B-movie auteur, King of the Schlock, call him what you want but John Carpenter has carved himself a very singular reputation and a status as one of Hollywood’s most inventive if not critically successful directors. On this episode we will be discussing a broad swathe of work from his most successful and influential period to date, which is to say the mid seventies to late 80s.

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Assault on Precinct 13

Austin Stoker’s California Highway Patrol officer Lt. Ethan Bishop’s day gets increasingly problematic, from a seemingly easy starting point. He’s asked to oversee the final day’s activities of closing down an old police precinct building that’s moving elsewhere, from its current anti-salubrious environs of a rough L.A. ghetto. It has a skeleton staff, a desk sergeant and two administrators, Laurie Zimmer’s Leigh and Nancy Loomis’ Julie but- spoilers – staffing levels are about to be further reduced.

Meanwhile, a prison transfer bus has to make an emergency pit stop when an inmate falls ill, bringing Darwin Joston’s enigmatic convicted murderer Napoleon Wilson and fellow neerdowell Tony Burton’s Wells to the party, along with some other characters we shouldn’t get too attached to.

Furtherly meanwhile, in the aftermath of a police action that saw six gang members gunned down, said gangs are out for blood, seemingly at random picking an ice cream van chappie and, as part of an extreme “no witnesses” policy, the young girl he was serving. Her distraught father gives chase and manages to take out his daughter’s killer, but the numbers are not in his favour and he flees, shellshocked, to the precinct, pursued by an embarrassment of gangsters, intent on getting him, and anyone that gets in the way.

The shock of the first wave of attacks is repelled, but at the cost of, well, everyone not named previously, so the cops and the criminals must band together to survive until helps arrives – if indeed it will, with the communications and electricity cut.

That’s more or less your lot, which is normally the point where I’d say it doesn’t seem like a a lot to hang a film from. And, well, it’s not, I suppose, but for once that’s a positive rather than a negative. It’s simplicity turns out to be its strength, allowing time to focus on the tension and characters.

It’s the interplay between Stoker and Joston that sell the film, in particular the hints at unravelling what’s going on with Napoleon Wilson. For all his tough guy quips and demeanour, he’s no crazed killer. Even if the script is hanging multiple lightshades on it, it’s still one of the brightest light in the movie.

It helps that that Carpenter boy knows how to shoot a shoot-out, with the back half of the movie in particular being a great combination of ratcheted tension and kinetic release. It goes without saying that this holds up very well today and is at least in the running for being Carpenter’s best film.

The Fog

As the sleepy coastal town of Antonio Bay prepares to celebrate its centennial, a ghostly fog rolls in from the sea, enveloping the town. Not really big news in itself, but within the fog there is a terror the unsuspecting residents are ill-equipped to face; a terror born of the actions of their descendants a hundred years ago to the day that has returned to wreak its terrible vengeance.

A simple enough premise, and in many ways The Fog is one of Carpenter’s least fussy, some would say uninspired efforts from the period in question. Essentially a daft slasher movie with supernatural overtones, The Fog nonetheless succeeds to a fair degree in building fear and dread predominantly through atmosphere, and while it might not succeed to the same degree as The Thing, which we’ll talk about in a bit, it is interesting to see the mechanic being deployed here in what is firmly the most B movie material.

It’s a shame the slasher element is present here at all, actually, as the occasional punctuation inserted by the overly-theatrical stabby knifey bits serves as more of a full stop than a comma in proceedings, and there’s a good argument to be made that The Fog would be a more satisfyingly terrifying experience without them.

The cast are mostly serviceable, which seems a disappointing thing to say when you have the likes of Hal Holbrook and Janet Leigh in support of Jamie Lee Curtis, Tom Atkins and the smokey, late night radio presence of Adrienne Barbeau. They mostly go through the motions here, Curtis in particular having less to do than one might have expected from a reunion with her Halloween director, and while no one in particular disappoints there is similarly no standout performance here.

And yet as flat as this assessment sounds there is a special place in my heart for_ The Fog_, for the things it does well it does really well, and it does them often enough that they left an indelible impression on my far-to-young-to-have-been-witness-to-them mind. By the time the revelation of the murderous figures within is upon us it’s largely redundant anyway, and do you know what?: there are times when I’m more interested in the journey than the destination. I like the journey this movie takes me on very much.

Escape from New York

In the grim and unimaginably distant future of… 1997?!, crime in the United States has reached epidemic proportions, with harsh sentences being imposed on those found guilty of even relatively lesser crimes, and the whole of Manhattan having been turned into a prison (with little power or food, but apparently plenty of scope for making steam-powered cars, but I digress).

As Kurt Russell’s Clint Eastwood… sorry, as Kurt Russell’s Snake Plissken is being prepared for his placement in the Manhattan prison (a life sentence for robbery), a plane flying over the island is in distress. This plane just happens to be Airforce One, and it has been hijacked by terrorists. Donald Pleasance´s ENTIRELY CONVINCINGLY AMERICAN president escapes, along with a C60 cassette tape that’s of crucial world importance, and lands somewhere in the metropolis.

The prison’s warden, Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef), offers Plissken (seemingly the most famous solider in the world, or something, given that everyone knows him) a deal: rescue the president and his tape, and get a full pardon. Plissken accepts the deal, but is less than pleased when Hauk imposes a 22 hour time limit, and, just to give him that extra impetus to succeed, has him implanted with micro-explosives that will rupture his carotid arteries if he fails in his mission.

Plissken pilots a glider to the top of one of the World Trade Center towers, and then must locate the president in the urban warzone that Manhattan has become, avoiding the various street gangs that roam the city, and extricate him. Along the way he’ll meet Isaac Haye’s Duke of New York, Harry Dean Stanton’s Brain and Ernest Borgnine’s psychic Cabbie, all of whom will in some way help or hinder his progress.

Escape from New York is set in the same sort of grotty, bleak, dystopian near-future as films like Robocop, though it’s got far less of a social narrative and is more of a straight-up action film, and in that regard it’s entirely watchable and competent, but resolutely nothing special. But at least it’s not Escape from L.A.

The Thing

There is a select club of movies which were not not huge commercial successes upon release, but which have over time and through proliferation of home formats achieved a touchstone cultural status where everyone in the observable universe has ended up seeing them one way or another, and which have very few dissenting voices contra to popular opinion. The Rachel Welch poster child of this club is probably The Shawshank Redemption, but it has an older, altogether more icky founding member in the shifting shape of John Carpenter’s The Thing.

Adapted from John W Campbell’s short story “Who Goes There?”, itself previously adapted for the big screen in 1951 as Howard Hawks’ excellent The Thing From Another World, Carpenter’s take will likely be so familiar to you already as to make anything I’ve already written down or am about to say totally redundant.

You already know that the film’s pervasive sense of dread, unease and paranoia, unassumingly fuel-injected by Carpenter’s customary downbeat, homebrew synth score, speaks more in service of horror than pretty much anything released since.

You already know that Rob Bottin’s groundbreaking practical creature effects work is infinitely more disturbing than anything that’s ever been rendered in CG.

You already know the debate that has followed in the wake of it’s wonderfully ambiguous ending.

And you already know that Donald Moffat would rather not spend the rest of the winter TIED TO THIS FUCKING COUCH!

For what it’s worth, The Thing holds up unspeakably well even today, unless you’re my wife in which case you are frequently wrong about popular entertainment anyway, and can only count on my continued presence in this house because you accepted Blade Runner 2049 into your heart and tolerate me openly discussing my plan to start a new life with Ryan Gosling with our listeners. And my colleagues. And Ryan’s voicemail. And the judge.

I think 20 years from now when people gaze retrospectively on Carpenter’s career they will look to Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween and The Thing as benchmarks, but I’d be very surprised if the majority don’t cite the latter as their favourite, irrespective of whether it’s technically his best.

Big Trouble in Little China

Another entry in the hallowed pantheon of films I’d swear blind I’d seen, but on watching apparently hadn’t, or if so have forgotten this so entirely that I might as well not have seen it. This 1986 joint sees Carpenter fulfil an ambition to direct a martial arts film. Bully for him, if not, perhaps, for any audiences watching it.

Kurt Russell’s unjustly self assured trucker Jack Burton blunders his way into the middle of a wushu plot, trying to help his friend, Dennis Dun’s Wang Chi, rescue his freshly emigrated green-eyed fiancée Suzee Pai’s Miao Yin from her immediate kidnapping. What seems at first to be some common or garden gang warfare and sex slavery takes a turn for the supernatural when James Hong’s sorcerer David Lo Pan and his three mystical warrior goons show up in the middle to take Yin for their own.

Turns out David, surely the most stereotypical name for an ancient Chinese sorcerer, is under some sort of curse and must marry a green-eyed girl to break it, and take over the world. Boo. Hiss. So, it’s up to Jack and his allies to stop him, including magician/tour bus driver Egg Shen (Victor Wong), lawyer/love interest Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall), and -what’s the opposite of intrepid? Trepid, that’ll do – trepid journalist Margo (Kate Burton).

Cue a bunch of bluffing, chasing, pratfalling, capturing, and escaping with the odd fight scene thrown in to make sure you’re paying attention, which to honest, you shouldn’t. Much of James Lew’s fight choreography is perhaps the most successful element here, with Carpenter deserving some credit for capturing it competently for a first timer. However, most wushu films tend not to feature automatic weaponry, for much reason on display here. It clashes badly with the fantasy kung-fu, and leaves the whole film looking silly.

But, I suppose silly is very much what Big Trouble is going for, but in my opinion, it’s not hitting quite the right kind of silly. I’m not sure I can get my head around a script that’s a kid’s action adventure, but sets part of it in a brothel. This was surprisingly well received critically on release, before bombing at the box office, slowly becoming a cult classic. It would seem that most of the reasons it was liked are much the same reasons I don’t like it, so take the rest of this for what you will.

Kurt Russell’s just unlikable in this. I know what they’re going for – Jack thinks he’s the hero when he’s actually the comic sidekick, but I’m not sure either the script or Russell was let in on the plan. The quickfire dialogue between him and, well, everyone, but in particular Kim Cattrall, aims for some 30’s era charm like a William Powell and Myrna Loy revival, but instead evokes a plank of wood and a less charismatic plank of wood. The jokes fall flat much more often than not, and the hybrid Indiana Jones / Homer Simpson character they’ve made is just annoying.

I’d be much happier if he’d be excised entirely, with Dennis Dun handling things sans guns, but, well, by that point you might as well go and watch A Chinese Ghost Story. James Hong’s dependable enough as the bad guy, but his aura’s rather hobbled by others telling us what his deal is through obnoxiously clunky dialogue rather than, y’know, having him do much of anything.

Perhaps I’m expecting too much from a throwaway 80’s action outing, but then all I was expecting was something vaguely enjoyable, so more fool me, I guess. Perhaps an element of nostalgia helps it the way I’d admit certain other Carpenter works do for me, but sadly I got very little from this.

Oh, and if this were a modern film I’d accuse it of cultural appropriation, but then seeing as it does appear to get its understanding of Chinese culture from a fortune cookie perhaps that’s not going to hold a lot of water. I read that Carpenter did remove certain aspects of the script before shooting in case it offended Chinese-Americans. I dread to think what that would have been given what’s still here. Mickey Rooney in yellowface? I’d suggest the best course of editing what’s left would be Control-A, Delete.

Prince of Darkness

Beneath an abandoned early 20th century Los Angeles church lies something much, much older. Not just the 16th century catacombs constructed by the Spanish, nor the glass jar that was originally buried in the Middle East around the time of Jesus Christ, but the jar´s contents; a swirling green liquid, millions of years old. Powerful. Malevolent. Alive.

The jar´s existence was known only to a secret sect of Catholic priests, known as the Brotherhood of Sleep, until the last of their number dies and Donald Pleasance’s priest discovers it. He quickly determines its nature as a thing of evil, and enlists the help of Victor Wong’s Professor Birack and his group of 30 – 40 year old students to scientifically prove its potency and inform the world of the true nature of evil.

Spending the weekend in the church, the research group begin investigating the jar and its contents, while the jar’s contents begins investigating, and then controlling, them. Other mysterious phenomena occur, and the church is surrounded by a group of malevolent street people determined to keep them from escaping.

After The Thing, and maybe Starman, this is probably the first John Carpenter film I saw in its entirety, thanks to Craig, who introduced me to it when I were a lad. I remember finding it creepy and unsettling, in a way few films ever have made me feel, and I had some very strong memories, notably the hand reaching through the mirror and, especially, the dream “broadcasts”. It had been probably twenty years since I last saw it, so I was very eager to revisit it.

Having now done so, I can say that it is … alright. It’s fine. It held my interest, so that puts it well above most other films in the genre immediately. I really like the idea of Jesus the alien and evil as an elder god and true, tangible, force, rather than a spiritual concept, though, for all that Prince of Darkness shows scientific research into the phenomenon, it doesn´t really commit itself fully enough to the concept, and it could also have really done with some other method of transmission of infection of evil in addition to “skoosh of liquid”.

There are some atmospheric sequences, certainly, but so many of them are massively undermined by the terrible, overbearing and massively too loud, music, the surges of which may as well be orchestral stabs, as well as the presence of Dennis Dun.

So: interesting ideas, some moments of tension and reasonable atmosphere, despite the soundtrack. And I still enjoyed it. Is it fuck scary, though.

They Live

During an economic depression, drifter John Nada (Roddy Piper) arrives in Los Angeles looking for work. After striking lucky at a construction site, he meets Keith David’s Frank Armitage, who had also arrived in Los Angeles looking for work to support his family in Detroit, and travels with him back to the shanty town where he stays.

Nada’s curiosity is piqued by some odd activity at the nearby church, where he discovers some odd scientific equipment and numerous boxes full of sunglasses. After the shanty town is bulldozed by the fascistic authorities and the church burned, Nada returns to the building and retrieves some of the glasses. Upon donning them he discovers that he can see the truth: the population is being controlled by all-pervasive, subliminal messages in magazines, newspapers, advertising, street signs and broadcasts. Those doing the controlling are seen to be, to human eyes, some damn ugly aliens, though without the special sunglasses they appear as any other human.

And for why are they controlling the minds of the native population? For the dinero, the lucre, the cash money. Why else? They want to change the Earth’s atmosphere to better match their own, asset-strip it, and move on. They are aided in this by human collaborators who are handsomely rewarded with temporal riches, and who are so blinded, and manipulated, by their greed and short-termism they either don’t think about, or don’t care about, the eventual impact on Earth or humanity.

John Carpenter’s social commentary in his Reagan-era They Live may be compelling and pretty much inarguable, but it is delivered with all of the subtlety of the proverbial half-brick. Still, that lack of subtlety does not in any way hinder what is a truly entertaining movie, and watching Nada and Frank attempt to bring down the alien domination machine and reveal the truth to the world is one hell of a fun ride.


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