Today in Movie History: July 10

The key to dystopian science fiction is to make their bleak future plausible, which is why stories like 1984 resonate even after the precise future date they utilize has come and gone. John Carpenter pulled off a similar trick with Escape from New York, turning Manhattan Island into a walled maximum security prison controlled by a future police state. When Air Force One crash lands inside the prison, they sent Kurt Russell’s eyepatch-toting loner in to save him… and in the process gave us one of the best pure iconoclasts in movie history. Escape from New York opened today in 1981.

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is generally regarded as the weakest of the four Mad Max movies. Producer Bryon Kennedy died early in production, and a heartbroken George Miller continued the project more out of obligation to his friend than any enthusiasm for going forward without him. Add to that star Mel Gibson’s subsequent Anti-Semitic disgrace and the presence of three other, better Mad Max movies, and Thunderdome struggles more than it should. That said, Miller is still Miller and his boundless imagination still holds strong in this post-apocalyptic future… to say nothing of Tina Turner’s bad-ass turn as Max’s nemesis, Auntie Entity. Beyond Thunderdome opened today in 1985.

That same day, Lawrence Kasdan attempted to revitalized the moribund Western genre with Silverado, pitting a quartet of principled drifters (Kevin Kline, Scott Glenn, Danny Glover and Kevin Costner) against a corrupt sheriff (Brian Dennehy) and an evil clan of cattle barons. It’s kind of the salad bar of Westerns: cramming everything it can into its frame and letting you pick the bits you like. That gives it an uneven feeling sometimes, but the grand performances and sparkling dialogue still make it a hell of a romp. Silverado opened today in 1985.

Today in Movie History: June 25

It’s another banner day, and we’re going to start with one of those wild 80s weekends where multiple future classics opened on the same day. Nobody knew that back in 1982 when Ridley Scott released Blade Runner unto the world. It suffered from a troubled production which saw Scott battling with both the studio and star Harrison Ford (to say nothing of the tacked-on ending and ill-conceived 11th-hour voiceover). Furthermore, it opened in the wake of E.T., and its pessimistic vision just didn’t fit the cultural vibe the way Spielberg’s masterpiece did.

John Carpenter’s The Thing opened the same day, and it fared even worse than Blade Runner: savaged for daring to reboot an established classic and embracing a nihilistic straight out of H.P Lovecraft. Both movies suffered at the box office and were dismissed as forgettable misfires. Time has proven otherwise. The advent of the video revolution (as well as the release of subsequent versions of Blade Runner much closer to Scott’s vision) allowed both movies to find their audience and more. Today, they’re both ranked among the greatest sci-fi and horror movies ever made. Both opened today in 1982.

A third movie opened that day that was more justly chastised. Megaforce, a ripe slice of pure 80s nonsense, featured Barry Bostwick as the leader of an elite mercenary force out to stop a vaguely foreign army from invading some damn place or another. It’s a disaster from start to finish… but it holds a cult following, mostly among Gen Xers who view it with their nostalgia filters fully in place, and it does have a stake in that incredible summer of 1982.

Looking back earlier, we find Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2, a semi-autobiographical tale of a stifled film production intended as a veiled stand-in for Fellini himself. It’s widely regarded as one of the greatest movies of all time, but I always found it excessively indulgent. Earlier works such as La Strada and La Dolce Vida do much better for their comparative lack of self-regard. In any case, 8 1/2 opened in U.S. theaters today in 1963.

We’ll close with The Omen, Richard Donner’s ode to the devil that also stands as a horror classic. I’m not a fan — the plot is ridiculous, and the overheated components evoke as much laughter as chills — but Donner has a good eye and tells the story well enough. And it does have that outstanding Jerry Goldsmith score, which resulted in the celebrated composer’s lone Oscar. The Omen opened today in 1976.

Today in Movie History: February 8

A big day for movies starts with the one of the most problematic. D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation opened today in 1915, marking a seismic advance in motion pictures as a technical art form while simultaneously pushing a narrative so grotesque it causes one to despair for humanity. Film students are obligated to watch it. Once. Everyone else can probably skip it, and make Griffith’s technical prowess an afterthought to the fact that he may have been single-handedly responsible for the resurrection of the KKK.

If you’re looking for a masterpiece that won’t make you want to punch the wall, there’s Martin Scorsese’s celebrated Taxi Driver, a tale of urban despair that feels more relevant now than ever. Anyone struggling to get the nasty taste of latter-day Robert De Niro movies out of their mouth can revel in his performance here — one of the most unforgettable ever put on screen — along with equally stunning turns from the likes of Harvey Keitel, Jodie Foster and Cybil Shepherd.

Five years later, Taxi Driver’s screenwriter Paul Schrader helmed another urban thriller, American Gigolo, which opened today in 1980. Though not in the same league as Taxi Driver, it found an agreeably creepy vibe for its murder mystery and succeeded in turning Richard Gere into a big star.

Speaking of big stars…. for all his career longevity (and despite a late-inning slump disturbingly similar to De Niro’s), Harrison Ford never received an excessive amount of critical respect. The lone exception was Witness, Peter Weir’s police thriller about a good cop hiding among the Pennsylvania Amish that netted Ford his first (and to date only) Academy Award nomination. He lost to William Hurt, and it was the right call, but it’s hard not to be entranced by his layered, surprisingly nuanced performance of a man in a violent job picking his way through a community that rejects all violence.

We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention The Petrified Forest, Archie Mayo’s adaptation of the celebrated play about the occupants of a remote diner held hostage by a gangster on the run. Bette Davis and Leslie Howard got top billing as the scenario’s ostensible romantic couple, but the real scene stealer was Humphrey Bogart as the gangster; the film marked his transition away from supporting roles and towards the parts that made him a star. The Petrified Forest opened today in 1936.

Finally, there’s John Carpenter’s The Fog, which opened the same say as American Gigolo in 1980. It’s minor Carpenter at best — he never could get the film’s multiple plot threads to come together and a fine atmosphere sometimes overcomes actual scares — but still demonstrates why the man became a legend in genre filmmaking. (And check out John Houseman’s incredible ghost story to kick the whole thing off.)

 

 

Today in Movie History: December 14

It was a good day for epics, starting with Edward Zwick’s classic Civil War tale Glory, which (among other things) gave Denzel Washington his first Oscar. You like your epics big, loud and featuring Charlton Heston? December 14 also saw the release of Anthony Mann’s minor classic El Cid back in 1961.

1984 saw three notable science fiction movies released today… well okay, two notable science fiction movies and Michael Crichton’s Runaway. David Lynch released is long-anticipated version of Dune, to the bafflement and dismay of many fans. The film has since developed a cult following, and while we acknowledge its flaws, we can’t help but admire its ambition. (Plus Patrick Stewart as Gurney Halleck; who doesn’t love that?) Far more successful — to the tune of an Oscar nomination for star Jeff Bridges — was Starman, John Carpenter’s marvelous move out of his horror movie comfort zone and into the realm of sci-fi romance.

But that’s not all! Carl Reiner’s The Jerk opened today in 1979: a film that really shouldn’t work but does thanks to its lead, Steve Martin. Martin scored another success nine years later with Frank Oz’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, which remains one of his best films to date.

Finally, there’s Saturday Night Fever, John Badham’s ode to disco and working-class Brooklyn that made a star out of John Travolta. It turns 40 years old today — released in 1977 — and it’s a lot better than you might think.

Movies for the Resistance: John Carpenter’s The Thing

(Welcome to Movies for the Resistance, a weekly column intended to showcase films with particular pertinence for 2017. One of the fundamental purposes of art in general, and movies in particular, is to serve as a spiritual armory: bringing hope, timely lessons and shared experiences when times are dark. They can move us to positive political action, lend insight to the inexplicable, and sometimes just give us a moment to remember that we’re not alone. I’m hoping to embrace as many genres and subjects as possible here: nothing is out of bounds and the plan is to vary the content as much as I can from week to week. But all of them are chosen for the same basic purpose: to support, comfort and inspire as we enter a troubling new phase in our nation’s history. We’ll showcase a new film every Tuesday.)

Starring: Kurt Russell, Keith David, Donald Moffat, Wilford Brimley, TK Carter, David Clennon and Richard Dysart
Directed by: John Carpenter
Running time: 109 minutes
Rating: R
Year of release: 1982

 

“One of us is a monster!”

That line doesn’t appear in The Thing. It comes from the source material, a 1936 short story called “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell, Jr. It’s a work of pure Lovecraftian horror, though not nearly as bleak as John Carpenter’s film version (in my opinion, the flat-out greatest horror movie ever made). It was first published in August of 1938, a few weeks before the Munich Accords forced Czechoslovakia into the hands on the Nazis and gave Neville Chamberlain the ghastly quote that defined his legacy.

The story matched the mood of the times amazingly well. Bleak, paranoid, with an existential threat that promised to quite literally devour every living thing on the planet. It was perfect: dark and elegantly nihilistic, with just enough of a question mark to keep you up at night. Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby adapted it in 1951 as the classic Thing from Another World, but missed the real poetry of the source. It became a traditional (if terrific) invader-from-outer-space story instead of the exercise in gut-wrenching distrust that made the short story sing.

“One of us is a monster.”

Carpenter, one of cinema’s great iconoclasts, saw what Hawks didn’t. He went back to the source for his 1982 version, and shifted the monster back from James Arness’s walking carrot to Campbell’s version: a being that could literally resemble anything and could take on the aspects of a million horrifying monsters all at once. Effects wizard Rob Bottin brought the creature to life in spectacular fashion, and the results hold up to this day as utterly convincing works of art. (Seriously, what modern CGI creation can hold a candle to it?)

But had Carpenter limited himself to the money shots, The Thing would have been nothing more than the geek show its detractors at the time condemned it as. The film’s true horror comes in much subtler ways, as an outpost of frightened, isolated men – men who need to depend on each other as never before – slowly tear each other apart.

“One of us is a monster.”

The monster’s true power lies in its ability to perfectly imitate us: a version of someone you know so identical to the real thing that he might not even be aware of his status as a monster. What happens when you have to depend on that person? What happens when you pair off with that person to perform some vital task? What happens when that person looks you right in the eye and tells you you’re making a terrible mistake just before the tentacles explode from its chest?

Carpenter knew that the real juice lay in those terrifying contemplations. He uses Bottin’s effects to release the tension – built up with a deliberation that Hitchcock would envy – which lets them hit all that much harder. But he didn’t need special effects to find the horror in the scenario. Just a few furtive, paranoid glances from his cast to remind us that the real threat hides in plain sight.

“One of us is a monster.”

Audiences didn’t want to hear that in 1982. It was morning in America, and with the triumph of E.T. filling us all with warm fuzzies, Carpenter’s bleak exercise in despair just didn’t match the zeitgeist. He wanted to follow Campbell’s example: a story from a different era, when fear was ascendant and men went mad. That helped it hold up past the initial barrage of withering criticism and become the classic that it is. It spoke to those dark moments, to the people we thought we could trust, and to the horrors that lie behind their seemingly innocent, innocuous faces. Human beings can’t outrun that, no matter how hard we try. Sooner or later, the wheel turns and we find ourselves right back where we started.

The divisions we’re currently grappling with in this country speak profoundly to that vision. Donald Trump didn’t create them, but he was happy to exploit them, and if anything resembling intelligence or insight comes scurrying out of that reptilian brain of his, it’s the understanding that once you’re in, you’re in for good. If you can accept his opening salvo when he first his announced his candidacy – that Mexicans are rapists and drug dealers – you’ll cheerfully double down on any atrocity, no matter how vile.

“I could stand in the middle of 5th Ave and shoot somebody,” he famously quipped during the campaign, “and I wouldn’t lose any voters.” The crowd laughed. And they kept laughing during the pussy grabbing and the threats of violence and the feuds and infantile name calling. They crowed about Hillary’s defeat, they snickered at the world’s dawning horror, and they noted Republican after Republican who protested this man’s ascent, only to bend their knee for the sake of Supreme Court appointments and tax cuts.

And the worse things got, they more they shrugged it off as business as usual. Easily disproven lies about inaugural crowd sizes and tapped wires from Obama… dutifully passed off as news from the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. “Fake news” used to obscure real injustices and grotesque appetites. Racism. Sexism. Willful cruelty. And all the while, his followers lapped it up, and brushed the rest of off as paranoid.

Even when neo-Nazis marched in Charlottesville.

And universities started inviting Richard Spencer to speak.

And the minority widows of minority soldiers killed in battle were publicly vilified for disputing the president’s version of events.

His followers never changed. They just dug in. They attacked Trump’s defeated rival. They blew smoke. They denied what was in front of their faces, and when those close to them begged to differ, they attacked.

In many cases, they were friends. In some, they were family.

And suddenly, we knew what it was to look at someone we thought we knew and wonder what went on behind their eyes. Suddenly, we tried to imagine how far they’d go – how bad things would get – before they finally saw what the rest of us accepted as plain fact.

One of us is a monster.

It hasn’t happened yet for too many of them. 1 in 3 still approves of the job this man is doing… even as Robert Mueller goes on the offensive and the first indictments thunder through the political landscape. Trump himself may be doomed. The sharks are circling and assuming there’s any basic concern for the country left in Congress, justice will take its course. But we can’t dismiss the 60 million people who voted for this man as quickly. Or the hate and bigotry that bubbled all too eagerly from their lips, and which they will deny to their graves rather than confront.

That’s the real monster. Carpenter just dressed it up a little. We can fight it out in the open, but it does the most damage when it lies hidden from sight. Campbell knew it in 1938. The Thing knew it in 1982. And now we’re getting another reminder of just how hard that monstrosity can be to kill. But like the men in Outpost #31, we have to try.

It’s just too goddamn important to do anything else.

Happy Halloween everyone.