Christine (1983)

2016 #85
John Carpenter | 106 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 18 / R

ChristineOne of a couple of films John Carpenter directed “for hire” in an attempt to restore his Hollywood reputation after the box office failure of The Thing, Christine is an adaptation of a Stephen King novel about a car possessed by evil. Yes, a car. I guess if you wait long enough, anything and everything will be possessed by evil eventually (in fiction, at any rate).

Despite that pedigree, Christine is about as scary as… well, I was trying to think of something soft and fluffy that hasn’t ever been used in a horror movie, but that list is increasingly short. But you get my point: it’s not scary. Its 18 certificate is earned by an abundance of very strong language — which, according to screenwriter Bill Phillips, was added for that exact purpose: the film wasn’t violent enough to get an R, and they didn’t think people would see it if it was a PG (this being before the PG-13), so they just inserted a lot of swearing. It’s still a pretty entertaining film, though, thanks to some humour and the almost-there thematic subtext of America’s obsession with the automobile.

The central (human) character is Arnie, a nerdy teen who becomes obsessed and then empowered by the eponymous vehicle. Keith Gordon is pretty good as this “worm that turned” type, albeit in a somewhat melodramatic way: he’s a heightened version of a nerd at the start, and a heightened version of a car-obsessed teenage dick later on. One review I read reckoned the film “sacrifices character logic” — what, there’s a flaw in the logical behaviour of a guy who’s semi-possessed by his demonic car, you mean?

Girl on girl action, of a sortEven if Carpenter was doing it only for kudos with the studios, he still turned in solid work. Christine may not be scary, but she is menacing, and her attacks work as individual sequences. Unsurprisingly it’s not his strongest film, and it’s not the greatest adaptation in the Stephen King movie canon either, but if all movies by jobbing filmmakers were this good then we’d be luckier moviegoers.

4 out of 5

Christine is one of the first releases from new UK Blu-ray label Indicator, out today.

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Ghosts of Mars (2001)

2016 #76
John Carpenter | 98 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

There are a good number of well-regarded John Carpenter films I’ve not seen that I could spend my time on, but I chose to expend it on this critically-mauled sci-fi-horror-Western from the first year of the current millennium. But sometimes watching poorly-regarded films pays off, because while Ghosts of Mars is no classic, it is actually pretty entertaining.

Set in a future where Mars has been almost completely terraformed, a group of police officers are dispatched to a remote mining outpost to escort a dangerous prisoner. On arrival they find the town mysteriously deserted, but soon discover the inhabitants have been possessed and basically turned into Reavers (…wait, did Joss Whedon just rip off Ghosts of Mars?!) Holed up in the jail, police and criminals must join forces to fend off their attackers. Yes, it’s basically Assault on Space Precinct 13.

It’s not just the plot that recalls older films: although the film was released in 2001, the quality of the acting, photography, sets, and effects are all like something made 15 years earlier. (In these technical aspects it reminded me a lot of Total Recall, and not just because it’s set on Mars.) It’s almost hard to equate it with other films made around the same time, and maybe that’s part of why it was so poorly received on release: it felt dated. Watched with 15 years distance, however, it’s an Old Film, so it’s as easy to mentally lump it in with stuff made 30 years ago as with stuff made 15 years ago. That doesn’t magically wipe out its other faults, but it does make me think about the level of forgiveness people are willing to apply to films based on extra-filmic knowledge of when they were made, etc. If people thought this had been made in the ’80s, would they view it as kindly as they do some ’80s genre-classics that are just as bad and/or dated?

I mean, I’m not saying it stands up to something like The Thing, which by comparison is a classy movie (bet no one in 1982 ever thought The Thing would get called “classy”!), but I don’t think it’s any less accomplished (at least in technical categories) than, say, Big Trouble in Little China. However, it’s swapped out some of the kooky fun of that film for a sci-fi-horror milieu, and maybe that’s why it doesn’t wash as well — it doesn’t have the comicalness to let the weaker aspects slide.

Conversely, if you made it today it would probably be seen as a throwback/homage and everyone would do backflips over it. They’d have a similar reaction to its diverse cast: a female lead hero, a black co-lead who’s also the cast’s biggest name (at the time), a lesbian commanding officer… If they could manage that in a studio picture 15 years ago, why does it seem to be such a big problem nowadays?

Anyway, it’s not “good”, but it is cheesily fun — and I reckon if it had been made 15 years earlier, exactly as it is, it would have a lot more fans.

3 out of 5

Starman (1984)

2016 #14
John Carpenter | 115 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

In this sci-fi romance, an alien intercepts the invitation included on the Voyager 2 space probe and tries to visit Earth, but is shot down. Taking the form of Karen Allen’s recently deceased husband, Jeff Bridges, he forces her to drive him to Arizona, where his people will rescue him in three days — if they can escape the attention of the government agents chasing them, anyway.

Starman can most pithily be summarised as “John Carpenter does Steven Spielberg”. Almost literally, in that it’s like a cross between E.T. and Always: Bridges’ comical alien learns Earth customs while trying to get home, and Allen’s widow deals with her bereavement while her husband is still ‘there’ (sort of). Of course, Always was actually made five years later, but Columbia Pictures in fact turned down the project that would develop into E.T. in favour of this movie. That’d be E.T., the highest-grossing film of all time for 11 years. Oops.

Although it may not have been the same box office hit or developed into the same cultural touchstone, Starman is certainly not a bad movie. Bridges negotiates a fine line between alien and mannered as the titular visitor who speaks faltering English and struggles with our ways, and I’d argue he always comes down on the right side of said line. Oscar voters certainly agreed, rewarding his performance with a Best Actor nomination (he lost to F. Murray Abraham for Amadeus). Allen is an engaging presence also, and between work like this and Raiders of the Lost Ark it’s a wonder she wasn’t a bigger star.

The film is an oddity on director John Carpenter’s CV, which came about due to The Thing being a box office disaster — Carpenter needed to make a very different kind of movie so he could keep getting work in Hollywood. Nonetheless, Carpenter’s horror roots are on display: there are stalking POV shots as the alien arrives at Allen’s house, and then it grows a human body, a sequence in which the ugliest (prosthetic) baby you’ve ever seen stretches and creaks as it grows into an adult in mere minutes. It’s pretty freaky. Indeed, as per the BBFC, Starman “contains mild language, sex, violence and sci-fi horror”, but is rated PG. Ah, the good old days!

Though it may not quite be a genre classic, the recently-announced remake from Shawn Levy, director of Night at the Museum, Date Night, and Real Steel (not to mention the lambasted Pink Panther reboot) seems ill-advised. While I liked the two of his movies I’ve seen well enough, Levy is a long way from being a John Carpenter, and I don’t envy whoever gets the lead role — copy Bridges and you’ll likely be a pale imitation; do something different and you’ve got to measure up to a very effective take on alienness.

On the bright side, maybe it will shine more attention on this half-forgotten original. I only watched it because I was on a bit of a Carpenter kick and it was available on Netflix, but I’m glad I stumbled across it.

4 out of 5

Starman is on Film4 at 6:45pm today.

They Live (1988)

2015 #123
John Carpenter | 94 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 18 / R

Sci-fi parable about aliens controlling us via subliminal advertising.

There’s action, including a comically lengthy fight between lead good guys Roddy Piper and Keith David, but the meat is satire. Thirty years on, it remains thematically relevant; perhaps even more so. That no one’s actively considering a remake suggests how Hollywood has lost its political teeth. I’m not saying they should remake it, just, y’know, Hollywood.

In fact, considering the apparently-victorious ending is kinda bleak if you think it through, perhaps they should make a sequel with the status quo unchanged decades later. It might be rubbish, but there’s potential.

4 out of 5

This drabble review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Haiku Review

Ev’ry August film
reviewed in haiku form. (And
you thought drabbles short!)

I can’t even remember what gave me the idea, but the other day I started writing haiku-sized reviews of films I’d watched, and before I knew it had written one for every film from August. So, in what may or may not become a new regular feature, I’m going to share them with you. You lucky, lucky people.

Technically a haiku is more than just the 5-7-5 syllable structure most people know: it should be about nature, and (to quote Wikipedia) “the essence of haiku is ‘cutting’… often represented by the juxtaposition of two images or ideas and a kireji (‘cutting word’) between them.” Obviously these haiku have nothing to do with the first of those conditions; as to the second, well, it comes and goes. At times, I’ve tried; others, less so. Hopefully none are just 17-syllable sentences split in three. Nonetheless, I don’t promise poetic quality with these.


Contagion
Gwyneth Paltrow eats,
whole world at risk of grim death.
Scares ’cause it could be.

End of Watch
Cops film selves, sort of.
Inconsistent P.O.V.
undermines reel-ism.

Inherent Vice [review]
Pynchon’s comedy
filmed by P.T. Anderson.
Laughs for weed users.

Interstellar [review]
Two-Thousand-And-One,
A Space-Time Anomaly.
Mainly, spectacle.

Justice League: The New Frontier
Uncommon premise
raises expectations, but
promise is squandered.

Life of Pi [review]
Tiger on a boat:
CG extravaganza!
Better than the truth.

Monsters: Dark Continent [review]
Genre transplanted,
but soldiers pose same quand’ry:
aren’t we the monsters?

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World
This: way the world ends —
not with a bang or whimper,
but a love story.

Shallow Grave
Danny Boyle’s debut.
Cold cash leads friends to distrust
and dismemberment.

Sherlock Holmes (1922) [review]
Moriarty v.
Barrymore. Gillette-derived
slight Sherlock silent.

Shivers
Amateur work by:
biologist, kills neighbours;
Cronenberg, upsets.

Space Station 76 [review]
Groovy future fun,
undercut by theme of frac-
tured relationships.

The Story of Film: An Odyssey
Epic history,
too personalised for some.
Piqued insight abounds.

Stranger by the Lake
French gays have the sex
with a killer in their midst.
A slow-burn beauty.

The Theory of Everything [review]
Eddie Redmayne won
awards, but the film’s heart is
Felicity Jones.

The Thing (2011) [review]
Under prequel’s guise,
computers doodle a mere
Carpenter rehash.

The Haiku Review may return next month. We’ll see how things go.

The Thing (1982)

2015 #97
John Carpenter | 109 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 18 / R

The Thing 1982It’s just an ordinary day at the US Antarctic research base staffed by helicopter pilot MacReady (Kurt Russell) and his compatriots, until a helicopter buzzes overhead dropping grenades on a dog it’s pursued across the ice fields. The dog finds sanctuary in the US base; the helicopter and its crew are less fortunate. Realising it’s from a Norwegian facility an hour’s flight away, MacReady and the doctor brave inclement conditions to investigate. They find numerous corpses and the base burnt to ruins. What horrors befell the Norwegian base? And have they inadvertently brought them into their own…?

I think we all know the answer to that second question. It wouldn’t be much of a movie if the answer was, “nope, they’re good.”

Derided by some on its release for being naught but wall-to-wall gore, The Thing naturally developed a cult following among horror/sci-fi fans. The funny thing watching it today is that, while the special effects still retain the power to shock in their gross extremity, they’re limited to a handful of quick-fire sequences; indeed, those seeking out The Thing to get their blood-and-guts fix nowadays often seem to declare it “boring”.

Naturally, they’re missing the point. At its heart, John Carpenter’s film is a psychological thriller: an alien is in the group’s midst; it has taken on the form of one or more of them; who can you trust? How can you tell? It’s both a dilemma in an abstract “sci-fi concept” sense, and no doubt a parallel from an era when spying and the threat of ‘the other’ infiltrating society were still major issues. I suppose it’s a facet that’s come round again these past few years, with the increasing rise of home-grown terrorists, previously decent citizens lured and brainwashed by propaganda. The most enduring themes are always timely, I guess.

Are you MacReady for this?Even if you don’t want to get deep about it, The Thing has the “who’s human?” thrills to keep you engaged on that level. Accusations of boredom no doubt stem from the fact it’s a bit of a slow burn, the early acts building suspicion and unease as MacReady and co investigate. Even after the true nature of the threat is revealed, Carpenter paces himself, though the frequency of incidents begins to mount inexorably as we head towards the climax. Well, that’s just good structure.

If the film has one problem, it’s there are too many characters. We know MacReady: he’s Kurt Russell, and he’s singled out early on as the hero — though we come to suspect even he may not be ‘right’ as the film goes on. As for the rest, I believe there are eleven of them, and at best they are loosely sketched. At least a couple are easily conflated and therefore confused, and for the rest, there just isn’t time to get to know them properly, so we’re less invested in what happens to them. There’s a reason most “who will survive?” movies have something like five or six characters in peril, not twelve.

In spite of all that, The Thing does remain best remembered for its extraordinary effects. Even though you know it’s rubber and silicon and corn syrup and whatever else, and even though the intervening thirty-odd years and lashings of CGI have enabled even more, even darker imaginings to be brought before our eyes, the visceral physicality of these effects, the way they play on long-established fears, and apply those to the human body in nauseatingly contorted ways, is plenty enough to render them still effective; certainly so within the context of a film that is, as I say, really more of a thriller than a gore-fest.

These people are going to dieFor me, it’s the psychological quandaries that are gripping and exciting, rather than any enjoyed disgust at the emetic special effects. However, knowing the characters a little better — thus caring if they’d been replaced or not, and also perhaps allowing us a chance to try to guess for ourselves — would have just made it that bit superior.

4 out of 5

The Thing was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2015 project, which you can read more about here.

The 2011 prequel, also titled The Thing, will be reviewed tomorrow.