For Your Entertainment: The Horror Master

I feel like I say this every month but October has COMPLETELY disappeared from under my nose. A six day week, 8pm finishes and home renovation put a dent in my written output for the week, and before I realised it we’re more than halfway through the month. No time like the present, then- I had a film-based post planned for last week but just about scrabbled together a weekly progress one so hey, I’ll double up next week. Maybe.

Getting back to business, my first resurrected foray into film writing definitely gave me some pause for thought. Reading it back, I don’t love what I wrote, but that’s expected. I’m out of shape. My analytical skills aren’t honed by hours of box set binges and symbolic code-breaking. There’s no better way to get back in the habit than practice though, right? Well, practice and scouring other film blogs for inspiration. My chosen focus this week was already a no-brainer. It was practically a gift.

At the end of this week Ally and I are making a rare jaunt through to the capital to see the one and only John Carpenter in concert. Carpenter has either written or co-written the score to every film he’s made, and has decided it’s time to tour them. He’s also released two albums of non-film scores and we have them on vinyl, so I have both a fairly good idea and no idea what to expect.

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It has a present to Ally but also, umm, to me

In honour of this momentous occasion- and because it’s getting closer to Hallowe’en so I’m ramping up the classics- what better excuse than to revisit and share some of my favourites from the Master of Horror?

The Thing (1982)

Confession time- on the list of John Carpenter films, The Thing lags somewhat behind They Live, Escape From New York and Big Trouble In Little China, as well as the others on this list. It’s also a remake, so not really the most purely Carpenter-y of his films. However, they don’t really fall into the horror camp (maybe They Live, but not in a serious way). It’s a good example of his ability to manipulate the tropes to fit the surroundings- the isolation so prevalent in The Fog is amplified in an Antarctic research facility. Much like Alien, its menace comes from the ‘thing’ being inescapable, and at the same time both known and unknown. It can manipulate the form of whoever it touches so in an already isolated environment, mistrust has a far more resonant echo. The Thing places greater emphasis on technical wizardry than Carpenter’s earlier efforts. The practical FX and animatronics are way ahead of their time, which is perhaps why other aspects like characterisation seem a bit heavier-handed.. Yes, Kurt Russell’s RJ Macready is notable but the rest of the cast form more of an ensemble. It’s not a bad film for it though, it’s just a different way of making horror than we’d previously seen from him.

The Fog (1980)

We went to a screening of The Fog at the GFT last year presented by Greg Hemphill of Chewin’ The Fat/Still Game fame, who likened watching it so ‘slipping into a warm bath’. I’ve yet to come up with a more apt and succinct summary for this film. For a horror film about spooky pirate ghosts, there’s something innately comfortable about settling down to watch it. Perhaps it’s the damp, foggy seaside setting. It gives you that same satisfaction as watching the rain from the comfort of being indoors. In any case, it’s a simple story but told in such a way that it feels timeless rather than hackneyed.

Its plot devices are in no way unique- vengeful ghosts coming back to wreak their revenge on provincial small-town Americana. Hell, even Carpenter’s own Hallowe’en (1978) trod this path (albeit with a more ‘human’ antagonist). The difference here is in the execution, and how Carpenter manipulates them to suit his premise: the small town is a harbour town, frequently at the mercy of pesky fog banks. The ‘lone female’ (Adrienne Barbeau) is a radio DJ- she’s actually the only one- who broadcasts from a lighthouse. The ‘villains’ get swept along by a natural, directionless force that could carry it anywhere- making its threat all the more unpredictable.

Hallowe’en (1978)

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We actually love this film so much in our house that this painting I did for Ally hangs up in the living room…

Of course. Even if I wasn’t writing about Carpenter in particular there’s no way I’d leave this one out. I mean…. it’s called Hallowe’en. The film is probably one of the most enduring of its time, which is no small feat. The late 1970s and its second golden age of cinema saw some serious classics emerge: The Omen (1976) for one, which I wrote about on this very blog. See also The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Don’t Look Now (1973),  Deep Red (1975), The Exorcist (1973) (I’m not a fan but I don’t doubt its legacy), The Amityville Horror (1979), Carrie (1976), Dawn of the Dead (1979)… Hallowe’en, though, is the stand out of them all. It boasts one of the genre’s most iconic scores, and is almost frighteningly simple in its premise. The film plays on the childhood fear of the ‘boogeyman’ and drops him into suburban America, in the already-tumultuous lives of a group of teenagers.

I can’t even remember when I first saw Hallowe’en and I don’t even know what else I can add to its lore (Ally once even worked out Michael Myers’ family tree so I’m not even the biggest Hallowe’en fan in my household of two). Its sequels are actually worth checking out too, although their attempts to build Myers’ back story actually detract from his menace. Never mind his family history (atrociously handled by Rob Zombie in his 2007 attempt)- the threat of Myers doesn’t need it. He’s a much more frightening entity if we imagine that he’s just evil. He doesn’t need a motive, or even a single line. Carpenter plays with light and shadow to allow Myers to slip in and out of it without warning, and in doing so creates one of horror’s most iconic monsters: the twist being that he’s not a monster at all.

As with last week, I’m open to any suggestions, feedback and especially recommendations for what to cover in these posts. Like these films? Hate ’em? Either way- I’d love to hear it!

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