Sunday, August 2, 2015

3 Degrees of John Carpenter

Sometimes, a subject of cinematic value comes to my attention by way of much more than solely the appeal of one or more film it happens to be connected with.

Take, for instance, John Carpenter, remember him? He's that lanky, chain smoking, too cool dude who fathered a dozen or more genre classics from between the dawn of the 1970s on 'til the rise of this still fresh century we now dwell in. His legacy in the motion picture medium includes such indisputable perennials as 'Halloween', 'The Thing', 'Big Trouble in Little China' and 'They Live' and his signature, wide screen, old school western tinged images have spawned a veritable army of like minded cinephiles, filmmakers and imitators. His skill set was never limited, however, to the perimeters of the director's chair, the man often crafted the infectious musical accompaniment to many of his key films.

Thus, because of his multifaceted approach to his craft, i have decided to hone in on the John Carpenter phenomenon via a proper trifecta of directly related media products. You see, the past few months have proven right bountiful in regards to Mr. Carpenter and it is not just by way of his feature film output, but a few aspects that branch out a bit in their own direction.

To begin with, there is the inaugural audio recording that collects nine from scratch Carpenter compositions together as one very satisfying, stand alone album titled 'Lost Themes'. This record (created with the aid and input of Carpenter's son Cody and godson Daniel Davis) provides a willing listener with fresh insights into the musicianship this man has nurtured and perfected across years of successful film scoring. Each of the tracks (which bare a lone word as a title) work to conjure up vivid impressions of cinematic landscapes, set pieces and melodramatics that can only transpire along the big screen within ones imagination.

The record jumps off straight away with the tense build up/opening credit sequence worthy number 'Vortex' (think sounds suitable for an unrealized third 'Escape From..' flick) and moves forward with a sharp velocity through tracks that boast parts equally Carpenter-esque and often heavily inflected with the DNA of the scoring of Italian cult films (i.e. Dario Argento's great early career work with the prog-rock monstrosity Goblin).There are surging passages throughout, like in 'Domain', that call to mind a protagonist making a violent and hectic break for freedom, or moody bits that sound out a haunting or ritual sacrifice that has placed a key character in grave straits, as in 'Mystery'.

Within the totality of this too fab, fanboy gift from movie nerd heaven one is exposed to suggestions of soundtrack snippets (or 'cues') to many a 'coulda been' project that Carpenter found slipping away from him into 'development hell' for some convoluted reason or another. Winding my way into the track dubbed 'Abyss', for example, I found moments that called up shades (for me) of a long ago reported project in the works to be named 'Pincushion' and set to top line Cher (this was back in the 'Moonstruck' era, I think) in a post apocalypse survivalist saga and what kind of score would likely be laid over it. Again, with eyes closed and ears wide open, one can come close to guessing how it all may have played out on a big mall theatre screen. For a fact, though, we must simply cling to the concepts and sonic ambitions (that can also be read as further proof of the lasting effect this man's music has had on recent electro-rock outfits like LazerHawk and Zombi) contained inside these Lost Themes. Recommended fully for the long time Carpenter fan and/or uber adventurous record obsessive (

Second in line is actually directly film oriented, Shout! Factory's loaded gun of a Blu Ray reissue of Carpenter's set in cult cinema stone classic 'Escape From New York'. As per expectations, them Shout! (aka Scream) Factory scholars have thrown their all into this expansive readdressing of the film world's unforgettable introduction to that elite level anti-hero, Snake Plissken. For anyone unaware (and shame on you in advance), this film is the story of a fallen war hero named Snake (Kurt Russell) who is given a dodgy shot at redemption by virtue of a very dangerous rescue mission proposal. See, the whole thing is future set (a 1997 from a 1980s perspective) and Manhattan island in the NYC has been sectioned off as a full bore max security penitentiary. It would seem the President of the USA (essayed here by Englishman Donald Pleasence) has been kidnapped and his Airforce Uno has crashed straight into the heart of this de facto prison and it is now up to Plissken to track him down and whisk him back to safety. To make matters ever more pressing (and to help establish the film's tempo), Snake has been fitted with capsules primed to completely dissolve and kill our boy if he fails to deliver the president back to the free world in under a 24 hour time frame.

The bulk of 'Escape From New York' shows the hurtles Snake must overcome in order to fulfill his obligation and win his freedom (and save his mortal soul). Along the way, Snake encounters a colorful cast of suitably warped or wretched supporting characters, often fleshed out by game thespians who no longer walk this Earth. We get Lee Van Cleef as Police Commissioner Bob Hauk, the man who sets Plissken's fate (and the movie's main storyline) in motion, goofy Earnest Borgnine as a gabby cabbie who assists Snake on the inside, Isaac Hayes as the malevolent Duke of New York and Adrienne Barbeau, Harry Dean Stanton, Tom Atkins and  various lesser names to fill in the patchwork populace that struggles to survive in this future hell.

To take all this beyond just the basics of the film proper, the Shout! Factory has piled on the extra treats. Apart from the customary, amazing new transfer of the movie, there are three separate audio commentaries (feat. Carpenter, Kurt Russell and many other production helpers) which greatly detail the whole ground level film making process (including the fact that a burned out St. Louis subbed in for the big apple for much of the shoot). On a seperate bonus disc there is a plethora of featurettes covering visual effects, production design, an interview with still photographer Kim Gottlieb-Walker (more on her in a moment) and deleted footage of the bank robbery sequence that was once meant to open the picture (and firmly cement Plissken's criminal element, too bad it appears in a VHS bootleg quality clip here).

Not hard to understand that this is the total package, seek it swiftly.

Finally we have a hardcover publication that touches on some of the finer points in the coming together of some of John Carpenter's earlier works. 'On The Set With John Carpenter, the Photographs of Kim Gottlieb-Walker' is a wonderful peek behind the scenes tome that shares a bundle of Kim's ever perceptive monochrome still work during the creation of 'Halloween I & II', 'The Fog', 'Escape From New York' and Carpetner's solid adapt of Stephen King's 'Christine'. The book mixes candid making of imagery with knowing quotations that shed insight into the filmmaking process with effortless success.

This is a book that gives as close a perspective on many of the more minute aspects of the work-a-day process of putting a motion picture together as a film geek could ask for. Many of these fantastic shots convey both the labor and the love that came to play a part in the crafting of each project (some of my faves come from the set of 'Escape From N.Y.'). Gottlieb-Walker's eye is naturally drawn to subtle moments that transpire between the big bursts of the production workload, the downtime moments that help define the honest, human element behind it all. Too bad she wasn't on board for Carpenter's great take on 'The Thing', but what you get with this here book is definitely worth seeing and absorbing.