Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Fog (1980)

Part III in a John Carpenter film quest.

Starring: Adrienne Barbeau, Jamie Lee Curtis, Janet Leigh, John Houseman, Hal Holbrook
Written by: John Carpenter, Debra Hill
Directed by: John Carpenter

Continuing in the horror genre, John Carpenter follows up his massive Halloween success with The Fog: the story of a small seaside town in the grip of a spooky weather anomaly. But where Halloween was a slasher movie featuring a stalker, The Fog veers down a different path. This time offering more of a ghost story.

The events occur over two nights, centered around the 100th anniversary of Antonio Bay, California. The town is slowly invaded by an unforeseen fog, carrying with it the remains of an old ship (as well as its murdered passengers, out for revenge from an incident that happened 100 years prior). The story is told in essentially three parts: the night before (fog rolls in, town wonders why everything suddenly went haywire), the day of (discovering the damage from last night), and the night of the anniversary (lead characters must solve the mystery and end the curse).

In a direct nod to past horror films, Jamie Lee Curtis headlines the film with real-life mother Janet Leigh (of Psycho fame). Hal Holbrook gives an ominous performance as Father Malone, and Adrienne Barbeau gives some of her best work as the owner of the town's sole radio station.

The movie (like Carpenter's others, up to this point) takes its time establishing the characters and the setting before presenting the primary threat. But where Assault on Precinct 13 exploded at a certain point, and the Halloween did the same toward the end, there is not a sudden quickening of pace in The Fog. Although the movie does feature scenes of distinct shock value (Carpenter's great at eliciting shock from his audience).

At this point in his career, Carpenter is becoming increasingly proficient in the use of music, mood and atmosphere to ratchet up the suspense during tense scenes. Not to mention sound effects to scare the crap out of his audience. The film's inherent strength lies in the creepy atmosphere, with the fog looming as the omnipresent threat.


Thursday, December 3, 2009

Halloween (1978)

Part II in a John Carpenter film quest.

Starring: Donald Pleasence, Jamie Lee Curtis, Charles Cyphers
Written by: John Carpenter, Debra Hill
Directed by: John Carpenter

John Carpenter became a household name in 1978 with Halloween, his landmark entry into the horror genre. Made on a shoestring budget ($320,000) the film went on to gross nearly fifty million in the U.S. alone, and became the biggest independent movie in history.

Fifteen years prior, six-year-old Michael Myers is locked up in an institution after killing his teenage sister with a butcher knife. On the night he's to be transferred to court (to be tried as an adult), Myers escapes, his psychiatrist Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance) trailing after him.

Myers returns to his childhood home in Haddonfield, Illinois, on Halloween, and proceeds to stalk Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her friends relentlessly. No one knows why, but it's clear Myers will stop at nothing.

Put simply, the movie is horror, in its most raw and purified form. With Halloween, Carpenter proved that he could scare the hell out of his audience without a big budget. Instead of special effects, he uses lighting, sound design, and music to do the work for him. The music - a seemingly simple and unsophisticated piano melody serves to add a distinct mood to the movie, and us used to a very creepy effect. It's a style that punctuates the minimalist approach to the actual film (just as he did with Assault on Precinct 13).

And like the film's style, Carpenter keeps Myers simple. There's no "why" when it comes to Myers - nothing supernatural or outlandish. He's just some kid who snapped. And the fact that we have no reason why he's after Laurie just heightens her role as victim. She's done nothing wrong, nothing to atone for. But he's out to kill her, and there's no reasoning with Myers.

Carpenter's third movie as a director fires on all cylinders. It's spartan, basic and undiluted.

And scary as hell.


Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

Part I in a John Carpenter film quest.

Starring: Austin Stoker, Darwin Joston, Laurie Zimmer
Written by: John Carpenter
Directed by: John Carpenter

It's been said that the Western would pop up in several movies throughout John Carpenter's career. But his sophomoric effort, Assault on Precinct 13, remains his love letter to the genre.

The story unfolds in the "Anderson ghetto", a gang-ridden neighborhood in South Central Los Angeles. CHP Lieutenant Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker) is assigned to oversee the neighborhood police precinct on its last night in operation. This is on the same day that the members of Street Thunder have sworn a blood oath against the police, following a raid that kills several of their own. Adding to that (in the grand tradition of coincidence), a prison bus on its way to Sonora is using the precinct as a way station until one of the prisoners can receive medical treatment for a sudden illness ..... thus setting the stage for the night's onslaught.

On the surface, Assault on Precinct 13 is your standard siege movie. Most of the action takes place in and around an aging police station, undermanned and out gunned. But it's the mishmash of genres going on here that sets the movie apart from other actioners of the time: part noir, part exploitation, and part zombie movie (with the largely unseen gang members stalking outside).

And there is the distinct homage to Howard Hawks, as well. Not only to the great Rio Bravo, but also to his entries into the noir genre. Evidenced by the tough-as-nails secretary Leigh (Laurie Zimmer), the anti-hero prison inmate Napoleon Wilson (played by the late Darwin Joston), and even the slashed lighting of the venetian blinds in the station.

And just like the Western, Assault on Precinct 13 takes its time setting up the characters and the locale. If the movie were done today (there was indeed a remake in 2005), much of the slow pace of the first 30 minutes would be sped up, and a lot more would be happening. But in slowing down the pace of the first half, the action breaks out in parts, and becomes one of the movie's distinct strengths. You're not continuously "assaulted" by a siege. But once things get going, the action comes out of nowhere, often relentlessly. And you're left with the all-too-rare feeling of wanting more.