|Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
|Austin Stoker, Darwin Joston, Laurie Zimmer, Martin West, Tony Burton, Charles Cyphers, Nancy Loomis and Kim Richards
“This is a siege. It’s a God-damn siege!” – Bishop
A street gang wages war on a mostly deserted police station that is about to be shut down in a quiet LA suburb after one of them is killed by a distraught father (West) after the brutal killing of his daughter (Richards) when he seeks refuge at the defunct station. Police officer Bishop (Stoker) alongside prisoners “Napoleon” Wilson (Joston) and Wells (Burton), station secretary Leigh (Zimmer) and employee Julie (Loomis) have to fend off the attack and try to survive.
“Assault on Precinct 13” is a remarkably effective and atmospheric thriller that ages like fine wine. Conceived as a western but due to budgetary constraints Carpenter couldn’t realize the film that way and set it in urban LA instead. It’s low budget probably helped as Carpenter, at the height of his creativity and hunger for filmmaking, stepped in for all kinds of chores; wrote the screenplay, wrote the score, did the editing (under the pseudonym John T. Chance) and had total control. He has such a feel for pace, for atmosphere, for visual style and it shouldn’t be underestimated what a terrific screenwriter he is also.
Despite it’s relatively short runtime of 90 minutes the film takes it’s time in establishing the characters and build up the mood that slowly escalates and finally explodes with jarring scenes of violence. Carpenter’s legendary electronic score aids the film in a big way and sets an uneasy tone and also makes the film extra cool. Momentum is wonderfully maintained with sudden bursts of action followed by very quiet scenes that are expertly handled; the use of sound (and lack thereof) is expertly utilized as well. There’s also a fair amount of humour inserted in the unlikeliest of places and it never feels forced and doesn’t undermine the tension.
Although the film falls more into the action/thriller genre there are some very tangible horror elements displayed here by the future master of horror. Many have pointed out that it was inspired partly by George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” (1968) and there’s definitely something there. The ferocious and relentless attack of the gang is similar to the onslaught of the living dead in that the sheer amount seems overwhelming and their willingness to die for the cause gives this an apocalyptic feel. But it’s also Carpenter’s handling of mood and atmosphere that keeps the viewer on edge and in constant suspense. This was something he did even better in “Halloween” (1978) and that film is widely acknowledged as the best slasher film of all time.
The film is very well cast. Stoker has a very commanding presence and perfectly plays Bishop as a relatively inexperienced but resourceful individual who rises to a difficult situation. Joston is just perfect as Wilson and completely brings to life a colourful criminal who you’d just love to see more of. He has a lot of great lines to work with, delivers them with style and makes the most out of a great part. Sadly he never got another role that utilized him as well. Zimmer is quite good in her role and Carpenter regular Cyphers registers well also. Burton deserves praise as well and delivers some well placed comedic lines.
“Assault on Precinct 13” had most of it’s success in the UK and it lead to directorial work on “Someone’s Watching Me!”.
|Someone’s Watching Me! (1978)
|Lauren Hutton, David Birney, Adrienne Barbeau, Charles Cyphers, Grainger Hines and Len Lesser
“He’s got you believing he doesn’t exist” – Leigh
Leigh Michaels (Hutton) moves into a chic high rise apartment complex in LA. She’s just starting over in a new city and lands a job at a TV station and befriends fellow co-worker Sophie (Barbeau). Then she strikes a relationship with Philosophy teacher Paul (Birney). But she’s also receiving strange phone calls and receiving mysterious presents from a seemingly dummy corporation. Soon the phone calls become more frequent and intrusive, strange happenings around the apartment complex start and Leigh realizes that she’s being watched from an apartment in the high rise next to hers. She starts to think her life may be in very real danger.
The logical next step for Carpenter was an NBC TV movie that was mostly done in studio! Well maybe not but it sure was a good one as he really delivered a first rate thriller with “Someone’s Watching Me!” despite the limitations of television productions at the time. The clever script by Carpenter gives us a good lead character, a scary and intelligent villain whose M.O. becomes gradually more frightening and a very believable scenario of paranoia. If “Assault on Precinct 13” displayed Carpenter’s affinity for westerns than “Someone’s Watching Me!” is an homage to Hitchcock and Italian giallo’s. The basic set-up and atmosphere is not unlike “Rear Window” (1954) and the orchestral score by Harry Sukman certainly enhances the Hitchockian feel but a lot of the visuals look inspired by those late 60’s and early 70’s Italian chillers.
There’s no blood or nudity here obviously but Carpenter generates an impressive amount of tension and ominous mood from the steadily increasing and intrusive moves by the stalker. The slow build-up is so well handled and really creeps up on the viewer alongside Leigh. None of this would work as well as it does if not for a very convincing performance by Hutton in a rather tricky part. The script introduces her as a quirky loner with an offbeat sense of humor and the actress really sells her. Her monologues and behavior don’t feel contrived and her stubbornness therefore, which does put in motion some well pulled off set-pieces, doesn’t come off as fake. The film gradually builds momentum and Carpenter really is a master of the craft; displaying a sure directorial hand that is still markedly different from his approach in “Assault on Precinct 13”.
The rest of the cast fares well also. Adrienne Barbeau makes an impression as Sophie and David Birney is very solid as Paul. Carpenter regular Charles Cyphers is on hand and once again does well as an authority figure.
Everything about “Someone’s Watching Me!” reeks of professionalism through and through. Carpenter has stated that the crew he was working with was extremely good and worked fast and the movie had something like a 10 day shooting schedule. Though markedly different from what he’d done before and would do later in many ways; this film still is a must see for fans and highly recommended for thriller fans overall.
The film aired on November 29, 1978 and was therefore released after, but filmed before, “Halloween”.
|The Fog (1980)
|Adrienne Barbeau, Jamie Lee Curtis, Janet Leigh, Tom Atkins, Nancy Loomis, Hal Holbrook, Charles Cyphers, John Houseman and Darwin Joston
“Our celebration tonight is a travesty. We’re honouring murderers” – Father Malone
After “Halloween” Carpenter made “Elvis”, a biopic about the King of rock and roll and that TV movie displayed even further the versatility of the director. Next up he was back in horror territory with “The Fog”.
Coastal town Antonio Bay is preparing it’s celebrations for the town’s 100th anniversary. On midnight on the eve of it’s anniversary paranormal activity begins and lasts for a few minutes and managing to rattle the residents. Father Malone (Halbrook) discovers his grandfather’s journal that was hidden in the walls of the local church. The journal reveals that in 1880 the six founders of Antonio Bay, including Malone’s grandfather, deliberately sank a ship named the Elizabeth Dane so that it’s wealthy and leprosy-afflicted owner, Blake, would not be able to establish a leper colony nearby. The next day after sinking the ship the conspirators retrieved a large sum of gold they then used to fund the town.
Now a mysterious fog around Antonio Bay appears and seems to be bringing with it something deadly on the eve of the town’s anniversary. The main characters consist of DJ Stevie Wayne (Barbeau) who’s based on a lighthouse with her radio station, event planner Kathy (Leigh) and her assistant Sandy (Loomis), fisherman Nick (Atkins) and his hitchhiker Elizabeth (Curtis) who must fight against the evil that lurks in the fog.
This is a terrific ghost story. The prologue even sets up a campfire gathering of children with an old man (John Houseman) telling them one more ghost story before 12 o’clock. The mood and atmosphere here is really top notch and the cinematography by Dean Cundey is first class and his gorgeous anamorphic widescreen framing continually belies the film’s low budget and gives it a spectacular look. Location shooting really gives the fictional town of Antonio Bay a distinct character and particularly the outdoor scenery involving the lighthouse is magnificent. Carpenter’s music score is fantastic and greatly aids in amping up the suspense that’s slowly building. Like in “Assault on Precinct 13”, “Someone’s Watching Me!” and the classic “Halloween”; Carpenter displays such skill with pacing and the building of tension and his knack for cheap shocks is greatly utilized here on occasion.
While “The Fog” isn’t really scary in the traditional horror sense per se it’s the mood and tension (combined with the music score) that continually keeps the viewer on the edge of his seat. Carpenter went back and shot some additional footage to give the set pieces a bit more edge when test audiences didn’t respond too well. The biggest gripe that’s been aimed at the film is that it’s not scary enough but, for me at least, it’s Carpenter’s best ever showing of ratcheting up the tension and maintaining a dreaded mood and tone without missing a beat. He did something similar in fits and starts with “Prince of Darkness” (1987) but even that film had lulls that kinda’ killed the mood on occasion but on the whole that is a remarkably atmospheric horror film.
Technically speaking “The Fog” works well. The fog obviously had to be manufactured (no CGI) with some inherent problems in getting it to work properly; i.e. wind and thickness and such but the end result is very impressive. The ghosts in the fog are very ominous looking and visually arresting creating some memorable imagery. Once they come in close-up they’re quite scary looking but it’s only in brief glimpses. The violence is quite tame but it’s to the point, especially in the opening stages and Carpenter’s knack for staging those kind of set-pieces is simply perfect.
The cast is really solid as well. Curtis, Leigh, Atkins, Loomis and Cyphers are fine but the standouts are Barbeau and Holbrook. The latter is particularly effective in his limited screen time as the drunken but very guilt ridden priest who wants nothing more than to make up for his grandfather’s sins. Carpenter himself even pops up in a cameo and he’s easily the least effective actor; it’s a good thing he stayed mostly behind the camera.