Beyond the Dark Star, Before the Black Rainbow

For a film that’s often dismissed as nostalgic pastiche, Beyond the Black Rainbow (our current Movie of the Month) is a difficult one to anchor to any direct, cited influences. Part of the film’s lore is that director Panos Cosmatos intended to evoke “an imagining of an old film that does not exist,” recalling childhood trips to the VHS rental store Video Addict where he would imagine the plots of horror films he was too young to rent based on the images on their cassette jackets. The eerie psychedelia of the killer-ants curio Phase IV or Ken Russell’s Altered States approach the paranormal throwback mood Cosmatos was attempting to achieve in his debut, but neither work quite captures the full spectrum of what’s on the screen. What’s much easier for Cosmatos to pinpoint are the influences on the look of Beyond the Black Rainbow, touchstones he discussed with cinematographer Norm Li. In an interview with Joshua Miller for CHUD, Cosmatos referenced titles like Manhunter, Dark Star, and The Keep as direct influences on the film’s cinematography style, while playing influences on the tone & narrative much closer to the chest. The title Dark Star stood out to me in those citations, because Cosmatos is very specific about what he pulled from that ancient sci-fi comedy; he notes that a particular scene set in “a freezer room” was an influence on the bluish tints sometimes deployed in Beyond the Back Rainbow—what Cosmatos refers to as “night mode.” The specificity of that influence rings even more odd to me now after having watched Dark Star in this context, as the film may have had much more influence on Beyond the Black Rainbow than Cosmatos either realized or admitted.

It’s incredible that a film as small as Dark Star would ever have had enough lasting impact or wide enough of a reach in distribution to inform the look of Beyond the Black Rainbow nearly four decades later. What’s even more incredible is that Cosmatos’s film is one of the least significant corners of genre cinema it has influenced. The debut feature from genre legend John Carpenter, Dark Star was a student film project at the University of Southern California—stitched together from reels of 16mm footage (with some post-production bulking-up before its theatrical release to a reach feature-length runtime). Carpenter directed & scored the film, already establishing some of the basic tones of eerie sci-fi atmosphere & broad humor that would carry throughout his career. His main collaborator was Dan O’Bannon, who co-wrote with Carpenter, acted in a central role, edited the picture, and supervised its production design & special effects. Carpenter getting his sea legs here before immediately jumping into churning out all-time classics (his next two pictures were Assault on Precinct 13 & Halloween) already makes Dark Star a culturally significant work, even as a microbudget student film. It’s really Dan O’Bannon who secured the film’s legacy. however. Not only were the film’s incredible special effects its main draw and his character’s name cited as the source for the band Pinback, but O’Bannon repurposed many basic elements that didn’t work in Dark Star for his career-defining work in Alien. There’s a lengthy spaceship chase in Dark Star involving a beachball-shaped alien with claws that fails miserably in its humor, but O’Bannon later thought to play for genuine scares out of frustration – so that you can get an idea here what Alien might have been like if it were an early SNL or Groove Tube comedy sketch instead of one of the most influential horror films of all time.

Failed sketch comedy & sci-fi majesty are exactly the tones at war with each other in Dark Star, which is understandably more interesting to gaze at as a visual feast & discuss as a cultural object than it is to watch as entertainment media. A sci-fi comedy made by California college nerds in the stoney-baloney haze of the 1970s, the film is very loose in its structure and often is deluded in believing it can get by solely on the strengths of its punchlines (spoiler: it cannot). As beautifully eerie as the film’s pre-Star Wars space-travel effects look, the comedy it’s in service often feels mind-numbingly mundane. Some of that mundanity is (smartly) baked into its premise. The film profiles a trio of deep space colonists who seem to have an exciting job of exploding distant “unstable” planets with “intelligent talking bombs.” The day-to-day reality of this work is shown to be one of corporate boredom, however, as they fill their downtime playing trivial games and suffering the bureaucratic delay of supplies requests for necessities like toilet paper. A lot of this space-travel boredom transfers to the audience as the futuristic stoner humor slowly drifts along, although the movie does admittedly end on its best joke (and perhaps its only good one): a lengthy existential discussion between the ship’s captain and a talking bomb that’s threatening to detonate due to malfunctioning protocol. It’s a dryly funny philosophical battle between man & bomb, approximating the midway point between Douglas Adams & HAL 9000. It’s that latter comparison point that the marketing jumped all over during the film’s theatrical run, cheesily riffing on Kubrick in taglines like “The spaced-out odyssey” & “The mission of the Strangelove generation.” Dark Star was advertised as a full-length Kubrick parody, which was misleading, but likely an easier sell than what it truly was: an aimless stoner comedy adrift in outer space.

Beyond the Black Rainbow is another film that mixes visual majesty & stony baloney psychedelia with moments of incongruous humor, but that’s not the Dark Star influence Panos Cosmatos cites for his own debut. The “freezer room scene’s” influence on the intense blues of Beyond the Black Rainbow’s “night mode” sequences is much more specific & direct than any Dark Star influences Cosmatos may have picked up through cultural osmosis, given the stature of its central two collaborators. That scene, in which the new captain of the ship visits his cryogenically frozen predecessor for advice, is significant enough to Dark Star’s legacy that it’s the image used on the film’s Kubrick-riffing poster (likely due to the frozen captain’s distant gaze resembling 2001’s own advertising). It’s understandable then, that the freezer room scene would be the reference point Cosmatos & Li used to create some of Beyond the Black Rainbow’s general look, but I believe Dark Star’s influence may have extended even further than that scene’s acknowledgement. Throughout Dark Star, there were kaleidoscopic flashes of light, washes of color, and outer space animation that recalled the general analog psychedelia vibe of Beyond the Black Rainbow for me. There are two particular scenes I could point to that I believed resembled Cosmatos’s film much more closely than even the blue hues of the freezer room: one in which a laser gone haywire paints everything in its vicinity a harsh, monochromatic red and one in which the new captain waxes nostalgic about waxing his surfboard while staring out an observation dome, his head effectively floating in space while cross-lit in red & blue. The freezer room scene may have been a useful reference point when coordinating specific aspects of Beyond the Black Rainbow’s cinematography, but Dark Star’s fingerprints are visible all throughout Cosmatos’s picture outside that specific context.

Given the feats Carpenter & O’Bannon would later accomplish, Dark Star’s comedic missteps and detectable influences on just this one isolated picture seem like petty concerns in its greater legacy; the ways it transformed sci-fi media through Alien is alone enough to drown out those minor details. Its comparison to Beyond the Black Rainbow is of much more interest on Cosmatos’s end, as his work often feels so impenetrable in its pastiche of a genre era that likely never existed that any flash of a direct, specific influence like Phase IV or Dark Star feels illuminating. It’s unclear how much of those two films’ visual similarities (outside the freezer room “night mode”) were an indirect result of general genre bleed-over due to Carpenter & O’Bannon’s larger cultural presence, but it is clear that Cosmatos pulled something directly from Dark Star that indicates what Beyond the Black Rainbow was meant to accomplish. It’s also clear that Panos Cosmatos made a much more creatively successful feature debut than John Carpenter did, something to be immensely proud of.

For more on November’s Movie of the Month, Panos Cosmatos’s psychedelic debut Beyond the Black Rainbow, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, and last week’s examination of the influences it pulled from Phase IV (1974).

-Brandon Ledet

Halloween (2018)

The David Gordon Green-directed, Danny McBride co-written, Blumhouse-produced Halloween is colloquially being framed as the Force Awakens of its respective series. This makes total sense from a franchise storytelling POV. It’s a decades-late sequel to a widely beloved classic that’s meant to reinvigorate interest in its brand by both wiping out the taste of lesser franchise entries of the past in a nostalgic return to basics and setting up a foundational storyline that can excite new fans for future installments, box office willing. However, Halloween (2018)’s context as the Force Awakens of its franchise is ringing true to me in other unexpected, even blasphemous ways. Like with The Force Awakens’s relationship to A New Hope, I found this soft-reboot to be an improvement on the original Halloween film through thoughtful, purposeful revision – although one indebted to nostalgic homage. More enthusiastic appreciators of the John Carpenter original are likely to have a drastically different relationship with Halloween (2018), but that seminal 1978 work has never been a personal favorite of mine. I much prefer the later, weirdo outliers it helped inspire: The Final Destination, Slumber Party Massacre II, Sleepaway Camp, The House on Sorority Row, Halloween III: Season of the Witch, etc. Carpenter’s score for the film and the visual design for serial killer Michael Myers are undeniably iconic, but the overall effect of the barebones horny-teens-hunted-by-a-masked-killer slasher is never as interesting to me as the stranger, more outrageous mutations of the formula that followed. I’m appreciative of Halloween (1978)’s influence on the horror genre, but skeptical of most after-the-fact academic assessments of the film that explain Michael Myers to be the embodiment of pure, senseless Evil as if that were that were a mythology it fully defined. Beyond lip service to philosophical ponderings on the nature of Evil provided by crazed psychologist Dr. Loomis, what’s mostly onscreen in the original Halloween is hot teens being punished for behaving badly (like a decades-late update to the 1950s “road to ruin” pictures where sex = death). The philosophy behind its supposed explorations of Fate & Evil have become part of its lore in the decades since its release, so that this 2018 update to its formula has much more to chew on subtextually, growing from those early seeds of ideas through focused revision.

Halloween (1978) co-writers John Carpenter & Debra Hill rationalized Michael Myers’s targeting of young, wayward teens by explaining him to be the Shape of Evil itself (even billing him as “The Shape” in the end credits), but in the text itself he effectively acts like a typical human serial killer with both prurient & prudish interests. The original sequel to Halloween, Halloween II (1982), attempted to ascribe logic to his targeting of Original Final Girl Lorie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) by making him her brother instead of a random violent stranger. Halloween (2018) ditches that sibling explanation entirely and does more with the Shape of Evil rationalization than what’s enacted in the original. 40 years after the Halloween-night serial murders of the first film, Laurie Strode is a traumatized wreck. She has alienated her family by morbidly obsessing over the murders, still attempting to make sense of Michael Myers’s impulses all these years later, preparing (read: looking forward to) his return for a “final” bout of bloodshed & closure. True crime podcasters, obsessive criminal psychologists, and a few superstitious locals share this belief that a showdown between Michael Meyers & Laurie Strode is Fate – an inevitable, momentous event. This stubborn belief in Fate and the impulse to ascribe meaning to senseless, random cruelty & chaos only leads to more personal tragedy. Laurie Strode, in her need for closure, and others obsessed with understanding the mind of the killer artificially orchestrate this final showdown with a perverse glee, like how Doomsday Preppers not-so-secretly look forward to the Apocalypse instead of approaching it with a healthy sense of dread. When Michael does eventually escape police custody to go on another killing spree (there wouldn’t be much of a movie if he didn’t), he just sort of stumbles around, indiscriminately stabbing at anything. It’s Laurie who insists on reliving her past trauma at his hands because she’s stuck in it, putting her whole family at risk as a result. She gets the supposedly fated showdown with Michael she’s been preparing for at her doomsday compound, but only because she & others obsessed with her case make it happen. In the decades since the original Halloween, people on & off the screen have been attempting to rationalize The Shape’s chaotic, emotionless enacting of Evil. No film has actually made use of that theme in a clear, substantive way as well as Halloween (2018).

The brilliance of this conceit of artificially orchestrated “Fate” is that it allows Halloween to split itself into two separate narratives that satisfy two entirely different appetites. One narrative follows Laurie Strode as she (along with other Michael Myers obsessives) endangers her family in her struggles to process her decades-later Final Girl trauma. The other follows Michael Myers indiscriminately doing his thing, completely unconcerned with the Strode Family drama. It’s in that latter thread where the film has its fun as a nostalgic slasher genre throwback, both gleefully referencing callbacks to previous Halloween films and reliving the horny-teens-punished-for-their-supposed-transgressions formula of the genre Carpenter helped establish (for better or for worse). The payoffs in the Michael Myers murder spree “plot” are much more muted than those of the Strode Family drama. You can only derive so much pleasure from spotting the latex Halloween masks from Season of the Witch or hearing Michael’s original murder spree referenced as “The Babysitter Murders” (the 1978 film’s working title), which I suppose is the less forgiving implication when you refer to this soft-reboot as the series’ Force Awakens. The murders themselves, although they leave a grotesquely contorted body count in their wake, also have a limiting entertainment value; they’re deeply indebted to the usual tones & methods of the traditional slasher. When considered in isolation, the two separate plot threads of Halloween (2018) – the Strode Family drama & the Michael Myers killing spree – feel woefully incomplete. One is too brief in screentime to land with full emotional impact, while the other is too reference-heavy & genre-faithful to feel memorable or distinct. The film’s brilliance lies in the way these separate tracks work in tandem. Cutting between Laurie’s conviction that Michael is staging a showdown with her specifically and Michael’s entirely unconcerned, indiscriminate killing spree in seemingly an entirely different movie creates a fascinating narrative tension. It becomes increasingly tragic as Laurie gets what she wants by artificially forcing the two threads to converge as if it were her Fate.

Like with The Force Awakens, this Halloween sequel/remake/reboot has the impossible task of pleasing everyone, ranging from devotees of the original who want to know how Laurie Strode’s doing 40 years later to first-weekend horror-gobbling teens who just want some jump scares & interesting kills. I believe it did an excellent job of satisfying the most extreme ends of that divide by treating them as separate tracks, then giving them a substantive reason to converge. Fans of the franchise with sky-high standards & hyper-specific requirements of how the Laurie-Michael story should be told (Star Wars-type fans, if you will) are going to be the most difficult to please, since their beloved property has to cede so much screentime to roping in newcomers who needed to be won over for this gamble to work. For me, it’s that exact tension between the original Halloween’s storyline’s need to logically seek closure & the slasher genre’s need to propagate random, senseless violence that makes this film one of the best examples of its franchise – one that has something substantive to say about Fate & Evil in a way the original only motioned towards. And it managed to do so while still playing reverent homage to that seminal work’s iconic sense of style.

-Brandon Ledet

The Eyes of Virginia Ducci: The Psychic (1977) and Laura Mars (1978)

When The Psychic was released in the U.S. in 1979, there were immediate accusations of plagiarism, citing elements that the film supposedly stole from 1978’s Eyes of Laura Mars, directed by Irvin Kershner and based on the first mainstream Hollywood screenplay by up-and-comer John Carpenter, whose Halloween debuted later that year. What most audiences didn’t realize was that The Psychic actually came first, having been released in Italy in 1977. One can hardly blame them for this mistake, however, given the notable plot points that both films share.

Faye Dunaway stars as the title character, a controversial fashion photographer whose violent, erotic, and violently eroticized work over the past two years has caught the attention of Lieutenant John Neville, a detective in pursuit of a serial killer; some of Laura’s tableaux are virtually identical to unpublished crime scene photos, which raises suspicions. Further heightening the issue at hand is that the night before the release of a book of her photos, Laura experiences a psychic vision of the murder of one of her friends from the point of view of the killer; at the launch, she learns from Neville that said friend has really been killed.

Laura, like Virginia in The Psychic, is aided in her endeavors by a chaste male companion, her friend and agent Donald Phelps (a pre-Deep Space Nine Rene Auberjonois); unlike Luca, however, Donald is explicitly coded gay both in his profession and his affinity for effeminate bathrobes. But who could be the killer? Is it Donald, or perhaps Tommy Ludlow (Brad Dourif), Laura’s driver with a criminal past? Could it be Laura’s ex-husband Michael (Raúl Juliá), an unrepentant drunk and serial abuser, who does nothing to hide his jealousy over Laura’s successful artistic career in comparison to his failures as a writer? Or someone else altogether?

Above and beyond the nominal connections that arise from having a woman experience psychic visions of death, Eyes of Laura Mars is also notable in that it is often considered to be the first (and perhaps only) successful attempt at making a giallo film in the U.S. All the trappings are there: the bleakness of the city, the untrustworthy associates of the lead, the brutality of the violence and the P.O.V. shots of the killer. Like many Dario Argento protagonists, Laura is an artist who happens to get caught up in a killing spree outside of her control, and like many of his antagonists, the killer (once unmasked) has a tragic and traumatic backstory that is used as self-justification for homicidal violence. There are even elements of Argento’s work that are pre-saged here; the sudden reappearance of Laura’s ex-husband as a mysterious figure and suspect is like the reappearance of the lead’s wife in Tenebrae, which came out four years later; Brad Dourif appears as a red herring, just as he did in 1993’s Trauma; even the overt campiness of Auberjonois’s character recalls the appearance of Carlo’s lover in Profondo rosso (although that film appeared a few years before Laura Mars or The Psychic).

All in all, however, The Psychic is by far the better film. Although Faye Dunaway’s magnetic performance outpaces Jennifer O’Neill’s, and there’s a vitality to other performances, like Dourif’s and Auberjonois’s, that Fulci’s film lacks, Eyes of Laura Mars simply fails to hold interest all the way to the end. On a sequence-by-sequence basis, Mars is simply too uneven, varying broadly from the impressive and delightful scene of Laura’s Times Square photo shoot to the banal, vaseline-lensed blossoming love story between Dunaway and Jones. It has a strong start, what with Laura attending her book party and being harassed by a reporter about whether she feels her work is exploitative and damaging to women, and there are more scenes that stand out for their cinematic eloquence than in The Psychic, but I rarely felt like Laura was in any real danger. Both she and Virginia are forced into an observational role relative to their psychic visions, but Virginia never stops seeking the truth, while Laura drags her feet. She’s simply not the psychic detective we deserve.

For more on August’s Movie of the Month, the Lucio Fulci giallo picture The Psychic, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

A Belated 2015 NOFF Report

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The 26th Annual New Orleans Film Fest stretched across the city about a month ago & I’m finally getting around to submitting this better-late-than-never journal of my experience. My relationship with the festival is usually fairly removed, amounting to a single screening a year. It’s typically where I catch limited release indies that played months earlier in larger cities before they arrive at Netflix purgatory. It’s where I first saw the grossout romcom Wetlands, the grossout grossout Human Centipede 2, and the not-gross-at-all documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. This year, on the other hand, I was up close & personal with the festival. I’m currently working at a movie theater that serves as a NOFF venue, so the fest literally swirled around me on a daily basis during its run. I’d liken that experience to what it might be like if a small mom & pop record store were used as a venue for a large music festival one week out of the year. It’s pretty intense. More importantly, though, I actually exceeded my quota & got to see triple my usual amount of NOFF screenings this year. It’s far from what more dedicated attendees gobbled up while they had the chance, but I’m still proud of myself for making the effort. The three movies I saw have already been covered on the site, but here’s a quick report of how the screenings went.

The very first screening I caught was the Roy Ferdinand documentary Missing People at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art’s Howard Memorial Library. If you’ve never seen that space before, you should really check it out as soon as you get a chance. It’s a gorgeous room, one I’ve seen at various poetry readings & museum-curated events, but never fail to be impressed by. Watching a movie about fine (outsider) art in that context elevated the material a great deal, especially since the Ogden is one of the few venues in New Orleans that still displays Ferdinand’s work & is located mere blocks away from some of the film’s establishing shots. Also strengthening the atmosphere was a post-film Q&A featuring the documentary’s director David Shapiro, the owner of Barrister’s Art Gallery Andy Antippas, and the deceased Ferdinand’s surviving sisters. The director added some context of interest, especially in the details of his relationship with the film’s other subject, art collector & Ferdinand enthusiast Martina Batan. Shapiro had first met Batan when she collected a piece of his work & it took two full years of knowing her before she trusted him to film in her Brooklyn apartment. He also revealed that Batan’s real-life MRI scans were included in the film & that the word “missing” in the title was meant to be read as a verb & a noun. Ferdinand’s sisters were even more fascinating, though, however sad. They joked about Roy’s claim about being an OG in the film, but mostly they lamented that they never had a chance to collect their brother’s work (and had seen most of if for the first time while watching the film) and argued with Antippas about how Roy’s ashes (which they donated to Barrister’s) are currently displayed in a Voodoo alter instead of a Christian display. It was a little awkward, as was Antippas’ nitpicking of the film’s Batan-Ferdinand content balance, but it was also a fascinating, one-of-a-kind experience.

Just a couple hours after Missing People concluded, I zipped Uptown to catch a BYOB, midnight screening of John Carpenter’s The Thing at the Prytania Theatre. Although it technically wasn’t an official NOFF screening, it directly followed one & the crowd very much felt in the festival spirit. It was somehow my first time ever seeing The Thing, as I’ve mentioned before, and that communal, loopy, nearing-2am atmosphere was more or less the perfect introduction to the immortal creature feature. After watching the film a second time in dead-sober daylight, I’m perfectly willing to declare it a masterpiece & am proud to have it included in The Swampflix Canon. It only sweetens the deal that I pushed through after the Missing People screening (and a boozy intermission at The Kingpin) to catch it on the big screen.

The next NOFF screening I caught was the second & final showing of Driving While Black at the Theatres at Canal Place. The movie itself was hilarious & politically provocative, playing very well with a large crowd (as opposed to watching comedies in the silent room of at-home streaming). The post-screening Q&A with director Paul Sapiano, however, was more or less fruitless. The questions were less frequent, less enthusiastic, and less interesting than they were at the Missing People screening. This might’ve had something to do with Sapiano’s visible fatigue with self-promotion, which was gradually edging towards open hostility. There were some interesting revelations nonetheless, even if they were mere confirmations of things I had already assumed. For instance, he & the film’s lead actor Dominique Purdy started writing the film as a comedy, but it took a much darker turn from there in terms of tone. Also, Purdy improvised a lot of his own lines, while Sapiano was responsible for the majority of the racist cops’ dialogue. Makes sense to me. I also liked Sapiano’s confession that, “I get bored easily in movies, so I like to keep things moving,” when questioned about the movie’s pace. Otherwise, the screening was mostly significant due to the game-to-laugh audience & the accompaniment of a short film titled Traction, which more or less amounted to a 5min one-liner about mock outrage vs. true-life racism. I found myself wishing after the screening that Purdy were there to answer questions instead of Sapiano & I doubt the director himself would disagree with that sentiment. He seemed pretty exhausted with the process.

The third & final screening I caught this year was on the closing night of the festival. I made it out to Chalmette Movies for Goodnight Mommy, an Austrian art house horror film that I had been itching to see since Boomer reviewed it for the site. Because of that review’s warnings I spotted the film’s (admittedly overblown) plot twist long before its third act revelation, but I still wasn’t prepared for the gruesome violence ahead of me. For a film so crisp & so beautiful, it’s surprising how willing Goodnight Mommy is to devolve into schlocky brutality, setting its creepy children antagonists free to gruesomely torture a woman they believe is not their mother, but an imposter. As with Driving While Black, it was great to see the film with a full-capacity audience, as their discomfort (along with my own) with the film’s intense, intimate violence was very much audible. It was a great way to close out the fest for me, personally, because it took me back to the uncomfortable squriming of my past NOFF experiences with Wetlands & Human Centipede 2. I have no idea if I’ll be able to squeeze in as many screenings next year as I did this time, but I hope to have at least one of those uncomfortable group experiences again if possible. There’s an incredible sense of camaraderie that comes from surviving screenings like that as a group, especially when the audience is caught off-guard by what’s coming (let’s face it; film fest audiences can paradoxically be both stuffy & unassuming). Those are the experiences I live for & this year wouldn’t have felt complete without one, so it was a perfect note to end on.

-Brandon Ledet

The Thing from Another World (1951)

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In a lot of ways John Carpenter’s 1982 technical marvel of a creature feature The Thing is a one of a kind movie. If nothing else, the titular creature in the film presents itself in many uniquely complex-grotesque forms, each worthy of being preserved & displayed in a museum. As unique of a picture as it is, Carpenter’s The Thing is just one of several adaptations of the same novella, Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell Jr. Three decades before Carpenter got his hands on the story, prolific Hollywood producer Howard Hawks had already loosely adapted the work in a film titled The Thing From Another World. Carpenter was undoubtedly a fan of this older incarnation, as he borrowed its title & the look of its title card, but the two films are fundamentally different in their approaches to telling Campbell’s space invasion story. While Carpenter’s The Thing dazzles viewers with complex, constantly evolving forms of its alien beast, Hawks’ The Thing From Another World keeps its monster mostly under wraps until the last third of the film, instead building its narrative more around the paranoid infighting that plagues the crew dealing with the otherworldly presence.

Set on the exact opposite side of the globe as Carpenter’s The Thing, the film begins in Anchorage, Alaska, where a crew of poker-playing, dame-talking military men are sent on an expedition to the North Pole to investigate a potential UFO sighting, a newspaper man in tow. Once there, they discover a massive flying saucer buried in the ice & attempt to melt it free, accidentally destroying the ship in the process. What they manage to preserve instead is a frozen alien being, one roughly shamed like a human male, except over 8ft tall. In Carpenter’s The Thing, the crew’s paranoid in-fighting revolves around the creature’s ability to imitate other life forms, thus making every team member a suspect for being “the thing”. In The Thing From Another World, the conflict is more concerned with balancing the need for scientific research with the more immediate concerns for self-preservation. As the gigantic humanoid alien monster proves itself to be a threat to the crew, they must decide whether to destroy it for their own safety or to attempt to peacefully contain it for further research, as instructed by the military higher ups.

Although the titular thing in Hawks’ production isn’t quite as visibly alien as Carpenter’s eerily unrecognizable shapeshifter, its humanoid form is merely a deception. The beast is eventually revealed to be a highly evolved form of plant life, one that feeds off of blood rather than water, like Aubrey II in Little Shop of Horrors. There’s a great sense of unnerving ambiguity in the gradual way the film’s isolated crew of scientists & military men piece together exactly what makes the thing ticket. There are also a couple of moments of special effects spectacle in the film, like in a sequence involving a severed arm and an extreme scene of violence in which the thing is set aflame & escapes into the snow. For the most part, though, where Carpenter established the terrifyingly alien nature of his creature’s biology through visual technique, the 1951 adaptation of the same story builds the same effect through a slow burn of dialogue, saving its creature feature surface pleasures for the final half hour. It’s not quite as exciting or satisfying as Carpenter’s picture, but fans of The Thing are likely to get a kick out of The Thing From Another World, both for the surprisingly adept dialogue and for the  fun of comparing & contrasting.

-Brandon Ledet

The Thing (1982)

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I’ve greatly enjoyed every John Carpenter movie I’ve ever seen, save maybe a couple nu metal-era misteps like Ghosts of Mars. As much as I love the director’s landmark films & his soundtrack work, though, there are still a few major titles from Carpenter that I haven’t yet made the effort to catch up with. That’s why it was a godsend that the Prytania Theatre is dedicating the October schedule for its Late Night movie series to Carpenter’s work, culminating at the end of the month, of course, with a screening of Halloween. As I mentioned in my recap of the theater’s recent screening of Cinema Paradiso, The Prytania is a century-old New Orleans institution, the oldest operating cinema in the city, a fine venue for seeing great films for the first time. It was where I first saw Jaws, their frequent selection for America’s favorite holiday: Shark Week. When Robin Williams passed away last year it was where I first saw Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King. And, most recently, it was where I finally watched John Carpenter’s masterful monster movie The Thing, screened on the first truly cold night of the year (how’d they plan that?), so that you could feel a fraction of the chill of the film’s Antarctica setting in your bones. Technically, it’s still fall outside, but when Kurt Russell gripes in the film, “First goddamn week of winter,” it was easy to empathize. All that was missing was a shape-shifting alien & a bottle of Jim Beam.

The Thing is essentially a 1950s Roger Corman monster movie taken to its most logical & most pessimistic extremes. In fact, the short story the film is based on had been previously adapted into an actual 1950s creature feature (and would later be resurrected for an episode of The X-Files & a cheap CGI trifle of a remake). A practical effects masterwork, The Thing‘s titular creature is just as ambiguous in form as it is in name. It’s a grotesque, rapidly evolving mess of undercooked biology, calling into mind the hot mess of vaguely defined monsters in the back half of 1981’s psychological horror Possession. The thing arrives on Earth via a disc-shaped, Millennium Falcon-esque UFO in the opening credits with very little detail provided for its origins. A complicated “organism that imitates other life forms,” the thing is alien in every sense of the word. It transforms in ways that are shocking & disgusting because they don’t make sense in the context of anything we’ve ever seen or understood in biology. Even in cinema, we’ve seen dogs used to create tension or terror, but never by splitting their faces open to reveal a mass of spider-like tentacles. We’re used to monsters killing for sport or nourishment, but not so much a creature that infiltrates a species through physical imitation, like a disease. Cellular activity found in corpses, blood that actively avoids extreme heat, half-cooked human imitations that look just about almost right except for long claw-like hands that resemble gigantic, deep-fried softshell crabs: the thing is far beyond human comprehension of basic biology, constantly opening compartments of itself like horrific Russian dolls to reveal more & more layers of ambiguous terror. Too often sci-fi horror models the designs of its creatures around what we already know. The Thing‘s creature might be the most alien alien to ever grace the screen.

Finding themselves face to face with this unknowable threat is an all-male crew of scientific researchers isolated in Antarctica for the winter. Even as scientists our protagonists have a difficult time making sense of the thing. Kurt Russell’s character exclaims early on, “I don’t know what the hell’s in there, but it’s weird & pissed off, whatever it is.” Once the thing infiltrates their ranks & starts imitating human lifeforms (a computer model helpfully explains, “Possibility that one or more crew members are infected: 75%”), everyone becomes suspect. The group of goofs, once prone to drunkenly playing computer chess, rollerskating to Stevie Wonder, and smoking six-paper joints in the lab, soon has to ask of each & every team member, “How do we know he’s human?” The notorious scene of extensive, pointless, paranoid violence in Carpenter’s They Live (“Put the glasses on! Put ’em on! “) is drawn out here to a full length narrative. Nearly every member of the crew is an affable goof, so it’s a very tense atmosphere in which at least one of them is not what they seem, but instead is a shape-shifting mess of mismatched body parts & gore.

I’m not sure of the exact reason The Prytania is spotlighting John Carpenter this month (not that I would complain if they did so every October), but it does feel like kind of the perfect time to do so. After scoring his own films for decades, the director just released his first studio album, Lost Themes— complete with his first music video & live concerts. Screening They Live earlier this month was a fitting tribute to the recently deceased “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, as it was easily his best work outside the wrestling ring (and I’m bummed to say I missed it). Even in a more general sense, the current cinematic climate is adoringly looking back at the Carpenter aesthetic & it’s all too easy to see echoes of his work in films as recent as The Guest, It Follows, and Cold in July. In other words, everything’s coming up Carpenter.

If I only catch one film during this mini-Carpenter Fest, I’m glad I at least got to experience The Thing for the first time on the big screen. The movie’s visuals are on par with the best the director has ever crafted. The strange, rose-colored lighting of emergency flares & the sparse, snow-covered Antarctica hellscape give the film an otherworldly look backed up, of course, by the foreign monstrosity of its titular alien beast. The film’s creature design  is over-the-top in its complexity and I sincerely hope every single model made for the film is preserved in a museum somewhere & not broken into parts or discarded. Also up there with Carpenter’s best work is the film’s dark humor, not only in Kurt Russell’s drunkenly cavalier performance, but also in the absurdity of the film’s violence & grotesqueries. It played very well with a midnight, BYOB audience. The only thing that’s missing here from Carpenter’s typical masterworks is one of his self-provided, glorious synth soundtracks, but with a pinch hitter like Ennio Morricone stepping in to fill the void, it’s near impossible to complain. The Thing is a perfectly crafted creature feature, one that even satisfies art cinema tastes with a resistance to tidying up its ambiguity in a bleak, mostly open conclusion. It’s by no means a stretch to rank it among the best of Carpenter’s works & I’m grateful to The Prytania for providing the opportunity to see it large, loud, and (in the spirit of the film’s isolated crew of scientific researchers) more than a little drunk with a live audience at a late hour. It was special.

-Brandon Ledet

Ghosts of Mars (2001)

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In 1965 Italian horror mastermind Mario Bava released the eerie, way-ahead-of-its-time Planet of the Vampires. In 1979 directorial enigma Ridley Scott drew major influence from the atmospheric elements of Planet of the Vampires and reworked them into Alien, one of the scariest, most striking creature features of all time. In 2001 former-genius-turned-shlock-peddler John Carpenter borrowed Planet of the Vampires’ most superficial plot points and turned them into a nu-metal shootout in space that nobody asked for.

Told through the unnecessary framing device of a criminal hearing in a Martian mining colony of a future matriarchal society (we know this detail because of a title card that helpfully reads “Society: Matriarchal”), the bare bones story of Ghosts of Mars is awfully similar to that of Planet of the Vampires. While digging under Mars’ surface, miners mistakenly release disembodied Martian spirits (or “ghosts” if you will) who are none too pleased with the planet’s new human inhabitants. As one character puts it, “As far as they’re concerned, we are the invaders.” Yep. The ghosts of Mars exact their revenge on the Earth invaders by inhabiting their bodies, then causing them to self-mutilate & murder each other indiscriminately. The ghosts are essentially impossible to kill, because when one of their bodily vehicles dies they simply move on to the next.

Instead of properly utilizing the horrific potential of this premise, Carpenter mistakenly aims for a late-90s cool, the same effect he attempted in his 1998 misfire Vampires. Characters saunter around in black leather trench coats, getting high on space drugs, piloting steampunk hot air balloons, and trading we’re-so-cool quips like “Maybe I’d sleep with you if you were the last man on Earth. But we’re not on Earth.” If it weren’t for the ghosts, the Martian community could be mistaken for an especially dour year at Burning Man. Despite that, the ghosts themselves are menacing enough. Even though the cheapness of their costumes suggests Mad Max cosplay or a GWAR cover band, they have a distinct affinity for decapiation that makes them viable as a real threat. The problem is that any threat they pose is severely undercut by the nu-metal riffage that obnoxiously drones on in the background, trying (but failing) to portray them as super cool instead of super creepy.

Ghosts of Mars isn’t a total loss, but it is a disappointment. The cast is surprisingly decent, considering the quality of the film: Clea DuVall, Jason Statham, Natasha Henstridge, and Pam Grier are always welcome faces (although, how there are two Pam-Grier-In-Space movies and they both suck is beyond me). Ice Cube steals the show, firmly operating in angry NWA mode and not his more recent milquetoast-family-man mode. Although it’s a disappointment that the film’s genuinely cool ghosts-in-space concept devolves into a generic nu-metal shootout film, watching Ice Cube (and Clea DuVall for that matter) run around like a shoot-em-up action star is a draw in itself. Carpenter failed to utilize the body possession aspects of the premise to its full Planet of the Vampires potential & lazily used storytelling devices like flashbacks within the central flashback to get its point across and he paid the price for it. Ghosts of Mars was a huge flop, earning only half of its $28 million back at the box office. The most frustrating thing about the film is that you can see elements in play that could swing it either in the direction of an actually decent horror flick or at least a ridiculous camp fest if exploited properly. It instead mires itself in self-mutilating, nu-metal-soaked mediocrity.

-Brandon Ledet