Category Archives: John Carpenter Films

In the Mouth of Madness (1994): The Power of the Storyteller

We begin Halloween Horror Week with “In the Mouth of Madness” one of the films in John Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy. John Carpenter is one of my favorite directors with the “Escape” series, “Halloween” and “The Thing” being some of my favorite films. This film joins those as a favorite though it does not reach “Halloween” or “The Thing” level quality. This is really smart film and it was well written, what really only brings it down are how some of the characters are written and some of the cast performances.

The film was directed by John Carpenter, written by Michael De Luca and produced by Sandy King.

The story involves John Trent (Sam Neill) recounting how he ended up in an insane asylum, as his story begins he is an insurance investigator who is investigating the disappearance of a famous horror author named Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow) who has gone missing and whose editors need in order to get his latest book, “In the Mouth of Madness,” released on time.

Spoilers ahead

Pros: The Lovecraft Themes – The main themes that are Lovecraftian that are done really well in this film are people being driven mad from beings from beyond (Sutter Cane’s books are warping reality because of being from beyond) body twisting (the people in Hobb’s End and those who come to Hobb’s end, a character in an insane asylum, people cut off from the world (Hobb’s End) and the pointlessness of man’s fight against the greater universe (John discovers that he is a character in one of Cane’s books so he never had Free Will. These are some of the many Lovecraftian themes in the film and easily what it does best.

What the Storyteller Does to the Characters – As someone who writes fiction as a hobby, authors are cruel to our characters. We create drama for them and have them suffer so that they go through arcs. The sad thing is they are entertainment to us to some degree as stories are entertainment and we may care about our characters but not in the same way we care about real life people. John Trent feels that in full as well as the horror of realizing he is just a character in a story.

The Power of Meta-Narrative – One of the things that works really well in this film is the meta-narrative. You have the narrative of Cane’s past books woven into Hobb’s End as well as “In the Mouth of Madness” weaved through the story as John comes to realize that this film is his story and he is trapped inside of it. These levels of narrative and meta-narrative lend the story power as the different levels of story inform one another and strengthen the themes.

What is Reality? – A major question the film asks is if we are just in a story that someone else is writing. That is John Trent’s arc and from there the question is asked whether his reality really was really warped by Cane or if it’d been warped all along. Is the only reality Sutter Cane’s and John Trent is trapped in a book? Or was reality really warped by being beyond and the world of the film was our world that was transformed? I believe the movie leaves this question open, which strengthens the narrative.

Okay: The Cast – The only great members of the cast is Sam Neill. I believed his terror and he felt fully realized, even though we didn’t necessarily get to know his character as well as we could have. The others are okay but I wouldn’t really consider their performances great. They felt like set pieces that fit within the narrative but not fully realized characters.

The Characters -This was a film with huge ambitions but the writing doesn’t fully realize the characters within. Even John Trent could have been better realized in regards to his motivations and what he was going through. All the characters are guilty of this. They aren’t bad but Cane doesn’t feel threatening, I never felt I was given the chance to care about Linda Styles, Cane’s editor and besides John Trent the rest of the characters feel like parts of a puzzle that work but not unique in and of themselves. Which is a pattern I’ve noticed in the Lovecraftian adaptations I’ve seen thus far.

If you are a fan of Lovecraft, John Carpenter or horror films you should really check this film out. This is a brilliant film and I love how it explores the nature of reality, the power of the storyteller in regards to the characters they create and the use of meta-narrative. It would have been perfect if the characters had been better written and the film had a better cast but for what it is, it is a really good film and one I’d highly recommend. This is a favorite, and I plan to watch it again in the future.

Final Score: 8.6 / 10

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Halloween (1978): A Masterpiece of Tension and Horror

halloween-original

    John Carpenter is one of my favorite directors of all times and this is partially due to him not only being a great director but being an amazing writer and composer too. The original “Halloween” that spawned a franchise is living proof of this. I was originally going to do a comparison of the old “Nightmare on Elm Street” with the remake, but I wanted to take a risk and watch a movie I knew would be good versus the almost always crappy quality that comes with most remakes (though the Original “Nightmare” is terrible too so mostly I just wanted to watch something good). Suffice to say, I’m glad I did. This is a movie that is a classic for so many reasons that I look forward to going into more detail on, later in the review.

      “Halloween” was directed and co-written by John Carpenter while being co-written and produced by Debra Hill.

      The story starts with 6 year old Michael Myers killing off his teenage his sister in 1963. Fifteen years later he escapes his asylum when he takes advantage of a storm and the asylum preparing to bring him to court to go to trial. From here he returns to his original home and begins to kill again, leaving it up to Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence) to stop him.

The Pros: The World – The world of “Halloween” is fascinating because it is like ours but also not quite like our world. Myers isn’t all human it is implied and the reaction to him escaping is downplayed from the beginning showing people in authority in this world don’t actually care that much about risks or most people…with the exception of the Dr. We see this in our world and sometimes it is worse or better but it still exists completely in the Universe Carpenter and Hill created.

The Cinematography – The cinematography is gorgeous as the light of fire from pumpkins or the light from a lamp that can quickly go dark, putting our characters into a dark shadowy world where we see enough to get the humanity of the victims or the inhumanity of the monster. The film is gorgeous and captures how open environments are where you are safe from the monster and closed environments when the monster hunts.

The Soundtrack – Carpenter created a beautiful and iconic score that I plan on using for my own writing. The film reminds me most of “Psycho” as there is an overlay of tension that pervades it and feeds into the silence when silence is used.

The Writing – The writing is fantastic! Our characters are real and sympathetic and very much who they are, Loomis is a Dr. who knows Myers and is paranoid because of it, the teenagers are different levels of free within themselves and their relationships or bound by their duties and responsibilities and all of them care about each other even as they do the crappy things teens and people sometimes do to each other. The writing in this is golden and illustrates showing rather than telling.

The Characters – As I said in the writing segment, most of the characters feel fully defined and real and it makes them compelling even as you know they are going to die as they play into the tropes and the types of people that Myers kills (sexually active teens like his older sister when hew as six). The dimension they have, even if it is only a little showing them both as selfish and selfless, gives the story shape.

The Teenagers – The teenagers are selfish and selfless and manage to feel like real teenagers, not adults playing teens, which is a lot to say of any film, but especially horror films that have bland stilted teens who are there to die. Here they exist as characters rather than props.

The Kids – The kids are there to show the mystery and terror of Halloween as it is one of them who notices Myers and calls him the bogey man. They also end up protecting the main teen protagonist Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) as she is babysitting and isn’t going over to the party house where Myers is slowly killing off her friends.

Dr. Loomis – Pleasence does a fantastic job as Loomis and isn’t the traditional hero as is unable to save most of the teens and only saves Laurie because she’d fought Myers prior, slowing him down and sent out the kids for help. He’s human through it all and you get why people don’t trust him as he is overly frank and sounds paranoid.

Michael Myers – Myers is one of my favorite monsters in cinema now. From the beginning he is messed up kid with sexual hangups and targets those because of it. It’s established from the beginning he doesn’t have humanity but there are elements of humor to him too, such as when he dresses up as a ghost or reacts to the environment around him. He’s threatening and as far as we know unkillable, but he is still defeatable and he’s better because of it.

The Theme  Music – The theme music is as iconic as “Jaws” and captures the beauty and tension of the this film so well. It is simple and accomplishes so much, which is a great analogy for the script and direction. You don’t need complex or big to scare or tell a great story.

Halloween and the Holiday Theme – The theme of Halloween is huge as that was when the first killing happened and in it the trick or treat theme as one could easily see the ones who are killed after having sex getting the trick after the treat they’d shared. It is those who are already cautious and ready for the trick (Laurie and the kids) who survive. Also the theme of masks and fear are big too as Myers panics when Laurie tries to pull off his mask when he is trying to kill her.

The Art of Tension and the Slow Burn – Myers doesn’t start killing immediately, there is a slow build up as he stalks the teenagers and hunts and gets to know his old home and town again. We have him breathing deeply and him always being far enough away to disappear but close enough to get our protagonists creeped out. This makes when the killings finally happen as we see him always out of site and isolating his quarry all the more suspenseful and scary.

Fear In What Isn’t Seen – Rarely do we see the killings happen, it is always out of sight and quickly and usually done in the dark. This adds mystery and terror and us reading whatever we want into Myers. He is the unstoppable and large threat who we see is capable of anything (as established at the beginning) and may not be human. We fear him because of not only what little we see but because we don’t see so much except only what little we are shown.

The Killer’s View – Tied into fear in what isn’t seen is seeing the world through Myers’s point of view. We get the monster in his heavy breathing and in how he acts like an animal, but we know he is human. He is a monster in the stalking as we know what is coming and from the beginning this is someone who acts and is a threat.

 Elements of the Monster – Breathe, size, mask, simple elements (stabbing and strangulation) and obsession. Both the physical and mental aspects of Myers are what make him so terrifying.

Great Use of Horror Tropes – Sexually active folks get killed, responsible and taking care of the kids and fine…why this works in this film though is we see Laurie getting more isolated. She wants to be with her friends and they want to be with her, but she can’t and as Myers picks them off in different ways we see her isolation grow. She’s in a place she’d rather not be having to be responsible as her friends are doing what she wants to do. Ironically it saves her but it also her curse, she hears her friend die over the phone and see how Myers displays the bodies when she finally goes over when the kids are asleep and is greeted by a nightmare she has no control to end.

  The Cons: The Sheriff and the Other Doctors – These are the guys who are antagonistic towards the Doctor and useless as characters. They are the only stock characters in the film and the only reason I won’t rate this film as perfect as the very least they could have been was not annoying since they weren’t helping at all.

    This is a movie that is not only a great horror film (easily one of the best of all time) but is also an all around great film because it does what every film needs to do but doesn’t…it shows rather than tells and it does it through camera work, editing and dialogue. This seems simple but it is something most horror films and other movies as a whole miss. A monster isn’t scary because it looks undead or is a cannibal, a monster is scary because you don’t know what it will do, except you know it will be something terrible. I wish more movies would remember that as this movie had me on the edge of my seat and was rewarding from beginning to end. Debra Hill and John Carpenter are clearly a dream team and Carpenter is one of my Top 3 favorite directors  and this film captures so many of the reasons why he is. Check this film out if you haven’t, chances are you won’t regret it.

Final Score: 9.6 / 10

Escape From New York (1981): Trapped in the Machine

Escape From New York

    “Escape from New York” and “Escape from L.A.” were stories I was only really familiar with through the game series that they helped inspire. Solid Snake was drawn from the ex-soldier and protagonist of this series Snake Plissken. Both of them are isolated soldiers forced into situations of their control and must race against time to complete the mission and save themselves. The biggest difference is the “Metal Gear” series is much more sci. fi. based while the “Escape” series is more dystopian and apocalyptic. Suffice to say I really enjoyed “Escape from New York,” and consider it a favorite film even though it does have some obvious problems that I will go into.

       John Carpenter wrote and directed the film while it was co-wrote by Nick Castle and produced by Larry J. Franco and Debra Hill.

   The story begins in 1988 when there is a 400% increase in crime leading to the United States turning Manhattan Island into a high security prison. It is in 1997 and Air Force One get’s hijacked and crashed into the prison that is Manhattan forcing the New York Police Force to send in Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) to rescue the President and save the tape that is needed for the Peace Summit with the Soviet Union and China. From here Snake is in a race against time as he is infected with capsules that will kill him in 22 hours unless they are removed.

The Pros: The Premise – The premise of society falling apart leading to a tyrannical government rising in the United States is fascinating, especially as we see how the disregard for life of those who aren’t among the privileged has decreased drastically. Whether it is Snake having the capsules put into him that give him a death sentence unless he completes his mission or all the rules that you see the moment you come in, as well as the fact that all those entering Manhattan Island have the choice to commit suicide rather than going to Prison. The disregard for life it at it’s height.

The Cinematography – The cinematography is beautiful. It is dark and shadowed and captures the feel of being trapped extremely well. Everything is hidden, which sets up how we don’t see what happened to the President until much later in the story and we don’t meet the Duke of New York until later in the story either. Dean Cundey and Jim Lucas did a great job.

The Soundtrack – The soundtrack is very 80s and it works. There is a tense synth feel that pervades the film which captures that this is supposed to be a future really well. John Carpenter and Alan Howarth did a great job.

The Action – The action is extremely solid. Whether it is Snake having to fight against his dying body and different crooks or facing off against the Slag in a bat fight in the Duke of New York’s arena or finally racing across a mined bridge being chased by the Duke…every action scene moves the plot forward and establishes the strength and guile of our hero or the motivation of those around him.

 Maggie – Maggie is the girlfriend of Brain who was once Snake’s partner but ran away. She comes to Brain’s defense but also sees the bigger picture too as she and Brain help save the President from the Duke. This leads to the Brain eventually dying and her using the last of her energy to try and kill the Duke. She was a great character and gave us a picture of someone making it in Manhattan. Adrienne Barbeau did great.

Brain – Harry Dean Stanton is great as the double crosser who eventually comes to stand by his friend. He’s smart and that is what keeps him alive as we see him outsmart both Snake and the Duke on multiple occasions and in doing so keep his head. He does eventually die on the bridge and can’t make it out but he makes possible Snake and the President’s escape, saving Manhattan from being bombed by the mainland.

Duke of New York – Isaac Hayes (Chef from “South Park”) is a great villain. He is a guy who is confident who sees himself as number one. He’s rose through the ranks of the prison to the point that he owns it now and just wants to get revenge on the world that put him there. He nearly succeeds too, only being stopped by Brain and Maggie when they change sides and help Snake free the President.

Snake Plissken – Snake is a bitter ex-convict who also served in the army at one point. Among the people he is seen as a bit of a folk hero and most people in Manhattan eventually recognize him. He’s ruthless but has a good heart as we see him go from threatening Brain and Maggie to trying to use all he can to help them escape. He’s pretty anti-authority too and we see him give cabbie’s tape to the President, embarrassing him on live television before China and the USSR while Snake himself destroys the tape that the government was going to use. His story is resisting the machine even as he is forced to be a part of it. Kurt Russell does a great job.

Okay: Bob Hauk – He is the guy who injects Snake with the capsules forcing him to race against time. He believes in Snake and has a respect for him as at the end he asks Snake if he’d like to join his team.

The Cons: The President – He’s a tool and wasn’t all that memorable. He wasn’t bad but he wasn’t written with much depth as we see him dismiss the lives that were laid down so he could escape and him cringing everytime he is threatened.

Romero – Romero just looks crazy but we never get why the Duke made him his second in command. Because of this he is just kind of there.

   This story has great world building, but I didn’t feel as attached to the characters as I did in “Escape from L.A.” I think a big reason for this is a lot of what the story does is world building and tone setting. It is “Alien” to “Aliens” and in both cases in order to experience the world we don’t have the time to really grow attached to a lot of the characters. It is still a film I’d recommend to anyone who loves a good dystopian or apocalyptic story and it sets up “Escape from L,A” and the story beats “Escape from L.A.” will use really well.

Final Score: 9 / 10