They Live (1988)

theylive

Directed by: John Carpenter

In recent years many professional wrestlers have tried to branch out into acting, and aside from Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson few have succeeded. An indicator for potential success of a wrestler transitioning into acting is to look back at the promo work of a wrestler during the in-ring career. Good talkers, those who are able to sell a wrestling feud are likely to be able to transition into the world of acting. Charisma counts. Which is why bulky charisma vacuums like John Cena, Randy Orton and Ted DiBiase Jr., who all have been used in the dire ‘Marine’ franchise, have flopped, and been unable to build any kind of career outside the squared circle.

So when Rowdy Roddy Piper popped up in John Carpenter’s ‘They Live’ I had reasonably high hopes. Piper’s manic ‘Pipers Pit’ segments were memorable before WWF became WWE, and if any professional wrestler could be the lead actor in a film about sticking it to the man than Roddy piper would be that guy. In ‘They Live’ Piper plays the unnamed loner who in the credits is identified as Nada.

Basically John Carpenter offers up an unsubtle sci-fi critique on consumer culture and corporate greed in the eighties. Carpenter reflects what was going on under the government of Ronald Reagan, as American tried to puff out its chest and reassert itself as a major player after the torrid seventies.

Nada uncovers that the bankers, cops, and upper crust who control the city are aliens. He notices that after putting on a cheap looking pair of magical sunglasses (oh, gosh I’m affected by consumerism enough to bash Nada’s shades) which reveal subliminal messages on billboards and who the aliens are. Business picks up when Nada kills two policemen, who are aliens, nicks their guns and goes on the run.

In the early part of the film Nada does some hard labouring for a low wage, he becomes buddies with another construction worker called Frank (Keith David), a noble worker bee who just wants to keep his head down and earn money for his family. There’s a wonderfully long fight scene between Nada and Frank midway through the movie down some grim alleyway, as Nada tries to get Frank to look through the sunglasses and see the truth. The fight feels endless, a real tiring slog. At one stage Roddy Piper executes a beautiful back body drop.

As a cultural commentary ‘They Live’ is relevant today. Last week it got a mention in Charlie Brooker’s ‘Weekly Wipe’ show on the Beeb. When you think about the financial crisis, the recession, the snoopy spying of GCHQ and the already forgotten Occupy movement; you could argue that in true cinema fashion it’s due for a remake to reflect these dystopian times. There’s certainly an almost hypnotic quality to YouTube Vloggers dropping products to their millions of followers and people being pacified by a steady stream of distractions, all brought to us as we stare blankly at our electronic devices, continuing to buy buy buy.

But what ‘They Live’ teaches us is that though one may become enlightened; trying to convince other people about the so called ‘truth’ is almost impossible. Carpenter spins an entertaining yarn, and Roddy Piper surprises everyone by being a strong lead who drops a several quotable one liners.

– RJW

7/10

They Live on IMDB

Advertisements

Halloween 3: Season Of The Witch (1982)

Halloween_III__Season_of_the_Witch_6349

This is a strange film with a great story behind it. John Carpenter and Debra Hill, writer / producers were quite bored by the Halloween series by this point, and decided that rather than resurrect Michael Myers again, they’d turn the Halloween films into an anthology series. So, every year you’d get a different scary movie based around some Halloween myth or legend, and hopefully things would tick over nicely for many years. That this is the only one, and Halloween 4 was right back with good old indestructible MM, will tell you all you need to know about how successful their plan was. But the question we’re going to answer is – was the failure of Halloween 3 to do with it deviating from the slasher template, or to do with it being a terrible movie?

Before we even swing a bat for the first time, the title gives us two hefty mistakes. If you’re going to turn this into an anthology, don’t number it as if it’s a sequel to the last one; and if you’re going to call it “Season of the Witch”, PUT SOME DAMN WITCHES IN IT

You’ve almost certainly heard of the plot, if you’re reading this site. The Silver Shamrock Novelty company has made a bunch of masks, each of which imbued with a tiny fragment of Stonehenge. When a certain advert is played on TV, the masks activate then a bunch of worms and bugs devour the face of the person wearing the mask, then the person gets replaced with a robot, I think, as the villain also has a robot factory. One might ask “why does a toy manufacturer want to turn all the kids in the world into robots?” but you would not receive an answer from the film itself. How does a company which makes three rubbish looking masks have such an extraordinary market penetration? No, down that path is madness.

HalloweenIII-StopId

There’s a bereaved woman, a local cop, and a town which seems under the thrall of the toy company, and they, in true “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” style, try to save the day. The sad thing is, I’d agree with the tone of the film. It’s got a strong anti-corporate message, which becomes more prescient with every passing year, when toys and worthless junk for the next big holiday appear on supermarket shelves earlier and earlier. But the good thing about being a progressive, a leftie, call it what you will, is that I don’t have to like things just because they agree with the way I see the world.

This film was originally written by Nigel Kneale, the British writer who gave us “Quatermass”, one of the all-time great speculative fiction series. Unfortunately, when the studio and director had finished with his script, what might have been a genuinely fascinating story was turned into a boring, stupid film with a ridiculous plot, some of the cheesiest scenes I can think of (the guided tour of the evil factory, for one) and one of those awful nihilistic endings that comes into fashion every now and again.

Is there anyone who thinks this is bad, or badly reviewed, because of the lack of Michael Myers? Get ready for my reviews of the later films in the series if you think that’s the case. This is a curious film, because it seems to have got something of a following in these internet-filled times. Every now and again, two or three people who love this film will find each other and create a loud piercing noise that drowns out all the sensible people who say “yes, this film is absolutely terrible”, and a passerby, like me for example the first time I watched this film, will think “perhaps it’s not that bad” and give it a try. Please do not be one of those people. Because it started drifting into “worst films of all time” lists in the 90s and 00s, some people just got desperate to the one who rediscovered it, I guess.

halloween3_buddyTV

It’s probably not the worst film ever made, but it’s really pretty terrible. It’s either sleazy (the cop’s relationship with the leading lady, for one), stupid or boring, or a combination of the three.

Rating: thumbs down

Halloween 2 (1981)

HalloweenII_poster

Well…mostly new

This film is the beginning of the end. As far as I can gather, it’s the first sequel to a slasher film – a few other “horror” franchises had sequels before this, but they weren’t slashers, and this sets the template. The killer is now effectively indestructible, unstoppable and his motives become more and more hazy, to the point where it becomes “Slasher Film 7 – Just Point Me At The Teenagers”.

It starts the second the first film ends. The police finally get onto the streets of Haddonfield in force, and take Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) to the hospital. Dr Loomis (Donald Pleasence, showing remarkable loyalty to this series) is sure that Myers is out there, and even carries on believing it when someone dressed identically to Myers is trapped between two cars and blown up. “Before they were famous” fans will enjoy seeing future SNL and “Wayne’s World” star Dana Carvey as one of the TV news crew people.

He's on the left

He’s on the left

The interesting things about this movie are things that its imitators didn’t do. A significant amount of this film is about the aftermath of the first one and how the characters deal with it, which is a thing most horror films don’t give a damn about. We see the father of one of the girls murdered in part 1, we see the people at the local hospital discussing the radio news reports, and we get a flavour of how a small town which has this happen would react. But it does also have an unstoppable mask-wearing force of evil, and he makes his way to the hospital, doing a few more killings along the way and stopping off at his former infant school to write “Samhain” in blood on a chalkboard.

We also appear to have the originator of the poorly lit hospital trope which I’ve railed against so many times. Initially, the hospital is brightly lit, and you’re like “finally, a horror film where I can see what’s going on” until about halfway through, when all the lights seem to be on a dimmer. Dammit! What we also have, that the first film had none of, is the fakeout scare – a cat jumping out of a rubbish bin, a boyfriend pretending to be a patient under a blanket, that sort of thing.

John Carpenter wrote the second one, even though one gets the sense he didn’t really want to, and couldn’t think of a sensible plot – hence the “twist”, which is never so much as hinted at in the film before it. Also, for all his great films, he’s made a lot more than his fair share of garbage, so maybe this is from the “minus” side of his resume. The director of part 2, Rick Rosenthal, has zero other credits worth a damn and has been a TV director for the last 20 years, but he does a decent enough job of aping Carpenter’s visual style from part 1 – it looks similar enough that if you compared a few scenes, you’d probably not be able to tell who did what.

halloween_ii_A

You have to laugh. Myers makes his way through the hospital, thinking of interesting ways to kill people (drowning someone in a boiling hot tub is my favourite) and there’s never a bit of doubt that he’ll make it through everyone in his way up to Laurie and Dr. Loomis. It gets so silly towards the end that comedy must have been what they were going for – well, I hope, anyway. There’s one hilarious death where Myers has drained all the blood from one of his victims, and someone happens upon the scene later, slips in the blood, bangs their head and dies. Brilliant! It’s when you discover that Myers has slashed the tyres and damaged the engines of every single car in the parking lot that you think “okay, I don’t have to worry about taking this seriously now”.

What this film isn’t is particularly scary, because there’s no real tension to it – when someone is shot in the eyes twice but doesn’t stop coming, it’s tough to keep tension; but it does have quite a bit more gore. I’ll leave you with a quote from Splatter Movies, by John McCarty, written around the time. “[They] aim not to scare their audiences, necessarily, nor to drive them to the edge of their seats in suspense, but to mortify them with scenes of explicit gore. In splatter movies, mutilation is indeed the message, many times the only one.”

Rating: thumbs down

Halloween (1978)

Halloween_cover

Books have been written about this film – serious, scholarly works that go in depth into John Carpenter, every shot, the film’s view of society, all that sort of thing. The geniuses at Red Letter Media have just released a commentary for this, too (the thing that inspired me to rewatch it) which is full of trivia, comedy, and analysis. Chances are you’ve already seen it. So why should you read this?

I don’t know. It’s not like I’m the first – or the hundredth, or the thousandth – low-rent film blogger to have a go at this either. Unless you’re one of the three friends of mine who reads this site regularly, these words will disappear into the ether. But, you might be about to watch this film for the first time and your Google search is broken for the first ten pages. Who knows? Also, I’m going to be reviewing the entire series, and I don’t think there are too many sites who’ve made it as far as part 6, with Paul Rudd, or that one with Busta Rhymes in it, where the house was covered in webcams (part 8, a quick search tells me).

The first thing you’ll notice is how this doesn’t look anything like the legion of films which followed in its footsteps (not just the sequels, but the other slasher franchises). It’s full of long, slow shots, panning across empty suburbia. The music and the colours (which make it look like a cold Midwest Halloween, but was actually filmed in California, the autumn leaves being a prop) set up a feeling of dread better than “generic metal soundtrack X” and a few jumpcuts could ever hope to do. The main house used in the film wasn’t a prop, but a real dilapidated home they found and were able to film in.

halloween-at-a-distance-preview1

The plot is simple. Young Michael Myers kills his elder sister on Halloween and is sent to an insane asylum. 15 years later he escapes, heads back to his old town and decides to kill babysitters, focusing on Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis). There’s no explanation, no more backstory than is absolutely necessary, and no understanding. He’s just a force. Chasing him down is Dr Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance)…and that’s it.

Does anyone really care about backstory? Was Hannibal Lecter more frightening when we knew nothing about him, or after “Hannibal Rising” when we’d got his entire life story in boring, excruciating detail? Is Michael Myers more scary or less after we’ve been told all about his life both in the sequels and the 2007 “remake”? Prequels, backstory…it’s all bunk, to squeeze money out of characters that we like because we know nothing about them. “Halloween” works partly because of what it doesn’t tell us.

It’s difficult to have a personal reaction to such a famous film. Even if you’ve not seen it before, you’ll recognise plenty of the scenes from being lifted for other, lesser horror films or from the many parodies. But it provides moments that still can give you the chills. Seeing Michael across the street, just in the middle of a normal suburban day, no loud music or jump-scares, is still a great moment. It doesn’t follow “the rules”, either, for instance Michael is unmasked at one point, and it’s not a big deal – an absolute no-no in the prop fetishisation world of 80s and 90s horror. There’s barely any death, and what there is is incredibly tame. A few frames of nudity. There’s just atmosphere.

halloween2

Really, you don’t need me to tell you about this film. It’s a classic, forever enshrined in the pantheon of great horror cinema. It’s not perfect (s-l-o-w pace, even when it doesn’t need to be, Dr Loomis spends half the film stood next to a bush) but the way it works, while the sequels get progressively stupider, is testament to its quality. We’ll be reviewing the series, and as I recall I quite enjoyed a few of the later ones.

Rating: thumbs up (obviously)

The Thing (2011)

I wonder if at any point during the making of this film anyone went “why are we doing this? Like, isn’t this just a complete waste of everyone’s time?” But, I bet people are just happy to be working making a film, and those questions will only come out when the finished product is revealed. But, we’ve not got to that yet!

“Something’s different about Dave. Maybe it’s his hair, or the new limb growing out of his chest. It’s hard to tell.”

The 1982 version of the film is one of my favourite horror films ever – I still fondly remember my friend Dave, when he worked at the local cinema, getting them to show it one Halloween. I’ll try and avoid making too many comparisons between the two films, although towards the end I think it’s going to become inevitable.

 

A guy who looks weirdly familiar to me interrupts the science-y work of Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and asks her to come to the South Pole. Turns out some mining fellas have found a buried spaceship which has been there for 100,000 years or so, and they need her paleontological skills to identify…an alien! One of the blighters managed to escape from the stricken UFO but has been frozen in place for god knows how long. Well, 100000 years, minus a day or two, I suppose.

 

So far, so good. Who is that boss scientist fella? Never mind. They bring the alien back to their base and have a debate – Winstead says they should leave it and take it back to civilization to study it, boss scientist says they should take a tissue sample right now. Drilling into it evidently wakes it up, slowly, as a few hours later, while the “we found an alien” party is in full swing, it smashes out of the block of ice, and the main part of the film is ON!!!!

 

Part of the genius of the 1982 film was the sense of dread, along with the groundbreaking-for-the-time special effects. The alien could transform itself into anyone, so there was always that tension when someone left the room, or the group got split up. Hey, I tried not to compare things too much, but I couldn’t help myself. This film has the same alien, obviously, but he seems to be a lot less clever. I’ll give you an example. Later on in the film, there’s a helicopter which is taking a sick guy back to McMurdo, and one of the people on the helicopter is alien-ed up. Rather than just not alerting people to the fact he wants to eat their entire race, he transforms into his alien self and attacks them, destroying the final method of transportation out of the remote ice-station. Seems a bit stupid to me.

 

The film then gradually works its way through its multi-racial cast. We’ve got a British guy, a bunch of Norwegians, some Americans, and…the boss scientist! It’s Ulrich Thomsen, from “Festen”! The original Dogme 95 film and one of the most entertaining arthouse films of all time. That’s an interesting career arc for an actor, and the problem that was irritating my mind for an hour or so was solved.

 

The ending is really silly. One of the alien-infected runs off to the spaceship, to go back to his home planet. Luckily, after 100,000 years buried in the ice, it starts up first time. My mind rebelled at the daftness of this, so I started wondering what the alien’s friends would say when he turned back up at home. “Hey, Vexnarg, remember that 7 space-bucks you owe me?” The poor chap’s wife would give him a hard time, and his boss would probably sack him for crashing the car. The humans manage to prevent the ship from taking off, but one of the survivors is…you’ve guessed it, infected himself! So, the alien changes his mind for some reason (if he infects two people with “alien”, are they both the same person? Dunno) and that brings us to the final confrontation.

 

It’s difficult to spoil the ending of this film, as the last scene of this film is the first one of the 1982 version (give or take). But even though the makers of the film did their homework, and there’s plenty of careful continuity between the two films, it all seems a bit…silly. It’s another film which relies on people acting stupidly to drive the plot along; and I’m not just saying that as a viewer. If I was in that situation and I was surrounded by people behaving like they did, I’d be all “what? Really?”

 

The sensitive drama about conjoined twins had changed a lot since the first script draft

So, it’s part-prequel, part remake of one of the most fondly remembered horror films of all time. Is it any good? I think the main thing to say, really, is that it all seems a little pointless. The special effects are pretty fantastic, with the monsters reminding me of “Society”, the upper-classes-are-mutants film from the late 80s. But, absolutely no-one will ever say “well, the 1982 version was good, but 2011’s really knocks it into a cocked hat”. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is lovely, everyone tries their hardest, but the sense which is impossible to shift is that everyone’s time would have been better spent doing something else.

 

Rating: 2 ice-mutants out of 5

 

The Thing on IMDB
Buy The Thing (2011) [DVD]