Active Essentials: John Carpenter
In a new feature, Matt looks at the five best flicks from director John Carpenter
Over the past several years we have reported the news on and reviewed a rather large number of discs, but with an exponentially increasing number of titles released each year since the format’s inception there are just so many choices out there to choose from that it’s nearly impossible to fully sift through the good, the bad, and the ugly of what’s sitting on the shelf at your favourite retailer. Double-dips of this and double-dips of that, movies newly released to the format after years of sitting dormant in some studio vault, unrated and director's cuts with 47-seconds of additional footage, seasons of television programs that have been long forgotten and some that should have stayed that way, re-mastered in high-definition for your viewing enjoyment with the original mono upgraded to 6.1 DTS ES sound, Greedo still shooting first in digital clarity…it’s all a bit overwhelming and can be maddening with all of the choices presented in store aisles and with only so much cash to fund an expedition into the jungle.
It’s with this dilemma in mind that we decided to begin something new here at DVDActive.com and begin a series of articles that cut through all of the useless junk cluttering store shelves, on-line searches, and even that ever growing shelf in your living room that started out so small and innocent just a few, short years ago. A series of articles that present to you only the best of the best, the cream of the crop, titles that should be in anyone’s collection or on anyone’s wish list—the essentials.
Just so we all start off on the same footing, the dictionary defines the word essential as the following:
1 : of, relating to, or constituting essence : INHERENT
2 : of the utmost importance : BASIC, INDISPENSABLE, NECESSARY
We here at DVDActive.com apply the label of essential to any DVD that, if given the choice of relinquishing such a great disc or loosing a limb, we would gnaw off of our right arm in order to keep it on our shelf. Okay, so maybe that only applies to me, but you get the idea. The films included in this and future articles to come are not only great films, but also represent the best combination of what the DVD format has to offer in terms of picture quality, sound, and extras. Each article will comprise of five such discs, with each piece focusing on a particular genre, actor, best boy, director, or anything else we can think of to link a few movies together in a Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon sort of way. I’m kidding about the best boy part, but again I think you get the basic idea.
So now that you’re knee deep into this article I’m sure you’re either thinking to yourself or asking aloud, “okay, but what makes any of John Carpenter's movies essential”? Well, for the better part of the past twenty-years he has been one of my favourite directors and someone I feel is greatly underrated outside of the horror community. As a director he’s been deemed a ‘Master of Horror’, but in all fairness that title does a great disservice to a number of the pictures in his filmography, three of which can be found within this list, and the manner in which he serves as writer, producer, and even composer on a number of the movies which span his career makes him unique in the industry and has helped him to carve out a signature style all his own.
My second rational is that ever since the home video market began its shift towards providing more and more supplemental material to go along with movies, John Carpenter has been a filmmaker who has embraced the opportunity to take an active involvement in providing candid and entertaining commentaries and behind-the-scenes material for most of his films available on DVD and the laserdisc format before that. While the quality of each of his films may be completely subjective and the topic of some debate, there is little room to argue that his work has not been well represented on our favourite little format, thanks in no small part to the man himself.
Those two things should be reason enough for me to start off this series of articles on essential DVDs with director John Carpenter, and if you don’t think it is then tough—I’m the one writing here. You can trust me on this though—if you’ve never seen these movies or don’t already have these discs in your collection, you’ll thank me later for pointing them out.
It may be cliché to list Halloween at the top of any list of films by John Carpenter seeing as the man’s name is so inseparable from it, but I don’t see how anyone in their right mind could compile such a list without it. Halloween is the film that put Carpenter on the map plain and simple, and without its success you might not be reading an article on some of his best movies. It also ushered in a wave of imitators that chose to substitute a strong screenplay with an overabundance of blood and gore, something that is virtually non-existent in Carpenter’s film past the very first scene. The fact that Halloween relies heavily on an atmosphere of tension rather than splatter patterns is its greatest strength; it’s a picture that builds and builds toward the picture’s final, terrifying reel and allows for an audience to invest in the characters on-screen. Once you add in all of the other intangibles of the picture, such as Dean Cundey’s camerawork and Carpenter’s own instantly recognizable score, you get a film that has withstood the test of time and is just as unsettling and as much of a thrill ride today as it was when it premiered in theaters back in the fall of 1978.
As the most important work in Carpenter’s career, Halloween has fittingly received the best releases of any of his films on DVD. The only problem is that Anchor Bay Entertainment, the only company that has released it on the format, seems to follow the notion that for Halloween aficionados one DVD set may just not be enough as they have brought the movie out no less than five times since 1997. I myself own both the Restored Limited Edition release from 1999 which includes the television version of the film and the 25th Anniversary Divimax Edition, and each of these two-disc sets come with a variety of different extras that are worth a look. In this case, the choice as to which is essential not only comes down to the film, but just which version to get a hold of. For my money, and this must be true since I double-dipped to get it, the 25th Anniversary Edition is the way to go since for the first time on DVD you get the commentary track recorded by Carpenter, producer Debra Hill, and star Jamie Lee Curtis for the Criterion laserdisc edition included in the set.
Escape from New York (1981)
Carpenter’s second film for AVCO Embassy Pictures was a gritty look at the ultimate penal system of the future with an anti-hero played by an actor who made a name for himself in a number of family-friendly Disney films made during the 60s and 70s. I’m speaking of course, just in case you missed the title right above this paragraph, about John Carpenter’s Escape from New York, a film that demonstrated that horror wasn’t the only genre that the director could excel in. Like his first major production, Assault on Precinct 13 in 1976, Escape is at its heart a western, and in this case features a war hero and criminal, Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), who must break into New York City, depicted in the film as a maximum security prison, in order to rescue The President of the United States, played by English actor Donald Pleasence. It’s a dark and satirical film that features plenty of action and fine performances from its supporting cast, which includes Harry Dean Stanton, Adrian Barbeau, Ernest Borgnine and as inmates, Lee Van Cleef as the warden, and Isaac Hayes as the guy who runs the prison on the inside.
After a pretty featureless release a few years ago, MGM Home Entertainment released a two-disc Special Edition of the film in 2003 that includes a great new high-definition transfer of the film, new 5.1 audio, a slew of extras and, best of all, the commentary track from Image’s laserdisc with Carpenter and star Kurt Russell along with a newer track featuring producer Debra Hill and production designer Joe Alves. You can still purchase the single-disc release if you want as it's still widely available and you’ll get one hell of a movie with it, but you should go ahead and splash down the few extra bucks for the two-discer—it’s well worth it just for one of the best commentary tracks you’re going to find on a DVD.
The Thing (1982)
As John Carpenter’s first film at a Hollywood studio, The Thing was a critical and commercial flop at the box office during the summer of 1982. As a true testament to the power of the home video market, many people’s opinions on the film have changed substantially over the years while it has steadily shed its cult label in exchange for simply being called a classic of the horror genre. Once again teaming up with Kurt Russell, Carpenter went back to the source material for the original film and made his version of the tale into an interesting antithesis to his seminal work, Halloween. This time Carpenter went all out and made a thriller that not only worked on a psychological level with a constant feeling of desolation and paranoia permeating through every frame of the picture, but also horrified audiences with some truly ahead of its time and gruesome effects work that still holds up today. Ever since I first saw the film during a heavily edited showing on network television years and years ago, The Thing has been one of my all-time favourite movies and to me Carpenter’s best work overall.
Seeing as The Thing is my favourite Carpenter flick, you could conclude that I have owned the film on every format that has come along, and you’d be right in that assumption. As a matter of fact, it is one of a select few films that I still to this day own on VHS, laserdisc, and DVD, but since we’re living in 2006 I’ll stick to the latter of Universal Home Video’s releases, and even more specifically their second DVD release of the movie from 2004. The disc features an all-new, digitally re-mastered, anamorphic widescreen picture to go along with all of the listed features from their original DVD release, which includes an outstanding 80-minute documentary on the making of the film and another great Carpenter-Russell commentary track. The only thing curiously missing from the previous disc is Ennio Morricone’s foreboding score which could be found as an Easter egg of sorts on that release, but if you already have that it’s just all the more reason to not eBay the older disc in favor of the newer one.
Carpenter’s next close encounter featured an alien visitor who was a bit kinder and gentler than the one who died at the box office in 1982, and as a result 1984’s Starman was a hit with moviegoers. Starring Jeff Bridges in an Academy Award nominated performance and Karen Allen, the picture is at its core a touching love story, and while not totally what one would expect from the director it all works wonderfully. It’s also a road picture, which allows Carpenter and his cinematographer Donald M. Morgan to show off some expansive vistas during the course of the journey. Out of all of Carpenter’s pictures, Starman is the most different from the rest of his body of work, but it works exceedingly well across a broad spectrum of demographics and genders and offers up a story that anyone can relate to and find entertaining.
Not counting the times the film has been re-packaged, the movie’s first and only DVD release in region one from Sony Pictures is a pretty barebones affair, offering only the theatrical trailer as an extra and the choice of anamorphic widescreen or pan & scan for watching the film. A while back I ordered the region two version of the film, and while it still lacks a great deal of features, the disc does include a commentary track with Carpenter and star Jeff Bridges which made importing it from overseas a no-brainer for me. Why the track hasn’t made an appearance here in region one land is beyond me as it’s a great listen, and importing it is a move that I would recommend to anyone who has the means to do so.
Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
I wrestled around with the question of which film I’d pick as the fifth and final one on this list, and I’m here to tell you as a fan of this particular director’s body of work it was a tough call. I briefly flirted with the idea of including The Fog, They Live, or In The Mouth of Madness in the list, but if I were to sum up Carpenter’s career in one movie it would have to be Big Trouble in Little China. In 1986 Carpenter once again teamed up with reoccurring star Kurt Russell, and once again the box office wasn’t too kind to another of Carpenter’s pictures. Perhaps Twentieth Century Fox was too busy with other genre pictures from that summer to correctly market the movie to audiences, but who knows. The movie works on a lot of different levels—sometimes it’s a horror flick and at others it’s a throwback to the old kung fu actions movies that flies off the screen with both feet flailing away full throttle, but above all that Big Trouble is a sly, wink-wink comedy, featuring a hero in Russell’s truck driving Jack Burton whose not really the hero of this particular story, but sure enough thinks he is. Like Starman, the movie isn’t everything you would expect from a ‘Master of Horror’, but then again that’s what nice about each of Carpenter’s films—there’s always something different to go along with that signature style.
Along with the previously mentioned parallels the film has to others in his career, Big Trouble in Little China has also seen a resurgence over the past few years, and like The Thing is also beginning to shed its own label as a cult movie. The film’s new found life is in no small part due to Fox Home Video’s outstanding presentation of it on a DVD that few should be without. Originally the film was released as a two-disc special edition by Fox that featured a nice, anamorphic transfer, DTS sound, and plenty of extras spread across the set including, you guessed it, the third but hopefully not final of the commentary tracks featuring Carpenter and Russell. Unfortunately, Fox’s two-disc special edition is no longer available in region one, and in its place on store shelves is a single-disc offering that not only strips away all of the two-disc’s featurettes, but also replaces the DTS sound with the option of watching the movie in pan & scan which ruins Carpenter’s visual style. It does still have the commentary track though, so if the second release is all you can conjure up then do so, but the region one two-disc set shouldn’t be too difficult to track down on various on-line sites. In addition to tracking down a copy, you could also go ahead and just import it from region two where it is readily available, assuming of course that you own a region-free player.
Editorial by Matt Joseph
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