Tag: john carpenter

Escape from New York


Escape from New York (1981)
★★★ / ★★★★

On the surface, John Carpenter’s “Escape from New York” is an action film. It does, after all, involve a plot to rescue the president (Donald Pleasance) after Air Force One crashed in Manhattan, now a maximum security prison following a 400% increase of crime in the country. But as one experiences it, it is not so much an action picture—at least not a typical one. I found it to be a mood piece, an exercise of creativity by a filmmaker given a very limited budget whose goal is to entertain by inspiring us to look inside the world he and his team created instead of simply accepting busy movements and loud noises.

The solemn and desolate skylines and landscapes of Manhattan puts us into a headspace that this version of the future, set in 1997, is cruel and militaristic. For a dystopian film released in 1981, it looks terrific. Every location we visit, whether it be atop the World Trade Center or in the streets where starved denizens—starved of food, human interaction, freedom—crawl out of the sewers with rats, there is something special to be seen and appreciated. Couple these intoxicating images with well-placed and well-made synth music, we become increasingly excited for the mission to evolve. We look forward to the next scene’s surprises, the next batch of colorful personalities our central protagonist may clash against.

Our eye-patched hero—some might say anti-hero—is Snake Plissken and he is played with suave by Kurt Russell. Less capable performers may have relied on the eye patch to create a personality, but Russell portrays the character as though the accessory isn’t even there. Snake is confident and knows what he wants and so from the moment we come across this memorable character, we have a feeling about his history outside of his reputation among lawmen and criminals. I enjoyed that Snake taking on the task of rescuing the president is not driven by a sense of duty for his country but self-preservation. Police Commissioner Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef), in charge of the rescue mission, offers a deal: Should Snake succeed at rescuing the president, all of his crime records would be wiped clean.

But to ensure that Hauk would get his way: Snake is injected with particles that would rupture his arteries should he fail to deliver the man within a time limit. Carpenter and Nick Castle’s screenplay often works like this. Even the criminals we meet in Manhattan, particularly the ones who end up helping Snake for reasons of their own, are given dimension. Everybody is out for themselves and yet they are willing to bend rules—at times their personal codes—in order to get that much further in attaining their goals. This is far more interesting than presenting yet another ballet of bullets in which the straight-faced hero triumphs with ease or barely escapes.

Nuance is what separates “Escape from New York” from other sci-fi action pictures. We may not have the strongest, smartest, or most heroic protagonist but we get a real sense of his place in this particular dystopian universe. Should he succeed or fail in his mission, notice it doesn’t really matter. Or at least it didn’t matter to me. It was enough that I got to see and experience Carpenter’s vision of world where criminals are hidden away to rot instead of rehabilitated. (Perhaps we are at that point now?) There is one line early in the film that stuck with me. Prisoners about to be sent to Manhattan are given a choice to self-terminate and be cremated should they not want to be confined for life. I caught myself thinking I probably would have taken on the offer. Happily. Because what is life without freedom?

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


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.

The Ward


The Ward (2010)
★ / ★★★★

Kristen (Amber Heard), for unknown reasons, decides to burn down a farmhouse. She is captured by the cops and eventually handed over to a psychiatric institution where Dr. Stringer (Jared Harris) is in charge of implementing her treatment. On her first night, awakening from a nightmare, Kristen notices something strange. She feels she isn’t alone. It is immediately apparent that a ghost wants to get her attention.

“The Ward,” written by Michael Rasmussen and Shawn Rasmussen, is full of red herrings predictably designed to throw us off-course so it can deliver a “shocker” ending. I wasn’t surprised nor was I amused. I was frustrated and angry because it really only has one technique. The filmmakers hope that by blindfolding its audiences and making us spin ’round and ’round through its confusingly muddled story, we will get dizzy enough and eventually be convinced that it has something profound to offer. I find movies of this sort distasteful because it is brazen enough to treat us like idiots.

John Carpenter’s direction is painfully lackadaisical. For instance, when Kristen attempts to escape the hospital, there is no sense of urgency. She tries about five times and each time the set-up is the same: it is obvious that once the ghost appears, and it always does without warning, Kristen will not make it out that night. It’s sad that even Pavlov’s dogs have sharper instinct than the protagonist. Each attempt at an escape is not diverse enough to be memorable.

Kristen comes to know four girls (Mamie Gummer, Danielle Panabaker, Laura-Leigh, Lyndsy Fonseca) who might know a little bit about the hospital’s recent past and quite possibly the reason why the ghost is angry and wants to kill. However, their conversations lack depth. With each scene they share, someone always brings up the idea of escaping and another counters, “It’s impossible to get out.” By the third time the same conversation takes place, I was convinced that the material is simply stalling because it has nothing else to say. It is depressing to watch.

The filmmakers had a chance of making a really creepy film set in a mental hospital. What they should have done is explore the duality of the human psyche reflected in the characters’ surroundings. Make the doctors and orderlies more friendly. Allow the hallways to look bright. Establish an inviting and energetic milieu, especially in the morning. Nighttime should have been an entirely different reality.

This is where Carpenter should have nailed it on the head. I waited for the camera to slither through the hallways and lure us, perhaps even dare us, to look in the darkness. Make us jump, give us false alarms, force us to bite our nails out of anticipation–just do something to make us care. Instead, the camera moves rapidly without purpose other than to induce migraines. When the camera does remain still, a slight movement of something behind the character on the foreground is often accompanied by a deafening score. There is nothing scary or interesting about it because it doesn’t even bother to tease our expectations. It is lazy, stale, and completely unnecessary.

The Fog


The Fog (1980)
★★ / ★★★★

When a strange fog appeared off the coast of San Antonio, a sleepy town about to celebrate its one hundredth year of existence, people started to die in gruesome ways. Ghosts with hooks and swords hid in the fog and murdered seemingly indiscriminately. With the help of the voice from a local radio (Adrienne Barbeau), a hitchhiker (Jamie Lee Curtis), the man who kindly gave her a ride (Tom Atkins), a councilwoman (Janet Leigh), and her assistant (Nancy Kyes) tried to make their way out of town. Written by John Carpenter and Debra Hill, it was difficult not to admire the film’s attempt to make the most of what little it had. A fog that glowed wasn’t very scary even if had murderous ghosts hidden inside. But the reason why the picture was bearable was because of the way Carpenter, the director, played with its mood. The first fifteen minutes were engaging. The man who told local children ghost stories around a campfire elevated the creepiness that complemented objects suddenly moving on their own, pay phones ringing simultaneously, and car alarms going off for no reason. Not only did it inspire me to ask questions about the setting’s history, I got the sense that the seaside town was really isolated. I wouldn’t want to live there. However, the execution of scary or shocking moments felt uninspired. Take the scene in which the hitchhiker, Elizabeth, and her new boyfriend, Nick, conversed inside an abandoned ship. Instead of allowing the cabinet to open up in the middle of their tiresome conversation and maximizing the element of surprise, Carpenter warned us of what was about to happen when he focused the camera on the cabinet too often and too long. When Elizabeth jumped, I didn’t. Instead, I snickered because of how silly it was. Stevie, the raspy voice on the radio, could have been a more complete leading character. She wasn’t given much to do other than to be stuck in a lighthouse and watch the fog draw near. She had a young son–an excellent reason to fight for her own survival so she could protect him. But she wasn’t even given the chance. Furthermore, the background story involving the ghosts was as vague as reading a small sign silhouetted in fog from a few feet away. Their motivations were shrouded for too long. When unveiled, it didn’t make much sense. What was more important to them: an eye for an eye or the gold hidden from plain sight? They could have been much scarier. They moved quite slow and it appeared easy to outrun them. “The Fog” is very light entertainment at best. It was plagued with clichés like a person actually choosing to answer a door when he or she already suspected that something might be seriously wrong. Don’t get me started with the wheels of a car being stuck in mud when characters desperately needed to get away. Despite the characters’ frustratingly unrealistic decisions, at least its mood kept my attention.

Blow Out


Blow Out (1981)
★★★ / ★★★★

In introductory Neurology courses, we were taught that our brain filters out most of the information our senses absorb. That is why, for example, when we’re in the middle of a big city during rush hour, most of the sounds tend to blend together. The only sounds our brain process, at least in a conscious level, are the ones we will ourselves to pay attention to or a sound that is really loud to the point where our brain translates it as something threatening. Our relationship with sound was tackled in a smart and mature way in “Blow Out,” written and directed by Brian De Palma, about a soundman named Jack Terry (John Travolta), who recorded an assassination of a potential presidential nominee as the car skidded off the road and plunged into the icy river. Jack managed to rescue Sally (Nancy Allen), but the police wanted to cover up the fact that the political figure, married and with kids, had a female escort. Rumors about the politician drinking and driving spread like wildfire but Jack wanted to reveal the truth. The film wore its influences on its sleeve. The more serious side, the spying scenes, reminded me of Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation.” On the other hand, the more comedic side was in the form of a slasher flick à la John Carpenter’s “Halloween” as we saw the murders from the killer’s perspective. The funniest running joke involved the filmmakers’ inability to correctly dub the scream of an actress who was about to get stabbed in the shower. The B-movie director and his associates were stuck in a Goldilocks and the Three Bears conundrum. The women hired tend to have screams that were either too deep or too shrill. Both sounded ridiculous and laughable without, but especially with, the shower scene image. Even though it didn’t have anything to do with the big picture, I was glad that De Palma didn’t remove those scenes. It showed me that he was confident with his work. The comedic scenes were solid tension-breakers and they never wore out their welcome. The film was almost obsessive with its images. Only in the last thirty minutes did we see the assassin’s face (John Lithgow) straight-on. And when we did, his dark intentions and strange fixations filled every frame. He moved like an animal; he knew about timing–when to hold back and when to go for the jugular. But the assassin’s meticulous nature was somewhat familiar. We saw it in Jack as he rewinded his tapes over and over again to find the most minute details of the crime. We learned about his past and his redemption arc came in the form of Sally, a girl who never watched the news because it was too depressing. He loved her but I loved that I wasn’t sure if she loved him back. I knew the film did a wonderful job because it made me want to know more. The ending was powerful but far from heavy-handed. When it comes to exposing the truth, sometimes you win some, sometimes you lose some.

The Thing


The Thing (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

In John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” the opening shot featured two men in a helicopter shooting at a dog in order to prevent it from reaching an American research facility. “The Thing,” written by Eric Heisserer and directed by Matthijs van Heijningen Jr., consisted of the events that led up to aforementioned curious scene. When a group of Norwegian researchers, led by Edvard Wolver (Trond Espen Seim), stumbled upon an alien space craft in the Antarctic ice, Dr. Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen) was immediately alerted. But before the scientist and his assistant, Adam (Eric Christian Olsen), could get there, Dr. Halvorson recruited an American paleontologist, Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), for her expertise. Upon their arrival, they learned that not only was there a craft, there was also an alien trapped in ice a couple of meters from the wreckage. What I enjoyed most about the film was it successfully emulated Carpenter’s paranoid tone. Although I knew what the alien was capable of, there was a sense of excitement in the way Kate and the Norwegian crew opened up the alien’s body and explored the grim and disgusting details inside. When the camera showed the guts and the organs, I felt like I was in that room and I wanted to participate in touching the viscera and the accompanying slime. If anything, the picture proved that even though most of the audience knew what was about to transpire, as long as the journey that led up to the characters’ discoveries was interesting, the project could still stand strong. The prequel shared the same main weakness as Carpenter’s movie. There more than ten characters but we only somewhat got to know Kate. There were at least two other characters worth knowing more about. For instance, how well did Adam and Kate know each other prior to their mission? It seemed like they had some history. If their relationship was more defined, the latter scenes in which Kate suspected that Adam was possibly infected by the alien virus would have had more impact. After all, if you think that someone you’ve known all your life is no longer that person you’ve grown to love and care about, that he or she is simply a replica of an extraterrestrial, and it is necessary to kill that certain someone, wouldn’t you feel rotten before and after deciding to eliminate that person/being? To some extent, I would. Even though, in truth, that friend is an alien, it has the face, the voice, the mannerisms of a human being. I also wanted to know more about Sam (Joel Edgerton), the helicopter pilot. There were a few scenes which suggested that there was an attraction between Sam and Kate. Again, another possible human connection that could have been milked more with the regards to the bizarre happenings. “The Thing,” based on the short story called “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell Jr., while suspenseful most of the time, it was ultimately let down by having too much CGI. I didn’t need to see the craft being activated when it didn’t even get to fly for even a few inches. What I wanted to see more was the creature, hiding inside a human, just biding its time till its prey inevitably lets his guard down.

The Thing


The Thing (1982)
★★★ / ★★★★

In the icy landscape of Antarctica, a Siberian Husky attempted to outrun a helicopter because one of the people inside was shooting at it. When the dog arrived in an American research facility, the helicopter landed and came out a man speaking Norwegian. Nobody understood the dialect. He started shooting; Americans shot back. Everyone was baffled with how quickly everything happened and without an apparent reason. When the researchers took the dog to be with its own kind, in the dark, it revealed its true nature: inside it was an alien organism. Based on the story “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell Jr. and written by Bill Lancaster, “The Thing” deservingly gained a strong cult following over the years. It took its time in showing us the alien’s abilities and how it was able to survive for so long. It was dangerous because it seemed to have both intelligence and great survival instincts. It was capable of copying an animal in exact detail but in order to do so, it had to absorb its victims’ cells. Although the picture didn’t quite delve into specifics, it made sense because cells house DNA. Humans in a contained area were right for the picking. R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell) was the helicopter pilot and the eventual leader of the group. Along with Dr. Copper (Richard Dysart), they had to figure out a way to find which of their colleagues were imitations. One of the best scenes involved MacReady and Dr. Cooper visiting the nearby Norwegian facility and finding the place in utter ruins. They saw deformed and charred human bodies as well as a hunk of ice which, from the looks of it, formerly preserved something. The grotesque and mysterious images allowed us to construct a narrative in our minds about what possibly happened. The film successfully captured a paranoid atmosphere. For instance, the camera’s attention shifted from one person to another. Characters were often in different rooms because they had jobs to do, some were on shifts depending on time of day, while others kept to themselves because certain personalities clashed. What happened to Person A when the camera was on Person B? Another element that added to the paranoia was its calculated use of score. It was able to generate so much tension by simply allowing us to hear heartbeat-like notes during key scenes. And it wasn’t only implemented when a person would walk into a dark room in an attempt to investigate something. It was used in broad daylight when danger was right around the corner. Unfortunately, I had serious issues with the film’s pacing, notably with its final thirty minutes. While it managed to maintain a certain level of creativity in terms of the build-up of who was possibly infected, once we knew, the point-and-shoot-the-flamethrower tactic became repetitive. There was nothing inspiring or surprising during the last fifteen minutes. Despite its shortcomings, I couldn’t keep my eyes off the screen. The special, visual effects, and make-up teams should be applauded for creating images found in nightmares. Directed by John Carpenter, “The Thing” is one of the few movies I feel I must watch every year. I’m hypnotized by it each time.

Malevolence


Malevolence (2004)
★★★ / ★★★★

Four people (R. Brandon Johnson, Heather Magee, Richard Glover, Keith Chambers) decided to rob a bank and were relatively successful except that one of them had been shot. They divided into two groups. A mother (Samantha Dark) and daughter (Courtney Bertolone), on their way home from a softball game, were taken hostage by one of the robbers because he was caught stealing their van. The man took his hostages to a remote house and waited for his three accomplices. Meanwhile, there was a serial killer next door patiently waiting for his next victim. Written and directed by Stevan Mena, “Malevolence” was quite effective in delivering violence and scares. There was nothing particularly original about it but it didn’t need to because I was consistently fascinated with what was happening on screen. It was obviously influenced by John Carpenter’s “Halloween” and Tobe Hooper’s “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” When characters were on the foreground, the masked killer would sneakily appear on the background and just… observe. The creepiness was elevated by the film’s score. I liked the way the picture took place at night and, since the abandoned houses were in the middle of nowhere, electricity was rarely used. Darkness hid certain corners, perfectly designed for something to jump out from them and I always expected that something would. There were times when I was actually caught off guard. When fluorescent lights were used, they flickered. Surprisingly, I found it scarier when lights were on because every flicker could potentially reveal something that wasn’t there just a second before. As much as it was violent, I loved that the environment was very detailed: House A had no decoration other than thick dust that invaded the air when there was sudden movement, while House B had all sorts of strange things like blood in a tub, a month’s worth of unwashed dishes, and possible signs of satanic ritual. The scenes outdoors were quite impressive, too. When the daughter attempted to escape from one of the bank robbers, she had to run and scream across a field. There was something quite unsettling with the way it was shot. However, I wish we knew more about the killer prior and during his killing sprees. What made this film’s inspirations so effective was the fact that we knew something disturbing about Michael Myers and Leatherface, something scary beyond the stabbings and chopped up bodies. Furthermore, the acting could have been stronger. Some scenes needed to be reshot, especially toward the beginning, because the lines uttered did not complement the actors’ facial expressions. It was somewhat amusing to watch. However, once it got to the meat of the conflict, when acting became less important, the material held my attention like a vise-grip. Most importantly, the writer-director did not allow his project’s low budget to get in the way of his vision. Instead of succumbing to limitation, he saw inspiration.