JOHN CARPENTER, DOING HIS 'THING'
John Carpenter, circa 1978
For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, Dec. 14, 2018
EDITOR’S NOTE: When John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’ made its debut in the summer — yes, the summer — of 1982, I was unable to attend a screening the press was invited to, as it was on a Sunday evening. (I don’t go to movies on Sundays; not then, not now.) I was to interview Carpenter on Monday, but I tried to put it off, since another screening was scheduled later in the week before the film’s opening. Alas, it was Monday or not at all; I took Monday. Of course that meant I had to interview Carpenter without having seen his film, something I made sure never happened again. (At the time I was only in my fourth year of reviewing movies for the Deseret News, and only in my second year of doing it full time.) Nonetheless, the interview went pretty well, and since ‘The Thing’ has just been reissued on Blu-ray in a Steelbook collectible shell, I dug out that old interview to share here. True, it’s not a very Christmasy subject for mid-December — but, hey, the movie is set in a snowbound situation. That’s something, right? The interview was published in the Deseret News on June 25, 1982, under the headline, ‘Carpenter plans to move on to other things.’
With “The Thing” under his belt, John Carpenter now plans to begin filming Stephen King’s novel “Firestarter.”
But being typed as a horror director doesn’t suit his future plans. He hopes his next project will be a western, and he’d like to do a comedy and a musical somewhere down the road.
“You get associated with the movies that are most successful for you. ‘The Thing,’ ‘Halloween’ and ‘The Fog’ are associated with me, but that’s not all I do. I have mixed feelings about it. I love horror films, I love movies — but I also love other kinds of movies, and I don’t want to be necessarily typed as a horror director.”
Carpenter, speaking by telephone from his office at Universal Studios in Hollywood, said he is pleased with “The Thing” (which opens today in Salt Lake theaters), but he’s puzzled by reaction from film critics that the horror movie is too graphic.
Audience reaction to a couple of national sneak previews last weekend, was “very strong, very positive — but not from the critics. Most of them are after me.
“They say it’s too graphic, that I’ve gone too far, and that surprised me. I think the film is not that graphic, if you compare it with other movies. It’s very weird, very strange. But my films notoriously get bad reviews.”
Carpenter went on to say that he doesn’t feel there is any serious film criticism in the United States. “It’s very superficial here.”
In terms of budget, “The Thing” is the biggest film Carpenter has ever directed. “Escape from New York,” a science-fiction thriller, had a budget of around $7 million, and was at the time his biggest film. But “The Thing” more than doubled that, due largely, he said, to complicated special effects work.
Prior to “Escape From New York,” Carpenter’s budgets were very small indeed.
His first feature began as a student project at University of Southern California. Over the course of four years, it was gradually completed and cost a total of $60,000, a science-fiction spoof called “Dark Star,” which is now a cult classic. “Funny how those things work out,” Carpenter said.
John Carpenter gives direction to Kurt Russell on the set of 'Escape From New York.'
He actually began making films in his backyard when he was just 8 years old. Carpenter’s father gave him an 8mm movie camera, and he and some friends got together and did a first effort called “Gorgon the Space Monster,” with special effects and a classical music score (“The 1812 Overture” and “Night on Bald Mountain”).
After graduating from USC Film School, Carpenter, a native of Bowling Green, Ky., stayed in Los Angeles and tried his hand at screenplays, including “Eyes,” which became the Faye Dunaway film “The Eyes of Laura Mars,” after the script was changed by other writers.
Coming across an investor who wanted to get into the movies, Carpenter got him to back “Assault on Precinct 13,” which Carpenter wrote, directed, edited and musically scored. He styled the film after the work of his favorite director, Howard Hawks, who also was responsible for the original version of “The Thing.”
“ ‘Assault on Precinct 13’ was a Howard Hawks western set in a police station.”
Then Irwin Yablans, who distributed “Assault” domestically, gave Carpenter $300,000 and complete artistic control to come up with a movie about a psycho killer stalking babysitters on Halloween night. Carpenter wrote it with Debra Hill, and directed and scored it. He got a piece of the film’s profits, which added up to a considerable amount when “Halloween” became the top moneymaking independent film ever made. It also spawned a cycle of “slasher” films, all of them much more violent and graphic than the original “Halloween.”
Carpenter, who said he has seen very few of the ripoffs of his modern horror classic, thinks the cycle has deeper roots, however.
“I don’t think ‘Halloween’ started anything new as much as it reinforced an old one, one that stated with ‘Psycho.’ Basically, ‘Psycho’ started the whole era of the psychotic killer.” Horror got a big boost with “Rosemary’s Baby” in the late ’60s, he said and a film comes along every now and then that keeps it going. He cited “The Exorcist,” “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” “Carrie,” “Alien,” and his own “Halloween,” of course.
Though he had co-producing and co-writing credit on “Halloween II,” he admits, “I’m not particularly fond of it myself.” He has co-producing credit as well on “Halloween III: Season of the Witch,” which he says is a very good film, very different from its predecessors, and one that will surprise everyone when it comes out this October.
Adrienne Barbeau, left, John Carpenter, Jamie Lee Curtis and Janet Leigh on the set of 'The Fog.'
Carpenter has also directed two TV films, “Someone Is Watching Me,” during which he met his wife Adrienne Barbeau, and “Elvis,” one of the highest-rated TV movies ever made, and whose star, Kurt Russell, also starred in Carpenter’s “Escape From New York” and “The Thing.” Barbeau was also in “Escape” and starred in “The Fog” for her husband.
Carpenter said his association with Russell has been most fulfilling (“He’s simply a great actor”) and he also hopes to work more with his wife in the future (“If we both like the project and feel it’s right for us”).
Now, at age 33, he has a string of financial successes, some critical acclaim and a potential summer hit with “The Thing.” Getting back to the subject of screen violence, Carpenter said several of his favorite films are graphic, “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Dawn of the Dead,” “Night of the Living Dead,” but he appreciates subtle horror as well. “Gore for its own sake is never frightening. Being graphic for its own sake is never frightening. There should be a purpose behind it.”
“The Thing” is also his first venture in the major-studio mainstream, and “Firestarter” is for Universal as well. “But I’d like to go back to little films again. I’d do another small one.”
Meanwhile, he’ll go on scaring people, secure in the knowledge that his films are fantasies, and the audience knows it too. “I don’t know how any movie hurts anybody. If you are a parent, you have to evaluate the emotional stability of your kids. Are they mature enough to understand that this is a fantasy, that it’s not real? I don’t think movies really harm people.
“ ‘The Thing’ is the strongest movie I’ve made but it’s a fantasy film. It’s about monsters. And I think the kids know that.”
ANOTHER EDITOR’S NOTE: As is often the case in Hollywood, Carpenter didn’t get to direct ‘Firestarter,’ although the film was made in 1984, and when ‘Halloween III: Season of the Witch’ was released, it was vilified by critics and bombed at the box office. But Carpenter went on to secure box-office and fan status with a number of subsequent movies, including ‘Christine’ (1983), ‘Starman’ (1984), ‘Escape From L.A.’ (1996), and other, more modest successes, most of them in the horror/sci-fi/fantasy genres.
NEW HOLIDAY FLICKS GETTING DARKER
For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, Dec. 14, 2018
Holiday/Oscar bait pictures opening this weekend are mostly quite dark, so if you have a black Santa hat, enjoy.
“The Mule” (R). After he is caught transporting $3 million worth of cocaine through Michigan for a Mexican drug cartel, a 90-year-old World War II veteran tells his story. Clint Eastwood stars and directed this allegedly true story. With Bradley Cooper, Laurence Fishburne, Michael Peña, Dianne Wiest and Andy Garcia.
“The Favourite” (R). This historical comedy-drama, set in 1708 England, tells the story of two cousins (Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz) who jockey for the position of favorite in the court of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman). With Nicholas Hoult.
“Roma” (R, in Spanish with English subtitles). Set in Mexico City during 1970 and ’71, this drama chronicles the day-to-day struggles of a large family when the father walks out. This is Mexico’s entry as a best foreign-language film Oscar nominee. (Exclusively at the Broadway Centre Cinemas.)
“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” (PG). Animated feature with Spidey discovering that there are multiple realities and New Yorks where a variety of Spider-Men exist … along with a Spider-Woman. And a Spider-Pig. Voice actors include Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Mahershala Ali, Lily Tomlin, Chris Pine, Liev Schreiber, Nicolas Cage, and, yes, Stan Lee.
“Mortal Engines” (PG-13). Peter Jackson (“Lord of the Rings”) co-wrote and co-produced this post-apocalyptic fantasy adventure about a young woman (Hera Hilmar) destined to stop a giant predator city on wheels that devours everything in its path. With Hugo Weaving and Stephen Lang, along with a cameo by Jackson.
“Vox Lux” (R). Natalie Portman headlines this pop-musical drama that covers 18 years in the life of Celeste Montgomery, a Christian girl who is wounded in a school shooting at age 14, then sings a song written by her sister about the event and is launched into pop stardom. With Jude Law, Jennifer Ehle, and narrated by Willem Dafoe.
“Anna and the Apocalypse” (R). Just when you couldn’t imagine a zombie mash-up that hasn’t already been done, here comes a Christmas zombie musical. Ella Hunt plays the title character, enlisting friends to help her fend off zombies at Christmastime … while singing.
“The House That Jack Built” (R). This is the story of a highly intelligent serial killer (Matt Dillon) whose lethal talents are developed over a 12-year spree. With Bruno Ganz and Uma Thurman. (Exclusively at the Tower Theater.)
For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, Dec. 14, 2018
EDITOR’S NOTE: Over the years, my view of John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’ has softened. Having watched it again fairly recently I found it much more engaging than I did 36 years ago … even though it still can’t hold a candle to the 1951 original, ‘The Thing From Another World.’ But the thrills and chills are there, the atmosphere is fine, and most of the direction, and certainly the music, satisfy. But the gore is too gory and the camera lingers on some of those shots too long … although it must be said that it was only a mild foreshadowing of what was to come later in modern horror flicks (including the weak remake/prequel that surfaced in 2011). The Shout! Factory has given Carpenter’s film a new collectible Steelbook reissue, though the bonus features are all the same as Shout!’s 2016 Blu-ray upgrade. Here’s my original review, published in the Desert News on July 6, 1982.
“The Thing” is an excellent example of state-of-the-art special effects but it also represents a perfect example of what can happen to a promising film when effects take over, and story and character are shoved into the background.
No one has looked forward to “The Thing” with greater anticipation than I have since the project was first announced last year. The original 1951 Howard Hawks classic, “The Thing From Another World,” is a personal favorite and I have greatly admired filmmaker John Carpenter’s work ever since I first saw “Halloween” in 1977.
But Carpenter’s version of “The Thing” is, as you may have read elsewhere, all glop and goo. So much so that it’s a fatal mistake.
Carpenter excels at subtlety. Though the clones that followed were generally real gorefests, “Halloween” itself is relatively tame, with most of the violence inferred or occurring in darkness. “The Fog” has virtually no on-screen violence, but rather sound effects off-camera. And though “Escape From New York” has a few violent scenes it is far from what Carpenter has chosen to do with “The Thing.”
Kurt Russell, 'The Thing'
The beginning of Carpenter’s “The Thing” (which opens with the title burning into the screen, an obvious homage to Hawks’ film, which begins the same way) builds in a curious and exciting manner, with the members of an American research team in Antarctica observing a Norwegian helicopter chasing a seemingly innocent sled dog across snow banks.
The Norwegians in the chopper so maniacally pursue the dog, shooting at it blindly, that they eventually cause their own doom. The dog stays at the American station, and begins hanging around the mess hall and the game room.
Our first hint that this film will not to continue in as subtle a manner as it began is when the dog is confined to a cage with the other dogs and it suddenly splits open, with a wormy, tentacled, slimy creature bursting forth (heavens to “Alien”), which then begins taking over one of the other dogs.
From that metamorphosis, the creature takes on several shapes, from skinned half-dog to giant spider to giant pizza with an eye in the middle — and that’s just the beginning.
Further into the show, we get such delights as a steaming, burned hunk of twisted bones and flesh with a half-melted face; a doctor’s arms are chopped off when his hands go through another man’s chest; a man’s head stretches off his body in a bizarre variation of a taffy pull, then it lashes out with a tentacled tongue and eventually sprouts spider legs to walk away.
You may not want to purchase a treat from the snack bar before viewing this film.
Carpenter does conjure up some genuine scares — there are a couple of real jolts — but by the end of this picture we don’t much care. None of the characters are developed enough so that we understand or care about them, and that’s especially a problem with Kurt Russell as the hero.
But it’s also rather sad, considering the number of fine actors there are here in other roles (Salt Lake’s own A. Wilford Brimley plays the most interesting character, and it’s a genuine shame to see it so underdeveloped).
It’s one thing to focus on special effects that are fascinating or even thrilling — but most here are merely repulsive. What good is an art form that just causes people to turn away?
It should also be mentioned that though “Alien” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” owe a debt to the original “The Thing From Another World” — and its basis in print, “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell Jr. — this new “Thing” seems overly derivative.
One of the best things about “The Thing” is its music score, an eerie series of electronic movements by Ennio Morricone (“The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”). It’s rated R for obvious reasons (and some gratuitous profanity).
Hi. I'm Chris Hicks.
But if you're looking for Chris Hicks the Australian rugby player or the American recording-industry executive or the Major League Baseball player or the author of "Think" or the singer-songwriter or the former basketball player, you're in the wrong place.
I'm Chris Hicks the movie guy from Salt Lake City. If that's who you're looking for, welcome to my website as I enter the 21st century … a little late (May 2013).
This site is all about movies, well mostly, and it's also about me, I guess, but I'll try to keep my ego in check.
My goal, my hope, is that you will be able to browse the pages here and be alerted to or reminded of some great movie you've never heard of or forgotten about. In other words, something that might enhance your movie-watching experience, whether it's by Alfred Hitchcock or Joss Whedon, or stars Audrey Hepburn or Jennifer Lawrence or someone you never heard of. And I've also tried to make it fun.
The bulk of stories and reviews here are gleaned (with permission) from my 40 years of writing about film for the Deseret News, a daily newspaper in Salt Lake City, with side trips here and there to other entertainment forms.
I'm no longer writing for the D-News so this is mostly archival stuff, primarily from the Deseret News but also from my 13 years with KSL Television and Radio, as well as other sundry freelance things I occasionaly come across in my deteriorating hard-copy files.
Hope you enjoy my little site. If you do, tell your friends. If you don't, just say you couldn't find it.
NATIONAL LAMPOON’S CHRISTMAS VACATION
For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, Dec. 14, 2018
EDITOR’S NOTE: The National Lampoon comedies are very spotty affairs, and although a lot of fans love ‘Christmas Vacation,’ it’s really just another hit-and-miss effort. But the following it has gained gets out for its return to theaters around Christmas time, so here it is again, part of the Regal Theater’s Saturday Christmas-movie festival. You can see it at the Taylorsville Theater on Saturday, Dec. 15, at noon. Here’s my review, published in the Deseret News on Dec. 1, 1989.
"National Lampoon's Vacation" a few years back was a pretty funny movie, almost in spite of itself. Though lighthearted and goofy, the film contained more than it's share of black humor with many of its very dark satirical barbs aimed at every sacred cow you could think of, akin to the zing of the National Lampoon humor magazine.
Some segments of the audience were offended but most embraced the film and it was a huge success.
The less said about "National Lampoon's European Vacation," a dismal artistic and box-office failure, the better. If Chevy Chase had not headlined the film it probably would have joined the dumping ground where the remains of many lame National Lampoon comedies lie unreleased.
But the prolific John Hughes, who scripted the first film, was lured back to write the screenplay for a third in the series, and now we have "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation."
Chevy Chase carves the turkey in 'National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation.'
Chevy Chase and Beverly D'Angelo play, for the third time, Clark and Ellen Griswold, and their country cousins from the first film are reprised by Randy Quaid and Miriam Flynn. Another returnee from the first "Vacation" is Brian Doyle-Murray, though he tackles a different role this time (as Clark's Scroogelike boss).
But the most obvious returning element is "Christmas Vacation's" attempt to get down and dirty like the first film, with a cat instead of a dog being inadvertently abused this time, with more doddering old relatives to sneer at, and by a running gag that has Clark lusting after a lingerie-counter saleswoman in much the same way he slobbered over Christie Brinkley. (As for the latter, Griswold, though he is hailed as the last of the old-fashioned family men, seems to yearn for an adulterous affair, an unfortunate mixed message for young people.)
Most of these aspects are missteps. Rather, the film is at its most amusing when it is merely lampooning traditional Christmas rituals — getting a tree, decorating the house with lights, having the family in for turkey dinner, discovering that a wrapped gift contains a live cat, etc. — replete with inventive sight gags and Chase's patented mugging.
Many of those episodic moments, particularly in the film's first half, are hilarious. But as the picture goes along there are far too many dry spells.
Chevy Chase, Beverly D'Angelo, 'National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation'
One new set of characters is the Griswold's "thirtysomething"-style neighbors, insufferable yuppies whom Clark insults and whose house he partially wrecks with his slapstick antics. A little of these folks goes a long way.
Quaid, as the vulgar, disgusting cousin with no money and a smelly dog, provides some solid laughs, but this is Chase's picture. He gets all the big yucks, and he is at his best when inadvertently driving his car under a truck, locking himself in the attic, sending a block of ice flying through the neighbor's window into his CD player, etc.
Unfortunately, the other players, especially D'Angelo and, as their parents, veteran performers Diane Ladd, John Randolph, E.G. Marshall and Doris Roberts, have little or nothing to do.
Weighing the good with the bad, this picture is worth a look for Chase fans but it may not hold up to repeat viewings.
"National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" is also not necessarily a trip for the kids; it's rated PG-13 for considerable vulgarity and profanity, along with a fantasy scene that has female nudity.
The 2018 sequel/prequel is on video next week and distinguishes itself by adding 'The' to the title.
For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, Dec. 14, 2018
EDITOR’S NOTE: ‘The Predator,’ to be released on home-video platforms next Tuesday (Dec. 18) after a fair-to-middling theatrical run, is the latest in the long-running franchise about alien hunters who go after humans, No. 4, if you don’t count the crossover/mash-up flicks with ‘Alien.’ The new film is set after ‘Predator’ and ‘Predator 2’ but before ‘Predators.’ Got that straight? With that in mind, let’s take a look back at the original film, which was an Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle back in the day. This review was published in the Deseret News on June 12, 1987.
“Predator” is the latest film to exploit muscleman Arnold Schwarzenegger’s popularity. In fact, he has become so popular in the action-adventure genre that he doesn’t even use his first name anymore. Have you seen the ads?
That’s all his fans need to know. And they’ll be doubly happy to discover “Predator” is a very well made thriller with all the elements standard to that genre.
And that includes being a no-brainer.
The script has more loose ends than a shredded videotape. None of the whys or wherefores of its many plot devices are clearly spelled out.
Arnold Schwarzenegger takes on an extraterrestrial monster in 'Predator' (1987).
But the action is swift and furious, the blood and guts excessive (accounting for the R rating, along with some profanity and two extremely vulgar, sexist, unnecessary jokes), and in the end there is the inevitable one-on-one confrontation.
Call this one “Rambo Meets Alien,” with Schwarzenegger leading a small band of commandos into the jungles of South America on a supposed rescue mission (which turns out to be a phony CIA probe).
They blow the mission (and literally blow up the entire camp where hostages are being held), but discover worse troubles on the horizon.
A strange monster is hiding up in the trees, tracking their every move, and one-by-one is killing and skinning the soldiers.
We would never know where this creature came from except for a brief shot of a flying saucer that precedes the credits. Unless that scene is from some other movie and just accidentally became the opening of “Predator,” we may assume it is our hint that he came from outer space.
But where’s the ship? Why did he land in this remote jungle? Why is he swinging from tree to tree and butchering humans?
Maybe the filmmakers are saving all that for “Predator II.”
Anyway, once Arnie and the boys discover they are being hunted they begin to fight back, until finally it’s “Commando” vs. “Alien” in the jungle.
I’m sure you can guess who wins.
Despite all its flaws, “Predator” really is much better than the average war-can-be-fun film, and it’s a very clever touch toward the end to have Schwarzenegger actually scared for a change, rather than just confronting every problem with macho vigor.
And the action is nonstop, the major requirement to please the intended audience.