Tag: john carpenter

The Thing

The Thing (1982)
★★★★ / ★★★★

John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” based on the novella “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell, does not waste any time inspiring viewers to ask questions: Why is a man aboard a Norwegian helicopter intent on shooting a sled dog dead? Why does it appear as though the canine understands precisely what it is that’s going on amidst the utter confusion, following prior shooter’s death, in the American research station? What happened exactly at the Norwegian research base before being burned to the ground? What is its connection to the charred remains of grotesque corpses that resemble a fusion among man, animal, and beast?

The picture works as a high-level science fiction and horror hybrid because it tickles our deepest curiosities. Questions are brought up and answers are provided—at times almost immediately. But then some answers pave the way to new questions, and some of them do not have easy answers. The men at the American research facility must face a parasitic extraterrestrial life form that infiltrates another organism, assimilates with its host’s cells, and then imitates the host’s body. There is some evidence that the so-called Thing is able to retain the host’s memories: it knows how to perform daily tasks, to converse, and to recall details of events it has no way of knowing prior to infiltration. But the screenplay by Bill Lancaster is astute enough to refrain from answering this mystery directly because it is far scarier to have an understanding or appreciation but without knowing for sure.

There is a dozen men in the facility, and each one is given a spotlight. We learn about their jobs as people of science in addition to those who support these scientists to get the job done and to keep the facilities running smoothly. Some of their personalities may clash, but there is a sense of community among them. We believe that they have known each other for months, possibly years, in the way they have learned to tolerate one another’s eccentricities. Now is the time for their bonds, as strong or as tenuous as they are, to be tested in most unimaginable ways. Can you shoot a colleague or friend in face pointblank? How about with a flamethrower? Do you have it in you to cut someone else’s guide rope and leave him out in the Antarctic snowstorm?

The helicopter pilot, R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell), serves as our central protagonist not because he is smartest or strongest but because he is able to keep his cool, and therefore think clearly, during the most intense situations. Notice how the other men are written: already ill-tempered even before first alien reveal, trigger-happy, excessively nervous or anxious, overly suspicious, gutless. Their personalities and quirks are in total contrast against MacReady’s.

And on the occasional moments when MacReady does lose control out of sheer terror, his reactions are played for laughs occasionally. The decision to provide comic relief, as evanescent as they are, is correct because tension generated reaches unbearable levels at times. There is a memorable scene, for instance, when men—suspected of being infected—are tied up and right next to them is a colleague, actually infected by the Thing, undergoing horrifying convulsions, tiny tentacles protruding from his face and body. There is the confined room… and then there is being tied up in that confined room with the boogeyman.

The star of “The Thing” is Rob Bottin’s unforgettable creature and special effects. It feels like the macabre images have been ripped right out from our nightmares: giant mouths with teeth that could chomp through a grown man’s wrists with ease, spider legs coming out of a decapitated head and then crawling about, dogs’ melted faces and bodies fusing into one big, bloody lump with long tentacles coming out of it and whipping about, bodies breathing in amniotic sacs… Blood and guts are generously thrown about, but notice they come in different colors and textures, too. Transformation from man to Thing is observed unblinkingly. It is without question that the filmmakers are willing to do whatever is necessary for us not to look away, mouths agape in gleeful horror.


Halloween (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

The first kill in director David Gordon Green’s “Halloween” left a strong impression on me. It isn’t because the kill cannot be seen from a mile away nor is it due to the brutality of it. It is because the type of murder victim is new. It shows that not even children are safe from Michael Myers (James Jude Courtney, Nick Castle), the boogeyman known as The Shape who went on a killing spree in Haddonfield, Illinois in 1978.

In the original, not one child is harmed physically. They could have been but we get the impression that it is the killer’s choice not to. And so perhaps it is a part of Michael’s behavioral profile given that he himself was only a child when he committed his first murder. The restraint gave depth to the character. Here, once the victim’s final breath is released, I caught myself feeling excited at the prospect of a back-to-basics slasher flick. Notice the kill is without blood. No weapon is used. It is over just as soon as it began. There is a ruthless efficiency to it. However, I regret to report it does not live up to its potential.

If anybody could have successfully put “Halloween” back to its original form, it ought to have been Green. With impressive movies like “George Washington,” “All the Real Girls,” “Undertow,” “Snow Angels,” and “Joe” under his belt, he has shown that he has the ability to strip his stories of plot complications and focus solely on the human drama. Now, that may sound strange given that a horror film is in question, but since the plot of this picture revolves around how Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) has dealt—or not dealt—with the trauma of her encounter with Michael forty years ago, the screenplay demands that it has a thorough understanding of human psychology, particularly how a traumatic event can not only alter but actually shape a person’s life. It is clear Curtis could have done more with the character had the screenplay given her more of a challenge.

While some effort is made, it is all so… ostentatious. We observe Laurie shoot a number of guns, wield hunting knives, and stroll across her panic room. The script makes a big deal of Laurie’s broken relationships with her daughter (Judy Greer) and granddaughter (Andi Matichak) because the former’s intense preparations—just in case Michael escapes the mental facility and returns to Haddonfield—have taken over her life. Nearly all of it comes across rather superficial, tacked on, unnecessary. Greer is not fit for the role while Matichak does not command a strong enough presence to be memorable. Subpar performances aside, these characters are so underwritten, I did not care whether they would or could survive the night. A part of me actually wanted them to get killed because they felt more like decorations rather than natural extensions of our iconic survivor.

In the middle of it, I wondered if it would have been the braver choice to make a horror film with a running time of only fifty minutes to an hour. Instead of plot or character contrivances, the focus is on the meeting of predator and prey—only we do not know which is which any longer since forty years have passed. After all, it is the filmmakers’ decision to ignore all sequels. It is only appropriate to just go for the jugular, so to speak.

Green’s interpretation of “Halloween” is surprisingly loud given that he excels in the quiet. I’m not simply referring to the school dance scenes or guns being used excessively. (Do not get me started on the generous use of score—especially during the most inappropriate times.) I also refer to the images. There is excessive display of gore and sharp weapons piercing through body parts. There is even a man whose head is split open and we see it front and center. There are moments when violence is implied, but these are few and far between.

There are those who are quick to say that this is pretty much a remake of the original. I think these individuals are not observant enough. While Carpenter’s 1978 classic is more interested in building suspense and breaking it at the perfect moment, Green’s attempt leans toward evoking thrills through homage. Carpenter employs light and shadows to imply violence while Green hoses us down with gore. And that makes a whole world of difference.

Blood Glacier

Blood Glacier (2013)
★ / ★★★★

Clearly inspired by John Carpenter’s cult classic sci-fi horror “The Thing,” Marvin Kren’s eco-horror “Blood Glacier” is a mutated imitation by comparison. While this may sound like a compliment on the surface because the latter involves horrifying mutant organisms that must grow inside their respective hosts, the statement is a critique in that the material attempts to deliver B-movie entertainment without the required intelligence, creativity, and a central protagonist worth rooting for—three reasons why its inspiration is more than yet another forgettable creature-feature from the 1980s.

The practical effects are effective especially when jump scares are delivered. The creatures are truly ugly—for instance, there is a fox-beetle hybrid which has grown to the size of a dog—and so when they suddenly appear on screen with an accompanying booming score, jolts surge up one’s spine. The shock is likely to be followed by uncomfortable chuckles because one realizes that these monsters look like detailed and well-made puppets. It does the job.

But remove the special effects. All that’s left is another movie set in an icy and snowy terrain with things that go bump in the night. There are supposed to be three scientists (Hille Beseler, Peter Knaack, Felix Römer) and a technician (Gerhard Liebmann) who work at a research station, but the audience is not given a complete picture of what it is that they do there exactly before they are confronted by the creatures. The dialogue touches upon climate research but establishing conversations and images fails to provide specifics so that we, too, feel like a part of a team doing important work. Make no mistake: It has nothing to do with the budget. The problem is a lack of depth in Benjamin Hessler’s screenplay; it lacks faith. It goes by the assumption that the viewer is not interested in scientific details.

It gets worse as it goes on. Eventually, the four characters are joined by at least five others. We are provided even less detail as to why they decide to visit the station. They take plenty of photos on the way there. What is clear, however, is that it is a mistake to put them all in one location because nearly everything is reduced to panic, screaming, and yelling at one another. The sense of dread established during the first thirty minutes is erased nearly completely by the halfway point. We watch the potential prey stumble about with the hope that the creatures start picking them off so the material could have a chance to get back on track. Unfortunately, the picture never recovers.

I watch this type of film with great fascination because there is almost always at least one scene in which curious creatures are opened up and dissected. I find images considered to be disgusting by most as rather beautiful—the slimier the images, the giddier, more tickled I feel. When the camera is unafraid to keep still and let the viewers appreciate the artistry on the table without music cues, the material is at its most compelling. Perhaps it takes me back to childhood when I collected insects and opened them up just out of curiosity. But there must be equally compelling reasons to keep watching outside of these autopsies.

Harbinger Down

Harbinger Down (2015)
★ / ★★★★

“Harbinger Down,” written and directed by Alec Gillis, comes across as a lame and cheap imitation of its inspiration, John Carpenter’s 1982 sci-fi horror classic “The Thing.” An argument can be made that just about every element that could have gone wrong with Carpenter’s picture are shown here. To begin with, it lacks an identity of its own. Just about every major turn of event begs to be compared to its superior template.

For a story that unfolds aboard a fishing trawler, it never establishes a convincing sense of place. It is astounding because the ship is not that big and yet we do not get a complete mental map of the place. And so when characters attempt to escape from the extraterrestrial they released from frozen sea ice, the situation is most unconvincing; it gives the impression the characters are merely in a cramped, unclean apartment. If the filmmakers really did understand what made “The Thing” such a horrifyingly great experience, they would have put it in more effort into making the setting as plausible as possible.

The lead character named Sadie (Camille Balsamo) is a boring protagonist and therefore an unworthy final girl. Although Balsamo is not a performer with the greatest range, the script is at fault for the most part. Sadie’s backstory is forced, her exchanges with other characters—especially with her grandfather (Lance Henriksen), the captain of the the boat—do not sound natural, and we never get a chance to measure or sense her level of intelligence, especially since she is supposed to be a graduate student studying effects of global warming on whales. Her characterization relies solely on egregious dialogue. I suppose we should be thankful we were spared from flashbacks.

The monster’s appearance is uninspiring for the most part. Although I admired the decision to use CGI only sparingly, the special and visual effects fail to create a terrifying creature, one that deserves to be remembered. Filmmakers should note that tentacles on their own are not scary. You can have a hundred of them wriggling at once, coming out of an orifice, but they are still not scary. They may look gross or disgusting, especially with the aid of slurping sound effects, but they do not elicit horror without us eventually receiving a clear, well-lit, and compelling picture of its entire form. The idea that since the creature has the ability to alter its genetic makeup and so there is no point in showing its whole figure up close is absolutely not an excuse.

It fails to capture a sense of isolation and an increasing sense of hopelessness. So, when the final scenes come around and we expect the picture to end soon, we feel a sense of relief—even excitement—that the torment of sub-mediocrity is almost over. Watching sci-fi horror should never feel this way. The greats of the genre may make us feel anxious, disgusted, and downright horrified—but we want to keep watching and we wish for it to keep going nonetheless even though the story is complete, most characters are dead, and the final irony has been delivered.

They Live

They Live (1988)
★★ / ★★★★

Nada (Roddy Piper) arrives in Los Angeles with nothing but a backpack and a belief that the American system will be on his side as long as he is driven and works hard enough. He is able to snag a job at a construction site and meets Frank (Keith David), a hardworking man with a wife and two kids that he has not seen in six months.

Although they are not exactly buddies, Frank nevertheless invites Nada to a homeless encampment in front of an Episcopal church for some food, shelter, and companionship. Suspecting that there is something very strange going on inside the church, Nada snoops around. Eventually, he ends up in a room full of boxes that contain hundreds of sunglasses which have the special ability to reveal subliminal messages in pop culture.

Based on a short story by Ray Nelson, “They Live” has a fantastic premise but the screenplay and direction by John Carpenter take what could have been a pointed satire about consumerism and make it more about fighting with fists and shooting guns.

Its best moments stem from Nada rediscovering the world as it truly is when he puts on the seemingly ordinary sunglasses. We see the world through his eyes and we discover with him that the colorful and detailed posters, magazines, newspapers, and books actually feature commands in black and bold Helvetica: “Sleep,” “Obey,” and “Marry and Reproduce.” Certain people walking around the city turn out not to be humans at all. Some, mostly the rich and those in power, have skeletal or reptilian visages, all part of a mysterious alien force that has big plans for humans.

Instead of propagating the tension from the discovery, the picture eventually focuses on Nada attempting to convince Frank to put on the sunglasses. Frank does not want to because he reckons himself a man who minds his own business, and so there is an approximate ten-minute hand-to-hand combat that takes place in a back alley, mildly amusing within the first minute or so but quickly wears out its welcome. While I had no problem believing that the two can defend themselves, I had trouble buying into the fact that they are still able to get up and walk away after beating each other to a pulp for such an extended amount of time. It comes across as silly but in an off-putting way. It felt like I had just watched a schtick by The Three Stooges for an hour.

Instead of watching the kind of violence that holds no value, I wanted to learn more details concerning a world that is no longer under humans’ control. Who is the main being in charge of the mind control? How will the aliens benefit from living with humans who are unable to think for themselves? While such questions are hinted at, no actual answer is given even though the audience, after investing the time to figure out what is going on, deserve to know.

The action sequence in the alien base is poorly executed and unbelievable. It is difficult to buy into the idea that two men with no military training can potentially singlehandedly overpower a well-established regime. Instead of taking the time to explore its great ideas, its attention and efforts shift to the look of, for example, the tip of the gun every time a bullet flies from it. It becomes depressing and uninspired—a generic action picture.

“They Live” offers some amusing one-liners but I could not help but feel gravely disappointed due to its proclivity to consistently underachieve. When the mood turns serious and dealing with the material’s gravity feels exactly right, the immediate answer is just another joke. Its lack of variation when it comes to dealing with the sharp satire of its template inspires somnolence.

Prince of Darkness

Prince of Darkness (1987)
★ / ★★★★

When a priest assigned to protect an abandoned church passes away, Father Loomis (Donald Pleasence) is summoned to tie up the loose ends. The deceased holds a diary in his hands which includes a key that opens one of the rooms inside the church. Father Loomis investigates the secret room and stumbles upon a cylinder about six to seven feet tall which encloses a swirling, ominous bright green substance. Although he has his suspicions, in order to understand it more, the priest seeks the help of Professor Birack, a physicist who teaches at the nearby university. Soon, the church is filled with various experts, from radiologists to microbiologists, but none of them are informed about what exactly they are supposed to study.

“Prince of Darkness,” written and directed by John Carpenter, fails to capitalize on its interesting premise by eventually yielding to the formula of someone having to end up alone in a room or outside in the dark and is attacked until he or she is murdered with the possibility of later becoming possessed. There is nothing interesting about these typical kills; most of the time, they are almost laughable because there is too much of everything: blood, overacting, and a score that signals something terrible is about to happen.

For a script that acknowledges paradoxes of our very idea of reality through our experiences, there is not enough playfulness or irony when the horror is placed front and center. It creates a mood that comes across so one-note, it is almost sleep-inducing. For instance, all of the characters are left standing around and asking if anyone has seen Person A or Person B lately. Just as expected, the next scene involves a group search but it hold no tension whatsoever because we already know the fates of the missing people.

The picture is at its best when its smart characters of various expertise are given the chance to speak. I liked the early scenes involving Catherine (Lisa Blount), how she is more comfortable talking about the details of her work than in detecting Brian’s (Jameson Parker) obvious feelings for her. Also, it is appropriate that the scientists express doubt not only in terms of their assignments considering they are not fully informed but the very nature of their work when they do learn that they are potentially dealing with the evidence of the supernatural, something that the Roman Catholic church has kept from everyone for the past two thousand years. These are men and women of science so I was interested in observing the way they react when asked to take a major leap of faith.

But even the screenplay fails to take on that challenge. Just when it is about to get interesting, the most recent person to feel that the research is reaching a new level of strange, thereby threatening to walk away, is immediately killed. Not even Pleasence’s peerless talent in conveying worry with a proper mix of sweaty desperation can save the material’s lack of energy and inspiration.

“Prince of Darkness” is mildly intriguing but far from entertaining. Perhaps it could have offered a more involving experience if it had chosen either a more cerebral, more introspective path or a savage, more violent path instead of casually resting in the middle.

In the Mouth of Madness

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
★★★ / ★★★★

John Trent (Sam Neill), an insurance investigator who bears a slight resemblance to hard-boiled detectives in noir pictures, has a reputation of having the best nose for sniffing out a con. This captures the attention of Jackson Harglow (Charlton Heston), publisher of a highly popular book series, and John is hired to look into the sudden disappearance of their most valuable horror author, Sutter Cane (Jürgen Prochnow).

His last published novel, “The Hobb’s End Horror,” has incited very strange behavior from its readers, from random acts of extreme violence to self-mutilation. John, a man of total practicality, deduces such incidences as a form of mass hysteria. But that was before he stepped in a town called Hobb’s End, eerily similar to Cane’s novel.

Although the individual early scenes of “In the Mouth of Madness,” written by Michael De Luca, are relatively well-written, they failed to leave a lasting impression on me. I think the problem is that there are too many discussions about fiction versus non-fiction and fantasy versus reality that the material ends up unhinged from its basic horror elements. Philosophy, in the beginning, overshadows the terrible thing that is unfolding in front of—or within—everybody.

When characters declare “No, this is reality!” with so much passion, it often feels misplaced. The constant hyperboles make an otherwise compelling material into a joke. Since the happenings surrounding the so-called mass hysteria are already exaggerated, the actors having to scream and overact feel phony and unnecessary.

However, the picture’s strength lies in the latter half: the scenes that take place in and around Hobb’s End. The image of a boy, suddenly turning into an old man, riding a bicycle in the middle of the night on the freeway while Linda (Julie Carmen) and John search for elusive town gave me chills. When Linda is forced to interact with the old man, equipped with a voice of a little boy, I felt like I was trapped in a nightmare so twisted, I was reminded of horror movies’ sheer power, sans blood, screaming, and torture, to invoke such a visceral reaction.

The scene is effective because the filmmakers are able to find a synergy between the odd but horrifying images, the unsettling playfulness of sound and silence, and our jaded expectations, at the same time subverting them in such a way that the product, the scare, does not feel cheap. Afterwards, I found it so difficult to dispel the images from my head. It certainly is something that I would not want to think about when I’m driving at night and there are not a lot of other cars on the road.

Hobb’s End feels like it came right out of a Stephen King novel. There is definitely something sinister brewing just below the placid and unpopulated streets. A group of kids chasing a dog with intent to harm it stands out. So does a hotel painting that seems to change each time an observer turns his back from it.

Directed by John Carpenter, “In the Mouth of Madness,” though repetitive at times, manages to keep me guessing. While some would criticize it for its cheap-looking special effects and make-up, I counter that its ability to incite horror has endured. Most horror films like to use comedy as a presage to horror. In here, with just the right dosages, the opposite is observed even with a bloody eye.