(On Cable TV, December 2017) I usually like Kurt Russell and I usually like John Carpenter and I usually like Science-Fiction movies and it bothers me to no end that I don’t like Starman despite how it combines those three things. The problem with Starman isn’t as much that it’s made out to be a sentimental science-fiction movie, but the way in which it’s presented: Blunt, crude and incoherent. It uses the tropes of a science-fictional thriller without committing to them or trying to make them subtler, can’t be bothered about plot holes and remains unapologetically predictable. Whatever Big Moments it has can be seen coming far in advance, with an execution that can’t really patch over the ennui with charm. Carpenter may be part of the problem in presenting a love story using the tools he knows best—helicopter chases, government conspiracies and roadside violence. Russell is generally blank in a role that asks him to play perhaps the most overused cliché in SF: the extraterrestrial grand naïf gawking at the world and trying to figure out human customs. It goes exactly as expected. While I didn’t exactly dislike Starman, I didn’t find much to like either.
(On TV, August 2017) I may have made a mistake in watching Escape from L.A. a few weeks ago, before seeing the original Escape from New York. Both films do run against very similar lines, after all: juvenile bad guys sent under duress in a forbidden zone to get someone back, but so anti-authority that they end up rebelling at some point. Escape from L.A. apes the first film almost plot point per point, down to the lunacy of some sequences. But while you would think that watching the first one so soon after the second would lower my appreciation of the first one, the reverse ended up happening: it only made me dislike the second one even more. I recognize that you can’t really blame the first for the excesses of the second. But more to the point, the first one is simply better-executed in the constraints of its formula. Never mind that the premise of turning Manhattan Island in a prison is nonsensical: the point here is putting up a backdrop for dystopian action. Peak-era Adrienne Barbeau is always welcome, but Kurt Russell is most remarkable as Snake Plissken, first in a series of likable rogues that he’d get to play for the rest of his career. The entire film has an edge of writer/director John Carpenter’s inspired lunacy to it, from strange set pieces to audacious set design to unconventional characters to sometimes-shocking moments (such as the president going full-crazy near the climax). Escape from New York does have its annoyances, and those do mirror those of its sequel: the oh-so-cool protagonist with an attitude that mostly appeals to teenagers; the nihilistic conclusion; the moronic elements of its premise; the tiring nature of its post-apocalyptic chic. But seeing Escape from New York at a time when (say) The Walking Dead is practically mainstream TV must be very different from seeing Escape from New York in 1981. It may not be fresh by today’s standards, but it’s easy to respect its place as a film that influenced many others. I still won’t forgive the sequel, though.
(On Cable TV, June 2017) I’m normally a forgiving viewer when it comes to over-the-top comic action movies like Escape from L.A. Throw in an enjoyable action set-piece and I will normally forgive most of the nonsense required to get there. For the first half-hour of the movie, I was certainly willing to play along: It was almost a relief to see Kurt Russell back in character as Snake Plissken, all attitude and tough-guy moves. Even the dodgy CGI work required to do justice to the script on a relatively modest budget didn’t bother me too much. But even as the good cameos unfolded (Bruce Campbell as a plasticized surgeon, Pam Grier as a transsexual, Peter Fonda as a surfer!), the film lost its flavour and became bitter. At some point, the adolescent thrills of relentless post-apocalyptic nihilism became tiresome. Plissken’s posturing became hollow, and a reminder that there’s only so far to go when fuelled by cynicism and anti-heroic amorality. When the anarchic ending came, I was more annoyed at the wanton destruction than overjoyed at seeing authoritarianism being kicked over along with much of civilization. I guess I’m not a brooding sixteen-year-old anymore. While writer/director John Carpenter clearly had fun poking at Los Angeles’s pretensions with Escape from L.A., the result is curiously dark and meaningless … and I’m the one not having fun with the result.
(Second viewing, Crackle Streaming, May 2017) I’m not sure anyone else will make the analogy, but having re-watched the original The Karate Kid shortly before Christine has put me in a frame of mind to call this John Carpenter horror movie the dark pendant of the kind of high-school comedy exemplified by The Karate Kid. At their heart, they are both teenage power fantasies about fitting in and gaining some kind of power over one’s social environment. The Karate Kid goes light in showing the way discipline, training and kindness can win over the worst bullies. But Christine … oh boy. Here, the path to power is destructive, based on an unholy romance with dark forces as exemplified by an evil car. Bullies are not gently beaten in submission as they are run over, dismembered or set aflame by a malevolent supernatural entity. It’s strong stuff (tying into deep American associations between cars and teenage rites of passage into adulthood), and it’s significant that Christine is focused not on the teenage nerd who falls in love with an automotive demon, but his best friend watching the consequent carnage. I remember liking the original Stephen King novel quite a bit, but director John Carpenter truly nails the filmed execution. From the self-assured prologue showing the origins of evil to the “Bad to the Bone” echoing stinger, Christine is a thrill ride. As befitting such an extreme premise (evil car?!?), it never settles for subtlety when over-the-top will do: Why not hit viewers over the head with a great on-the-nose soundtrack? Why settle for running over a bully when the car can escape from an exploding gas station and set its teenage target ablaze? Why settle for keying a car when the group of antagonists can smash it to pieces with sledgehammers? And why soft-play the disturbingly aggressive final sequence of a masculine bulldozer climbing atop a car strongly gendered as female? Christine doesn’t mess around when it comes to shocking the viewer, and it’s exactly that kind of go-for-broke audacity that sets apart ordinary B-grade horror movies from the great ones. My memories of seeing Christine in the mid-nineties weren’t spectacular, but this second look reveals a much better movie than I remembered. It’s playfully aggressive, well-crafted and has a few hidden depths once you start poking at it. After a steady diet of upbeat depictions of high-school life, Christine is just dark and just good enough to be a welcome antidote.
(TubiTV Streaming, May 2017) The seventies in general were a good time for low-budget breakout features, and so there’s something exceptionally compelling in Assault on Precinct 13 despite its obvious limitations, excesses and diversions. It does capture a period atmosphere in which the inner city had become the new wild frontier, and transposing plenty of western tropes in an urban environment must have been far more shocking then than it is now. Not that the film is entirely normalized now—the “ice cream” scene is still viscerally transgressive today, and does much to establish that anything can happen in the film. The rest pits cops and criminals and gang members against each other, with unusual alliances emerging on their own. It works pretty well, largely due to director John Carpenter’s gift for staging action and creating suspense. The score also helps viewers feel put off by the proceedings, which is the point of the film—Assault on Precinct 13 is about how even the familiar streets can become a war zone. There’s a limit to how much you can like a film like that, but it’s not that hard to be impressed by the effectiveness of its gloomy intentions.
(On TV, October 2016) I have no affection and only little academic interest in the slasher genre. It’s not a kind of film that I enjoy (although I’m not opposed to other supernatural horror genres), but in trying to build a coherent picture of the horror genre over the past few decades, it’s often necessary to watch some reprehensible films along the way. Halloween remains a reference largely due to its influence on the horror genre in the following decade, in which an explosion of similar films dominated the lower rungs of the B-movie ecosystem. (I was five in 1980 and ten in 1985, so you can imagine the nostalgic memories of discovering VHS stores at the time and their terrifying cassette box art.) Knowing this, the biggest surprise in watching Halloween is how restrained it is: While there is disturbing violence, it rarely revels in the gore and terror of the victims. While there is teenage hanky-panky, there is no nudity. While the film sustains an atmosphere of dread and suspense, it feels far less exploitative than many of the films it influences. There’s a fair case to be made that Halloween is closer to a thriller than to horror and while I don’t entirely agree, this is a film now most notable for the tropes it does not use. Director John Carpenter is at the top of his game here, and the direction of the film remains remarkable even today. (The opening point-of-view sequence is still upsetting even at an age of found-footage films.) It’s also difficult to avoid mentioning the iconic soundtrack of the film, which set an example that would dominate a slew of eighties films. A very young Jamie Lee Curtis is fantastic in the lead role. While the film remains a slasher, it’s a competently executed one even today (and especially considering its low budget). It’s striking, however, how much of Halloween’s impact is now dictated by the movies it influenced than by itself.