John Carpenter Thrills Me! – Horror Movie Month

Okay yesterday I covered two disappointing movies from John Carpenter so today I’m going to cover why I love him.

The Thing (1982) – Rated R

Scientists working in Antarctica are forced to abandon their research after a helicopter crashes near their camp, bringing a lone dog into their midst. But the plot thickens when the otherworldly canine changes form in the middle of the night. As it turns out, the dog is a shape-shifting alien that can attack animals — and unsuspecting humans. Kurt Russell stars in this creepy John Carpenter-directed remake of the 1950s classic.

John Carpenter’s The Thing was released in 1982 against Spielberg’s E.T. juggernaut. The Thing bombed at the box office but is now regarded (rightfully) as a modern classic.

Rob Bottin’s effects are simply amazing and may represent the height of physical effects. I’m not looking forward to what I imagine will be lazy CGI in The Thing prequel currently at theaters. Having said that, Bottin’s effects also detract a bit from the tense nature of the story.

Carpenter assembled an excellent ensemble cast with Kurt Russell being the only big name. All of the characters have individual personalities and it is actually a huge boon that the cast is all male. This allows there to be no romantic lead or love story getting in the way (although Ridley Scott was able to pull the same trick off with a mixed cast in Alien). None of the cast is glamorous – they all appear to be people on a station doing a job (hmm also done in Ridley Scott’s Alien).

I mentioned that some of Bottin’s work undercuts the tension. This is because The Thing is one of the best film examples of paranoia ever – the characters even go so far as to question whether they would know if they were an alien. The special effects are showy and heighten the weirdness of an alien encounter but detract from the marvelous atmosphere of paranoia.

My other favorite ‘thing’ is the ending. I won’t spoil it of course but in my mind the final scene of The Thing is one of the best movie endings ever.

The Fog (1980) – Rated R

While an old, weather-beaten fisherman tells a ghost story to fascinated children huddled by a campfire, a piece of driftwood in a child’s hands begins to glow, and an eerie fog envelops the seaside community of Antonio Bay. From its midst emerges demonic victims of a century-old shipwreck seeking revenge on the small town. Director John Carpenter’s follow-up to his breakout film, Halloween, stars Jamie Lee Curtis and Janet Leigh.

The Fog is certainly not the classic that Halloween or The Thing are but is an excellent film. The first half of the film is uneven but the last half, with the town besieged by the fog and the creatures therein is very atmospheric and quite thrilling.

The ensemble cast is great. John Houseman opens the film by telling a spooky story around a campfire. Hal Holbrook is fabulous as a tortured priest. Carpenter’s then wife Adrienne Barbeau plays the lead and Jamie Lee Curtis and her mom Janet Leigh are reunited in film. Carpenter regulars Tom Atkins, Charles Cyphers, and Nancy Loomis round out the cast and Carpenter himself has a cameo.

In the Mouth of Madness (1994) – Rated R

When popular horror writer Sutter Cane (J├╝rgen Prochnow) goes missing, his publisher hires investigator John Trent (Sam Neill) to find him. Trent tracks Cane to a small New England town, which is filled with nightmare scenes right out of the author’s books. Encountering one gruesome scene after another, Trent wonders if Cane’s fans have gone psychotic and begun imitating his writings, or his “novels” are really nonfiction. John Carpenter directs.

Okay clearly putting all of these together makes me realize that one of the things the wonderful Carpenter films share is atmosphere. In the Mouth of Madness has that in spades along with a nifty mobius strip of a story. I did find that the movie went on just a smidge too long – the final scene could easily have been cut.

This movie does not fit the standard Hollywood mold or even the standard horror mold. In the Mouth is not a Lovecraft adaptation but it captures the mood of H.P. better than any of the movie adaptations of his work. The slowly creeping madness is palpable here as is the gloom and desperation.