John Carpenter Revisits ‘The Thing’ at the Aero Theatre

John Carpenter Dummy Magazine photo

“Escape Artist: A Tribute to John Carpenter” was held a few years ago by American Cinematheque at the Aero Theater. In addition to being treated to a double feature of “The Thing,” which is widely regarded as his best film, and “The Fog,” the writer, director and composer also showed up in between both films to give us more insight on their making and took questions from the audience. Even though these movies are now twenty to thirty years old, they still resonate deeply for movie fans today. This was proven true by the fact these screenings were sold out and packed with Carpenter’s biggest fans.

While “The Thing” was not a big hit upon its release, it has since developed a huge cult following and been critically re-evaluated as the masterpiece it always was. Eighty percent of the audience had probably seen this movie several dozen times, but they still jumped during its most shocking moments.

The Thing movie poster

After the movie ended, Carpenter came to the stage and was met with a standing ovation and thunderous applause. He thanked them for coming on out to see this movie when they could have just watched it at home. One fan in turn thanked him for coming on out to visit with us as he has millions of fans all over the world, and yet he chose to hang out with us.

Today, as the emcee pointed out, many are surprised “The Thing” was not a big hit when released back in 1982. Carpenter put it all the more bluntly:

“It tanked! 1982 was supposed to be the summer of love. It was the summer of ‘E.T.’ and it was the summer of freedom and hope, and ‘The Thing’ was about as bleak a movie as any that could have been released that year. People hated it for that, and all the sci-fi fans out there absolutely hated it and trashed it when it first came out.”

As Carpenter pointed out to actor and friend Kurt Russell on the movie’s DVD commentary, “We came out two weeks after ‘E.T.’ And while there’s was all warm and cuddly, ours was ugly and hideous.” Universal Pictures, which released both movies that summer, attempted to make it the summer of extra-terrestrials, but the timing did not work at all in Carpenter’s favor and it later cost him the job of directing the Stephen King adaptation, “Firestarter.”

One fan pointed out how “The Thing” was unique in a sense as it is one of the few Carpenter movies he did not compose the score for. While the score does have the Carpenter sound, it was actually composed by Ennio Morricone. Carpenter said Morricone is one of the greatest film composers ever, and he did point out there is one synthesizer piece of music which was not composed by Morricone. Now he wouldn’t say who composed it, but it’s safe to say he did, and in association with Alan Howarth.

Another fan pointed out several of Carpenter’s movies have been remade like “Assault on Precinct 13,” “The Fog” and “Halloween,” and a remake of “Escape From New York” is in the works. This fan said he found remakes blasphemous, and to this Carpenter replied, “I actually find it flattering. They also have to pay me a lot of money when they do that.”

Dean Cundey, director of photography on “The Thing,” worked on several of Carpenter’s movies including “Halloween.” Carpenter has not worked with Cundey for some time now, and one man asked why and if there had been a falling out between them. Carpenter replied they have not fallen out, and he recently caught up with Cundey at a movie shoot in Canada. Carpenter did, however, point out why they haven’t worked together for a while, “Dean wanted to be a director. And when you have a director on a movie, and a director of photography who wants to be a director, that’s just not going to work out.”

Everyone who knows Carpenter knows he is a big fan of westerns, and he recently recorded a commentary track for the special edition release of “Rio Bravo.” Many wonder why he still hasn’t directed a western of his own, and Carpenter replied he honestly didn’t know but that he came close several times. The closest was when he wrote the script for “El Diablo” which was made into a cable movie that earned him a Cable Ace Award. If you look closely, all of his movies do have western elements to them. The closest he has ever gotten to making a western is “Vampires” with James Woods.

Many also wondered, and it was asked, what future projects he has on tap and of what his current passions are. His reply was, “Current passions? I’m playing Ninja Gaiden, I just got Metal Gear Solid 4 for PlayStation 3… No seriously, I have a couple of things I’m looking at doing, so we’ll see what happens.”

Before he left, he did have some things to say about “The Fog,” “I have heard that the print for this movie is not in the greatest shape, and that it is pretty faded. But keep in mind that when we made this movie, we made it for only $1 million dollars, so please be kind.”

‘Creepshow’ Remains a Benchmark in Horror Anthologies

Creepshow movie poster

Ah, “Creepshow!” One of the best horror anthologies to come out of the 1980’s, and it is immensely enjoyable if you’re into this sort of movie. It brings us the combined talents of Stephen King and George Romero as they give homage to the E.C. comics of the 1950’s with five different stories of terror. In some ways, this can be seen as more of a comedy than a horror movie. Granted, it does have its scary moments, and a hand coming out of a grave is always good for a jolt, but it is presented in such an over the top fashion to where you have to thank both King and Romero for not taking the things too seriously.

As I write this review, filmmaker Eli Roth is having a two-week festival of his favorite movies at New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles. This film was playing on a double bill with “Mother’s Day” which I missed, unfortunately, but it was probably because I was more excited about seeing this one. I vividly remember seeing the trailer for it when I went to see, and cry again at, “E.T.” When the image of The Creep first appeared, my brother responded by saying, “Whoa!”

The trailer was amusing and funny, at least until those cockroaches came in during which I had to cover my eyes. Granted, it would years and years before I would have the stomach, let alone the time, to check this one out. Anthology movies and series like “Masters of Horrors” are always intrigued me because they were filled with so many possibilities. Going from one story to the next, you are eager to see where it takes you. The only downside with anthologies is there is usually a weak story among the whole bunch which can weigh down the whole enterprise, but “Creepshow” doesn’t have this problem and is endlessly enjoyable to sit through.

The movie opens with a prologue where a father (Tom Atkins) berates his young son (Joe King, Stephen King’s son) for reading these “crappy” horror comics. The kick of the scene comes from the son calling out his dad for the hypocrite he is when he points out it’s a lot better than the magazines he reads. I couldn’t help but think this kid’s dad has a wide variety of porno magazines hidden where his wife can’t find them. It’s funny how we see fathers not wanting their kids to read “crap,” and then they sit in a recliner with a can of beer boasting of how God made fathers. Poor schmuck.

“Creepshow” then goes straight into its first episode entitled “Father’s Day,” a story of revenge. The patriarch of a family was murdered for being an annoying prick as he furiously demanded his cake to be brought out to him, and now he’s come back from the dead to get that tasty cake he has long been denied. Of all the stories, I consider it the weakest because “Father’s Day” is very short and threatens to be pointless. It does, however, succeed in defining the look of the movie. The acting is over the top, and there is a fantastic use of colors which dominates the movie and gives it a wonderfully pulpy feel. If Dario Argento had ever created a comic book, I’m sure it would look like this.

The great about “Father’s Day” is it allows us to see Ed Harris in a role where he is loosened up. Harris is a great actor who plays mostly dramatic roles in movies, and one day he will win an Oscar. But here, we see him get his boogie on while dancing to some crappy disco music which somehow sneaked its way into a 1980’s movie. You listen to that music, and you’d figure it would have died a fiery death before the 70’s ended. No such luck.

The next story, “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill,” is both funny and sad. It features King in one of his few acting performances as the title character, a dimwit farmer who discovers a meteor which has crashed into his backyard. Jordy gets excited at the prospect of selling this meteor to the local college for a handsome profit, but when he tries to salvage it, it breaks into two and a liquid quickly seeps into the barren ground of the farm. Soon after, everything it touches starts growing green plant life which cannot be contained. It also grows on anything it touches, including Mr. Verrill himself. Seeing King turn into a bush is frightening and morbidly amusing. King may say he is a better writer than an actor, but you can also say he is a better actor than a director (“Maximum Overdrive” anyone?). In the end, he is perfectly cast as the seemingly brainless farmer, and his performance fits both the story and the film.

After that, we get “Something to Tide You Over,” and this one was my favorite of all the stories in the movie. It stars Leslie Nielsen, before his image was permanently altered by “The Naked Gun” movies, as a millionaire husband who takes his revenge on Harry (Ted Danson), the man having an affair with his wife. The way he lures Danson’s character out to the beach and gets him to bury himself in the sand up to his neck is priceless, and you can say there is a bit of “The Vanishing” here as we have a man willing to do anything to find out the fate of his loved one. Danson’s fate, being stuck in the sand as the tide rushes over him is frightening and unnerving to witness. You feel stuck in the sand with him, and it shows how fiendishly clever both King and Romero are at exploiting what we fear the most in life.

Watching this segment today may seem weird as Nielsen is forever known as Lt. Frank Drebin of “The Naked Gun” movies, and Danson is best known for playing Sam Malone on “Cheers.” Seeing them in a serious, albeit a highly exaggerated, story might be hard, but these actors have their serious chops as well as their comedic ones, and both talents serve them well here. Nielsen is a particular hoot as a man so confident of his deviant plan of revenge, yet quickly haunted by the possibility of his crimes coming back to do him in. Nothing can stay buried forever.

Next, we have “The Crate” which features Hal Holbrook as a Professor at a New England college who is saddled with an eternally inebriated wife (played by Adrienne Barbeau) who constantly embarrasses him and herself in front of anybody who happens to be watching. Holbrook’s character is a coward who doesn’t have the cojones to stand up to his wife, but then a colleague of his and a janitor discover a crate beneath the stairs which has not been opened for decades. It turns out to contain a monster who eats human beings whole. After Henry hears of this, he concocts a plan to lure his abusive wife over to the crate.

Holbrook is great at making you feel sorry for his character even while we berate him for being a wimp and not standing up to his wife. Barbeau gives a one-note performance as a humongous bitch with no real redeeming features whatsoever. In the end, this is not a big criticism because Barbeau is given a one-dimensional character to play. The characters are not meant to be complex in the way they handle themselves, and they are here to represent different types of people who meet their predestined fate.

Then comes the last story of the movie, appropriately titled “They’re Creeping Up on You.” This one I had the hardest time sitting through, and I doubt it will be easy for you either if you have an intense phobia of bugs. E.G. Marshall plays Upson Pratt, a thoughtless and hateful bigot who has no sympathy for anyone other than himself. He gleefully takes delight in the suffering of others and lives in a completely sterile apartment which makes him look like he’s a doctor. But his problem now is with the bugs in his apartment, specifically cockroaches. They keep popping up out of nowhere, and their numbers keep growing and growing…I found myself looking at my shoes a lot during this segment, and it reminded me I need to get a new pair soon.

I remember watching one of those “scariest moments in movies” episodes on the Bravo channel. They featured the cockroach segment from “Creepshow” in it, and it turned out the segment was more of a socially conscious piece than people realized. This is after all a Romero film whose “Dead” movies are loaded with social commentary, and the whole point of the “Creeping” segment was to look at bigotry how what we fear the most we end up empowering. We invite our fears to mess with us, and sometimes they eat us whole. Suffice to say, this is very much an anti-racism piece, and it’s the strongest episode in the movie. Marshall gives a brilliantly zany performance as a man who cannot control the world around him any longer, and who could never really control it in the first place.

Eli Roth had programs for his festival entitled “The Greats of Roth,” and in it he summed up this “criminally underrated” movie perfectly:

“It’s amazing to see how many comic book and graphic novel adaptations today are praised for getting the ‘look’ of the comic perfect, and nobody ever seems to mention this film. This was the first time that Romero was really surrounded with a star-studded cast, and you see Romero, King and Tom Savini all coming together to create one of the most visually spectacular and fun horror films of all time. They set out to recreate the look and feel of the old E.C. Comics and nailed it perfectly.”

“Creepshow” is indeed one of the most deliriously entertaining horror movies ever made, and it is a visually stunning achievement made on what must have been an especially low budget. There were many other movies to come out of this which tried for the same look, but none of them succeeded at it quite like this one did. This is just a fun, fun, fun movie for people who dig this sort of thing, and to see it on the big screen was a real treat. As the movie’s tagline says, it is the most fun you will ever have being scared.

* * * * out of * * * *

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was originally written in 2008.

Save

Nicholas Meyer Talks About ‘Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan’ at New Beverly Cinema

Star Trek II movie poster

Nicholas Meyer was the guest of honor at New Beverly Cinema on August 12, 2012 where “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” was being shown. This classic sequel was being screened as a double feature with John Carpenter’s “The Thing” as part of the New Beverly’s tribute to movies from the summer of 1982. Meyer thanked the sold-out audience for showing up and admitted it was “preferable to being outside in this weather” where the temperature was inching closer to triple digit territory.

Actually, seeing Meyer appear in person for a screening for “Star Trek II” was a bit of a surprise. Last year, American Cinematheque presented a film program of the first six “Star Trek” movies, but Meyer politely declined to appear for the “Star Trek II” screening because he felt his head would explode if he was asked another question about it. In a sense, you have to be sympathetic to him because this is now a 30-year-old movie, and he has probably been asked every conceivable question about it. Meyer even went out of his way to tell audiences at the start, “I’m sorry if you’ve heard all these stories before. These stories can also be found in my memoir entitled ‘The View from The Bridge: Memories of Star Trek and a Life in Hollywood.’”

Meyer recalled how, after directing “Time After Time,” he wanted to do an adaptation of a Robertson Davies novel and would not consider anything else. But one evening while he was “flipping burgers” in his backyard, Meyer said a friend of his, an executive at Paramount Pictures, encouraged him to meet with producer Harve Bennett about the new “Star Trek” movie. Meyer ended up asking his executive friend, “Is that the show with the man with pointy ears?”

He met with Bennett who had gotten his start as a television producer on shows like “The Mod Squad” and “The Six Million Dollar Man,” and Meyer said they both remain friends to this day. Bennett ended up getting Meyer to watch “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” and episodes of the original “Star Trek” series so he could get familiar with the show and its characters.

Watching the show, Meyer said, “reminded me of something I loved as a kid” but he couldn’t recall what exactly. But it was late one night when he woke up at 4 a.m. in the morning that Meyer suddenly remembered: “Star Trek” reminded him of Captain Horatio Hornblower, a fictional sea captain who sailed the sea during the Napoleonic Wars in novels written by C.S. Forester. Meyer then envisioned this movie as “Captain Hornblower in space,” and from there he said he got a “hard on for doing a space opera.”

Four drafts had already been written for “Star Trek II,” and Bennett told Meyer Paramount was currently waiting on number five. Meyer said he had asked Bennett for the fifth draft and eventually got it after a delay, describing it as being 180 pages long and that he didn’t understand what he was reading. Meyer said he then asked Bennett if he could read the fourth draft, and he said Bennett ended up telling him, “Look kid, you don’t understand, all those previous drafts were just attempts at making a second ‘Star Trek’ movie.”

Meyer said he then suggested to Bennett they get all the previous drafts, read them over and then make a list of things they liked so he could try and weave them into a new script. The only problem was Industrial Light & Magic needed a script in 12 days so they could prepare the special effects for the opening. Meyer said he then asked Bennett, “What opening?”

“Star Trek II” already had a date it was set to arrive in theaters on, and this made writing a new script problematic. Bennett said it would take too much time to make Meyer a deal to get an additional writing credit, and Meyer ended up telling him, “Look, forget about the deal, forget about the writing credit, forget about the money. We don’t work on this new script now, there will be no movie.” Among the ideas kept from the previous drafts were the Genesis Device, Lieutenant Saavik (played by Kirstie Alley), and Captain Kirk as a dad.

When asked about what it was like working with the “Star Trek” actors, Meyer responded, “Have you seen the movie ‘Galaxy Quest?’ That movie was made for me!”

Meyer said the actors were very helpful in terms of crafting the script as they had already inhabited these characters for many years. Much of the talk, however, was on William Shatner whom Meyer described as “a very good actor.” Meyer also said Shatner was “very protective” of Kirk and that he is always the hero and in your face. In directing Shatner, Meyer described him as getting better the more he did a scene because he started getting bored to where he stopped striking an attitude and just became Kirk. This led Meyer to creating excuses to shoot scenes with Shatner over and over again like saying, “The sound’s not right there…”

There was also much talk about the late Ricardo Montalban who played Khan, and Meyer recollected he gave Montalban a copy of “Moby Dick” when they first met to talk about the movie. As an actor, Meyer said Montalban “hit all his marks” perfectly, but that he had to rein the actor in during Khan’s introduction. The character’s opening scene sounded like a rant, Meyer said, when Montalban first performed it, and he ended up taking the actor to the side and told him about a famous piece of acting advice once given by Sir Laurence Olivier:

“You shouldn’t show the audience your top because if you do, then you will have nowhere to go.”

When asked why Kirk and Khan never shared a scene together, Meyer said he didn’t realize this was the case while he was writing the script, and he found it impossible to put them together in a two-shot. Meyer then joked that these characters have Skype and that their conversations had to take place this way. He also answered the question he is most asked when it comes to talking about Montalban, “Yes, that is his real chest.”

Looking back at “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” these days, it does appear to represent one of Hollywood’s first attempts at a franchise reboot as the original, while a commercial success, was not well-received critically. While he probably has answered every conceivable question regarding this movie, it was still great to see Nicholas Meyer at New Beverly Cinema as he has been responsible for some of the very best “Star Trek” movies made so far, and his talent as a writer and director remains strong to this day.