Archive for John Carpenter

Eyes Of Laura Mars – Irvin Kershner – 1978

Posted in 70's with tags , , , , , , , on January 16, 2013 by bookofdread

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One of my two favorite types of stories are stories about the effect of art on its’ audience. It is an incredibly delicate tale to spin but there are some great little gems out there if you know where to look. Take for example Irving Kershner’s Eyes Of Laura Mars. Stemming from a superb John Carpenter script, the film is expertly molded by Kershner into a thrilling mystery that is enriched with multiple viewings.

Faye Dunaway stars as Laura Mars, a famous photographer who takes her inspiration from visions of graphic violence she experiences. Laura sees through the eyes of the killers. She then re-creates these things in photographs. So far this reads as the artist, (Carpenter, Kershner), examining the reason guys like them put these violent images in films. We see violence in the world and we reflect it in our art. Simple enough.

Faye is very good as a troubled artist, who is possessed to create the images in her mind. She delicately treads between unnerved and displaced. It’s hard to call her a strong female protagonist, as she is in intense terror for much of the film. Her character is basically the artist under attack.

So then the story goes that someone begins to kill those around Laura in her circle, terrorizing her world. Tommy Lee Jones plays the policeman who decides (?) to protect her?

Jones has the crazy haircut sported by Javier Bardem in No Country but plays a down the line New York cop. He’s as compelling as he always is but plays as subtle a truth as I have ever seen without ever betraying his character.  As you watch the film over and over his character never lies, yet never spoils the truth.

I have to spoil the film to really talk about it so go watch the film and then come back.

 

 

Awesome right? Tommy Lee Jones is the killer. So when you watch this film a second time, his every line re-enforces this truth. When Laura asks him who would want to kill her, he replies someone who thinks what she does is sick and puts sickness into the world.

So then, the story goes that the two of these characters fall in love! This seems improbable, but, hey, Tommy Lee Jones is charming.

The art of Laura Mars drives Tommy Lee Jones to murder people. But after he gets to know her he re-evaluates his position on her art. While being a compelling narrative this thread clearly posits that maybe large portions of the public misinterpret many artistic endeavors. By making the killer a cop the writers are suggesting that authority figures are first and foremost those who misunderstand these violent and sordid stories.

So the film is a comment on the inability to see more clearly the inspirations and reflections present in tales of carnage. Furthermore, Laura takes her inspiration, and even draws her occupation from a type of voyeuristic vision. Like the audience watching the film, Laura’s eyes take in and re-process the visual information present in these scenes of death. Just as Tommy Lee Jones character re-evaluates Laura’s motives, the audience should also re-evaluate their view of the motives of horror filmmakers.

It is rare that a horror film makes the case for the existence of horror films in the world, but few do it so gracefully and with such entertaining punch. The pace of the film is hot, moving quickly from twisted set-up to gruesome payoff, while constantly raising the stakes, always making it seem like Laura could be the next victim. And since the audience sees through Laura’s eyes, they are Laura. If she feels the threat, so too should they.

In the end, authority and the artist end up in bed together and where the lust for one another begins, integrity as an artist or serial killer goes out the window. Does she thwart his plan, or is it only by virtue of his getting to know and falling in love with the artist that Tommy Lee Jones is changed?

Clearly nutbags are going to be crazy no matter what types of films they see, but films such as a Clockwork Orange and Videodrome, remind us of the incredible power the visual medium has over our brain. Eyes Of Laura Mars is the brave horror film that risks negating its purpose in an exploration of its own morality to astonishing effect. 

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The Ward – John Carpenter – 2010

Posted in 2010's with tags , , , , , , on January 6, 2013 by bookofdread

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It’s not my purpose to come on here and talk trash about John Carpenter’s The Ward. I’m going to say many nice things about it, before I get to A. Why it doesn’t work, and B. What really are the disappointments associated with it. I as you may know from this page, I’m a raging, rabid fan of John Carpenter, and I believe he has had one of the most singular and fearless voices in all of cinema. Beyond that, he is one of the masters of the medium who elevated the horror genre to what it is today, with several of his films yet to be surpassed in what it is that they achieve.

And what is that exactly? What makes John Carpenter such a genius? It is namely, his predilection to portray authority, (Policemen, The Church, The Government), as ineffectual, duplicitous and malicious. Normally these types of reflections are frowned upon by Hollywood, and in his ballsiest pictures, (They Live, Prince Of Darkness), he made it without their help. However, films such as Halloween, Assault on Precinct 13, Escapes From NY and LA and his masterpiece, The Thing, are all carefully plotted subversions packing dense social commentary into exciting genre fare.

Then there is The Ward.

Gone are the aesthetic tropes one has come to expect from Carpenter. Abandoning his classic 2.35:1 aspect ratio and losing his trademark self-composed score, it’s as if Carpenter is shedding his skin. He’s almost apologizing for the work with these moves as if to say, yeah, well, it’s not one of the REAL John Carpenter films.

That stuff said, the film is handsomely photographed and the score by Mark Kilian is effective and atmospheric.

So, where does the film go wrong? Is it the acting? Nope, Amber Heard is absolutely the right choice for this role. She is strong and vulnerable at the same time, which is a tough combination. She also exudes both intelligence and ignorance throughout the picture that is also a good trick. The supporting cast is good, but no one really calls attention to himself or herself. That could be a function of the general conceit of the film.

All of the characters are the aspects of the protagonist, but inside her mind. Aside from the doctor and nurse all of the girls in the ward are schizophrenic projections inside Amber Heard’s brain. This is saved as reveal for the end, and it comes off super weak. It completely takes the piss and stakes out of all the atmosphere and carnage that precedes it.

Similar, endings are found in the Italian zombie snoozer, Nightmare City, and the lackluster Identity directed by the quite competent James Mangold. These types of reveals at the end of stories undermine the investment the audience has made in the story and suck all the scrutiny away. The audience no longer cares what happens, when all they have been told is a kind of lie.

The way around this is simple; you don’t even really have to change the plot. Instead of making the climactic moment the reveal of the character’s neurosis, instead, cut back to the cause of said neurosis, as in Shutter Island. Sure, we see fragments of Alice’s tormentor, but a scene of her attack and her escape would have been a stellar ending to the film. The plot doesn’t change a bit, but we find a big set piece to end on rather than the delivering of some information and Amber Heard falling out of a window.

Furthermore, we could have portrayed Alice’s assailant as, well anything. I was going to say an authority figure, in order to put it in line with Carpenters work. Maybe say, a cop, a senator, or a priest. But instead we get nothing, not even a face. There are only a few cuts of some dude undoing his pants. Your story is only as strong as your villain and if you are going to tell me at the end of your tale this guy made Alice’s mind fragment into multiple voices, the least you could do is fully create a characterization for the menace.

I’m not sure if Carpenter will ever come back to us. He admits that he spends more time now playing video games than watching films, and that saddens me. I wish he were still the rabid film fan from his youth, blending Howard Hawkes and Lucio Fulci together while mooning the establishment. He was a fucking rock-star. It would be my absolute dream to give Carpenter a script that would get his middle fingers back in the air. Let me know John, all I want is to see you teeth out and biting.

It also would have helped if Kurt Russell had played the psychiatrist.

Someone’s Watching Me! – John Carpenter – 1978

Posted in 70's with tags , , , , , , , on November 15, 2012 by bookofdread

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1978 was a busy year for John Carpenter. He made Elvis!, Halloween, and this little gem, Someone’s Watching Me. He put Lauren Hutton in it and made a nice little slice of Hitchcock. He wrote it as a feature, but the suits thought it was soft so they sent it to TV, where he turned in a nice little piece.

Leigh Michaels is a TV director who is being stalked Rear Window style by someone across a building from her. She begins to receive strange packages and calls. After the police prove useless she sets out to discover for herself who her mysterious caller is.

Lauren Hutton is very good in this role. She is onscreen for basically the entire film so she has to be likeable, vulnerable and a credible heroine, which she is. She is funny, strong and confident, so much so that when she is shaken is doubly effective.

Most of the film takes place in Leigh’s lush and beautiful LA high-rise. I really do find it hard to empathize with a well-paid LA tv director, even if she is Lauren Hutton. She has little to no character beats. What does she do? Smoke and drink? I don’t even think she has any art in her apartment.

The supporting cast is fine but very unremarkable. David Birney gets some time in as supportive boyfriend and Adrienne Barbeau makes minutes as friend who gets killed. I suppose Charles Cyphers makes the biggest impression as a mostly impotent police chief.

Carpenter is finding his voice here, using suspense and strong characters to push the story along, though he did not score this film, so that synth-y Carpenter propulsive score is absent and sorely missed.

The plot is very thin, and many times I was waiting for things to happen. Little touches seem to transpire to pad out the plot rather than to serve it, so I got a bit bored. Much of the problem lies in the mystery villain. I would rather the story serve the villain or at least represent his actions more outwardly, like Michael Myers. This character is mostly a red herring until the final minutes of the film.

This one is for fans of Lauren Hutton, John Carpenter completists and those who like it when other directors try their hand at making a Hitchcock film. Someone’s Watching Me? Not many.

Vampires – John Carpenter – 1998

Posted in 90's with tags , , , , , , on October 25, 2012 by bookofdread

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I have a feeling that in any John Carpenter film that isn’t quite up to snuff you could replace one actor with Kurt Russell and all would be well. This is certainly the case with Vampires, a film I once reviled but have come to love nearly completely. If only Kurt Russell had played the Daniel Baldwin role, man this could have been one of the greatest Vampire films ever made. As it stands it’s a gory, sexy delight with all the most classic Carpenterisms.

James Woods plays Jack Crow: vampire slayer. In typical Carpenter fashion, he works for the Catholic Church who has been lying to the world about the existence of the undead for centuries. Not only are they hiding them, they are responsible for the first vampire as well, apparently.

Woods is a riot as Crow, with his every word cracking me up. He grins and spits and smokes and beats up a priest. Hilarious. When he asks the priest if he got turned on while he was kicking his ass back in the dirt back there…. that’s some funny shit.

So Crow and his team go vampire fishing and then at the celebration afterward, the big bad comes and kills everyone but Crow and not Kurt Russell. There is an amazing scene where the Vampire goes down on the prostitute. It’s quite shocking and sexy. These guys take the girl from Twin Peaks with them and get out of town.

Crow buries his men while Daniel Baldwin is munched by the vampire whore. This truth is hidden for most of the picture. So we have a compromised man who never leaves Woods behind. Daniel Baldwin in what should have been a much richer performance barely gets by with his lines. He seems to be in a completely different film than everyone else, and it’s pretty hard to get over.

The film is extremely profane, the joke being that Crow works for the Church and he has not a lick of respect for them. Much like Snake Plissken, he is trapped in his role in the world, a capable asset to be exploited.

Carpenter never lets the great imagery slow; he frames the whole story like a western, even using many desertscapes and the iconography of New Mexico throughout. There is an amazing scene of vampires coming out of the dessert earth at dusk that gives me chills every time I see it! The film has it all, a fun hero, an evil church secret, an awesome villain, tons of gore, some great sexuality, and another killer John Carpenter score.

What makes this film great is its filmic sense of fun. John Carpenter never forgets he’s making a John Carpenter film and there are scenes here that would be as easily found in Prince Of Darkness or Escape From New York.

Vampires is a classic, fun and violent. Just imagine if it had been Kurt Russell turning into a vampire at the end of the film and driving off with the lady. Imagine James Woods telling him he has two days before he chases him down and kills him. Ah, well, it’s pretty great all the same.       

Prince Of Darkness – John Carpenter – 1987

Posted in 80's with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 9, 2012 by bookofdread

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The church has been lying to you for all these years. The devil lives in an ancient green cylinder beneath an abandoned Las Angeles Church, and if Professor Birack, and Father Loomis don’t do anything about it, the apocalypse will be unleashed. Prince Of Darkness, the second of John Carpenter’s self-proclaimed “Apocalypse Trilogy”, is absolutely one of his most underrated and terrifying films. From it’s fearless treatment of the church to its incredibly cerebral justifications of terror using physics. Prince of Darkness is a thinking man’s horror film, and the better for it. Some might find this film deliberate or even slow-paced, but Carpenter continues to find ways to stage nightmarish sequence after sequence, keeping one enthralled.

A priest dies, bequeathing to Donald Pleasance an ancient secret. Already, you have my interest. I love the idea that the governing bodies of the world are keeping secrets from the populace, because if anyone could, it’s them. Moving on. Priest Pleasance employs a physics professor and his students to come and study an esoteric relic, one that gives of dangerous vibrations.

Through the proceedings, Carpenter gives many likeable characters, painting in broad but familiar strokes. We care for almost every man and woman in this church, and as they leave they are faced with the emotionless hordes governed by the evil objects’ sinister vibrations.

Again, mass mind control, or a single being populating many bodies is a theme from both the Thing and At The Mouth Of Madness, other films from the cycle. Even in Assault on Precinct 13 and Halloween does Carpenter experiment with his greatest contribution to the horror language, The Shape. An emotionless human, under the sway of malevolent control, The Shape is arguably as iconic as Romero’s zombies, and Carpenter makes great use of it in Prince Of Darkness. As each student looks out of the church they see the mindless masses, under the control of the evil substance.

We, the audience are the students looking out at the masses. Question your history the film says. What secrets are kept from us for our own safety? In the name of our best interest?

The road to hell is paved with good intention. In a chilling scene, Donald Pleasance condemns the church for their duplicity and begs for help from science. The film paints science as savior from the lies of the church. Furthermore, as the film goes on, Christ is revealed to be an extraterrestrial (!) sent here to warn us about the green devil juice, and it’s apocalyptic urge to bring forth from a mirror universe the anti-god.

Just the scene where the scientists explain the mirror universe and the anti-god is a work of brilliance, well written, plainly spoken, Carpenter taps into a Lovecraftian fear of the unknown, explaining in wide strokes just how sophisticated our science is and how it ultimately reveals to us the vastness of our ignorance.

Much to my love, Carpenter peppers in Fulciesque gore scenes, such as a bicycle stabbing and a body turning into maggots and insects. The focus is really on a Biblical type of Revelation.

Ultimately, Catherine Danforth gives herself to the mirror and stops the anti-god from entering this world. Selflessness is a virtue loved by the pious and scientific alike. Her sacrifice mirrors Christ’s. He gave his life to save the world. The revelation that the shared dream is message from the future further echoes the Christ story, in that Catherine returns from the dead to give the word of a new and better future.

The broadcast from the future gives mustache scientist reason, (hope? faith?) to reach out and touch the mirror. Can we look into Carpenter’s well-wrought reflection of humanity and take his points to heart? Is the beast in the mirror anti-god? Or is Carpenter saying that our reflection is the anti-god, and that selflessness is the path to righteousness? This film is better every time I see it, and I hope that one day Carpenter puts his teeth back in and bites back.

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