classical reality at the subatomic level, setting in motion the limits of our understanding as it collides with notions of good and evil, dream and consciousness. Interspersed with the rational streams of the story we also witness the quiet passing of a Catholic elder, with subordinate Priest (Donald Pleasance) inheriting the knowledge of a terrible, epoch shattering secret – and all this before Dan Brown’s conspiracy clutter took the tin-foil beanie brigade into popular culture. An ancient cylinder with physic defying properties has been secretly sequestered beneath an abandoned Los Angeles church, and at the Priests request Professor Birack and his team are brought in to examine and investigate the relic over the course of one fateful evening. Something malign and unsympathetic is slowly corrupting the local environment and vagrant population, an ancient evil awakening from its infinite slumber…..
As something of a Carpenter acolyte who hadn’t seen the film for a while this was a revelation, and whilst it doesn’t muster the heights of his highest achievements it ominously lurks among the second tier triumphs of The Fog or They Live. Firstly the concept of Prince Of Darkness was fairly original for the horror genre back in the late 1980’s, so even if portions of the execution are lacking it always has its quantum speed quotidian of nameless horrors gnawing at the very fabric of our reality, a shivering landscape in a period when genuine Lovecraft adaptions were veering from the schlocky to comedic. Carpenter keeps his camera moving, shooting with wide-angle lenses, which combined with his trademark anamorphic format formulates a level of disruptive distortion around the frame, with sequences carefully cut to his foreboding funeral dirge soundtrack. The overall effect is slightly destabilizing and delirious as the horror accrues and the claustrophobia intensifies, draping the film with a strangling shroud of doom. The entire premise of quantum theory dovetailing into human ethical constructs such as ‘good’ and ‘evil’, of reality collapsing into infinite vortexes that our puny insect minds cannot register or comprehend is just great stuff to feed the intellect, and this was well before concepts such as string theory or dark matter escaped his academic confines and infected the national conversation. Traditionally horror sharpen its shocks and scares against more social or cultural urges, violence against women, promiscuity, communist scares to name just three, but I’m actively struggling to think of another picture which really aims for the constellations and the yawning gulf between time and space. All these long running debates over the remaining possible remakes of Carpenters films with Big Trouble and Escape still on the agenda seems to overlooked this picture, I’d postulate that this story is ripe for reinterpretation, maybe Jeremy Saulnier or Jeff Nichols could do such a project proud – the church is still standing, so I might add a visit to my Blade Runner pilgrimage in 2019….
I will insist on shrieking my usual mantra but the film comes alive in full widescreen, as originally framed and photographed, as there are definitive choices here that have been masked by years of VHS cropping. Carpenter was always adept at manipulating different frames of foreground, mid-ground and background to impart story information and threats to the audience while keeping the characters ignorant of their danger, and these have been lost by the Philistines on the pan-and-scan duty. Although this revival has rekindled my affection for the movie I’m certainly can’t claim that it’s a perfect film, and like a lot of Carpenter’s crafts there are strengths and weaknesses in equal measure. Chief among the former is the distant performance and presence of our erstwhile hero, having some wise cracking cynic wouldn’t have assimilated into the tone of the film but he really is something of a non-entity, with a subsequent career fade to theatre. I like a bug-eyed, scenery chewing Donald Pleasance as much as the next man but he verges on self-parody here, intoning enough breathless anticipation ‘ I’m also not sure of the Alice Cooper stunt casting, although I guess it may have attracted some music fans to the movie he doesn’t really do much other than look gormless and hover. Structurally it moves at a fairly brisk pace by assembling the characters and setting the context of the imminent apocalypse nesting within the Church, but it still feels a little pedestrian and localized until the final act kicks events up a gear, with a great climax that fulfils the movies modest $3 million budget. The negatives are overwhelmed by the positives for me, as I just admire the ideas in the film despite their imperfect realization, and as a Carpenter worshipper some of his stock trades and techniques are enough to keep me visually and aurally stimulated with another brooding and bruising score.
Like other puny offerings you could read the film as a mirror of social class which predates his next film They Live, the street people are the gutter dwellers easily seduced by the malign and ancient alien presence foisted upon them by the Church, the bourgeois the questioning well-educated scientists enslaved by the illusions of science and rational logic. Am I clutching at straws in this analysis? Maybe as I can’t really evolve that strand, but it strikes me as a thread in the wider tapestry of Carpenters works which threads the genre needle to weave his anti-authoritarian instincts. Yes, that dream sequence remains as spine shudderingly eerie as it always was, a half buried transmission coiling in the purlieus of a waking nightmare. As you’d expect the siege film dynamics are expertly orchestrated, erecting a sense of space and tone which most artisans rarely effect, but they pay off in the final act when we have understood and absorbed a definitive sense of interlocking space and character positions, particularly when isolated figures are being frantically rescued by their companions as the evil draws its plans to fruition. The makeup effects are a little dated but thats to be expected, but some of the imagery remains slippery and pungent on the frame, and I’m amused how this temple of elemental evil is situated in some modest LA suburb, less than a keening howl from the Hollywood citadels themselves. The whole final sequence is just great genre cinema, a pulsing sense of genuine dread and apprehension of exactly what is advancing on our reality across the 5th dimension, I like to thing it might be the daemon from Ridley Scott’s Legend as they certainly share the same sulphurous skin tones. Normally I aim to take down one film by one of my favourite directors per year on here, a loose ambition that isn’t always achieved. To have claimed the scalp of no less than three Carpenter films by May has me beaming like possessed emissary. As I see it we only have one remaining major film of his to cover, Escape From New York, and I must find a screening of They Live soon, and I will consider any convenient opportunity to see some of the others like Christine, Starman or maybe even a deep cult cut such as Bad Moon Rising. I implore you however, for all that is holy in the cosmos don’t ever expect a Ghosts of Mars or Village Of The Damned reviews – I’d sell my soul to avoid them;
Catchphrases can be funny things. They are an indicator of whether a film has made an indelible cultural mark, as just uttering a line conjures in the mind of the beholder the movie in all its affable glory – ‘I’ll be back‘, ‘I made him an offer he can’t refuse‘, ‘Phone Home’, ‘Nobody’s perfect’. As soon as the silents became talkies certain lines of dialogue encapsulated the film and its squawking star persona, from Garbo’s insistence of ‘vanting to be alone’ to Frankenstein shrieking ‘It’s alive’. Heck even when a bastardisation of the actual line enters the vernacular the remnants still resonate – ‘Play it again, Sam’ – the omission or addition of a single word echoing in ignorance throughout the ages. Sometimes, mischievous filmmakers take these tropes and playfully mock their prevalence, the cinematic equivalent of having your cake and eating it, simultaneously poking fun at the cliché while also flirting with their affection – after all ’it’s all in the reflexes’. This bring us to the wonder that is Big Trouble In Little China, a film which amusingly mocks the 1980’s fish-out-of-water action paradigm, while also predicting Hollywood’s assimilation of Oriental action and martial arts cinema by at least a decade. With his career suffering a flat-line after the fiscal flop of The Thing John Carpenter hesitantly moved toward the centre with safer projects, line-assembling the Stephen King adaption Christine (probably the least discussed of all his golden era films), and inverting the alien as outsider threat with Starman which can dismissively described as E.T. with adults. Out of the rising sun came his next project, reuniting with the Mifune to his Kurosawa Kurt Russell, their fourth collaboration which hardly reversed his barren box-office boon, barely recouping 50% of its then medium weighted budget.
Astoundingly this was not the first time I’ve seen Big Trouble at the cinema, as it may make you smirk to learn that I actually dragged two friends to see this on its general release back in 1986, and while both heretics dismissed the film as ‘stupid’ and ‘dumb’ I was of course enthralled, so who’s laughing now Darren Jiggins and Stuart Townsend? Well? Despite being widely dismissed during the 1990’s the film (alongside They Live) has been reassessed in the internet age, coalescing into a dedicated cult audience perhaps more attuned to cultural and genre meldings of an elixir of dumb-ass action movie, slapstick comedy, gravity defying wuxia acrobatics and mild San Francisco focused Orientalism. Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) is a macho lunkhead trucker who is unluckily drawn into a kidnapping plot when his friend Wang (Dennis Dun) new mail order Chinese bride is abducted by a cadre of black garbed goons at the airport. Unfortunately it turns out that his new bride is destined to fulfil an ancient prophecy, the power to invigorate ancient sorcerer Lo-Pan (a cackling James Hong) with a reinvigorating immortality, through a rather unfortunate bought of human sacrifice. With plucky investigative reporter Gracie (Kim Cattral) also embroiled in the imbroglio the stage is set for an agile adventure secreted behind the façade of reality, where deep in the bowels of San Francisco ancient powers battle mystical forces from beyond the mysterious orient……
Structurally Big Trouble In Little China is hardly a prototype of a new seething action cinema, but it was something of a trailblazer in bringing some of the mystical martial arts momentum to a less adventurous, silo separated Westernized audience – that’s what I think caused the film to fail thirty years ago. For the truly faithful we’ve always appreciated its odd mélange of styles and influences, it’s just so much dumb yet genuinely amusing fun, never taking its characters seriously but investing enough inciting mysticism and physics shredding choreography into the action sequences and internecine character banter. No doubt some could read the film slightly distastefully in 2016 with some broad archetypes of the inscrutable immigrant on display, but it’s not like it’s as immediately offensive as Mickey Rooney in Breakfast At Tiffany’s or Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles or anything, and the real hero is the dexterous Wang while Jack blunders around like a drunken oaf, intoxicated on a cheap combination of Sangria laced Sambucca. The style is comic book stylistics before the medium really began to gain traction over all blockbuster product, moving fast enough to obscure any narrative nuance, dazzling the audience with some cool stunt and editing work which papers over a rather perfunctory plot. Some of the special effects are a little on the dated side and the creature and prosthetics designs inelegantly express their 30 years, but when you get to my venerable age of cult movie fandom that’s part of the fun, the tactile, physical SFX as part of the films tensile temperature as the haircuts, costumes, or wider cultural references. If you want to really get into some of the minutiae then I’ve heard that the primary influence was Zu Warriors From The Magic Mountain which inspired the revolutionary wire work, both films barely containing characters who ricochet around the sets like Percocet powered pinballs, while Jack generally asks a lot of questions;
That’s as good a montage as you’re likely to get, and this wouldn’t be a Menagerie review of a John Carpenter film if we didn’t single out the synth pulsing score for a little love now would it? It’s a more playful and flippant choral mix than you’d normally expect from the usual sonic slithering, with regular collaborator Alan Howarth providing his usual, instructive support– I’m already getting excited for October. Visually you may identify the masterful eyes of Dean Cundey at work, one of the industries most respected artisans when it comes to disguising and melding live and SFX elements. After perfecting his art in the likes of Escape From New York and The Thing Spielberg selected him to lens a modest little picture called Jurassic Park just a trio of years later. Coincidently just this week I finally saw the notorious exploitation classic The Witch Who Came From The Sea and can you guess who photographed that? He crops up as interview subject in a few short DVD extras.
Before the arrival of Jackie Chan, before John Woo, before Ang Lee but after Bruce Lee, Hollywood of the late 1980’s was struggling for new hooks to hang its genre templates upon, casting their net wide to co-opt foreign genre successes which they could then mould into their classical narrative templates – a bit of romance with no actual sex, a three act structure complete with inciting incident and equilibrium restoring climax, some misguided yet not entirely stringent distrust of foreign customs and clients. Rumours persist that the film was rushed into production as some effort to slipstream in the success of Eddie Murphy’s The Golden Child, or maybe the whole interest in the orient as source material was just another of those zephyous passing studio executive fads. There is rather odd underlying philosophy lurking in the corner of these pictures, Carpenter does seem fascinated with the possibility of forces behind the fabric of reality, of the potential of permeable barriers between dimensions, personified in the sage-alike Obi Wan character Egg Shen (Victor Wong) which bleeds nicely into his next picture Prince Of Darkness and the final scream of his apocalypse trilogy In The Mouth Of Madness. I remember his enunciation of these interests during a fondly remembered BBC transmission called Horror Café, a late night discussion panel where he was joined by such gruesome luminaries as Clive Barker, Roger Corman and Ramsay Campbell, a rediscovery which I stumbled across like a menacing tree root in a fog shrouded graveyard, and you can exorcise it here.
Somehow the boisterous boffins at the Prince Charles have sourced a wonderful, pristine 70mm print which hung on the screen like an animated lìzhóu, the colours and combat popping like a delicious dish of sizzling szechuan chicken. Big Trouble isn’t the greatest action film ever made, it’s certainly not the most dazzling martial arts film ever made, but it is a confection of tightly coiled fun, unabashedly goofy and playful, and Russell’s perfectly calibrated performance goes a long way in maintaining that deliriously devoted cult audience as yet another personification of Carpenters cynical, wisecracking anti-heroes. There is evidently something in the water as after the January Kubrick season and this Carpenter programme what is coming up at the Prince Charles in May? Oh, only a blinking Michael Mann season which means I can finally see Menagerie favorite Thief and perhaps The Keep on the big screen, you’d think I’d brought shares in them or sold my soul to some sort of slithering celluloid cacodemon. But we’re not done with Mr. Carpenter just yet, as to infiltrate the bank holiday we must worship at a very special triple bill, which means I can finally get those tachyons pulsing and revisit the year one….nine….nine…..
We just can’t escape John Carpenter’s instructive influence at the moment. That I’m complaining of course, JC is one of my favourite filmmakers of all time, so its been extremely rewarding to see a entire horde of small budget, genre savy-films emerge from the same birthing chamber, particularly in light of the incompetent remakes which have scourged the multiplexes over the past decade – The Fog? The Thing prequel? The Assault on Precinct 13 remake? Yuck. This brings us to the fine, ermine career of Jeff Nichols, for my money one of the more interesting American directors to emerge from the independent scene in the new millennium, now on his fourth feature of Southern scented stories with the eagerly awaited Midnight Special. Numerous critics have cited both the Carpenter and Spielbergian overtones which are easy to detect, but without the lack of cloying sentimentality when it comes to the latter which can tarnish his work, instead opting for the distillation of awe and wonder which made the likes of E.T. and Close Encounters so successful and memorable. Opening in a furtive motel we meet two stern men – Roy (the always brilliant Shannon) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton) who are sequestered with an eight-year-old boy named Alton (an eerie Jaeden Lieberher), whom we learn from news reports appears to have been kidnapped. With echoes of the Waco Branch Davidans the authorities raid the church led by Sam Shepherd, he is also hunting the fugitives and desires return the capture of the valuable child at all costs, grimly warning the FBI that they have no idea what they are dealing with. We soon learn that Roy is Alton’s birth father whom is desperately leading his son to the location of some psychically seered co-ordinates, linking up with Alton’s excommunicated birth mother (Kirsten Dunst) along the way. But who, or indeed what is Alton beneath that human carapace and what is the source of his mysterious, near apocalyptic powers? Well that would be telling wouldn’t’ it?……
Cell phones aside the film not only feels like a genre product of the 1980’s it could have been set in the 1980’s, such is the tempo and aspirations of Midnight Special from its sparse deployment of special effects to its emphasis on atmosphere and environment, so while it stands in the shadow of previous beloved artefacts it does struggle initially so define its own voice. I think a good point of departure (if you’ll excuse the plot driven pun) that enables us to unpack the film is to consider Nichol’s expressed working protocols, acting as sole screenwriter and director in true auteur fashion. He has explained that he writes on two ‘tracks,’ when slaving over a groaning MacBook, one for plot/genre and the other for behaviour/characterization. This enables him to take two aligned narrative cables and twist them into a stronger and more resilient coil, merging both streams into a movie which feels familiar but still aspires to surprise and delight. That’s a terrific approach which is instructive of his commitment to genre and style, a lesson which many of these independently sourced directors who are being absorbed into the studio system should take heed, we’ll see how Rian Johnson handles Episode IX but Colin Trevorrow certainly abandoned character in favor of spectacle soured SFX in the atrocious Jurassic World. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Nichols pick up a franchise nod having delivered another modest critical darling (Midnight Special only cost $20 million), and I for one would be amused to see his take on a Star Wars picture, some outcasts running through the solemn sandy badlands of Tattooine in pursuit of some ethereal, spiritual peace could fit in with that universe mechanics. He’s stated that his earlier triumph Take Shelter was inspired by his apprehension of responsibility, of getting married and starting a family, but the journey to Midnight Special was far more fraught. During pre-production he suffered a terrifying ordeal when his infant son was seriously ill, an experience of potential loss and abandonment which he has poured into his art like any worthy , without coming as to self-indulgent – again those genre trappings give the film one remove from a narcissistic bore. The film pulses with a genuine soul and desire to uncoil its subtexts within the confines of the genre infrastructure, although initially I liked it a lot I was a little disappointed for some shortcomings which I’ll get into shortly, but upon reflection some of those concerns have faded while other celestial moments have soared.
Oddly the film that Midnight Special immediately brought to mind wasn’t the obvious influence Starman which Nichols has cited as a major influence but another eighties cult classic – Near Dark. Both films are largely set at night, the reasoning in this that sunlight causes Alton to exhibit dangerous outbursts and symptoms of his mysterious pedigree, draping them both in a nebulous, smooth twilight suggesting the transitional permeability between two worlds. Both films prowl through the small towns and communities of Texas and Alabama, incubating rural authenticity in which the fantastical and uncanny takes place, and both films share a lyrical synth driven score – another Carpenter influence that the film proudly boasts on its sleeve. Nichols has selected a lens flare driven cinematography which could have J.J. Abrams reaching for his copyright attorney, but there is a method to the madness which becomes clear in the final act which holds a few surprises ups its sleeve – I really can’t elaborate on this for fears of the dreaded spoilers. Other recent interlopers to the Alien paddock like Super-8 and Tomorrowland seem to be pushing smaller scale SF into more positive modes, with the aliens (in both terrestrial and extra-terrestrial sense) as benevolent saviours rather than threats to be feared and fought, another link back to 1980’s staples like Cocoon and E.T. Again I’m dancing around spoilers here but the third act reveal is genuine, tear inducing ‘wow’ stuff for SF aficionados, restoring one’s faith in modest and appropriate deployment of SFX which serves the story rather than leaving the audience in a visual state of concussion.
However, there are frustrating problems which can’t be avoided. I didn’t particularly feel any emotional investment from the parents to Alton apart from one briefly touching scene, and Driver’s character feels woefully undeveloped in the first couple of acts which make his decisions in the final stretch disappointingly inauthentic, even if he’s playing the standard government good guy nested among a swarm of bureaucrats who want to weaponize or permanently eliminate a threat they can’t understand. The narrative slyly drops history and backstory through restrained and removed dialogue exchanges which is welcomed as storytelling to aimed at an adult audience, but other chains of cause and effect are nigh incomprehensible, with one scene where Driver cracks a crucial code is woefully illogical and confusing. Upon reflection Joel Egerton’s entire character is surplus to requirement, you could surgically remove him from the plot and you’d probably generate more warmth between the father and son doxology which propels the entire empathic engine of the film. The plot follows the usual race against time as Tyler grows more sickly, suffering from a photosynthesis aversion to our blazing sun, and there isn’t many surprises story-beat wise as the interesting context of the cult Alton’s history seems unexplored and expressed – those rumoured re-shoots ordered by a nervous Warner Brothers appear to hold water. Nevertheless Midnight Special excels in atmosphere which is Nichol’s forte, there’s a real sense of the world both physical and spiritual surrounding the fugitives with a slowly encroaching dread snapping at their heels, and any film so committed to such qualities is welcomed as antidote to the crash-bang carnage of the Hollywood proscenium. If they just fixed a few niggles this could have been a brilliant work rather than just a good one, but I suspect this is a movie that will grow and strengthen with repeated viewings, with a final act revelation which is pure cinematic celestial celebration. Midnight Special is a perfect companion piece to Nichol’s Take Shelter which for the moment remains a stronger picture, faith and prophecy hinting at entities beyond human comprehension, locked in the pure unencumbered love between father and son;
Jesus cocking Christ in a sidecar, FINALLY, after two bloody years of waiting, we finally get to see the trailer for the eagerly awaited new film from American wunderkid Jeff Nichols;
A low-key trailer which invokes 1980’s Stephen King filtered through Nichols particular flavour of rural American melancholia? That will do for me. Nichols finished the picture some time ago and is actually in the mist of shooting his next film, so there are dark rumors of studio tampering and diluted visions – I guess we shall see next March…..