Monday, August 1, 2011

Escape from New York (1981)

Escape from New York is an 80s action-thriller that suffers from the usual action film conventions like having wooden one-dimensional characters and by trying to send a message, but not doing anything to enforce, or even determine, its message. I think it is safe to say that in order to get cheap pleasure out of a film it must be fun. Well, this film is not very fun, despite all it has going for it. Kurt Russell was an action movie superstar all throughout the 80s and John Carpenter had earned his spot as one of the more bankable directors. Along with that, it is set in barren, dystopian Manhattan, so the scenery is without a doubt worth checking out. A premise that includes nuclear war threats, soaring crime rates, saving the president, war with the Soviet Union, a giant maximum security prison, pretty much the entire idea of the film, is definitely going to attract attention and develop a dedicated, very American, following.

How does any professional filmmaker make the mistake of creating an action film with this potential caliber and forget to add any entertaining action, whatsoever. No good gunfights, a modest body count, and no character to steal the show. Snake Plissken, played by Kurt Russell, isn't a very strong character either. But the star power and slickness of Russell really do shine through at times, he really did have it going on in the 80s. That is largely due to his very memorable friendship with John Carpenter. Donald Pleasance also makes an appearance, but his addition is very questionable. Giving such a talented actor such a lousy role is distracting when you have seen those talents, and then you see them wasted.

Someone needs to inform Mr. Carpenter that he has a true gift for atmosphere. He never fails at creating atmospheric tension in all of his films, in this film he has New York City to work with. Never has Manhattan looked so haunting. It seems he unconsciously reveals his creative strengths in this film more often then he does on purpose. For a country-wide maximum security prison there seems to be a real lack of...criminals. Also there is an abundance of...characters. A huge prison located in a section of a major city, and there aren't that many criminals there, and most of them look like they are there for either petty theft or drunken misconduct. Harold "Brain" Hellman (Harry Dean Stanton) is one of the few important characters while having the appearance of a isolated from the world office worker. Out of all the types of criminals this film picks the least interesting looking ones. "Brain's" sole purpose is to live up to his nickname and find ways out, so I guess his appearance makes sense, even if it is unfortunate. Then there is Isaac Hayes' The Duke of New York City. With a name like that he better be something special, too bad he isn't. We never learn anything about his past, so, like for just about every character in the film, we must got by his appearance and actions. All the Duke turns out to be is a very cliched character who loves to toot his own horn and abuse his power. That is your ultimate villain? What a shame. With saying that, it doesn't make much sense that a place crawling with violent criminals who would stab you in the back with the food you give them would even be able to have just one man as the head honcho.

Like many Carpenter films, the looks and ideas of Escape from New York can be very appealing, but the material just doesn't measure up. Kurt Russell's presence doesn't save his character who leaves the faintest of glows by never doing anything worth talking about, other than killing a white trash man in tights and saving an immature, worthless president. In a span of ten minutes, four of the most important characters in this film are killed and I just didn't care. Not one bit. In 70s style the film ends in a very anti-American way, but that ends up being a real bright spot and a nice shot at "the man." In the end, though, the real shot is at the patience and attention span of the viewers.

The Thing (1982)

A creature-feature from one of the most popular sci-fi and horror movie directors of all time, John Carpenter, is something to get excited for. He has a strong talent for creating shocking, action-packed, patient scares with plenty of gore. Over the years he has become known for his visually strong and always fascinating sci-fi thrillers, which makes it very interesting to watch this film. Those talents are very raw in this film, they are in need of a very lengthy thawing. Die hard horror fans with appreciate this film for its interesting premise and dedication to its title creature. For the rest of us who require more than excessive gore and violent deaths will be disappointed at the overall direction that is taken.

The Thing does a very good job studying paranoia. Yes, paranoia is the most obvious thing that is featured in horror films, the victims get scared then they die. The Thing is rare in that it actually tries to do a good job at studying paranoia in extreme situations without being too cliche while doing it. Kurt Russell's hot-headed, resourceful  R.J. MacReady proves to be the only character/performance that leaves any real impact, but each character does their job which makes the plot conflicts go quite smoothly. Carpenter's usual directing flair isn't used much. When a plot is used to drive itself with a title character, both need to be more than just on par. A film that leaves its audience in the dark about its plot needs to have flair, Carpenter lacking flair is such a rare occasion. It's a shame that, along with the lack of directing style, Carpenter also goes down the path of using distasteful gore and gross-out visuals to reek his havoc.

Now I have finally reached the ultimate, fatal flaw that makes this film crumble....its title creature. Referred to as "The Thing" the idea of this creature is the only thing appealing about it. An extra-terrestrial being that crash lands on Earth thousands of years earlier. It has the ability to, if given enough time, perfectly mimic any organism it comes in contact with. Trust no one; everyone is your enemy. Two very common themes that are fit perfectly into this film while not adding one lick of originality to it. Ignoring the very intriguing idea of the creature, it is the creation/appearance of it that is the decisive blow. Many things came to mind when looking at the various different appearances the creatures takes; it looked along the lines of a boiling zit ready to pop, a slimy insect ready to be squashed, an aborted fetus from Hell,  and a pulsating organ you would imagine being owned by a cancer victim. All very disgusting, unpleasant images. For this film to succeed it needed its creature to be the driving force. It needed to be both scary and memorable, but it only achieved one of those. If you were wondering which one it achieved I can give you one hint; it's not scary. All finds want to be memorable, some ever settle for being memorable for the worst reasons. "The Thing" is memorable because it has the appearance of something more vile than the worst thing to inhabit your dreams.

The Thing achieves its intrigue, at the same time, though, it fails at all scare attempts. I'm not surprised at the characterization, after hundreds of horror films with the exact same characters nothing about characterization in horror films surprises me anymore. What does surprise me is how a film with such an intriguing premise can let itself just stall. An ending that just comes and goes is a perfect, while very late, sign that things are a mess. Thriller and horror films are known for using shock/twist endings to make up for potentially dull plots, so I could not help but get excited to see how this disgusting, but still interesting in durations, film would end. But just like all the rest of this film, it comes and goes...


Set in the winter of 1982 at an American Antarctic research station. The research station is alerted by a Norwegian helicopter which is frantically trying to kill a dog. One of the attackers accidentally blows up the helicopter which kills him, the other turns his attack on the residents of the research station who are looking on is puzzlement. George Bennings (Peter Maloney) is grazed by a bullet, Garry (Donald Moffat) kills the last attacker, and the mysterious dog survives. Unable to make any outside contact RJ. MacReady (Kurt Russell) and Dr. Cooper (Richard Dysart) take the risk of going to explore the Norwegian's campsite. They find that the Norwegians discovered some extra-terrestrial spaceship and also tried to hide something by burning a mysterious looking corpse. Another risk is taken when they bring the charred corpse back to the research site. They have no clue what is in store for them.