Monday, October 31, 2011

Director's Spotlight #2.1: Steven Spielberg's Jaws

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. November and December are devoted to Steven Spielberg, with November dedicated to his classic adventure films. First up, his 1975 breakthrough Jaws.

Grade: 96 (A)

It has become popular in certain circles to bash Steven Spielberg as the man who killed the New Hollywood movement of the 70s by infantilizing the audience, giving them mindless, risk-free entertainment, and bringing power back to the studios in an era of directors. One of his most prominent critics is fellow filmmakers Jean-Luc Godard, who holds Spielberg responsible for today’s brainless box office hits. There’s a number problems with Godard’s accusation. Firstly, Godard was accused by former friend Francois Truffaut as a man who puts down the work of others in order to boost opinion of his own work. Then there’s the fact that, well, there should be enough room for both challenging films like Nashville or Taxi Driver AND well-crafted, exciting entertainment like Star Wars.

But there’s one issue that towers over all of the other problems: Godard’s accusation that films like Jaws are mindless and without challenging moments is just flat-out wrong. Jaws is not an explosion fest, a death-a-minute movie, or mindless. Rather, the film is deliberately paced, often with long, killer shark-less stretches of characters slowly losing patience with each other. And although the film is extremely thrilling and often action-packed, there’s a real exploration of 70s era mistrust of authority and failure to save innocent lives.

The film’s plot is as well-known as they get: A killer shark roams the beaches of seaside town Amity, New York. Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) wants to close the beaches to keep everyone safe, but the mayor (Murray Hamilton) and others maintain that the town needs the lucrative Fourth of July weekend business. That oceanographer and all-around shark expert Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) agrees with Brody and thinks that it’s even worse than they thought doesn’t faze anyone. But as the body-count ratchets up, the mayor eventually relents and sends Brody and Hooper out with colorful fisherman Quint (Robert Shaw) to hunt and kill the beast.

The film’s opening scene, in which the shark kills a young swimmer, is so famous that at this point it’s difficult to see just how brutal it is. The violence isn’t as graphic as most monster-movie fare, but the girl’s frantic screams as she’s dragged and jerked around the bay is nightmarish stuff by any standards, and that her ostensible lover is too drunk/high to notice her screams makes it all the more terrifying. The other shark attacks are similarly horrifying, from the ending assaults on the boat to the death of a child 18 minutes into the movie. And yet nothing feels gratuitous. The child’s death isn’t shown up close and personal. In fact, things get very quiet as the kid goes under; it isn’t until people see it and panic that the music starts up again (Spielberg’s willingness to kill a child character rather than tidy up the narrative is another proof against the easy “does not take risks” claim).

The film’s use of the shark’s point of view, originally a clever way of disguising that the mechanical shark didn’t work very well, has become one of the most famous aspects of the film. Spielberg uses old-fashioned moviemaking techniques (this one borrowed from Alfred Hitchcock) to sell the danger, making for a more interesting film than he had planned. Hitchcock had always said that suspense wasn’t someone saying “There’s a bomb” and then the bomb exploding, but rather showing the bomb (in this case, the shark’s point of view) and having the characters unaware. Even when everyone’s on guard, it’s never clear where the shark is until it’s too late.

Hitchcock isn’t the only Old Hollywood director Spielberg pays tribute to. Just as great an influence is Howard Hawks, whose “men on a mission” and “men vs. force of nature” storylines made for some of the most exciting films of his era (Rio Bravo, Red River). Like Hawks, Spielberg assembles a diverse cast of characters to solve the shark problem, from bigwig Murray Hamilton as the mayor to Scheider’s stoic but out-of-his-element police chief to Dreyfuss’ neurotic intellectual. The shark’s invasion of an idyllic location plays into the themes Spielberg would go on to explore for the next decade. The film’s final act gives way to an exciting modern Moby Dick story to rival the best of classic adventure films. Shaw’s Ahab-esque ship captain leads the hunt, but it becomes clear that this mad-eyed loon didn’t really think this chase through. Hooper and Brody, meanwhile, don’t have enough experience with this line of work to question Quint’s methods.

Peter Biskind’s scandalous, wildly entertaining book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls is among the most prominent sources of criticism for Spielberg’s “safe” choices. But Biskind isn’t entirely correct. Jaws, for all of its mass appeal, is very much a piece of 70s New Hollywood. The film’s rhythm is not unlike other shaggy 70s films like Dog Day Afternoon: Action set-pieces are bookmarked with long, talky sections of people butting heads. The use of overlapping dialogue, while not at Altman-levels, still gives the film a lively, New Hollywood feel and prevents the film from feeling like “just a movie”. The film’s use of deep focus also allows the audience to choose which exasperated character to pay attention to at each moment.

Here’s the big one: the 70s were full of films questioning authority (really, too many here to list), and while  Jaws’ examples might not be as readily apparent as, say, All the President’s Men, there’s still some sly cracks at government in there. Early on, the film establishes Brody’s place in Amity as an outsider: he may be chief around here now, but he’s really a big city cop (Scheider had previously played a New York cop in The French Connection). He doesn’t know or consider just how important the beaches are to local businesses; his focus is on keeping people safe.

But Brody’s still not “one of them”. This way, his word doesn’t count as much; he doesn’t know how things work around here. It’s only his first summer. It doesn’t help that the mayor doesn’t think much of Hooper either; to his eyes, the intellectual young college grad radiates arrogance and impatience for small-town folks, so his “expert” opinion doesn’t count for squat. Murray Hamilton plays the character well; he isn’t an all-out villain only concerned with money. He just doesn’t realize the consequences of his attempts to control a force of nature.

Equally great is how flawed the two heroes of the film are. Hooper really is an arrogant, impatient man, and that he’s ultimately right doesn’t change that this shaggy-haired, disrespectful youngster is exactly what small town folk don’t trust. Brody, of course, sees danger around every corner because he’s a city cop, and his minor mistakes or willingness to go with the flow early on leads to tragedy. Even Quint, for all his weirdness, is a local, and he thinks very little of Hooper’s “science” or “facts” because Hooper is an educated know-it-all without life experience, and he isn’t from around here (that Dreyfuss and Shaw reportedly hated each other only helps sell the relationship). The three lead’s conflicting attitudes (sold by their great performances) add to the tension on the boat at the end of the film.

Perhaps what makes Jaws so remarkable, above all else, is the sense of loss and genuine feeling in the film. Brody’s guilt at the death of one child is clear, and there’s a real sadness in many of Scheider’s scenes. One of the best is a tender moment between Brody and his young son, Sean. Brody has just been publicly humiliated after a victim’s mother blamed him for the death of her son. Sean has no idea the gravity of the situation around him. His making faces at his father gives a brief reprieve from the weight on Scheider’s character, and it gives him a simple but powerful moment of humanity that sells his need, above professional duty, to save the day. Spielberg’s interest in parents and their children grew more pronounced with his subsequent films, but his first great film plants the seed that would sprout into one of the defining characteristics of his works: intelligent popcorn films with genuine heart.

This week on Director's Spotlight:

Thursday: Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Saturday: Duel/The Sugarland Express

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Director's Spotlight 1.6: John Carpenter's They Live

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and why some of their films work and some don’t. This month, the director in question is Master of Horror John Carpenter, and the focus on his 70s and 80s horror films. October ends with his last great movie: 1988’s They Live.

Grade: 84 (A-)

In a way, John Carpenter’s They Live is a spiritual successor to Sidney Lumet’s great 1976 satire Network: both picture a world dominated by corporations and greed-minded individuals (Network in the rise, They Live when the rule is in full effect). Both feature an America dumbed-down by consumerism and mindless entertainment. Both are gloriously unsubtle, Network’s preaching excused by its inflation to near-theatrical levels of existence, They Live’s by the fact that it’s also as hard-hitting as action/horror/sci-fi gets. John Carpenter’s films all have some subtext about the times they were made in: Halloween in its subversion of suburbia and portrayal of incompetent cops, The Thing in its world of 80s paranoia. Even 1987’s lousy Prince of Darkness has its nuclear waste/AIDS allegories. But in 1988, Carpenter’s take on Reagan America was especially stinging.

George Nada (pro-wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper) is a drifter, an out-of-work laborer who comes to L.A. to find a job. Any job. He manages to find a lousy construction gig, where he befriends Frank Armitage (Keith David), who takes him back to the shantytown he lives in. Frank sends money back to Detroit, where his wife and kids live. He muses on how great the divide between the rich and the poor has become with great lines like “The golden rule…he who has the gold makes the rules” and “We gave them a break, they gave themselves raises”. Nada notices a local preacher screaming about how the masses are controlled by the greedy men who have infiltrated the system. TV broadcasts are interrupted by a hacker warning of the numbing of the middle and working classes. Nada finds that many of the shanty residents are part of a resistance, and they’ve created these special sunglasses: devices that let the wearer see the world as it really is.

Nada puts on the glasses: billboard advertisements really read “OBEY” and “DO NOT QUESTION AUTHORITY”. Store shop signs read “CONSUME” or “MARRY AND PROCREATE”. Money (hilariously) reads “THIS IS YOUR GOD”. And many of the people (stockbrokers, bankers, politicians, policemen) are really lizard-skinned aliens lording over the masses. And the humans who have made advancements alongside the aliens are working with them. Nada isn’t going to stand for this. As he says when he enters a bank with a shotgun, “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass…and I’m all out of bubblegum”.

Where to begin? Carpenter starts with Piper’s character ambling his way into town, looking ragged and world-weary. Nada is still optimistic about America, that he can succeed through hard work. His optimism won’t last. Los Angeles looks like hell: a towering metropolis over the common man, mocking the cardboard boxes the poor have found for themselves. A synth-blues score (Carpenter’s best outside of Halloween) makes it clear that these are hard times, a new Depression for anyone who isn’t rich. And the saddest and most frightening thing is that the ones oppressed don’t want out. The transmission preaching on behalf of the oppressed is greeted by the average working-class men with a typical “that asshole” or something of the like. The common man is too scared or too complacent thanks to his boob tube and his magazines to take notice that he’s been bamboozled.

A great detail, alongside the hilarious “OBEY” headlines, is the look of the creatures. It’s no coincidence that the aliens that have infiltrated us (a bit differently than in The Thing) look lizard-like. There’s no doubt that  this is at least somewhat to resemble the lizard-skinned president of the time, Ronald Reagan (the “it’s morning in America” sentiment of the 80s is repeated by an alien-politician in the film). At the end of the Reagan presidency, not enough people were up in arms about Iran-Contra or the effects of Reaganomics or the Drug War on inner cities (one homeless man smokes crack to get away from it all). Many of the great filmmakers mocked the crass consumerism or love affair with the 1950s that happened at the time with terrific genre films (Blue Velvet, Poltergeist, Back to the Future). Carpenter’s take is especially good.

Of course, satire can only go so far in film without a filmmaker’s gifts, and Carpenter is in top form here. His characters are as great as ever, with two great central roles in Nada and Frank, two working class men who can no longer deny the truth. Keith David is as terrific as ever as hard-ass Frank. If there’s a flaw to the film, it’s Piper’s performance as Nada. Piper ad-libbed the great “bubblegum” line, but he’s not a great actor, and while he gets the job done, it’s difficult not to wonder what Carpenter-muse Kurt Russell would have done with the role. Piper isn’t too distracting, though, and the effect his character goes through is still powerful. Nada is the everyman (albeit one able to deliver great wrestling moves), the man who’s down from the man’s rule, and who sees the villains for what they really are. It's time to fight back, even if we might not be able to win (Carpenter certainly doesn't think so), and in the end all we can do is give 'em the middle finger. Carpenter also makes the city a character, festering from woes of the poor, but towering as a shiny, sleek world for the villains to inhabit.

Personification of 80s woes and living spaces aside, They Live is a spectacularly made action-horror film, with great gunfights, fistfights and one-liners. In the film’s most famous scene, Piper tries to get David to put on the sunglasses and see what’s going on. David doesn’t trust Piper, who’s been killing aliens left and right, but there’s also a reluctance based on his refusal to see what’s really going on. The ensuing brawl shows the great struggle to wake someone up from their sleep. It’s a great six-minute set-piece that seems like it’s over several times only to start up again with more fury. When David finally puts the glasses on, he can hardly take them off, only Piper notes that the longer they’re on, the more your head hurts. Certainly it goes the same for anyone who can’t pretend what’s going on with Wall Street, with Reagan, and with his followers (even to this day) is OK.

With the end of the first Director's Spotlight series on John Carpenter, I decided to move onto a filmmaker I found strangely comparable to Carpenter: Steven Spielberg. But rather than spending one month on a director with such an expansive catalogue of great movies, I decided to spend November AND December on Spielberg. November will focus on classic Spielberg adventure films where December will look at his work in the 2000s and the contrast between the two. It'll all wrap up with the releases of The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse at the end of the month. Oh, and for now Director's Spotlight will be two or three times a week, usually on Monday, Thursday, and Saturday.

Director’s Spotlight Calendar:

October 31: Jaws
November 3: Close Encounters of the Third Kind
November 5: Duel/The Sugarland Express
November 7: 1941
November 10: Raiders of the Lost Ark
November 12: Poltergeist
November 14: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial
November 17: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
November 19: Gremlins/The Goonies
November 21: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
November 23: Always/Hook
November 30: Jurassic Park

December 1: A.I.: Artificial Intelligence
December 3: Minority Report
December 5: Catch Me if You Can
December 8: The Terminal
December 12: War of the Worlds
December 15: Munich
December 20: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (w/ The Lost World: Jurassic Park)

Friday, October 28, 2011

Overlooked Gems #12: Exorcist III: Legion

Grade: 66 (B)

William Friedkin’s adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist is rightfully revered as one of the greatest horror movies ever made. A moody, nerve-jangling film, The Exorcist was released in 1973 to overwhelmingly positive reviews (it was the first horror film to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards) and briefly became the highest grossing film of all time. It is not surprising, then, that Warner Bros. wanted to make a sequel. But Friedkin and star Ellen Burstyn weren’t interested, so they turned to acclaimed English director John Boorman. The result, 1977’s Exorcist II: The Heretic, was one of the worst sequels ever made, an incomprehensible, badly acted mess that chose to christen the unnamed demon from the first film “Pazuzu”, officially the least scary name ever. After the failure of Exorcist II, it stands to reason that any other film bearing the Exorcist name couldn’t be anything other than spectacularly awful. But 1990’s Exorcist III: Legion, written and directed by The Exorcist author William Peter Blatty, is a worthy successor to the original film, the sequel The Exorcist deserved in the first place.


Years after the events of the first film, police Lt. Bill Kinderman (George C. Scott taking over the late Lee J. Cobb’s role) is haunted by the death of Fathar Damien Karras (Jason Miller). Having struck up a friendship with Karras’ friend Father Joseph Dyer at the end of the first film, the two accompany each other to the movies every anniversary of Karras’ death. Kinderman is investigating a series of murders identical to that of the notorious Gemini serial killer, a serial killer executed years ago. But the Gemini’s specific M.O. was never revealed to the public, so something is amiss. The investigation becomes more personal after Dyer is killed. It gets stranger: evidence points towards a nearly catatonic elderly woman. And there’s a man in one of the isolation cells. A man who claims to be the Gemini Killer. A man who looks like Damien Karras.

First, let’s get a few things out of the way: this is not as good as the original Exorcist. There are some strange flaws to Exorcist III: Blatty’s slow, methodical direction gives the film a dreamlike feel, but the film’s editing is sometimes bizarrely amateurish, likely due to studio tampering. There’s an exorcism late in the film that, while not bad, feels a bit tacked on (studio interference again). The film sometimes feels a bit too talky, even if there are no real howlers or dull stretches. And the film revises the relationship between Kinderman and Karras early in the film: Kinderman describes Karras as his best friend where they were merely friendly in the original film (perhaps Blatty decided to follow his novel?).

But the film works anyway. Scott’s grounded performance gives a much needed earthly quality in the face of outlandish circumstances, and the dual performances of Miller as a possessed Karras and Brad Dourif as the spirit of the Gemini Killer. Dourif is particularly strong as a gleefully sadistic monster, one whose rants are only half as frightening as his insane musings on his “artistry”. Blatty is often more concerned with dialogue than with action (no doubt the writer in him takes over), but he has a great showcase as a director: a set-piece as strong as the finest moments in the original film, involving a static shot of a hospital hallway drawn out to an almost interminable length as a nurse goes about her regular business. If there is one takeaway from this film, it should be a scene as masterfully crafted as this.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

"John Carpenter's" The Ward

Grade: 25 (D+)

The Ward was originally going to be included as a capstone to the Director’s Spotlight series on John Carpenter. The focus in the series was mostly on Carpenter’s creative peak from the mid-70s to the late 80s, but what better way to end than with Carpenter’s first film in over ten years? Even a lousy film could glean some interesting answers to what makes a good Carpenter film and what makes a bad Carpenter film. No dice, in this case. The film in question is not interesting enough for more than a regular review. Why? Because if not for the fact that the film’s full title is John Carpenter’s The Ward, there would be no indication, absolutely none, that this is a John Carpenter film.

Kristen (Amber Heard) burns down a house and is sent to a mental institution. She firmly believes she is not crazy, and that Dr. Stringer (the always welcome Jared Harris) is not to be trusted. There, she meets four other girls, distinguishable only in their one-dimensional character traits: Emily (Mamie Gummer) is a loopy, strong girl; Sarah (Danielle Panabaker) is vain; Zoey (Laura-Leigh) is childlike; and Iris (Lyndsy Fonseca) is kind. Truly memorable characters. Anyway, some ghoul is stalking the girls throughout the hospital. If the girls acknowledge the monster, the doctors will think they’re crazy and not release them. If they don’t, the ghost will kill them. One by one, the girls are picked off until only Kristen remains, and it all leads up to a shocking revelation that is shocking to absolutely no one.

So…where to start? There’s…some purpose to the characters being so thin, but it doesn’t make for very compelling viewing. And since none of the characters have any real definition beyond one trait (Heard’s protagonist included), none of the actresses make much of an impression. The premise of a haunted hospital is a decent idea for a horror film. Too bad that this premise has been exploited several times before by stronger films, including Lars von Trier’s The Kingdom and Brad Anderson’s Session 9, two films that had the advantage of a genuinely eerie location (a real, abandoned hospital in Session 9’s case).

The twist, meanwhile, isn’t handled too terribly, but it’s fairly clear that not everything is what it seems (except to anyone who’s ever watched a horror movie ever). The twist, and the feeling of mistrust towards the doctors, are reminiscent of Martin Scorsese’s infinitely better film Shutter Island. But where in that film a not-entirely-plausible plot was made up for with memorable characters and performances, a haunting exploration of guilt and the violence in men, and above all else passionate filmmaking, The Ward is dull because of thin characterizations, no purpose outside of making another “scary movie”, and some of the most lifeless direction of Carpenter’s career.

Where are the spooky tracking shots? Where’s the use of the killer’s perspective, or anyone’s perspective for that matter? Where’s the moody, evocative Carpenter score (the provided score sounds like every horror movie score ever)? Where are the strong, memorable characters? Carpenter didn’t write this script, but he didn’t write The Thing either, and his stamp on that is unmistakable. Every scare in this film, meanwhile, is taken right out of every lame horror movie of the past ten or twenty years. There’s a build-up to a scare, no scare, then count to five before there real scare happens. Why would Carpenter make something so frustratingly dull and generic after taking a decade off from feature filmmaking? Perhaps he could learn a lesson or two from watching some old John Carpenter films.

Director's Spotlight #1.5: John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and why some of their films work and some don’t. This month, the director in question is Master of Horror John Carpenter, and the focus on his 70s and 80s horror films. Next, his 1987 flop Prince of Darkness.

Grade: 16 (D)

What happened? John Carpenter’s run from the mid-70s to the late 80s was pretty remarkable, with even goofy fare like Christine having its moments, and he ended the decade on a strong note with 1988’s They Live. But in 1987 Carpenter stumbled, big time, with Prince of Darkness, the second film in his so-called “Apocalypse Trilogy (which also includes The Thing and In the Mouth of Madness). The film is recognizably part of his work, but it has so few of his best films’ virtues and so many of his later films’ weaknesses.

The plot, as it is, concerns an unnamed priest (Donald Pleasence) and skeptic professor Howard Birack (Victor Wong) discover a cylinder filled with a swirling, glowing green goo in the basement of a church. They discover this after the death of another priest, who was part of a sect in the Catholic church that had tried to keep this discovery secret for years. Or something. The film is not terribly lucid on these details. The two invite a group of college students, including the mustachioed Brian (Jameson Parker) and his obligatory love interest, Catherine (Lisa Blount of An Officer and a Gentleman). These characters will play a crucial role in the film despite having no personality or interesting character traits that distinguish them from at least 8 or 9 other students. The students arrive, and soon they all begin to have the same “dream”: a transmission from the future of a shadowy figure emerging from the church.

Birack and the priest eventually reveal that the cylinder contains the essence of the Antichrist (or something). It is further reasoned that if there is a God, then there is an Anti-God, made up of the anti-matter of whatever makes up that God. The matter in the cylinder (somehow) controls the local homeless population (perhaps it offered them change?), makes ants, worms, and other bugs appear throughout the town (for some reason), and eventually takes control of many of the scientists. It does so by shooting in jets that resemble streams of urine into the mouths of one of the students (no, really), who then vomits out a stream of it into someone else’s mouth (no, really, this happens), and so on and so forth. Eventually only a few students remain, and one of them will have to make the ultimate sacrifice to save the world. Or something.

Confused? Well these are only a few of the plot details of the film. The film gets off to a bad start with the opening shot of an elderly priest dying peacefully in bed. There’s no indication of who this person is or what he does or what the significance of his death is; within ten minutes or so his section is more or less dismissed without a very clear answer to any of these questions. It doesn’t get much better: Donald Pleasence’s priest is brought in, but there’s no clear reason as to why he was sent rather than anyone else (and why does his character not have a name?). He meets Wong, but their greetings are drowned out by the score for no real reason. And Wong’s dry lecture to the oldest group of college students on the face of the earth (they all look like they’re at least in their mid-30s, while mustachioed lead Parker was 40) only further establishes the dry, academic tone. By the time the film shuffles towards the 40 minute mark, there’s no idea of what’s at stake, who anyone is, why they’re doing anything, or why anything is supposed to be frightening, and no moody John Carpenter score is going to change that.

Speaking of the score: it never shuts up. It’s as if Carpenter knew he had a real dog of a movie but tried to hide it with ominous music during all the dull character interactions and lectures on anti-matter. This is irritating at first and infuriating in the later stretches. That the score is not particularly good only highlights how misbegotten the project is. It sounds like dark New Age music, and it isn’t frightening in the least. It’s a pretentious score to a pretentious film.

Actually, it’s a bit astounding how not-frightening the film is. It fails to establish a tone throughout, no doubt because it takes so long to let the audience know what’s going on, and even then it’s not very clear. Exactly three of the characters are distinguishable: Wong’s grumpy professor, Pleasence’s Sam Loomis-like priest, and an annoying comic-relief character played by Dennis Dun. The rest of the characters are distinguishable by race (black man and Asian woman), hair (bald bearded guy, mullet-man), and make-up (a character who, for some reason, becomes host to the Anti-Christ). It’s impossible to care about these characters or be scared of what might happen to them when Carpenter makes almost no attempt to introduce them or develop them; these aren’t even one-dimensional characters. They barely exist. When the most notable supporting role is an apparently mute evil bum played by a distracting Alice Cooper, it’s clear that Carpenter’s usual gift for creating colorful characters has failed him.

So what did Carpenter focus on? Most of first half’s running-time is devoted to (poorly) explaining away the rules of the universe in dry conversations and Pleasence more-or-less reprising his role of Sam Loomis from Halloween; but since it’s never clear who he is or what he’s doing, he’s mostly relegated to delivering alternatively expository or portentuous dialogue. In the second half, the possessed people chase the not possessed people…unless they don’t, in which case the either stand around or force out an unbelievable maniacal giggle. Everything that happens is extremely silly and/or boring, and Carpenter’s attempt to evoke Luis Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou with the appearance of ants and bugs everywhere fall flat. Carpenter does attempt to explore the “men on a mission” and “man vs. force of evil” themes that embody most of his best work, but the film’s focus on jargon and abstract ideas distract the director, who’s usually smart enough to cut right to the heart of the story for a more emotionally gripping experience.

The only scene in the entire film that works is the so-called “dream transmission”. It isn’t terribly frightening (how could it be, with all of the contextual events falling flat?), but its raw quality of someone capturing the devil “on camera” is the single most interesting thing about the film. Carpenter’s film is, in many ways, an admirable, ambitious failure. His attempt to turn his interest in atomic theory and theoretical physics into a horror film about the nature of good and evil is, at very least, interesting in theory. Pity, then, that whatever was in Carpenter’s head didn’t make it to the screen.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Director's Spotlight #1.4: John Carpenter's Christine

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and why some of their films work and some don’t. This month, the director in question is Master of Horror John Carpenter, and the focus on his 70s and 80s horror films. Next, his 1983 adaptation of Stephen King’s Christine.

Grade: 51 (C+)

Sometimes it’s possible for a good director to overcome ridiculous subject matter. This is not one of those times. Filmed after the commercial and critical failure of 1982’s The Thing, Carpenter’s adaptation of one of Stephen King’s sillier novels is a well-directed film, but the conundrum of making the concept of a haunted car frightening is never solved? To the credit of Carpenter and the cast, no one ever winks at the audience, and it might be possible to enjoy the film without thinking too hard about it. But sheesh, that plot.

Here goes: Arnie Cunningham (Keith Gordon) and Dennis (John Stockwell) are best friends, but they couldn’t be more different. Dennis is a good-looking athlete pursued at an almost comical degree by one of the prettiest girls in the school (Kelly Preston). Arnie is a relentlessly bullied nerd with no luck with girls. One day, on the way home from school, Arnie sees a beaten-up old car, called “Christine” by the crotchety old man selling it, and buys it against Dennis’ advice. Arnie fixes up the old car over the next few months, and as the car goes from being a piece-of-junk to a gorgeous car, Arnie becomes a lot smoother. He starts dating the pretty new girl. He looks a lot cooler. He acts a lot tougher. But there’s something weird about the car. It only picks up old rock-and-roll songs from the 50s. Arnie starts treating his friends badly. Dennis gets hurt in a football game while looking at it (no, really). Arnie’s girlfriend Leigh (Alexandra Paul) starts choking while inside it (no, really). It has a history of people around it or inside it dying (no, really). And now the people who have crossed Arnie start turning up dead in car-related incidents.

Right from the get-go it’s difficult to buy into the film’s plot. The opening scene implies that from its inception the car was possessed by some evil spirit: it maims one worker and kills another. Carpenter tries to set a creepy mood in the opening scene, but there’s no way to avoid it: this scene is hilarious. That it is well made can’t hide how inherently ridiculous it is. It doesn’t get much better from there: the scene in which Arnie’s girlfriend chokes in the car recalls a somewhat similar scene from Halloween, but context is everything. In Halloween, a major character being choked to death in a car was terrifying. In Christine, a major character being choked to death by the car is goofy.

Carpenter’s usual gift for building characters fails him here. Stephen King’s novels are often marred by one-dimensional characters (not to mention silly plots), and Christine is no exception. The bullies tormenting Arnie are stereotypical knife-wielding “high schoolers” (the leader looks at least 30), while Arnie’s parents are stereotypical sheltering parents. The leads don’t fare much better: Dennis and Leigh are barely there, and their relationships with Arnie are poorly established. The first hour of the film spans several months, never staying in one place too long or giving either character enough time to make an impression. Arnie, meanwhile, is unbelievable throughout. Keith Gordon overplays both his nerdiness in the early stretches of the film and his bad-boy routine later in the film, and the change comes so quickly it’s hard to get a hold on the character. The dialogue doesn’t help: King’s books sometimes contain clumsy use of fake-slang, and Arnie’s use of the word “shitters” for anyone who crosses him is particularly terrible. Not everything can be blamed on King. Carpenter could have re-written the script to give more time to character development. Character actors Harry Dean Stanton, Robert Prosky, and Roberts Blossom have their moments as a police officer, a garage owner, and the car’s previous owner, respectively, but otherwise the characters in Christine are thinly conceived.

So why is Christine not a complete dog? Ridiculous as the concept of a haunted car is, the scenes of the car stalking the bullies are effectively thrilling and provide some striking images. The use of 1950s songs is a nice touch which recalls the heyday of rock-and-roll songs about love for cars, and the use of “Little Bitty Pretty One” in one of the early chase scenes is particularly memorable. The effects-scenes of the car are neat as well. These stronger scenes come in a thirty-minute block in the film’s second half. It goes back to silliness for the underwhelming climax, but for a while, Carpenter manages to make a film about a haunted car semi-plausible.

Next Week: John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness, John Carpenter’s The Ward

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Overlooked Gems #11: The Funhouse

Grade: 70 (B)

Quick: what’s the first film that comes to mind when the phrase “self-aware slasher movie” comes up? The answer, obviously, is Wes Craven’s 1996 horror/comedy Scream. What’s the second? Probably one of the many lousy Scream imitators or mediocre sequels. How about Tobe Hooper’s 1981 film The Funhouse? No? Hooper’s film isn’t as strong as the Craven’s, but there’s a certain nutty charm to it, not to mention a breath of fresh air to its lack of overt winking to the audience.

Amy (Elizabeth Berridge) is an ordinary teenager going on a double date with her more sexually experienced friend Liz (Largo Woodruff). Their dates (Cooper Huckabee and Miles Chapin) decide to go to a particularly sleazy traveling carnival. There, they smoke pot, peep on a strip show, see the “freaks of nature” exhibit with deformed animals, and heckle a fortune teller (Sylvia Miles). One of the more bone-headed members suggests they stay overnight in the funhouse ride. They fool around in the ride, but while there they witness the deformed ride assistant pay the fortune teller for sex and kill her after she refuses to give the money back. The ride barker (Kevin Conway) turns out to be the assistant’s father, and when they discover the kids in the ride, they decide they can’t let them leave.

The Funhouse begins with a knowing homage/rip-off of the opening scene of Halloween crossed with the famous shower scene in Psycho: an unseen figure puts on a Halloween mask, picks up a knife, and stalks Amy to the shower. It turns out the figure is Amy’s annoying kid brother, the knife is rubber, and he’s just playing a mean joke (although why the kid wants to see his sister naked in the shower is anybody’s guess). From there, it’s clear the film knows it’s a slasher movie and it toys with the audience’s expectations. Hooper cleverly builds-up the film with the teens gawking and jeering at a bunch of carnival freaks; these kids are, quite frankly, a bunch of dumbasses who came to the carnival for cheap thrills. They are, in this case, not unlike many of the ostensible audience members. The film was released in the slasher heyday. Friday the 13th, Prom Night, and other Halloween knock-offs imitated the John Carpenter classic without replicating any of its wit or atmosphere. Audiences came in droves for cheap thrills, gore, and nudity. The Funhouse takes a group of kids, drops them into a cheap freakshow (complete with odd grotesques and cheap “things jump out at you” shocks), and finally gives them more than they bargained for. An equally clever gambit has Amy’s irritating brother follow the teens to the carnival only to be scared out of his wits; plenty of kids had the bejeesus scared out of them by watching slashers and other horror movies at a young age, so why not make the thrills real?

The Funhouse works as a spiritual successor to Hooper’s best film, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Both films deal with unconventional families (a group of redneck cannibals in one, a group of carnies in the other) and feature the not particularly bright youth adrift in America. The victims in both are idiots, but their fates are genuinely horrifying nonetheless. Both films make already creepy or mistrusted groups (rednecks/carnies) more grotesque than usual. But where The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is seen as a metaphor for Vietnam or youth adrift in Nixon’s America, The Funhouse’s focus is on a youth looking for cheap thrills rather than real experiences (Amy’ suggestion that the group go to the movies is quickly turned down, and she’s the only one who seems reluctant to visit the carnival). The film’s last third, where the teens are hunted, is not as strong as the build-up. The deformed creature chasing the protagonists is more interesting before it removes its mask; the real face is a fake looking letdown. Some of the deaths, while cleverly orchestrated, are too silly to be taken seriously (then again, with a death where the cogs working to kill someone are literally cogs in a machine, it might be intentional). But for all its flaws, The Funhouse is a clever genre riff from a talented horror filmmaker.

Next week: Exorcist III: Legion

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Director's Spotlight #1.3: John Carpenter's The Thing

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and why some of their films work and some don’t. This month, the director in question is Master of Horror John Carpenter, and the focus on his 70s and 80s horror films. Next, his masterpiece, 1982’s The Thing.

Grade: 96 (A)

The 1980s were a fruitful period for John Carpenter creatively, if not always commercially. Many of his finest films underperformed with critics and audiences, but few initial failures are as puzzling as his remake of the 1951 Howard Hawks production The Thing From Another World. Perhaps audiences weren’t willing to watch Carpenter’s bleak film back to back with Steven Spielberg’s own masterpiece E.T., a more optimistic look at extra-terrestrial life. Perhaps critics tired of gore were repulsed by the gooey creature-man hybrids. But the film gradually built up a reputation as a masterful combination of suspense and innovative effects, and it remains the greatest showcase of Carpenter’s talents.

Antarctica, Winter 1982”. Those words introduce a harsh, unforgiving landscape. It’s clear from the beginning that this isn’t going to be the happiest of places. A research team occupies an Antarctic outpost. There are twelve men: uptight station commander Garry (Donald Moffat); Clark (Richard Masur), the sled-dog handler; Drs. Copper (Richard Dysart) and Blair (Wilford Brimley); neurotic radio operator Windows (Thomas G. Waites); and irreverent cook Nauls (T.K. Carter). There researchers: hotheaded Childs (Keith David); soft-spoken Fuchs (Joel Polis); everymen Norris (Charles Hallahan) and Bennings (Peter Maloney). Finally, there are two helicopter pilots: slow-witted Palmer (David Clennon) and all around badass R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell). They are tired, dirty, and isolated from civilization. Their radio doesn’t work too well, the weather is terrible, and in MacReady’s words, “it’s the first goddamn week of winter”.

One day, they hear gunshots and explosions outside of the compound. A couple of Norwegians from a nearby outpost is trying to kill a runaway dog. One accidentally kills himself with a grenade. Garry shoots the other. Maybe the Norwegians went stir crazy. Copper and MacReady take a look at their compound. Everyone is dead, the place is torn apart, and there’s a strange creature burned and buried in the ice. An autopsy of the creature reveals it has human organs. When the surviving dog transforms into a horrible alien creature, the men do some further surveying of the Norwegian camp and find a buried flying saucer, something that crash landed thousands of years ago. Blair takes a tissue sample from finds that this alien assimilates and imitates whatever cells it comes in contact with. So the question remains: who’s still human, and who’s one of those things?

The Thing is Carpenter’s first big-budget studio film, and he doesn’t waste a cent. Rob Bottin’s much lauded creature effects have a tactile quality missing from many modern horror films. The blood-drawing and bone-crunching feels real and visceral, and it gives a tangible quality to the strange aliens on display. Carpenter’s film comes in a long line of body-horror films popularized by Ridley Scott’s Alien and the works of David Cronenberg, among others. The idea that the body could be invaded and corrupted by outside forces is one of the most fascinating themes explored by horror movies. It may have begun with Hawks’ original The Thing from Another World and Don Siegel’s 1956 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but the great directors of the 70s and 80s took the idea one step further and made the human body a foreign, disgusting concept.

Of course, the film couldn’t be just another body horror film without itself looking like a warmed-over imitation of a Cronenberg film (cough, Hellraiser) or an Alien knock-off. Bottin’s creature effects distinguish themselves from H.R. Giger’s designs from Alien and Cronenberg’s films, while Ennio Morricone’s unusually spare and synth-driven score aids the cold, creepy atmosphere (it is also a rare case of Carpenter not composing his own score). As always, though, it’s Carpenter’s show. The film combines all of Carpenter’s talents and influences: Halloween’s mastery of perspective (Hitchcock), the “men on a misson” storyline from  Assault on Precinct 13 and Escape from New York (Hawks’ Rio Bravo), and the “man vs. evil and/or force of nature” storyline from Halloween, The Fog, and Assault on Precinct 13 (Rio Bravo again, along with Hawks’ own The Thing from Another World). Carpenter’s strong craftsmanship personifies the Antarctic location much like it did in his previous films (and much like Hawks and Hitchcock’s talents would in their own films). The camera creeps around corners, gives the audience a sense of where everything is and what kind of place this is. It’s easy to imagine getting cabin fever in this isolated hell-hole. The creature, meanwhile, is displayed with a technique later employed by James Cameron in his action-horror masterpiece Aliens: it overpowers the camera, taking up most of the frame without ever being shown in its entirety. This gives the monster a larger than life quality that makes the characters seem out of their league. They need to use their wits if they’re going to survive.

Carpenter’s characters never feel like movie-stars: Russell’s rugged handsomeness is obscured by a wild beard, and the rest of the men are played by homely character-actors. The men are mostly intelligent, able bodied persons encountered with a horrible force of nature. All of the actors are great, from the gruff, paranoid Brimley to the hilariously WASP-y Moffat to the always welcome hard-ass David. But Carpenter never found a better muse or partner than Kurt Russell, one of the great tough guy actors of the 80s. Russell’s authoritative presence and smart-ass line readings make him seem like the only one who’s relatively “safe” (even Keith David seems overpowered). Even then, Russell and company frantically deal with the invasions, both of the monster and of the paranoia that grips the motley crew, and MacReady himself is prepared to die if it means killing the creature before it can reach civilization.

A quick comparison before the end: a diverse swath of filmmakers of the late 70s and 80s explored the idea that idyllic locations or trusted people could be perverted, subverted, or flat-out lies (David Lynch, Robert Zemeckis, Wes Craven), but no two filmmakers parallel each other in such oddly specific ways as Carpenter and (no, really) Steven Spielberg. Both are clearly influenced by Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock. Both employ Hawks’ “man on a mission” (Spielberg with Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark) and “man vs. evil/nature” storyline (Jaws, Raiders, Poltergeist). Both use old fashioned movie-making to make modern monsters frightening (Carpenter with The Thing, Halloween, and The Fog; Spielberg with Jaws). Both often feature untrustworthy or incompetent authority figures (Halloween/The Fog/The Thing; Jaws/Close Encounters/Raiders/E.T./Poltergeist). Both show something amiss in idyllic locations (Halloween/The Fog; Jaws/Close Encounters/Poltergeist/E.T.). The Fog even feels like the frightening moments of Close Encounters of the Third Kind moved to the location of Jaws. The biggest difference between the two (and obviously there are several) is that 70s and 80s era Spielberg is an optimist where Carpenter is definitely a pessimist. Their signature films, The Thing and E.T. (both coincidentally released in 1982), are not as similar to each other as they are to other works in their respective filmographies (Carpenter’s own Starman sometimes borrows wholesale from E.T.). But they highlight the difference in the directors’ worldviews: E.T. shows a friendly benevolent alien and an ending that affirms the belief in mankind’s capacity for kindness. The Thing is perhaps Carpenter’s darkest film, with one of the greatest pessimistic endings of all time, and almost completely without hope.

Director's Spotlight Schedule:

October 22: John Carpenter's Christine
October 29: John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness
Extra innings: John Carpenter's The Ward

Friday, October 14, 2011

Overlooked Gems #10: The Changeling

Grade: 82 (A-)

The late 1970s and early 1980s were a strong time for ghost stories. 1979’s popular The Amityville Horror kick-started a brief run of haunted house/location movies, each far stronger than that hokey hit. Between Amityville and the Steven Spielberg/Tobe Hooper film Poltergeist in 1982 were John Carpenter’s flawed but fascinating The Fog and Stanley Kubrick’s horror masterpiece The Shining in 1980. The Canadian horror film The Changeling was also released in 1980, and while the film is loved by horror fanatics and won the Genie Award for Best Canadian film, its influence is not as widespread as its contemporaries. A shame, considering how well told this deceptively simple ghost story is.

New York composer Dr. John Russell (George C. Scott) is grief stricken after the deaths of his wife and young daughter in a freak car accident. Russell takes a teaching position and moves into an old Victorian mansion. He is well liked by the staff and students, and he develops a friendship with his real estate agent Claire (Scott’s real-life wife Trish Van Devere). But, as with any haunted house story, something is amiss. Doors swing open and shut without apparent cause. Loud banging noises come from the center of the house. Eventually Russell discovers an attic containing a child’s wheelchair. A medium reveals that a previous owner murdered his ailing son, and that the mystery may be connected to a powerful senator (Melvyn Douglas).

The most effective haunted house movies often find real creepy houses for their location (see: Session 9). The Changeling uses sets, but the depiction of the house as a living, breathing, hurting entity gives the film a tactile quality nonetheless. Every room of the eerie house feels lived in to the point of being ancient. Yet even before the phantom noises begin, the film has a haunted quality from Scott’s terrific performance. Scott never oversells his character’s grief in the early scenes, nor does he go over-the-top in the later, more frightening scenes. It’s a remarkably grounded portrayal of a man eager to move on with his life but plagued by a horrible past event. His discovery leads to a parallel character: Douglas, a pillar of the community who owes his prestige to a terrible secret.

The film is not without its flaws. The ending is a bit too conventional for an otherwise low-key chiller (although it does provide some gorgeous images), and the ghost’s powers sometimes seem to extend beyond the areas it would logically haunt (then again, the “rules” for ghost stories are fairly loose). But these are minor imperfections in a beautifully melancholy tale about the horrors of the past and the price some are willing to pay for power.

October Overlooked Gems Schedule:

October 21: The Funhouse
October 28: Exorcist III: Legion

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Ides of March

Grade: 37 (C)

George Clooney is a big enough star that he’s found a way to manage his career remarkably well. Over the past decade, Clooney has worked with auteurs (Steven Soderbergh, David O. Russell, the Coens, Wes Anderson) and skilled craftsmen (Tony Gilroy, Jason Reitman), and few real stinkers have made their way into his filmography. But as with many big-name actors, Clooney has the desire to direct. And to his credit, he has made a good film in the past, 2005’s Good Night, and Good Luck. But Clooney’s attempt at political relevancy with The Ides of March doesn’t leave much of an impression; 24 hours after viewing it, it’s difficult to recall much about it.

Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) is a Junior Campaign Manager for a Democratic presidential Candidate, Governor Mike Morris (Clooney). His boss, Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a big, blustery type who knows all the angles to the political game and plays New York Times reporter Ida Horowicz (Marisa Tomei) like a piano. Meyers is a 30-year-old prodigy who believes the progressive Morris will truly make a difference in American lives. He even has a sexy intern (Evan Rachel Wood) after him. But there’s something rotten in Denmark, to borrow another phrase from the Bard. Morris’ left-wing views and likability frighten conservatives, who are willing to vote for the other man in the primary in order to compete with a weaker opponent. Morris doesn’t want to make a deal for a powerful senator’s endorsement if that man (Jeffrey Wright) wants to be Secretary of State. Meyers meets the opponent’s Campaign Manager Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), a direct violation of Zara’s code of loyalty. Duffy wants Meyers to jump ship to his campaign, and he has a good reason to think his man will win. And there’s something else. Something big enough to bring everything down.

March has the advantage of a terrific cast, but it throws its most fascinating characters into the margins. Wright’s calculating senator makes a strong impression despite being barely seen. Hoffman and Giamatti inject life into their scenes as two jaded old-timers ready to ruin lives in order to further their respective candidates’ campaigns. A braver movie would have been about them. But the film has a soft center in Gosling, charismatic in Crazy, Stupid, Love. and mythic in Drive but far too cool a cucumber to be an idealistic young man waiting to be corrupted. Or at least, that might be what he’s supposed to be. The film is not terribly lucid on what it wants its central character to be. One minute Gosling knows he’s part of a dirty game. The next minute he’s shellshocked when that game takes down careers. Wood, meanwhile, is hamstrung by a character that is so obviously part of an upcoming twist that it’s only a matter of waiting to see how ridiculous it is. And poor, poor Marisa Tomei, again saddled with a bum character after this year’s earlier embarrassment in Crazy, Stupid, Love. Tomei looks tired and resembles the worst stereotype of a weasel-like reporter. Every scene involving her brings down the film’s reasonably engaging energy.

Clooney is fine, both behind and in front of the camera. To his credit, he rarely over-directs his films, and lets the film breathe rather than spell out the big dramatic moments. With this and Good Night, and Good Luck, Clooney has made two reasonably well made, politically inclined middlebrow films without melodrama. But Good Night, and Good Luck had the advantage of being based on real events and being provided interesting characters from the get-go. The Ides of March’s sub-Sorkin dialogue never crackles the way it should, very little feels at stake, and the film chooses to put a cipher of a main character in the middle of a thriller. Here is perhaps the most fatal flaw: Gosling’s character has worked on more campaigns than most men twice his age. Why, then, does he make the dumbest of all rookie mistakes in meeting with Giamatti? The film attempts to justify it as a matter of youthful cockiness and ambition, and Hoffman is given some juicy bits to explain why. Doesn’t work. It’s impossible to stay invested in a barely there thriller when its main developments spawn from something so ludicrous.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Director's Spotlight #1.2: John Carpenter's The Fog

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and why some of their films work and some don’t. This month, the director in question is Master of Horror John Carpenter, and the focus on his 70s and 80s horror films. Up next, his 1980 film The Fog.

Grade: 69 (B)

After the success of Halloween, one of the most profitable independent films of all time, John Carpenter became one of the biggest names in horror right in the middle of the genre’s finest era (1968-1988 or so). But how to follow up the breakthrough horror film of the decade? To Carpenter’s credit, he chose not to repeat himself, but rather went with a moodier film with a more abstract villain. Or at least that’s what he did at first. Carpenter second-guessed himself and reshot a third of the film to add more visceral scares and gore. Carpenter claimed that he was dissatisfied with the results, but the fact that he and producer Debra Hill had to compete with the onslaught of more violent fare likely had something to do with his decision. The film starts off as an atmospheric creep-fest before devolving into a fairly standard horror film, and it’s impossible not to wonder whether or not Carpenter’s original vision might have made for a stronger, more conceptually coherent film.

A strange fog has swept over a seaside California town on the eve of its centennial, and with it comes some strange happenings. Telephone booths begin ringing together. Gas station pumps pour out fuel themselves. Lights flicker on and off. Car windows shatter. Clocks break. Objects move on their own. Late-night jazz DJ Stevie Wayne (Adrienne Barbeau) notices these odd goings-on and starts to worry after her son finds a piece of driftwood that might possess some odd powers. A free-spirited hitchhiker (Jamie Lee Curtis) and the local she shacks up with (Tom Atkins) find a missing boat with a dead fisherman (his two friends are missing). The local priest (Hal Holbrook) finds his great-grandfather’s journal after rock in the church’s wall inexplicably breaks off, revealing its hiding place. The book has the explanation for everything going on, but the mayor (Janet Leigh) and her assistant (Nancy Loomis) don’t like what it reveals about the town’s founding.

As with many ghost stories, the set-up is far less interesting than the pay-off. When it’s finally revealed what’s behind the fog…well, it’s more than a little silly. There’s no doubt that the reshoots forced the abstract ghost story into more literal territory that isn’t half as fascinating as the atmospheric sections of the film. Backstories in horror films are rarely interesting, which is why many of the best horror movies forego any explanations whatsoever. Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining stripped away the exposition of Stephen King’s novel, resulting in an ambiguous masterpiece. Carpenter’s own Halloween chose not to explain why Michael Myers killed people, making him more of a force of nature than a person. Perhaps The Fog’s explanation would have been less goofy had Carpenter stuck to his guns. Whatever the case, the film’s final thirty minutes inevitably disappoint in their decision to literalize the villains.

But the film mostly works all the same. Carpenter sets the stage early on with a campfire ghost story told by John Houseman in a great cameo. The director cited various inspirations for the movie, but old-fashioned ghost stories are the clearest influence. Carpenter creates a fascinating cast of characters, this time choosing to make the film an ensemble piece. From Barbeau’s smooth-until-threatened DJ to Leigh’s hitchhiker (far less shy and self-conscious than her character from Halloween), the film allows the viewer meet some of the more interesting residents in its trip through the town. Carpenter also proves himself a master of visual storytelling again with The Fog. Shot in gorgeous widescreen, the film captures the seaside town as an idyllic location, and as with Halloween, there’s a terrible secret lurking underneath the beautiful surfaces, manifesting itself in this case as a ghostly fog. The film recalls Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (with its location and a menacing force of nature as an antagonist) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (with the bizarre phenomena), and in some way predicts the Spielberg/Tobe Hooper project Poltergeist. The comparison is an interesting one: the seemingly divergent filmmakers share a few common traits: strong craftsmanship, love for Old Hollywood, and the exploration of what happens when small towns meet strange forces or, in this case, have them underneath their surface all along.

Updated Director’s Spotlight Schedule:

October 15: John Carpenter’s The Thing
October 22: John Carpenter’s Christine
October 29: John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness
Extra innings: John Carpenter’s The Ward

Overlooked Gems #9: Black Christmas

Grade: 83 (A-)

Until the heyday of the so-called “torture porn” movement, the slasher was the least reputable of all horror subgenres. John Carpenter’s Halloween perfected the formula of a slasher film before less talented directors (read: hacks) took over the subgenre and it collapsed into stupidity and misogyny. But while Halloween is easily the strongest of the bunch, it is not, as some might believe, the first. Horror movie aficionados know that the first real slasher is Bob Clark’s 1974 film Black Christmas, an unsettling shocker slightly different from Clark’s other holiday film, the 1983 classic A Christmas Story.

A madman of unknown origins has broken into a sorority house and hidden in the attic. The girls go about their business, blissfully unaware. Jess (Olivia Hussey) has received some creepy phone calls featuring heavy breathing and jabbering, but there’s no reason to believe that it’s anything more than a particularly obscene prank. But when one of the girls doesn’t meet her father at an arranged time and place, some of them start to get nervous.  House cut-up and heavy drinker Barb (Margot Kidder) thinks it’s all a big joke, but who keeps making those calls? And why can’t the police find any trace of their friend? Things get worse after a young girl is found dead in the park, and Jess begins to believe her troubled boyfriend Peter (Keir Dullea) might have gone off the deep end after she told him she was getting an abortion. In true slasher conventions, the girls are picked off one by one until only one remains. But who will it be?

The film wastes no time to establish its mood as it begins with an ominous rendition of “Silent Night”. Sound plays a major role in Black Christmas: the score is largely composed of out-of-tune piano chords that give off a feeling of dread, almost as if the sorority house was a mausoleum. More notably, the killer is not, as with the case of many slashers, silent. Rather, he screeches and babbles wherever he goes, giving a nervy air to the proceedings. Clark isn’t a master filmmaker on the level of Carpenter, but he wisely keeps track of the major players throughout the film so it seems like anyone can die at any moment. His film is responsible for several of the clich├ęs in future slasher movies, but here they feel fresh: the inept policemen, the final girl, and the use of the killer’s point of view. His handling of the characters is also strong: it is not, as in the case of later slasher films, a bunch of dim-witted teens waiting to fall over like dominoes. Part of what makes the characters more memorable is one of the nuttiest casts ever assembled for a horror film: Margot Kidder of Sisters and Superman fame as a heavy drinking provocateur; Olivia Hussey of Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet as a nice girl with a troubled boyfriend; Keir Dullea of 2001: A Space Odyssey as her neurotic boyfriend, an aspiring pianist; and B-movie legend John Saxon as the only cop in town who doesn’t seem grossly incompetent (a character type he would reprise in A Nightmare on Elm Street, one of the film’s more inventive and worthy successors). These people all seem to be from different worlds, but then, this is college.

Clark’s biggest misstep is a comic-relief character, Mrs. McHenry (Marian Waldman), a sorority housemother whose alcoholism and foul-mouthed tendencies are played up for laughs. The humor is too broad and the character too irritating to work as anything more than an annoyance. Clark does better with the police force, whose ineptitude makes for great moments of black comedy (they never seem to notice the first dead girl, head wrapped in plastic, propped up at the attic’s window in the film’s eeriest image). Above all else, though, Black Christmas is a terror, a highly disturbing film with no happy ending and no yuletide cheer.

Overlooked Gems October Schedule:

October 14: The Changeling
October 21: The Funhouse
October 28: Exorcist III: Legion