Update 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.
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.
I don’t know, man. Death Proof isn’t really a movie. It’s an idea, and as an idea, it can’t be separated from the way it was released. Its release was very much the whole point of its existence, even separate from the actual film that was produced to facilitate that release. On its own, there isn’t a whole lot going on in Death Proof, although small pleasures, including an awe-inspiring final reel, abound. So…
Let us begin with the obvious: Grindhouse is a confused beast, asking to indulge in two feature length works of varying quality (both between the two and within individual features) that do not tackle the grindhouse aesthetic from the same vantage point as one another. On top of this, we have four trailers that do not adopt the spirit of the movies around them, nor are those four trailers in unison with one another. Let us approach this murderers’ row: Robert Rodrigeuz’s Planet Terror, a high-flying zombie movie starring Rose McGowan and a postmodern descent into the aesthetic that tackles it to the ground so hard it that words like “luridest” must be invented to explain it away. Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof, a confusing beast of a somber, stoic serial killer film starring Kurt Russell as Stuntman Mike, a killer with a car as a weapon. Stopping and starting in fits and spurts, Death Proof subverts expectations by rejecting and even flaunting the audience’s desire to be wowed by its lunacy. For it is, in contrast to Planet Terror, not a lunatic of a joke, but an actual film, played straight. On their own, then, we have two films that are very much of a different order and a different form, but we will get back to this.
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.
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.