Tag Archives: Big Trouble in Little China

30 Days of Madness, Day 28 — Prince of Darkness (1987)

by Tom Kapr

Wherein I attempt to watch one new-to-me horror film every day of October till Halloween and write a quick review. I will end my review with a letter grade like we do on our podcast (A, B, C, D, or F–pluses and minuses are for the non-committal!) and with the movie’s rank on my Flickchart.

princedarkness3

“Say goodbye to classical reality, because our logic collapses on the subatomic level into ghosts and shadows.”

Written & directed by John Carpenter.

Starring Donald Pleasence, Victor Wong, Dennis Dun, Alice Cooper for about a minute, and a bunch of white people with bad hair.

In my last review of Christine, I lamented how unfairly forgotten and underrated it was compared to Carpenter’s other work. With Prince of Darkness, I get it.

The slow build toward apocalypse is good and tense (at least when Mustache McGee and Lady Hockey Hair aren’t making out and having inscrutable conversations), helped along by Carpenter’s soundtrack and the acting talents of Pleasence as a priest from a secretive Catholic sect and Victor Wong as an eccentric quantum physicist. But then about halfway through it kind of stalls and just plateaus. The freaky things that start happening are undercut by underreaction from characters almost across the board. It starts to crescendo again, but then there are weird scenes that go nowhere, leading to a pretty trifling “apocalyptic” climax. It doesn’t help that the screenplay’s grasp of theology is tenuous at best, so it all feels rather silly.

As with any Carpenter flick, a lot of the special effects are really well done, but the philosophy behind the homeless zombie horde was a bit insulting. Every homeless person in the vicinity of this parish immediately becomes part of a hive mind, but not the scientists or students, because, what, they have better brains and aren’t susceptible? Not until they get physically infected, anyway. There’s even a conversation about it when the physicist is comparing their behavior to that of the ants, which do have a hive mind, and the other bugs and creepy crawlers that start showing up. It just draws an uncomfortable parallel, as if the homeless are on the same plane as the other vermin. It’s not Carpenter’s most nuanced writing.

And that’s too bad, because the idea of crossing the usual Judeo-Christian religious traditions with quantum physics in an apocalyptic plot is unique, and would be fascinating, if the religious part of it was treated with as much respect as the physics part. If only the entire script was as good as that excellent line from Victor Wong’s character that I used at the beginning of this review.

I also said in my Christine review that this would fill the remaining gap in what I consider the “classic Carpenter” era–1976 through the 80s. That is, the era beginning with Assault on Precinct 13, which put him on the map and allowed him to make Halloween, which catapulted him to being one of the premiere directors in Hollywood working in the horror, sci-fi, and fantasy genres. Through the 80s, he made film after film that cemented him as a cult classic director.

I didn’t start watching R-rated horror and sci-fi until the late 90s. I was in high school, and Escape from L.A. was my introduction to Carpenter, though I didn’t know who he was at the time. I wasn’t even fully aware that it was a sequel. But I developed a kind of affection for that film and for Snake Plissken as a character. I had already been a fan of Kurt Russell. In college, I saw Vampires, and by the time I saw Ghosts of Mars I knew Carpenter’s reputation and had already begun familiarizing myself with The FogThe ThingStarman (which I’d seen part of as a child and was freaked out by it), Big Trouble in Little China (a personal favorite and a film that is more important than it gets credit for), They LiveHalloween, and the original Escape from New York. Unfortunately, Ghosts of Mars was a terrible movie, but I’d become a late-blooming Carpenter fan who figured it was just a case of a master filmmaker losing his edge.

Prince of Darkness isn’t the only film of his from his “classic” era that I’m not sold on. I’m pretty indifferent toward The Fog and found Assault on Precinct 13 too disturbingly violent to be enjoyable. (I just don’t need to see little kids getting gunned down in the street in what is essentially a basic action movie, though an important one. Even with something like City of God, I’d rather not watch that kind of thing.)

Nevertheless, I think Carpenter, even post-Ghosts, remains one the most fascinating and respectable filmmakers in history. Now I need to fill in the pre-Assault and early-90s gaps. And I’m especially interested now to see In the Mouth of Madness. I did not realize until today that it is the third in what Carpenter calls his “Apocalypse Trilogy,” after The Thing and Prince of Darkness. That is a fascinating trilogy of apocalyptic themes–one extra-terrestrial in nature, one mixing Judeo-Christian religious tradition with quantum physics, and the third an exercise in Lovecraftian horror.

Final grade for Prince of Darkness: C

My Flickchart ranking: #1629 (out of 3273, a relative 50/100)

A Buried Cinema review — They Live

By Tom Kapr

John Carpenter is one of my favorite writer/directors of science fiction, fantasy, and horror cinema. From 1978 to 1988, he made some of the best, most memorable, and most influential films of decadeHalloween was so influential that it popularized an obscure sub-genre of horror with which we are now are so regrettably familiar, the slasher film. Escape from New York was likewise instrumental in popularizing the dystopian anti-hero. Starman is one of the few films about a benevolent alien coming to earth that isn’t pure kiddie fare, and makes some of cinema’s most profound statements about humanity. Big Trouble in Little China had a firm hand in bringing kung fu into American movies. And then there is The Thing, arguably the greatest and scariest movie about a malevolent alien coming to Earth ever made.

There are two things you’ll see that are constants in John Carpenter’s classic thrillers. The first and more obvious of the two is his practical effects, which put to shame many of today’s films of the genre. The second is his pacing, which lets the tension build up slowly but steadily until all hell breaks loose. They Live is no exception.

 

 

The basic plot is that an alien race has taken over Earth through subliminal messages and live among us disguised as humans. On billboards, in magazines, on T.V., everywhere humans look, there are subliminal messages that say things like “obey,” “marry and procreate,” “watch T.V.,” and “stay asleep.” A drifter named Nada (played by Roddy Piper) gets ahold of an underground human resistance group’s special sunglasses, which allow him to see the aliens and their messages for what they truly are. In one of my favorite moments, he looks at the cash in a man’s hand and sees that what it really says is THIS IS YOUR GOD.

 

 

The alien effects are as basic but as effective as can be, and are trademark John Carpenter. And, in keeping with Carpenter’s patient pacing, we don’t actually see the aliens until about a half-hour into the film. It gives the audience time to become complacent with the world’s normalcy, much like the characters in the film. When Nada is assaulted by a couple of aliens disguised as police officers, he takes them out, then takes the fight to the alien leaders. The final half-hour is almost constant gunfire and very violent, but always moving the plot forward as Nada seeks to stop the signal that is keeping the city’s inhabitants blind to the truth.

(Enjoying the Rant Pad? There’s more! Visit our podcast home page at BuriedCinema.com. Then you can also Like us on Facebook, Follow us on Twitter, Friend us on Flickchart, and Subscribe to us on YouTube!)

A Buried Cinema review — The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension

By Tom Kapr

I sat down to watch The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension along with Buried Cinema podcaster and sometime Rant Pad writer Steve Moore, and neither one of us could figure out what was going on at any given moment in the film. But I need to write something about it, so here’s what I know:

So there’s this guy named Buckaroo Banzai (Peter Weller) who performs brain surgery, fronts a very 80s “rock” band, and is such a brilliant physicist that he manages to discover a new dimension of time and space by travelling through a solid mountain — all in the same day. He’s got a bunch of friends who do all this rockin’ and physics-defyin’ stuff with him, plus another brain surgeon friend played by Jeff Goldblum, who is dressed as a cowboy for most of the movie. He sees a girl named Penny Priddy at his rock show (played by Ellen Barkin, and may I say, AROOOOOOOOOOOO!!!) who looks like his dead wife, and reverse-psychologically goads her into almost shooting her herself. (I would have wanted to shoot myself to if I had to listen to one more minute of that music.) Also, there’s a crazy scientist played by John Lithgow with an outrageous Italian-ish but maybe it’s German accent.

 

Peter Weller is Pee Wee Herman as Buckaroo Banzai in THE ADVENTURES OF BUCKAROO BANZAI ACROSS THE 8TH DIMENSION!

 

Later that same day, I think, Banzai is giving a lecture about the admittedly cool concept that 99% of matter is empty space, the basis of his whole going-through-solid-rock-and-breaching-the-8th-dimension thing. (They never explain where dimensions 5, 6, and 7 are.) He gets zapped by a telephone which causes him to be able to see some eeeee-vil aliens, which steal something and then drive somewhere and cross paths with other good aliens. The evil aliens look like pasty white middle-aged bureaucrats and the good aliens look like very well-dressed Rastafarians. I have no idea why.

 

Eeee-vil aliens.

 

The bad aliens almost run Buckaroo Banzai over with a van, but he’s rescued at the last second by a kid flying a helicopter. He goes back to his base, where he receives a package from the good Rasta-aliens. Everybody puts on bubble-wrap masks so they can watch a glowing alien lady explain something about how they need to stop John Lithgow and the evil aliens from breaking the barrier of the 8th dimension before eleven or midnight or some arbitrary time or the good aliens will instigate a nuclear war between the US and Russia that will obliterate the globe. (Just want to point out again that these are the good aliens.)

 

Don't be afraid. It's just a good alien disguised as a black guy with dreads, as all good aliens are.

 

Banzai and his bandmates/other random assortment of friends infiltrate the aliens’ secret base by figuring out that they are the real culprits behind Orson Welles’ controversial 1938 Mercury Theatre presentation of The War of the Worlds, which of course means they’ve been hiding out in Grover’s Mill in New Jersey. A battle ensues, Banzai saves Penny from most certainly being turned into some evil form of Trill or something, even though she dies anyway, and… you know what, to make a long, convoluted, ridiculous story short, they save the world.

And then Banzai brings Penny back to life by, I kid you not, kissing her with his electric lips.

Honestly, I have no idea how I feel about this movie. It kept reminding me of one of my favorite cheesy 80s films, Big Trouble in Little China, and it turns out it was directed by that film’s writer, W.D. Richter. I didn’t dislike Buckaroo Banzai so much as I was completely befuddled by it. It’s certainly no great film like its defenders say it is, but it’s kind of a fun one. I mean it’s no Big Trouble, but still….

Incidentally, we will be reviewing this movie on our podcast next week, so check that out. I’ll link this article to it when I can.

(Enjoying the Rant Pad? There’s more! Visit our podcast home page at BuriedCinema.com. Then you can also Like us on Facebook, Follow us on Twitter, Friend us on Flickchart, and Subscribe to us on YouTube!)

Scary Movie Alien Countdown #3: “They’re here already! You’re next!”

By Tom Kapr

The “they” referred to in Dr. Miles J. Bennell’s infamous rant are, of course, the emotionless pod people of the 1956 classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers, remade as another classic, to even greater effect, in the 1978 version. I wrote about these two films once before, for Day 17 of my 30 Days of Madness series this past October; the following is an amended version of my earlier article.

They really just want us to get our roughage.

Jack Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers, which started as a serial in Collier’s Weekly in 1954, has been adapted to film four times: first in 1956 by screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring (who also wrote the 1947 film noir classic Out of the Past) and director Don Siegel (the man behind the iconic 1971 Clint Eastwood crime-thriller Dirty Harry as well as John Wayne’s 1976 swan song The Shootist); second, in 1978 by screenwriter W.D. Richter (who also wrote one of my favorite camp comedies, Big Trouble in Little China) and director Philip Kaufman; third, in director Abel Ferrara’s Body Snatchers in 1993; and most recently, in The Invasion of 2007.

The 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a brilliant exercise in McCarthy-era paranoia (Joseph, not Kevin). The 1978 version is just as brilliant a horror film but with a less optimistic outlook on the future of the human race, replacing McCarthy-era paranoia with post-Watergate paranoia and adding a healthy dose of public health-focused parallelism. It is rare for both an original film and its remake to be so high and so close in quality (though this is the second time on this list that it’s happened).

The 1978 version is more committed to its concept, however–that concept being that a life form from outer space comes to Earth and spreads in the form of pods that grow another version of you that replace you while you sleep, another being that is identical to you in every way and even retains your memories. Much like in The Thing, it is an alien life form that assimilates your human form, but the difference is that this alien is not malicious. In fact, this alien has no feelings whatsoever. The alien in The Thing would kill you and then camouflage itself as you. The Body Snatchers invade under the pretense that they are making a better you. A you with no emotions and therefore no pain, no anger, no jealousy, no war, no maliciousness; no passion, no joy, no elation, no compassion, no love. I can think of no more frightening an invasion than one that would replace us all with unfeeling replicas, and in fact, Invasion of the Body Snatchers of 1978 may be the scariest alien invasion film of all time. (Yet there are two more spots left on this list….)

1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers also has the bonus of some absolutely astounding practical visual effects that, again much like The Thing, still hold up against anything released today. It contains some of the creepiest images ever created, and possibly the single most terrifying final scene in movie history. Watch it if you dare. But don’t fall asleep….

Next on the countdown: “I can’t lie to you about your chances, but… you have my sympathies.”