Friday, December 31, 2010

A Very Carpenter Christmas 4: The Thing

I could've sworn I had written about this earlier, but I've been talking about this thing a lot of places, so I probably just got mixed up. Anyway, it's time to talk a little about the arctic paranoid body horror-extravaganza that is John Carpenter's The Thing, which is an adaption of a novella called "Who Goes There?" not that anyone's heard of it. Somewhat more known is the other adaptation, The Thing From Another World, The Thing is generally consider to be the superior adaptation, though. Also, here be spoilers.

The basic plot of The Thing is pretty simple, in fact, most of The Thing is pretty straightforward. Our heroes are stranded on the south pole for the winter when they discover a maddened Norwegian (well, almost, I'll get back to that) chasing a dog, attempting to kill the thing. Since the guy all but manages to blow himself up, they adopt the dog, not knowing it harbors a shapeshifting alien beastie that can spread like a virus. Needless to say, things go south rather quick, and our heroes find themselves trying to find out who they can trust without getting eaten or worse as the titular thing tries to find it's way to civilization.

This movie is just plain great at body horror. The effects used to show the alien transform it's current human (or canine) duds into something a little more flat out terrifying, and by "a little" I mean "a lot" and by "flat out terrifying" I mean "HOLY FUCKING SHIT WHAT THE FRAGGING HELL IS THAT THING." Yeah. Also, a guy's stomach grows teeth and tears another guy's hands off, that should be enough, although those of a nervous disposition probably will have decided to take their business elsewhere during the Kennel scene.
In the interest of those with a nervous disposition: Bunnies

Now, if the movie has any mentionable flaws in the scary department, it probably comes from one thing that might yank you out of the movie for a little while, at least if you're Norwegian. The above-mentioned Norwegians, or the one our heroes meet, at any rate speaks Norwegian, and that's cool, a little bonus for those proficient in the language. However... yeah, they're not talking it all that well. That seems to be a recurring problem whenever there's supposed to be a Norwegian portrayed in American works. Of course, most time they go for "ambiguously Scandinavian" rather than Norwegian, but still. I'm told that one X-Files episode set in Norway suffered from some of the same problems, but I can't tell. Put bluntly, it took at least two watchings to undersand what the sod actually said, and even now, I have no idea what dialect that guy's supposed to use.
Ok, I'm calm now.

I'm nitpicking, and I realize, but hey, am I not allowed to be a little ethnocentric every now and then?  Well, regardless, The Thing is a really good movie and, as I mentioned earlier, probably my favorite Carpenter flick, if nothing else for the near Cronenbergian levels of sheer body horror and the intense use of good special effects, although the fact that it's actually scary also helps.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A Very Carpenter Christmas 3: Prince of Darkness

So yes, it's time for yet another installment of A Very Carpenter Christmas, this time we'll be looking at another festive piece of entertainment that really highlights the optimistic worldview and.. yeah, that's Blatant Lieese, today we'll be discussing another story pertaining to otherworldly horrors using humans as their pawns for amusement and profit. Let's look at Prince of Darkness. As usual, spoilers. I should maybe work on spoilerfree reviews some time, but... well, that's not really fun, is it? I guess those not keen on spoilers could skip to the bottom.

With a title like that, you'd think it'd be pretty obvious who the big bad was, what with "The Prince Of Darkness" being a fairly well known nicnkame for The Devil, Satan, Old Scratch, etc, which I guess is some sort of ironic, since he's supposed to also be Lucifer, the Lightbringer, originally, but I guess that's... got something to do with The Fall and what have you. Anyway, this is technically true, but the mythology is a bit more complicated than that. If anything, I guess you could compare it to the Doctor Who episode "The Satan Pit," where The Doctor encounters the primordial evil that has inspired every portrayal of Satan in every religion ever, it's a bit like that, but with a pinch of that tasty Lovecraft thrown in for mind-rendering spice. You see, the titular evil is an alien being, bent on bringing back it's master, which is to the Satan what God is to Jesus, maybe, the movie does like to screw around with heads, both the audience's and the characters.

Well, I guess I should talk about the story at large too, although "alien anti-god tries invading the world, God might be an alien to" should be enough for anyone. Oh well. We follow a group of college students who is set to help a priest make heads and tails out of a container with green... stuff in it, which turns out to be The Adversary, who in turn is keen to get out. To do this, he (it?) posses vermin and hobos and eventually the college students to get them to unleash The Beast and bring it's Dark God father on the world to REALLY fuck things up.

When it comes to said Dark God, I can't help but feel Carpenter is moving away from the Lovecraftian horrors, design-wise, at least. You see, we actually get to see... well at least a little part of it, its hand, which sort of has a black shriveled death-fetus kind of thing going for it, how the rest of it looks is anyone's guess, but that's a bit of the charm. Humanoid supernatural terrors isn't exactly common in Lovecraft-inspired horror, but I guess we can't all be afraid of seafood and foreigners.
I'm not. No foreigners, no gløgg.

When it comes to the scares, Prince Of Darkness has plenty, from the unnerving way people act when they're possessed, to the appearance of large amounts of  creepy crawlies and what have you and the occasional jumpscare. One stuck in my mind because of the timing. It was fairly standard, our hero, brandishing a porn 'stache that could shame the best of them, turns over in bed to find some sort of humanoid monstrosity, complete with a scare chord and all. What this jump scare does differently, though, is that it's not buildup-jump-gone, but rather jump-take your time-gone, the shot actually lingers on the hellbeast, giving the watcher a sort of a "yeah, you saw that, and you still are. Whatcha gonna do about it"-thing. Also, it has Alice Cooper as a hobo, and that should be scary enough for any man.

All in all, Prince Of Darkness was pretty good, but I'd rate it below In The Mouth Of Madness myself, as it was some times a little difficult to get into on account of it's experiments in mindscrewing, but it's definitely a movie worth checking out, although I guess those overly sensitive to blasphemy might want to steer clear. Next up is probably my favorite Carpenter movie and, unless something happens, the last entry in A Very Carpenter Christmas 2010.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

A very Carpenter Christmas 2: Halloween

The more I think about it, the more I realize I probably should have started with this movie. After all, this was the movie that defined half of the conventions, clichés and tropes pertaining to the ubiquitous Slasher sub-genre, with Friday 13th taking care of the other half. Had I been particularly fond of slashers, it would've been all but unforgivable, but since there's only a handful of the movies I like outside of the So Bad It's Good fascination of it all, I'm not too bothered. Spoilers here, but you should know most of this already.

So yes, Halloween is the story of young Michael Myers who went a little insane and stabbed his sister an overabundant amount of time, and as a result was sectioned for 15 years. Now he's out, though and stalking through his old hometown of Haddonfield, reliving those glory days of stabbing young women, also branching out to men, enterprising fellow, that Myers kid. Hot on his trail is his therapist, Sam Loomis, who is more or less the only one who knows how bug-fuck insane and beyond redemption this guy is. Most of the movie follows Laurie Strode, though, who finds herself the center of attention from this eventually famously masked stalker, making her upcoming Halloween babysitting gig into a somewhat problematic affair.

Hoh yes everyone, this was the movie that taught us exactly how horrible an idea babysitting actually is. It's a rather clever idea, methinks, and I don't think it's an accident that our heroes in both of the most genre-defining slasher films have some sort of responsibility, someone to take care of, if you will. Sure, you can argue that the camp councelors of the Friday 13th movies sort of does a shit job, and in general act like complete bell-ends, but at least they at some point realize little lives depend on them. It's a very effective plot device that prevents the main characters from getting wise to this whole "wait, staying where the killer can find me is a really shit idea"-side of things. In most modern slashers, this is usually replaced with seclusion or stupidity 
Sorry, lost my train of thought there

But back to the movie. It's a problem when talking about movies that have been so important to the formulation of a genre, because everything it does, a lot of others have done after it, some better, a lot of them worse. This leads to what my friends on TvTropes call a Seinfeld is Unfunny situation, where the originality of the original work is undermined by the sheer number of times it has been copied, parodied or otherwise reused.  Halloween has this bad, but it can't be denied, it's a pretty decent movie. Special props must be given to the soundtrack though, or at least the opening theme, which is as simple as it is memorable, and frankly fairly creepy, pretty much being able to compete with Tubular Bells before the guitar sets in, or "In A House, In A Heartbeat" from 28 days later as my favorite piece of music in any horror movie, unless you count "Don't  Stop Me Now" from Shaun of The Dead, which feels like cheating somehow. 

Overall, even when factoring in the abovementioned effect, though, I feel that Halloween isn't really Carpenter's strongest film, and the other ones I'm covering in A Very Carpenter Christmas are better movies as far as I'm concerned, but as far as Slashers go, it's good, Myers is a creepy bastard, so it's good.

Monday, December 13, 2010

A Very Carpenter Christmas 1: In The Mouth of Madness

So, yes, Christmas is upon us, and unfortunately that's not really an opportune time for horror movie buffs such as myself. Sure, as a human being who enjoys good food, gifts and company, it's quite excellent, but the hateful little gnome that lives in my brain just can't find sustenance through a month centered around joy and the goodwill of man. Sure, one could try surviving on darkly humorous and, for some reason, very controversial horror comedies centered around the Yuletide, but I say bah to that. So instead, this Holiday, I will be covering some of the works of John Carpenter, not all of them obviously, he's made a lot of movies, and I can't use my hands for writing all the time, you know, it's hard to drink mulled wine without the help of ones hands, after all. But enough about that, let's start the first installment of A Very Carpenter Christmas, where we'll be looking at a rather Lovecraftian flick called In The Mouth of Madness. Oh, and as per usual, here be spoilers.
Uh, what were we talking about again?

So, the thing about Lovecraft is that one thinks "Oh, interdimensional horrors and all that is groovy-pants and all, but no way anyone's going to make a movie out of it." Then, along comes John Carpenter and goes "HA," in a way that usually implies that one is about to prove the previous speaker wrong. In The Mouth Of Madness is the medium he chose for this. The story follows John Trent, played by Sam Neil, resident sceptic and insurance fraud investigator and Linda Styles, played by Julie Carmen, chief editor for the enigmatic writer and target of the journey, Sutter Cane, played by Jürgen Prochnow. In short, Cane's gone AWOL, and the publishers is claiming insurance since it doesn't look like he'll be able to deliver the manuscript for the titular book in time. Neil thinks this is a scam, of course, and starts to track down the town of Hobb's End, where Cane's books are set. This seems to be difficult, since Hobb's End doesn't seem to exist, but hey, finding the unfindable is step 1 in any self-respecting Lovecraftian story. So needless to say, he finds the town, but it would seem it has a little problem. One, nobody can quite determine if the town existed at all before Cane started writing the books and Two: Beings from a different world who seems keen on invading the earth because beings from a different world in nine out of ten cases are humongous dicks.

This is probably bad news...

Now, this movie does something right a lot of other "otherworldly horror"-movies often does wrong. They keep the beasties mysterious. Sure, there are some degree of explanation about just what the hell they're supposed to be, but the definitions that are made are vague enough that one can easily imagine that it's merely the most complete way a human can understand it without going insane. Though, that doesn't seem to help Neil, who takes just a couple too many hits to the SAN (Geek Joke, ho!) in the end, and one could be forgiven for wondering how much of what we saw really happened.

This film is also delightfully meta, since it turns out Cane's writing either changes reality, or that he's tasked to "narrate" the fall of all that is known by the mindrendering powers that be. Either way, one could interpret that the whole tale is about a character that realizes he is a character in a book. Unfortunately for him, it wasn't precisely a romantic comedy he landed himself in. If one accepts this way of looking at it, one could ask oneself if this wouldn't have been a story better told in a book. Well, concepts not quite unlike it have worked before, but it also demonstrates the strength of Carpenter's filmmaking, when he actually can communicate the incredibly tricky idea in a medium that requires such a degree of visual coherency and sense as film, if you excuse me slipping into film geek overdrive for a moment there.

Not that the cover spoils anything of the above

Now, for the most important question to me, right up there with "is it well made" is "is it scary?" I'd say yes, there's plenty of foreboding freakyness before shit hits the fan, and once it does... well, it's Lovecraftian. It's interesting how it kinda feels like the world is going to hell, and the characters are just surviving the shit that happens to fly their way. It's a bit like that one scene in Pulse, well, both of them, but the original did them better, where our heroes run out to see a plane crash while the streets filled up with ghost-thingies. It's a refreshing break of pace from the scary movies that more or less entirely revolve around the main character, thus bumfucking any sense of scale and dread. Ironically, one could argue that the story is a lot more centered on the protagonists than even these, but that's getting into metafiction-territories that I don't feel like braving.

All in all, I'd recomend In The Mouth Of Madness, both to people who already like Lovecraft-styled terrors, and to people who would like a quick and (relatively) easy taste at what sort of terrors this horror subgenre can bring you, although you might want to be able to stomach metafiction, if you're going to brave this one.