Thursday, February 28, 2013

John Carpenter's TV work: Elvis (1979)

I'll openly admit I'm not really a fan of movie biopics. I find most of them over-romanticise and over-simplify their subjects. There's no way you can condense a person's life into 120 minutes and still tell a coherent and meaningful story so why bother trying? Real-life just isn't the same as fiction. It's messy and disjointed. The best biopics I've seen are probably Steven Soderbergh's two-part Che films which took the novel idea of just presenting two contrasting revolutions that Che Guevara participated in. Two small time periods rather than a whole life. I'll also admit that I've never been a fan of Elvis as a musician (however I do appreciate the enormous impact he had on rock n roll). So sitting down to watch Elvis I wasn't sure I was going to like it but it did have two things going for it. My favourite director John Carpenter behind the camera and Kurt Russell in front of the camera.

The film begins with Kurt Russell playing a 34 year old Elvis sitting in a Las Vegas hotel room watching the news. He's just about to go on stage for a comeback gig and the news anchor on TV is questioning whether Elvis is still relevant. In frustration Elvis shoots the TV with a gun and then asks his bodyguards to leave him alone for a while. He sits in the dark and reminisces about his life up to that point. Beginning as a bullied boy in Mississippi, living in a log cabin. Then following him through life as a shy high schooler, an aspiring singer, an international sensation, a GI, and finally as a rich but melancholic millionaire. The film focuses particularly on his strong relationship with his mother Gladys (Shelley Winters) and his infatuation with Priscilla Beaulieu (Season Hubley) who he later married.

Despite my concerns about biopics I did enjoy Elvis. I think that it was mostly down to Russell's spot on performance. Elvis Presley is a tricky character to play because he was very much a larger than life figure himself - full of eccentric ticks and quirks. It would be very easy for a lesser actor to slip into parody but Russell never lets that happen. He's always in control of 'The King's' voice and mannerisms. Visually he's a dead ringer too. This was his first major adult acting role after doing a bunch films as a kid with Disney such as The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes and Now You See Him, Now You Don't. Carpenter was taking a big risk casting him but it worked out great. I think it probably helped that Russell's own father Bing plays the role of Elvis' father Vernon. They had a naturally rapport with each other.

The production values are pretty high for a TV movie and period detail is great. It feels very authentic and credible. The film was obviously authorised by the Elvis estate so don't expect the film to have any controversial elements to it. It's U rated through and through even when it coasts near controversy such as Elvis falling in love with Priscilla when she's just 14. I think it was a mistake to try and cram so much of Elvis' life into the film. Even watching the 180 minute "uncut" version it's quite disjointed in places. There's very little set-up as to where the characters are and what's going on when the film jumps forward a few years (as it does many times). But I guess this is better than having character talk about what's going on otherwise there's be no time to get to know them as people. I feel Elvis was really made for die-hard fans who already knew most of his life story. Newcomers like me might get a little lost now and then.

I will say if you've seen Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story it might be a struggle to take Elvis seriously. There's a lot of ideas that Jake Kasdan's pitch-perfect parody stole from this flick. Not least, the opening scenes of a wooden child actor awkwardly segwaying into Russell trying to pass himself off as a 16 year old high schooler. Like I said earlier, the problem with biopics is that they have to force a character arc or thematic resonances on to real people's lives. This film tries to do this a little bit with Elvis talking occasionally to his shadow pretending it's his dead twin brother Jesse but they didn't really go very far with the idea.

All in all, Elvis is a decent if overlong biopic and has a great performance from Russell. It's a decent portrayal of Elvis' life but there's no revelations really. There's little Carpenter touches here and there (and an early cameo if you can spot it) but it's mostly an anonymous work. Carpenter obviously has a lot of affection for 'The King' Just check out Carpenter's own music (somewhat Elvis sounding) from his little known album 'Waiting out the Eighties' by The Coup DeVilles

And, as a bonus, check out a young Kurt Russell kicking Elvis Presley in It Happened at the World's Fair


Monday, February 25, 2013

John Carpenter's TV work: Masters of Horror: Cigarette Burns (2005)/Pro-Life (2006)

Masters of Horror was an anthology series that aired for two seasons on Showtime from 2005 to 2007. It was created by Mick Garris, a horror director who had worked on a number of Stephen King TV movies, and the idea behind it was that each episode would be directed by a famous horror director and they would have carte blanche to do wanted story they wanted no matter how graphic or twisted. Some were original stories while other were adaptations of classic writers like HP Lovecraft and Richard Matheson. In a lot of ways it was a great idea because a lot of the famous horror directors of the 80s and 90s were struggling to get work on theatrical films at the time. A few of them like John McNaughton and Ernest Dickerson had already moved over into directing television shows anyway and horror cinema, at the time, was dominated by the Saw series and foreign imports. 

John Carpenter's episode Cigarette Burns appeared midway through the first season and was heralded by most critics as one of the best of the series. The episode sees Norman Reedus (The Boondock Saints, The Walking Dead) play Kirby, the young owner of a struggling independent cinema. Due to his financial situation he takes on a job from a mysterious businessman, Mr Bellinger (Udo Kier), to track down a copy of a seemingly "lost" film, La Fin Absolue du Monde (French for The Absolute End of the World) that was only shown one time thirty years ago. So he flies around the world interviewing various people who were at the original screening and finds that almost everyone that saw it either died or went mad. Throughout his journey he suffers blackouts which are signaled to audience by a "cigarette burn" appearing on screen just before it happens. What was on the film? And who is the albino man with scars on his back who is locked up in Bellinger's house? All will be revealed.

In a lot of ways this film felt quite similar to Carpenter's 1994 film In the Mouth of Madness. Both had protagonists who were tasked on tracking something down and both were playful commentaries on the obsession of watching films and telling stories. I've got to say, despite the similarities, I didn't really enjoy this much but I think that's mostly down to the script rather than the directing or acting. The set-up is great but I was expecting the 'search' for the film would be really complicated but essentially it's very easy. At the end of the episode Kirby is more or less given the film by the director's widow. Secondly, I thought the story felt way too similar to The Dumas Club, a book by Arturo PĂ©rez-Reverte (which was filmed in 1999 as The Ninth Gate) about a man who is tasked with tracking down a rare demonic book.

The tone of the episode was a bit all over the place too. It wasn't scary enough to give you chills and it wasn't campy enough to be enjoyable. It fell somewhere in the middle. The actual shots of La Fin Absolue du Monde are only shown in a little snippets but they mostly look like something out of cheesy 90s Nine Inch Nails music video. I think Carpenter should have stuck to his guns and not shown any of the film so that it could retain its mystique. There's a great film that just came out called Berberian Sound Studio that's all about how much more important sound is to horror films than the visuals. Still Carpenter did manage to give me at least one mental image that I'll never forget - that of a man feeding his own intestines into a projector - that was some twisted and crazy stuff. 


Pro-Life (Carpenter's contribution for the second season), by contrast, was almost universally hated at the time but I actually quite liked it. The episode sees Caitlin Wachs play Angelique, a young women who visits an abortion clinic to end her pregnancy. She claims the baby is a product of a demonic rape however, just as the doctors start their procedure, her redneck father Dwayne (Ron Perlman) shows up with her brothers intent on making sure the baby survives. Even if it means killing most of the staff in horrific ways.

The script was written by
Drew McWeeny and Scott Swan (who also wrote Cigarette Burns) and it has a lot of parallels with a couple of Carpenter's earlier works. In the first half you've got the siege atmosphere of Assault on Precinct 13 and Prince of Darkness and then in the second half, when the baby is born, you get the gory horror of The Thing. The only problem with doing this is that it keeps reminding you of better stuff that Carpenter has done. As much as I liked the episode the writing was sloppy and the dialogue pretty hokey. The only actors who give decent performances are Perlman and Wachs. The rest of the cast was very weak.

I think the main thing I liked about episode was the first half. The build-up was pretty riveting for the first half hour but once the 'father' of Angelique's child shows up the whole episode descends into a mess of poorly shot effects work. I'm talking guys in rubber suits and CGI babies. It really killed the atmosphere. I guess this was mostly down to the fact it was a TV show so they didn't have the time or budget to nail the effects. Still that first half hour was, for me, much better than the whole of Cigarette Burns

I think overall Masters of Horror was an interesting foray for John Carpenter but neither episode can be described as an overwhelming success. I think after Ghosts of Mars Carpenter was really burnt out on film-making and having watched these two episodes you get the sense that he could still show up in body but not in spirit.


Friday, February 15, 2013

John Carpenter's TV work: Body Bags (1993)

After the commercial and critical flop of Memoirs of An Invisible Man in 1992 (see The Flops of Chevy Chase) John Carpenter signed a deal with US TV network Showtime to produce a horror anthology series. It was quite a cynical idea on the part of Showtime and they were clearly hoping to replicate (and maybe even overtake) the success that, rival network, HBO were having with their show "Tales from the Crypt". So Carpenter set out and directed the first two episodes and roped in Tobe Hooper (Texas Chain Saw Massacre) to direct the third. However during shooting Showtime got cold feet about committing to a full series and put the show into turn around before any episodes had aired. The decision was made to salvage the footage by editing them into one 90 TV movie called Body Bags.

So the first installment is called 'The Gas Station' which tells the story of Anne (Alex Datcher), a college student who takes a job as a night shift cashier at a gas station in the middle of nowhere. Locked in her glass booth she thinks she's safe but as the night drags on things get creepy and customer start turning up dead. The second episode is called 'Hair' which sees Stacy Keach play a businessman who is obsessively worried about his receding hair line. He goes to see a doctor (played by David Warner) who offers him a new and experimental treatment which at first seems like a success but soon becomes deadly! And the final segment is called 'Eye' which sees Mark Hamill play a baseball player who is injured in a car accident and has to have an eye transplant. Not long after he starts getting murderous urges and is forced to look into who the eye originally belonged to. Each segment is bookended by an appearance by John Carpenter who plays a ghoulish morgue attendant who enjoys cutting up dead bodies.

Any anthology movie is tough to review because you're always going to get varying quality between all the segments. Even the best examples of the genre like Creepshow have weak parts. It certainly doesn't help that Body Bags also falls in between being a TV show and a movie. As a TV show it's slightly above average but as a movie it's pretty cheap looking and not very satisfying. I'd probably say that the first installment - 'The Gas Station' - is the best of the bunch. I think what makes it work is that it's a simple story all told in one location and Carpenter throws in a ton of red herrings and misdirection to keep your interest held throughout. You know from the moment that a radio newscaster mentions an escaped mental patient is on the loose that one of the gas patrons is going to turn out to be him but you never know if it's going to be the obvious hobo-looking guy or the unassuming businessman.

 'Hair' isn't too bad but it suffers from the fact that it's played mostly for laughs. The only real horror comes in the last two minutes of the episode when Keach realises what exactly the hair treatment entails and even then it's pretty silly. Keach gives a really good performance though as the balding businessman. You really feel his frustration and impotence. 'Eye' is probably the least of the three. The problem is the story is really weak. It's obvious from the outset that Hamill's replacement eye is (spoiler) going to turn out to have been donated by a convicted murderer. So it's kinda of dull waiting 30 minutes for the lead character to come to this conclusion too. That said Hamill does do a good job when his character turns psycho. People forget he's actually a very versatile actor.

The real reason you should watch this is for Carpenter's segments inbetween each episode where he plays the morgue attendant. These are a really fun and playful. Carpenter's performance reminded me a lot of Michael Keaton in Beetlejuice. It's got that same live-wire atmosphere. The attendant is a really twisted guy and there's good 'reveal' about him at the very end of the film that I didn't see coming. Also, it's quite fun to catch all the famous cameos and in-jokes dotted around the episodes - Sam Raimi, Wes Craven, Twiggy, Debbie Harry, Tom Arnold all pop up in tiny roles. Another strong point is the gore used in the films. It's not frequent but when people do die it goes way over-the-top. In one bit a guy gets crushed by a car and rivers of blood come pouring out. It's insane!

Overall, Body Bags isn't a great TV movie but it's a fun way of wasting an hour and half. The major problem is that it's too focused on setting up a last minute twist to all its stories that it forgets to actually be scary. I'm glad Carpenter got back to doing theatrical films after this because TV (especially a 30 minute TV show) really doesn't suit his style. If you're going to track it down make sure you avoid the region 1 DVD from Artisan. They cut a lot of the gore which makes the film far less enjoyable. The VHS in the UK is completely uncut.


Friday, February 8, 2013

John Carpenter's TV work: Someone's Watching Me (1978)

As a fan of director John Carpenter it's frustrating how much he has slowed his output in recent years. He's only made two films in the last decade and seems in no hurry to make any more. As a result, in order to satiate my appetite, I've had to dig a little deeper into his back catalogue and catch up with his (semi-)forgotten TV movies. So over the next month I'm going to be doing reviews all his small screen work. First up is Someone's Watching Me, a TV movie that he wrote and directed in 1978, the same year that he made Halloween. Reportedly, he wrote the script for the cinema but ended up retooling it for TV when NBC offered to finance it. It was shot in 10 days just before he went into pre-production on Halloween. Like all Carpenter's films it has a pretty clever hook. It's more or less a reversal of the classic Hitchcock film Rear Window - so instead of having the protagonist spy on a killer, in this movie the killer is the one spying on the protagonist!

The plot revolves around the character of Leigh Michaels (Lauren Hutton), a young woman who has just moved to LA to work for a TV station. She buys an apartment in a high rise building and before long she starts getting weird phone calls, mysterious presents and bogus letters. She slowly deduces that someone in one of the adjacent high rise buildings is watching her every move through a telescope! But who is it and why are they targeting her? She goes to the police for help but they refuse to get involved so she decides to take matters into her own hands and enlists the help of her colleague Sophie and her boyfriend Paul. Together they discover that this Peeping Tom may be more deadly than he appears, he may in fact be a killer who uses his telescope to pick out lonely women to murder! Will they be able to stop him before he gets to Leigh?

Someone's Watching Me is actually a pretty good film all things considered. Carpenter definitely had to make some compromises converting it to a TV movie. For instance, although the film generates some decent suspenseful sequences it's obvious that Carpenter has had to leave quite a few spaces for the commercial breaks. As a result, the film seems to stop and start a lot. It's a shame because one of the great things about Halloween was how well he kept ratcheting up the tension throughout. The film also feels in a need of a little 'edge'. I don't know whether some gore would have 'improved' it per se but it would have probably made it feel a little tougher and more cinematic.

One of the best aspects of the movie is the main character Leigh. As a way of getting around the fact that she spends much of the film on her own, Carpenter makes her a quirky offbeat character who talks to herself a lot. This character trait sounds annoying on paper but actress Lauren Hutton really makes it work. She also does a great job of conveying the character's emotions, starting off carefree and naive before becoming increasingly paranoid and frightened. She's ably supported by Adrienne Barbeau who plays her work colleague Sophie. One of the film more unusual aspects is that Carpenter makes Sophie openly lesbian but then never develops it as a plot point which I thought was quite progressive thinking for a TV movie from the 70s.

The camera work is pretty good - again, taking into account how dull and dry most TV shows looked at the time. Despite the 4:3 framing you can still recognise that it's been made by Carpenter's hand. Like Halloween, he uses a fair bit of smooth steadicam work and several POV shots from the killer's perspective. In a lot of ways, this film feels like a sort of dry-run for Halloween. Both are obviously heavily indebted to the work of Dario Argento and Bob Clark's Black Christmas, but this film feels a bit more Hitchcock-esque with its red herrings and underlying tension. One thing is for sure Carpenter definitely rings the maximum potential out of the film's quite narrow scope; taking his time to set-up and then unravel the mystery.

all Someone's Watching Me is a very watchable thriller that stands head and shoulders over 99% TV movies. It's no Duel but it's a consummate piece of work that slots in very nicely to Carpenter's back catalogue. If you're a Carpenter completist like me you should definitely think about picking it up. For a long time it was really hard to get hold of but a few years ago Warner released under the banner of 'The Twisted Terror Collection' along with a few other unrelated horror films. You should be able to find it pretty cheap on Amazon or Ebay and it's also available on Netflix. Check it out.