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Prince of Darkness

Why John Carpenter Is the Most Underrated Filmmaker Of Our Time

John Carpenter

About a decade ago while I was attending the Vancouver International Film Festival, I ended the screening day over beers with a small group of critics. By the end of the evening, we came around to proclaiming John Carpenter the most underrated American filmmaker of our time. Here’s a filmmaker who has made only one feature in the past decade, the low-budget The Ward, yet his legacy is getting more respect than ever — at least on home video. In 2013 alone, he’s had six films debut on Blu-ray and one remastered in a gorgeous new edition, reason enough to revisit his legacy.

Assault on Precinct 13 (Shout Factory, due November 19), Carpenter’s first feature out of film school, is a siege thriller inspired by Rio Bravo that plays out like Night of the Living Dead (which Carpenter readily acknowledges in the disc supplements). He’s very much the film aficionado sharing his love — he’s more at home referencing other movies than striking out into his own cinematic world — but he brings a sturdy professionalism to the budget-starved production and an impressive storytelling intelligence to the script and direction (where actions speak louder than quips). And for all the exposition of the attack motivation, he turns his marauding street gang into an almost inexplicable force of single-minded purpose.

All that potential blooms in Halloween (Anchor Bay).

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Blu-ray: John Carpenter’s ‘Prince of Darkness’ and ‘Halloween’

Two from John Carpenter arrive this week in newly remastered editions.

Prince of Darkness: Collector’s Edition (Shout Factory) gives the Blu-ray debut and deluxe treatment to what is perhaps the most underrated film in John Carpenter’s filmography. “While order does exist in the universe, it is not what we had in mind,” explains a professor in theoretical physics in the first act, as good an introduction as you can get to this metaphysical mix of quantum physics and Christian mythology. Carpenter wrote the film under the pseudonym Martin Quatermass, a tribute to writer Nigel Kneale, and this is very much in the Kneale tradition, bringing myth and science together into a metaphysical horror. The premise is basic — a group of people (in this case scientists and graduate students) in a confined space (a neglected Los Angeles church) hunted by a killer — but the stakes are cosmic. Carpenter, working in a small budget, returns to simple, practical special effects, which has the effect of grounding the horror, while the dialogue plays with the scope of the threat. It’s a film that, a few awkward performances aside, gets better with each viewing.

Blu-ray and DVD, with commentary by John Carpenter with actor Peter Jason, new interviews with John Carpenter (10 minutes), Alice Cooper, who is memorable in a wordless role as a possessed street person (9 minutes), effects supervisor and actor Robert Grasmere (12 minutes), and co-composer / arranger Alan Howarth (10 minutes), a “Horror’s Hallowed Ground” tour of the locations, and an alternated opening from the TV version.

Halloween: 35th Anniversary Edition (Anchor Bay) doesn’t need as much build-up. It is, after all, the film that put the director on the map. But while it was a massive hit movie that (for better and for worse) pushed the slasher movie into the American mainstream, it is also a beautifully-made made picture by a director who brings a visual intelligence to a genre so often reduced to hack directors and gimmicks in place of storytelling. Carpenter was a master of the Panavision frame and he brings an increasingly claustrophobic atmosphere to the film, hiding his boogeyman in the shadows and sometimes in plain sight, taunting the audience not with what they can’t see, but what they can’t control. Which is much scarier.

It gets a superb new high-definition transfer, supervised by cinematographer Dean Cundey, and a new commentary track with Carpenter and star Jamie Lee Curtis, reuniting for the first time in years (“Jamie and I haven’t seen each other in a long time,” remarks Carpenter during the credits) to compare memories and swap stories. The Blu-ray and DVD also features the new hour-long documentary “The Night She Came Home” with Jamie Lee Curtis at a rare convention appearance and the previously available featurette “On Location: 25 Years Later” from the “25th Anniversary Edition,” with P.J. Soles and Debra Hill back at the scene of the crime to revisit the original Michael Myers house, plus ten minutes of footage from the TV version.

 

Keeping Score – Scary Music: the Sequel

For last Halloween, I offered a list of 13 movie scores that I believe stand out as landmarks in the in the history of scary movie music. I got some comments from a few readers who were disappointed that some of their own favorite fright film scores and composers weren’t represented. Well, there’s a lot more great stuff out there, and so, with Friday the 13th upon us, here’s a second set of 13.

princeofdarkness
John Carpenter and Alan Howarth: "Prince of Darkness"

13. Prince of Darkness, John Carpenter and Alan Howarth, 1987.

This remarkable film and its score came in for new and long-delayed recognition in 2008 with the release of a two-disc recording of the Carpenter-Howarth score, probably the best of their many collaborations. There’s an insistent underbeat throughout the film, the advance of relentless evil, over which Carpenter and Howarth weave motifs of traditional Gothic sound in non-traditional electronic instrumentation.

12. Orson Welles’s Great Mysteries, John Barry, 1973.

For a little-watched and little-remembered television anthology series, John Barry created one of his best themes, an infectious melody with a distinctively creepy, almost threatening reach.

11. Cannibal Holocaust, Riz Ortolani, 1980.

Ortolani, who remains best known for “More,” the popular theme tune from Mondo Cane (1962), had a stock in trade of putting music to the graphic horrors of Italian shockumentary, and the ensuing cannibal cycle of film-making that assayed previously unimagined depths of gore and cruelty. The notorious Cannibal Holocaust boasts a score that features one pretty melody, several jaunty passages set to a Latin beat, and several savage musical embodiments of horror and revulsion.

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