The Cult Movie Club: The Dead Zone (1983)

What’s the ‘accepted’, untouchable shortlist of ‘successful’ Stephen King screen adaptations? ‘Misery’, ‘The Shawshank Redemption’, ‘It’, ‘Carrie’, ‘Stand By Me’, ‘Salem’s Lot’.

But David Cronenberg’s ‘The Dead Zone’ seldom appears in that top tier. Why? Possibly because it is seemingly part of the early-‘80s big-budget horror era, when the studios were trying to cash in on ‘slasher’ hits like ‘Halloween’ and ‘Friday 13th’ (see also ‘Omen III: The Final Conflict’, ‘Halloween III: Season Of The Witch’, ‘Psycho II’, ‘Christine’).

Cronenberg had just completed sci-fi/horror shocker ‘Videodrome’ when he was invited onto the project by Debra Hill, producer of ‘Halloween’/’The Fog’ and ex-wife of John Carpenter (‘The Dead Zone’ had apparently previously been earmarked for Stanley Donen, director of ‘Singin’ In The Rain’!).

King himself supplied the first draft of the script. According to Cronenberg, it was a ghastly, serial-killer-on-the-loose gore fest. Jeffrey Boam and Cronenberg worked on it and built the story around Johnny Smith, played by Christopher Walken, who develops second sight after five years in a coma following a devastating car crash.

So how does ‘The Dead Zone’ stand up today? Exceptionally well. It’s Cronenberg’s first film about ‘God-fearing’ people, and also his first warm-hearted picture. It takes place in King’s fictional town of Castle Rock, supposedly a combination of various real locations in Maine – all very Norman Rockwell.

These are the first Cronenberg characters we care for (he has described it as ‘a lost-love story’). Brooke Adams, Herbert Lom, Tom Skerritt and Walken are excellent, playing it completely straight, and there’s a terrific, terrifying performance by Martin Sheen as the Jim Jones-like Greg Stillson.

But finally it’s Walken’s film (Cronenberg described his face as the ‘subject of the movie’), another brilliant performance. We totally accept Johnny’s story and want him to succeed. He’s a good man in pain who has lost the love of his life.

The movie is relentlessly downbeat with no ironic escape route. It’s totally Cronenberg’s milieu – a snowy, crisp mise-en-scene (shot in and around Toronto), with a typically great car crash. He casts his cold, clinical eye over some pretty preposterous material, but it’s stark and chilling, with the director’s customarily-abrasive cutting and editing style. It’s NOT a film for kids…

Importantly, Johnny’s visions are genuinely scary. But is he God or Lucifer? (There may be minor similarities of the film with John Landis’s opening segment of ‘Twilight Zone: The Movie’, released three months before ‘The Dead Zone’). Walken plays with this dichotomy perfectly.

Like King’s ‘Misery’, ‘The Dead Zone’ takes a none too fond look at the ‘great unwashed’, with Johnny getting endless pleading/begging letters from people with ‘lost dogs, lost lives’. And it’s also unfailingly negative about the US political process during the early 1980s (Boam reportedly delivered his first draft the day of Ronald Reagan’s inauguration).

There’s a lush, superb score by Michael Kamen. Its main five-note motif is almost as memorable as anything John Williams wrote for Spielberg, speaking to Johnny’s tragic dilemma.

Of course there are some bum notes: the poor performances of a few minor characters; a very gratuitous, unpleasant sexual assault/murder scene (apparently not in King’s book); and the constant dilemma of second-guessing his physical contact with others. What is Johnny withholding from us/the other characters when he shakes their hand or embraces them? Also the film rather lurches from one section to another, with Johnny basically inert and ‘in hiding’ until he is called on to act by the townsfolk.

‘The Dead Zone’ did pretty good business at the box office, earning double its costs and ushering in Cronenberg’s brief flirtation with the mainstream (he was offered – but turned down – ‘Flashdance’, ‘Beverly Hills Cop’ and ‘Top Gun’ during this period): next up was ‘The Fly’, a huge hit. You could make the case that he was one of the key directors of the 1980s. From the landmark sci-fi/horrors ‘Scanners’, ‘Videodrome’ and ‘The Fly’ to the ice-cold ‘Dead Ringers’, he consistently pushed the envelope.

Further reading: ‘Cronenberg On Cronenberg’ (ed. Chris Rodley)

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…?

The Cult Movie Club: Moviedrome

Watching ‘Halloween 2’ (1981) on the big screen the other night brought back lots of memories.

Apart from generating a few more scares than I had remembered first time around (though co-writer/co-producer/’ghost’ director John Carpenter once described it as ‘not my proudest moment’), it also brought back the very real excitement of the late-night cult movie.

‘Moviedrome’ wasn’t a cult movie but a series of cult movies transmitted on Sunday nights by the Beeb between 1988 and 2000. Pre-internet, there was a real curiosity to this collection of lost classics. Your parents had gone to bed. It was just you and the TV. What forbidden wonders were about to be unfurled?

‘Moviedrome’ was initially presented by director Alex Cox (‘Sid And Nancy’, ‘Walker’, ‘Repo Man’), and just a glance at the running order of the first two series should certainly excite movie fans of a certain hue:

1988:

The Wicker Man
Electra Glide in Blue
Diva
Razorback
Big Wednesday
Fat City
The Last Picture Show
Barbarella
The Hired Hand
Johnny Guitar
The Parallax View
The Long Hair of Death
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
The Fly (1958)
One From The Heart
The Man Who Fell To Earth
The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
One-Eyed Jacks

1989:

The Man With The X-Ray Eyes
Jabberwocky
D.O.A.
The Thing From Another World
The Incredible Shrinking Man
California Dolls
THX 1138
Stardust Memories
Night of the Comet
The Grissom Gang
The Big Carnival (Ace in the Hole)
Alphaville
Two-Lane Blacktop
Trancers
The Buddy Holly Story
Five Easy Pieces
Sweet Smell of Success
Sunset Boulevard

Many of these films are etched upon my brain 30 years on, particularly ‘THX 1138’, ‘Electra Glide In Blue’,  ‘The Man With X-Ray Eyes’, (‘Pluck it out! Pluck it out!’), ‘Five Easy Pieces’ and ‘The Parallax View’. In later series, they showed uncut UK premieres of ‘Bad Timing’, ‘Scarface’ and ‘Pulp Fiction’, amongst others. Checking in to watch ‘Moviedrome’ on a Sunday night gave you the feeling that you were a member of a very small but select club.

Cox’s introductions were highly original bits of film criticism in themselves, with his arch sense of irony and keen eye for detail (bit-part actors, weird editing, striking set design). He even had the audacity to present his own movie ‘Walker’ during the series. Later Mark Cousins brought a more serious tone, an intriguing accent and also some intelligent, subtle analyses. Watching a few of these intros just make me want to watch the movies again. If only there was such a widely-seen yet distinctly ‘cult’ film club as ‘Moviedrome’ these days.

The Cult Movie Club: Southern Comfort (1981)

After the extended prologue, when Ry Cooder’s swampy blues riff slides in over a glorious widescreen shot of the Louisiana bayou, you know you’re watching a classic of its kind.

To this day, co-writer/director Walter Hill claims that the superb ‘Southern Comfort’ doesn’t directly allude to the Vietnam War, but it’s hard to conclude otherwise – set in 1973, his film concerns a motley group of weekend National Guardsmen whose sojourn into Cajun country (with the promise of prostitutes at the end of the road) turns into a desperate fight for survival when a foolish prank leaves them at the mercy of some particularly vengeful locals.

Hill prefers to call it a ‘displaced Western’, a film about escalating moral dilemmas in unfamiliar surroundings. That rings true too, but watching it again after ten years or so, I couldn’t help comparing it to John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’, another all-male classic about creeping, self-defeating paranoia, fudged leadership and dodgy group-think. ‘Southern Comfort’ might also be described as ‘The Warriors’ meets ‘Deliverance’. It’s that good.

This is a pre-irony, pre-CGI action movie, where men are men (the sort of men who might get a ‘phone call in a pub….on a landline’), decisions have consequences and vengeance is swift and fairly brutal. The action sequences are gripping, though never tawdry, and look extremely punishing for the cast – there’s a particularly realistic dog attack and a memorable quicksand incident. Apparently the shoot was long, cold and difficult, with camera tripods frequently sinking into the bayou.

The dialogue is fast and loose – the brain has to be in gear to pick up all the political/ethical nuances that fly by – and the acting styles deceptively ‘naturalistic’. Keith Carradine and Powers Boothe are superb as the reluctant heroes who must overcome their basically apolitical stances to become men of action and moral choice.

Carradine in particular makes for a fascinating action-man (according to Hill, his character is a ‘Southern aristocrat’). The secondary cast of mainly unknowns (the ever-excellent Peter Coyote aside) is also superb.

But ‘Southern Comfort’ was a commercial dud on its 1981 release. Maybe, like ‘The Thing’, it’s far too stark a vision. But it certainly it spawned some new movie clichés and looks like an influence on many ’80s movies from ‘Aliens’ to ‘Predator’.

It’s also a fascinating watch these days considering the state of the US – the film’s message seems to be that peace is impossible while there remain so many internal divisions and prejudices.

Gig Review: John Carpenter @ The Troxy, 1st November 2016

carpenter-halloween

Carpenter (centre) and band overseen by Jamie Lee Curtis and Nancy Loomis in ‘Halloween’

It’s surprising that John Carpenter has taken so long to perform his own music in concert.

The director of ‘Halloween’, ‘Assault On Precinct 13’, ‘The Fog’ and ‘The Thing’ is well-known for his incredibly effective, synth-laden soundtracks, and he’s also been known to let his hair down in after-hours rock band The Coupe De Villes with movie biz friends Nick Castle and Tommy Lee Wallace.

But it’s actually a perfect time for him to be fronting his own band. Watching Adam Curtis’s impressive ‘HyperNormalisation’ documentary last week, I was struck how many current bands are clearly influenced by Carpenter’s music (which has also frequently turned up in Curtis’s docs).

The dark, pulsing synthscapes of worriedaboutsatan and Pye Corner Audio particularly owe him a large debt.

Though apparently not in tip-top health (it’s hard to resist quoting that great line from ‘Assault’: ‘He don’t stand up as good as he used to…’), Carpenter was clearly having a ball on this short UK tour, bopping around behind his keyboard and booming out pre-rehearsed lines like ‘Good evening, London, I’m John Carpenter!’ and ‘Horror movies will live forever!’.

The beautiful Art-Deco Troxy venue was specially decked out like the ‘Escape From New York’ set, while a large screen behind the stage projected key scenes from his many classic movies.

carpenter-they-live

Carpenter mixed up tracks from his soundtrack work with some from recent non-soundtrack albums Lost Themes 1 and 2. The theme from ‘The Fog’, embellished with some baroque church organ, sent a chill down the spine while ‘They Live’ and ‘In The Mouth Of Madness’ were graced with some great, sleazy noir lead guitar from Daniel Davies.

‘Halloween’ and ‘Escape From New York’ were greeted like hit singles by the near-sold-out crowd. Newer track ‘Vortex’ showed how distinctive a musician Carpenter really is, the opening piano chords instantly recognisable as his soundworld. Other tracks had hints of Metallica, The Knack and even The Police at their rockiest.

A couple of bum notes: the venue sound was not great and the band were a bit brittle at times – you occasionally wanted a bit of double-bass-pedal mayhem from drummer Scott Seiver. There was also a bit too much DX7 and not enough booming Moog in the synth department. And where was the video for ‘Night’?

But all in all this was a great way to pay one’s respects to a master of mood and texture and a damn good musician to boot. Go ahead, John. We await the Coupe De Ville’s debut London gig with anticipation.

Andy Summers & Robert Fripp: I Advance Masked/Bewitched

Andy-Summers-I-Advance-Masked-77760Regular readers will know that I’m a big guitar connoisseur, and the ’80s offered up a smorgasbord of great players. 

With hindsight, it seems completely logical for these two giants to record together, and their two collaborations are engaging if annoyingly inconsistent.

1982’s I Advance Masked (great title, surely Fripp’s) is under-produced, tentative and unfinished-sounding, and this approach works fine on the beguiling title track (which prompted one of the worst videos of the decade) and evocative ‘Hardy Country’, where strong themes carry the day.

But the duo’s limitations as multi-instrumentalists hamper the rest of the album – the drum programming is limp, bass playing fairly amateurish and the synth playing simplistic (though sometimes perversely enjoyable in a kind of sub-John Carpenter way).

The shorter tracks seem to be searching in vain for some status as ‘ambient’ or ‘environmental’ music but are just too quirky for that purpose. It’s all a bit ‘two men and a drum machine’.

What the album does offer are fascinating examples of the kinds of guitar woodshedding the players were doing in the early ‘80s.

Summers is in full-on Ghost In The Machine mode with meshes of swelling guitar synth and simple, incongruously bluesy solos, while Fripp explores the arpeggiated, polyrhythmic ideas which would find fruit on Crimson’s Three Of A Perfect Pair a few years later.

But, for me, some of the album, especially ‘Hardy Country’, will forever be associated with Fripp’s corner of Dorset, mainly due to its use in a brilliant Fripp BBC2 documentary from the mid-‘80s. Take a walk around Badbury Rings with ‘Hardy Country’ playing in your lugholes and you’ll see what I mean.

summers and fripp1985’s Bewitched is a dramatic improvement on the first album. It features attractive melodies, well-thought-out song structures, (mostly) real drums, some incredible bass playing from Chris Childs and ex-League of Gentleman/Gang of Four Sara Lee, pristine mastering and more of a ‘band’ sound.

The opener ‘Parade’ flies out of the traps with New Wave drums and an engaging little synth guitar melody. With its major-chord exuberance and very short duration, it could easily have come from side one of Bowie’s Low.

‘What Kind Of Man Reads Playboy’ is pretty much a perfect distillation of the state of the electric guitar in the mid-‘80s. Summers’ ingenious layering takes in wah-wah funk, harmonic washes, bebop, bluesy leads and tasteful guitar-synth textures.

Fripp plays one of the most extreme solos of his career while Sara Lee (or is it Chris Childs?) impresses with high-speed soloing and tasty grooving.

Unfortunately, side two is more in line with the debut album, a series of rather uninteresting, short and badly recorded tracks. Think ‘Behind My Camel’ in demo form but without Stewart Copeland. But the best is saved until last, the stunning closer ‘Image And Likeness’ featuring Summers’ cascading harmonics.

On these two albums (not available on streaming platforms at the time of writing), Fripp generally takes a back seat and basically provides a framework for Summers’ talents to shine through. An admirable position for sure, but he was becoming a bit like the Wayne Shorter of guitar at this point, happy to be in the shadows.

But this is in general an intriguing and somewhat overlooked collaboration calling to mind an era when big labels were putting some serious money behind instrumental music – and ‘rock’ was allowed to be intelligent.