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DVD Review

DVD cover

The John Carpenter Collection


Starring: Kurt Russell, Donald Pleasence, Jamie Lee Curtis and Ernest Borgnine
Optimum Home Entertainment
RRP: £54.99
Certificate: 18
Available 06 October 2008

John Carpenter is an accomplished storyteller (writing, directing and composing the music score for the majority of his movies) and a rare talent, so the release of a collection of seven of his best projects is welcome indeed. For anybody interested in delving for the first time into the works of the great man this is a fantastic place to start.

Lt. Ethan Bishop is assigned to Precinct 13 in Anderson, which is being systematically shut- down and moved elsewhere. Only a skeleton crew of the captain, a desk sergeant and two administration women are in place. Bishop is understandably expecting a quiet night, but chaos is about to descend in a manner he could never have predicted. A handful of dangerous prisoners are being transported by bus to another location, but when one of their number falls seriously ill they are obliged to divert to the nearest police station - namely, Precinct 13...

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) was the first of a number of films Carpenter would make with a siege theme. He also incorporated a strong woman character (Leigh, named after Leigh Brackett - the writer of Rio Bravo) which he always felt was very important.

There's an element of wry humour present, especially in the scene when the hot potato game is played to decide who goes into the sewer through a manhole cover to seek escape. This is also Carpenter's first full music score, and he produces a memorable theme said to be influenced slightly by Led Zeppelin's 'Immigrant Song' and the music from the Dirty Harry film.

This was also the first film Carpenter had total control; something he would insist on from this point onward. The film was released to a muted response in America. The MPAA made Carpenter cut out the scene wherein the little girl is shot dead. This he did, but only in the version sent to the MPAA, thereby sneaking the film out intact.

Extras on this disc consist of a Q&A with John Carpenter & Austin 'Bishop' Stoker, a Carpenter Commentary (always worth listening to, believe me), a Photo Gallery, Trailers and the Music Score.



Fifteen years after the young Michael Myers brutally stabbed to death his teenage sister, Judith, Doctor Loomis - who has followed the subject's case and tried to break through to him without success - is on his way with a nurse to the sanatorium from which Myers is due to transferred. When they arrive the compound gates are open and patients are wandering around. Fearing the worst, Loomis rushes off toward the building. The nurse is attacked and the car stolen. Michael Myers is on the loose...

Halloween (1978) is often referred to as the granddaddy of slasher movies. This title is meant to be complimentary, but in my opinion is a little unkind considering some of the hack 'n' slash, gore-for-gore's-sake excuses for movies which emerged afterward. Admittedly, it did unknowingly set the ground rules for what was to become known as the Teen Horror Flick.

Halloween is a very stylish horror with more creepy than violent moments. There is very good use of lighting, to chilling effect. The idea of a completely silent masked psychotic killer is infinitely more frightening than, for instance, the wise-cracking Freddy Krueger, who came later.

Various in-jokes and names are present, including some in homage to Psycho. Shortage of space prevents me passing-on a hundred and one fascinating facts about this film, suffice to say it's a true classic which opened to mixed reviews. As with most of his films, Carpenter proved to be a man ahead of his time. Word of mouth would make Halloween a sensation, and for twelve years the highest grossing independent film of all time. By the time news of its phenomenal success filtered through to him, Carpenter was well into his next project.

Extras on this disc consist of the Halloween Unmasked 2000 documentary, Trailer and Bios. I'm not certain if the two-disc 25th anniversary edition is incorporated here, but it's a shame if it isn't - leastways for the always entertaining John Carpenter commentary.



The little town of Antonio Bay is preparing for its centenary celebrations, but it has a dark secret. 100 years before, the Elizabeth Dane ship, lost in a thick bank of fog, crashed on the rocks at Spivey Point, misdirected by a campfire intended to ground the vessel. The vicar of the church discovers the diary of Father Patrick Malone when a brick falls from the wall of the vestry. The writings give credence to the possibility of the fog returning, bringing back the dead crewmen seeking revenge for cold-hearted betrayal...

Keen to follow-up Halloween with another scary tale, Carpenter borrowed a true event from the 1700s when a ship laden with gold was lured on to the rocks by the locals. The crew was drowned and the gold stolen. The Fog (1979) is therefore essentially a supernatural tale of revenge.

Jamie Lee Curtis returns to the Carpenter fold after her debut in Halloween; this time she plays an older character and shares the credits with her mother Janet Leigh of Psycho fame. A couple of other actors from Halloween also return: Nick Castle and Nancy Loomis, and Dan O'Bannon returns from Dark Star. Oscar winner John Houseman is also in the cast, but the biggest plaudits should go to Adrienne Barbeau (Carpenter's then new wife) as the sultry-voiced Stevie Wayne, who manages just the right balance of calmness and urgency - another very strong female character. Many times Carpenter has enjoyed Hitchcock-like cameos in his movies, but in The Fog he has a brief talking park as the church handyman.

The pacing of this movie is spot on, with early shocks and scares being only part of the steady build-up to the church siege conclusion. The dead mariners from the Elizabeth Dane are kept in darkness or backlit in the fog so that they are nearly always seen in silhouette, the active principle being that less is more. Also greatly enhancing the atmosphere is the very impressive music score, easily one of his best.

Extras on this disc include: the documentary Tales From the Mist and trailers. Again, where's the Carpenter commentary (available on the special edition version of The Fog DVD)?



Snake Plisskin ("I thought you were dead!") is an ex-Special Forces hero who is currently serving life imprisonment in a maximum security penitentiary for robbing the Federal Reserve Depository. He is offered a complete pardon in exchange for rescuing the President from New York, where his plane has crashed. New York is a walled-off prison where gangs and hardened criminals have made their own hierarchy. To ensure his co-operation Plisskin is injected with two minute capsules; if he doesn't return with the President within 22 hours the capsules will dissolve setting off fatal heat-sensing charges. The President's location tracker proves to be a false lead, and Plisskin eventually discovers via a character called "Brain" that the man has been taken by the Duke of New York, a powerful and ruthless gang leader. But Snake can be pretty ruthless himself, let down by the government he fought for he cares about nothing but his own welfare...

Upon its release, Escape From New York (1981) went up against Raiders of the Lost Ark, but was incredibly well-received for a relatively small picture and still made the huge return of $50 million.

Snake Plisskin is a great character, an anti-hero who sneers at the establishment and whose quiet tones are reminiscent of Clint Eastwood. The plot, settings and lighting are once again near faultless, and it's amazing we have so many big names (Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, Donald Pleasence, Harry Dean Stanton and of course Kurt Russell from Carpenter's Elvis in his first action figure role - although Avco wanted Charles Bronson) in a movie budget reportedly between 5 and $7 million.

Making another welcome return is Adrienne Barbeau. Nick Castle co-wrote the script with Carpenter and is mainly responsible for the low-key dark humour in the film.

A fascinating fact is that the matte painter of the movie was none other than James Cameron, later director of The Terminator, Aliens, Titanic and others.

Shooting took place through the nights between 9:00pm to 7:00am. It would be Carpenter's and Avco's most ambitious project to date.

Extras on this disc include the Return to Escape From New York documentary, a John Carpenter interview, trailers, a thoroughly entertaining Commentary with John Carpenter and Kurt Russell (Carpenter himself is always interesting, entertaining and brutally honest, whereas Russell obviously enjoyed himself immensely, citing Snake Plisskin as his favourite acting part), and Snakes Crime (the deleted opening scene - the robbery itself, which is an exciting piece but doesn't really fit in with the rest of the story).



JR MacReady is a helicopter pilot and part of the crew of a US Antarctic research station. When a Norwegian helicopter mysteriously crashes whilst chasing and trying to kill a dog, the station takes the animal in and allows it to wander. MacReady and others fly to the Norwegian base to find out what took place. They discover it uninhabited, bleak and cold. A huge area in the ice has been cut away to reveal part of what appears to be a spacecraft. A man-sized block of ice is taken back to the US base where it accidentally thaws out. When the dog is placed with the sled dogs they cower in fear as it erupts into a hideous creature. A flame thrower destroys it, but this is in fact a shape-shifting extraterrestrial which can take the form of any living thing. When attacked it reveals its previous forms in a sickening amalgamation of twisted body parts. From that moment on, the station becomes a hotbed of fear, panic and ultra-paranoia, as nobody knows who to trust. MacReady thinks he has the solution, but is he too late...?

Upon its general release, The Thing (1982) bombed. Cinema-goers were apparently appalled and disgusted by the hideous shape-changing scenes - missing the point entirely. E.T. had just been released and the public was not ready for Carpenter's intelligent and well-crafted monster flick after such a popular and benign alien from Spielberg. However, a few years later critics began to reassess the film, and it picked up a huge following retrospectively.

The premise of a shape-shifting creature is said to have inspired the T-100 from Cameron's Terminator 2, particularly the scene when it loses substance and goes through one shape after another. There was also an episode of The X-Files which was heavily influenced by The Thing. Dark Horse comics published a continuation of the story, which also brought a new audience to the film. Carpenter has toyed with the idea of a sequel ever since, but in semi-retirement he's unlikely to get around to it.

The fantastic array of extras on this disc include the 80 minute Terror Takes Shape documentary, the thoroughly entertaining (again) commentary with John Carpenter and Kurt Russell, Production Background Archive, Production Art and Storyboards, Location Design, Outtakes, Production and Post Production Notes, Cast and Filmmakers' Notes, and Cast Production Photos. Phew!



When the last guardian of the forgotten sect, The Brotherhood of Sleep (a religious organisation kept secret even from the Vatican), dies he leaves a key to a Catholic priest. The key opens a door into the basement of an abandoned church. Inside is a large canister which appears to contain a green sludge. The priest asks a college professor of theoretic physics to investigate, and he agrees, taking along a handful of his students. They discover via an old manuscript that the canister is seven million years old and can only be opened from the inside. The substance it holds is the essence of pure evil - Satan itself, if you like. As the students attempt to study it, the sky begins to change, and hoards of mysteriously psychotic homeless people surround the building, making it a prison. The green substance begins to spread its contagion by spraying in the face of its victims - while the survivors try to barricade themselves in a room - preparatory to bringing through Satan's father, the Anti-God...

Although the eighties was awash with horror films (most of them franchises or inferior copies), thereby losing this one somewhere in the middle, Prince of Darkness (1987) was well- received by the public and most Carpenter fans. A small contingent saw this moment as the beginning of a slide in talent by the director, but I think those people simply saw this as students versus demon, missing the intelligently written script which explores anti-particles, tachyon transmissions, and differential equations - along with questions such as what is Man's place in the universe, and where does he fit in with science?

The important thing here is that Carpenter was making a film that he wanted to see - which is all any writer, director or artist of any kind can do. It is proof of his conviction in this regard to know that he turned down big-money directing jobs on Top Gun and Fatal Attraction.

I'm led to believe there's only a trailer on this disc as extras; so where is the John Carpenter commentary which is freely available on the Momentum region 2 release?


John Nada is a homeless and jobless drifter who comes to town looking for labouring work. He finds refuge with a large destitute homeless community, but it is soon mysteriously attacked and destroyed by riot police. Most of the individuals are taken away. When Nada witnesses a similar raid on a nearby building, he waits it out before entering to look for clues as to what the purpose of the raid was. Inside he finds a pair of sunglasses which changes everything around him when he puts them on. A percentage of the population actually consists of aliens with skeletal faces, and just as importantly all advertising and media is subversive brainwashing aimed to instruct the populace with messages such as Consume, Procreate, Submit, Obey, No Independent Thought, and on the money, This Is Your God. When Nada meets Frank he has a hard time convincing him, but a scrawled message, They Live - We Sleep, convinces them that there are others who know the truth. The problem is how does this small band of rebels open the eyes of the world...?

As with Prince of Darkness, the budget for They Live (1988) was only $3 million and the shooting schedule 8 weeks. For the part of Nada Carpenter recruited experienced wrestler "Rowdy" Roddy Piper, whom he had seen at a Wrestlemania event. Taking a chance paid off, because Piper brings much more than brawn to the part.

Keith David (who had appeared in The Thing) was alongside him with Meg Foster. Mind you, Piper's profession did help when Carpenter scripted-in a seven minute alleyway brawl because he wanted to out-do The Quiet Man as the longest on-screen fight.

As with his previous film, Carpenter composed another excellent mood-enhancing music score. Releasing the film just prior to the 1988 elections was either inspired or a very lucky happenstance, because it proved to be a hit at the box office - seemingly the only Carpenter film that audiences 'got' straight away.

An inherent message in the film about not selling-out for big financial success was not lost on Carpenter fans, who know that he has never been close to doing so. There was talk of a sequel to They Live, titled Hypnowar, but it was never made.

Extras on this disc consist of a Making of... featurette, a Commentary with John Carpenter and Roddy Piper, and Carpenter, Piper and Meg Foster profiles.



So John Carpenter has enjoyed a successful, but sometimes uncomfortable career. But he has remained resolute and has a formidable arsenal of fine films in his canon.

If I were to choose seven films to represent his finest work, I would select those included in this set. They are strong and diverse achievements. Although the majority of extras available out there in the retail world are here to compliment the films, there are a couple of individual releases which are much more packed with special features, especially on region 1. However, this isn't a huge problem, as most avid Carpenter fans such as myself will already have these remastered films, and for those coming to John Carpenter afresh - as I said at the top of this piece - there's no better place to start than here.


Ty Power

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