Unseen and Not Heard (Memoirs of an Invisible Man, 1992)

Memoirs-Of-Invisible-Man-posterI think if there is a forgotten John Carpenter film…this is it.  Did you know that John Carpenter directed a movie with Chevy Chase and Daryl Hannah?  Did you??

He almost didn’t, the film was being developed by Chase and he wanted Ivan Reitman…but he and Reitman were unable to agree on how things should go and Reitman left.  One of those rare “cannot get along with Chevy Chase” stories.  In fairness, Reitman wanted to make it a standard Chevy Chase vehicle, but Chase saw it as a chance to explore more serious roles.

Carpenter was brought in to provide that.  Of course, this was still meant to be a studio film, which in the end means the film takes no risks.

The story focuses on self absorbed Stock Analyst Nick Hollaway (Chase) who is present in a building where there is an experiment that goes awry.  In case you cannot see it coming *cough* he is left invisible.  (Sorry for that)  He soon finds himself on the run with new girlfriend Alice from shady CIA agent David Jenkins (Sam Neil…and not Carpenter’s last work with him).

The story is pretty standard fair with little of Carpenter’s originality.  Hollaway is on the run from the CIA who want to use him for spy stuff.

There are a lot of scenes where we see Chase onscreen when he is supposed to be invisible…and it gets almost confusing in the beginning…but later, while we can see Chase on screen, he casts no reflections.  The effects are remarkably good, and the most notable thing about the film.  They clearly put a lot of thought about how his invisibility works.  Nick and everything he was wearing are invisible…so he runs into the problem of not being able to see his hands or know exactly where they are when trying to eat.  He can see his food digesting when he looks in the mirror.  When he smokes, you see the smoke in his lungs.  Then there is a really neat scene where rain drops temporarily illuminate Nick in front of Alice.  In fact, the effects in this film hold up quite well almost twenty five years later.

You can see that Chase is trying for a darker type of role.  Chevy avoids his standard mugging for the camera.  And the film does not have a lot of jokes.  In fact, most of the jokes come from other characters.  But none of it is compelling.  The film just has no unique identity.

You can even see that Carpenter did not really see himself as more than a studio employee…it is one of the few films he has directed to not bear the “John Carpenter’s” as part of the title.  This is the forgotten film because it feels neither like a Carpenter film nor a Chevy Chase Film.  It never really pulls you in, and Nick really lacks personality.

The Advertising Scam (They Live, 1988)

they-live-posterI have only one thing to say.  Fifteen minute fight between Rowdy Roddy Piper and Keith David.   ‘Nuff said.




Oh, you expect me so say a bit more?  Fine.

Beloved Wrestler Roddy Piper is Nada, a wandering Construction worker looking for work.  When he discovers a group of resistance fighters hiding among the city’s homeless, he finds himself stuck in a battle against humanity and aliens bent on human enslavement.


When Nada discovers a pair of sunglasses that allow him to see the aliens, he tries to figure out what to do.  He enlists help from fellow construction worker Frank and TV Executive Holly.  What follows is an insane ride.

The film is packed with action and humor.  One of the most memorable moments is Roddy walking into a bank wearing the magic sunglasses and holding a shotgun declares, “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass.  And I am all out of bubblegum.”

The other big moment is a nearly fifteen minute fist fight between Roddy Piper and Keith David.  It is amazing.  Asked recently if he ever considered shortening the fight, Carpenter indignantly declared “F**k no!”

This is a good cast who make a rather ham-fisted film work.   Keith David is always good and Meg Foster is mysterious and uncertain in her motives.  And those eyes.


I mentioned ham-fisted…the plot is a huge screed against the 80’s consumerism and Reaganomics.  When Piper puts on the glasses, he sees in black and white…

But he does not just see the aliens.


He also sees how they are taking over….advertising.


It is hard to ignore, and while it may be a valid criticism, it is done in a way that feels almost comedic.  The aliens reward people willing to cash in.  A guy goes from being a bum to a member of the 1%.  In a way I am surprised nobody has remade this one yet since 2008.

In spite of this, the film is effectively fun and has some real twists.  It is a well loved Carpenter film for a reason, and it is not for the politics.  It is a goofy action film, a cross between the grim and serious Escape From New York and the boisterous Big Trouble in Little China.

Devil in a Can (Prince of Darkness, 1987)

prince_of_darkness_posterJohn was pretty prolific in the 80’s and most of them are quite memorable.  Prince of Darkness is a religious themed horror film that is played straight.  Carpenter brings back Victor Wong and Dennis Dun from Big Trouble in Little China.  He also brings Donald Pleasence back.

Prince of Darkness begins with a dying priest passing a secret on to Pleasence’s character (simply called “Priest”).  The secret could rock the church.  With the help of a local Professor and his students, a study is taking place in an abandoned church.  In the Church basement is a giant glass container with a swirling green liquid.  It is revealed that this is the container of the son of Satan…it is prophesied that he will release his father.

As the film progresses, there are stranger and stranger events.  The local homeless community, led by Alice Cooper (who also provides the theme song), are amassing around the church.  People start to disappear, and then show up possessed and passing on the virus.   The name of the game is both survival and stopping the father of evil from being unleashed on the world.

The film is set around an intriguing story.  It is not a serious exploration of religion.  The theology is pretty wonky.  But the film is not trying to establish a truth kept hidden by the church.  Carpenter is not pulling a Dan Brown.  He is just working to tell a scary story.

Is Prince of Darkness John’s scariest film?  No.  For one thing…(Son of) Satan in a Can is a pretty goofy concept.  But the film does have a nice, creepy atmosphere at play.  One of the strong suits of pretty much any Carpenter film is casting.  He had people he seems to have liked working with and would bring them back.  His films are full of great character actors.

The visual effects are very good.  They do a lot of simple, yet effective, practical visuals here.  The score (by Carpenter) is eerie.  In spite of a goofy concept, the film works pretty well, and is part of Carpenter’s more memorable films.

Nobody Knows the Troubles I’ve Seen (Big Trouble in Little China, 1986)

big-trouble-in-little-china-posterThe fourth outing for Carpenter and Russell is an entertaining blending of genres.  Big Trouble In Little China is part action film, part Kung Fu, Part fantasy and all comedy.  Russel is the cocky but lovable Jack Burton.  Jack’s favorite person is himself and his mouth often seems to get himself in trouble.  And he has found it in spades when he visits a friend in China town.  His friend, Wang Chi, is raising money to bring his bride to be (Miao Yin)  to America.  But when she arrives, she is captured by the henchman of the mysterious crime lord David Lo Pan.  Lo Pan is seeking her because she has green eyes.  And a girl with green eyes are part of a curse.

Along with Wang, Jack is joined by intrepid reporter Gracie Law, her friend Margo, Eddie Lee and Egg Shen, a mystical old Asian man.  Jack is an interloper, but is drawn deep into a fight to save Miao from Lo Pan.  He has three warriors, each with an elemental super power.  While Jack fumbles his way through heroism, it leads to a great battle of both brawn and wits.

Big Trouble in Little China is a loving send-up of both American and Asian Martial Arts action films.  This means that…well, yeah…all the Asian Characters know martial arts.  But at the same time, the central characters are all individuals.  Lo Pan is probably the closest to a stereotype, with James Hong really laying on the accent.   Jack is not the last samurai, rather we start with him and stumble into the fight.  He is there for his friend.  Truth is, the movie makes it clear they do not need Burton, but he is brash and rushes headlong in with a friend.

The film is full of humor, even in action packed moments, it finds the time to give a wink to the viewer.  Jack often succeeds by failing in spectacularly amusing ways.  The cast is great, Dennis Dun plays Wang Chi as a sincere and heroic young man in love.  Kim Cattrall is charming and full of fire as Gracie Law.  Donald Li is great fun as friendly tough guy Eddie Lee.

Carpenter does not flex his “fun” muscle a lot.  I mean, he does not avoid humor, but this is a straight up action comedy, among other things, and Carpenter shows a real flair for it.  Big Trouble in Little China is definitely one of Carpenter’s funniest films and is best viewed with a group.

Oh yeah…and this film had more roles for Asian actors than the live action Ghost in the Shell.

He’d Like to Come and Meet Us (Starman, 1984)

starman_1984_PosterStarman is a whimsical tale of an inquisitive alien who adopts a human identity.  Of course, he chooses the form of a grieving widow’s dead husband.  This is one of the rare contributions of Carpenter that is about hope.

At first widow Jenny is horrified and frightened by the naked man in her home.  But she cautiously trusts him.  As they run, Jenny starts to help the Starman understand what he is experiencing.  He is perplexed by our human insecurities.  He is full of kindness, but finds  our unkindness to be senseless. Starman is trying to show a better path, but mankind rejects this, seeing him as a threat.

Starman is remarkably upbeat for a guy who has an Apocalyptic Trilogy.

And yet, in spite of this…it is like this little bit of hopefulness slipped out.  And I like it.  Carpenter is a lot more thoughtful of a storyteller than some might think, but he often often slips it in beneath buckets of blood and goo.

It is a heartwarming film, much because of Jeff Bridges’ performance.  He plays the Starman in a kind way, as a child just discovering that life is not fair.  Allen is terrific in a potentially thankless role.  She brings heart to Starman’s goodness.  More than one film since has aped Starman’s inspiring behavior.  Starman is not one of Carpenter’s more talked about films, and that is a shame.  It is not a common film for him, but it is touching and a good little film.

Guys Love Their Cars (Christine, 1983)

Christine-1983-PosterAfter the Thing, Carpenter went with a different type of terror.  In some ways, it is a return to the ghostly tale of the Fog.  But instead of Leper Pirates, Christine is the tale of an obsessive car.

Nerdy Arnie is put upon…he has one friend (athlete Dennis) and overbearing parents.  He discovers a decaying old car, a 57 Plymouth Fury.  It’s first owner named it Christine and Arnie falls in love.  He buys the car, and it begins to love him back.  Christine brings about a change in Arnie.  He dresses a bit cooler, he behaves with a bit more attitude.  He even gets a girlfriend.  Attractive Leigh, who is new to the school.  Christine begins to take out the bullies who make Arnie miserable, but the obsession between Arnie and Christine grows and becomes dangerous to his only friends.

Christine is a very good adaption of Stephen King’s work.  It focuses on what is important, even when it makes changes.  Christine’s first owner (Roland LeBay) is the ghost that haunts her.  Arnie purchases the car from him and then he dies.  It is revealed he was a dark man and he has a dark history.

Carpenter optioned to, instead, make Christine a spirit of her own.  And it works quite effectively.  Keith Gordon (Jaws 2, Dressed to Kill) captures Arnie’s descent into truly obsessive behavior effectively.  He take Arnie from Sympathetic to frightening so well.

Visually, the movie is impressive.  There are some amazing shots of Christine (one where she is driving down the road engulfed in flames).  The effects are  “simple” but very effective.  When Christine is damaged, she “fixes” herself and it looks great.

It is interesting to note that the initial negative response to Carpenter’s The Thing left John feeling like he had to take the job.  He did not find the book particularly scary.  And yet, in the end, he created an effect story of obsession certainly belonging in a list of great John Carpenter films.

How It All Began… (The Thing, 2011)

thing_2011_posterWhen it was announced that they were making a movie connected to John Carpenter’s the Thing, the internet seemed unsure how to describe it.  Is it a Sequel?  No.  Is it a reboot?  No.  Is it a remake?  No.  But boy, I saw it constantly referred to as a remake and a reboot, even after it came out.  Here is the thing, there is literally no doubt that this is a prequel.  It is set shortly before Carpenter’s film at the Norwegian camp that discovers the alien thing.

Of course, being a prequel, the film spends a lot of time trying to set up and explain stuff we saw in the first film.  How was the ship so exposed?  How did the alien get out of the block of ice?

This is not to say they do not try and be a bit different.

For one, the cast has female characters, rather than the original’s exclusively male cast.  Specifically, Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Kate Lloyd, a scientist brought by an old friend to the Norwegian base for mysterious reasons.  Of course, once she arrives, she can see why they were not so quick to tell her what they found.

They discover a body in the ice, and bring it back to the base.  They start to investigate, and are all excited, imagining what this discovery means.  But of course, that is when the creature awakens and the horror begins.  Once the infection starts, it moves through the cast quickly.  One of the things that they successfully do differently is how the characters determine infected from uninfected.  This all leads to an eventful showdown as the alien tries to take off with his ship.

Unlike the original, which often would slow down, and the ending fight was small and contained, this film is full of major action on a regular basis.  The paranoia takes a back seat to fast action sequences.

While there were actually quite a bit of practical effects designed for the film, the studio pushed for more digital.  The digital is not terrible in the film, but still, it feels less real than the effects of the original.

As the film races towards the end it becomes heavily focused on filling in the blanks of the destruction discovered by Kurt Russell and Richard Dysart in Carpenter’s film.  In the end, while a strong idea supports this film, the execution never comes close to having the impact of John Carpenter’s the Thing.


Mighty Mutatin’ Machine (The Thing, 1982)

The-Thing-PosterHot on the heels of Escape From New York, Carpenter and Russell worked together on the Thing.  A film based on the short story “Who Goes There” (which had been adapted previously as The Thing From Another World).

Focusing on a research team in a remote arctic location, this story of paranoia is highly effective.  The team is attacked by a pair of Norwegians.  When they go visit the base, they find the remains of some major mayhem.  They also find some bizarre corpses and video evidence of something discovered within the ice.

What they do not realize, until it is to late is that the Norwegians were not attacking them…they were after something else…something protected by our American team.

And what they discover is an alien lifeform that can mimic any life form it encounters.  And that is when it really gets interesting.  Who can you trust?  Who is human and who is not?  Carpenter uses this to fuel a paranoid and exciting story full of twists and turns.  Kurt Russell’s helicopter pilot becomes a defacto leader, much to the annoyance of Garry (Donald Moffat) and Childs (Keith David).

The cast is excellent.  It is hard to go wrong with guys like Keith David and Kurt Russell, but the entire cast are top notch in their performances.  The film is full of tense moments that lead up to shocking moments.  The shocks are courtesy of FX guru rob Bottin and his crew.  The transformations are bizarre and gruesome in the best way possible.  This film is a benchmark of effects achievement, and it is a great selling point for practical effects.

John Carpenter’s The Thing is an absolute sci-fi and horror classic and one of Carpenter’s best films.

the-thing-blu-rayThis month, Shout!Factory has released an all new Blu-Ray of the film.  The Two disc Special Edition has a very nice 2K scan, resulting in an excellent picture.  The packaging has lush new cover art.  It also has the Drew Struzan original on the reverse side.

The special features are are numerous and about as comprehensive as a package is eve be.  There is a brand new interview with Carpenter by director Mick Garris.  Another new feature is the Men of Outpost 31 which features interviews with several cast members (though, no Kurt Russell).  Both of these offer new and entertaining insights to the film.  They also included the Terror Takes Shape, a 90 minute making of film from the original DVD.  It was left off the previous Blu-Ray.

The set also includes vintage featurettes, audio commentaries (a new one with Director of Photography Dean Cundey), outtakes and one of the more surprising inclusions the Network broadcast version of the film.

This is a set worth having in one’s collection.  It is filled to the brim with features to explore the history and design of the film.  Shout!Factory has done a stellar job here.

I Heart New York (Escape From New York, 1981)

Escape-From-New-York-Poster1981’s Escape from New York was a large change from the Fog and Halloween.   There were no supernatural elements and it was not a slasher.  Instead, it was a straight up action film set in the distant future of 1997.  Reagan married Thatcher and they had a kid who became President.  Or something.  Anyways, the president gets stuck in the worlds largest maximum penitentiary.  Also known as New York.

Snake Plissken is coerced into slipping into Manhattan and saving the president.  A pardon is promised.  Of course, nothing turns out to be easy.  Snake ends up with a small band of folks who help him save the President as well as a cassette tape with top secret intel.

This marked the second of several films John made with Kurt Russell.  At the time, Russell was known for a string of Disney films.  The character of Snake Plissken was rugged.  He had an eye-patch, wore a trench-coat…he was a badass anti-hero.  In the end, Plissken is basically an opportunist and an anarchist.  He is not saving the president because he cares.

Carpenter gets action, and has Plissken face several jams, cunningly escaping each one.  His accidental team include a cabbie (named Cabbie, played with dopey charm by Ernest Borgnine), former partner Brain (Harry Dean Stanton) and his girlfriend Maggie (Adrienne Barbeau).  Their biggest impediment is the Duke (Isaak Hayes) who rules Manhattan.

I would say the weirdest thing is that some of the technology seems like it lacked creativity.  Seriously, cassette Tapes???  On the other hand, the create computer graphics with models that create an impressive effect.

For a lower budget action film, Carpenter keeps the story moving as Snake runs a gauntlet of trouble.  It is an exciting and entertaining film.  This is one of Carpenter’s great films, and in the early eighties, he was on a real role.

Wisps (the Fog, 1980)

the-fog-1980-posterAfter two TV movies, John Carpenter returned to the screen with an old fashioned  ghost story.  Telling the tale of small seaside town Antonio Bay, the Fog follows events leading up to their Centennial.  The town is planning to celebrate the near mythic four founders of the town.  In the days leading up, there are mysterious events.  Add a dense, unnatural fog.  The Fog is not the scary part…there is something in the fog.  Something cruel and angry.

Only a few townspeople know the true history.  Father Malone is a tortured priest who has kept the secret.  And the rest of the town continues on oblivious, writing off his warnings.  But people are starting to discover some bizarre incidents.  They find a ship that appears abandoned, until they find a sea ravaged body.  A body that gets up once on land.  There are knocks at doors, but there is nothing there.  When the fog finally overtakes the town, the vengeful spirits start to decimate the town, while some race to save others.

This is a wonderfully classic haunting story.  The characters are interconnected by the narration of Stevie Wayne, the local DJ who works in a converted lighthouse (it is, of course, related to the horrific history of Antonio Bay).   As Stevie, Adrienne Barbeau has a sexy and raspy tone.  Stevie is a single mother who is separated from her son, and her only way to communicate the threat is to keep talking on the radio.  She also has a playful and flirtatious relationship with weather man Dan (Carpenter regular Charles Cyphers).  Their relationship is entirely over the phone, but it is engaging.

Tom Atkins (always welcome in any film) is rugged local Nick Castle who picks up hitchhiker Elizabeth (Jamie Lee Curtis, returning from Halloween).  They end up trying to save people after hearing Stevie over the radio.  Hal Holbrook’s weary priest is a great performance.

The effects are so simply that they impress.  The fog crawls through forests, engulfs houses and the ghosts hidden within are emphasized by eerie back lighting.  Carpenter has filled the film with many great little touches, such as using the scenery of the town as a character all its own.

If you want a great and classic ghost story?  You won’t go wrong with the Fog.

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