Beat Cops (Alien Nation, 1988)

Alien_Nation_PosterIt is the near future of 1991…three years prior, an alien ship appeared above Los Angeles.  It was full of an alien race we nicknamed the Newcomers.  Genetically bred for adaption, they adapt quickly to life on earth, forming communities, entering our schools and workforce.

In this world, we meet Detective Matt Sykes.  It is quickly established he does not like the Newcomers in any way.  He refers to them by the slur Slags and expresses only disdain for their presence.  Sykes and his partner Bill interfere with a robbery resulting in Bill’s death.  Angry and determined to get back at those responsible, Sykes volunteers to work with the first Newcomer Detective Sam Francisco (Sykes resents the “gag” name and renames Sam as George).  What follows is both a personal journey for Sykes and a professional journey for the two detectives as they uncover a dark conspiracy to exploit the weaknesses of Newcomers for great profit.

Science Fiction has always been a vehicle for exploring the human condition and our moral failings.  Alien Nation tackles bigotry and xenophobia which can be a rather treacherous territory.  Mainly, this is because the aliens are stand ins for…well, not white people.  It has been pointed out that one of the problems with the X-Men as the metaphor for bigotry school of thought is that…well…shooting lasers from your eyes is a legit dangerous and deadly power… having black skin is not.

Alien Nation avoids this by an extremely careful world building.  The Newcomers are, in many ways, no different from humans, both in virtues and vices.  They have some physical differences (two hearts, get drunk on sour milk, cannot process cooked meats and so on) and look different (Newcomers are bald with spotting on the back of their heads)…yet seek to have a better life than the one they left behind.

A lot of what makes the film work beyond the well thought out Newcomer earth based culture is the performances by James Caan and Mandy Patinkin.  Using the “Mismatched Buddy Cop” formula allows the story to move at a quick pace.  This also can make it easier to ignore certain weaknesses in the metaphor.  Sykes overcomes his bigotry in a matter of days, though even at the end, apologizes to George for how awful he will be towards him in the years to come (a moment played for laughs).  Truthfully, this is a shortcoming of the film medium, everything needs to occur quickly, so a nuanced journey from bigotry to goodness is not generally in the cards.

Alien Nation is ambitious and largely hits its mark with thoughtful performances, a well thought out world, and good special effects.  It feels, in some ways, more timely now than it did in 1988.

Ghosts With Tattoos (the Ghosts of Mars, 2001)

ghosts_of_mars_posterIn the future, the terraforming of Mars has begun  There are colonies all over Mars.  The world is now a Matriarchy.  A police force is sent to Mars to transfer prisoner Desolation Williams.  They arrive to find the town empty except for some folks in lock up, including Desolation.  He and the others have no real answer for what is happening.

They soon discover that there may be more to it than a murder spree.  The ghosts of Mars indigenous population are taking over the bodies of earthlings.  Melanie Ballard is a tough space cop and finds herself aligned with Williams, who proclaims his innocence in the murders of countless colonists.  While she believes he is not a killer, she believes in following her orders and bringing him in, but survival requires them to wait on that and work together.  The spirits or organisms (whatever they are) take over people…in stage one they stare intensely at their hands.  Then they start mutilating themselves.  Then they get violent.

The exploration of the mystery gets slow at times, and there is a lot of running around that feels like padding for the story.  The film is bloody and violent when not being slow and expository.

The story is basically told in flashback with Ballard giving testimony about what happened.  Then there are the flashbacks in flashbacks.  This gets tiring fast as characters show up to tell Ballard what she missed.

In addition, the acting is fairly weak in most cases and nothing is to compelling.  The reveal of the cause it a twist that neither surprises nor adds to the situation.

It is interesting to note that the film started as Escape From Mars, a Snake Plissken tale.  The studio got a bit uncomfortable with a third Escape film and opted to have Carpenter change up the story.

There is no telling if Escape From Mars would have been a better film than Ghosts of Mars, but this is easily the worst of Carpenter’s work.


I Love L.A. (Escape From L.A., 1996)

Escape-From-LA-posterJohn Carpenter’s first sequel.  Escape From L.A. brings back Snake Plissken.  The setup here is that in the late 20th century, a Presidential predicts a major earthquake will hit California and Las Vegas because of their sinful ways.  Unlike Pat Robertson, his prediction comes true.  American makes the now island of Los Angeles a one way prison.  The president was elected to a lifetime appointment.  They instituted a theocracy.  If you were to sinful you were sent to L.A. (but you get the option to repent of your sin and be immediately electrocuted).

In the future of 2013, the President’s daughter (oddly named Utopia, because a hyper-religious parent would name their kid Utopia?  Or is the implication that he used to be a hippie?)  has stolen an important prototype and run off to L.A.  Like before, the government calls in Snake Plissken and forces hm to make a deal to go into L.A. and get the prototype back so a potential invasion of America can be averted.

Plissken runs into all sorts of Oddballs, such as evil plastic surgeons and a surfer gang.  He gets help from the morally ambiguous Map to the Stars Eddie and the sexy Taslima.  He takes on Cuervo Jones in an attempt to get the prototype.

Like most sequels, Escape From L.A. mimics Escape from New York a lot.  There is even a scene where he walks into a club and finds a dead Rescue Team member he was tracking.  On the other hand, the film really amps up the action.

The film has stuff that does not really make sense.  The Evangelical President outlawed eating of red meat?  I mean, it might make more sense if the laws were based in Old Testament.  The effects are not..well…effective.  Many scenes are clearly green screened.  The basketball sequence just does not compare to the gladiatorial combat of the first film.

This is not to say the film is terrible.  The cast, including Steve Buscemi, Valeria Golina, Pam Grier, Stacy Keach and Cliff Robertson are all good.  And Russell slips right back into the skin of Snake Plissken with ease.  One of the most entertaining moments is when Snake is captured by the Surgeon General of Beverly Hills (Played by Bruce Campbell).  He leads a group of surgically enhanced misfits…they need to keep replenishing their body parts and look like the surgical disasters of nightmare on E! Television.

Escape From L.A. is fun, but comes no where near the classic status of Escape from New York.



Can I Play With Madness (In the Mouth of Madness, 1994)

in-the-mouth-of-madness-posterCarpenter returned to the big screen for his next endeavor.  A mind-bending Lovecraft inspired horror film.  Starring Sam Neill, In the Mouth of Madness is about insurance investigator John Trent who is looking into the disappearance of famed horror writer Sutter Cane.

Cane is like Stephen King in popularity, as well as his books being centered around a certain geographical location. Sent on his quest by Charlton Heston’s Jackson Harglow (the publisher), Trent starts to discover that Cane’s books are having a profound and violent impact on his readers.  Trent is finally able to create a map using portions of covers to Cane’s previous books.

He embarks on his journey with publisher liaison Linda Styles (Julie Carmen).  As they arrive, they start noticing something askew with the small town of Hobb’s End.  The buildings all fit locations described in the books.  There are people who seem to be from the books.  At one point, Trent tries to debunk this by pointing out that that they would be able to see an ancient church from a window, but Styles points out he is looking from the wrong window.

As the world seems to unravel before Trent’s eyes, he fights believing what is true.  In the Mouth of Madness is the final film in Carpenter’s loose Apocalypse Trilogy (the first is the Thing and second Prince of Darkness).  And it is a perfectly trippy film.  Carpenter uses the Lovecraft elements particularly well.

The visual effects are very well done, feeding the creepy vibe of the film.  Much of the early part of the film suggests Trent is hallucinating, but upon arriving in Hobb’s End, it is clear that something is truly wrong.  The effects feed this twisting of reality in a particularly effective way.

Carpenter’s direction is on point in this film, he is in control and not having to worry about studio concerns like he did with Memoirs of an Invisible Man.

The cast is very good, and Neill sells both the skeptical investigator and the man losing his mind.  Julie Carmen has the second biggest role in the film, and she is terrific as both support and foil for Neill.

The weakest link is the soundtrack.  Carpenter went for more of a rock vibe, which does not support the film in the way his earlier soundtracks did.

Still, in the end, this one of Carpenters stronger entries and has a lot to enjoy for the viewer.




Be as Little Children (Village of the Damned, 1995)

village-of-the-damned-posterVillage of the Damned is Carpenter’s second remake.  This one is not quite as inventive as the Thing.  Here, Carpenter sticks much closer to the source material.  The film begins in an idyllic small California town where there is a community barbecue.  In the midst of the festivities, the entire town falls unconscious.   The government enters the scene very quickly to assess the situation.  They find there is a line that can be crossed, where a person will pass out.  Almost as quickly as it hit, the town wakes up.

Soon, six women discover they are pregnant.  The babies are all born at the same time (but one is stillborn), and the government leaves behind researches to keep an eye on the newborns.  As the years progress the five children are becoming quite peculiar and are surrounded by mysterious tragedies.  The children all have silvery hair (the actors are quite annoyed that people think they wore wigs.  They did not) and are immensely smart.  They are eventually kept away from other children and taught by Christopher Reeve (in his last role before being paralyzed).  Reeve’s Alan Chaffee knows there is a problem brewing and starts trying to find ways to block the children’s psychic powers.  He also starts to connect with the young David, who seems to have more empathy than the other children.  This is, in part, due to the stillborn having been meant to be his partner.

Really, the visuals of the film are striking.  The five children with shocking silver hair and the subtle visual effects (primarily in their eyes and faces, the more intensely they focus, the more their alien physiology becomes dominant).

The performances are all dependable for the needs of the film.  Reeve makes good use of his decent guy reputation and Kirstie Alley is good in the role of cold and calculating government liaison Dr. Susan Verner.  But really? the standouts are Thomas Dekker as David and Lindsey Haun as Mara.  Haun is chilling and full of menace, while Dekker’s growing humanity makes him truly sympathetic in his loneliness.

While not as unique as his previous remake, the Village of the Damned is a nicely done horror film that pays homage to more classic horror.

Crypt Keepin’ Carpenter (Body Bags, 1993)

body-bags-coverAn attempt by Showtime to create a Horror Anthology to compete with HBO’s Tales From the Crypt, Body Bags both starred and featured direction from John Carpenter.  Showtime killed the series but released the three shorts set against bookend segments hosted by Carpenter as a creepy coroner.  His assistant was Tobe Hooper, director of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  Both directed a segment as well.

Just like the Crypt Keeper, the Coroner makes schlocky jokes, before introducing the story.  It is not entirely certain each bookend was meant for the story that followed.

The first tale, the Gas Station, is about a young woman on her first night working at a gas station on a lonely stretch of road.  After a parade of weirdos, she discovers she is being stalked by a serial killer.  It is not a unique story, but it is well done, with a nice little twist.  Wes Craven has an amusing cameo as a creepy drunk who hits on the young woman.

The second segment, Hair, is about a man who is obsessed with his thinning hair.  In spite of his girlfriend’s insistence that it does not matter to her, he cannot stop fearing losing his hair.  Everywhere he looks he sees luxurious heads of hair.  He drives his girlfriend away because he won’t accept himself.  One night, he discovers a clinic that promise actual regrowth of lost hair.  Richard runs to the clinic for their service.  He is stunned when they try and talk him out of it, but he wants hair.  But in the end, he finds the hair wants him just as much as he wants it.  This is an entertaining story with and entertaining performance from Stacy Keach.  This is also the most humorous of the stories.

The best segment is the Eye, starring Mark Hamill as a minor league baseball player whose career is cut short when he loses an eye. He is offered a chance at a new experimental surgery that gives him a donor eye.  But with the eye comes dark and depraved visions.  Are they his own or the previous owner of the eye? Hamill gives a strong performance.  Of the three tales, this is the best of the bunch.

As with all anthologies, some installments are better than others.  But thankfully, in the case of Body Bags, all three are ranging from decent to very good.  While the first two segments are directed by John Carpenter, the Eye is directed by Tobe Hooper.  This is an enjoyable film.  And for those curious…you get to see Luke Skywalker’s bare butt.



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.

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