Wednesday, October 31, 2012

MOVIE REVIEW: THE THING (1982)

Directed by John Carpenter
Screenplay by Bill Lancaster, adapted from the short story "Who Goes There?" by John W. Campbell
Cinematography by Dean Cundey
Edited by Todd C. Ramsay
Special Makeup Effects by Rob Bottin (with an assist from Stan Winston)
Special Visual Effects by Albert Whitlock
Music by Ennio Morricone, John Carpenter
Produced by David Foster, Lawrence Turman, Wilbur Stark, Stuart Cohen

Starring

Kurt Russell
A. Wilford Brimley
Keith David
Donald Moffat
Charles Hallahan
Richard Masur
David Clennon
T.K. Carter
Joel Polis
Richard Dysart
Thomas G. Waites
Peter Maloney


"When a man bleeds, it's just tissue. But blood from one of you Things won't obey. It's a newly formed individual with a built-in desire to protect its own life. When attacked, your blood will try and survive--and crawl away from a hot needle, say."
--Macready (played by Kurt Russell) in the movie The Thing.


150,000 years ago an alien craft crash lands somewhere in Antarctica.

Cut to: 1982. An American research station somewhere in Antarctica. A Norwegian man with an assault rifle chases a dog into the middle of the American facility, firing like mad. He seems to want to kill the dog. One of the Americans is wounded. The gunman rants and raves in a language none of the Americans can understand. In self-defense, the captain of the station fires a .357 round through the mad gunman's eye.

It's determined that the Norwegian came from a nearby research station established by the Kingdom of Norway. Did the Norwegian camp go stark raving mad? Were they cooking some bad drugs over there? Did they go stir crazy or what? Why would anyone want to kill a harmless dog?

Maybe that dog isn't so harmless.

In fact, it harbors a predatory life-form from another world. Something that can take on any shape--once it has consumed it and replicated it via its icky, but sophisticated, biology. This . . . thing has come from distant worlds, and has absorbed all sorts of lifeforms in its journeys, or so it would seem. It has now started to absorb human and canine life forms. It has no interest in communication. Only in absorbing forms, knowledge, and getting the hell out of Antarctica. Maybe it'll imitate a bird, and fly right the Christ outta there.

Soon the Americans are wondering: who's human? Who's the thing? How do you tell a perfect imitation apart from its original?

The answer, it would seem, is in the blood.

Unless, of course, the thing has perfectly imitated human blood. Then what?

What if its goal is to absorb and replicate itself across the whole surface of the earth? How do you contain such an enemy? The thing seems to operate like a bacteria or a virus--some kind of infectious agent for sure. The thing is some kind of plague threatening to wipe out humanity.

Or is it? Maybe when it perfectly imitates you it perfectly re-assembles you, and it only manifests aggression if it feels threatened. Maybe we need to cool down, and not start breaking out all the guns and flamethrowers and so forth.

But what if this thing really is looking to assert total control? We can't just let this thing go. We gotta find out who is human, and who's the thing.

Two enemies, human and the thing, wage a war in Antarctica to see who survives and who dies. Who gets to rule the planet, and who gets reduced to ashes. The only language that both sides seem to understand seems to be a pidgin mixture of aggression, cunning, violence, and manipulation--war, in other words. Prisoners are taken. Harsh interrogations conducted. No one can be trusted. Subtle personal resentments float to the surface: Am I dropping the hammer on this guy because I think he's an alien imitation, or because I think he's kind of an asshole? Remember, these guys have been cooped up in this research station for a long time.

Maybe there is no Thing. Maybe the only contagion brought into the American camp was the virus of fear. Fear takes root, and you see whatever you want to see. Weapons are drawn, fingers pointed, sides chosen. Humans have been doing this to each other since our primal beginnings with no end in sight. Do we really need some ooga-booga make believe alien bullshit to set us against each other to the knife? People abuse and kill each other over invisible things all the time--politics, ideology, nationalism, religion, economics, jealousy, racism, homophobia, misogyny--maybe the Thing is just one more flake-o notion that has entered the heads of human beings in their ongoing quest to find novel reasons to oppress and slaughter each other.

And what if The Thing is real? Well, we can't truly say it's evil if we're objective about it. It just wants to survive. It's a being from another world. Or maybe a colonial aggregation of beings from across the cosmos. Who the fuck knows? In any case, if the Thing is real, I find it impossible to judge its actions in moralistic terms. The Thing wants to survive. So do the humans. They cannot communicate in civil fashion, and so it's gotta be total war. Too bad. A tragedy, really, when you get right down to it. What could have been a stirring saga of First Contact becomes Intergalactic War I, with, I'm sure, many sequels to follow.

But it makes for one hell of a show.

John Carpenter's The Thing . . . After this movie, Carpenter was only competing with himself. Artistically, I mean. Which is all that really interests me, here. Sure, it was a box office disappointment at the time of its release, and Carpenter himself has expressed disappointment that this movie didn't go over as well as he had hoped at the time--but that's all in the past. Without question, The Thing found a long, sinister afterlife on VHS, Laserdisc, DVD, and now, I assume,  Blu-Ray.

And on broadcast television, too, albeit in a heavily censored bullshit version, but many great filmmakers have had to endure the indignity of having their movies chopped, edited, and violated at every level to conform to the bogus morality of regularly scheduled network programming.

 I watched The Thing in a censored version and I could not take my eyes off the screen. I was riveted. I wasn't scared, exactly, I've only ever really been afraid of being abducted by aliens, to be perfectly blunt with you, but I felt like I was watching, I dunno, 12 Angry Men, or Glengarry Glen Ross, or something. It was clearly a science fiction/horror genre picture, but it wasn't schlock. It wasn't played for camp or splatter moments or breast shots. It was about a group of pissed-off humans, all male, trying to root out an insidious alien invader with the power of masquerading as homo sapiens.

 One of these humans(?) has a flamethrower and  several bundles of dynamite and is not taking any shit from anybody. He's forcing the other men, at flamethrower-point, to submit to an improvised medical test that resembles some kind of cult-like, ritual initiation rite. Each man must slice his thumb, let his blood flow into a Petri dish, and then the man with the flame thrower will hold a length of wire in the ignition fire and then, once the wire has been heated up, it will be pressed against the blood samples. If the blood samples just burn and sizzle, it's all good. But if something else happens . . . and what would that something be, exactly? Part of the interest of this scene lies in its deep uncertainty. Just because the guy with all the weapons has dreamed up some test that he thinks is gonna proves who's human and who's the thing doesn't mean the test will actually fucking work. And what if Mr. Blood Inquisitor sees a positive result that's nothing of the kind? Innocent people are gonna burn, for sure . . .

I'm talking about the blood test scene which anyone who has seen The Thing knows about. This was the very first scene I ever saw from The Thing. Or maybe it wasn't quite the very first thing I saw of The Thing. I think, maybe, I had been flipping channels, and noticed this unusual movie about a research team in Antarctica dealing with some kind of alien invasion situation--intense, bearded dudes in winter-wear speaking in low, strident tones about evil doings, Kurt Russell talking into a tape recorder about how no one can trust anyone anymore, Wilford Brimley losing his shit and going all James Cagney on people with a snubnose .38, but I didn't pay too close attention. I skipped around the TV, and, at some point, I came back to the movie at its most intense moment: the blood test scene.

I don't remember what, exactly, compelled me to stop and watch the movie from that point onward. But I think it was the seriousness of the performances. The actors were behaving as though they were actually frightened and angered by their situation. They seemed to have fear, rage, and paranoia playing across their faces at different moments. They didn't act like the kinds of morons you'd expect to populate a typical body count picture. I think it was the seriousness of the actors' performances that drew me in more than anything, but who knows? Whatever it was, I was hooked. I watched the movie 'til its end. And, at that time, the 1990s, I hated watching movies that had been censored for broadcast television. What was the point? If a movie is unacceptable to the networks, then don't show it, I say. TV stations could come up with their own crappy shows to fill timeslots, and probably get more reliable advertiser participation, too.

Think about it. Non-controversial, braindead situation comedies and cop-worship shows are pretty much a sure thing if you want the average television viewer to achieve brand identification with whatever lame product you're pushing. Well, I guess that was true in the 1990s. Now, it would be the increasingly Orwellian depravity of Reality TV, but let's not go there.

The Thing was compelling cinema even in a heavily compromised form. John Carpenter's film was so well-crafted, that it wasn't totally ruined by censorship. Now that is movie-making power right there. But where does the power emanate from? Craftsmanship. Carpenter's deepest game, in my estimation, is his commitment to the basics of storytelling: script, actors' performances, shot composition, soundtrack including both score and sound effects (the "soundscape" if you will), special effects, editing--the whole engine of cinema is geared towards expressing a dramatic situation with utmost clarity. Even the ambiguities and ironies present in Carpenter's movies are expressed with utmost clarity.

Theme is important, too. I think Carpenter's one of the more interesting thematic filmmakers in how he approaches doing horror and science-fiction scenarios. In Assault on Precinct 13 the theme had to do with decent, competent people from both sides of the law caught in the middle of a violent revolutionary struggle between insurgents and an oppressive police state: how do you survive and protect those who depend on you in an impossible situation? Halloween was about how a blind force of destruction manifests in human form in the midst of an anodyne suburban community, and the terror that grows out of normal people's obliviousness to the presence of such an evil force. The Fog was about the sins of the past manifesting to punish future generations. In the Mouth of Madness follows out the idea of what it would be like if the usual laws of mundane reality were displaced by the operating logic of a horror novelist's imagination gone completely berserk. Ghosts of Mars was an interesting blend of Assault on Precinct 13 and The Fog: an amorphous spirit of homicide asserts itself as a ghostly insurgency to punish a future human settlement on the red planet. In all of these movies, the horrific idea at the center is illustrated in specific, concretely realized terms. As the viewer, you don't see quite as much as you think you do in terms of mayhem and gore, but the nature of the threat becomes clear, as do the struggles of the humans trying to survive the onslaught. Carpenter's movies apply logic and rationality to irrational, supernatural forces and the results are pleasingly outrageous, but comprehensible.

The Thing takes on the theme of paranoia. Broadly speaking, it uses two contrasting approaches to illustrate this theme: economy and excess. Which is appropriate if you think about it. Paranoia itself is both economical and excessive. Paranoia focuses your mind like a laser even while it takes aim at the entire world which has turned murderously against you. Keep your guns loaded, the eyes in back of your head peeled, and keep a tight routine, because the hit could come from anyone, anywhere, at anytime. Using simple logic, the paranoiac can cook up whole cosmologies that definitively prove the whole world is aligned against him or herself in a grand conspiracy to ruin your day, your era, your lifetime, and maybe even subsequent lifetimes depending on the nature of the Enemy. The paranoiac pursues simple solutions to complex problems.

Remember Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver? Just get some guns, do some push-ups, and shoot some people and everything will be okay in the end. You might even get a date with Cybil Shepherd in the end. And if that doesn't work, well, you can blast the girl away, too, with your .44 Magnum. Hey, your personality may be defective, but your weapons usually work like physics. No big thing. They all had it coming.

The Thing isn't quite the same as Taxi Driver, but it does explore similar terrain of paranoia-induced violence, and the terror that grows out of the failure of communication, civilization, and hope itself.

In terms of technique, The Thing hinges on using economical shot set-ups within a widescreen frame that are filled with agitated human faces in close-up, suspicious humans pointing fingers and making accusations, and then all of this is overtaken by gooey excess when the wriggling alien horror of The Thing makes its presence known. All pretense to civilization goes out the window, and those that are human desperately maneuver to muster a defense against the alien invader. It's a visceral realization of the sci-fi trope of humanity forging a coalition against an extraterrestrial entity for survival purposes that touches on the longstanding tribal tendencies of human beings.

We don't think of ourselves as tribes in the 21st century. We use other titles for our typical groupings: nations, political parties, sexuality, gender, subculture, religion, race, job title, student, townie--all are categories used by the powers that be to divide us into in-groups and out-groups. If you're in the in-group you're supposed to be opposed to the out-group(s). And, of course, the out-group isn't an out-group to those who are in it--they're another in-group from their perspective.

The same could be said for the alien whatsit in The Thing: from its perspective its just trying to survive. The fact that it kills and absorbs people is just tough shit for the humans. Maybe if there was some way for the alien and the humans to communicate they could arrive at some sort of understanding. Instead of unlimited violence climaxing in total destruction, this could've been a story of First Contact and not Apocalypse. A truce could be called with truth and reconciliation between human and extraterrestrial.

(Now think how differently Taxi Driver would've played out if Bickle had gotten some counseling, if he'd had a single friend to confide in (aside from his doofus colleague masterfully played by Peter Boyle), maybe get some anti-depressant meds, get some therapy for his shellshock, find a way to work through his deeply imprinted combat stress--Travis Bickle could've turned his shit around. Sure, he'd maybe have some conservative tendencies, some social awkwardness, but he could've gotten over things. He could've been empowered to move on with his life. And Taxi Driver would've been a terrible film. There's a reason why Taxi Driver is a classic and no one gives a shit about Awakenings.)

Unfortunately, civilized approaches to healing and reconciliation do not make for compelling cinema. Madness, paranoia, conflict, death, and destruction make for powerful storytelling. Nothing is more compelling than watching a situation go from bad to worse and beyond. It's what Poe was getting at when he defined the spirit of perversity in "The Black Cat." We have a will towards escalation, towards conflict which is driven by our desire for total power, total control over all uncertainty in existence. Whatever it is that frightens us--a thief, a murderer, a political ideology, an ethnic group, an animal, a culture, a nation, a language, a religion, a philosophy, an outlook, a disagreement about fashion or policy or economics--our impulse is to shun the thing which upsets us.

 And if we can't avoid it, we denigrate it, try to find like-minded people to join us in condemning the hated thing, and, if things go far enough, we will try to destroy whatever it is we hate and fear. Right and wrong don't have to enter into it. Just think about all the genocides, ethnic cleansing, and no limits civilian slaughtering bombing campaigns, and random assholes with assault rifles and body armor popping off in schools and movie theaters--the spirit of perversity, the will to lash out with violence at whoever and whatever happens to be handy, never mind whether or not such targets have any actual culpability for the perpetrator's troubles--they're convenient, they will therefore become blood sacrifices to the murderer's fear, hatred, and paranoia--whatever dark gods sit inside the star chamber of his twisted heart. Even if the perpetrator has some sense that what they are doing is a doomed course of action, just as the narrators in "The Black Cat" or "The Tell-Tale Heart" have a premonition of their own destruction, they are compelled to walk the path of annihilation and jump into the fire themselves in the end.

Or maybe they lash out, get a little dinged-up, spend some time in the hospital, and then are up and about again as a ticking time-bomb with a brand new timer . . . kind of a spoiler for a movie I shall not mention by name.

The Thing invokes the self-immolating spirit of perverseness, of paranoia, from Poe, but combines it with the cosmic horror of H.P. Lovecraft. John Carpenter has stated that Lovecraft is an important influence on his work. Lovecraft's central idea is that human beings are completely at the mercy of cosmic forces beyond their comprehension, much more ancient, powerful, and deadly than any human civilization, even one with fanatic ideology and nuclear weapons (ex. USA, USSR, China, Russia, etc.).

After all, anyone who has read Lovecraft's 1931 masterpiece At the Mountains of Madness knows that the Great Old Ones(a name Lovecraft uses to refer to those terrible, cosmic powers of darkness) had atomic weapons long before homo sapiens wormed its way out of the muck across billions of years of cosmic evolution, and split the atom. At the Mountains of Madness tells the story of a group of human explorers who journey to Antarctica and discover a vast, cyclopean city gone to ruin, within which they uncover a strange hieroglyphic language which reveals the secret origins of humanity and the Great Old Ones.

The Thing echoes some of the ideas from At the Mountains of Madness, even though it is more directly adapted from John W. Campbell's 1938 short story "Who Goes There?" Lovecraft's novella was published in 1931 and Campbell's short story came along in 1938, so I wonder if Campbell had absorbed any Lovecraftian influences . . . I have no idea. But I feel pretty confident in saying that John Carpenter, consciously or not, crafted his movie  in a way which blends Poe, Lovecraft, and Campbell's literary themes and combines them with some of the techniques of his previous movies such as Dark Star, Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, and The Fog.

Earlier in this review I put forward the possibility that maybe the Thing is just in the minds of the humans. Maybe there is no Thing. I don't think this is what Carpenter intends for his movie to be, but it is an intriguing idea to me. As I watched the movie again this past weekend, I couldn't help but wonder if these guys are all losing their minds due to isolation, stress, sexual frustration, loneliness, and simmering resentments over slights both real and perceived. It's an all male group. Some of them seem to be veterans, ex-military people--could combat stress be a factor here? Are these people just more inclined to go looking for an enemy when feeling threatened? Like I said, I think Carpenter means for his movie to be taken on its own terms, but I tend to want to go overboard in interpreting movies I've seen dozens of times, so maybe I'm the one losing perspective here. This is a movie which skews more towards Lovecraftian cosmic horror than Poe-style psychological horror.

The cast is excellent. Kurt Russel is billed as the star, but it's really an ensemble piece. All of the actors take the job seriously, and none of them play for camp or self-parody. Probably the most disturbing performance comes from Wilford Brimley. Watching this guy, with his unflappable outer shell, finally start to lose his shit is a kind of mini-saga of horror and madness all its own buried within the larger movie.

The cinematography, an element of economy, by Dean Cundey is perfect, each frame composed for both clarity of what's going on within a given scene and also to give a sense of growing unease. Watch this movie with the sound off, and just take note of how the color scheme changes and evolves as it goes on, and how one shot is cut with another one. The editing is subtle and unobtrusive even when the Thing makes its wriggling, consuming, chaotic self known within that precise widescreen framing.

Which brings me to the element of excess: the disgusting and horrifying creature effects by Rob Bottin with an assist from Stan Winston. I don't even want to talk about it. You should just see for yourself with no prior knowledge. The Thing bursts out, like some avatar of Lovecraft's Azathoth, the idiot god of chaos and destruction--or maybe not. Maybe I'm just reaching for shit here . . .

Back to economy: Albert Whitlock's outer space visual effects provide a quietly menacing introduction for the idea of alien horror from another world in the title sequence.

Ennio Morricone and John Carpenter both throw down for a sneaky, suspenseful original score that doesn't overstay its welcome. You would think if a director could get Morricone for the soundtrack he would want to squeeze another one of those lush, Sergio Leone scores out of him--and that would be a mistake. The Thing doesn't need leitmotifs and wall-to-wall bombast. It needs a defter touch. Note the mournful, but suspicious, quality of the piece which underscores the investigation of the Norwegian camp. I find it unexpectedly moving. The movie is cruel and relentless, but that bit of music suggests a kind of sadness inherent in the waste left by violent all-out conflict.

Maybe The Thing isn't a horror movie in the usual sense. More and more, I think of it as a kind of tragedy about two sophisticated life forms forced to meet under dire circumstances, and the war that results from an inability to communicate or understand one another. Definitely not another braindead body count picture.

The Thing trailer:

Friday, October 19, 2012

MOVIE REVIEW: THE FOG (1980)

Music/Direction by John Carpenter
Written by Debra Hill and John Carpenter
Cinematography by Dean Cundey
Edited by Charles Bornstein and Tommy Lee Wallace
Produced by Debra Hill, Charles B. Bloch, Barry Bernardi, and Pegi Brotman

Starring
Hal Holbrook
Adrienne Barbeau
Jamie Lee Curtis
Tom Atkins
Janet Leigh
Nancy Loomis
John Houseman
Charles Cyphers
Darwin Joston


The Fog. Here's another John Carpenter movie that I didn't get the first time around. Once again, it was a victim of my own narrow tastes the first time I saw it.

 I've never really liked ghost stories. Ghosts aren't scary to me. Why? Ghosts, like all things supernatural, do not exist. But even if they do exist, what's the most that they could do? Move the furniture around? Muck up the walls and ceiling with some ecto-plasm? Put up a wailing racket? Ghosts, even if they did exist, are harmless, lame, laughable, and boring. Movies about ghosts, with some exceptions (like Ghostbusters, Ghostbusters 2, Kwaidan, Hausu, Poltergeist, the ending of Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Frighteners, and The Exorcist--and yeah I consider Pazuzu to just be a particularly aggressive ghost), are not interesting or scary to me. Why fear that which has never been real and never will be real? Hard to suspend disbelief over stuff like that.

You know what's scary to me? An asshole with an assault rifle and a massively distorted sense of entitlement. Ebola. Nuclear weapons. Cancer. A country that would let George W. Bush and Dick Cheney and all their crew have another four years. Torture. A country buffet on a Sunday afternoon. Prisons. My fellow human beings. You know, things from real life.

If you want to make an interesting ghost story, then you gotta have some kind of compelling reason for the dead to come back to life. Because once you're dead, that's it. You only get one shot, and then it's all over. No Konami code in this life, people. One shot, make it count. If you're gonna be breaking the rules, and rising from the dead and all that nonsense, you must have a fire of some kind inside your rotting mind. Some unfinished business. A grudge that won't quit. Can't be any petty bullshit. Gotta be for real if you're gonna be violating the laws of nature and all that.

And what about the living? How do they respond to the intrusion of the supernatural into material reality?

The Fog basically consists of decent, average human beings living in a California coastal town under assault by a ruthless supernatural force. But it takes its time. It sets up the environment of the coastal town, and offers a representative sampling of the population there under threat of destruction, and then slowly unleashes its ghostly terrors. For me, when I first saw it, it was way too slow.

At the time (I was a teenager) I was into Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Dawn of the Dead, Hong Kong action movies, The Evil Dead, Aliens, The Thing--I wanted anger, and blood, and heavy weapons firing nonstop. I wanted braindead macho motherfuckers getting 86ed and taking the whole world with them in a welter of blood and bullets. I wanted the red meat alien carnage of Aliens and John Carpenter's merciless masterpiece The Thing. I got off on the notion of shopping mall assholes turned into zombie bullet-catchers like in Dawn of the Dead. Measured against all this, The Fog was a Thornton Wilder play. Our Town with ghost pirates.

Watching it again, I find that I was just too uncivilized in my adolescence to appreciate the fine craftsmanship of The Fog. Now, I kind of get it.

Like I said, it takes its time. Carpenter uses the first half hour or so to put his widescreen framing to subtle, effective use by cutting from one location of a quiet, kind of lonely California coastal town to another, while weird things happen. Windows shatter. Electric and electronic devices go haywire. An old-timer played by John Houseman does a deadly serious recitation of a ghost story to a group of kids. A whiskey priest played by the one and only Hal Holbrook discovers a dark secret within the walls of his church. Adrienne Barbeau's radio DJ ties all these scenes together with her husky, welcoming voice. Other characters are introduced, and Carpenter takes his time to set up all the players in this drama.

When I was a teenager, I failed to appreciate this more measured approach to telling a story. No flashy, self-conscious displays of verbal wit. No gunfights in slow motion shown from numerous camera angles. No torsos bursting with extraterrestrial hunger. Just a mood of quiet doom slowly creeping through a small town in the dead of night.

When the horror finally does manifest itself, it's much like the Shape in Halloween. You don't see nearly as much as you think you do even when the killing starts. One important difference between the supernatural agents in The Fog from the Shape is that here we have a rational motive for their actions. The Shape is just a force of blind destruction sans emotions sans logic sans survival instinct. If you wanna get Lovecraftian about it, you could say that the Shape was a manifestation of Azathoth, the blind idiot god of total destruction, whereas the entities within the fog are agents of retribution taking up a cause out of the past. They are a manifestation of an irrational, supernatural force that actually has a rational motivation for its actions--a nifty paradox to find in a horror flick.

 Another interesting contrast: The Fog, like Assault on Precinct 13, takes up the the theme of vengeance. But there is a difference between The Fog and Precinct 13. The Fog is about vengeance for sins in the distant past, and Assault on Precinct 13 is about sins of the present. And, also, Assault on Precinct 13 is about human beings using non-supernatural methods--assault weapons, fanatic ideology, teamwork--whereas The Fog is about a supernatural entity with a somewhat limited ability to disrupt material reality to achieve its ends. The entities within the fog can disrupt electrical generators, cause windows to shatter, and can destroy telecom systems, and, when they get close in to their human targets, they can manifest humanoid forms armed with sickles, spikes, knives, swords, and very powerful strangler's hands. It's a hydra-headed force of destruction that is similar in its tactics and strategy to the enemies found in Assault on Precinct 13 and Ghosts of Mars. 

I really dig The Fog, now. I've grown up enough to appreciate it. It has a slow build to a terrific climax, and a strong cast: Hal Holbrook, Andrienne Barbeau, Jamie Lee Curtis, Tom Atkins, Nancy Loomis, Janet Leigh, John Houseman, Charles Cyphers, and Darwin Joston. It emphasizes character, mood, and suspense over blood and gore. Watching it is more like reading a story by Poe or Lovecraft, or maybe something by Stephen King. It's good fun.

The Fog trailer:



Wednesday, October 17, 2012

MOVIE REVIEW: HALLOWEEN (1978)

Music/Direction by John Carpenter
Written by John Carpenter and Debra Hill
Cinematography by Dean Cundey
Editing by Charles Bornstein and Tommy Lee Wallace
Produced by John Carpenter, Debra Hill, Kool Lusby, Irwin Yablans, Moustapha Akkad

Starring
Donald Pleasence as Dr. Loomis
Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie
Nancy Loomis as Annie
Nick Castle as The Shape

WARNING: HERE BE SPOILERS. IF YOU'VE NEVER SEEN THE MOVIE HALLOWEEN (1978) DO NOT READ THIS REVIEW. HALLOWEEN IS A WORTHWHILE MOVIE, ESPECIALLY IF YOU LIKE HORROR MOVIES, AND IT IS BEST WATCHED WITH ZERO PRIOR KNOWLEDGE OF WHAT HAPPENS IN IT AND WHY. READING A REVIEW OF A MOVIE IS NO SUBSTITUTE FOR WATCHING A MOVIE AND FORMING YOUR OWN OPINION. 

OR NOT. 

MAYBE WATCHING MOVIES IS A HUGE WASTE OF TIME NO MATTER WHAT. WE COULD BE SPENDING ALL THE TIME WE USE WATCHING MOVIES ON TRYING TO FIGURE OUT HOW TO SLOW DOWN THE EFFECTS OF GLOBAL WARMING, OR SPENDING TIME HAVING SUBSTANTIAL  CONVERSATIONS WITH OUR LOVED ONES. 

I SUPPOSE IT'S JUST MUCH EASIER TO STARE INTO A SCREEN OF SOME KIND AND NOT CARE ABOUT THINGS. BETTER TO CONSUME STORIES MADE UP BY OTHER PEOPLE THAN MAKE UP OUR OWN STORIES.

 COMING UP WITH THINGS--THAT'S HARD WORK. 

YEAH, I'M KINDA CONFLICTED ABOUT STUFF.



When I first saw Halloween, I didn't like it. I thought it was tedious and anti-climatic. So there's this masked guy with a knife ambling around acting like a fucking creep who's supposed to be some kind of pyscho-killer-embodiment-of-pure-evil, but barely does any killing. The movie sets Mike Myers up like he's some kind of anti-christ, but the dude acts more like he's got brain damage than some kind of murderous intent.

 I felt bad for Mike Myers. Here was a guy inhabited by a spirit of darkness, has all kinds of homicidal designs, and he can barely get it up. What's his problem? Is it the drugs, Mike? They got you on some bogus meds down at the mental ward, bro? Don't tell me you started partying with the cocaine, son, that shit will fuck you up. Is it alcohol? Did you go through some kind of a divorce, or just a rough patch with the old lady? Feeling trapped by your own talents? Let's work this out, my man. To me, Mike Myers came across like 21st century Charlie Sheen: a man with so much self-loathing for his own talents that he revels in not putting them to worthwhile use.

Maybe I should set this up a bit: Mike Myers is a silent weirdo who killed his sister when he was a  six year old kid. He's been locked up in a state mental institution all his life. An intense, pistol-packing psychiatrist named Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence) comes to the state mental ward to drive Mike to a court hearing of some kind but finds that Mike has busted out of the joint. Dr. Loomis goes looking for Mike in the psycho's hometown of Haddonfield, Illinois. The idea is that Mike has some kind of fixation on returning to the house where he murdered his sister. Along the way Mike starts to target some teenagers for slaughter, and it all takes place on Halloween night--rather convenient that. Makes for a great title, and a ready-to-go marketing campaign.

Most of the movie is from the perspective of a young woman named Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis). Laurie and her friends are in high school and they're picking up some spending dough babysitting kids on Halloween night. Laurie and her friends talk about boys, babysitting, and other mundane adolescent things. They are largely oblivious to the macabre history of the abandoned Myers house in the middle of their neighborhood, and they continue to remain oblivious even when Mike shows up and starts stalking them. Like I said, mostly Mike just comes off as a creep, some kind of perv who wants to harass young women.

Dr. Loomis decides to post it up in the old Myers household, a .44 Bulldog in his trench coat pocket. (I guess the doc is channeling his inner Dave Berkowitz) He figures Mike'll show up, and he'll give him two in the chest, save the tax payers the cost of another court hearing. What kind of  goddamn psychiatrist is this guy? Shouldn't he be dispensing meds, not slugs?

Early on Dr. Loomis describes, with all his psychiatric authority, that Mike Myers is "pure evil." Pure evil? What kind of medievalist bullshit is that? Mike needs serious help, doc! And you're writing him off with a bunch of superstitious mumbling moralistic mojo?! No wonder Mike is so fucked up. If I had some baldy-headed gun nut telling me I was pure evil since the age of six, I'd want to put on a mask and go stabbing people, too, give the guy what he wants, maybe shut 'em the fuck up. You want evil, Doc, here's some evil for your cueball ass!

Yeah, I know, I know: the movie shows Mike's murderous mask-wearing tendencies even before Dr. Loomis got his hooks into the kid. But maybe that opening scene is just how Mike remembers things after years of indoctrination from the good doctor. Lots of ambiguity in this movie when you really dig into it.

Anyways, Dr. Loomis is supposed to be some kind of hero, a kind of dragonslayer in a trench coat, but mostly he's inert, sidelined. He just stays in the old Myers house while Mike stalks teenagers, kills a few, and then shows up at the end to showboat with his big gun. The cruel irony is that he empties his six-shooter into Mike's chest, sends that sick, slasher fuck tumbling over a balcony, and then . . . Mike just disappears. Not only did Dr. Loomis not save anybody with all his pretentious huffery-puffery about pure evil and all the rest, but his big ol' gun with its bad ol' slugs didn't even slow Mike down.

Up yours, Dr. Loomis. Game, set, match goes to Mike Myers.

Maybe Dr. Loomis needs a post-game talking to: "Listen up, cueball: maybe you should try a little compassion and understanding with your patients next time, instead of powertripping on gunslinger/dragonslayer fantasies. Maybe the reason why Mike Myers stopped talking is because you never listened in the first place ya' chatty bastard. You ever consider that? Now, I want you to do six thousand push-ups, three hundred laps around the track, and maybe you can hook me up with some Vicodin next time you swing by the office. Okay? Sounds good."

Okay, okay, I admit it: I did like the ending when I first saw it. If I'm really honest, it was only mildly anti-climatic. In fact, I loved the fact that Mike Myers wasn't stopped with .44 magnum slugs, and that Dr. Loomis was shown up for the empty set of clothes that he was from the beginning . . . and I say this as a fan of Donald Pleasance. Nothing against the actor, it was a silly character to begin with, and Pleasance played it to the best of his abilities.

But I didn't get the movie as a whole. Why was Mike wandering around Haddonfield like he was unsure about what he was there to do? Was part of his game to torment Laurie and her friends, not just kill them? What did Mike have against Laurie and the other teenagers? They had no connection to his past. They never did him wrong. He was just lashing out at them randomly, no logic to his violence. I suppose one could say he was some kind of sex-murderer, that the knife was Mike's way of raping his victims as he murdered them, but Mike never really came off as a sexual predator when I watched it. And I didn't like the fact that Mike's crimes were so random. It didn't scan with me when I saw it as a teenager.

A lot of people have said that Halloween has some kind of sexual sadism going on, that the masked man can't stand that young people are enjoying having sex and so he has to show up with his knife and kill the joy. That rationale never really rang true with me. For one thing, Mike's murders are fairly indiscriminate, and all-too-efficient. He comes across as more of an assassin than a rapist. He sticks you with his knife not to violate you, but to end you. He's the Shape, after all, a cutout serving a force of pure destruction. His homicide is robotic, not domination oriented. There really isn't any sophisticated psychology or twisted desire going on under that mask. Just a will to destruction. If the military could mass produce this guy they wouldn't need recruits. Need to get Umbrella Corp working on that project.

(Imagine that: a whole army of Mike Myers duplicates, marching on whatever country is our enemy of the moment. Maybe that's what those Resident Evil games were suggesting with those bulky trench-coated mutants with the chain guns . . . hmmm . . .)

No, I really didn't get Halloween the first time I saw it. And I wasn't inclined to give it a second chance. John Carpenter had already made other movies that I liked a whole lot better. Like The Thing.

No, it didn't help that I had already seen John Carpenter's The Thing before I saw Halloween. In fact, watching The Thing at an early age has not been terribly helpful to most horror movies I've seen during my lifetime, even other movies directed by John Carpenter. Once you've grokked the best, it's hard to go back. The Thing is probably one of my all time favorite movie experiences. In fact, The Thing is so good that I loved it even though the first time I watched it  was in a heavily censored broadcast TV version. The Thing, even in a compromised form, was an exquisite fictional expression of the theme of paranoia. Now that's film making: your craft is so strong that it can't be weakened by the pinhead moral guardians running prime time television.

The Thing had it all: a strong, committed cast, precise widescreen compositions, dead-on editing, a sublime Ennio Morricone soundtrack, outrageous monster and gore effects, and clever dialogue. The Thing was a masterful balance of two contradictory approaches: economy and excess. The plot, characterizations, and thematic elements are all there in just the right proportion until the alien horror claws its way into the widescreen frame violating all sense of scale, proportion, hope . . . be not deceived, people. The Thing is Carpenter's masterpiece. Halloween was just an exercise, albeit a very popular, long-lived one.

But after watching Halloween again recently I must confess to actually admiring it, now. It is a subtle piece of work, maybe Carpenter's most subtle film in his whole portfolio as an artist. If The Thing is Carpenter's definitive expression of the theme of paranoia, then Halloween is something like a statement on how everyday people can be totally oblivious to the invasive presence of supernatural evil. Mike Myers isn't really Mike Myers, when you break it down. Nor is he anti-christ, Satan, Pazuzu, Son of Sam, Ted Bundy, or some murderous agent of the state--he's beyond all these things. He doesn't need a name, or a sexual urge, or a God, or a Devil, or an ideology to commit his crimes. He is homicide incarnate. He's the Shape, a superflat killing machine whose humanity switch got shifted into the off position by some unnameable, Lovecraftian force of of darkness when he was six years old. You can't negotiate with him, you can't kill him, you can't touch a heart of darkness with appeals to mercy or common decency. Really, it's not even a heart of darkness. There's no heart to be found. Rather, it's a pure void trying to manifest itself as best it can. First it uses its bare hands to break a neck. Next, it acquires a knife to pierce a beating heart . . . follow out the logic on that one if you dare.

So, yes, I've come to appreciate the thematic richness of Carpenter's movie.

But let's look at the nuts-and-bolts craftsmanship, maybe the area where Carpenter has brought his deepest, most consistent game as a filmmaker. The widescreen compositions in Halloween are his most subtle of all his movies. They manage to be both mundane and menacing in the same instant. He imbues an autumnal suburban setting with both realism and amplified dread. It's hard for me to pin it down in words, but here's an exercise: watch the movie with both the lights and the sound off, and just take a look at how Carpenter frames his shots. The blend of the everyday and the scary-weird is uncanny. The editing is also sharp. Although this is a slasher flick, he doesn't go for the cheap shock. He goes for seamless, relentless momentum, setting you up for a trap you can't escape.

The acting is strong, too. Jamie Lee Curtis and Nancy Loomis as the two main teenage protagonists are  credible, unforced.They handle the dialogue well, and, most importantly, they are totally oblivious to the horror invading their lives until it's too late. Donald Pleasence's Dr. Loomis isn't so much a great psychiatrist as he is a man obsessed with eradicating a great evil that he has no chance against. Yes, I mock the character above, but when you break it down, Dr. Loomis has seemingly lost his marbles, too. Spending all those years in the presence of the Shape must've drove him over the edge . . . Pleasence is one of those actors who is always worth watching. Even in his bad movies. The man cannot hide his inherent intelligence and charisma. So it's especially cruel that such an appealing actor is pitted against an unbeatable foe.

The Thing is still my favorite Carpenter movie, but I have now gained a true appreciation of Halloween as an exercise in a more measured, disquieting approach to telling a horror story. I'm pretty bloodthirsty as an audience member when it comes to horror, but I have no patience for braindead slasher bullshit or tedious, substance free torture porn grandstanding. I think part of the mojo of Carpenter's approach as a director is that, in his best movies, he sticks close to his characters even as they face off against outrageous monsters and weather storms of reality-shattering lunacy. A class act.

Halloween trailer:

MOVIE REVIEW: ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (1976)

Music/Screenplay/Editing/Direction by John Carpenter
Produced by J.S. Kaplan
Cinematography by Douglas Knapp

Starring
Austin Stoker as Bishop
Darwin Joston as Napoleon Wilson
Laurie Zimmer as Leigh
Tony Burton as Wells
Nancy Loomis as Julie


"There are no heroes anymore, Bishop. Just men who follow orders."
--dialogue from the movie Assault on Precinct 13

Once upon a time in the west, there was the system.
The system was corrupt and oppressive.
Within it lay the seeds of its own destruction:
The discontent of outlaws, hustlers, street entrepreneurs, and poor young men
Full of anger, in love with guns, in love with dying on their feet.
The system forced the outlaws to band together,
Brothers in blood.
This is a story
Of the war
Between the system and the blood brothers.
--a poem I wrote in tribute to Assault on Precinct 13 sometime in 2005

We begin in an urban labyrinth with a multi-ethnic crew of gangbangers looking to procure some arms, sneaking through alleyways and passages. A cop voice commands them to freeze. They bolt. The cops fire their shotguns until they're out of shells. Justice is a pile of corpses.

Welcome to Anderson, a ghetto somewhere in the wastelands of Los Angeles sometime in the late 1970s. Here, the cops shoot first and don't even bother to ask questions later. The cops seem to think they can just shoot poor gangbangers with nothing to lose and not have to pay a price later. These police have been watching too many Clint Eastwood movies.

The various ethnic street gangs--blacks, Latinos, Asians, whites--have decided that they aren't gonna put up with the bullshit anymore. Instead of killing each other over dead-end racial hatreds they are gonna team up to obliterate the system with a wave of no limits violence. The warlords of the different ethnic factions gather in someone's living room, slice their arms, and mingle their blood in a single glass. There are no more racial distinctions, no more hatred based on skin color, no more factions, no more barriers. In this scene we see the advent of a true brotherhood of blood, one which is necessary to catalyze the auto-destruct destiny of a society corrupted by greed, wars of empire, and racism. The system seeks to oppress the poor and turn them against one another in deadly combat for economic opportunities legal and illegal. The blood brothers are going to kill the system or die trying.

The blood brothers have knocked over an armory. Now they got the same kind of arms as the National Guard. Now, they can shoot back.

And any innocent or good-hearted people that get put down in the crossfire, well, that's just an overdose of reality for some people, isn't it?

The blood brothers decide that the first target of their aborning insurgency will be an ice cream man. No particular reason. It's more about inspiring terror through random acts of violence. The ensuing mayhem draws in another combatant who kills one of the blood brothers and then seeks asylum at a police station which is about to be closed down due to budget cuts. The blood brothers decide to lay siege to the decaying police post that has just been zeroed out of the municipal budget at Precinct 9, Division 13. Yes, that's right, it's actually called Precinct 9, not 13. But I guess the idea is that the legend of this fateful night will be remembered as Precinct 13. Assault on Precinct 9--nah, that just doesn't work. Doesn't sound as cool.

Precinct 9 is to be closed come sun-up. A competent, honest policeman named Bishop (Austin Stoker) is sent to supervise the precinct in its final hours before the moving vans show up to clear out the last of the decrepit file cabinets and old contraband lockers. Bishop is the real deal: a police with heart, spine, and guts. And a sense of humor. No pork to be found on this man. He's the kind of guy you would want to serve under. He's the kind of guy who will never rise in the system. Early on he's in radio contact with his superior officer and the captain asks Bishop if he wants to be a hero on his first day out. Bishop says, "Yes, sir!" and means it. The captain tells Bishop that there are no heroes, only men who follow orders. The system has no need for heroes, or humanity, or justice, or even plain old competence and decency. The system requires only continuity, stability, and expansion of its dominion where possible.

The blood brothers require only fast trigger fingers, good aim, a willingness to kill, and an eagerness to die.

The system and the blood brothers are about to collide.

Right before the all-out attack, a bus carrying prisoners bound for death row pulls into Precinct 9. One of the   prisoners has a tubercular hacking cough, and the state policeman in charge of the convicts wants to use the telephone at Precinct 9 to call a doctor. But the phone lines are dead. The telecom must've disconnected services already. Or maybe the wires were cut . . .

Soon, cops and prisoners will have to depend on each other to survive a tsunami of bullets generated by the army of the blood brothers who are determined to annihilate Precinct 9 and all who reside within as their declaration of total war against the system.

Assault on Precinct 13 is a tense, effective thriller exploring what happens when decent people get caught up in the conflict of a corrupt system and a seriously pissed-off revolutionary force seeking to destroy that corrupt system. There's no indication that the blood brothers have a new regime in mind to replace the system; rather they are acting out of a deep, abiding rage at the injustice of their society. They are possessed by this rage, yet they do not go around yelling slogans or making speeches. They do not speak. Some of them yell in pain when shot to death, but that's about it. Even their weapons have been silenced. They have transformed themselves from narco-entrepreneurs into a force of death, a hydra-headed grim reaper that refuses to negotiate with a terrorist police state. That they have become terrorists themselves is not so much an irony as an inevitability. Push people to the limit and maybe they break. Or they might become monsters who fight back with everything they've got.

Inside Precinct 9 you have the capable Bishop and two secretaries: Leigh (Laurie Zimmer) and Julie (Nancy Loomis). They are joined by two convicts bound for death row: Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston) and Wells (Tony Burton). Most of the rest of  the people on board the prison transport bus are killed in the first attack by the blood brothers. It's just down to five people--one cop, two secretaries, and two convicted murderers.

A question arises: can the three straight citizens inside the precinct trust the two condemned convicts? The answer, considering the larger situation, is weirdly inspiring: yes, they can.

Or, maybe, it's more like: yes, they don't have a choice.

The siege intensifies. Bullets tear through the lower floor in a never-ending barrage of lead. Suicide street soldiers burst through windows and doors only to be obliterated by shotgun blasts from Bishop and Napoleon. The gangbangers have been compared in other reviews of Assault on Precinct 13 to the zombies of Night of the Living Dead, but I would say they're more like the Shape in Halloween: superflat killing machines who've willed their humanity into the off position. The system wanted monsters to practice its police state brutality upon, and the system always gets what it wants. This is the war that everybody wanted.

Except for the five people inside Precinct 9. Except for most people in the world who haven't given up their humanity, whether they're cops or cons or secretaries or the good, the bad, and the ugly. That's where the drama of this movie comes from: seeing people with integrity fighting to survive against a disaster created by a system that went off the rails a long time ago.

Bishop brings his humor and optimism to the war. He's always looking for a way out, a way to survive. He's played with confidence and understated wit by Austin Stoker.

Napoleon Wilson is probably the character most people remember, he has all the best lines, and is played with ironic nobility by Darwin Joston. He was on his way to certain death early that morning. Now, at least, he'll get to die fighting.

Once the lead starts to fly, Leigh has to channel her inner gunslinger. Laurie Zimmer brings a strange toughness and sense of trauma to her character. She's not really indestructible. But, once the war is on, if you lay a hand on her she will shoot you in the fucking chest.

Tony Burton plays Wells as a man cursed. He rails against his own bad luck, and fights his selfish urges to do the right thing. But what's the right thing in a situation of moral insanity? Who's gonna care if a condemned man decides to stand on principle?

Nancy Loomis has kind of a thankless role as Julie. Julie's the person who cracks up, and so she isn't given as much to do as the rest of the main cast. Loomis would later go on to a significant role in Halloween, but here she's the character that a lot of audience members will probably find testing their patience. The audience is kind of like the system and the blood brothers in that sense: show weakness and they'll cut you down . . .

John Carpenter directs the action in widescreen format giving an old time western movie feel to the action, but he also keeps it brisk and gritty. Unlike those old John Wayne movies, nice people get killed in horrible ways once the madness of war is unleashed. Carpenter, as screenwriter, supplies a lot of clever dialogue, some of it cribbed from Rio Bravo and Once Upon a Time in the West, but that's just stealing from the best, isn't it? The movie doesn't dig for any kind of profound political statements but just shows how one situation piles on another until it reaches a boiling point. Carpenter's film stays close to the main characters inside the police station. His focus is on how these people fight against a tide of  (to them) incomprehensible violence. They don't have time to analyze and make policy recommendations. They fight to survive.

The blood brothers are a shadowy army of the night, one part of their force sniping from a distance with assault rifles, and another part charging in as a suicide squad to breech the precinct. Although the movie is very low budget, and not 100% realistic, it is weirdly convincing in the moment. The long pauses in the action are clearly there to facilitate character scenes among the characters inside the precinct, but the uncertainty of what exactly the attackers are doing outside during these lulls (gathering ammo? taking a yoga break? dropping into a Starbucks to use the wifi?) adds to the creepy intensity of the action. Are the blood brothers just toying with their victims? Are they wondering what the precinct's defenders are doing? In a weird way it reminded me of the stealthy, warring vessels in Run Silent, Run Deep, although there are no submarines in Carpenter's movie, obviously.

The blood brothers are the first manifestation of that amorphous, destructive darkness which Carpenter would invoke in different forms in later movies: the Shape with his butcher knife in Halloween; the vengeful army of ghosts in The Fog; the gruesome, metamorphosing alien invader in The Thing; the goopy anti-God infected zombies of Prince of Darkness; the undercover Space Reaganites from They Live;  the wave of murderous lunacy in In the Mouth of Madness; the predatory bloodsuckers in Vampires; the insurgent Barsoomian spirits in Ghosts of Mars. What I find interesting to note here is that in Assault on Precinct 13 this amorphous spirit of homicide finds root in a real world situation of poverty, police state oppression, and undiluted rage. It's horror born of stark reality. No aliens or ghosts or anti-God slime or demons necessary.

Assault on Precinct 13 trailer: