Tag Archives: John Carpenter

Prince of Darkness (1987, John Carpenter)

I’d forgotten Prince of Darkness‘s more fanciful notions–Jesus the space alien, still sent to Earth to save us from the Devil, but this time, the Devil’s kind of a space alien too (or not)–and its less creative ones (the Devil uses projectile vomit to posses people). It’s Carpenter at his strangest, the late 1980s period, where he made low budget pseudo b-movies. Prince of Darkness isn’t really a b-movie, if only because Carpenter’s intent, the one unaffected by budget constraints, is quite visible. But also visible are the realities of making Prince of Darkness for its budget.

What’s unfortunate about the film is Carpenter’s lack of inventiveness. Compared to what Carpenter did in the late 1970s, Prince of Darkness feels like a TV movie, only a really well-directed one. Instead of relishing in the low budget, Carpenter tries to work around it, tries to draw attention away from some of the obvious giveaways–the movies set in this church with at least three floors, but after a while… we only see one floor, like sets had to be dismantled. Or the exterior shots of the church, with the menacing homeless people. After a while, they’re only in a couple places (the disappearing Alice Cooper is a whole different discussion).

Or just the closed concept of the film. It deals with the end of the world where signs of imminent destruction are plentiful. Except there are no scenes or shots of regular people noticing these signs. Carpenter lays a framework similar to the modern disaster and destruction movie, but can’t fill it in with the fluff those movies rely on. Instead, it’s a creepy feel–which comes together a few times throughout and really well at the end–accentuated with his familiar synthesizer score. And the goofy reasoning behind the movie.

Much of Prince of Darkness‘s philosophizing sounds like Carpenter just copied his notes unedited. His cast are generally believable as physics majors, but smart undergraduate… certainly not doctoral candidates. However, Carpenter’s got some really sharp dialogue in the film, which is a pleasant surprise.

The best performances are Dennis Dun and Victor Wong, as they’ve got most of the film’s best lines. Jameson Parker and Lisa Blount, as the young(ish) lovers, are okay but nothing more. Poor Donald Pleasence has almost nothing to do. The rest of the cast varies. The ones who end up zombies more so then others. But soon-to-be Carpenter regular Peter Jason is good.

Where Prince of Darkness pulls itself together is the end. Carpenter lifts a lot from his other films for this one’s sequences–Assault on Precinct 13 and The Thing–but even that unoriginal approach can’t affect his skill. The last twenty minutes, even accounting for Dun not trying to break through a wall from his side, just letting Parker and company come through the opposite, is great. There are some make-up problems–budget–and some silly script stuff, but Carpenter knows how to make it work and he does.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by John Carpenter; director of photography, Gary B. Kibbe; edited by Steve Mirkovich; music by Carpenter in association with Alan Howarth; production designer, Daniel A. Lomino; produced by Larry J. Franco; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Donald Pleasence (Father Loomis), Jameson Parker (Brian Marsh), Victor Wong (Prof. Howard Birack), Lisa Blount (Catherine Danforth), Dennis Dun (Walter), Susan Blanchard (Kelly), Anne Marie Howard (Susan Cabot), Ann Yen (Lisa), Ken Wright (Lomax), Dirk Blocker (Mullins), Jessie Lawrence Ferguson (Calder) and Peter Jason (Dr. Paul Leahy).


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Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982, Tommy Lee Wallace)

Halloween III: Season of the Witch is a–well, it’s kind of a remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and not discrete about it at all. The setting has changed and the details, but the movie’s obviously going for the same feel. Occasionally, it even pulls something off. Tommy Lee Wallace is only an adequate director–and one who apparently doesn’t shoot enough coverage–but it’s Dean Cundey shooting Panavision. Dean Cundey shooting Panavision is never going to be a worthless experience.

Witch has one of the meanest spirited–maybe the meanest spirited–plots I’ve ever seen. A nasty Irishman is going to kill every kid on Halloween. Presumably, only in the continental United States and maybe Canada, but still. The movie even has a scene with a kid dying as part of the evil plot, something I really wasn’t expecting to see in a major studio release.

But all that mean spiritedness is revealed at the end and there’s about an hour to get through before then. The hour’s got some okay stuff and some bad stuff–Wallace’s dialogue is awful a lot of the time, so bad even Tom Atkins can’t get it out. Leading lady Stacey Nelkin is bad. Dan O’Herlihy has a great time as the mad Irishman, though. The rest of the supporting cast is immaterial.

What’s strange about the movie is it ought to be better. Producers Debra Hill and John Carpenter seem to have been the laziest producers ever, not giving the script an obviously needed polish. Carpenter did contribute the score, which is occasionally effective but the occasional references to his original Halloween score just show his mediocre effort on this one.

Wallace’s direction is strangely inept. He frequently shoots through a wall (imagine a room with four walls, the camera–in order not to make the scene look wrong–should appear to be shooting from inside those walls; Wallace often shoots through the walls), but then manages to create a fantastic tone in his exterior shots. The little town–and big reference to Body Snatchers–comes alive during Atkins’s arrival (and Witch‘s potential booms).

The film’s gotten a lot of more recent notice for its commentary about capitalism and consumerism (and, definitely vertical integration). These elements are rather clear and obviously presented in the movie–and the New York Times review at the time mentioned them–so I’m not sure why they’re a surprise. The commentary is much quieter than Carpenter had in some of his 1980s pictures; I’m not sure why this one stands out.

It’s definitely watchable for the Cundey photography and so on. Actually, it’s only really boring during the mediocre first act. As Wallace’s dialogue gets more and more absurd, the movie’s more compelling.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by Tommy Lee Wallace; director of photography, Dean Cundey; edited by Millie Moore; music by John Carpenter and Alan Howarth; production designer, Peter Jamison; produced by Carpenter and Debra Hill; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Tom Atkins (Dr. Dan Challis), Stacey Nelkin (Ellie Grimbridge), Dan O’Herlihy (Conal Cochran), Michael Currie (Rafferty), Ralph Strait (Buddy Kupfer), Jadeen Barbor (Betty Kupfer), Brad Schacter (‘Little’ Buddy Kupfer), Garn Stephens (Marge Guttman), Nancy Kyes (Linda Challis), Jonathan Terry (Starker), Al Berry (Harry Grimbridge), Wendy Wessberg (Teddy) and Essex Smith (Walter Jones).


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The Thing (1982, John Carpenter)

I always say John Carpenter needs to direct something else, something non-genre. A romantic comedy perhaps or a family drama. I guess it never occurred to me, but with The Thing, Carpenter is directing something else. It’s kind of too bad, his best film is the one–in some ways–least like his others. In The Thing, Carpenter maintains his exquisite (there’s really no other word for it) Panavision composition, but he introduces a couple new elements. First, the suspense angle. It could just be Ennio Morricone’s score, but Carpenter takes a far more Hitchcockian approach to suspense in The Thing than he’s done before or since. I watched the film with my wife, who’d seen some of it, but forgot the dog’s importance, so I watched it with that first time experience in the back of my head (I guess with The Thing, which I’ve only seen six or seven times, it’s still possible). Carpenter doesn’t offer any hints, just makes almost everything suspicious (except Kurt Russell–does that make him Jimmy Stewart?). That suspense goes on for over an hour, even after the story revelations, until the beautiful blood test scene.

The blood test scene is probably the best example of the second element (like the segue?). The quietness. The fade-outs. The Thing‘s script, just due to the limited locations, inevitably reminds of a play, but one with an excellent adaptation. Carpenter’s infrequent (I think there are around six) fade-outs, which sometimes emphasize, sometimes silence, are kind of peculiar for him. He’s not known for his gentleness, but with the exception of the special effects sequences and some (not all) of the arguments, The Thing is an incredible gentle film. In some respects, it’s even passive. This second element is the parts working for the whole–Carpenter’s composition, Dean Cundey’s photography, the script, Todd C. Ramsay’s editing–it all comes together in these parts and makes The Thing something different.

As for the actors, who I haven’t mentioned. The Thing is one of those perfectly cast films where it’s pointless to go through and list all the good actors because they’re all good. They’re all perfect, no one else could do a better job in the film’s roles. For Russell, it’s a solid leading man role, but one of those special leading man roles where he’s leading others. He manages to command attention, even though the character’s rather understated. Other singular performances, Richard Dysart, Keith David, Donald Moffat and Thomas G. Waites. Dysart has a lot of screen time in the beginning and is great for all of it. David’s–I have no idea what his job is in the film–a perfect foil for Russell. Moffat and Waites both have small outstanding moments in their otherwise good performances.

Carpenter’s made a lot of great films and he’s made a few of cinematic importance, but The Thing is the one of the greatest artistic importance. It’s something totally different (and totally ignored–I’ll never forget seeing it as a fourteen-year-old after reading Leonard Maltin’s one-and-a-half star dismissive capsule), not just from what Carpenter tends to make, but from Hollywood films and genre films as well. By not rambling on in exposition until the details make some kind of sense (I just discovered overexplain is not a real word), which is a serious genre pitfall, The Thing is sublime.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by John Carpenter; screenplay by Bill Lancaster, based on novella by John W. Campbell Jr.; director of photography, Dean Cundey; edited by Todd C. Ramsay; music by Ennio Morricone; production designer, John J. Lloyd; produced by David Foster and Lawrence Turman; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Kurt Russell (MacReady), Wilford Brimley (Blair), T.K. Carter (Nauls), David Clennon (Palmer), Keith David (Childs), Richard Dysart (Copper), Charles Hallahan (Norris), Peter Maloney (Bennings), Richard Masur (Clark), Donald Moffat (Garry), Joel Polis (Fuchs) and Thomas G. Waites (Windows).


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Dark Star (1974, John Carpenter)

Dark Star is probably John Carpenter’s second finest film (after The Thing). It’s the John Carpenter film I’ve always been saying he should make–a funny one. I have seen Dark Star before, probably nine years ago, back when it was somewhat rare (it got picked up, a year after I saw it, by a video distributor who’s kept it in print). The first time I saw it, it struck me how much Dan O’Bannon used again in Alien. In Dark Star, O’Bannon–who makes the film, he should have been an actor, he’s hilarious–hunts a tomato-shaped alien through the bowels of the spaceship. He used that hunt again in his script for Alien. Well, this time, I noticed some of Carpenter’s shot compositions of the spaceship against the planet are identical to Ridley Scott’s set-ups for Alien… Scott just had more money….

The film is pure delight, from O’Bannon’s bickering with his crew mates to the commander rambling about surfing. The humor’s actually a little smarter than I expected, but it’s hard to believe Carpenter and O’Bannon were just students when they made this film. The budget isn’t quite there–it looks about the same as an episode of the original “Star Trek”–but Carpenter always spends his money well. It’s one of his trademarks.

I’m having problems with this post because the film’s only sixty-eight minutes long and it’s a comedy. I’ve already said O’Bannon’s great, I’ve already mentioned some of the funny stuff… but it’s not without some depth too. The film’s present action is short, maybe a few hours, and while the specifics of these characters’ longings are comedic, their existence is not. I just read someone call Dark Star a parody of 2001 but it’s not… The end of Dark Star is touching and more humane–if incredibly short (three minutes at the most)–then the rest of Carpenter’s filmography combined. Seeing Dark Star in 1974, I’m not sure it would connect with the Carpenter who made They Live. I just remembered Starman (as an example of Carpenter’s humaneness, but Dark Star has it beat). It’s a great film.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed and produced by John Carpenter; written by Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon; director of photography, Douglas Knapp; edited by O’Bannon; music by Carpenter; production designer, O’Bannon; released by Jack H. Harris Enterprises Inc.

Starring Brian Narelle (Doolittle), Cal Kuniholm (Boiler), Dre Pahich (Talby) and Dan O’Bannon (Pinback).


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