Before there was Friday the 13th, John Carpenter was striking fear into the hearts of wayward teenagers the world over. Dan Yakir takes you through some of his best films, ranging from platter to suspense.

He has established himself as one of the best genre director’s around - and tried his hand at just about everyone there is; horror, sci-fi, ghost stories, action-adventure. In most of his work, John Carpenter has manifested a tireless originality and a cinematic sensibility in sync with the macabre. While his early movies (Assault on Precinct 13, The Fog, Halloween) were also scripted and scored by him, establishing him as a triple threat, his later films benefited from the director’s own growing technical expertise. The charm of Carpenter’s films is the adolescent sensibility they exude that corresponds to the child in all of us. He knows how to make us jump out of our seats and find pleasure in the pounding of our hearts.

The recently released Escape from L.A. - a follow-up to his best-known picture, the futuristic thriller Escape from New York (both starring his favorite actor Kurt Russell) - is the first sequel he’s ever done. It’s commendable that the filmmaker distanced himself early on from the Halloween franchise (he did co-script part two), preferring to seek original projects worthy of his talent.

Here are some of his best films available on laserdisc.

Assault on Precinct 13 (1977)

Perhaps Carpenter’s best and least-known film. Assault is a taut action thriller with a romantic core, not unlike the later Westerns of Howard Hawks that it resembles. When a faceless multiracial gang attacks an abandoned police precinct in a rough L.A. neighborhood, the two cop and two prisoners inside must fight for their lives, like soldiers defending the fort.

Although the movie opens with a police massacre of gang members, which gives them a “motive” to strike back, they’re also out to avenge the death of a member by a man who seeks refuge in the station, a man repaid his daughter’s senseless murder by gunning down the hood who did it. We never see the faces of the dozens of gang members because this is a clandestine and impersonal evil. As they keep coming, like hordes of insects, through doors, windows, and tunnels, the besieged shoot them down in masterfully choreographed action sequences, which are greatly aided by Carpenter’s gliding camera movement and effective use of the 2.35:1 aspect ratio.

The real protagonists - Bishop (Austin Stoker), an affable police lieutenant on his first night of duty; Leigh (Laurie Zimmer), a cool female cop; and the main prisoner, a notorious killer named Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston) - interact with each other in intriguing ways, often coming up with unexpectedly potent emotions. Leigh is stoic and brave, fighting alongside the guys without complaint, and develops a mute understanding with both cop and prisoner: with her fellow cop it’s a tender bond of appreciation and camaraderie; with the prisoner it’s a sexual tension that denotes an attraction that is, of course, hopeless. That’s why, when the nightmare’s over, she leaves without a word - exchanging just one long look at the men. By contrast, the cop and the prisoner also develop a mutual respect because they’re forced to relate to each other as humans with shared fate, rather than focusing on what divides them. The cop insists on accompanying his new ally out uncuffed, as he is to continue his journey to death row.

Carpenter’s own score adds to the build up on suspense; It starts with drums and percussion, introducing either evil intent or action, but also has minor keys reserved for the tender moments. Stylish and innovative, this made-for-a-pittance ($200,00) original has the feel of hungry artistry, of a powerful vision seeking realization, and this explains much of its appeal. The entire project is so well-realized, so clever so full of dignity, that I’d call it a small masterpiece.

The letterboxed laserdisc from Image is excellent, faithfully recreating the browns and yellow of both decor and lighting that contributed so much to the claustrophobic impact of the picture. This collector’s edition features commentary by the filmmaker. Not to be missed.

Halloween (1978)

In addition to being Carpenter’s first commercial success, Halloween won plenty of deserved critical acclaim, too. This horror tale is about a demented murderer who is put away in an asylum for the childhood killing of his own sister. Fifteen years later, he escapes and returns to his Illinois hometown to murder every female teenager he can lay hands on in commemoration of his first killing. Michael, who is masked and often referred to as “it” by the doctor who once treated him (Donald Pleasence), is indeed a faceless force of evil who often targets the promiscuous. Not only does his sister meet her end after a sexual liaison, but two baby-sitters (Nancy Loomis and P.J. Soles) and a hapless boyfriend also have to pay for their fun and games by being slashed, impaled, and strangled. Although Michael also goes after Laurie (the lovely Jamie Lee Curtis in her film debut), she manages to survive and even inflict serious damage on him, preciesely because she’s virginal and doesn’t have boys all around her. This kind of puritanism might not be politically correct, but it doesn’t hurt the film’s dramatic development. Carpenter has a knack for making an eerie and ominous impending horror as inevitable as the mundane activities of the baby-sitters and the kids they’re in charge of. He creates suspense with a wonderfully mobile subjective camera that isn’t limited to the killer’s point of view. The movie opens with a point of view shot of Michael as a boy spying on his sister from outside the house through the eye slots of his Halloween mask. It goes back and forth from door to window to stairway, not only familiarizing us thoroughly with the scene of the crime, but building up dramatic tension. Similarly, Carpenter uses the “now you see him, now you don’t” trick repeatedly in the film, deflecting Laurie’s warnings when she sees Michael on the prowl (her girlfriends don’t see him and therefore dismiss her) and then the boy Tommy’s sighting of the “bogeyman” across the street (this time it’s Laurie herself who doesn’t listen). Also, most effective is Carpenter’s contribution tot he horror genre - an invincible villain with supernatural forces. In this particular case, he doesn’t possess powers beyond his own physical prowess, but he can’t be killed either. This was the first time a character who is stabbed and falls several flights down to the street below simply disappears instead of becoming a corpse. This has become a genre staple since (it was done by Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator, as a machine that wouldn’t die). And the director’s own score deserves special mention for it’s moody, foreboding, and catchy melodiousness.

There is a very big difference between watching this film in a cropped pan-and-scan version and the original aspect ratio, which allows the camera enough space to move hauntingly about. Voyager has a superb letterboxed transfer in both CLV and CAV Criterion editions. The CAV version, which was made from a 35mm print minted from the original negative, is truly flawless in every respect. It includes commentary from Carpenter, producer Debra Hill, and star Jamie Lee Curtis, as well as footage shot for the TV release, filmographies of the director and actors, and essays on the making of the film and “splatter” films in general. Highly recommended.

The Fog (1980)

Carpenter’s attempt to update the ghost story is an effective moody horror tale that takes place in a small seaside California town. The various characters aware of the nature of the creeping fog - a truck driver (Tommy Atkins) and a hitchhiker (Jamie Lee Curtis); a society woman and her aide (Janet Leigh and Nancy Loomis); a priest (Hal Holbrook) - find shelter in an old church, as the local radio station DJ (Adrienne Barbeau, the director’s wife in her film debut) keeps warning one and all to escape.

The filmmaker creates a spooky atmosphere that lends this modest film its appeal, but what prevents it from being an all-out success is his failure to create the menacing fog as a mythical entity in its own right. After all, reason doesn’t play much of a role in this kind of film. Here the murderous spree is an attempt to avenge the fate suffered by pirates 100 years earlier when they crashed on that shore and their gold was stolen. So behind the fog we get the ghostly figures of zombified pirates who are doing the killings. This is too literal to be satisfying.

Otherwise, The Fog is an eerie, funny ghost story that’s visually captivating and musically on target with the director’s own rhythmic score.

This New Line Home Video laserdisc, manufactured by Image is of excellent quality, with crystal-clear images, good contrast, and realistic flesh tones.

Starman (1984)

This tender-hearted science-fiction love story is one of the filmmaker’s most fully realized films. It’s the story of an alien (Jeff Bridges) who comes to Earth at the invitation of the world’s nations (included in a satellite message beamed to outer space), but finds himself hunted down as an enemy by security forces and police. The woman (Karen Allen) near whose house he lands, first considers herself his hostage and then befriends him. She eventually learns to love him, partly because he assumes the appearance of her beloved dead husband, but mostly because she learns that he’s kind, guileless, and full of appreciation for life’s precious moments. She becomes an accomplice determined to see him reach his destination: an Arizona crater where a spaceship will take him back home. To repay her love, he gives her a child, a rare gift because she’s barren and he, on the other hand, can heal and even restore life.

Jeff Bridges shines in a role that requires innocence and gentleness, and his abrupt, almost reptilian, movements are very convincing and just offbeat enough. The special effects - from the original landing and meteor crash, through the alien’s “birth” as a human baby and evolution into an adult in a matter of moments, the appearance of the huge spaceship in the end - are uniformly first-class. But it’s to Carpenter’s credit that they never overshadow the finer human moments.

This letterboxed laserdisc from Columbia/TriStar is exceptionally good; the images are crisp and sharp, and the colors natural and vivid. It’s remarkably free of graininess in the night scenes. Grade-A entertainment with an uplifting message.

Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

This little-seen, critically abused gem is one of my favorite Carpenter films. It’s sophisticated, mystical action-adventure - with a little comedy and kung fu mixed into a ghost story - that masquerades as low-brow entertainment. The hero, Jack Burton (the affecting Kurt Russell) is a good-natured trucker recruited by pal Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) to help him free his beautiful bride-to-be Miao Yin (Suzze Pai) from the clutches of the mysterious, enormously powerful David Lo Pan (James Hong), who controls a number of fighters and creatures. Aided by spunky lawyer Gracie Law (the lovely Kim Cattrall), they invade the underbelly of Chinatown, engage in spectacular battle with Lo Pan’s troops, and finally confront a most-feared Chinese legendary figure who is really a 2,000-year-old ghost who yearns to regain a flesh-and-blood existence with a young green-eyed beauty. Both Miao Yin and Gracie have green eyes and the ghost intends to marry both - and he almost gets his wish in the explosive, ornate finale.

It’s an old-style adventure picture (it resembles 1940s serials) with a fast-moving plot, but with numerous entertaining and exotic asides that make it an unmitigated pleasure to watch. It’s also hilarious, especially in the film’s constant lampooning of Burton’s macho bravado: We get to see him hesitant, fearful, and awed by the forbidden world he’s being exposed to, but he never admits a weakness, including his attraction to Gracie (they only get to kiss once). In fact, while he’s supposed to take the lead - and has the physique to prove it - it’s his slight Chinese pal who does most of the fighting, reducing Jack to the role of a sidekick. Despite this tongue-in-cheek approach, Carpenter is very respectful of Chinese culture and customs, which is evident in the number of intelligent supporting characters and authenticity of the decor. Whenever you see Chinese characters on signs and banners, they really stand for the ideas expressed. The kung fu battle scenes are beautifully choreographed (it certainly doesn’t hurt that the film was shot in widescreen), the creature are state of the art, and the overall atmosphere is as absorbing as it is mesmerizing. Don’t miss this exhilarating little treasure, available in letterbox from Fox Video. The quality of this laserdisc is exceptional, with an attention to detail that leaves nothing to be desired.

Village of the Damned (1995)

It might not be the filmmaker’s best effort to date, but Village of the Damned is a competent remake of the 1960 sci-fi thriller of the same name, which starred George Sanders and was directed by Wolf Rilla. Based on John Wyndham’s novel, The Midwich Cuckoos, the two films depict an invisible alien presence that knocks the township’s inhabitants off and impregnates all the women. The newborns all share platinum-blond hair and eyes that light up when they concentrate to form a powerful, insidious form of mind control. They can order their “parents” to kill themselves, cops to shoot each other, and generally, people to lay off. In the original, shot in black and white, the allegorical content had to do with the threat of Communism. Here, the movie elaborates on the paranoid notions of the past two decades, suggesting malevolent government experiments and illegal nuclear radiation. Kirstie Alley plays the scientist who has experimented on an alien fetus from a previous “invasion,” and Christopher Reeve is the doctor who tries to reach the kids and reason with them and, when all else fails, destroy them.

Carpenter remade the original with restraint, the absence of which marred his earlier remake of The Thing: The original Howard Hawks production was an unseen, mysterious menace, which in the remake turned out to be an incredibly vicious, goo-oozing monster. Such explicitness killed the innocence inherent in the project, while Village retains this sense of wonder about the unknown as it toys with more sophisticated doomsday theories. Carpenter, the auteur, has made better films, but Village of the Damned is a competent commercial undertaking to keep us occupied while he waits for more personal projects. The letterboxed laserdisc from MCA/Universal is sharply focused and color-corrected.

Copyright Home Theater October 1996

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