Saturday, January 16, 2016

Happy Birthday John Carpenter! Two Underrated Films from the 1980s: Big Trouble in Little China (1986) & Prince of Darkness (1987)

All things considered, John Carpenter is probably my favourite American director... especially as far as horror is concerned. And as I knew the great man's birthday was coming up, I decided to have a double feature last night in order to have something to post today to mark the occasion. I went for these two films for a few reasons. Firstly, they appear next to each other in JC's filmography. Secondly, one is a light-hearted action-fantasy romp and the other a serious supernatural horror film, so it seemed a good way to mix it up. But most importantly, while well loved by many cult film fans, I still feel these two fall somewhat in the shadow of some of the other movies made by Carpenter both before and afterwards and am therefore of the opinion that any extra affection and attention thrown their way is more than welcome.

First up, and celebrating its 30th anniversary this year (on July 2nd), is Big Trouble in Little China. Starring Carpenter favourite Kurt Russell as wise-cracking truck driver Jack Burton, a man who gets more than he bargained for while waiting to collect on some gambling debts owed by friend Wang Chi (Dennis Dun), ending up right in the middle of some supernatural shenanigans involving kidnapped green-eyed Chinese girls, cursed sorcerers and a few gangs all apparently intent of kicking (and sometimes shooting) the absolute shit out of each other. 

A hybrid of comedy, fantasy and martial arts action, this was met with mixed reactions when it was first released, seemingly being misunderstood by those who didn't pick up on the humourous undertones, but, three decades on, it's now better appreciated and has become a firm favourite of many.

Russell (who seems to be channelling John Wayne throughout) is perfect as Burton, a character apparently intended to somewhat lampoon and poke fun at western and action stars. I mean he tries so hard, bless him, and eventually does come through in the end, but really, he's clearly meant to be the sidekick to his more capable friend Wang, as clearly underlined by at least two moments in the movie and admitted by Carpenter himself during the DVD audio commentary. And for me, this makes his character all the more endearing, unique and memorable.

Further regarding the cast, all involved are excellent. Both the aforementioned Dennis Dun and Kim Cattrall (as fast talking lawyer Gracie Law) have great chemistry with Russell, making their scenes a delight to watch. James Hong (of films as various as Chinatown, Airplane! and Blade Runner) is great as the villainous David Lo Pan. And Victor Wong provides solid support as benevolent magician Egg Shen.

Kudos to DoP Dean Cundey (who'd collaborated with Carpenter on all of his classic films from Halloween through to The Thing. This would mark the last time they'd work together) as always for some striking cinematography, and Production Designer John Lloyd, for both his impressive undergrounds sets and his re-creation of Chinatown. Also well worthy of note is choreographer James Lew, who supervised the often quite complex fight sequences, which contain many cool moments. And finally, Boss Film Studios, headed by Richard Edlund (who did great work on Ghostbusters), did a solid job providing the special effects with what was apparently a miserly budget for such a hefty task.

As is generally the case with his films, Carpenter provides the score, assisted again by Alan Howarth, who had previously worked with the director on Escape From New York, Halloween II and Halloween III. A driving, muscular mix of trademark throbbing synthesizers and rock and roll riffs, the score intentionally tries to get away from the cliches of martial arts movie music, and certainly succeeds in doing so, while still providing a more than apt accompaniment to the action unfolding on-screen.

A few bits of behind the scenes stuff before we move on. Firstly, this was the last big studio film Carpenter would work on during this decade, having had some difficulties with the higher ups during the production. Apparently the original story was a period-set western and was later extensively re-shaped and written into what was the film became. And Jackie Chan was the director's first choice to play Wang but the actor declined (wanting to concentrate on his Hong Kong career) and the producer was against it, fearing Chan's English wouldn't be good enough.

So if I haven't made it apparent already, I'll simply say now that while not one of my own favourites from Carpenter (mainly as I'm more biased towards horror), I still find it consistently engaging, very entertaining and eminently re-watchable. And finally, I forgot to mention before but JC's band, The Coup De Villes, provide the theme song, heard over the end credits. If you haven't seen this amazing promo video, featuring the director, fellow film-maker and collaborator Tommy Lee Wallace and also sometime director/Michael Myers himself, Nick Castle rocking out, stop what you're doing right now and click the link. God I love the '80s and this video is just one illustration why. Now, let's move on to the second half of this double feature...

Released the following year (on October 23rd), Prince of Darkness is, as I suggested earlier, almost the polar opposite tonally to the film we've just been looking at... and I say this descriptively and not critically of course. The second part of Carpenter's Apocalypse Trilogy (preceded by The Thing and followed by In the Mouth of Madness), this might be (I'm sure somewhat controversially) my favourite of the three films. Hard to say really as it's certainly a formidable trio... up there in my opinion with another trilogy of movies suffused with otherworldly foreboding and a sense of creeping dread... Lucio Fulci's Gates of Hell films, City of the Living Dead, The Beyond and The House by the Cemetery

Incidentally, Prince of Darkness feels almost Fulci-esque to me in places... specifically in terms of the we're-all-doomed, apocalyptic atmosphere  and some scenes featuring the kind of putrefaction (i.e. insects and desecrated bodies) you might associate with the Gates movies. And it's this feeling of the film being almost an honourary '80s Italian horror film that no doubt gives it the edge for me over the other two in the trilogy.

Before we go any further, and for the benefit of anyone unfamiliar, a quick synopsis. A priest (played by genre legend and Carpenter favourite Donald Pleasence) asks a professor (Victor Wong, one of two actors returning from our previous film) to help him investigate a mysterious cylinder filled with a green liquid of mysterious origins that's now residing in the basement of a run-down Los Angeles church. The professor invites some of his students, including male lead and possible Carpenter surrogate (it's the 'tache), Brian Marsh (Jameson Parker), to assist him in his inquiries. Needless to say, especially to anyone familiar with The Thing, but this ominous object was probably best left alone, as almost straight away we see the unholy effects it has upon its surrounding environment and anyone dwelling nearby. Although having said that, left unchecked by our religious and scientific investigators, who knows what kind of hell it might end up unleashing even further afield...

Utilising the under siege setup familiar to many Carpenter films, Prince of Darkness is initially somewhat slow-burning (which of course makes sense as this is perhaps as much an intellectual movie as it is a visceral one) but of course once the ball gets rolling, you're in for it. Like in The Thing, the encroaching horror is, once unleashed, unpredictable and might strike from anywhere and at any time. Even in sleep, the characters aren't safe from the supernatural onslaught either, as seen in some (now arguably iconic), creepy ass recurring dream sequences (the dialogue of which was later sampled by DJ Shadow on his seminal debut album, Endtroducing.....).

Like Big Trouble in Little China, this received mixed reviews upon release but has also been re-evaluated and more widely celebrated in the years since. As evidenced by Carpenter's pseudonym he used for writing the film, it was intended as a homage to the brilliant Nigel Kneale (of the Quatermass serial and films, The Stone Tape and more), who himself didn't really appreciate it, fearing people might think he had something to do with the film (he'd also written the original script for Halloween III before asking for his name to be taken off it, being unhappy with what it was shaping into). And I guess the splatter elements familiar to horror movies of the '80s may have been off-putting to his tastes. But for myself though, I love the mad mix of heady ideas regarding quantum psychics, doom-laden atmosphere, slasher-esque gore (as seen in at least two stand-out scenes) and surreal imagery (e.g: early on, Brian finds insects crawling in his TV).

A few notes on the cast and crew. Like Victor Wong, Dennis Dun also returns from Big Trouble in Little China, playing one of the students. Alice Cooper was brought in to write a song but was later also cast as the apparent leader of the homeless hordes that surround the church throughout the film. And a prop he used in his gigs was also utilised for a famous scene in this. I'll say no more regarding that in case you haven't seen it though. 

This was Carpenter's first time working with Peter Jason, an actor who would appear again repeatedly in the director's films over the following years. The rest of the cast aren't particularly memorable in my opinion but they all do a solid enough job. And I'm generally warming to them more and more with each re-watch. Jameson Parker is pretty decent as the ostensible hero, playing the sort of '70s/80s dude you don't see so much in movies anymore sadly. Again, it's the 'tache that does it I think. And to re-iterate what I said before, I'm almost convinced he's there as a sort of stand in for JC. Speaking of him by the way, he apparently provided the voice-over in those aforementioned dream scenes.

Behind the scenes, this was the first time JC would work with another person who would become a regular collaborator... DoP, Gary B. Kibbe, who steps into the rather sizeable shoes of Dean Cundey but doesn't disappoint at all. As the stills throughout this review hopefully show, he did a great job. And nice use of wide-angles lenses by the way. Again, Carpenter composes with assistance from Alan Howarth. I really like the score they produced... eerie, ethereal and occasionally melancholic. 

As mentioned r.e. Big Trouble in Little China, JC had become disillusioned with working under a studio and hence Prince of Darkness marked the beginning of a deal with Alive Films, where the director was given a $3 million budget and complete creative control. The next film to come out of this arrangement was They Live, so of course this worked out very nicely indeed for all involved.

I think that just about covers it (if I overlooked anything, feel free to write in the comments folks), so in summation I'd say if you're a Carpenter fan and haven't seen one and/or the other, maybe it's time to give it/them a shot. Individually, they're both very well made and acted and superlative examples of their respective genres. And taken together, they show the wide range the director is capable of. As I said at the top of the review, while my horror obsessed tastes mean I end up re-watching Prince of Darkness more often, when I'm more in the mood for something fun, Big Trouble in Little China never lets me down.

Below you'll find a few eye-popping foreign posters for our second film, and below that, a bad ass promo shot from the first, featuring Carpenter and Kurt Russell. Happy Birthday JC! And thanks for all the awesome movies. I'll watch at least one more tonight to mark the occasion. Am thinking most likely The Thing, especially as it's cold out and has even been snowing a bit, meaning, of course, that conditions are perfect.

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