Advertisements

Tag Archives: John Carpenter

31 Days of Horror!

My wife Jillian and I recently completed a “31 days of horror” challenge in which we watched 31 scary movies in 31 days. We each picked roughly half of the films on the list and tried to focus on watching stuff we’d never seen before. Below are brief, informal reviews of the films that I originally posted on Facebook. They are ranked from favorite to least favorite and I affixed a letter grade to each. I hope this list comes in handy to anyone hoping to do a 31-days-of-horror challenge next year!

Body-Melt

1. NIGHT OF THE DEMON (Jacques Tourneur, UK, 1957): A+
Jacques Tourneur (CAT PEOPLE, OUT OF THE PAST) was a master of cinema and this late entry in his filmography is one of his best. Dana Andrews is a skeptical American professor who travels to England to attend a parapsychology conference and ends up investigating a Satanic cult led by an Aleister Crowley-like figure. Chock-full of remarkable noir-ish visuals and almost unbearably suspenseful set pieces from beginning to end. A masterpiece.

2. SUSPIRIA (Dario Argento, Italy, 1978): A
The most famous of all Italian horror films centers on an American girl arriving at a ballet school in Germany and discovering that it’s run by a coven of witches! There are startling images galore (maggots, a room full of razor wire, attacks by a rabid dog and a bat, etc.) but it’s the bold, stylized color and lighting schemes that truly give this beautiful and surreal film the illogical, uncanny feeling of a nightmare. I’d never seen it before and I’m glad my first time was with the new 4K restoration. Recommended by David Hanley.

3. THE BODY SNATCHER (Val Lewton/Robert Wise, USA, 1945): A
This is what I’m talking about! Boris Karloff is a carriage driver in 18th-century Scotland who provides cadavers — by any means necessary — to a medical school in exchange for cash. The interesting thing is that Karloff’s character, a very charismatic murderer, isn’t the villain. The stick-in-the-mud doctor running the school (who has a “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy about where the bodies come from) is. Great script and performances and stylish cinematography. The scene between Karloff and Bela Lugosi (reuniting 11 years after Edgar Ulmer’s masterpiece THE BLACK CAT) is an all-timer. So much fun.

4. THE ENTITY (Sidney Furie, USA, 1982): A
This was straight-up the scariest movie of the 31 that Jill and I watched. It’s about a single mother of three who is repeatedly sexually assaulted by an invisible presence in her own home. The attack sequences, accompanied by what sounds like an industrial version of the PSYCHO shower theme, are horrifying. Director Sidney Furie gets a lot of mileage from showing the incursion of evil into a totally banal suburban California setting, and Barbara Hershey’s lead performance is incredible.

5. WITCHFINDER GENERAL (Michael Reeves, UK/USA, 1968): A
Wow, this was an intense and disturbing film! It features what was reportedly one of Vincent Price’s favorite roles and it’s easy to see why: Matthew Hopkins, a real-life self-appointed “witchfinder” who traveled 17th-century England torturing and killing “witches” for money, was the most evil character he ever played. Every one of Price’s line readings is amazing — the unique softness of his voice providing ironic counterpoint to the utter vileness of Hopkins’ deeds. Although not entirely historically accurate, this film nonetheless gets to the heart of the hypocrisy of witch hunts better than any film I’ve seen (aside from Dreyer’s DAY OF WRATH).

6. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (George Romero, USA, 1968): A
I hadn’t watched this in over 20 years so it was a real pleasure to see it again in MoMA’s beautiful new restoration (which George Romero oversaw shortly before his death). Very few popular subgenres descend so definitively from a single movie the way the “zombie film” does from this one. Such a lively piece of filmmaking and such a powerful allegory for American unrest during the Vietnam War and Civil Rights era. The occasionally stilted acting by a cast of unknowns only enhances both the realism and the horror.

7. THE WICKER MAN (Robin Hardy, UK, 1975): A-
A police inspector travels to a remote Scottish Isle in search of a missing girl but the inhabitants are less than forthcoming and nothing is what it seems! I had never seen this much beloved British “folk horror” film before – nor, thankfully, knew any details of the plot – but immediately got what all the fuss was about. Christopher Lee FTW. Recommended by Natalya Oshurkova.

8. THE UNINVITED (Lewis Allen, USA, 1944): A-
Great, atmospheric ghost story set in the UK but made in Hollywood by the non-auteurist-approved director Lewis Allen. Beautiful black-and-white cinematography and impressive ghost effects (even if the film isn’t actively “scary” by today’s standards). Ray Milland and Gail Russell are very appealing as the central couple. I was amazed to learn that the famous standard “Stella by Starlight” was written for this film (Russell’s character is named Stella).

9. RITUALS (Peter Carter, Canada, 1977): A-
A good reason to do a 31-days-of-horror-challenge is to try and seek out underrated or overlooked gems that you’ve never even heard of before. This Canadian “survivalist horror” movie served that function better than any other title on the list. A group of five friends (all of whom are doctors) go on a fishing trip together and find themselves menaced by an unknown assailant. This is a brutal but very well made film featuring a good script, great performances (especially Hal Holbrook as the lead) and taut direction. Obviously influenced by DELIVERANCE, which it’s just as good as and twice as scary as.

10. THE FOG (John Carpenter, USA, 1980): A-
Perhaps John Carpenter’s most underrated movie, this has to do with ghosts from a leper colony seeking vengeance on the citizens of a coastal California town whose founders deliberately caused their demise a century before. Beautifully shot and edited, the whole thing feels like a feature film version of the kind of campfire ghost story being told by John Houseman in the irresistible prologue. This was the second and final screenwriting collaboration between Carpenter and Debra Hill (not counting the obligatory HALLOWEEN II, which Carpenter didn’t direct) and it’s obvious in hindsight that she brought a welcome female energy to his work that can’t be found in his subsequent movies.

11. ISLE OF THE DEAD (Val Lewton/Mark Robson, USA, 1945): A-
Another Lewton/Karloff joint that I hadn’t seen before. A group of people quarantined on a Greek Island after an outbreak of the plague in 1912 break off into two camps: those who believe in science vs. those who believe in superstition! This has atmosphere to spare and the live-burial climax is terrifying.

12. A CERTAIN KIND OF DEATH (Grover Babcock/Blue Hadaegh, USA, 2003): A-
This is a different kind of horror movie: a documentary about what happens to people (and their possessions) when they die with no known next of kin. With cool objectivity, the filmmakers follow several Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office employees going about their daily routines. While the movie isn’t remotely sensationalistic (even if shots of corpses in various stages of decomposition will make this difficult viewing for some), it becomes incredibly haunting precisely because of its matter-of-factness. Recommended by Rob Christopher.

13. IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS (John Carpenter, USA, 1995): B+
Jill picked this, which we’d seen before but it’d been a while. John Carpenter’s last great film. Sam Neill is terrific as an insurance investigator who loses his mind while looking for a missing horror novelist. The final scene shows Neill’s character entering a movie theater and watching a film titled IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS starring himself and directed by “John Carpenter.” After plunging down this meta-horror rabbit hole there was really nothing else left for JC to do.

14. ANGUISH (Bigas Luna, Spain, 1987): B+
Wow. I’d never even heard of this crazy Spanish-American co-production until Patrick Friel recommended it (and Adrian Martin backed him up). It starts off as a straightforward horror movie about an eye surgeon with mommy issues then unexpectedly transforms into a self-reflexive exercise about horror movies. I greatly enjoyed the Hitchcock homages (to PSYCHO, SPELLBOUND and THE BIRDS in particular) and Michael Lerner’s performance is great though I’m not sure the conceit sustains its cleverness for the entire run time.

15. DREAMS OF A LIFE (Carol Morley, UK, 2012): B+
Inspired by our unconventional pick of A CERTAIN KIND OF DEATH, Jill searched for other “scary documentaries” to round out our list and came up with this one and DEAR ZACHARY (see below). This is about a 38-year-old woman who died of unknown causes while wrapping Christmas presents in her London apartment but whose body wasn’t discovered until over two years later. By including interviews with those who knew the woman as well as reenactments of her life (one such sequence owes a debt to CLEO FROM 5 TO 7), this asks a lot of questions about how a relatively well-off young person in an urban environment can end up totally forgotten by society. Scary (in an existential sense) and heartbreaking.

16. ALICE SWEET ALICE (Alfred Sole, USA, 1976): B+
When a little girl (Brooke Shields in her film debut) is murdered on the day of her first communion, her troubled older sister seems to be the culprit. But is she? As a film, this may not have much to “say” but the murder sequences (perpetrated by a spectacularly creepy masked figure in a yellow raincoat) are scary and potent even by today’s standards. Recommended by Max O’Connell.

17. THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (Roger Corman, USA, 1964): B
Although I’ve seen many films produced by Roger Corman (including two elsewhere on this list), this adaptation of one of Edgar Allen Poe’s most famous stories is the first Corman-directed film I’ve ever seen. It’s a fun movie with two things to recommend it: Nicolas Roeg’s beautiful color cinematography and the way that Vincent Price seems to relish delivering every line of dialogue.

18. THE BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW (Piers Haggard, UK, 1970): B
A farmer in 17th-century England digs up a demon corpse while plowing his field. The grisly discovery has the consequence of turning the village children into a Satan-worshiping coven. Worth seeing for the impressive period detail and some genuinely frightening moments but the script leaves something to be desired – especially the way the local judge abruptly emerges as the hero in the final act.

19. TALES FROM THE HOOD (Rusty Cundieff, USA, 1995): B
Clever anthology in the TALES FROM THE CRYPT/CREEPSHOW mode but the filmmakers here use the horror genre to explicitly comment on racial and social ills. An unhinged Clarence Williams III is fantastic as the narrator in the framing segments. “Welcome to hell, motherfuckers!”

20. THE DEVIL RIDES OUT (Terence Fisher, UK, 1968): B
As a big fan of Terence Fisher’s earliest Hammer horror films (e.g., THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA), I was hoping this tale of an astronomical society fronting for a satan-worshipping cult — supposedly the movie that brought the studio into the modern era — would be a deathless masterpiece. It’s not — it’s a little too hokey and lightweight for that (especially in comparison to something like ROSEMARY’S BABY, which came out the same year) but it has its moments and Christopher Lee, as a good guy, is magnificent as always.

21. DEF BY TEMPTATION (James Bond III, USA, 1990): B
A nice surprise! Horror/comedy about a female vampire stalking male “players” in the bars of Brooklyn. The first film to use vampirism as a metaphor for AIDS? Beautifully photographed on a shoestring by Spike Lee’s then-regular DP Ernest Dickerson. Kadeem Hardison is charismatic AF and should’ve become a big star. Crazy that writer/director/actor James Bond III never directed or acted again after this. Recommended by Janina Bradley.

22. BODY MELT (Philip Brophy, Australia, 1991): B-
Jillian picked this outrageous Australian body horror/black comedy, which has something to do with a vitamin pill causing deadly side effects in test subjects. I didn’t fully grasp what was going on on a plot level but it was visually inventive and funny enough to the point where I also didn’t really care.

23. GALAXY OF TERROR (B.D. Clark, USA, 1981): B-
Roger Corman-produced ALIEN knockoff but with more sex and violence. Entertaining trash from beginning to end with a good cast that includes Robert “Freddie Krueger” Englund and Grace “Sarah Palmer” Zabriskie. Recommended by Patrick Friel and Bowls MacLean.

24. THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE (John Hough, UK, 1973): B-
This Richard Matheson-scripted yarn about paranormal investigators venturing into the “Mt. Everest of haunted houses” is a decently entertaining PG-rated affair. Roddy McDowell gives a very committed and sweaty performance. Recommended by Alan Hoffman.

25. TALES FROM THE HOOD 2
(Rusty Cundieff/Darin Scott, USA, 2018): B-
Same concept as the original – and nearly as good – but updated for 2018 (which means, of course, it comments on Trumpism). Well worth seeing but this gets docked half a letter grade for the didactic Emmett Till segment.

26. HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP (Barbara Peeters, USA, 1980): C+
Imagine CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON but with gore and nudity. Relentlessly silly but compulsively watchable. The climax with sea-monsters running amok at a carnival is a riot. Apparently Andy Warhol’s favorite movie. Recommended by Aaron Leventman.

27. HOCUS POCUS (Kenny Ortega, 1993): C+
Jillian picked this. Kind of cute in an early ’90s/Disney kind of way, and Bette Midler is a hoot (especially when she sings Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ immortal “I Put a Spell on You,” but this lacks the subversive edge that it sorely needs, an edge that someone like, say, Joe Dante would’ve brought to to it.

28. JUST BEFORE DAWN (Jeff Lieberman, USA, 1981): C
This has a good reputation among slasher aficionados and I can appreciate that it’s the kind of thing that’s well done for what it is — but “what it is” (a film about young people going camping and being murdered one-by-one by a large backwoods dude with a machete) will never really be my thing.

29. DEAR ZACHARY: A LETTER TO A SON ABOUT HIS FATHER (Kurt Kuenne, USA, 2008): C
A filmmaker makes a sort of “video diary” about his murdered friend for the dead man’s infant son. This is one of the earliest entries in a still ongoing documentary trend (see THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS) in which admittedly incredible true stories are put across in a thriller-like manner with an emphasis on unexpected developments and bombshell revelations. I was annoyed by the overly-fast cutting and treacly score.

30. SOCIETY (Brian Yuzna, USA, 1989): C-
This cheesy low-budget 1980s body-horror actually has a great climactic party sequence full of impressive and outrageous “practical effects.” But…it’s kind of a dull journey getting there.

31. FREDDY VS. JASON (Ronnie Yu, USA, 2003): D
Jill picked this. It’s very bad, of course, but it does contain certain stylistic hallmarks (e.g., red-and-blue lighting, copious fog) of director Ronnie Yu, who once upon a time made great movies in Hong Kong (e.g., THE BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR).

Advertisements

The Organization of Space in The Conjuring 2, Three and Green Room

xaexhvd42pbgly3lqhxl

It’s a bit too long and I never again want to see a horror movie that climaxes with “demonologists” wielding crucifixes and reciting bible verses in Latin but I still enjoyed the hell out of The Conjuring 2, a sequel that is far better than it has any right to be. Not as terrifying as the first (there is nothing to match the creepiness of that film’s Annabelle prologue nor the instant-classic “clap scene”), it nonetheless strikes an appealing balance between the goofy and the scary. The best sequence is the one in which Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson) croons Elvis’ version of “Can’t Help Falling in Love” to a group of children while accompanying himself on finger-picked acoustic guitar. It may be the least essential scene on the level of story but it makes me indescribably happy because it’s so old-fashioned and so much like something out of a (non-musical) Hollywood movie of the 1940s or 1950s. As with similar moments involving Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson in Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo or the Sons of the Pioneers in John Ford’s Rio Grande, the narrative here stops completely cold so that someone can simply sing a song — in its entirety. It’s also the scene that best exemplifies the surprisingly warm-hearted tone of The Conjuring 2, an ostensible horror/thriller that, much more than its predecessor, makes the unusual decision to foreground the love story between its married protagonists. This, and the urban, working-class London setting — so different from the rural Rhode Island farmhouse of the first movie — ensure that director James Wan is able to produce something that feels aesthetically fresh even while he sticks closely to a familiar narrative playbook.

tent-in-the-conjuring-2

The mostly respectful reviews of The Conjuring 2 have predictably focused on the literary virtues of story and character, with the odd stray remark praising the movie’s elaborate displays of “moving camera.” While the camera movement is indeed masterful, I’d argue that it’s Wan’s mise-en-scene (that slippery term denoting how a director stages events for the camera) that truly impresses. No matter how silly his scripts might be (and this is the first feature on which Wan has taken a co-writing credit), this motherfucker knows how to organize space: he always takes great care to visually lay out the interiors of his locations — usually through tracking shots and crane shots in which the camera prowls, cat-like, through hallways and up and down staircases — so that viewers completely understand where each room is in relation to every other room. Wan then uses the viewer’s knowledge of the architectural layout of the space to build anticipation and tighten the narrative screws. A case in point is a scene involving a tent made out of blankets that is ominously positioned at the end of a long hallway. Wan puts the camera in a child’s bedroom and keeps the tent in frame but out-of-focus through an open door in the background, generating an incredible amount of suspense over what purpose the tent may hold within the narrative. Even better, he composes this shot, Polanski-like, so that only half of the tent can be seen in the frame. At the screening I attended, viewers were visibly trying to crane their necks around the frame of the bedroom door onscreen. Wan, an Australian director of Malaysian-Chinese descent, is arguably the only director making Hollywood genre movies today who possesses this level of visual mastery and it’s high time he was recognized for the being the auteur that he is.

johnnie-to-three

The old-fashioned virtues of mise-en-scene can, of course, be readily found in contemporary genre films made outside of the U.S. — notably in Asian genre fare such as Na Hong-Jin’s The Wailing from South Korea and Johnnie To’s Three from Hong Kong. The latter film, a thriller set entirely in a hospital, recently had an under-publicized and too-brief run in a few major U.S. cities (including in Chicago at the AMC River East) and viewers who caught it on the big screen should consider themselves lucky — it reaffirms why To is the best at what he does. The plot centers on a crime boss, Shun (Wallace Chung), who has shot himself in the head during a police standoff before the movie’s narrative proper begins. In spite of the seriousness of his injury, Shun, handcuffed to a gurney, refuses surgery in the hospital’s Emergency Room in hopes that his minions will soon show up to rescue him. Again shades of Rio Bravo abound, not only in terms of plot (a criminal under police supervision waits to be sprung by accomplices while being holed up in a claustrophobic location) but also in terms of theme. Three is a virtual essay on how professional duty and moral responsibility intersect and sometimes come into conflict; the Cop (Louis Koo) watching over Shun and the Doctor (Zhao Wei) in whose care he’s been placed repeatedly clash heads in a location that is at once semi-public and semi-private, and over which neither has complete dominion. The A.V. Club’s Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, probably the most astute critic of To in the English language, memorably describes how the use of curtains to cordon off hospital beds “create proscenium arches for intrigue and misdirection.” No matter that Three falls apart in an over-the-top climactic shootout that involves dodgy CGI; To, like Wan, knows how to use location as character and the expressive theatricality of his sets is exhilarating to behold for most of the film’s running time.

720x405-green-room-GR_FP_band-gun_R_rgb

In spite of near-unanimous praise, Jeremy Saulnier’s indie thriller Green Room is a movie that spectacularly fails to capitalize on the cinematic possibilities inherent in its central location: a punk-rock club under siege. The conventional wisdom regarding Green Room is that it’s a throwback to “early John Carpenter” but this analogy only makes sense when one considers the film in terms of narrative and genre elements, not in terms of actual filmmaking technique (i.e., mise-en-scene, cinematography and editing). Carpenter’s breakthrough film Assault on Precinct 13 (itself an unofficial remake of, you guessed it, Rio Bravo) involved a Los Angeles police station besieged by gang members. But what often makes the Carpenter of Assault, and its follow-up Halloween, so great is the director’s masterful use of the widescreen frame. Carpenter’s 2.35:1 compositions cleverly use foreground and background elements to create tension and build suspense (think of Michael Meyers repeatedly popping up in the background of the frame in the early sections of Halloween). Saulnier, by contrast, treats his ‘Scope compositions as if he were shooting in the square Academy ratio — close-ups might as well be long shots and vice-versa. Worse, he’s incapable of, or unwilling to, coherently lay out the space of his central location like Wan or To. In shots that are often under-lit, murky and ugly, his musician heroes (R.I.P. Anton Yelchin!) attempt to battle their way past their neo-Nazi tormentors and out of the club towards freedom, but viewers are frequently unsure of where these characters are in relation to one other. This ensures that Saulnier is only capable of generating surprise — in the form of out-of-the-blue bursts of violence — as opposed to good old-fashioned suspense (to borrow a distinction that Alfred Hitchcock liked to make). Is it effective on a visceral level? Sure. But Cinema it ain’t.


Is the Pizza Cold?: The Slumber Party Massacre as Subversive Feminist Parody

The Slumber Party Massacre will be released on Blu-ray by Scream Factory tomorrow. The following essay is adapted from a lecture I gave about this disreputable film at Facets Multimedia in 2012.

The Slumber Party Massacre, produced by Roger Corman’s New World Pictures in 1982 during the height of the original “slasher movie” boom, has developed a well-deserved cult following over the past three decades. In the words of the critic Dave Kehr, the film seems “fascinatingly conflicted” because of the way it seems to simultaneously, and perhaps hypocritically, fulfill and critique the dubious conventions of the slasher subgenre. Some commentators have dismissed it as just another low-budget horror quickie, while many fans enjoy it as a “so bad it’s good” B-film. Still others see it as an intelligent deconstruction of the slasher, while some — including director Amy Holden Jones — view it not as a horror movie at all but rather as a comedy instead. Through tracing the lineage of the slasher film and providing a close examination of what exactly Jones does with its conventions, I hope to illuminate why The Slumber Party Massacre should be taken seriously even while simultaneously being appreciated for the hoot that it is.

Released in 1960, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho was the big bang of the slasher, the first horror movie to feature a sexually frustrated homicidal maniac killing young women with a butcher knife. Although other important slashers were made throughout the ’60s and early ’70s (most notably Bob Clark’s underrated Black Christmas), it wasn’t until John Carpenter’s Halloween in 1978, which itself owed a huge debt to Psycho, that the modern-day slasher was born. A lean, masterfully made thriller, Halloween was the most profitable independent film of any kind made up to that point and it spawned hundreds, if not thousands, of imitations in the years that immediately followed. All of these knock-offs, however, which tended to ramp up the gore while falling far short of Carpenter’s craftsmanship, were inferior to the original. Over the years, the conventions of the genre eventually crystallized into universally recognized rules: the mentally disturbed male killer picking off a group of attractive young women one by one over the course of a long night or weekend, an isolated and/or claustrophobic setting, the one-dimensional victim characters (the funny girl, the slut, the token minority, etc.) all of whom make stupid decisions (separating instead of sticking together, running upstairs or hiding in the basement instead of fleeing through the front door) and, of course, the lone survivor, who has by now come to be known in unofficial critical parlance as “the final girl.” I will argue that The Slumber Party Massacre was the first movie to come along and not just parody these conventions but subvert their disturbing ideological underpinnings from a feminist perspective.

Two of the more dubious conventions of the slasher genre are the use of subjective shots from the killer’s point-of-view and the sometimes related trope of not showing the killer’s face until the very end of the movie (if at all). Halloween begins with a legendary tracking shot of epically disturbing proportions as the viewer is asked to peer through the eyes of a character who breaks into a house, steals a butcher knife from the kitchen, puts a mask over his face and then stabs a young naked woman to death immediately after her boyfriend has departed the house post-coitus. It is not until Michael Myers, the character whose point-of-view viewers are privy to, leaves the house that the audience is presented with the first objective shot: the camera reveals that this killer is in fact a six-year-old boy. It should be noted that this opening scene is the only time in the entire movie that viewers are asked to see through the killer’s eyes and, even then, a big part of the reason why is the shock factor of revealing the character’s young age at the end of the scene. For the rest of the film, the audience is firmly on the side of the victims and not the killer (who, after flashing forward 15 years into the future, has escaped from a mental institution and returned to his old neighborhood to finish what he started). Because Myers wears a mask, we also never see his face as an adult until the end of the movie. Unfortunately, many of the exploitation merchants who ripped off Halloween took the “killer P.O.V.” concept from the film’s opening and decided to extend it to their entire movies. The end result, as in Friday the 13th (to name one prominent example), was that viewers were asked to primarily identify with the killer instead of the victims. Some critics, including Gene Siskel, in the classic Siskel and Ebert At the Movies episode titled “Women in Danger,” have persuasively posited that the slasher was a reaction against the rise of the women’s movement in the 1970s.

Both of the above conventions receive a refreshingly original workout in The Slumber Party Massacre, the original screenplay of which was written by feminist novelist Rita Mae Brown before being rewritten by Amy Jones. The Slumber Party Massacre certainly starts off like a typical slasher: Trish, a popular high-school girl, decides to throw a slumber party after being left home alone for the weekend by her parents. The party attendees soon find themselves being terrorized by the splendidly named “Russ Thorn,” a mass murderer who has recently escaped from prison and whose weapon of choice is a large power drill. Atypical for the genre, Jones makes it a point to show Thorn’s face in the movie early on and he comes across as a pathetic, middle-aged sad sack, thus arguably robbing him of the near God-like powers imbued in most movie serial killers. Jones also studiously avoids killer P.O.V. shots — although there are many “false scares” throughout the movie that involve what the viewer assumes is the killer’s P.O.V. but which turns out to be that of an innocuous character instead. While such false scares are, of course, ubiquitous in modern horror, Jones piles them on top of one another in such creative ways (my favorite involves the creation of a peephole in a door) and to such an absurd degree that they end up becoming the film’s strongest parodic element.

The barely concealed subtext of most slasher films is that the mysterious, faceless killer is sexually frustrated at best and impotent at worst; the idea is that he can only achieve release through the act of murder, which most often involves the employment of a big phallic knife. The murder scenes can thus be seen as a symbolic form of rape as it is frequently the promiscuous female characters who tend to die first after inflaming the killer’s sense of sexual frustration through their “provocative” behavior. This often leads to the unfortunate and reactionary moral that these young women have in fact been “asking for it” and that it is precisely their sexual promiscuity that has led to their untimely deaths. The Slumber Party Massacre humorously makes this subtext explicitly clear and then promptly subverts it: in the most infamous shot of the film (and one that inspired the equally notorious poster art), Thorn is seen from behind, his large drill dangling between his legs while a female victim cowers in fear in front of him. When viewers finally hear Thorn speak at the end of the film, he actually says, “You know you want it” to another potential victim. Shortly thereafter, when the women band together and finally decide to fight back, Thorn is killed only after being symbolically (and fittingly) castrated when one of them chops his drill bit in half with a machete. If I’m making this sound “academic,” believe me, it’s not. When seen with a group of people, this climactic scene never fails to produce screams of both fear and laughter.

While most discerning viewers will “get” Brown and Jones’ feminist angle, they still might be put off by the stilted acting and paper-thin characterization. I would argue however that any attempts to make the characters more “three dimensional” would only make the film resemble the bad horror movies it is deftly sending up (and who really wants to see a movie like this running any longer than its refreshingly fleet 78 minutes anyway?). The filmmakers’ approach to characterization is to take the typical female victim characters of the genre and have them behave more like how we’re used to seeing young men portrayed: these girls play basketball, are obsessed with baseball scores and statistics, look at pornography and repeatedly dominate their weak and ineffectual male counterparts both physically and intellectually. But because The Slumber Party Massacre was produced by Roger Corman, there is also a certain quotient of nudity, another staple of the genre, that must be met. Even in this area, though, Jones arguably succeeds in subverting the convention by making it transparently obvious that she does have a quota to fill. Early on there is a requisite post-basketball-practice shower scene in which Jones’ camera tracks alongside her female characters as they engage in superficial dialogue. At one point, Jones egregiously and hilariously tilts the camera down to show off a character’s nicely shaped ass. It’s as if she’s saying “Okay, this is what I have to do and therefore I’m going to be as obvious as possible in how I go about it.” (Jean-Luc Godard essentially did the same thing with a nude Brigitte Bardot in the opening of Le Mepris.) Similarly, in a scene where two teenage boys spy on the slumber partyers as they change into their pajamas, Jones essentially retards the inherent titillation factor by having the boys speak and act in such a childish manner throughout (“I don’t think we’ve been giving Kim the attention she deserves!”) that it seems as if she is chiding an assumed male viewer.

The Slumber Party Massacre is a fascinating relic of a bygone era, the era of my own vanished youth. Although, like most Corman-produced movies of its time, its initial theatrical release was extremely limited, the film gained new life on home video. At the dawn of the VHS era, when horror movies lived and died by their video box art, the clever VHS-cover artwork for The Slumber Party Massacre soon made the film a cult hit. Although I was a young horror movie aficionado in the mid-1980s and remember the VHS cover very well, I somehow never managed to see the film itself until a couple years ago when it was released as part of a triple-disc DVD set from Shout! Factory (alongside of its inevitable and inferior sequels). I immediately recognized it as the very best of the post-Halloween slashers, not only for its feminist critique but for its goofy humor and warmth as well. Unlike most movies of its kind, The Slumber Party Massacre refuses to have contempt for its characters and portrays them as a group of fun and likable girls instead. This is epitomized by my favorite scene in the film: the hapless heroines, expecting a pizza delivery, open the front door of Trish’s home only to find the delivery boy standing there, dead, with his eyes drilled out. A few minutes later, one of the girls touches his lifeless corpse and remarks that it’s cold. “But is the pizza?” asks another, who then promptly opens the cardboard box and begins to enjoy a slice. Every time I watch the film I feel something like a sense of love for both that character (I would’ve done the same thing, sister!) as well as the women who created her.


Happy Halloween from White City Cinema!

For this year’s jack-o’-lantern, I decided to try and carve a face identical to one that can be seen in the opening credit sequence of a certain Halloween-themed movie of renown. I think I did pretty good.

100_2723


“Saint Godard” vs. the Prince of Darkness

As a postscript to my John Carpenter post from two days ago, below is an intriguing screen capture from the director’s 1987 horror film Prince of Darkness. I was struck by the fact that the creepy church that serves as the movie’s central location was named “Saint Godard’s.” Could Carpenter have a broader frame of cinematic reference than he has typically let on in interviews? Or perhaps he just had a cheeky production designer? Or should the fact that St. Godard’s contains a portal to hell mean that this homage should really be interpreted as an anti-homage? Or is it a humorous comment on the fact that, as far as many film critics are concerned, Godard is a saint while Carpenter is seen as the “prince of darkness”? I’m willing to bet that the first option I posited is closest to the truth; it’s probably just an affectionate homage from one master to another. After all, Carpenter’s mixture of 35mm film stock and video (the latter of which can be seen below) is quite Godardian and was unusual to see in a Hollywood movie at the time.


He Said/She Said Director Profile: John Carpenter

This director profile of John Carpenter is yet another joint-venture of White City Cinema and my wife Jillian’s feminist blog Exploring Feminisms. This is our first time discussing the body of work of a filmmaker rather than a single film.

MGS: So we just finished watching virtually all of John Carpenter’s movies together and I guess I’d like to start off this “director profile” by discussing how we got on this particular kick. When I was a kid in the early to mid-Eighties I remember that Halloween, Escape from New York and The Thing were all a big deal to me. Those movies ruled cable television at the time and I watched them over and over. Then, when Prince of Darkness came out in the fall of 1987, I saw it in the theater as a budding 12-year old horror movie aficionado, fully aware that I was seeing the “new John Carpenter film.” I also saw They Live the next year and loved that too. Then, I started watching serious art films as a teenager and kind of lost touch with what Carpenter was doing until a couple years ago. I think the motivation for our retrospective was when we bought Halloween on blu-ray. I hadn’t seen it in years and probably never in its original aspect ratio and I was just blown away by how great it is: the suspenseful, brilliantly edited set pieces, the elegant camera movements and, of course, that incredible, minimalist synthesizer score. It made me want to see and re-see all of his films. Do you remember your earliest impressions of Carpenter and what exactly hooked you during our recent retrospective?

JM: I can honestly say that growing up, I didn’t know who Carpenter was and though there was an awareness of his cultural presence, didn’t link his films together. I knew that I liked Halloween, but didn’t like, or really didn’t understand, They Live or Big Trouble in Little China, for example. I didn’t see a connecting thread or appreciate his abilities as a director until we began our Carpenter-kick, and that is where my interest snowballed. When you picked out movies for us to watch in our Netflix and Facets queues, I was constantly surprised at the films that I was aware of, but never knew that he directed. Do you see an interconnected thread throughout his films that is indicative of his directing style, apart from his often 80s-sounding synthesizer music?

MGS: Absolutely. The most obvious thread would be his mastery of (and unironic love for) genre filmmaking. The critic Kent Jones said the best thing about Carpenter, that he’s the last straightforward genre filmmaker in Hollywood and the only one who doesn’t look at genres as “museums to be plundered.” In other words, unlike, say, the Coen brothers or Quentin Tarantino, who self-consciously mash-up different genres or run genre conventions through a kind of post-modern blender, Carpenter plays the conventions straight and true, as if he were making his films in the 1950s. Obviously, the genre he’s most known for is horror. But, in a way, a lot of his films can be characterized as modern-day or futuristic takes on the western as well; virtually all of Carpenter’s movies follow one of two basic western-style plots: the group of people who become trapped in an isolated, claustrophobic location who find themselves being menaced by an enemy from without, or the group of people who are forced to enter a foreign, hostile territory and must battle their way out from within. It seems that most aspects of Carpenter’s visual style flow organically from these archetypal stories (the use of cross-cutting to generate suspense, an expressive use of Cinemascope framing featuring geometric groupings of actors, etc.)

Kurt Russell, obviously, is the ultimate Carpenter actor and can be seen as the director’s alter ego: Snake Plissken in Escape From New York, R.J. MacReady in The Thing and Jack Burton in Big Trouble in Little China are all very similar and yet very distinct. They are all anti-authoritarian “lone wolf” types who nonetheless differ drastically in terms of personality and morality. Snake is Russell doing Clint Eastwood, Jack is Russell doing John Wayne (hilariously, I might add), and Mac is essentially Russell being Russell. This reminds me – it seems you and I agree that the real golden age for Carpenter was between 1978 and 1986. Everything from Halloween to Big Trouble in Little China is just incredible (with the partial exception of Christine, although that has its virtues too) and nobody really appreciated what he was doing at the time. After that, there’s a drop off in overall quality although he still does good work intermittently up through the present. So, my next question for you is what do you think Carpenter’s best and worst films are? More specifically, what do you see as Carpenter’s strengths and weaknesses as a filmmaker?

JM: Without a doubt, The Thing is his best film, followed by Halloween, then The Ward.

The Thing: very much ahead of its time. It’s shockingly scary, even for today’s standards of visual and gore overload.

Halloween: one of the first extended scenes from a murderer’s point of view and, though it was only his third full length film, it’s difficult not to appreciate how steadfast his style has been throughout the years.

Village of the Damned: let me clarify by first stating that this isn’t in my top ten, but it does a great job of being a classic horror film by making you feel really uncomfortable, and it’s difficult to make an audience feel so consistently out of control.

The Ward: an awesome comeback after a few not so inspired films and like a few of his other flicks, such as Halloween, it has a really strong female lead.

Regarding what I consider to be his less than perfect films, I can’t criticize them too vehemently because I think they all have their strong points. Ghosts of Mars, for example, is missing a more fleshed out story, but how can you not love Pam Grier? Similarly, Christine falls into the same category where large chunks of information are left out, jumping from scene to scene when there should be some meat in the middle. However, the car, especially when it’s on a rampage, is terrifying.

Another film that had such potential but fell flat was Pro-life from the Masters of Horror television series, which featured one of our joint favorites, Ron Perlman. Though I am pro-choice and did work at Planned Parenthood, I do try to keep an open mind when it comes to anything even slightly anti-choice in art. Given that this is a horror film, I was hoping that whichever way it went, pro or anti-choice, it was going to be entertaining. All in all, the film had a lot of holes in it; some scenes were gruesome to the utmost, and other scenes made it obvious that it was a TV movie. As the movie ended, though it did slant towards a pro-choice point of view, I kept thinking of ways that it could have been made better.

Overall, I think he has two strengths that attract me to his films. The first is that he’s really good at scaring the audience through gore, the unknown, and even downright creepy music. Two: even though their butts are often hanging out, he has a good amount of tough female leads, i.e. The Ward, Halloween, The Fog, and Ghosts of Mars. I’m sure that you disagree with some of my picks, so what are some of your favorites and not-so-favorites?

MGS: Well, I agree Pro-Life is bad all around, which is interesting because it obviously carries the Carpenter stamp. It falls into that group-of-people-under-siege storyline that I brought up earlier. But, as Pauline Kael would tell you, just because a director’s signature is identifiable doesn’t mean the work is inherently valuable. I’m also in full agreement that The Thing is his masterpiece. Of course, we also saw it under the most optimum conditions imaginable: a 35mm ‘Scope print at a midnight show with a packed audience, which is not true of the other Carpenter films in our retrospective. And you’re right that the gore in that film is both shocking and unbelievably effective. I couldn’t believe how gory it still looks after all these years. A big part of that, I think, is realizing that you’re looking at good old-fashioned effects and make-up, which have a thick, heavy, moist presence on screen (in contrast to say, the thinness/cartoonishness of CGI). Halloween is also right up there for me, obviously. My other favorite is Starman. That’s a film I saw and liked as a kid but was just floored to realize how good it still is as an adult. I see it as kind of love story version of The Thing (in much the same way that Big Trouble is the comedy version of Escape from New York)! There’s a real sense of wonder to that film, a feeling of what it’s like to look at the world through truly innocent eyes that goes much deeper than the faux-innocence of, say, Steven Spielberg. The scene where Jeff Bridges brings the deer back to life made me want to cry and the ending of the film – the final interaction between Bridges and Karen Allen – is just sublime.

I’m surprised by your singling out Village of the Damned. I actually liked the first 30 minutes of it but, as soon as the children appear and the mystery becomes more concrete, I thought it became much less interesting. Also, Kirstie Alley’s performance strikes me as one of the weakest to be found in any Carpenter film. In general, I don’t think that he’s the best director of actors. I think he needs to work with strong actors who kind of already understand the spirit of what he’s doing, like, say, Kurt Russell. I’m glad that you like The Ward though. I too thought it was pretty great, a kind of b-movie version of Shutter Island centered on a female protagonist. I felt like he was really returning to his low-budget roots with that one and I think he directed the hell out of it. I’m also glad you brought up the female protagonists; Natasha Henstridge was a really appealing action heroine in Ghosts of Mars and I liked the chemistry between her and Ice Cube. But that script was so lame; it was just one endless shootout after another and the whole thing quickly became noisy, monotonous and irritating. For me, it’s a toss up between that and Vampires for the title of worst Carpenter film. However, having said that, we saw a few Carpenter films that were very pleasant surprises for me. Chief among them is probably Memoirs of an Invisible Man. I always assumed that would be one of the low points of his career but, after finally seeing it, I was surprised at how well it worked as a light comedy thriller. There are a few set pieces in it that are really excellent, like the scene where Chevy Chase as the invisible man uses the body of a passed out drunk to hail a cab and catch a ride across town. I think of it as Carpenter’s version of North By Northwest. Any last thoughts you’d like to add?

JM: Now that our Carpenter-thon is over, I am left with a profound sense of respect for him as a director, writer and cheesy synthesizer musician, and possibly as someone who may even stick his toes into the feminist pond.

Jill’s Top Ten John Carpenter Films
10. Christine
9. Escape from L.A.
8. Memoirs of an Invisible Man
7. Starman
6. The Fog
5. Escape from New York
4. Someone’s Watching Me!
3. The Ward
2. Halloween
1. The Thing

MGS’ Top Ten John Carpenter Films
10. Memoirs of an Invisible Man
9. In the Mouth of Madness
8. They Live
7. The Ward
6. Assault on Precinct 13
5. Big Trouble in Little China
4. Escape from New York
3. Halloween
2. Starman
1. The Thing


%d bloggers like this: