When it comes to writing, directing, and composing maestro John Carpenter, many a horror Maniac draw a proverbial line in the sand. Fitting as this is, given his proclivity for fusing western elements in with other thematic flavors, the placement of that barrier may need adjustment. General consensus holds that every Carpenter film beyond In The Mouth of Madness (1994) is utter dreck, completely unworthy of living in the colossal shadow of his earlier body of work. This is a commonly held opinion to which I do not hold. There are a number of angles from which I could attempt to derail that belief, but before I focus solely on the one which drew you here, and is pictured above, allow me to briefly note a few other salient points.
Carpenter followed ITMOM with a remake of 1960's Village of the Damned, which included solid performances from Mark Hamill and Christopher Reeve (in his last able bodied role; his neck was broken only a month after the film's release), and was an able effort, even if it was an unnecessary reworking of the material. A solid late night filler if there ever was one. The very next year Carpenter frolicked in the fields of remaking again, crafting a sequel to his own 1981 classic Escape From New York, which ended up as an almost punch for punch retelling of the original. Modernizing the first flick in the guise of Escape of L.A. introduced him to a whole new generation. While long time fans felt it was an unnecessary retreading, it still offered a fun 101 minutes of matinee movie magic. It was also his highest grossing film of the 90's.
Carpenter took a year off from directing after that, citing that filmmaking wasn't really fun for him any longer. The flick that brought him (and fun) back was Vampires. Here, maniacs, is my counter point to late career Carpenter detractors. No matter what else it could be called, John Carpenter's Vampires is flat out bad ass. It might be too bad ass for it's own good. A number of contributing factors went into making this a macho masterpiece. Firstly, it's a gun for hire western cleverly disguised as a horror film. Our mercenary gun slingers are being financed by the Vatican to hunt and exterminate vampires across the American southwest. These no nonsense tough guys have all the coolest tools at their disposal, from assault weapons to advanced alloy spears, and crossbows.
Secondly, you need a leader who exudes cool, while at the same time commands respect. So who can you bring on to help these sacred banditos? Why James Woods of course. By playing against type, and insisting that he be allowed to improvise most scenes (Carpenter agreed to choose only one scene which Woods would perform as it appeared in the script), then turning up the leather jacket cool factor beyond eleven (perhaps even going to plaid), the man from Videodrome puts this film on his back for the trip to bravado land. One memorable scene, which is visible in the trailer, of Woods' character Jack Crow (hot damn, that's a bad ass name) is walking away as a building explodes behind him. Those who watch closely will notice Woods flinch a second after the explosion. In actuality, he's just been struck in the back by a genuine piece of shrapnel from the blast. What does he do? He continues to stride as though he eats debris as part of his nutritionally balanced breakfast. Nearly any instance of slick, punchy dialogue is really just an open window into the soul of James Woods writ vampire hunter.
As if you need another reason to dig this flick, the score by John Carpenter takes what you love about his style and ratchets up the western sensibilities. Gone are the synth notes which help single out most of his scores. They're replaced by wicked guitar riffs, which are struck to perfectly accentuate what is so great about this film: it's a collection of sown together moments of kick ass combining into a tapestry of awesome.
This is where my personal John Carpenter line in the sand lies, at least as far as feature films are concerned. His contribution for the Masters of Horror series, entitled Cigarette Burns (2005), is phenomenal. I have yet to see his latest film, The Ward (2010), mostly because if it is actually good then I find myself in the unenviable predicament of having to come to the defense of Ghosts of Mars (2001). And if I have to be honest, it would take a braver man than I to defend that delightful haberdashery of Ice Cube on parade. It does have a kick ass soundtrack though. Is my line too leniently drawn? Where do you make your Spartan stand with regard to Carpenter's body of work
Shock-O-Rama Screaming Saturday Night Double Feature
Sometimes you've got to let go of control, giving it over to someone else for the evening. All domination/submission allusions aside, let me program your Saturday night. This week's Screaming Saturday Night Double Feature is for all you Hulu Plus members out there. I've cooked up a scorching double bill that will fill your night with fright, but take care to be in bed before the sun rises kiddies!
The Blob (1958)
Ease out of a long week with this campy, endearing monster movie classic. This staple of both science fiction and horror was produced by a team who cut their teeth making religious films in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Its quirky opening credits song, Beware of the Blob, will stick in your head for days!
Thought to have directly inspired The Evil Dead, this film began as a short science fiction film with a budget of around six grand. It ended up taking so long to make that viewers can actually notice the actors aging before their very eyes! Some excellent giant monster effects by Jim Danforth are worth the run time alone.
Don't forget to come back and let me know in the comments what your thought of these two back to back. And feel free to suggest next week's Screaming Saturday Double Feature service (Hulu, Netflix, etc.)
If you simply can't get enough horror happenings here on Mania, might I humbly suggest checking out Tuesday Terrors? It's got all the shocking news to keep you current (and possibly help you survive until the credits roll).
Chuck Francisco is a columnist and critic for Mania, writing Saturday's Shock-O-Rama, the weekly look into classic cult, horror and sci-fi. He is a co-curator of several repertoire film series at the world famous Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville, PA. You can hear him drop nerd knowledge on weekly podcast You've Got Geek or think him a fool of a Took on Twitter.