Tag Archives: John Carpenter

Midnight Screening: Escape from New York

escapehedUpdate June 2019: After a rewatch, I’m struck by how much Escape from New York’s essentially anti-authoritarian stance also feels like a quintessentially early ’80s response to the failures of the liberal project of the ’60s and the New Hollywood project of radicalizing cinematic form in the ’70s. Carpenter’s film undeniably paints a picture of the powers that be as deluded autocrats and maniacal functionaries, but its post-hippie validation of anarchy defines itself individually and skeptically rather than communally and with a utopian accent. On balance, I don’t know how I feel about this any more than I do Carpenter’s deliberately fearful Assault on Precinct 13, where a black cop and an old-school white criminal learn to get along only while under siege from an interracial army of cinematographically-zombified gang members putting aside their racial differences to assault the status quo. That said, while Assault merely updates and urbanizes Western conventions, Escape ironizes its, offering up cinema’s greatest ode to and takedown of the John Wayne archetype, one who refuses to coopt societally-accepted norms of the “good” (even if it means doing “bad”). Plus, it’s pretty great filmmaking nearly forty years later, a phenomenal exploration of Carpenter’s singularly elastic ability to massage visual absence into a vision of apocalypse, be it at the level of the individual (Halloween, faceless evil), the local (The Thing, evil in our own image), or the world, as in this film.  

Original Review:

Scruffy and stubborn as a mule, Escape from New York is probably a failure for director John Carpenter, but it is a treat for anyone else all the same. Carpenter has been vocal about his genre-DJ dreams of hopscotching from horror to action to Westerns to fulfill his inner-desires of throwing pebbles toward all outsider genres under the sun. More pragmatically, he sought new genres to avoid type-casting as a master of horror. Trouble is that Carpenter’s soul, despite his brain telling him otherwise, was a horror director, and his eye followed his soul. Even Carpenter’s best action material – 1986’s Big Trouble in Little China for one – doesn’t work so much as an action movie; it’s more a deconstruction of American action movie tropes that tickles the rib with how foolish American action movies could be. Whether or not that was Carpenter’s intent, the arguably accidental success of Big Trouble reveals a director who didn’t have much of an eye for conventional action directing, for his action directing was too sluggish and stilted to function as a serious work of the form.
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Genre Riff New Wave: Big Trouble in Little China

Update late 2018: With the new Halloween film out in theaters, the implacable, autumnal chill of the John Carpenter classic that kickstarted that series is as irrevocable as ever. But, while I adore his Halloween, as wonderfully quotidian and keyed-in to late’ 70s social malaise as it is timelessly antediluvian, I have a soft spot for this far more squirrely little film, Halloween’s polar opposite, and a comic paradise to Halloween’s purgatorio and the frostbitten inferno of The Thing. 

A self-aware critique in the spirit of Said, this film is as loopy in its meditations and as mischievous in its skepticisms about social convention as any of Carpenter’s films, and it still feels like a more deliciously disreputable extension of Raiders of the Lost Ark, to name another ’80s bastion of American masculinity that is, in fact, infamously recalcitrant in its attitude toward its protagonists’ white-male-hero bonafides. Few filmmakers could pivot from the monstrous to the ridiculous quite like Carpenter.

Original Review:

Edited June 2016

John Carpenter always wanted to make a martial arts film. With Big Trouble in Little China, he reconstituted something closer to THE martial arts film. This is, of course, not to say it is the best martial arts ever made (far from it). Rather, this is a film that tries its damnedest to pay homage to the genre by marinating it in its own juices, a kind of ur-martial arts film that doubles back to self-parody. Pure tripe of the 14-karat variety, Big Trouble has goofy, slantwise characters, a schlocky-shifty sensibility cooked to perfection, mostly non-stop action that twirls and flourishes with pizzaz and gusto like choreographed ballet (albeit of the grubby variety), and above all, it paints a vision of the world in which everybody, and I mean everybody, knows martial arts and is just waiting around for an opportunity to use it.  Less a send-up of martial arts than a critique of anglicizing Eastern products, Big Trouble is a teasing rib at the carnival of Indiana Jones imitators cascading through the ’80s landscape. In particular, it presents a self-mocking portrait of Western films which mobilize Eastern martial arts and thereby essentialize and exoticize it.
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Double Screamings: Stake Land and We Are What We Are

With the summer release of Jeff Mickle’s new film, Cold in July, set to prove him as a director of considerable skill who’s in it for the long haul, it seems appropriate to look back on his two previous, relatively unknown and under-appreciated films, truly strong efforts both and films any discerning horror fan can appreciate. 2010’s Stake Land and 2013’s We Are What We Are are scary films, but their horror comes not from shocks but slowly building dread (don’t worry, though, Mickle knows how to underline his composed filmmaking in blood-red strokes when necessary) . He doesn’t give us choppy quick cuts. He lingers, letting his characters define his horror and giving us a blood-curdling melancholy.

Stake Land is a post-apocalyptic vampire road-Western about a family of loners who come together to survive, while We Are What We Are is something of a psychological thriller about a cultish family that maintains religious practices long out of time, including a propensity for cannibalism. But they both share a crucial feeling, a sense of hopeless malaise that seeps out of the screen and permeates the environment. Above all, they’re weary films about the struggle to survive in a situation where survival may not be the best option. Continue reading

Wild Wild Best: Rio Bravo

This being a review in a month-long exploration of the Western genre. 
I’ve seen a lot of Westerns.  I actively seek out the genre for two reasons. Firstly, existing within a genre of B-pictures with lesser commercial prospects, the films often have a freedom to poke and prod at the nature of film and storytelling in ways films with more money put into them, and thus with more money expected in return, might not have the unexpected freedom for. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the Western was historically perhaps the genre where America and its desires are most wont to play themselves out for audiences. Westerns explore a mythic version of traditional American life – some uphold it, some read it past itself to create untold postmodern myths, and some take a knife to the genre and skewer it for all to see. Continue reading

Midnight Screaming: The Thing

This week on Midnight Screenings, I’m looking at the two finest films from one of my favorite modern horror directors, and one of the men who brought midnight cinema to the mainstream: John Carpenter. 

Update early 2019: Never a fun time reading these college-age early reviews, especially when you don’t have time to write-up a new take in full, but I’ll say after a rewatch that Carpenter’s film remains one of the quintessential films in its genre, and its decade: a portrait of geographic seclusion as abyssal isolation that doubles as a study in the breakdown of democracy, all while replacing the proverbial conservative “Other” of horror with the Other within. It’s greatest trick, then, is that it turns one’s opacity to one’s own self into a truly terrifying dispatch from the fringes of society, both a final transmission from flickering-out ’70s ennui and an inaugural howl of ’80s malaise. And it achieves this inward turn, forcing us not onto an outsider but back onto our own frightening selves, without ever resorting to any “psychological horror” tools to launder the horror by ensconcing it only within one character’s head-space.  Truly disquieting stuff.

Original Review:

John Carpenter’s recently re-appraised The Thing works on many levels. But most fascinating is that it works in a way completely, and seemingly intentionally, divorced from Carpenter’s other horror-masterpiece, Halloween. As I am not the first to observe, his 1978 game-changer centers an almost eternally faceless horror that can infiltrate mundane suburbia at a moment’s notice, like an ever-present shadow we’d prefer not admit is there. In The Thing, the horror belongs all too well. It’s not faceless. It’s quite the opposite: it has “the” face, in that its face is humanity, or rather, as I’m not the first to notice, it has any face. And not in a metaphorical “we’re the monster after all” sense, although that atavistic stone can be overturned for those looking. It’s primarily interested in something more earthy and visceral that is nonetheless profoundly human and lonely. The monster’s face is quite literally the human face – it enters into the human body and takes it over while occupying the human form. In doing so, perhaps as a none-too-happy accident, it causes us to question identity itself, whether we are our bodies or merely have our bodies on loan from the world.
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Midnight Screaming: Halloween

This week on Midnight Screenings, I’m looking at the two finest films from one of my favorite modern horror directors, and one of the men who brought midnight cinema to the mainstream: John Carpenter. 

Halloween was writer-director-composer-producer-fanboy John Carpenter’s introduction to the world of the cinematic masters (befitting his name, he probably is a carpenter too for god’s sake). It is, above all else, a master-class in pure style as well as a reminder that in horror, filmmaking skill and raw dread drive the narrative rather than the other way around. It’s economical, ruthlessly efficient, and spare. There’s a sense that every shot holds a purpose, and that Carpenter knows how to stage his camera for maximum impact. The film feels planned, rigorously so, and ruthlessly composed to a point bordering on obsession. It’s a masterpiece of slowly unnerving tension that builds at just the right amount throughout – every image adds to the film, and edits don’t so much transition as ransack the previous shot and take control. It’s fitting that its creator bears the last name of a craftsman – this film is all ruthless, clinically potent, monstrously well-constructed craft. If, in fact, he did hold the profession of his surname, this would be an oak chair assembled guerilla style and with little funding or time (the film was shot on an extremely meager budget), but which would bear the love and care of someone who truly loved woodwork and put every ounce of his skill and passion into making that one chair. That it would be the devil’s throne is just the other half of the fun.
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