Sunday, August 9, 2009

THAS: The Perils of Pre, & John Carpenter

No, Pre isn't the precocious name of some olden celluloid maiden in distress. "Pre" as in "pre-" as in pre-production. The horror film website UHM posted this interview with Tobe Hooper on September 9, 2004, discussing with him what was then his upcoming project, Mortuary.

During is the following exchange:
TIM: So what’s your vision for MORTUARY?
TOBE: It’s about this beat up old mortuary that gets moved into by a guy going thru a midlife crisis who goes into a new business, kind of on a lark, a place that is so fucked up and run down that he doesn’t know what he’s doing. Once he gets there, he hopes he’ll be able to get some business from the mental institution and the old folks home. And he certainly does. But it’s very weird and very scary and not quite what you think. It’s almost as if Larry Clark was doing a horror film. Kind of like BULLY. Except there will be redeeming characters.
TIM: So it’s BULLY with remorse!
Remorse and redemption. It’s gonna be cool. Jace Anderson and Adam Gierasch wrote it, the guys who wrote TOOLBOX. In fact, I just took them out to the location today and now we’re having a writing session because that damn place tells you what to do. Originally, it was set back east and was very gothic. This is gothic, but it’s new gothic. Instead of kids sitting around on some New England porch with the birds chirping, our kids will be sitting around with trains and chemical plants.
Mortuary subsequently went into production and was in post-production by mid-2005.

Well, as much as I appreciate Mortuary (surely more than the next fellow), this Larry 'Kids' Clark horror film Tobe speaks of sounds much more interesting than what we ultimately got with the film. What exactly was decided at the ol' drawing board that transformed what, sounds like, could've been an interesting portrait of cross-generational ennui against a modern urban-industrial backdrop, into the goofy, almost kiddy, piece of fluff that we end up with?

Wasteland and industry! Teens in crisis! Close but no cigar.

As much as I love the man's work, he may just not have had it in him. Hooper's a lovely filmmaker - and that's exactly how I'd characterize him and the appreciation I aim to give him, a filmmaker who knows how to make films "lovely" - but he's hardly the scholastic thinker, able to pursue a good intellectual thread when he sees one and communicate ideas on the screen. John Carpenter will have to do as horror's Patron saint for the on-film treatise, while Hooper has to settle as advocate for expressivity and a less stately (than Carpenter), more free-flowing rhythm of simultaneous animation and empathy, which I like to call "emotionality."

The two directors are evenly matched, as far as I am concerned. Hooper's parts are often better than his whole - moments stunning in their beauty or eccentricity consist a picture that falls apart at the seams as it goes along (case in point, Spontaneous Combustion). Carpenter's more conventional, dully commercial style never quite achieves consistently enough that special exquisiteness and dark daintiness that makes me such an advocate of Hooper, but his films often achieve a studied theoretic precision that, with some mental persistence, can become near the definition of artistic evocations in genre film [see Slant's Eric Henderson's review of The Thing containing a 1-2-3 summation of Halloween, "Assault," and The Fog's formal power, then follow the appropriate hyperlink rabbit hole to Ed Gonzalez's persuasive acclamation for The Fog, which I personally undervalue]. Particularly helpful to the point I'm making: Carpenter's 90s output, Ghosts of Mars and Escape from L.A., while nevertheless idiosyncratically Carpenter works, fall short of the artfulness of his previous films. Yet, they both achieve exhilarating formal grasp of their commentary and social reaches. This goes to show how even without the help of the beatific formal techniques I am such a sucker for in films, a film can still strike gold mines of value as a creative and admirable work.

Hooper's films of deeply subdued, nuanced evocations of mood and emotion satisfy a certain part of my critical palate, while Carpenter's expertly crafted, efficient but always dramatically persuasive output work on a level of superb accessibility [with all due respect going to accessibility (and I say this sincerely, not in the slightly disingenuous way the phrase "... with all due respect... " is typically used)] and the intelligibility of his visual and cinematographic commentary.

Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 stands proudly as his best work. It boasts the same technical robustness and conceptual atmospherics of Halloween and The Thing except with more capacity for emotional range. The film even rivals Prince of Darkness in structural ambition, found in its slow build-up, the first half soaked in the desolate landscapes of poor LA, and prologue that preemptively, ambiguously depicts the roundabout nature of violence committed upon one's fellow man.

That intelligibility of visual statements I mention above is most sharply drawn in this film, as well. Carpenter's visual treatment of gangs and guns remains as bracing as ever.

Steadied, carefully built-to shots of desultory bystanders in the viewer of a precision automatic rifle resonate strongly within the film's story of illegal (and silent) firearms inundating the already destitute streets of the district, while the facelessness of the marauding gangsters stands as a telling and stern artistic decision by Carpenter.

In contrast, his treatment of the characters and interplay inside the station is filled with warmth, his compassion and understanding for them contained in the way he will apprehend the gaze of a character in the action's periphery or highlight the humanness and dignity of their fear (as opposed to the inhumanness of the faceless attackers who both attack and flee as if automatons) by following the rhythms of their visceral or emotional experience with the flair of Carpenter's much-admired spiritual predecessor Howard Hawks.

Pain felt.

Pain transcended by principles.

Captured perfectly by Carpenter in this moment.

John Carpenter
1. Assault on Precinct 13 - 8.5/10
2. Halloween - 7.5/10
3. The Thing
4. Escape from New York - 6.5/10
5. Christine - 6/10
6. They Live
7. Prince of Darkness - 5.5/10
8. The Fog
9. Escape from L.A.
10. Ghosts of Mars
11. In the Mouth of Madness - 4.5/10
12. Vampires - 4/10

All but the bottom two I like quite a bit.

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