IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: IT FOLLOWS (2014)

1

it-follows-movie-poster

All the rage this year for horror fans has been the Netflix TV show STRANGER THINGS (2016), and with good reason:  it’s a phenomenal show.  Among the many things it gets right is its near-perfect homage to the horror films of the 1980s, especially the films of John Carpenter.

But for me, before STRANGER THINGS, a film that also captured the spirit of John Carpenter’s early works was the stylish horror flick IT FOLLOWS (2014).  While not a clear homage to the 1980s— in fact, it’s unclear when this film takes place, and this timelessness seems to have been done on purpose— the film definitely has that 1980s horror vibe.

In fact, there are several specific shots that bring to mind John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN (1978).  The neighborhood where the main characters live looks similar to Laurie Strode’s neighborhood in HALLOWEEN, and there’a scene where main character Jay sits in a classroom listening to her teacher drone on before looking out the window and seeing a threat.  There’s a similar scene in HALLOWEEN.  In that movie, Laurie looks out the window and sees Michael Myers’ car.  In IT FOLLOWS, Jay looks out the window and sees the old woman walking towards her.

IT FOLLOWS is a stylish, sexy horror movie that ranks as one of the best horror films to come out in the past ten years.

The film opens with a teenage girl fleeing from some unseen terror.  The next morning she turns up brutally murdered.

The action switches to 19 year-old Jay Height (Maika Monroe) on a date with Hugh (Jake Weary), a guy she is really interested in.  Gotta do a better job picking your dates, Jay.  After the two have sex, Hugh drugs Jay, and when she awakes, she is tied to a wheelchair.  Hugh explains that he’s not going to hurt her, but that he restrained her so he could tell her the truth:  he is being followed by some unknown entity, and now by having sex with Jay, he has passed on the curse to her, and if she wants to get rid of the curse, she’ll have to have sex with someone else.

Can someone say padded cell?

That’s certainly what Jay is thinking, until a naked woman shows up and starts slowly walking towards her and Hugh.  This entity only has to touch you, and you die, so as long as you outrun it, you’re safe, but it never stops pursuing you.  Ever.

Hugh quickly whisks Jay away from the woman and brings her back home, but he tells her to remember all that he told her.  Jay thinks he’s nuts and a creep, until once again, this time an elderly woman- who no one else seems to see- shows up at her school and follows her, causing Jay to up and run from the building.

Jay confides in her sister Kelly (Lili Sepe), and with the help of their friends, Paul (Keir Gilchrist), Yara (Olivia Luccardi), and Greg (Daniel Zovatto), they vow to get to the bottom of this mystery and protect Jay’s life in the process.

While this may sound like just another bad teenager horror movie, IT FOLLOWS is anything but bad and recycled.  It’s exceedingly fresh and effective.

Let’s start with the entity, the “monster” that is inflicting harm on the teenagers.  This entity is unlike what we’ve seen in horror movies of late – it’s not a demon or a ghost or an alien, but then again, maybe it is.  The film never quite defines just what “it” is, and this is part of what makes this movie work so well.  It doesn’t need to define its villain.

What this force does is effective enough on its own.  It simply walks—never runs— towards its intended victim, and when it touches them, it kills them.  So, if you’re the hunted, like Jay, you have to constantly outrun this thing because it never stops, which reminded me a little bit of the premise from the first TERMINATOR movie way back when.  The fear here is its relentlessness.  Sure, it moves like a turtle, but it never stops, which means, eventually people like Jay are going to grow weary, tired, fall asleep, what have you, and that thing will catch up to them and kill them.

It also looks different to everyone who sees it, and to those it’s not hunting, it’s invisible.   This might not sound like much in the scare department, but you’ll be surprised at how creepy the image of an old woman walking listlessly towards the camera can be.

Which brings me to another thing I loved about IT FOLLOWS:  its simplicity.  Things here work on such an unpretentious level, and the movie generates scares so effortlessly just by having people walking towards their victims, it’s refreshing and for those of us who love horror it’s a heck of a lot of fun.

Writer/director David Robert Mitchell succeeds in making an extremely stylish and terrifying horror movie.  He also captures the feel of run down Detroit neighborhoods which adds to the mood of this one.

Mitchell’s work here clearly calls to mind horror movies from the 1970s and 1980s, especially the films of John Carpenter, and the look of this movie is helped a lot by its masterful music score by Rich Vreeland, listed in the credits by his nickname “Disasterpeace.”  The music has a major impact on this movie and is reminiscent of the electronic scores of John Carpenter.

The cast here is also excellent.  Maika Monroe is terribly sexy as Jay, and she succeeds in making her both strong and vulnerable at the same time.  Lili Sepe is just as good as Jay’s sister Kelly.

Keir Gilchrist nails his role as Paul, the slightly nerdy friend who has a thing for Jay and vows to protect her.  Likewise, Olivia Luccardi is excellent as Yara, as is Daniel Zovatto as their street smart friend Greg.

In addition to being a creepy horror movie, David Robert Mitchell’s script also works on a symbolic level.  The characters by having sex pass on the “curse” to the person they have sex with, like an STD or the AIDS virus, and like AIDS, while the entity can be controlled, it can never be eradicated.  It keeps following you forever.

There’s also a weird time element going on in the film which might be a distraction for some folks but wasn’t for me.  The film looks like it takes place in the 1970s/80s, and some of the action in this film backs this up:  the characters watch television on old TV sets which use antennas, no one uses cell phones, the teens play board games rather than video games, and the cars aren’t the newest models.  However, in several scenes, Yara is definitely reading from kindle device.

Writer/director David Robert Mitchell has said he did these things because he wanted this film to be timeless, and I don’t have a problem with this.  It’s been done before.  One of the most famous horror series of all time, the Universal FRANKENSTEIN series, for example, never defined its timeline, and those films have always worked.

IT FOLLOWS is one of the more satisfying horror films I’ve seen in a long while.  To generate horror isn’t easy.  Those of us who write horror know this firsthand.  It’s certainly easier doing it with shock scenes and blood and gore, and so when someone comes along like David Robert Mitchell in this case and makes a film that is as unsettling as this one is with so few visual effects and traditional scares, that’s kinda special.

Definitely check out IT FOLLOWS, but if you look out your window and  see someone slowly walking towards you, someone that nobody else seems to be noticing, take my advice:  run!

—END—

 

 

Advertisements

Season One of Netflix’ STRANGER THINGS Perfect Mix of Horror and Nostalgia

0

stranger-things

STRANGER THINGS (2016) premiered on Netflix earlier this year to instant acclaim from critics and audiences alike, which is no surprise since it’s one of the best new shows on television.

It’s one of those rarities of rarities in that its eight episode first season was pretty much perfect.  Nearly everything in this show worked and worked well.  And I say first season because it’s already been renewed for a second season.

STRANGER THINGS takes place in the 1980s, which is the first fun thing about this show. It captures the mood and look of the 80s perfectly, from vintage movie posters like from John Carpenter’s THE THING (1982) to the hairstyles, clothing, and sets, from the old style televisions to land line telephones.

The whole thing plays out like a long lost John Carpenter movie.  Even the music score by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein is reminiscent of Carpenter’s film scores.

There are a ton of other 1980s film references and homages as well. So many in fact I could write an entire column just on its 1980s horror homages alone, from the episode names themselves, like “The Body” a reference to the Stephen King novella, to character names, to other neat touches like having the sheriff’s uniform and his vehicle as well as the deputies’ uniforms being identical to the ones used in JAWS (1975).  Okay, so that one’s a 70s reference.  So, if Sheriff Jim Hopper’s uniform had you thinking of Roy Scheider’s Chief Brody, there’s a reason for that!

STRANGER THINGS takes place in a small town in the 1980s.  It opens with a man running in panic from some unseen threat inside what looks to be some sort of research or government building.  We hear growls, and the man is snatched away by an invisible presence.

The action switches to four middle school friends.  Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo), Lucas Sinclair (Caleb McLaughlin), and Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) are playing Dungeons and Dragons in Mike’s basement.  After their game, they bike home.

Alone, Will sees what looks like a monster in the road, and he flees as fast as he can back to his home.  When he gets there, no one is home.  The unseen monster pursues Will into his house.

Later, when Will’s mom Joyce (Winona Ryder) and older brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) come home, they discover that Will is missing.  Joyce goes to their sheriff, Jim Hopper (David Harbour) and demands that he find her son.  Hopper advises her to take a deep breath, that nothing sinister ever happens in their town, and that he will look for her son. Hopper actually has deep wounds when it comes to children, since his own daughter recently passed away from cancer.

The news of Willl’s disappearance rattles the town.  Friends Mike, Dustin, and Lucas decide that they have to be the ones to find their missing friend.  One night in the woods while they are searching for him, they find a mysterious girl who’s about their age wandering in the woods.  She says she is running from some bad men, and so they take her back to Mike’s home, where they hide her in his basement.  Her name is Eleven (Millie Bobbie Brown), and she also seems to know about Will, as she tells them he is still alive.  More than this, she possesses certain powers which Mike and his friends cannot ignore.

Meanwhile, Joyce receives a strange phone call in which she hears weird cackling sounds, but she’s also convinced she heard her son’s voice on the line. She believes he’s still alive.  Her oldest son Jonathan blames himself for Will’s disappearance, because he wasn’t home that night, and he makes it his mission as well to find his little brother.

And while he initially expected this to be a simple case, the more Sheriff Hopper investigates, the more he realizes that something very sinister and deadly is descending upon his town, especially since the clues lead to a top secret government research base located just outside their town run by a shady scientist Dr. Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine).

There are so many cool things about STRANGER THINGS it’s difficult to know where to start.  If you’re a 1980s horror fan, you can have a field day with the show based on its references to that decade alone.

But aside from that, the story itself is a strong one, and it’s tight.  It fits perfectly within the eight episode season.  There’s no fat on this monster, and there aren’t any dull episodes either.  (Hear that, FEAR THE WALKING DEAD?)  STRANGER THINGS starts out intense and it stays that way, never letting up.  And the intensity actually increases during the final couple of episodes.

The main story of Will’s disappearance works and is the force which drives this series along.  Who isn’t drawn into a story about a missing child?  And then it builds.  What exactly is going on inside that strange government facility?  What is Dr. Brenner up to?  What exactly is that monster that is on the loose and where did it come from?  Where’s Will?  What is up with Eleven?

And the characters and the actors who play them are phenomenal.

When talking about STRANGER THINGS though, you have to start with the kids.  Finn Wolfhard who plays Mike, Gaten Matarazzo who plays Dustin, and Caleb McLaughlin who plays Lucas, are all excellent.  Wolfhard is also going to be starring in the upcoming remake of Stephen King’s IT.  Noah Schnapp who plays Will is also very good.

But the best performance by a child actor in STRANGER THINGS is Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven. Brown is amazing in this role.  Eleven is the most interesting character in the series, as you don’t know much about her at all at first and the more you learn about her, the more interesting she becomes.  The best part of Brown’s performance is she captures Eleven’s sensitive side.  Her scenes with Mike are tender and innocent.  Of course, she can make an effective bad ass as well when she has to use her powers.

Natalia Dyer is very good as Mike’s older sister Nancy, especially later on as her character becomes more involved in the hunt for the monster.  Likewise, Charlie Heaton is excellent as Will’s older brother Jonathan.    I thought Heaton’s performance was one of the best in the series.  I really enjoyed his scenes later in the season when he teams up with Nancy looking for the monster.

I’ve seen David Harbour in a bunch of movies, from the Daniel Craig Bond flick QUANTUM OF SOLACE (2008) to this year’s SUICIDE SQUAD (2016), but I’ve never seen him as good as he was here as Sheriff Jim Hopper, with the possible exception of his chilling portrayal of a sadistic kidnapper in the Liam Neeson movie  A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES (2014).  Harbour was excellent in that movie as well.

But this is a terrific role for Harbour.  He’s perfect as the responsible yet haunted small town sheriff, the man who does his job well in spite of the ongoing pain of his young daughter’s death.  One of the reasons I enjoyed Harbour so much here in STRANGER THINGS compared to other things he’s done is simply because a lot of his previous roles he played weasels and jerks. It was fun to see him play a hero for once.

For me, though, the best performance by far in this show belongs to Winona Ryder as Will’s mom Joyce.  Honestly, I’ve never been much of a Winona Ryder fan.  She blew me away in this show, and for me, this is easily the best thing I’ve seen Ryder do.  She’s flawless as the panicked mother who refuses to believer her son is dead.  She’s terrific to watch in this series.

And Matthew Modine makes for an effective cold-hearted scientist as Dr. Martin Brenner.

The monster here is pretty cool looking too.  It reminded me of the CLOVERFIELD monster’s baby cousin.  And it was just as frightening.

STRANGER THINGS was created by Matt and Ross Duffer, who work under the name The Duffer brothers, and they deserve a lot of credit here.  They also wrote and directed most of the episodes.

I loved STRANGER THINGS from start to finish and can’t wait for Season 2.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986)

0

big_trouble_in_little_china_poster

BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986) marked the fourth time director John Carpenter worked with actor Kurt Russell,  following  ELVIS (1979), ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981), and THE THING (1982).

Whereas time has been kind to both ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and THE THING—THE THING is often ranked #1 on horror fans’ “Favorite Horror Movie” lists— when they first came out, neither film was a hit.  In fact, THE THING was a box office bomb.

Kurt Russell wasn’t faring much better in 1986.  He had just come off a string of films that had performed very poorly at the box office, and the story goes that he was so worried about his box office slump that he told Carpenter to get someone else to star in BIG TROUBLE, but Carpenter told him not to worry, that he wanted him to star in the movie.

I wish I could say that BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA was a huge hit and rejuvenated the careers of both these artists, but that’s not what happened.  Like their previous few films, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA also tanked at the box office.

But like ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and THE THING, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA has enjoyed a resurgence.  Fans nowadays like this movie.   I saw it when it first came out, and I did not like it.  I liked it so little that I never bothered to watch it again.

Until now.

And that’s because I’ve been hearing fans say good things about the movie, and I thought it was high time I gave it a second viewing.

BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA is a strange movie.  It’s an action adventure that takes place in Chinatown, San Francisco and involves Chinese mysticism, which gives the film a supernatural element.  It’s also a comedy, meaning that the entire thing is played for laughs.

Truck driver Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) and his friend Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) go to the airport to pick up Wang’s girlfriend, Miao Yin (Suzee Pai).  While there, Jack flirts with a woman named Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall) which provides him with a few minutes of fun before a Chinese gang shows up and kidnaps Miao.

Jack and Wang give chase, but the gang eludes them and gets away with Miao.  Wang vows to get her back, and Jack agrees to help him.  I guess no one thought to call the police. Anyway, Gracie Law shows up at their doorstep and reveals that she’s a lawyer who knows all about the Chinese mystical underworld, and she wants to help Jack and Wang as well.  They also receive help from Egg Shen (Victor Wong), a bus driver who’s also an expert on Chinese sorcery.

They need all this help because Miao has been kidnapped by David Lo Pan (James Hong), a two thousand year-old sorcerer who’s cursed to walk the earth without his physical body.  To lift the curse, he has to marry a girl with green eyes, which is why he kidnapped Miao, because she has green eyes.  It turns out that Gracie Law also has green eyes.  Suddenly Lo Pan has more choices than he knows what to do with.  Life is good.  For a while, anyway, as soon Jack and Wang show up, and they’re all about taking down Lo Pan and his supernatural army.  Good luck with that!

As I said, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA is played for laughs.  There isn’t a serious bone in this one’s body.

At first, I was really enjoying this one, and during the movie’s first half, I thought my opinion of it would change.  What wasn’t to like?  It was full of 1980s nostalgia, it had Kurt Russell, lots of colorful martial art action scenes, monsters, supernatural goings on, and a neat music score by John Carpenter.

But midway through, the movie runs out of gas, and I remembered why I didn’t really like this one back in 1986.  The martial arts action scenes start to get repetitive, and a major reason why is they’re simply not very good.

The script by Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein also fizzles.  Early on, things are mysterious, and the dialogue is rapid fire funny, but later, once you know Lo Pan’s story, it’s pretty ridiculous, even it if is played for laughs.  I’ve seen more believable plots on SCOOBY DOO.  And the humor definitely loses its edge, mostly because after a while it’s simply Jack and Wang dealing with one unbelivable situation after another.

The film definitely gets goofier as it goes along, becoming flat our silly rather than focusing on the action and the adventure.  Had this one had more of an edge to it, and kept the humor in the background, it would have worked better.

Kurt Russell based Jack Burton on John Wayne, and it’s apparent right from the get-go. Russell is fun to watch here because he really does capture the Duke’s onscreen persona. Similarly, Russell based Snake Plissken in ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK on Clint Eastwood, which is also clearly apparent.

bigtroublelittlechinakurtrussell

Kurt Russell as Jack Burton in BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986)

Things would change for Russell with his next movie, the hit comedy OVERBOARD (1987) in which he starred with Goldie Hawn.  And a series of hits would follow Russell over the next five years.

While Russell is entetaining in BIG TROUBLE, Dennis Dun is just OK as Wang Chi.  He lacks Russell’s charisma and larger than life qualities, which is too bad because one of the movie’s jokes is that Jack thinks he’s the hero, yet he’s constantly messing things up, and it’s Wang who’s the true hero in the movie, but at times, Dun doesn’t make this notion all that believable.

Kim Cattrall is the epitome of 1980s actresses, and she fits right in here.  She’s got the 80s hairstyle, and she plays Gracie Law with a mixture of strength and ditziness.  She could easily walk into the CHEERS bar for a drink.

bigtroubleinlittlechinakimcattrall

Kim Cattrall as Gracie Law in BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986).

Victor Wong is sufficiently knowledgable as Egg Shen, but James Hong is rather ineffective as main baddie David Lo Pan.  He spends most of the time behind make-up and special effects.

The special effects are OK.  They run hot and cold, and they’re really cheesy.  I guess that’s part of the charm for some people.

So, after my second viewing, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA remains not one of my favorite John Carpenter movies. Sadly, Carpenter would follow this up with the even worse PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1987).  It would be a little while before Carpenter would find his stride again, and that would be with IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS (1995).

BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA means well.  It’s got tons of energy, and everyone looks like they’re having a grand old time.  But as the action becomes flat out goofy, the story doesn’t hold up, and the script doesn’t match the film’s inanity, as the dialogue and situations are never that funny, it all becomes rather tedious long before the end credits roll.

The trouble in Little China just isn’t all that big.

—END—

THE HORROR JAR: JOHN CARPENTER/KURT RUSSELL MOVIES

1

Welcome back to THE HORROR JAR, that column where we look at lists about horror movies.  Up today:  John Carpenter/Kurt Russell movies.  Yup, a look at the movies in which horror master John Carpenter directed former child star turned action hero Kurt Russell.

escape from new york poster

ELVIS (1979)

Directed:  John Carpenter

Screenplay:  Anthony Lawrence

Elvis Presley:  Kurt Russell

Gladys Presley:  Shelley Winters

Vernon Presley:  Bing Russell

Priscilla Presley:  Season Hubley

Music:  Joe Renzetti

Running Time:  150 minutes

Yup, the first time Carpenter and Russell worked together was on the made-for-TV movie about the life of Elvis Presley.  Pretty good bio pic, and Russell makes for a very good Elvis.  Interestingly, Elvis’ father Vernon Presley is played by Russell’s real life dad Bing Russell, and Elvis’ wife Priscilla Presley was played by Russell’s real life wife at the time, Season Hubley.  All in the family, I guess.

 

ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981)

Director:  John Carpenter

Screenplay:  John Carpenter and Nick Castle

Snake Plissken: Kurt Russell

Hauk:  Lee Van Cleef

Cabbie:  Ernest Borgnine

Maggie:  Adrienne Barbeau

Brain:  Harry Dean Stanton

The Duke:  Isaac Hayes

President: Donald Pleasence

Music:  John Carpenter and Alan Howarth

Running Time:  99 minutes

snake plissken

Carpenter’s next movie after his horror hits HALLOWEEN (1978) and THE FOG (1980).  Not really well received upon its initial release, this dark action thriller has nonetheless aged well.  Actually, looking back, Carpenter clearly was a victim of his own success.  After his megahit and masterpiece HALLOWEEN, Carpenter made three straight quality films:  THE FOG (1980), ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981) and THE THING (1982).  All three were panned by critics at the time, yet today they are regarded as some of the finest genre films of the past 40 years. In fact, for some, his version of THE THING is the best horror movie ever.

ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK was a milestone film for Kurt Russell, pretty much the movie that broke him out of his previous persona as being a teen actor in Disney movies.  Carpenter wrote the role of Snake Plissken for Clint Eastwood, and when Russell got the part, he played the role with Eastwood in mind.

Fun film, with yet another quality music score by director Carpenter.  It’s nearly as good as his HALLOWEEN score.

 

THE THING (1982)

Director:  John Carpenter

Screenplay:  Bill Lancaster, based on the story “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell, Jr.

Macready:  Kurt Russell

Blair:  Wilford Brimley

Childs:  Keith David

Nauls:  T.K. Carter

Palmer:  David Clennon

Dr. Copper:  Richard Dysart

Garry:  Donald Moffat

Music:  Ennio Morricone

Running Time:  109 minutes

Critically panned when it first came out in 1982, Carpenter’s THE THING is now regarded as a horror/science fiction classic.  For many horror film buffs it’s their favorite horror movie of all time.  A flop at the box office, it left my local theater within a week and I was not able to see it.  I caught it several months later when it appeared on something called a”VHS cassette.”  Yes, it was 1983 and the VHS age was just beginning.  I wasn’t the only one who saw it on home video.  Suddenly everyone I knew was talking about THE THING, and it’s a film that since then has never looked back.

Kurt_Russell_and_1982_The_Thing

Kurt Russell is excellent as Macready, in effect reprising his Snake Plissken tough guy persona, this time going up against a deadly alien monster from outer space.  Very scary flick, with gross-out special effects that were considered unspeakably over-the-top and tasteless back in 1982.  Now they’re regarded as some of the best effects of their time.

Curious, Carpenter did not provide the music for this one, as that honor went to composer Ennio Morricone, who’s responsible for the chilling score for this shocker.

 

BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986)

Director:  John Carpenter

Screenplay:  Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein

Jack Burton:  Kurt Russell

Gracie Law:  Kim Cattrall

Music:  John Carpenter and Alan Howarth

Running Time:  99 minutes

Silly action adventure has its fans.  I’m not one of them.  Kurt Russell and Kim Cattrall run afoul of Chinese gangs, martial arts, and the supernatural.  Mostly played for laughs.

 

ESCAPE FROM L.A. (1996)

Director:  John Carpenter

Screenplay:  John Carpenter, Debra Hill, and Kurt Russell

Snake Plissken:  Kurt Russell

Map To The Stars Eddie:  Steve Buscemi

Pipeline:  Peter Fonda

President:  Cliff Robertson

Cmmdr. Malloy:  Stacy Keach

Music:  John Carpenter and Shirley Walker

Running Time:  101 minutes

Forgettable sequel to ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK finds Snake Plissken this time getting into trouble in L.A. in an effort to once again help the U.S. government which once more seems to be the last thing Plissken really wants to be doing.

There you have it, the list of movies pairing director John Carpenter and actor Kurt Russell.  My two favorites are clearly ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981) and THE THING (1982).

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

 

 

 

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981)

0

Here’s my latest IN THE SPOOKLIGHT column, published in the April 2015 edition of the HWA Newsletter, on John Carpenter’s science fiction action thriller ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK.

Enjoy!escape-from-new-york poster

—Michael

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT

BY

MICHAEL ARRUDA

John Carpenter’s movies, especially his early ones, are defined by a distinctive directorial style that makes his films more creative than most, and ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981), his futuristic science fiction thriller, just might be his most imaginative film of all.

The epitome of John Carpenter’s work of course is his masterpiece, HALLOWEEN (1978), but his early films were all very good.  You can’t go wrong with DARK STAR (1974), ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (1976), HALLOWEEN (1978), THE FOG (1980), ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981), or THE THING (1982).  Carpenter would continue to make decent quality movies, some better than others, but it was these early films which defined Carpenter’s work for me.

ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981) is classic John Carpenter.  Chock full of style, its story of the island of Manhattan serving as a maximum security prison is about as far-fetched at you can get, which comes as no surprise since believable plots have never been a John Carpenter strong point.  But Carpenter’s signature touches are all over this one, and as such, it’s one of my favorite John Carpenter movies.

The story takes place in the “future” in the year 1997— gee, that went by fast!— and Manhattan is a maximum security prison with one simple rule:  once you go in, you never come out.  The President of the United States (Donald Pleasence) is on his way to an important summit to meet with the leaders of China and the Soviet Union (which of course would cease to exist before 1997, but to be fair to Carpenter, who in 1981 saw that coming?) when his Air Force One jet is hijacked and forced down into the streets of Manhattan.

Police Commissioner Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) decides to send in notorious convict Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) to rescue the president since he can move about unnoticed— unlike the police— although I’ve always wondered what happened to their undercover officers?— and he can get the job done.  Hauk promises Snake a full pardon if he rescues the president.  To cement the deal, Hauk implants poison capsules into Snake’s neck.  If he makes it back in time with the president, he’ll be given an antidote.  If not, it’s sayonara Snake!

Snake pilots a glider into New York and lands on top of the World Trade Center.  As he searches for the president, he learns from Cabbie (Ernest Borgnine) that the man holding the president is The Duke (Isaac Hayes), the most powerful man in the Manhattan prison.  In order to save his own life, Snake will have to rescue the president from the Duke, and together, they’ll have to escape from New York.

ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK is one of John Carpenter’s most stylish films.  I absolutely love the look of this movie, as Carpenter nails the futuristic vision of New York City.  There’s something exceedingly animated about the look of this film, the vibrant colors, the brooding camerawork, and the artistic photography.  It reminds me a lot of what Tim Burton would do with Gotham City in BATMAN (1989).  There’s a lot of Carpenter’s ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK in that film.

Carpenter embraces a lot of horror elements in ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, including the “Crazies,” people who live underground and come out at night to wreak havoc.  One of the more memorable scenes in the film is when Snake meets a woman (Season Hubley) in a Chock Full of Nuts store, and the Crazies break in from underneath the floor and drag the screaming woman down with them.

The fight between Snake and the muscular giant (Ox Baker) is also notable, and the race across the mined bridge at the end of the film is one of the more suspenseful sequences.

ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK also enjoys one of the deeper casts in a John Carpenter movie.  Snake Plisskin became the role which would define the second half of Kurt Russell’s career, as he made the jump from teen star in Walt Disney movies in the 1960s and 70s to full-fledged mainstream actor.  This role combined with Russell’s work in Carpenter’s next movie THE THING also cemented Russell’s place in the horror/science fiction genre.

Kurt Russell as Snake Plissken.

Kurt Russell as Snake Plisskin.

Kurt Russell almost didn’t get the part, because the producers were concerned he wasn’t right for the role because of his Disney background.  Russell based his interpretation of Snake Plisskin on Clint Eastwood, and Eastwood was one of the actors John Carpenter originally wanted for the role, but he turned it down.  Tommy Lee Jones, Nick Nolte, Jeff Bridges, and even Charles Bronson were all considered for the role before it went to Russell.

Had Eastwood taken the role, it would have been an interesting bit of casting as it would have reunited Eastwood with Lee Van Cleef, his co-star in FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE (1965) and THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY (1966).  In ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, Van Cleef is excellent as Hauk and makes a perfect foil for Russell’s Snake Plisskin.  Van Cleef was 56 when he made ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and he still looked like he could kick the stuffing out of everyone in the movie.

Lee Van Cleef gives Kurt Russell all he can handle in ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK.

Lee Van Cleef gives Kurt Russell all he can handle in ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK.

Donald Pleasence with his British accent is strangely cast as the President of the United States.  As much as I like Pleasence, he’s not very convincing in this role.  Harry Dean Stanton stands out as Brain, the brilliant right hand man to The Duke, who always seems to know that one bit of information that makes his life valuable.  The cast also includes Adrienne Barbeau, Ernest Borgnine, Tom Atkins, Charles Cyphers, and Isaac Hayes as The Duke.

The screenplay by John Carpenter and Nick Castle isn’t going to win any awards for the most realistic tale ever told, but the film as a whole works well.  It also features some memorable dialogue.

ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK also has one of John Carpenter’s best music scores.  Better even than his HALLOWEEN score?  I don’t know about that, but other than his music for HALLOWEEN, his score for ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK is my favorite.

John Carpenter is famous for his horror movies, specifically HALLOWEEN and THE THING, but his futuristic action tale ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK is one of his finest films.  With his inspired direction, a strong cast led by Kurt Russell in a career-changing role, and a superior music score, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK is dark escapism at its best.

—END—

THE HORROR JAR: The HALLOWEEN movies

0

halloween_posterI wrote this HORROR JAR column on the HALLOWEEN movies for the Halloween issue of the Horror Writers Association Newsletter.  It’s up this month.

—Michael

 

THE HORROR JAR:  HALLOWEEN Series

By Michael Arruda

 

Welcome to THE HORROR JAR, the column that compiles lists of odds and ends about horror movies.  It runs regularly within the pages of my blog, THE BLOG OF MICHAEL ARRUDA, located at marruda3.wordpress.com.  For the first time ever, in celebration of this very special Halloween issue, THE HORROR JAR appears in the pages of the HWA NEWSLETTER.

Today we look at the HALLOWEEN movies, a series that began with John Carpenter’s groundbreaking low budget shocker back in 1978.

I still remember when HALLOWEEN first came out.  It really was something of a phenomenon.  I was at the movies with some friends, and this was 1978, so I was 14, and there was this huge line ahead of us which poured out of the building, when one of the ushers came outside to announce “HALLOWEEN is sold out! HALLOWEEN is sold out!”  People in line huffed and swore, and then to the delight of my friends and me who were not seeing HALLOWEEN, they left the line, enabling us to step right up and buy tickets for whatever movie we were seeing that night.

But I remember wondering, “What’s the story with this movie, HALLOWEEN?”  I had never seen so much buzz about a horror movie before.  I mean, there was JAWS a few years earlier, but I never considered that a true horror movie.  It was more a horrific adventure.  And then I started hearing all these things about HALLOWEEN, how scary it was, how good it was, and the next thing I knew I was seeing it myself, and yes, it was as scary as advertised.  What I don’t remember is how my friend and I got in to see it, because it was Rated R, and they used to check ids back then, and we were just 14.  I think we must have lucked out and had a high school student working the ticket line that night.

HALLOWEEN became a tremendous success and inspired a brand new subgenre of horror movie, the slasher flick.  It’s no accident that in spite of its low budget, it’s one of the best horror movies ever made.  John Carpenter held nothing back when he made this one, and nearly every scene he crafts in this movie is a good one. HALLOWEEN just might be Carpenter’s masterpiece.

In addition to his masterful direction, Carpenter also wrote the iconic music score, which adds so much to this movie it’s almost like an additional character.  In fact, the story goes that after an initial showing, a producer frowned upon the film and told Carpenter he needed to go back and edit it some more.  Carpenter made only one change:  he added his music score.  The same producer saw it again and loved it this time, thinking Carpenter had made major changes.

In HALLOWEEN, a group of babysitters are terrorized on Halloween night by masked killer Michael Myers who has escaped from an asylum after fifteen years of silent confinement.  He returns to his hometown where as a young boy he had murdered his own sister fifteen years earlier.  He’s pursued by his doctor, Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence) who hopes to prevent Michael from causing another bloodbath.  Easier said than done, because Michael Myers refuses to die.

HALLOWEEN inspired a bunch of sequels, none of which come close to matching the quality of the first film.  In fact, you could make the argument that there’s only been one very good HALLOWEEN movie, the first one.

Here they are, including the recent remakes by Rob Zombie, the movies in the HALLOWEEN franchise:

HALLOWEEN (1978)

Directed by John Carpenter

Screenplay by John Carpenter and Debra Hill

Music by John Carpenter

Dr. Sam Loomis:  Donald Pleasence

Laurie Strode:  Jamie Lee Curtis

Annie:  Nancy Loomis

Lynda:  P.J. Soles

Sheriff Brackett:  Charles Cyphers

Michael Myers:  Tony Moran

Running Time:  91 minutes

John Carpenter’s masterful direction makes this one a true horror classic.  So many neat touches.  My favorite is Michael Myers’ white mask emerging from the darkness behind Jamie Lee Curtis, who is impressive in her film debut as babysitter Laurie Strode.  Donald Pleasence acquits himself rather well as Dr. Loomis, the man in hot pursuit of the demonic Michael Myers, in a role originally offered to Peter Cushing and then later to Christopher Lee.  Both actors turned it down, a decision Lee has called one of his biggest regrets.  The Michael Myers’ mask is a re-vamped William Shatner STAR TREK mask, chosen by the props department because of their ultra-low budget.  John Carpenter also composed the memorable music score.

 

HALLOWEEN II (1981)

Directed by Rick Rosenthal

Screenplay by John Carpenter and Debra Hill

Music by John Carpenter and Alan Howarth

Dr. Sam Loomis:  Donald Pleasence

Laurie Strode:  Jamie Lee Curtis

The Shape:  Dick Warlock

Running Time:  92 minutes

Dreadful sequel to HALLOWEEN takes up right where the original left off, as Michael Myers continues his pursuit of Laurie Strode, while the tireless Dr. Loomis tries to stop him.  Without John Carpenter in the director’s chair, this one plays like a cheap imitation.

 

HALLOWEEN III:  THE SEASON OF THE WITCH (1983)

Directed by Tommy Lee Wallace

Screenplay by Tommy Lee Wallace

Music by John Carpenter and Alan Howarth

Dan Challis:  Tom Atkins

Cochran:  Dan O’Herlihy

Running Time:  98 minutes

This one has nothing to do with the Michael Myers storyline.  Instead, we have a mad toymaker who plots to kill children across the country on Halloween night by using demonic Halloween masks.  John Carpenter planned to make a different HALLOWEEN horror movie each year, each one with an entirely different story centered on Halloween, but this movie flopped at the box office, mostly because audiences were looking for Michael Myers, and the idea was abandoned. HALLOWEEN III is actually not that bad, as long as you go in expecting the worst!

 

HALLOWEEN 4:  THE RETURN OF MICHAEL MYERS (1988)

Directed by Dwight H. Little

Screenplay by Alan B. McElroy

Music by Alan Howarth

Dr. Sam Loomis:  Donald Pleasence

Rachel Carruthers:  Ellie Cornell

Jamie Lloyd:  Danielle Harris

Michael Myers:  George P. Wilbur

Running Time:  88 minutes

The title says it all, as Michael Myers is back, and he’s madder than ever!  In spite of the silly storyline, this has always been one of my favorite films in the HALLOWEEN series.  The plot takes place ten years after the events of the original film, as Michael Myers awakes from a coma and escapes from yet another institution when he learns that he has a niece living in Haddonfield, so naturally he wants to kill her.  I’ve never liked the direction the series took, that Myers simply wanted to kill his relatives.  He was much scarier in the original film where he was an unpredictable killing machine.  Why the obsession with his own family?  I always thought he simply hated women.

But this one is a lively film in the series, as director Dwight H. Little includes some impressive action scenes and suspense sequences, and the script by Alan B. McElroy remembers to have fun, like the scene where the armed vigilantes all jump into their pick-up trucks in an attempt to lynch Michael Myers.  Good luck with that!

It also helps that Donald Pleasence is back, reprising his role as the ever dedicated and relentless Dr. Sam Loomis, who will stop at nothing to hunt down and destroy Michael Myers.  Pleasence seems to have really grown into the role here, as this is probably his best performance in the series.  Young Danielle Harris in her film debut is also very good as little Jamie Lloyd, Myer’s niece who becomes his intended victim throughout the movie.   Interestingly enough, Harris would return to the series as an adult, as she would star in both of the Rob Zombie HALLOWEEN remakes as Annie Brackett.

HALLOWEEN 4 also has the best final scene in the series other than the original film.  It really works and stays with you long after the movie has ended.

It’s also the first film in the series not to involve John Carpenter at any level, since he was dissatisfied with the script and distanced himself from the project.

 

HALLOWEEN 5:  THE REVENGE OF MICHAEL MYERS (1989)

Directed by Dominique Othenin-Girard

Screenplay by Michael Jacobs, Dominique Othenin-Girard, and Shem Bitterman

Music by Alan Howarth

Dr. Sam Loomis:  Donald Pleasence

Jamie Lloyd:  Danielle Harris

Michael Myers:  Don Shanks

Running Time:  96 minutes

Direct sequel to HALLOWEEN 4, but this one is nowhere near as good.  It’s a much darker film than HALLOWEEN 4, but I’ve never warmed up to it.  Gone is any sense of fun the previous film had.  This one introduced the mysterious character of “The Man in Black” who’s certainly interesting, but it’s clear watching this movie that the writers had no idea who he really was, and they make the audience wait until the next film in the series to find out.

 

HALLOWEEN:  THE CURSE OF MICHAEL MYERS (1995)

Directed by Joe Chappelle

Screenplay by Daniel Farrands

Music by Alan Howarth and Paul Rabjohns

Dr. Sam Loomis:  Donald Pleasence

Tommy Doyle:  Paul Rudd

Dr. Terence Wynn:  Mitchell Ryan

Michael Myers:  George P. Wilbur

Running Time:  88 minutes

There’s very little right with this sixth film in the series, yet somehow I like it better than HALLOWEEN 5.  Director Joe Chappelle gives this one some style, and screenwriter Daniel Farrands has some neat ideas, but the true culprit here are a host of rewrites/re-edits that dramatically changed the plot in this one, and not for the better.  The identity of “The Man In Black” and his cult’s relationship with Michael Myers is laughable.  This movie also marks the final appearance of Donald Pleasence as Dr. Loomis in the series, as Pleasence died during filming.

 

HALLOWEEN H20:  20 YEARS LATER (1998)

Directed by Steve Miner

Screenplay by Robert Zappia and Matt Greenberg

Music by John Ottman and Jeremy Sweet

Laurie Strode: Jamie Lee Curtis

Will Brennan:  Adam Arkin

Molly Cartwell:  Michelle Williams

Norma Watson: Janet Leigh

John Tate:  Josh Hartnett

Ronny Jones:  LL Cool J

Jimmy Howell:  Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Michael Myers:  Chris Durand

Running Time:  86 minutes

Probably my favorite of the HALLOWEEN sequels, as it marked the return of Jamie Lee Curtis to the series.  Slick, polished, well-written production, this one has one of the better casts in the entire series, but it does tend to be a bit talky and struggles in the scares department.

 

HALLOWEEN:  RESURRECTION (2002)

Directed by Rick Rosenthal

Screenplay by Larry Brand and Sean Hood

Music by Danny Lux

Laurie Strode:  Jamie Lee Curtis

Michael Myers:  Brad Loree

Freddie Harris:  Busta Rhymes

Running Time:  94 minutes

Bottom of the barrel entry in the HALLOWEEN franchise.  By far, the worst film in the original series.  I thought this was as bad as things could get.  I was wrong.

 

HALLOWEEN (2007)

Directed by Rob Zombie

Screenplay by Rob Zombie

Music by Tyler Bates

Dr. Samuel Loomis:  Malcolm McDowell

Sheriff Lee Brackett:  Brad Dourif

Michael Myers:   Tyler Mane

Michael Myers, age 10:  Daeg Faerch

Running Time:  109 minutes

Dreadful re-imagining of the original HALLOWEEN by writer/director Rob Zombie.  Best part is the Michael Myers background story, and the performance by young Daeg Faerch as the ten year-old Michael.  The film explains how Michael Myers came to be better than any of the films before it.  However, the rest of the movie is horrible.  Malcolm McDowell, usually one of my favorite actors, is stoic and forgettable as Dr. Loomis.  In spite of a fun cast, this one is no fun at all.  It makes for a very long 109 minutes.  This movie has its fans, but I’m not one of them.

 

HALLOWEEN II (2009)

Directed by Rob Zombie

Screenplay by Rob Zombie

Music by Tyler Bates

Dr. Samuel Loomis:  Malcolm McDowell

Sheriff Lee Brackett:  Brad Dourif

Michael Myers:   Tyler Mane

Laurie Strode:  Scout Taylor-Compton

Running Time:  105 minutes

This sequel to Rob Zombie’s reimagining of HALLOWEEN is even worse than the first film, if such a thing is a possible.  Violence is way over the top and nonsensical.  Zombie seems to have forgotten his sense of storytelling in these two movies.

Well, there you have it:  the HALLOWEEN movies.

It’s really a shame that the HALLOWEEN series has come to a close on such a low note.  These latter movies are a far cry from John Carpenter’s original iconic classic from 1978.

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this list, and I look forward to seeing you next time on another HORROR JAR, which you can read each month at THE BLOG OF MICHAEL ARRUDA at marruda3.wordpress.com, along with many other goodies and tidbits, both horror and otherwise.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

MEMORABLE MOVIE QUOTES: HALLOWEEN (1978)

0

halloween_posterMEMORABLE MOVIE QUOTES:  HALLOWEEN (1978)

By

Michael Arruda

 

Since I’ve had so much fun writing THE QUOTABLE CUSHING, the column where we look at some of Peter Cushing’s best lines in the movies, I’ve decided to branch out, to look at memorable quotes from other movies as well.  So, on that note, welcome to MEMORABLE MOVIE QUOTES.

 

First up today we’ll check out some quotes from the horror classic HALLOWEEN (1978), John Carpenter’s groundbreaking horror flick which pretty much single-handedly launched the slasher movie subgenre.  The strength of HALLOWEEN has always been the stylish direction by John Carpenter, and his memorable music score.  The screenplay by Carpenter and Debra Hill isn’t as strong, as it tells a rather silly story when you think about it.  That being said, there are lots of memorable lines in HALLOWEEN, and so truth be told you can’t really knock the script that much.

Here are some examples:

Early in the movie, insane killer Michael Myers escapes from the sanitarium, attacking a nurse and stealing her car, as Myers’ doctor, Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence) watches helplessly.  The next day, Loomis is arguing with another doctor over Myers’ escape.

DOCTOR: I’m not responsible, Sam.

LOOMIS: Oh, no.

DOCTOR: I told them how dangerous he was.

LOOMIS: You couldn’t have, two roadblocks and an all-points bulletin wouldn’t stop a five year old.

DOCTOR: Well, he’s your patient, if you knew that the precautions weren’t strong enough, you should have told somebody.

LOOMIS: I told everybody! Nobody listened.

DOCTOR: There’s nothing else I can do.

LOOMIS: You can get back in there and get back on that telephone and tell them exactly who walked out of here last night and tell them exactly where he’s going.

DOCTOR: Where he’s probably going.

LOOMIS: I’ve wasted my time.

DOCTOR: Sam, Haddonfield is 150 miles away from here, for God’s sake, he can’t even drive a car!

LOOMIS: He was doing very well last night! Maybe someone around here gave him lessons.

Later, in Haddonfield, Dr. Loomis goes to the cemetery in search of Michael Myers’ sister’s grave.  He’s accompanied by the Graveyard Keeper.  On their walk towards the grave, the Keeper has a rather morbid story to tell, in one of the movie’s more memorable scenes of dialogue.

GRAVEYARD KEEPER:   Yeah, you know every town has something like this happen… I remember over in Russellville, old Charlie Bowles, about fifteen years ago… One night, he finished dinner, and he excused himself from the table. He went out to the garage, and got himself a hacksaw. Then he went back into the house, kissed his wife and his two children goodbye, and then he proceeded to…

LOOMIS:  Where are we?

GRAVEYARD KEEPER: Eh? Oh, it’s, uh, right over here…

And of course, they discover the headstone for Judith Myers’ grave has been stolen, and the Graveyard Keeper never gets to finish his story.

And who can forget the scene where Loomis is camped outside the Myers’ house, waiting for Michael Myers’ return, when a group of kids show up and dare their friend Lonnie to go inside the house.  As Lonnie takes the bait, Loomis steps from the shadow, cups his hands in front of his mouth, and says,

LOOMIS:  Hey!  Hey, Lonnie!  Get your ass away from there!

It was probably because the theater audience was scared out of their wits and wound so tight they couldn’t swallow their popcorn, but I remember the theater erupting in laughter over this line.  I mean, it’s funny, but it’s not that funny.

_____________________________________________________

It seems that no one will listen to Dr. Loomis, as he tries to warn everyone around him that Michael Myers is unbelievably dangerous.  Perhaps one of the reasons no one listens to him is the lines he delivers in this movie makes him sound like a crackpot.

LOOMIS:  I met him, fifteen years ago. I was told there was nothing left. No reason, no conscience, no understanding; even the most rudimentary sense of life or death, good or evil, right or wrong. I met this six-year-old child, with this blank, pale, emotionless face and, the blackest eyes… the devil’s eyes. I spent eight years trying to reach him, and then another seven trying to keep him locked up because I realized what was living behind that boy’s eyes was purely and simply… evil.

Still, Donald Pleasence is such a strong presence as Dr. Loomis that to the movie audience, anyway, he comes off as credible, heroic, and even humorous.

This exchange between Loomis and Sheriff Brackett, where Loomis again tries to warn the sheriff about Michael Myers, shows a little of each.

SHERIFF:  I have a feeling that you’re way off on this.

LOOMIS: You have the wrong feeling.

SHERIFF: You’re not doing very much to prove me wrong!

LOOMIS: What more do you need?

SHERIFF: Well, it’s going to take a lot more than fancy talk to keep me up all night crawling around these bushes.

LOOMIS: I watched him for fifteen years, sitting in a room, staring at a wall, not seeing the wall, looking past the wall – looking at this night, inhumanly patient, waiting for some secret, silent alarm to trigger him off. Death has come to your little town, Sheriff. Now you can either ignore it, or you can help me to stop it.

SHERIFF: More fancy talk.

And to finish up, one of the more memorable lines from the movie comes at the end, when Loomis rushes into the house to save Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) from Michael Myers.  After seemingly killing Myers (of course we know now that you can’t keep a good masked killer down!) Loomis turns to Laurie, and she says to him,

LAURIE:  Was it the boogeyman?

LOOMIS:  As a matter of fact, it was.

Great lines, great movie, great fun.

Thanks for joining me today on MEMORABLE MOVIE QUOTES. See you next time with quotes from another fun movie.

—Michael

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.