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November 29, 2009

What's My First Name?; Or, "Why Dark Star Matters"

(TO YOU, THE READER: Have a horror, sci-fi, or cult film you think matters? Want me to take a shot at it? Email suggestions for future "Why Midnight Movies Matter" columns to, and I'd be more than happy to feature your favorite film here!)

For my second attempt at pointing out why I think a Midnight Movie matters, I chose a film that started the career of two filmmakers and has overcome a shoestring budget to still be floating around the galaxy of midnight cinema 35 years later. That film is John Carpenter and Dan O'Bannon's Dark Star.

Phase One: Introductions
John Carpenter needs little introduction to horror fans. In 1978 he hit a horror home run with Halloween, which started the slasher craze and became the highest grossing independent film of all time, and followed it up with a string of genre hits like The Fog, The Thing, Escape from New York, and Christine that made him the head of genre cinema through the late 1980's (when he got a raw deal from filmgoers on three straight fantastic films - Big Trouble in Little China, Prince of Darkness, & They Live - but that's a different story for a different article).

Dan O'Bannon is slightly lesser known than Mr. Carpenter, but has made an impact on sci-fi and horror cinema in his own way. In 1979 he conceived the story behind Alien and wrote that film's script, and followed up by writing the criminally underloved Dead & Buried and later the blockbuster Total Recall; as well as writing and directing cult smash The Return of the Living Dead.

Saying that these men have been important to cult cinema is an understatement. But what a lot of people don't know about either filmmaker is that they both made their cinema debut while collaborating in film school at USC on Dark Star - a philosophical sci-fi parody that went from 45 minute, 16 mm film festival hit to 83 minute, 35 mm distributed film after being found by producer Jack H. Harris (who also backed The Blob, which makes me think I need to worship him.)

Phase Two: Tight Corridors, Dark Corners, Aliens, & Dan O'Bannon
Early in Dark Star, there's a scene where the ship's computer (with a female voice that could easily earn it the name Mother) informs two of the characters, Boiler (more on him later) and Pinback (played by O'Bannon himself) that it's time for Sgt. Pinback to feed the alien. If you're like me, you were expecting the alien to not be a beach ball with feet glued to it. Seriously, look the the left. Beach ball.

What happens next? Well, the alien gets loose. Suddenly - we've got an alien loose in the ship, crawling through ducts, lurking where our characters can't see it, attacking when the moment seems right. In fact, it gets so bad that our character decides to take up arms and dispose of the pesky alien. Do I even need to state the connection to O'Bannon's work on Alien? Didn't think so.

Additionally, many of the sets inside the ship, though less intricate due to the budget of the film, clearly foreshadow the imagery of Alien later on. There are also shades of Star Wars in the ship's corridors and computer systems, and that's no surprise either - George Lucas hired O'Bannon to work on effects for Star Wars after seeing Dark Star and liking his work.

Phase Three: Cynicism and Apathy: The Carpenter Way
In case it hasn't been evident so far, I'm a big fanboy when it comes to John Carpenter and his work. Among my favorite aspects of Carpenter's style is that there always seems to be an underlying theme of apathy from the characters and a cynical stance toward authority and government. This is evident from minute one of Dark Star, as we're introduced to a video of a man who appears to be speaking for all of Earth sending a message to the crew about their great work. It's a polite, well-plotted message, that instantly gave me the feeling that these people weren't really worth much to the bigwigs back home.

Additionally, the character of Boiler seems very much like characters we'd see in his later films. A broad-shouldered fellow with a bushy 'stache, Boiler is the kind of guy who'll bring out the heat ray gun for target practice, and also the type of guy who'll turn an uncaring ear when more sensitive characters are talking about their concerns. In short, he's the uncaring alpha dog type, who of course never ends up solving much despite his self-perceptions. The character had me thinking of Richard Masur's Clark from The Thing or even the thugs from Carpenter's last theatrical film (thus far) Ghosts of Mars. Carpenter always seems to like having a "tough guy" in the cast to use as necessary, and Boiler is a great example of that in his earliest film.

Phase 4: "What's My First Name?" - Fluid Concepts of Identity
Outside of the scenes involving the fantastic Bomb #20, one of my favorite bits is a simple dinner scene on board the ship in which three of our four characters engage in a conversation about their identities. It begins with the stir crazy Pinback talking about how he came to be on the ship by being mistaken for a crew member that killed himself before launch, a story so kooky we're never sure if he's telling the truth or not. The self-focused Boiler turns away from Pinback's story and starts talking to the acting captain, Doolittle, wondering whether Pinback told them this story 4 years ago, and Doolittle begins to show a little bit of his own confusion as to his predicament. Boiler asks him what the fourth crew member's (who prefers to isolate in the observation deck) first name is and, after a long pause, Doolittle looks up confused and asks: "What's my first name?"

In one scene, the identity of each character is either established to be constant or changed entirely. Boiler, who's already been determined as the crew member least interested in the reasons for their predicament, continues to present the same manner as he has the rest of the film, but the other three characters are brought into a different light immediately. Questions are raised about Talby (the observation deck recluse) and his lack of interaction with others, and it's made clear that his peers don't know much about who Talby really is. Pinback is shown to be sporting two personas, and it seems like he's willing to take on a different role depending on the situation he's faced with. Doolittle, who seems like the most stable of the bunch previously, suddenly becomes a man who has no certainty of his role in the mission, let alone his place in life. And that's where the most interesting connection to O'Bannon and Carpenter's future lies in my eyes.

Carpenter's films have often centered on a character's identity, but have also at times completely ignored the importance of knowing who someone is. In Assault on Precinct 13, much is made of criminal Napoleon Wilson based on his reputation, but he's unwilling to tell others how he got his nickname - reminiscent of Boiler and his attitude of superiority (Though Wilson is far more charismatic than Boiler). The Thing is Carpenter's most obvious identity focused film, where the events of the film call into question whether or not each character is who they say they are, which is similar to Pinback's story of actually being a technician who stepped into the suit of the real Pinback, the same way the Thing steps into the skin of it's victims (This could also go for Jeff Bridges' character in Starman, who steps into a dead man's life to get into his adventure). Talby is a mystery who we never learn much about aside from his philosophies on existence, similar to nameless characters in Carpenter's later films like Roddy Piper in They Live or Donald Pleasence in Prince of Darkness. Talby, like these characters, becomes an instrument for his beliefs instead of a person, and it's not really necessary for us to know his name. Doolittle's lack of faith in who he is and inability to even remember his name is similar to the transformation we see with Keith Gordon's lead in Christine, who loses track of his identity as his obsession with the titular vehicle overcomes the subconscious parts of his brain.

Not to be outdone, O'Bannon's films borrowed identity concerns from these characters too. Dead & Buried and Return of the Living Dead both have a zombie theme, and the idea that others become different creatures that no longer have their human sense is evident here, especially when Boiler gets overly angry late in the film. But the most obvious example of a character doubting his own identity that O'Bannon wrote is Arnold Schwarzenegger's character in Total Recall. The parallel between Doolittle's "What's my first name?" or Pinback's belief he might be Bill Freug and Arnold's "If I am not me, then who the hell am I?" is blatant.

I've wasted a lot of words on talking about a silly little sci-fi parody, but while watching it I couldn't help notice how much of it I'd seen paralleled in later films. Dark Star is a little film with no budget that may have been a little too spaced out, but the signs are there that bright futures were coming for these two filmmakers. Seeing those signs is more than enough to make me think Dark Star is a film that matters in the history of midnight cinema.

November 27, 2009


1968, Dir. by Peter Bogdanovich.

With a lot of buzz circulating in the online community about Boris Karloff and Roger Corman of late, I have been reminded often of a film that shows a lot about each of the two men and their impact on cinema in general. That film is Targets, a magical conjunction of varied talents and hot-button topics that never ceases to amaze me.

The story behind Targets is as interesting as the story within it. As told by Bogdanovich, he was given the chance to direct this film (his first, after working as an assistant with Corman) with a few conditions - he needed to use Karloff (who "owed" Corman two days work), he needed to use footage from Corman's latest picture with Karloff (The Terror, which also starred Jack Nicholson), and he needed to stay under a $125,000 budget. Bogdanovich took the chance, and decided to make a film loosely based on the case of Charles Whitman, a University of Texas student who had perched in a tower and started sniping before killing himself the previous year.

Of course, a sniper story and Boris Karloff don't really seem to mix, especially when you must use footage from a Victorian-era horror film set in a castle by the sea. But after a lot of brainstorming and several re-writing sessions with indie film-making legend Samuel Fuller, the script for Targets arrived.

Bogdanovich decided to get rid of one of his handicaps early on, starting with the footage from Corman's past film. But, after a few moments, a pretty stern THE END appears on screen, and things fade to black. The reveal shows us Karloff in character for this film, as an aging horror star named Byron Orlok who's watching the film he just completed with the director and producers. When pressed by studio bigwigs for opinions on his next project, the frustrated old man relates that he's tired of the business and that this was his last film.

But we're not through with Karloff, or the footage from The Terror. The film carries on with more of Orlok, letting us follow him into his daily life where he tries to convince his employers (including his last director, played by Bogdanovich) that he's serious about getting out of the business. Orlok states that he's tired of making these pictures in hopes of scaring audiences who're so cynical, and that he feels like a "museum piece" most of the time. He waxes about how time has passed him by, how all the wars and violence have desensitized people to the boogeymen that he brought them, and that he doesn't feel like there's a place for him anymore. But, begrudgingly, he does end up deciding to do one final promotional appearance for his film's premiere at a local drive-in theater.

On the other side of the script is the story of a young man named Bobby Thompson, the film's Charles Whitman. We don't learn a lot about Bobby, aside from the facts that he's a Vietnam vet and an insurance salesman, but we learn quickly that he doesn't seem to care any more. He shows this by taking a gun to his wife and parents, then heading out with his rifle to find targets wherever he can. This leads to scenes of murderous terror on a highway, on city streets, and finally in a local drive-in theater.

I won't relay anything else about the story, but you can probably guess that there aren't two different drive-in theaters.

Targets is a fascinating and gripping film in every regard. Killers like Bobby were very fresh to American cinema, and the commentary on society and film-making (complete with a slight, but respectful, jab at Corman-esque producers) is spot on. That said, it's safe to say that Karloff makes this picture. To put it in more modern terms, this film is Karloff's My Name is Bruce or JCVD - his chance to look at his place in cinema, turn to the camera in his own way, and let us know what he really is. Like those recent films, there's a bit of fabrication, but there's no fooling the people that have watched Karloff and know his work. This is what we believe Boris Karloff would be like in these situations - and that leads to plenty of smiles between the dark moments.

Targets was a doomed film in many regards after production ended. Despite being bought by Paramount for distribution in early 1968, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy made a film like this unreleasable, and it was not pushed outside of critical circles upon release. The film did get Bogdanovich recognized, however, as he went on to make The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon, and many other films over a career that's still going.

Doom also struck the star. Unlike Orlok, Karloff had no intention of leaving acting, but this would turn out to be his last major American role before his death in February of 1969 (Though, films he had already made were still being released as late as 1971.). At one point in the film, Orlok exclaims "If this is going to be my last appearance, I'd like to do something", and proceeds to make plans to tell a terror tale to the crowd at the drive-in that night. It's clear from that point forward we're seeing the master look back at what he's done and remember how much of an impact he's made, and loving every minute of it.

For anyone who's a fan of Mr. Karloff, I can't recommend this film enough. It's a wonderful reminder of an era when the terrors we love began to fade away as the dangers in the world brought us newer, closer fears. But, the fantastic climactic scene is also a reminder that we'll always have our old boogeymen to look back on, and that they might just have a few good shocks left in them when we need them most.

Boris, I'm sorry that you didn't get the chance to give us that one last thrill. But as you rest in peace, know that your turn as Byron Orlok helps Targets live on as one of my favorite films of all-time.

November 16, 2009

In Memoriam: Edward Woodward in The Wicker Man

I have to admit that I'm too young and too American to know a lot about the career of Edward Woodward, who passed away recently at the age of of 79. But, when I saw mention of his passing I immediately thought two things - "Wasn't he in Hot Fuzz?" (He was, as town watchdog Tom Weaver) & "Man, he was astounding in The Wicker Man."

Not to be confused with the Neil LaBute/Nicolas Cage remake, 1973's The Wicker Man has long been on the short list of my favorite horror films. Calling it just a horror film is a slight injustice, as it doubles as a murder mystery, a religious commentary, and a dreamlike quasi-musical; but the story revolves around a horrific final act that is as powerful as any ever filmed. And that wouldn't have been possible without Woodward giving one of the best performances I've ever witnessed.

When I first came across The Wicker Man in a video store, I knew little about it other than that it starred the fantastic Christopher Lee and was called by someone "The Citizen Kane of Horror films". That was more than enough to convince a young horror hound like myself that I needed to see this film. I had no idea who Edward Woodward even was.

Upon initial viewing, the portrayal of Sergeant Howie by Woodward seemed cheesy. The character was a one-note, devout, unchanging man, the type that made my youthful self snicker and start to root for him to get whatever he had coming to him. But the final act of the film allowed Woodward to break out and the script, one of the sharpest in horror history, gives him a chance to shine in some harrowing situations. The film instantly became one I was ready to revisit again and again with its late twists, and Woodward's performance suddenly was a key cog in a horror classic.

As time went on, and I saw the movie a few more times, it became entirely obvious that Woodward's performance was the selling point of the film. There's so much going on, but all of it revolves around his ability to maintain his position and portray a man who's 100% dedicated to his beliefs and unwilling to waver in any regard. Woodward sells the position of a man who can not believe the people around him are the way they say they are, and who is entirely conflicted as to how he can change the people around him. The character is not cheesy, he's simply stubborn, and his performance sells this realistically even in the most surreal moments of the film.

Watching the film again today, I was obviously focused on Woodward more than usual. It's always hard to watch an actor's performance after you hear they've passed on, but in this case I couldn't help feeling a joy that I had come across one of the most interesting performances I've ever witnessed, and felt very thankful for the small portion of the man's career I've been able to see thus far. I urge anyone who hasn't checked it out and has an open mind for cinema that's off the beaten path to seek out Robin Hardy's The Wicker Man. Edward Woodward's performance is worth the price of admission alone, and there's a whole lot more on top of it that helps make those Citizen Kane comparisons seem none too far fetched.

As for Mr. Woodward himself, rest in peace, good sir. Thanks for the memories.

November 15, 2009

Rebel Without a Blob; or "Why The Blob Matters"

This weekend, I've decided to divert from my normal format to submit a look at a pair of films that loom large in my image of midnight movie history. Of course, I'm talking about 1958's The Blob, and its 1988 remake. Dismissed often as secondary sci-fi/horror fare, I'd like to take some time and look at aspects of both films that makes them stand out for reasons other than the fact they feature an amorphous killing machine.

(Plus, it gives me a chance to post that ridiculous French poster for the original that you probably are still staring at with a puzzled look on your face.)

Phase One: Irvin S. Yeaworth, Jr.'s The Blob
Backed by cowboy producer Jack H. Harris, 1958's version of The Blob gives us a simple story that doesn't seem to be much on the surface. A meteor crashes to earth outside a small town, and an old-man discovers the smoldering ball's contents. Those contents soon envelop his arm, and two smooching teens named Steve and Jane (Steven "Don't call me Steve yet" McQueen and Aneta Corsaut; both making their film debuts) find him and take him into town. From there, those contents - which consist of one blob, if you haven't figured it out yet - spread and terrorize, and it's up to the kids to figure out how to stop it before it's too late.

When I look at this version of The Blob, I immediately am reminded of another of my favorite films of the 1950's - Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without a Cause. The famous James Dean picture focuses on an image of teenagers of the time period, and on how quickly parents, elders, and authority figures are to pass judgment on youth. (Assuming you can get past the fact that few of the actors in either film are or actually look like teenagers.) The Blob doesn't hide its impression of Ray's film, nor should it. But The Blob does something that Rebel Without a Cause didn't - more on that later.

Looking at The Blob as an adult, I can't help but look at the first impression given of the teens in the film. The first scene of the film has Steve making the moves on Jane, even though he seems to be having some trouble remembering her name. However, when the old man who's clearly in danger comes in to play, the character becomes a caring individual, focused on helping out a stranger in need. After getting the injured man to a doctor, it's back to goofing around with some friendly rivals, leading to street racing and a run in with the local police. It's safe to say our lead, at least by '50s standards, is intended to be something of a delinquent. It's also safe to say that his friends, who're heading to the midnight spook show due to reports of "unprotected women"; aren't the most reliable people around.

It's also easy to see how little adults believe in these characters. The heroine's father is also the school principal, and brings his own preconceptions to the table - when finding out his daughter has been mixed up with the police, he immediately blames Steve and states that "that boy" won't take out his daughter again. The police are entirely skeptical of any reports of blob activity, and you'd expect them to, but their doubt seems to be more due to the source of information - again, Steve - than the fact that an amorphous jelly-like creature is highly illogical.

I'll come back to this version of The Blob shortly, but I'd like to jump ahead 30 years for a moment...

Phase Two: Chuck Russell's The Blob
I don't need to take as much time to review the plot of 1988's version, as the introduction of the meteor and its blob is the same. However, there's a difference in characters, as we've got a trio of leads this time out. Paul (Donovan Leitch) is a football star who seems to be a pretty nice guy, and he's taking out cheerleader Meg (Shawnee Smith, lookin' great) after a big win. However, they run into the already blobbed old man at the same time as local bad boy Brian (Kevin Dillon) and all three are soon caught up in the shadow of doubt that the police, doctors, and parents cast upon their story.

It's especially interesting to see the portrayal of the teens in this Blob due to the horror films that had inundated theaters throughout the decade. With the slasher film booming throughout the first 3/4ths of the decade, the perceptions of teenagers in a horror film were at an all-time low. Russell's film does feature a couple of characters that fit these cliches, particularly Paul's football buddy Scott, who specializes in boozing babes and unbuttoning blouses (which leads to one of the film's best blob moments), but the movie does seem to shake those trends, especially when the focus shifts to Dillon's Brian, who's blatantly drawn as a rebel that seems to be a throwback to '50s films like The Wild One.

The adults aren't much different. The sheriff, played by veteran character actor Jeffrey DeMunn, confronts Brian early in the film for no reason than to intimidate him; while Meg's father (Art LaFleur) suggests a muzzle for Paul due to one of Scott's pranks gone wrong. Like the original, the sheriff's deputy (Paul McCrane) seems to have it out for the kids in an irrational manner, setting up some great scenes late in the film. The most level-headed adult seems to be the local Reverend (Del Close, who appeared uncredited in the "other" Blob film, 1972's Beware! The Blob), but he plays a crucial role in the ending that puts the adults' capacity for reasonable thought in further jeopardy.

So, we've got two horror films that feature a killing ooze and a bunch of untrusted teens as the focal point of our human story. If I were a betting man, I wouldn't bet on a happy ending. And this is where the tales of The Blob shake free and become something more than we're used to.

(Here There Be Spoilers! You've been warned!)
Phase Three: The Youth Shall Set You Free
And finally, here's my point. We've got two films in which we're following delinquent youth who're out too late and living too recklessly. We've got a bunch of adults who don't know what to do, but know they don't want to trust the kids. Let's look at our options.

Considering the influence of Rebel Without a Cause and other pessimistic "youth gone wild" films of the 1950s, there's not a lot that would make us expect anything from the kids in The Blob. Looking at the 1980s horror, as I mentioned above, teens aren't expected to do more than the "Four Fs" (Flee, Fight, Feed, and Fornicate). And, the decade also seemed pretty set on making teens pay for their careless behaviors. Despite the probabilities, The Blob, in both settings, seems to be a story that offers some faith in these teens.

In the original version, Steve and Jane are dead set on bringing knowledge of the impending situation to the town. This leads them to interrupting the police and a late night movie, and even to setting off alarms throughout town, but their "delinquent" behavior is always shown to be with the noblest of intentions. And, when it comes down to the ending and the rest of the town's teens are called in to help the principal, there isn't a moment of hesitation.

In the remake, Dillon's Brian is a rebel to the core, and early film interactions clearly identify him as someone who most wouldn't trust in any situation. Moreover, the characters that do trust him and the other teens seem to be the first to come across the deadly Blob. This leads to a finale that features many characters assuming he can't be trusted, despite the actions the viewer has seen him take to protect others from extinction. Seeing the character become a hero despite his uncaring nature is a great thing to witness.

As someone who works with delinquent teenagers on a daily basis, I can't help but smile when I see horror films taking the approach these two films do. Most writers and directors take the easy out to create obvious heroes who fit the "All-American" standard, but the Blob makers look at the world differently. They seemed to know that there are youth out there who, despite their exterior appearance and focus on leisure activities, are willing to step up and be responsible when the need presents itself.

There's a moment in the final minutes of Yeaworth's original that speaks volumes to this theme. Jane's father, accompanied by 12-15 teens who've abandoned the spook show to help, has to make a choice to break his own rules in order to help the town stay safe. It's a small gesture, but seeing a man who seems to have spent most of his life dismissing the teens by resorting to actions that fit his stereotypes helps confirm my vision of the film. Despite cliff-hanger endings that make sure to inform us there's always a danger out there, both films do their best to remind us that the young people of the world, even if we don't trust them now, hold the keys to our survival. And there are plenty of them that will survive and do us proud.

So, that's my take on the inner workings of The Blob. If you've read this far, thanks for comin'. Happy Blobbing!

November 8, 2009

From Podcast, With Love?

A few weeks ago, I participated in a Halloween podcast for my good friend Jason at Box Office Boredom, and am just now hearing it myself. So, I thought you might want to too.

My participation happens in the second half of the podcast, which you can hear or download via the link in the title; as I relay 10 lesser known horror films that I recommend to the average filmgoer. I doubt these'll be new to any of the readers that frequent my site, but I hope you enjoy them anyway.

By the way, I'm sorry for how horribly wrong Mr. King's reviews are in the first half of the podcast. Don't let him scare you away from my awesome recommendations, which are pictured below.