The Cult Movie Club: John Carpenter’s ‘The Fog’ 40 Years On

What with ‘The Lighthouse’ and ‘Bait’, you can’t move for nautically-themed movies at the moment. But it’s arguable whether either are as effective as John Carpenter’s ‘The Fog’, released 40 years ago today.

But then I’m biased: aside from Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’ and ‘American Werewolf In London’, it was one of the first scary movies I was allowed to watch in my teenage years, and subsequently inspired a dodgy short horror novel of my own (‘The Ghost Of The Drowned Sailor’…).

Revisiting it this week for the first time in ages, it delivered all sorts of treats though these days is scarcely mentioned alongside ‘Halloween’, ‘Assault On Precinct 13’ and ‘The Thing’ in the list of bona fide Carpenter classics.

Shot mainly in coastal California around Point Reyes, Bodega Bay and Inverness, ‘The Fog’ was a brave move on Carpenter and producer/co-writer Debra Hill’s part, following up ‘Halloween’ by mostly eschewing the slasher format (it’s interesting to note that both ‘The Shining’ and ‘Friday The 13th’ were released two months later, in May 1980) in favour of a seemingly old-fashioned ghost story inspired by a trip to Stonehenge and the writings of Edgar Allan Poe.

This attempt at a different kind of movie caused problems when Carpenter’s original cut was deemed too moody and not supplying the requisite scares for post-‘Halloween’ sensibilities. Many scenes were re-shot and some new ones added just a few months before release, including the opening ghost story, ‘Close Encounters’-style scene-setting and top-of-the-lighthouse finale. The music and sound effects were also reworked.

Watching the 2002 DVD edition, the first thing I noticed is the gorgeous lighting and camerawork. Its sharp, crisp colours and composition are a great testament to the lab technicians (heralded by Carpenter on his DVD commentary) and director of photographer Dean Cundey, who has since gone on to be one of the premier DPs in Hollywood. Also the impressive miniature/model work, widescreen lenses and evocative coastal locations give a lot of bang for relatively little buck (‘The Fog’ was eventually brought in at just over $1 million).

‘The Fog’ also benefits from an excellent central performance from Adrienne Barbeau as the Hawksian, Bacall-voiced DJ Stevie Wayne (and spinner of Steely Dan-approved big-band and light jazz/fusion tunes). She and co-writer Debra Hill manage to root the hokum in a credible, sympathetic, rounded character. It’s also great fun to see Janet Leigh appearing in the same movie as her daughter Jamie Lee Curtis, and Nancy Loomis delivers her usual amusingly insouciant line readings.

Effects man extraordinaire Rob Bottin features as head ghost Blake, heading up a very rock’n’roll-looking bunch of ghouls, though arguably the movie would have benefitted from a little less ‘show’ and a little more ‘tell’ in the last 20 minutes. Seeing Blake in plain sight at the end is always a bit of a disappointment, despite the glowing red eyes. But editors Charles Bornstein and Tommy Lee Wallace deserve much credit for building tension in the last third with shrewd, snappy cutting (sometimes seamlessly between studio/location shots).

Carpenter’s excellent soundtrack cribs a little from Michel Legrand’s famous score for ‘The Go-Between’ but has some marvellous sections, particularly during Barbeau’s ‘look for the fog’ closing speech (obviously very influenced by a similar ending to Howard Hawks’ ‘The Thing’).

‘The Fog’ was a hit (despite Siskel and Ebert’s stinking review, see below), earning around $20 million against its $1 million budget. It was a lot of fun to revisit it again, and looks like just the low-budget horror classic I always remembered it to be, with more imagination and storytelling elan than 99% of other genre offerings.

Happy birthday to a true cult classic. Now, who’s that rapping on my door? At this hour? And what’s that fog seeping under the door…?

Story Of A Song: Iggy Pop’s ‘Play It Safe’

Soldier, released 40 years ago this month, was seen by Iggy’s paymasters Arista as a great opportunity for mainstream acceptance.

The Idiot and Lust For Life were now distant memories, and the label’s new head of A&R Tarquin Gotch and big boss Clive Davis were ‘taking an interest’, in Coen Brothers-speak a la ‘Barton Fink’.

As band (including ex-Pistol Glen Matlock and ex-XTC keyboard man Barry Andrews) and crew assembled at the legendary/infamous Rockfield Studios in south Wales, producer and fellow ex-Stooge James Williamson was feeling the pressure, apparently at times brandishing a bottle of vodka in one hand and loaded pistol in the other.

The Soldier sessions were long and laborious. No-one seemed to be steering the ship. Iggy was bored, brooding in deepest Monmouthshire. Then, one night, the proverbial saloon doors swung open and David Bowie swanned in with trusty assistant Coco Schwab. The mood changed instantly. Iggy lightened up and the old megawatt smile returned.

Around the dinner table, Bowie told the story of John Bindon, friend of the Krays, one-time Led Zeppelin bodyguard, part-time actor, alleged lover of Princess Margaret and possessor – also allegedly – of an unnaturally large appendage.

Iggy was fired up. Next morning, he and Bowie jumped into the studio and cooked up an ironic rumination on the lure of the criminal world, with some choice quotes lifted almost verbatim from Bowie’s monologue. Originally titled ‘I Wanna Be A Criminal’, it featured a classic Bowie descending chord sequence, icy synths and a superb vocal from Iggy.

Fellow Arista signings Simple Minds, hard at work recording their album Empires And Dance in the studio next door, were enlisted to provide amusing faux-Cockney backing vocals (you can also hear Bowie over the talkback mic at the song’s outset).

Some of the more libellous words about Bindon and Princess Margaret were later excised (Bowie apparently sidled up to Iggy at New York’s Mudd Club in early 1980 and begged him not to include them) and the song was finally released as ‘Play It Safe’, possibly Iggy’s self-conscious comment on his loss of nerve. But he still mustered a brilliantly insane ad-lib towards the end:

Rockin’ and reelin’ like Al Capone
Slippin’ and slidin’ like Joey Gallo
Movin’ and groovin’ with the Son Of Sam
Splish splash, I was Jim Jones!

Bowie had once again inspired his friend to create some of his best – if hardly commercial – work, and the best track on Soldier (though I also have a soft spot for ‘I’m A Conservative’). The album stalled at #62 in the UK chart and made a one-week appearance at #126 in the US, hardly a success in terms of making Iggy a mainstream concern. He stuck around on Arista for one more record, the forgettable Party.

Predictably, it was Bowie who would again inspire Iggy four years later to create his most effective album of the 1980s: Blah-Blah-Blah.

Prince: Dirty Mind/Controversy

Picture the scene: It’s August 1980 at Warner Bros Records’ Los Angeles HQ. Prince’s manager Steve Fargnoli is playing the suits his charge’s new demos.

Both the artist and his manager want to release these rough recordings as the next album.

Fargnoli hits the play button, and these lyrics crawl out over a peppy – but distinctly lo-fi – new-wave groove:

I was only sixteen but I guess that’s no excuse
My sister was thirty-two, lovely and loose
She don’t wear no underwear
She says it only gets in her hair…

Major labels often – quite rightly – take a lot of flak, but Warner Bros deserves credit for taking on Dirty Mind (released 8th October 1980) and Controversy (released 14th October 1981). It was a brave move by Prince too, an incredible volte face after it looked like he might be going down a big-budget, soft-rock/disco rabbit hole. Just compare the Prince and Dirty Mind covers: it was definitely one in the eye for Reagan’s new, ultra-conservative regime.

I first heard these albums circa 1988 via a compilation tape made by my schoolfriend Seb. I already knew and loved Parade and Sign O’ The Times but these older songs sounded like they’d been sent down from a different planet. I didn’t pay much attention to lyrics in those days but sensed something very odd going on.

In the Dirty Mind/Controversy era, Prince’s main modus operandi seems to be: shock at all costs. It’s a novel approach, because if he can express himself completely freely, and then deliver such a classic, ‘throwaway’ rock song like ‘When You Were Mine’, you never know what’s going to come next. Cue a long, great career.

Recorded very quickly during summer 1980 at his rather ramshackle home studio in Lake Minnetonka, Minneapolis (the drum kit apparently sat in a puddle of water surrounded by sand bags), Dirty Mind has more in common with the B-52s, Elvis Costello, Blondie and The Cars than it does Earth, Wind & Fire or REO Speedwagon.

It’s nasty, brutish and short. And of course what struck me listening to it again after five or six years, it’s remarkably stripped down compared to a great deal of modern music – hardly surprising when nearly all the noises are made by Prince. Only ‘Head’, ‘Partyup’ and ‘Uptown’ outstay their welcome, underwhelming grooves with slight vocal performances (though the former became a great live track).

Vinyl is back in vogue big-time, and my old LP version of Controversy sounds absolutely great. Of course it helps that the album’s only 37 minutes long, and also there’s a lot more bottom-end this time.

On a decent turntable, various details emerge like the scuzzy synth bass escaping from the left channel during the Lord’s Prayer on the title track (can you guess it’s a Prince album yet?!) and some low-octave backing vocals throughout.

It’s also a totally schizophrenic album again, with the title track and ‘Sexuality’ laying down a kind of free-love/free-speech manifesto, two rockabilly tunes (one a message to Reagan), a graphic seduction ballad and synthetic funk tune (‘Private Joy’) which marks Prince’s first use of the Linn LM-1 drum machine.

Weirdly, none of these songs made the PMRC’s Filthy 15 list. But they still sound totally fresh, especially the unclassifiable stuff like ‘Dirty Mind’, ‘Annie Christian’, ‘Jack U Off’, ‘Sexuality’ and ‘Ronnie Talk To Russia’.

Prince toured Dirty Mind and Controversy extensively, and there were three particularly infamous gigs during the period: his London debut at The Lyceum on 2nd June 1981 and the two shows supporting The Rolling Stones at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on 9th and 11th October 1981.  Were you at any of them? Let us know your memories.

The Cult Movie Club: Seems Like Old Times (1980)

It seems a bit weird to describe ‘Seems Like Old Times’ as a cult movie when everything about it screams ‘Hollywood’: co-stars Chevy Chase and Goldie Hawn, screenwriter Neil Simon, ‘Mary Tyler Moore’/’Cosby Show’ director Jay Sandrich, Columbia Pictures (this was one of the first movies they made after the David Begelman embezzlement scandal).

But it’s a cult movie in that it now seems completely forgotten. I probably would never have come across it unless I’d happened upon it on TV one afternoon.

I stuck it on a VHS and wish I still had it, because it’s one of Chevy’s funniest films and an interesting companion piece to ‘Caddyshack’. 1980 was a good year for Steely Dan’s first drummer.

‘Seems Like Old Times’ is clearly modelled on the great Hollywood screwball comedies of the ’30s and ’40s. Even the title comes from a popular song written in 1945 (sung by Diane Keaton in ‘Annie Hall’).

Chase stars as a falsely-accused bankrobber who takes refuge at his ex-wife’s Beverly Hills ranch. There are ‘unresolved issues’ in their relationship, not to mention the suspicions of Hawn’s new husband Charles Grodin. The sparks fly and the one-liners come thick and fast.

Hawn, Chase and Grodin

Chase channels Cary Grant at his zaniest, Hawn is fairly adorable and has some great comic moments, and they have a decent chemistry. Grodin (who I was amazed to read was Razzie-nominated for this performance) excels in the role he always seems to play, a control freak seemingly on the edge of a nervous breakdown, while Robert Guillaume and Harold Gould lampoon the Reaganite elite almost as effectively as Ted Knight in ‘Caddyshack’.

Simon writes loads of memorable secondary characters too: TK Carter is funny as Chester (though the part wouldn’t win any ‘woke’ points these days) and Yvonne Wilder is great as Mexican maid Aurora (ditto). The locations are gorgeous, with a striking helicopter shot over the opening credits along the Southern California coast.

I love Marvin Hamlisch’s theme tune too, sounding a bit like Herb Alpert jamming with Billy Joel. And the cheap, slushy, ridiculous last five minutes get me every time.

‘Seems Like Old Times’ is a film that you can just let wash over you – you’re in the hands of experts. Indeed it sometimes feels a bit too professional. It was a reasonable hit but proved a bit of a career dead end for Chase, who pretty much eschewed the ‘romantic lead’ pictures from here on in. A shame, in a way. His dead-eyed buffoonery and surprisingly subtle charm take him and the film a long way.

The Crap Movie Club: Heaven’s Gate (1980)

It’s difficult to view a film like ‘Heaven’s Gate’ these days shorn of all the hoo-ha that accompanied its troubled production and disastrous cinematic release (outlined in the definitive book and documentary ‘Final Cut‘). But let’s give it a try.

It was of course the notorious movie that destroyed United Artists and pretty much ended the New Hollywood ideal of director-as-auteur; the $44 million turkey which grossed just $1.2 million at the box office. Writer/director Michael Cimino went looking for ‘the poetry of America’ in his film about the Johnson County War of 1896, when the Wyoming Stock Growers’ Association decided that new settlers – mainly poor, immigrant homesteaders – were stealing cattle, decreeing that 125 of these so-called thieves be hunted down and either hung or shot.

Though Cimino’s film ends with a battlefield bloodbath (including many horses in apparent physical peril which led him into a further unwanted lawsuit), history records that ‘only’ two people lost their lives in the Johnson County War. But, defending his screenplay and movie to the end, Cimino clung steadfastly to one of his directing/writing credos: ‘I use history freely’.

But, historical license aside, how much of a turkey is ‘Heaven’s Gate’ really? Can any movie starring Kris Kristofferson, Jeff Bridges, Christopher Walken, Brad Dourif, Mickey Rourke, Sam Waterston, John Hurt and Isabelle Huppert really be such a dog? Yes. ‘Heaven’s Gate’ is that special kind of crap movie, the indulgent folly that spews elongated scenes out all over the place in the hope that something will stick.

Vilmos Zgismond’s camerawork is of course gorgeous; grainy and sepia-tinged, frequently reminiscent of the era’s stills photography. The movie frequently delivers the awesome image, including one famous panning shot across immense smokestack chimneys and hoards of wandering, displaced immigrants. The Oxford-filmed opening graduation ceremony is also plush, striking and gloriously evocative.

Jeff Bridges. Isabelle Huppert and Kris Kristofferson

But then there’s the inaudible dialogue and strange, schizoid reaction shots. As the film progresses, Kristofferson becomes more and more inactive and dramatically impotent, while Bridges, Dourif, Hurt and Rourke are chronically underused. Huppert is virtually incomprehensible in a fairly thankless role (turned down by every major female star of the era including Jane Fonda and Diane Keaton).

Cimino’s war metaphor in ‘The Deer Hunter’ was Russian roulette, but this time it’s endless cock-fighting, waltzing and rollerskating. He clearly feels that the film says something important about America’s treatment of its poor and disenfranchised (and it’s certainly interesting viewing that aspect through modern eyes), but unfortunately the scenes of political wrangling/bargaining are interminable.

Pauline Kael memorably said that it was easy to think about what to leave out of ‘Heaven’s Gate’ but hard to think what to leave in. That’s the impression left with this writer too. Quite frankly, apart from the stunning photography, one of the few pleasures watching the film again was spotting the gorgeous Rosie (‘Roseanne’ in the credits) Vela’s small but important cameo (see below). ‘Magic Smile’ indeed.

Movie Review: Command And Control (2016)

cmd-ctl-movieThis is a golden age for documentaries, and, in its own way, ‘Command And Control’ may just be as powerful as 2012’s BAFTA-winning ‘The Act Of Killing’. As nail-biting as any Hollywood thriller and carrying a terrifying message, it’s also a remarkably timely film given this week’s Theresa May Trident controversy.

Based on the book by acclaimed journalist and author Eric Schlosser (‘Fast Food Nation’, ‘Reefer Madness’), Robert Kenner’s documentary looks in detail at the notorious accident of September 1980 at the Damascus underground nuclear base in Arkansas, when the fuel tank of an idle Titan II missile was damaged – with disastrous consequences.

Meticulously researched and beautifully paced, the film expands into a shocking and riveting exposé of the US nuclear industry. Testimonies of the accident survivors are heartfelt, often surprising and occasionally moving, describing a world where human error can be catastrophic and is usually the result of an unreliable – and sometimes unjust – system.

Any event which leads to loss of life can hardly be classed as a ‘near miss’, but Damascus could easily have been a lot worse – we learn that Vice President Walter Mondale and Governor of Arkansas Bill Clinton were just 46 miles down the road at a Democratic convention in Little Rock when the accident happened. They would have been pulverized if the warhead had exploded, along with thousands – if not millions – of other citizens.

The scary facts pile up: during the Cold War, it was believed that the US needed between 50 and 100 nuclear weapons to keep up with the Soviet Union – there are currently around 7,000 nuclear weapons on US soil and surrounding oceans, including approximately 500 primed and ready to go. And some experts estimate that 1,000 similar accidents to the one at Damascus have occurred in the US since the advent of nuclear weaponry.

According to Schlosser, the fact that there hasn’t been more loss of life is down to the excellence of the weapons designers and bravery of the (mostly very young) site engineers. But mostly it’s down to luck. And the thing about luck is that it eventually runs out, as ‘Command And Control’ so harrowingly depicts.