Tag Archives: John Carpenter

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: DARK STAR (1974)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Dre Pahich, Cal Kuniholm, Brian Narelle

PLOT: A tiny crew of astronauts is on a maintenance mission to wipe out unstable planets, while contending with beach-ball shaped aliens, megalomaniac AI smart bombs, toilet paper shoratges, and their own petty disputes.

Still from Dark Star (1974)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Dark Star explores just enough dark matter to make it a heavy contender for the List, given its narrow category of sci-fi-comedy. The main things holding it back are that it hasn’t aged well, it’s a shoestring budget production with a syrupy pace, and the fact that it really could have fit a few more ideas into its runtime. But some details demand its consideration, such as the theme song: still the only country-and-western quantum-physics love-ballad so far in cinematic history. And a damned catchy one!

COMMENTS: Dark Star is such an enduring and beloved cult film that nothing I could say here could dent its reputation. It marks the origin of two heavy-weight genre-film talents: director John Carpenter, of Halloween, The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China, and They Live fame, and Dan O’Bannon, who would go on to pen the screenplays for Alien, The Return of the Living Dead, Lifeforce, and Total Recall. This is about the film you’d expect if you gave these two juggernaut talents a camera and turned them loose when they were students on a dormitory budget. Dark Star is a sci-fi comedy and a clever satire on the Golden Age of science fiction. It cheerfully plunders your memory if you grew up munching “Analog” and “F&SF” magazines and pulpy sci-fi paperbacks from thrift store spinner racks (that’d be me!), in the same way plunders grindhouse cinema. This is all done with a relaxed, broken-in pace, giving it a unique tone even among sci-fi comedies.

The crew of the good ship Dark Star are on a 20+ year mission in deep space to detonate unstable planets around star systems wherever they may find them, to clear space for potential future colonization. They get pep talk video transmissions from Earth mission control with a ten-year delay; the crew has tenuous support at best and their mission is not particularly urgent. They’re a crew of expendable red-shirts. Indeed, Commander Powell is dead already, but kept as a meat popsicle able to telepathically counsel the crew. Morale is in the pits: Talby (Dre Pahich) has retreated to the observation bubble where he avoids as much responsibility as he can, Doolittle (Brian Narelle) escapes with daydreams of his good old days surfing in Malibu, Boiler (Cal Kuniholm) fitfully takes out his aggression with laser rifle target practice, and Pinback (Dan O’Bannon) has adopted a farting orange ball alien, whom he seems to identify with more than the rest of the team. In between, the crew’s intense boredom and frustration makes them lash out at each other with testy, passive-aggressive acts of random pettiness.

Outside of all that, there really isn’t much of a plot. We have a crew of burnouts who have allowed their beards and mustaches to grow into Freak Brothers‘ territory, surrounded by banks of computer monitors and endless colorful buttons and switches, earning this movie the well-deserved moniker of “hippies in space.” Everything electronic talks, from the ship’s guiding computer to each individual bomb (note that this movie predates “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”). The hilarious alien gets loose and Pinback has to chase it down, in an extended slapstick sequence that brings him to peril in an elevator shaft. Various computer and electronics malfunctions cause the sentient bombs to go haywire, creating a crisis where the crew must talk a bomb down from exploding with the ship still attached. Funny throwaway moments are all over; the crew tokes doobies in joyless resignation, and thumbs through D.C. Comics’ romance titles. And of course, numerous sci-fi works from the classics up to that year are referenced, including, without spoiling it, a Ray Bradbury short story—you’ll know it when you see it.

Dark Star‘s cult following today is at least halfway due to the intelligence at the core of its lightweight premise. It is a grand piss-take on the science fiction epic blockbuster, a genre at that time still in its salad days. Ironically, Carpenter and O’Bannon would go on from here to make some of the most definitive movies in that very genre. Dark Star counters the unfolding corridors of wonder reflected in David Bowman’s eyes with caustic pragmatism: space travel sucks when you run out of toilet paper. There are no Captain Kirks or Mr. Spocks here to deliver ringing speeches about the nobility of mankind’s quest for discovery. When new stars or intelligent lifeforms are discovered, Lt. Doolittle sneers “Who cares?” and “Find me something I can blow up!” Have Stephen Spielberg and his imitators given you the impression that our first contact with alien life forms will be a sweeping cosmic epiphany? Naw, it’ll probably be something like the orange ball with horrid clawed feet which has to be chased and corralled like a rowdy puppy. Dark Star pops our Atomic Age balloon to remind us that no matter what amazing things humans accomplish, most of our problems will still be with us just because we’re dumb monkeys who can barely get anything done through the choking bureaucracy that is our only form of self-governance. This makes Dark Star a contender for the very first cyberpunk movie. Ain’t it groovy?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“‘Dark Star’ is one of the damnedest science fiction movies I’ve ever seen, a berserk combination of space opera, intelligent bombs, and beach balls from other worlds.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Looking back at John Carpenter’s Dark Star – An in-depth review and tribute by Lawrence Brooks at “Den of Geek”

(This movie was nominated for review by “Roland Mangan.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

 

DIRECTOR RETROSPECTIVE: JOHN CARPENTER

Guest review by Brandon Engel, a freelance writer specializing in entertainment and pop culture, as well as an aspiring filmmaker.

  is heralded by many genre enthusiasts as a “horror icon,” but his body of work extends into other genres. Though perhaps best known for his work on Halloween and his “Apocalypse Trilogy”—The Thing (1982), Prince of Darkness (1987) and In The Mouth of Madness (1994)—Carpenter has been writing, directing and producing genre films since the early 1970’s.

Halloween, released in 1978, ushered in a new era of “slasher” films, although originally Carpenter set out only to “make a film [he] would love to have seen as a kid.” His self-described “crass exploitation” film earned over $65 million at the box office. Not bad, considering that the film was made for a budget of approximately $325,000 and with mostly unknown actors (with the notable exception of Bond villain ). Although Carpenter admitted it wasn’t his favorite film, The Fog (1980) became a successful cult movie all the same, although critical reception was initially lukewarm. Rounding out Carpenter’s horror masterpieces is The Thing. Although The Thing proved to be a box-office disappointment, these three movies cemented Carpenter’s reputation as a master of the horror genre.

However, Carpenter has tried his hand at science-fiction as well. In fact, his first significant outing as director was the ultra-low budget feature Dark Star (1974), which he worked on with USC classmate Dan O’Bannon (whom you may recognize as the screenwriter for Ridley Scott’s Alien). The film was a parody of classic science-fiction films such as ’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Several of Carpenter’s other successful films integrate elements of science-fiction, such as Starman (1984), about an unlikely coupling between an alien and a widow fleeing from government agents, and Escape from New York (1981), about a dystopian future where a crime ridden United States has been forced to turn Manhattan Island in New York City into a maximum-security prison.

John Carpenter on the set of The Ward (2011)
John Carpenter on the set of The Ward (2011)

Every career has it high and low points, and Carpenter’s is no exception. After the dismal box-office performance of The Thing, Carpenter lost the opportunity to direct Firestarter, based on the book by Stephen King. In the 1990’s, he produced several flops including Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992), Village of the Damned (1995), and Escape From L.A. (1996). Perhaps due to this decline in Carpenter’s popularity, his films Prince of Darkness (1987, about the Anti-Christ), They Live (1988, about aliens secretly controlling the human population) and In the Mouth of Madness (1994, about a Lovecraftian author whose fiendish imaginings become manifest) did not garner the attention they deserved.

After being semi retired in the 2000’s, Carpenter saw a resurgence of his work after remakes of his Halloween, Assault on Precinct 13, The Thing and The Fog. In 2005, Carpenter returned to film, contributing to the Masters of Horror series for Showtime, a compilation of 13 different notable horror filmmakers. Reviews for his episode “Cigarette Burns” were positive, prompting Carpenter to follow up with the feature The Ward (2011). That film, whose plot follows an institutionalized woman named Kristen who is haunted by a mysterious and deadly zombie-like ghost, brought lukewarm reviews. One critic described the film as “just as good as most of the films in mainstream horror today.” Shallow praise for the “master of horror.”

Despite the fact that he never again realized his mass-market potential since the decline of his career began in the late 1980’s, John Carpenter has no doubt created a lasting legacy for himself, in horror, science fiction, and filmmaking in general. As was reflected in his recent interview with filmmaker  on the latter’s El Rey Network (available on DirectTV), Carpenter has had an enormous influence on many popular genre filmmakers currently working. His name will be forever associated with the rises and falls—the successes and failures—that are the mark of a lifetime spent in the entertainment business.

CAPSULE: PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1987)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jameson Parker, Lisa Blount, , Victor Wong

PLOT: A priest discovers the essence of evil buried in a vault underneath a Los Angeles church, and a team of professors and grad students set out to study it.

Still from Prince of Darkness (1987)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: If you laid out all the world’s horror movies on a spectrum from utterly surreal to mundane, Prince of Darkness would just barely lie on the strange side of the weird meridian.

COMMENTS: Like a lot of John Carpenter’s later horror movies, Prince of Darkness frequently weaves back and forth across the thin line that separates intriguing from goofy. On the one hand, the idea that quantum physics might take the place of nuclear power as the horror movies’ go-to source of scientific anxiety is exciting. (Other than the rare ambitious item like Crowley/Chemical Wedding, horror hasn’t followed Carpenter’s lead here, preferring genetics as more populist technological boogeyman). At the subatomic level, argues Prince of Darkness‘ sage, Professor Birack, rationality breaks down and the everyday rules of logic don’t apply. Playing off people’s discomfort with physicists’ unnerving message that the foundations of matter and reality are wispy and indeterminate, the script argues that Satan might be hiding out at the subatomic level.

That’s a clever inspiration for a horror film, so it’s a little disappointing to see such notions translate into Lucifer as a glob of glowing green goo trapped in a centrifuge in the Church basement. Recasting the Book of Revelation in science-fictiony terms, Jesus becomes a good alien speaking to the prophets in code to help us ward off future attacks by bad aliens—or something like that. At one point, the computer monitor warns one of the investigating grad students, “You will not be saved by the god Plutonium.”

Actually, if Prince of Darkness had contained more of that type of oracular craziness, it might have passed muster as a campy classic. Instead, the movie mostly abandons the religio-scientific mumbo-jumbo for its second half and ventures into a standard people-trapped-in-a-building-fighting-zombies scenario. The Evil Presence, whatever it is, doesn’t play by constant rules. Sometimes, it possesses people at a distance to do its bidding, as with the homeless people it enslaves and uses to encircle the church. At other times it has to infect hosts by spitting a stream of fluid directly into their mouths, and at yet other moments it kills someone first, then reanimates him to do its bidding. The choice of which method it uses all comes down to whatever most conveniently leads into the next big kill or grossout scene (although the Evil seems to prefer killing males and possessing females via fluid transfer, it’s not a stickler about it). The second half of the movie becomes a bit of a formula exercise in winnowing down the cast, as grad students are gradually sacrificed to the growing evil. Still, a few oddball moments poke through the familiar fabric (i.e. Victor Wong fighting grad-student zombies with a shaken-up Sprite and a chopstick, and a “this is not a dream” dream sequence that’s one of the movie’s better ideas), making Prince a confounding glimpse at a great weird movie that could have been.

Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray “Collectors Edition” of Prince of Darkness makes Universal’s old bare bones DVD edition obsolete (unless you don’t own a Blu player, as Shout! hasn’t released this version on the older format). It includes a commentary by Carpenter, an alternate opening shot for television, and several interviews (including one with rocker Alice Cooper, whose role in the film is little more than that of an extra with lots of screen time).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

 “…an endearingly odd, consistently creepy film… met on its own bonkers terms, Prince Of Darkness proves satisfying.”–Keith Phipps, The Dissolve (Blu-ray)

CAPSULE: IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS (1994)

DIRECTED BY: John Carpenter

FEATURING: , Julie Carmen, ,

PLOT: An insurance investigator investigates the disappearance of a bestselling horror novelist whose books have the power to drive men mad.

Still from n the Mouth of Madness (1994)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: In the Mouth of Madness has an ahead-of-its-time, and slightly weird, premise, but the movie’s execution doesn’t live up to the promise of the insane scenario.

COMMENTS: A throng of maddening ideas writhe within In the Mouth of Madness. A horror writer whose books turn susceptible readers into psychopaths. A New England town, not marked on the map, inhabited by characters and places from the writer’s fictional stories. A world where the insane gradually come to outnumber the sane, and mental asylums become a refuge from the madness of the world outside. These elements conspire to make Madness an intriguing proposition, but unfortunately the movie sports an equal number of gaffes that keep it from reaching its potential. Madness‘s initial budget of 15 million was cut by more than two-thirds, which perhaps explains some of the unevenness on display. Some of the special effects, especially the ones devised by Industrial Light and Magic such as the sequence where Prochnow peels his face apart and it turns into the ripped pages of a novel, are up to 1990’s snuff. But some of the non-scary rubber makeup effects belong in a movie from a decade earlier; for example, a scene where a circus contortionist wears a mask meant to convince us she’s another character is more likely to elicit chuckles than shudders. The acting, too, is all over the map in terms of quality. The first speaking part goes to a bow-tied asylum administrator whose campy, overly-precise delivery doesn’t inspire much confidence going in. Sam Neill is fine here as the somewhat bland hero, Prochnow has the proper face for the otherworldly novelist, and it’s nice to see Charlton Heston in a small role as a publisher (he probably enjoyed working with Carpenter for a couple of afternoons in the kind of a low-stress cameo accomplished actors can afford to indulge in the twilight of their careers). Julie Carmen is wooden as the female lead, however, and shares little chemistry with Neill; her character serves little purpose and the movie may have benefited if she’d been cut out. Despite having an original premise, the script leans on horror cliches too often, with jump scares, a “fake wake” dream sequence, and an expository wraparound that doesn’t make a lot of story sense (who does the doctor who’s interviewing Neill’s character work for, why is he interested in this patient, and what exactly is he trying to learn?) Given those drawbacks, which are the kinds of flaws that usually sink mid-budget horror attempts, it’s a testament to the strength of the ideas here and to Carpenter’s direction that the movie does manage to keep our interest–and has even become a cult item in some people’s minds. Although the name of the novelist—Sutter Cane—is a blatant sound-alike for Stephen King, the style of horror here (both in this story and in Cane’s fictional universes) is more reminiscent of H.P. Lovecraft, with its emphasis on insanity brought about by forbidden knowledge and on unseen, indescribable monsters from other worlds who seek to invade ours. (The movie’s title even suggests Lovecraft’s novella “At the Mountains of Madness”). Those addicted to Lovecraft’s influential style of occult horror—a universe where the Old Gods slumber uneasily, waiting to be awakened by foolish mortals so they can assume their rightful dominion over our world—will appreciate this occasionally clever tribute to the perverse imagination of “the gentleman from Providence.”

In the Mouth of Madness is a pioneering example of meta-horror, by which I mean not just a horror movie that is “self-aware” (as in a parody) but in which the nature and craft of diabolical literature itself plays an essential part in the story. Another example from the very same year of 1994 was Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, in which actors from the Nightmare on Elm Street series find that the fictional creation Freddy Kruger is clawing his way into the real world. The best recent iteration of this interesting mini-genre is last year’s The Cabin in the Woods.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…confusing, weird, and not very involving.”–James Berardinelli, Reel Views (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Kevin, who argued that Madness is “the best of John Carpenter’s 90s films, and the weirdest in his catalogue.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

ELVIS (1979) & THIS IS ELVIS (1981)

The life of Elvis Presley is “the” perfect American grand guignol tale that has never really been captured on film. John Carpenter’s Elvis (1979) has finally been released in its full three hour European theatrical version. Some consider it to still be the best film on the subject of Elvis.

Elvis Presley was undoubtedly a phenomenon. He was as poor white trash as poor white trash can get. He grew up in a predominantly black Pentecostal church. Many African-Americans have accused him of stealing their music. Actually, it’s all he knew, and he treated it with reverence. Accusations of racism are certainly factual, but only from an off-color perspective. Like Sammy Davis, Jr., Elvis had an intense self-loathing for his own blackness.

Elvis, the dirt poor mama’s boy, filled his flights of fancy with whipped cream dreams of being a movie star more than anything else; but it was his voice, his extrovert sexual chemistry, and being in the right place at the right time, coupled with his insatiable, singular drive, and securing shrewd management, that catapulted him into the status of an American icon.

Still from Elvis (1979)One element that is sorely missing from all of the films and documentaries on him was Elvis’ early sense of perfection in the recording studios. He often demanded up to forty takes on one song.

Elvis was one of the first and certainly the biggest artist whose career was built on eclecticism. The Elvis Presley persona was birthed from what he knew and what he wanted to be in his Walter Mitty-like romantic fantasies. Elvis was part Mahalia Jackson (his gospel recordings are second only to hers), part Dean Martin, part James Dean, part Marlon Brando, and part Rudolph Valentino. Later, both Sammy Davis and Liberace would be added to the mix.

As archaic as the myth and screen presence of silent screen Valentino seems now, its Continue reading ELVIS (1979) & THIS IS ELVIS (1981)