Wednesday, March 23, 2011

John Carpenter: The Thing, Escape from New York

This morning's Quick Picks are inspired by the recent addition of John Carpenter's The Thing to Netflix Watch Instantly last week.

I'm not the biggest horror fan, especially the gross-out horror film that emerged in the 1980s.  So it took me a while to come around to seeing The Thing for the first time.  I had vaguely remembered its reputation when it came out, and I knew that many critics viewed it very unfavorably in relation to the Howard Hawks & Christian Nyby 1951 original, The Thing from Another World (Leonard Maltin, who wielded quite a bit of influence me at the time, was particularly dismissive of the film in his Movie Guide).  So when I finally sat down and watched it, I was pleasantly surprised, if "pleasantly" is the right word in this context.  It's a smart, dark (almost nihilistic) and genuinely suspenseful and scary horror film.

One of many things I like about the film (and what I like about a lot of good science fiction) is that it generates tension as you learn the "rules" governing the monster, but at the same time there are some points when you simply do not know what the monster is capable of doing.  It's hard to give an example of this without spoiling a moment, but in general the wilder transformation scenes are unsettling in part because they are so imaginative and off-the-wall.  At the same time, some of the best sequences in the film do not feature special effects at all, and instead they focus on the psychological states of the characters as they try to figure out who might be "it."  The much imitated and parodied "blood test" scene rivets up the suspense until it is literally hard to watch.

So in honor of The Thing, I thought I'd list the John Carpenter films currently streaming on Netflix Watch Instantly.  While I'm not always a fan of his films, even the films I don't like have the playful exuberance of independent b-filmmaking balanced with a sophisticated knowledge of cinema history.  And if you haven't seen Starman in a while (which I haven't probably since the late 1980s), it's worth looking at to remind you of Carpenter's range (it's a particularly interesting contrast with The Thing in terms of tone).

The Thing (John Carpenter, USA, 1982, 108 minutes)
Netflix: Scientists working in Antarctica are forced to abandon their research after a helicopter crashes near their camp, bringing a lone dog into their midst. But the plot thickens when the otherworldly canine changes form in the middle of the night. As it turns out, the dog is a shape-shifting alien that can attack animals -- and unsuspecting humans. Kurt Russell stars in this creepy John Carpenter-directed remake of the 1950s classic. Netflix link.

Escape from New York (John Carpenter, USA, 1981, 94 minutes)
Netflix: Soaring crime rates prompt the United States to turn New York City into a maximum-security prison -- which is precisely where the U.S. president (Donald Pleasence) lands when he's forced to bail out of Air Force One in director John Carpenter's action classic. Condemned criminal and former war hero Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) rescues the commander-in-chief, but on one condition: The President must promise to grant Plissken his freedom. Netflix link.

Assault on Precinct 13 (John Carpenter, USA, 1976, 90 minutes)
Netflix: This taut action flick from writer-director John Carpenter pits an understaffed police station against a bloodthirsty gang's angry horde gathering outside the precinct's walls. Before Carpenter hit pay dirt with slasher and sci-fi fare (Halloween, Escape from New York), he directed several low-budget, suspenseful thrillers. Assault on Precinct 13, co-starring Austin Stoker and Darwin Joston, is among his best. Netflix link.

Starman (John Carpenter, USA, 1984, 114 minutes)
Netflix: In this sci-fi love story from John Carpenter, Jeff Bridges -- who received an Oscar nod for his work -- plays Starman, an alien who crashes on Earth and takes the form of a recently deceased man in order to evade authorities. On seeing the image of her dead husband before her, widow Jenny (Karen Allen) is frightened. But eventually, Starman wins her trust -- and her affection -- and she agrees to help him return to his home planet. Netflix link.

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