Favoured Fives…John Carpenter’s Movies

I did warn that this was coming. Took a tad longer than I hoped because a) blogging regularly is a habit I’ve yet to form, and b) trying to whittle these movies down to my five absolute favoured ones at this time was nigh on impossible. I’m a huge Carpenter maniac. This is a man who created several of the stand-out, iconic movies of the 20th century. How then do I wrangle minute differences that allow me to list, even out of order, with no particular preference, only FIVE of his movies? Hard. But I have done it. Just about.

Now remember, these are my current favoured movies. The ones I’m most likely to pop on at this moment in time if I fancy a bit of Carpenter in my retinas. So don’t be getting all het up and defensive of any I’ve missed, I love most of his movies except Ghosts of Mars, which is beyond appalling. OK? OK. Here we go. No preference here, no order to speak of, so no assuming there’s a fave favoured movie here. Unless I specify, as I did with Tremors, I love all the movies I list just about equally, though some may have elements that make me squee more…just sayin’. *grin*

FAVOURED FIVES: JOHN CARPENTER MOVIES

 

Scuttling in like a spider at number 5, we have: THE THING

As remakes go, this one near about breaks the mould. It is brilliant and bleak, gross and engrossing, suspenseful and emotional; it ages without any loss of impact in either FX or believability. This is a nail on the head movie. A KO. Strike out, baby. From the moment we follow a lone dog across the boundless snow, to the moment we sit with MacReady amongst the burning ruins of the camp, we are wholly and completely engaged. Wrapped so tight in story we can barely wriggle a digit. How the paranoia gets to us, the moments of body horror makes us cringe, how we feel the gradual encroach of the cold, as inevitable and uncompromising as the creature itself.

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And what a creature, by turns grotesque and bizarre. This is something we can genuinely wish never to experience. Who is human? What will the creature make of itself next? How will it revolt us? I can’t stand the murder of the dogs. I get angry every time, I break my heart over it every time, because Carpenter tapped right in to the emotional core and drilled it. Gouts of heart’s blood all over the place. That’s when horror works best to my mind, not when it seeks to be transgressive with image after image of torture, each one more eye-wateringly grim than the last, but when it seeks to touch the heart of us, by daring to be emotional. We see the death of the dogs almost through Clark’s eyes, through his love of them, and are destroyed, and terrified to boot. Genius.

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This movie, to me, is like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, capturing that same level of creeping paranoia, growing claustrophobia, and the dawning sense, as we see more and more of the monster, that nothing here can end well. Carpenter’s remake of the 1951 original Thing movie resonates with pervasive, inescapable doom, especially after we see the Norwegian camp. In a way I wish no one had ever made a movie about those events, as this movie showed us everything we needed to know, in the gradual descent of anarchy, suspicion, and violence in the American camp. I do like to see movies without happy endings.  The Mist, for instance. I think they pack a greater emotional punch, make us think harder. Horror is an exploration of the darkness in the human soul and, just sometimes, it should leave us thinking about what that darkness really means, how unutterably bleak and terrible it really is. Well done, Carpenter, well done.

 

Stalking behind the bushes at number 4, lurks: HALLOWEEN

Speak not of what the Zombie did to this terrific movie in his atrocious remake. Dear Hades, what the hell was he thinking shoving Michael into a dysfunctional family? The most impactful moment of this movie, the one that frames and contextualises every moment to follow, is the angelic, vacant face of young Michael, stood between his normal, functional parents, in front of their middle class suburban house. After this, when all our presumption is shattered, we are left vulnerable, and how beautifully Carpenter exploits that with this sinister, tense, and marvellously unrelenting movie.

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This, and the movie that follows directly after, Halloween 2, are two of my all time favourite horror movies. But for the purposes of this favoured five, I am concentrating on the first, the only one to be directed by Carpenter, although he did write and produce two of the subsequent iterations. The thing about Halloween is that any of us can imagine ourselves in Laurie Strode’s shoes. It’s too real, this scenario, this stalker who shadows her every move, his motivations unclear, until it becomes horribly apparent that they involve murder. He systematically hunts her, and the only person who knows what’s happening, the only one who is trying to stop it, is mad old Loomis (played with enervated intensity by the magnificent, dearly departed Donald Pleasance). And yeah, he is mad. He’s been driven to madness by years of delving into the blackness of Michael’s soul. When you look into the abyss, sometimes it sees you, and you are lost.

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That’s what I like most about Carpenter’s horror, he acknowledges and explores the repercussions of trying to understand, or associate with, evil. He never shies from the true effects of allowing oneself to be drawn to darkness, for whatever reason. And Halloween is a sterling example of that exploration and daring. Gosh I love this movie. It absolutely rocks in every which way possible.

 

Disguised beneath an illusion of normality at number 3, we expose: THEY LIVE!

Years ago, in the early 90s, I caught a movie on tv with a fight scene that took my breath away. Two men locked in brutal physical combat. A seemingly endless scene of them battering shit out of each other with no music, only the smack of fists into flesh and the odd line spoken between them. But there was nothing mindless about it. One wanted the other to look through his glasses, because he was trying to show him the truth, but the other guy just didn’t want to know, so they had to fight, and the guy who wanted to share the truth had to win, or watch his friend go into danger, all unknowing. It was a magnificent scene and it stuck with me for years, although I could not for the life of me recall the movie it came from.

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Fast forward to the early 2000s. I was having a little Carpenter-a-thon, and decided to watch They Live!, because it looked interesting, and discovered to my absolute delight that this was it, the movie with that fight scene. The movie I’d been trying to remember the title of for ages. I cannot tell you the amount of times I’d described this fight scene to people and no one, not one of them, ever seemed to know where it came from. Talking to the wrong people, obviously. But what a delight to discover it again, not least because that scene retained every last iota of impact I remembered it having.

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Most delightful of all, aside from the superb humour, and Roddy Piper’s excellent delivery of a goodly swathe of quotable quips, was the underlying message, picking apart consumerism and media control. I was already interested in such subtext, after reading The Subliminal Man in one of Ballard’s collections. That story struck me as powerfully as this movie. I am unashamed in my love of the shallow and entertaining, but this sort of movie, ones that entertain as they explore the deeper, less comfortable, aspects of our reality, are my catnip. And this is a-grade, send me to jail without bail, oh god I’ve stolen my grandmother’s jewels to pay for this and I’m a horrible human being catnip. Yes sirree!

 

Riding the lightning into number 2, we find: BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA

‘It’s all in the reflexes.’

Does anybody not know that line? Oh lawks, how do we begin to extol the virtues of this superb fantasy comedy? There’s so much of right about it. It’s high octane, action driven fun with an anti-hero about as bumbling and yet oddly sexy as it gets. Jack Burton, you sly, drawling son of a gun, you manage to stay out of most of the action, only to kill the bad guy singlehandedly with a move right out of the ‘how to be coolest guy in the room’ manual whilst smeared with heavy duty red lipstick. There’s nothing about that that isn’t awesome.

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And Gracie Law, oh Gracie Law, you outspoken, independent, crazy, unstoppable, unshakeable woman you. Not only are you right in the thick of the fire, facing demons, elements and gunfire, whilst trying to save the girl in your charge, but you throw yourself fearlessly into helping to rescue Miao Yin and get rid of Lo Pan, and then, to top it off, you don’t run off into the sunset with Jack. High freaking five. A woman not defined by the man she meets, a woman who does her own thing, in her own way, fights for what she believes is right and never, ever gives up. I salute you!

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Then we come to Egg Shen. I love that this movie is set in China town, that it rests its story in Eastern mysticism. Apart from Jack, Gracie and Margo there’s barely a white face seen in this movie, and it’s so damned refreshing, especially when Wang Chi is seen constantly kicking arse and taking names in the search for Miao Yin, and Egg Shen, that marvellous, squinty eyed purveyor of magic and tourist information, basically owns everything (literally) as he pits his wits against his oldest foe. Big Trouble is fun filled and ludicrous without ever mocking the customs or beliefs it borrows from. It’s magic. And the magic in it is wonderful. From Egg Shen’s reveal of crackling lightning between his palms to the final battle between giant swordsmen in the smoke, we are held enchanted, and delighted. I quite literally grin my way through the entire movie.

 

Stepping through mirrors into our dimension at number 1, we find: PRINCE OF DARKNESS

Donald Pleasance, Victor Wong, Alice Cooper, twisted Christian mythology sprinkled with a dash of extra terrestrial goodness, secret societies, trapped evil… I could carry on and on listing all the things that make this movie amazing, but I may over-excite myself, and the doctor says no to that. Look, this movie has a man made out of cockroaches, possession by evil water, death by bike frame, synchronised dreaming, and other dimensions in mirrors. ‘Faaaatheeer, faaaatheeeeer.’ OMG awesome.

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Parts of this are genuinely quite scary. You’re reeled in, through cross-laden walls, to dark corners of forgotten chapels, and exposed to ancient malice. Carpenter excels within limitation, and despite the marvellous effects in this movie, it is again a set piece movie, with most of the story taking place once the team of student scientists and their tutors have entered the church to begin researching the strange cylinder in the basement. Events gradually spiral out of control after that point, with the contents of the cylinder becoming a sort of gravity well down which, one by one, the cast begins to fall.

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Like Argento, Carpenter uses a very distinctive musical landscape in all his movies. It’s a musical exoskeleton, both holding up and enhancing the visual aspects of his movies, and I especially enjoy the soundtrack of Prince of Darkness. Right from the opening credits, I know I’m in for a dark ride. Something wicked most definitely this way comes, and oh how much I adore it!

 

Well that’s all folks! Next time I’ll be slipping in to my last movie related favoured five of the year and picking my five favoured Hitchcock movies. Oh the hard! Until then, adios and keep an eye out for another Idea Factory, and the first of another experiment in blog posting. Just testing the waters, and seeing what I like doing, as well as what anyone seems to like reading. Frankly though, if no one reads any of eet, I shall just please myself. 😛

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One thought on “Favoured Fives…John Carpenter’s Movies

  1. A little late, but definitely onboard with THEY LIVE!, THE THING, and of course, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA:

    …Just remember what ol’ Jack Burton does when the earth quakes, and the poison arrows fall from the sky, and the pillars of Heaven shake. Yeah, Jack Burton just looks that big ol’ storm right square in the eye and he says, “Give me your best shot, pal. I can take it.”

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