Peter Jason

They Live (1988, John Carpenter)

Maybe a third of They Live is amazing. The film has three distinct parts. The first, where Roddy Piper arrives in L.A.–Piper never gets a name and L.A. never gets identified, though director Carpenter obviously expects the viewer to recognize it and understand its use–is the best. It’s a Western, sort of. Piper’s the Man With No Name, only he’s not a bounty killer or a homesteader, he’s an unemployed construction worker. Carpenter’s screenplay quickly establishes him, establishes the ground situation; it’s a sensitive look at the working homeless with matter-of-fact presentation from Carpenter. Keith David quickly shows up as Piper’s sidekick. Carpenter has a good time with the bromance. Both Piper and David’s performances are the best in this part of the film.

The second part of the film is when They Live becomes a fifties sci-fi movie set in the eighties. Thirty minutes in, Piper discovers aliens out to subjugate the human race through the all mighty dollar. Carpenter goes big with the anti-commercialism sentiment and it works. There’s also just a strange vibe to the film during this part. Gary B. Kibbe’s flat but intricate photography–which works beautifully in the first third for juxtaposing paradise against squalor–does okay for Piper’s odyssey through the “real world” but doesn’t work when cut against the black and white “sci-fi world” shots. They Live’s budget is frequently a problem, particularly in the final third, but Carpenter never embraces the visuals of the fifties sci-fi paranoia.

Then Meg Foster shows up and there’s this shaky bridge to the final third of the film, which starts as hard sci-fi (well, as hard of sci-fi as a scene out of “V”) and descends quickly into lame action movie theatrics. Carpenter’s direction is weak during this part of the picture. He doesn’t have any of the interest he had in the beginning (or the middle).

Piper does okay for most of the film. He’s likable. He can’t handle the poorly written monologues but no one could. David’s better, but he too gets some weak lines. Foster’s mostly weak. The film takes place over a few days–it’s unclear–and her character’s sort of pointless. George ‘Buck’ Flower has an amusing small part.

They Live simultaneously has too much of a budget and not enough of one. Carpenter seems somewhat disinterested in what the film could do and busies himself with chunks of it, whether it’s the opening’s Reaganomics commentary or the middle’s L.A.-bound action thrills (and an awesome, exceptionally long fist fight between Piper and David). By the finish, there’s just nothing for Carpenter to do except end the movie. The postscript gags are better than anything else in the last thirty minutes, which is a big problem.

But there’s a lot of good stuff in They Live. Enough Carpenter should’ve taken it more seriously.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by John Carpenter; screenplay by Carpenter, based on a short story by Ray Nelson; director of photography, Gary B. Kibbe; edited by Frank E. Jimenez and Gib Jaffe; music by Carpenter and Alan Howarth; produced by Larry J. Franco; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Roddy Piper (Nada), Keith David (Frank), Meg Foster (Holly), George ‘Buck’ Flower (Drifter), Peter Jason (Gilbert) and Raymond St. Jacques (The Street Preacher).


Prince of Darkness (1987, John Carpenter)

I’d forgotten Prince of Darkness‘s more fanciful notions–Jesus the space alien, still sent to Earth to save us from the Devil, but this time, the Devil’s kind of a space alien too (or not)–and its less creative ones (the Devil uses projectile vomit to posses people). It’s Carpenter at his strangest, the late 1980s period, where he made low budget pseudo b-movies. Prince of Darkness isn’t really a b-movie, if only because Carpenter’s intent, the one unaffected by budget constraints, is quite visible. But also visible are the realities of making Prince of Darkness for its budget.

What’s unfortunate about the film is Carpenter’s lack of inventiveness. Compared to what Carpenter did in the late 1970s, Prince of Darkness feels like a TV movie, only a really well-directed one. Instead of relishing in the low budget, Carpenter tries to work around it, tries to draw attention away from some of the obvious giveaways–the movies set in this church with at least three floors, but after a while… we only see one floor, like sets had to be dismantled. Or the exterior shots of the church, with the menacing homeless people. After a while, they’re only in a couple places (the disappearing Alice Cooper is a whole different discussion).

Or just the closed concept of the film. It deals with the end of the world where signs of imminent destruction are plentiful. Except there are no scenes or shots of regular people noticing these signs. Carpenter lays a framework similar to the modern disaster and destruction movie, but can’t fill it in with the fluff those movies rely on. Instead, it’s a creepy feel–which comes together a few times throughout and really well at the end–accentuated with his familiar synthesizer score. And the goofy reasoning behind the movie.

Much of Prince of Darkness‘s philosophizing sounds like Carpenter just copied his notes unedited. His cast are generally believable as physics majors, but smart undergraduate… certainly not doctoral candidates. However, Carpenter’s got some really sharp dialogue in the film, which is a pleasant surprise.

The best performances are Dennis Dun and Victor Wong, as they’ve got most of the film’s best lines. Jameson Parker and Lisa Blount, as the young(ish) lovers, are okay but nothing more. Poor Donald Pleasence has almost nothing to do. The rest of the cast varies. The ones who end up zombies more so then others. But soon-to-be Carpenter regular Peter Jason is good.

Where Prince of Darkness pulls itself together is the end. Carpenter lifts a lot from his other films for this one’s sequences–Assault on Precinct 13 and The Thing–but even that unoriginal approach can’t affect his skill. The last twenty minutes, even accounting for Dun not trying to break through a wall from his side, just letting Parker and company come through the opposite, is great. There are some make-up problems–budget–and some silly script stuff, but Carpenter knows how to make it work and he does.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by John Carpenter; director of photography, Gary B. Kibbe; edited by Steve Mirkovich; music by Carpenter in association with Alan Howarth; production designer, Daniel A. Lomino; produced by Larry J. Franco; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Donald Pleasence (Father Loomis), Jameson Parker (Brian Marsh), Victor Wong (Prof. Howard Birack), Lisa Blount (Catherine Danforth), Dennis Dun (Walter), Susan Blanchard (Kelly), Anne Marie Howard (Susan Cabot), Ann Yen (Lisa), Ken Wright (Lomax), Dirk Blocker (Mullins), Jessie Lawrence Ferguson (Calder) and Peter Jason (Dr. Paul Leahy).


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