Christine

October 30, 2012

Boy meets car, boy loses car, boy gets car back. Hmm, Christine is a different kind of love story—in this case, the object of an adolescent boy’s affection is his red 1958 Plymouth Fury.

Well, maybe that’s not so weird. The kid’s pretty lonely, and the car is the only thing on which he can lavish his attention. Its name—her name—is Christine.

Christine is a horror movie as well as a love story, however, and the terror twist here is that the car is possessed by the devil. Actually, we don’t ever find out exactly what the car has that makes it so mean, but whatever it is, it likes rock ‘n roll and murder.

Christine’s previous owner was haunted by a history of violent death in the family—and they all died, over the years, in the malevolent car. When 17-year-old Arnie (Keith Gordon) buys Christine as a broken-down pile of junk, he doesn’t care about the history of the car—he just knows that he has some mysterious connection to it.

He fixes up Christine so that she’s all shiny, and in the process, he starts to change himself. The whimpering nerd is banished, and a veritable Mr. Hyde emerges. It isn’t long before Arnie, in his new swaggering persona, is dating the prettiest girl at Rockbridge High—and taking her to the drive-in, courtesy Christine.

Arnie used to be bothered by bullies. But Christine flexes her chrome and—no more bullies. In fact, Christine may be doing her job a little too thoroughly. The local police are staring to sniff around, wondering why all the creeps who once bugged Arnie are being found with tire tracks on their letterman’s jackets.

This premise, based on Stephen King’s best seller, might have been a lot of fun. But the movie is so straightforward and one-note that it becomes rather boring.

The director, John (Halloween) Carpenter, whose early promise as one of the leading lights of the New Hollywood is dimming rapidly, does not seem to be particularly engaged by the material. He tries to develop the idea of Arnie’s loneliness being answered by this seductive machine, but that really gets skipped over pretty quickly. Not much is allowed to stem the flow of car stunts and chases.

And even the stunts and special effects aren’t unusually impressive. The teen crowd may be disappointed by Carpenter’s customary restraint when it comes to the more graphic elements of gore ‘n guts that have been the bread and butter of so many horror movies lately.

Christine herself, it should be said, is a hot number. Whether cruising down a highway in flames or dramatically reconstructing herself after absorbing a pounding from the local toughs, she’s a formidable machine. But it doesn’t say much for Christine to point out that she has more personality by far than anyone else in the film.

First published in the Herald, December 10, 1983

I would have guessed that sometime in the last 29 years I would have given this movie another look, but apparently I had other priorities. At this moment in Carpenter’s career I was perpetually disappointed, so maybe I’d see the movie with kinder eyes today.

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Starman

February 1, 2012

In the opening scene of Starman, we see the Voyager probe, which was sent into outer space a few years ago. In a parody of the musical space ballets of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the vessel glides through the solar system—but instead of the strains of “The Blue Danube,” as in 2001, we hear the Rolling Stones singing “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” which, apparently, was included in the sampler of cultural artifacts as part of the message of invitation for alien civilizations.

Right then you know this is not going to be a stuffy movie.

The Voyager’s invitation will be accepted, by a highly advanced civilization, and this premise—a grown-up E.T.—is the story of Starman (which, by the way, is being touted as the science-fiction sleeper of the season, especially compared to the bigger-budgeted 2010 and Dune).

Starman had an air of notoriety even before the cameras started rolling. This is the project that Columbia Pictures decided to develop instead of E.T., which was then passed on to Universal. We all know how that one turned out, and Columbia had egg on its face for a while.

Starman makes Columbia look better. It’s not as good as E.T., but it’s got a similar innocence and hopeful view of man and alien. It’s also got unavoidably similar situations, such as the alien learning to eat, speak, and behave in the human world. Some of this stuff has been overworked lately (it’s going to turn up again in the upcoming Brother from Another Planet), but much of it is sure-fire in terms of engaging an audience.

Both films are love stories between the alien and his finder. The big difference between E.T. and Starman is that this story has an adult romance, not a child’s.

The Starman crash-lands in Wisconsin near the farm of a widow (Karen Allen, from Raiders of the Lost Ark). He scopes out her home and reforms himself to look like her late husband (so, he looks like Jeff Bridges).

He’s on Earth just to get a feel for the place and then return to his own world with information—and perhaps to help a little down here. But he went off course, and he has to get back to his pick-up point (in Arizona) in three days, or he’ll miss his ride and die.

So Allen is recruited as a reluctant chauffeur, and as a tutor—teaching the Starman, during their cross-country journey, about the joys of driving, language, truck stops, Dutch apple pie, and other intimate human functions.

A parallel story develops: the pursuit of the Starman by official forces. The government people, being government people, want to capture him and run all kinds of nasty tests. Not very good manners, considering that, as one expert puts it, “We invited him here!”

That UFO expert (a good role for Charles Martin Smith of Never Cry Wolf) tracks the Starman with the government officials (led by that mean guy, Richard Jaeckel). By the time everybody meets up in Arizona, he’s got more feeling for the Starman than for his official job.

This film should open up some doors for director John Carpenter, who has had a hard time breaking out of the horror genre (Halloween, Christine). He gets the humor very nicely and the performers are solid. I would quibble only that the film takes a long time getting into its groove, but it grows on you enough to make you forget that. When Starman reaches its rapturous ending, you’re with it all the way.

First published in the Herald, December 12, 1984

It may have opened some doors for Carpenter, but it turned out he wasn’t a guy to walk through them anyway. Nice movie, and it must be well-liked, but it sure doesn’t come up much in conversation; maybe there’s too much mushy stuff for it to hold a lot of nerdosphere cred? Jeff Bridges is terrific in it, and got a well-deserved Oscar nomination.


The Philadelphia Experiment

November 28, 2011

The Philadelphia Experiment is a low-budget bit of nonsense that explores a well-trod sector of that vast region known as the Twilight Zone: time travel.

In fact, this film conjures up visions of long-gone supernatural TV shows: not just “Twilight Zone” but also “The Outer Limits,” and a particular favorite of mine during Cub Scout years, “The Time Tunnel.”

Like the “Time Tunnel” shows, the heroes of The Philadelphia Experiment are flipped around in the time warp thanks to a government experiment that goes wrong. In this case, a couple of sailors (Michael Paré and Bobby Di Cicco) are serving aboard a destroyer in Philadelphia Bay in 1943. Some hotshot scientists claim to have a device that will cloak U.S. ships from enemy radar, and they test it out on the ship with a full crew.

Levers are pushed, and soon everybody on board is shaking and rattling and turning different shades of orange. The ship disappears from radar contact, all right—it also disappears from view. Yipes! The next thing we know, Paré and Di Cicco are tumbling through a tear in the space-time continuum (I don’t really know what that means, but it always sounds good when they say it in these movies—and they always do).

They end up in the Nevada desert in 1984, where they are deposited because the government is once again trying the same test—won’t they ever learn?—and Paré and Di Cicco drop through a hole in the sky. They spend the next couple of days trying to go back, with the help of a woman (Nancy Allen) who doesn’t mind a little adventure.

That hole in the sky is, of course, not the only hole in this plot. But, while this film is ragged and adolescent, it also has a sense of humor about itself. When Paré and Di Cicco wander about the desert, they pick up a bottle of beer: Lowenbrau. Good heavens—could the Germans have won the war? There are also humorous, if predictable, jokes about first encounters with television, punk rockers, and video games.

The director, Stewart Raffill, bumps things along quite adroitly—and at times, with some delicacy. For instance, there’s a prologue in which we’re introduced to Di Cicco’s 1943 wife. Later, Paré shows up at her door—in 1984. He hasn’t changed—people who travel through time never do, as everyone knows—but she’s much older. Interesting situation, and poignantly handled.

Raffill isn’t quite as sure with his actors. Paré, the chef-turned-star who was in Streets of Fire, still communicates almost nothing but lunkheadedness, but this is his best outing yet. Everyone else is logging time. Sometimes they look slightly embarrassed at the silly dialogue they have to mouth, but the tone is mostly earnest.

John Carpenter, the director Halloween and other stylish suspense flicks, is executive producer. It’s always hard to know what that title means, but Carpenter is well-known as a lover of B-movies, those modest entertainments that used to fill out the bottom halves of double bills and sometimes upstage the nominal A-movie.

With the decline of first-run double-billing, the B-movie has all but disappeared. Its value as a cheap breeding ground for new talent is missed. I find it comforting that Carpenter, Raffill, and cohorts have not yet given up the ship.

First published in the Herald, August 27, 1984

This should have been a better, pulpier movie. That cast list is certainly of the Eighties, people who were on the way up and apparently destined to be stars, but yeah, never mind. Stewart Raffill had also done The Ice Pirates in ’84, a spoofy thing, and would turn to Mac and Me, which I do not forgive. Will find both reviews as soon as possible.


Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers

October 18, 2011

Having watched the continued success of those unstoppable villains, Jason of Friday the 13th and Freddy Krueger of Nightmare on Elm Street, the producers of the Halloween films must’ve realized their terrible mistake. The first two Halloweens told the story of the knife-wielding crazy, Michael Myers, who terrorized his hometown of Haddonfield, Illinois, on a certain holiday.

But then Michael was placed on the inactive list. Halloween III was a game attempt to drop the unkillable character and begin a series of unrelated movies with Halloween themes. But III flopped, and the series stopped cold.

Until now. The title tells sit all, folks: Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers. Anything Jason and Freddy can do, Michael can do better—and, after all, he came first.

And Halloween 4 is decidedly superior to the previous sequels in this series. Perhaps this is because the movie is, in many ways, a virtual remake of the original Halloween. This is a pretty good strategy, since John Carpenter’s low-budget original is probably the best horror movie of the last 15 years, a gripping, suggestive, funny screamfest from a careful craftsman.

Halloween 4 uses the same opening tactic, with Michael getting free of his insane asylum and heading straight back to Haddonfield. And again, it’s a babysitter who is the focus of his attention, although his actual quarry seems to be the babysitter’s charge, a little girl named Jamie. Jamie’s supposed to be the daughter of the character played by Jamie Lee Curtis in the first two films.

This installment imitates the original, but without the clean logic of that film. Director Dwight H. Little errs in letting the police get in on the act early; part of the sense of menace in the first film was the feeling that Jamie Lee Curtis was completely alone against the demon. Curtis isn’t around anymore, though Halloween 4 does bring back Donald Pleasance, who reprises his role as the perpetually frazzled doctor who considers Michael Myers absolute evil. Nobody ever believes him when he says this, and so Michael keeps getting loose. (But then, would you believe Donald Pleasance?)

The movie does have a few jumpy moments, and it seems to exist primarily in order to spring its twist ending, which is genuinely creepy, especially if you remember how the original film began. It’s a good zinger, and it suggests a whole new direction for future sequels.

First published in the Herald, October 1988

I can’t say the future sequels found a new direction. There really aren’t many new directions in sequels to the horror franchises, let’s face it. Dwight Little chugs along in episodic television these days, but manages to make the occasional exploitation picture, and one trusts that Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid and Tekken are not his last ventures in that vein.


Black Moon Rising

April 4, 2011

Black Moon Rising is another movie in which a nameless government agency has hired a specialist to do its dirty work. If you believed every suspense movie that came along, that government agency must be full of thieves, spies and ex-cons by now. Which, come to think of it, may not be too far off the mark, considering the rash of espionage cases lately.

Be that as it may, at this point you can almost write this kind of movie yourself. The hero will be craggy-faced and silent, and he never makes mistakes at his specialty. Most important of all, he’ll be indestructible, which is key, since the bad guys will be shooting at him throughout.

His dialogue will go like this: “Just stay out of my way,” and “Don’t cross me,” and “The last time somebody tried that, they wound up (fill in the blank: dead, sorry, needing a new pair of hands, whatever).”

Well, Black Moon Rising takes this guy and makes him a bit more human. This is partly because the hero is played by Tommy Lee Jones, who lends a slightly off-center presence, and also because the film lets him be fallible.

His specialty is thievery, and that nameless government agency has him on the payroll so he can steal an important cassette tape. We never know exactly why this cassette is so important—it’s got something to do with testimony—but it doesn’t matter in the slightest. The only important thing is that Jones steals the cassette, then loses it, and he must steal it back in 72 hours.

He loses it by hiding it in a sleek experimental car (a speed machine called “Black Moon,” which runs on hydrogen) he happens to encounter. He plans to retrieve the tape later, but then the car is stolen by somebody else—another professional thief (Linda Hamilton, heroine of The Terminator), who drives it into a huge Los Angeles office building—a building that appears impregnable.

So, the final two-thirds of the movie is simply this: Break into the building and get that car outta there. That’s basic enough, and director Harley Cokliss generates some fun in the final break-in sequence. But overall, Black Moon Rising presents a curiously lame exercise. It’s curious because there’s nothing particularly bad about the film; it’s just tired.

This, despite the fact that the romantic relationship between Jones and Hamilton is pleasantly drawn (she’s every bit his equal, and engages in no damsel-in-distress whimpering). The supporting cast is eccentric, too: Bubba Smith as an agency operative, Robert Vaughn doing his evil routine, and Richard Jaeckel, Dan Shor and William Sanderson (the latter, a longtime offbeat character actor, recently came to cult fame as Larry on the “Newhart” show) as the owners of the cool car.

But Black Moon Rising never quite gets its engines revved properly. This might have been corrected if John Carpenter, who wrote the original story, had stayed on as director; but Cokliss lets the film run out of gas. Or hydrogen, as the case may be.

First published in the Herald, January 1986

That’s not the car in the photo up there; it’s just a car. Cokliss at some point change the spelling of his last name to Cokeliss, according to IMDb. There might be some significance to that. I remember this film sounded great in conception: Jones and Hamilton in a car movie written by Carpenter. I don’t see how that misses. And put those five supporting actors under Tommy Lee Jones’ command, add Lee Ving and Keenan Wynn (also in this movie), and you’ve got one crazy-ass Vietnam platoon picture.


Big Trouble in Little China

March 28, 2011

Cattrall, Russell, Pai

Big Trouble in Little China reunites director John Carpenter with Kurt Russell, a collaboration that got off to a flying start with the TV-movie Elvis, in which Russell’s remarkable impersonation of Presley really launched the former Disney child star into a new career.

After Elvis, the two teamed up for Escape from New York and The Thing, a pair of unsatisfying thrillers. Now they’re back together with a much livelier outing; Big Trouble in Little China finds the two of them completely in sync. That’s lucky, because with far-out material such as this, it’s sync or swim.

Russell, who’s been steadily improving in recent years, has never been this loose or comically heroic. He plays a beefy, slightly dim-witted truck driver who delivers a regular load in San Francisco’s Chinatown one night, gets into an all-hours poker game, and somehow is drawn into the disorienting search for a missing girl in Chinatown’s netherworld.

This world is pretty outrageous. Carpenter throws in all sorts of vaulting kung fu action, a Tong war, booby-traps, a mysterious Chinese potion (which prompts an intoxicated Russell, upon drinking it, to good-naturedly observe that he feels, “Kinda—I dunno—kinda invincible”), human sacrifice, and a 2,000-year-old dude who needs the blood of a green-eyed bride to restore him.

As that grocery list might suggest, the tone of Big Trouble is largely comic. Somehow Carpenter avoids making fun of the material—that’s a big booby-trap in itself—so that the tongue-in-cheek tone has the flavor of Raiders of the Lost Ark rather than outright parody.

The kung fu fighting is blown out of proportion, but Carpenter keeps a lot of stuff honest. Near the beginning, there’s a kidnap scene at the airport that quivers with a sense of impending danger and claustrophobia, which the movie’s subsequent jokey tone can’t quite erase.

The goofiness probably keeps it from being anything great or memorable, but it certainly makes for a rowdy fun time. Carpenter and his actors establish an almost immediate audience rapport, sustained by the clever direction and the script. The screenplay bears the stamp of W.D. Richter, who wrote the keen update of Invasion of the Body Snatchers a few years ago.

Richter is credited with “adaptation” among the screenwriters, but it’s a good bet he’s responsible for much of the arch, ’40s-style dialogue. Much of Russell’s delivery, in which he spouts some he-man braggadocio, only to be immediately contradicted by the turn of events, is the ’40s movie adventurer given an appropriate ’80s twist.

Russell is splendid, and Carpenter gets the best work yet from Kim Cattrall, previously wasted in Porky’s and Turk 182!, and Kate Burton, the late Richard’s daughter. Cattrall plays a headstrong lawyer, Burton a naïve reporter—yes, yes, those sound like cliché “types,” but that’s the idea.

So Big Trouble in Little China joins this summer’s weirdly crowded circle of good-summer-entertainment-but-nothing-more films. It may be the most unbelievable, but it never lets that get in the way of the overriding party atmosphere.

First published in the Herald, July 6, 1986

Ha ha—”disorienting”—I kill myself. This movie didn’t cause much of a stir at the time, but it has become a cult picture, and for good reason, I think. And I really don’t find The Thing unsatisfying anymore. Will look for my Turk 182! review. By the way, this opened in Seattle at the Oak Tree, Alderwood Mall, and Grand Cinema, if anyone cares.


The Thing

February 16, 2011

A couple of years ago, John Carpenter looked like the most exciting young director in Hollywood. His successes included the sleek suspense film, Assault on Precinct 13; the excellent TV movies, Somebody is Watching Me and Elvis; and the masterly horror films, Halloween and The Fog. Carpenter appeared to be a natural stylist who had a rare understanding of how moving pictures should move.

But it’s been a bad year for Carpenter. Last summer’s Escape from New York was one of those frustrating movies that sets up a great idea in the first few minutes and then lets the story dribble away. Halloween II (which Carpenter co-wrote and co-produced but definitely did not direct), released a few months later, managed to be more offensive than the usual Halloween rip-offs.

Then came word that Carpenter was working on a semi-remake of Howard Hawks’ 1951 science-fiction classic, The Thing. This was promising news: Not only does the original Thing seem to be one of Carpenter’s favorite movies (Jamie Lee Curtis watches it on television on that fateful Halloween night), but reportedly Carpenter was planning to stick more closely to the spooky short story (“Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell) that served loosely as the basis for the first version of The Thing.

Unfortunately, this Thing is one of the big disappointments of the year. Somewhere on the way from an Antarctic glacier (where The Thing is set) to the massive special-effects facilities of Hollywood, Carpenter seems to have contracted a case of snow blindness.

He has returned to the short story’s frightening premise: An alien visitor, trapped and frozen in snow for many thousands of years, is thawed out and let loose among a group of research scientists. This extraterrestrial displays the terrifying ability to reproduce itself as any earthly life form—including man. Thus, despite the fact that all the men at the isolated station look, act and sound the same way they did before the creature got loose, there is no way to tell the men from the monsters.

Carpenter seems impressed by this metaphor for our paranoid and suspicious times, but that’s about all; he doesn’t deepen the idea. And he bypasses character development (though some of the men do go through pretty violent changes) even though he has selected a fine troupe of character answers.

Kurt Russell, playing the group’s eventual leader, has a smoldering quality that is interesting and watchable, but he’s such an inner-directed performer that he never illuminates anything around him. This worked perfectly when he played Elvis Presley for Carpenter, but it almost shuts off audience involvement in The Thing. He seems just as closed-off in the beginning of the movie as he does later, when he has good reason to be suspicious.

Instead of developing the characters, Carpenter has concentrated on producing some spectacular (and gory) special effects. For the most part the effects are astonishingly good, but it’s hard to care when we don’t have much interest in the person the Thing is devouring…or becoming. Carpenter also shoots two autopsies—one human, one alien—in revolting close-up.

The Thing is not without some superb touches. The first scene poses a tantalizing mystery: A lone husky dog lopes across the Antarctic wasteland followed by a helicopter that suddenly begins to shoot at the dog for no apparent reason. This sequence is tightly, crisply realized on the bleak terrain (the locations actually were shot in Alaska and British Columbia). And there’s a blackly funny scene later that involves a bunch of men tied to a bench who writhe in helpless horror when one of them begins to transform into the Thing.

Carpenter’s overall conception of how to treat the story is the problem, and flashes of brilliance cannot redeem this fundamental miscalculation. (It should be noted that the press kit for The Thing reports a “tentative” running time of 127 minutes as of two months ago; the film is at least 10 minutes shorter than that. This may have some significance, but we’ll probably never know.) In choosing to emphasize technical wizardry over human conflict, Carpenter sidesteps the most intriguing challenges of the story. He seems to have forgotten—may we hope temporarily?—that man himself can be as fascinating as any thing.

First published in the Seattle Times, June 25, 1982

I understand. This movie has a large and devoted following now. I saw it again sometime after it opened and yes, it was better than my first impression. But this is a completely accurate impression of seeing it at a midnight preview screening a week before it opened, and actually the impression mostly holds up (although I should give Russell more credit for doing exactly what the character requires). I remember being puzzled by a contradiction: Carpenter’s previous films had been impeccably Hawksian , and then when he actually goes and remakes a Howard Hawks picture, it comes out like this. I’ll watch it again, and probably like it more, but I have a feeling I’m going to stick with my general sense of let-down.