Is it possible for me to talk about John Carpenter and how I love him and keep it short, sweet, and simple?
Is it possible for me to keep anything short, sweet, and simple?
It seems rather obvious that if I’m spending a month writing about horror films, I have to talk about at least one of John Carpenter’s movies. The hard part is figuring out which one to write about.
Do I start at the beginning and watch Halloween or maybe Assault on Precinct 13? Do I come in at the end with Mission to Mars or Vampires? What about maybe talking about his recent “resurgence” if you will with his generally praised contributions to the Masters of Horror series? Or do I wander somewhere in the middle where The Fog, Christine, or They Live exist? How do I choose?
Man, I don’t know how I choose things. I’m completely arbitrary. I can tell you though that I wasn’t able to choose just one John Carpenter movie. Just as I couldn’t choose just one Argento or just one Clive Barker. Sometimes just one isn’t possible.
How can I talk about scary movies and not at least briefly mention Halloween? The movie that practically defined the American slasher sub-genre. Yes, Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees are just as iconic as Michael Myers. If we’re comparing movies though, if we look at A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, and Halloween, it’s not even close. Speaking strictly about the quality of the films themselves, Halloween is by far the superior film. The direction, the writing, the music, it’s all brilliant. A Nightmare on Elm Street while loveable is a schtick, Friday the 13th has its moments but is mostly forgettable, Halloween made the rules. It’s a great, culturally significant movie.
That being said, I haven’t actually had a chance yet to watch Halloween this month. It’s a movie I’ve seen so many times, I sort of feel like I should try and focus at least a little bit on films that are new to me or that I at least haven’t seen in a while. There have been a couple of notable exceptions in my choices for this month (I did write about A Nightmare on Elm Street after all), but yeah. I love Halloween. I will watch it again and possibly even soon. But this is probably the most I’ll write about here. For now.
Another John Carpenter movie I’ve seen and love is another one of the best in the genre. I’m talking of course about 1982’s The Thing. Yes, the movie that’s currently out in the theater as a remake or prequel or whatever it is they’re marketing this latest version as. I know the argument has been made that John Carpenter’s The Thing is a remake of Howard Hawks’ film The Thing From Another World so therefore we can’t be mad that someone has now remade John Carpenter’s remake. I would argue though that while Carpenter’s film and Hawks’ film are both about the same story, it’s more that they’re two different adaptations of the same source material rather than Carpenter’s version being a remake of Hawks’ adaptation. We’re sort of talking semantics but I feel like it’s also a valid argument. There’s a difference between two different filmmakers making different adaptations of the same story source and one filmmaker using another filmmaker’s film as the source itself.
Does that even make any sense? Either way, I don’t want this to turn into a rant about remakes. I’ve ranted about that enough. Not all remakes are even all bad. It’s just a thing that irks me. Moving on.
While I may not get back to Halloween, I definitely will be mentioning The Thing again in this last week. In a couple of upcoming discussions about how I came to love horror movies so much The Thing will definitely be mentioned. It’s one of the films that turned me from a timid, occasional observer to a deeply passionate fan of the genre. This film is not just scary, it is dark. It is not a nice story and it does not have a happy ending. It is an exercise in fear and paranoia. It also has a score by Ennio Morricone and some of the best creature effects I have ever seen.
Like many sci-fi/horror crossovers, this film is about a small group of people in a completely isolated location facing an unimaginable terror. However, unlike something like Alien where the threat is clearly “other,” here the threat is “one of us.” It’s a monster more along the lines of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. This monster assimilates, hides itself, and becomes almost impossible to detect. As quickly as a test may be devised to ferret it out, its survival instinct has already kicked in and it’s already found another place to hide. In the end survival comes down to a man’s wits and even then… well, you can never be sure who is completely human. If you can never be sure, if even a cell of the creature surviving means death for humanity, how can you take the chance of it escaping?
I first saw The Thing one afternoon the summer after graduating from highschool. My friend and I were talking about movies and he discovered that, among others, I had never seen such classics as Hellraiser or The Thing. He was determine to rectify this situation immediately.
He sat me down, hit play on his VCR, and the movie began. I was already a huge sci-fi fan at the time and the sci-fi elements of the story really appealed to me. Aliens I knew, it was the monsters I was still discovering. I don’t know why but I will never forget how he described the beginning of this movie to me: “It’s so much white!” And it is. The film opens with a helicopter chasing a dog across a vast expanse of snow. The entire frame seems to be made up of white, slightly less white, or extremely bright white. The only things breaking up this freezing cold color pallete are the helicopter and the dog. Morricone’s score is punctuated by the thumping of the helicopter’s rotors and the crack of a rifle. It’s so empty, so vast, and watching it I found myself immediately, completely enthralled. I knew this was going to be good. If I started out wary, I was soon a convert.
I know I said I wouldn’t rant on about the remake, but I do want to say that the most disappointing things I’ve heard about it have to do with its special effects, most notably its use of digital effects. John Carpenter’s version didn’t need CGI. The effects here are all practical and they are all amazing. Yes, I know that these creatures are puppets or whatever and I guess some of the goo can come across as dated but there’s still a difference. Whatever the creature parts are made of, whatever tricks the people behind the scenes use to bring them to life, these things exist. It’s also in their movement, the way light hits them in very real ways, the way they interact with the set. It’s the way people interact with them. They are real and they are physical. Their very existence in the real world lends an organic weight to their presence on film.
It’s something CGI can’t touch and while I appreciate a good digital effect, I love what Peter Jackson did in the Lord of the Rings films for example, I hate the over reliance on them. It’s easy and it’s lazy and it’s disrespectful to the medium and the audience. My love of horror began with the old, “cheesy” practical effects and the creativity and ingenuity it takes to create them. These effects are a labor of love and when they are done well, man, they can just blow you away. The Thing is a prime example but it’s far from the only one. Just looking back at a few of the movies I’ve talked about already: watch An American Werewolf in London and those transformation scenes or Hellraiser and Frank’s rebirth. Watch Seth’s transformation in The Fly. Look at the highly stylized, paint like blood of Dario Argento in Suspiria or the phantom-like ghouls of Carnival of Souls.
It’s not there is not a place for CGI and digital, it’s just that there should be a balance. If something can be done better by using CGI then by all means use it. I just wish it was use more as an addition to rather than a substitute for.
For me, horror has never been about the violence or the different ways to kill people. It’s not about the shocking deaths. It’s about the sheer creativity, it’s about looking on horrified and amazed as these nightmares are brought to life. It’s about going to the dark places, facing the demons, and most importantly it’s about the imagination necessary to take us there.
Fun aside, this post was originally supposed to be about Christine. I only realized as I was writing the last paragraph that it wasn’t going to be about Christine at all. Oops. Also, apparently the answer to my original question of whether or not I could keep things short and simple is a very definite NO.