John Carpenter’s Escape From New York is lean mean, brawny and one of the director’s best efforts, one of his leaps into non horror territory and a high concept, exploitation template that has become so iconic that he’s had to sue one production for literally copying and pasting. More iconic still is growling Snake Plissken, a nasty, uncooperative, maladjusted piece of work that has calcified into both a genre titan and one of Kurt Russell’s most instantly recognizable, badass characters. Plissken is basically a villain transplanted into the protagonist’s seat, where he gets to shake up the formula and push the boundaries of being an antihero nicely. By now everyone knows the story. The President (Donald Pleasence) ejects out of Air Force One and crash lands in futuristic NYC, now a giant penitentiary housing unwanted criminals from all over, cordoned off from the rest of the world. Snake is sent in by General Hauk (Lee Van Cleef is a sadistic snake in his own right) as a ‘fight fire with fire’ ditch effort, given twenty four hours to retrieve POTUS at an extraction point and implanted with a microchip that will blow him into hamburger helper if he doesn’t make his deadline. Cue explosions, car chases, wicked stunts and set pieces galore, done in Carpenter’s careful, tactile, authentic and slightly non-Hollywood manner. The guy just has a knack for taking formulaic premises and giving them a just-south-of-normal spin, his own flavour and one that makes cult classics that are built to last. Adrienne Barbeau, Isaac Hayes, Ernest Borgnine, freaky Frank Doubleday, Charles Cyphers, Tom Atkins and good old Harry Dean Stanton all provide standout support. My favourite aspect of the film is the original score, composed by Carpenter himself, of course. It’s a spooky, atmospheric riff that’s akin to the music in The Thing, and just has this synth-y way about it that transports you to the specific time and place of the film flawlessly, it’s a showcase example of an auditory mood board. No remake could ever touch this, it’s too idiosyncratic and special to be updated, and the sooner studios realize their never ending goose chase to capture lightning in a bottle twice is a fool’s errand, the sooner we’ll get back on track and make original contemporary films that will becomes genre classics in the future, just like this. I love Plissken’s final act of brutal rebellion, a reminder that this is not a nice guy we’re dealing with here, but one who plays by his own rules and shirks the standards, much like Carpenter himself. I imagine Plissken’s reaction to news of a remake would be similar, if not more hotheaded, than that final, lethal sleight of hand prank he pulls on a government that stabs him in the back. Solid gold.
Trust John Carpenter to constantly subvert expectations, aim for innovation and simply just please the crowds throughout his career. Prince Of Darkness is, at first glance, a creaky ol’ fright fest, and it is that, but there’s also a cheeky little irreverent streak to it as well, a borderline atheist flourish that you wouldn’t normally find in a flick about summoning up the devil. Carpenter lays the atmosphere on thick, especially with a reliably spooky electronic score and a pace that burns slow and steady. Deep in the crypt of a church there lies a large glass vial containing swirling green matter, a pseudo scientific/spiritual cocktail that contains the “anti god”, a denizen composed of backward atoms that wants to break out and raise a little hell. Grim faced priest Donald Pleasence will prevent this at any cost, and hires a team of underpaid undergrads led by a crusty professor (Victor Wong) to research it, camping out in the church for kicks. You can imagine how this goes, and there’s a refreshingly old school ‘Body Snatchers’ vibe as various characters fall victim to the creeping dark forces. There’s also mind-stimulating, sci-fi ideas at work too though, including an intriguing time travel prospect and a deft little jab at religion via the story’s trickier elements. Carpenter, although hailed as a master of horror, is no simpleton when it comes to ideas, and he flexes his cerebral muscles nicely here. Ambient, gooey, smart, provocative, a terrific little fright fest that leaves you wanting more.
Wake In Fright is like one of those clammy nightmares where you are stuck in some godawful place full of ugliness and depravity, and try as you might, you simply can’t escape or outrun the horror around you. Such is the plight of John (Gary Bond) a schoolteacher in a desolate county of the Australian outback, on his way to Sydney for a little R&R on winter break. His journey takes him to a pit stop in Bundanyabba, an ass backwards mining town in the middle of the middle of nowhere. He stops by the bar, where the leathery sheriff (Chips Rafferty) offers to buy him a beer. And another. And another. And another. You see, the Yabba is such an isolated doldrum of a place that it’s inhabitants resort to extreme alcoholism on a daily and nightly basis, which combined with their sun baked brains leads to some harrowing displays of excessive and whacked out behaviour, that poor John comes face to face with. It’s funny that his last name is Bond, because he has the air of sophistication akin to our dear old 007, and it clashes with these yowling yokels like baking soda and petrified vinegar. His composure starts to creak as each pint of lager cascades it’s way down his esophagus, until the line between civilization and primal Instinct starts to scare him. But is it too late by then? He somewhat befriends Doc Tydon (Donald Pleasence) a raging drunkard who hangs around with a group who do nothing but drink, howl like lunatics, fight and hunt kangaroos. Pleasence is transfixing as a once cultured man of medicine whose soul has been drenched in the endless consumption of beer and calcified by the mad, acrid sun, until the whites of his eyes begin to reveal the decay beneath. The scenes of alcohol drinking in this film are staggering, frequent and very, very disturbing. The lonliness has bred this behaviour and these people know nothing else but inebriation and idle time wasting, their lives reduced to one long episodic bout of day drinking and nocturnal revelry. John veers eerily close to falling directly in line with them and going to far down that path, especially during a nighttime kangaroo hunt that serves as some perverted form of an initiation ritual. I must warn you: not only are the hunting scenes very, very graphic, but they’re completely un-staged. The adage “it’s just a movie” doesn’t apply to these sequences, and the carnage we see unfold is horrifying geniune. The hunts were supervised by the Australian government and conducted in an overpopulated area by experts. None of that makes them any easier to watch. This film serves as an anthropological treatise on what happens to human beings who live in the farthest and most remote corners of the world, left to their own devices by seclusion and time, relegated to near animalistic states that to them is just another day in the Yabba. Billed as a horror film, but the horror comes solely from the human elements, which to me is always far scarier. Deliverence ain’t got nothing on this baby, and we’re lucky we even got to see it at all. Some years after the film’s bitterly received release (Australians were pissed at the depiction of their people, and probably stung deep by the truth of it) it disappeared so far into obscurity that all prints seemed to be gone, and the consensus was that it was lost forever. One day the editor was cleaning his garage on the very day he was going to liquidate everything he didn’t need, and found a single print. This was nearly twenty years after the film’s release, and today you can watch it on netflix Canada. Quite the story, quite the film. Just strap on a thick skin, it’s a sweaty, dusty, boozy rollercoaster that dips to the very rock bottom of the human condition.