John Carpenter Collection, The (UK - DVD R2)
Our Leigh Riding reviews Optimum's mammoth 7 disc Carpenter blow out
‘In France, I'm an auteur; in Germany, a filmmaker; in Britain, a horror film director; and, in the USA, a bum.’ So says influential American director John Carpenter. Although it does indeed appear that Europe as a rule respected Carpenter's work far more than his home country, one thing can't be denied; everybody knows and acknowledges his work. Often tagged as simply a 'horror' director, Carpenter has successfully crossed over several genres in his career; sci-fi, action, fantasy, comedy, social satire, romance... his resume is varied, yet all identifiable to his style of filmmaking. Although it's true his work has been rather inconsistent since at least 1995, Carpenter remains one of my favourite directors. Optimum's new seven disc retrospective offers Carpenter at his creative peak.
Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
’Chains is all I've got to look forward to.’
After the comic sci-fi of Dark Star, Carpenter crafted a very different film for his sophomore effort. A siege movie in the style of Rio Bravo, Carpenter hones a tough, tense action thriller that impresses to this day. There are a few seeds sewn in this film that carried on throughout his career; the siege theme was used again for Ghosts of Mars (2001), and the Napoleon Wilson character is an early prototype of Snake Plissken. Recommended.
’You've fooled them, haven't you Michael? But not me.’
There is very little to say about Halloween that hasn't been said before, and probably far better than I can. Halloween undoubtedly did for horror what Star Wars did for sci-fi, namely redefine the genre. More skilfully crafted than one might think, Halloween's building of tension is textbook stuff , and I am therefore willing to forgive it for creating 30 years of substandard 'bogeyman killer' knock offs. One of the greatest horror movies ever made.
The Fog (1980)
’Why not six, Blake? Why not me?’
Although still a horror film, The Fog is far simpler than Halloween. Aiming for a more classic ghost story vibe, the tale of a ghost filled mist descending on Antonio Bay is told in a rather old fashioned, leisurely pace. Although leaps and bounds ahead of Halloween in technical terms, the characters are very sketchy. However, a strong cast helps somewhat, and the spooky atmosphere carries the film far better than the script, which is superb in its background details, but thin on crucial dialogue. This isn't my favourite Carpenter movie, but it's still an effective chiller.
Escape From New York (1981)
’You, me, and Fresno Bob. You know what they did to Bob?’
It's not every day you create a character as iconic in modern cinema as Snake Plissken. How many times have we seen a character in another film that has echoes of Snake? Lord knows, Carpenter has used elements of the man a few times in the past; John Nada in They Live, Jack Crow in Vampires, Desolation Williams in Ghosts of Mars.
The fact that they are never as successful is testament to Kurt Russell, who is on career best form here. The actual film is no slouch either, with the killer concept of the Big Apple as a maximum security prison sealing the deal for an action thriller that moves like a bullet, with the best cast of all Carpenter's films delivering a story with absolutely no fat on what may be his best self penned script. Essential Carpenter.
The Thing (1982)
’Somebody in this camp ain't what he appears to be. Right now that may be one or two of us. By spring, it could be all of us.’
It may seem a strange thing to say about a man whose career I rate so highly, but I think Carpenter reached his creative peak with this film, and in the subsequent twenty six years, has never reached the high of The Thing. A remake of a film by Carpenter's beloved Howard Hawks, the tale of a shape shifting alien infiltrating a remote arctic research centre is undoubtedly one of the greatest horror movies ever made. Carpenter himself calls this the first in his unofficial 'apocalypse' trilogy, the other two being Prince of Darkness and the vastly underrated 'lost Carpenter', In The Mouth of Madness (1995).
Although the film delivers the horror and gore (Rob Bottin's creature work is seminal), the film is a master class in psychological thriller beats, and the sense of deepening paranoia is enough to cause sweaty palms. The ensemble cast are perfect, with Kurt Russell (again) delivering what must be one of his greatest performances. Possibly my favourite Carpenter film and, definitely my favourite horror film.
Prince Of Darkness (1987)
’I've got a message for you, and you're not going to like it.’
Prince Of Darkness is an oddity, a curio within Carpenter's sizeable filmography. It would seem that the disastrous box office of Big Trouble in Little China had Carpenter sent straight to independent prison, coming up with this odd little film. Yet another siege film, but this time with the Macguffin of Lucifer using a disused church to enter our world, the film hangs together rather loosely.
Although there is a definite sense of dread and a deliberately languid and heavy pace—this is possibly Carpenter's bleakest film—there is a sense that Carpenter is a little lost here.
The film has an odd cast, with unknowns in the leads, and the whole film feels as though Carpenter wanted to get back to independent filmmaking as soon as he could and didn't know what to do when he got there. Nonetheless, this is an intriguing mess.
They Live (1988)
’I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass... and I'm all out of bubblegum.’
After the relative disappointment of Prince of Darkness, Carpenter fired right back on all cylinders for this film. Dressed up as a science fiction actioner, They Live is actually a biting social satire, with a none too subtle critique of the Reagan era, social elitism, the 'big brother' theory and consumerism. This doesn't stop the film from being a rattling good time.
Telling the story of John Nada, a nomadic everyman uncovering an alien conspiracy to obtain positions of power in the US, and tackling them with the aid of serious firepower and a pair of specially designed sunglasses, the film is a blast from start to finish. Also armed with a cracking lead turn from Roddy Piper, this is quietly creeping up on me over the years, and surprising me by becoming one of my personal Carpenter favourites.
Here's some food for thought; when the film was released in the US during the Reagan era, the film was looking to be a big hit, coming in at #1 for it'd first two weeks, that is until it was mysteriously pulled from all cinemas before its third week. Hmmm.
Assault On Precinct 13
Despite the age of the film, the transfer is pretty good. As with previous releases, the image is really rather grainy for fair stretches of the film, but the image is quite sharp and the colours, although occasionally washed out, are mostly strong. Considering the wear and tear visible on the old Universal disc from the early years of DVD, this is as good as the film is going to look, I think.
Unfortunately, the Halloween disc was unavailable for review at the time of going to press, and as such can't be rated. Assumptions are that it will be one of the Anchor Bay discs, licensed for the set much like The Thing, but please stay posted for any updated information.
The transfer offered here seems to bear little difference to the previous Momentum release, which is not good news. The picture veers from quite sharp, colourful images with nice black levels, to images plagued with grain, weak colour scheme, and the most outrageous ghosting and haloes I've ever seen in one particular scene (Janet Leigh's hair radiates a white mist that stretches a good five inches in every direction). The Fog is in desperate need of a remastering.
Escape from New York
Unlike The Fog, a lot of care and attention has been paid to this transfer. The image is as sharp as a tack, colours are well balanced, black levels are strong, there is little to no evidence of blocking or digital noise, and although there is a little evidence of grain in darker scenes, the transfer is lovely.
Unfortunately, as the disc here is the age old Universal disc, the transfer is still non-anamorphic. Although quite sharp, there is quite a lot of dirt on the picture, and noticeable wear and tear, with scratches being fairly common. It's about time the anamorphic region one disc got a PAL conversion.
Prince of Darkness
Happily, the picture has been cleaned up since the previous (atrocious) transfer on the Momentum release. Colours are far brighter, the grain that crawled all over the previous transfer is greatly reduced, the sharpness is improved twofold (previously, it was far too soft), and no noticeable defects. Thumbs up to Optimum for cleaning up a film others might have left alone in the set.
Much like Prince Of Darkness, They Live provides a far superior transfer than the previous Momentum release. The image is far sharper this time around, with far less grain and no artefacts of note. Colours are nice and vibrant and in all I'm impressed, as this is the best the film has looked on standard DVD in the UK.
Assault on Precinct 13
Rather than attempt a false 5.1 mix, the disc plumps for the original dual mono track. Dialogue and action are given equal room to breathe, and Carpenter's score is well represented. A new addition for UK buyers is an isolated score, which is very welcome.
N/A (see above).
The 5.1 track is quite effective here, with strong dialogue levels and great use of the surrounds, particularly the creaking of the boats and an early sequence when the fog arrives. The score really sits well in the mix, and in all, the track serves the mood well. There is also a rather muddy 2.0 mix, in which a lot of the ambient effects are swamped by the other elements, and dialogue is occasionally muffled.
Escape from New York
Sadly, the DTS track has been lost in the transition from the previous release. What is left is the superb Dolby 5.1 remix. Dialogue is well supported, and the score (one of Carpenter's best) is very well represented, with some kick in the Duke theme. The action sequences are strong, with great surround work on chase sequences and helicopter effects. Again, there is a 2.0 option for the purists (the original theatrical track was never 5.1) which is solid, with all elements getting equal share of the pie, and the score in particular sounding strong.
Any fan worth their salt will own this anyway, but for the uninitiated, the 5.1 track is subtly impressive. Essential for such a character driven film, dialogue is nice and clear in the mix, Carpenter's pulsing, downbeat score throbs away superbly, and the surround work on the creepier ambient effects are superb. The unnatural creature effects come across the best, and are guaranteed to chill even today. A relatively subtle track, which is perfect for this film.
Prince Of Darkness
Again, Optimum surprise me by offering a rare 5.1 mix for this film (I think the only other one available is on the French edition), and the work here impresses. Again dialogue is up front, although sometimes lost when bad on-set sound bleeds through. Music is far more oppressive here than on other Carpenter films, and lends a heavy atmosphere to proceedings. Ambient effects are well placed in the rears, and on a whole the track is solid stuff. The 2.0 track that has served us up until now is still very efficient, with a good balance struck between dialogue, music and effects.
Another sweet upgrade for this edition of the film. Upgrading Momentum's previous 2.0 track to 5.1 for this Optimum disc, the difference is pleasing. Although action sequences lack a little punch, this is a really nice and clean track. Dialogue is well represented in the mix, Carpenter's soundtrack is nice and prominent (with special note going to Nada's 'everyman' theme), the classic fight sequence is really well sold, and the subliminal messages are well represented without becoming too prominent. The 2.0 track is in truth no better than the old Momentum, which to be fair is very solid, and the way I remember from the VHS days anyway. Overall, pretty impressive.
Assault on Precinct 13
After a raft of bare-bones UK releases, it's nice to finally get some extra content for this film. First up is a Carpenter commentary, which is occasionally dry but as informative as ever. Next up is a decent Q&A with Carpenter and star Austin Stoker, and a scrolling production feature, which features no video, but tracks the film from storyboard form, through on-set photos and on to post-release press cuttings and reviews. Add the aforementioned isolated score, and UK fans are on to a winner here.
N/A (see above).
Unfortunately, pretty much all of the extra content from the 2004 Momentum's two disc release is gone, but what is left is still good value. The 'Tales from the Mist' retrospective remains, which is a solid documentary, as does the audio commentary, which is quite interesting as Carpenter seems to have little love for the film. Although stripped down, the disc is hardly bare bones.
Escape From New York
There are a couple of extras missing from the previous release; we lose the producer's commentary, and the 'snake bites' music video is gone. What is left is still worth reinvesting in. The Carpenter/Russell commentary is back (although it's still the same age-old one from the laserdisc), as is the superb 'Return to Escape from New York' retrospective and the long lost 'Bank Robbery' opening sequence. What IS new is a superb brand new UK exclusive interview with Carpenter, seemingly recorded for this release. Very candid, this alone warrants a repurchase for die-hards. Rounding off the disc are three trailers.
Identical to the previous UK Universal release from years back, the extras still impress. The commentary track from director John Carpenter and star Kurt Russell is back, and remains one of the more entertaining chat tracks out there. Also returning is the original ‘ John Carpenter’s The Thing: Terror Takes Shape’ documentary, a superb retrospective running just over eighty minutes. As comprehensive a documentary as you're ever going to get, it still makes the extras feel more like a gift than supplemental material.
Rather old fashioned they may be, but the text-based production notes are still intriguing fodder. With notes on pre-production, on-set production photos, production art, post-production and storyboards, this fills any gaps in the film's history. It's a grand set, but we've seen it all before; to be honest, anybody with even a passing interest in this box set will have this disc already.
Prince Of Darkness
Oddly, the widely available audio commentary has been removed from this edition of the film, which is quite disappointing. A theatrical trailer is the only other extra.
Although not packaged as such, this arrives from Optimum in the form of a Special Edition disc. First up is a commentary with Carpenter and Roddy Piper, which is very entertaining and full of little titbits into Piper's real-life experiences that makes this one of the more essential Carpenter tracks. Next up is an old making of featurette, which doesn't delve too deeply into production, on-set featurettes based on Roddy Piper and Meg Foster, and a little feature on Carpenter writing the score. Although all obviously EPKs, and previously hidden as easter eggs on the Momentum disc, it's nice to have them all in one place. Things are rounded off by the obligatory theatrical trailer.
Although I was always going to be won over by this set, I'm still impressed by the extra effort Optimum have put into some of the transfers and content that, to be honest, I wasn't expecting. It's not the ultimate Carpenter set; entry level viewers may have been better served by the man's more commercial output such as Starman and Big Trouble in Little China, while completists (like me) may bemoan the omissions of notable output such as Christine and the almost forgotten In the Mouth of Madness (vintage Carpenter, yet scandalously it remains unreleased on DVD in the UK). However, the set still remains a comprehensive catalogue of Carpenter's work. Although I never give 10/10 review out of principle, this is as close as you're going to get from me, and the collection remains an utterly essential purchase.
*Note: The Haloween screenshots are not representative of the final retail version contained in this set, and The Thing screenshots have been altered from its non-anamorphic image and resized for the page.
Review by Leigh Riding
Suitable only for persons of 18 years and over
Release Date: 6th October 2008
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Extras: Audio commentaries, production featurettes, deleted scenes, production notes, and trailers across the various discs
Easter Egg: No
Director: John Carpenter
Cast: Kurt Russell, Lee Van Cleef, Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasance, Roddy Piper
Length: 651 minutes