Great Films You Need To See – Dark Star (1974)

Before he became a master of horror, John Carpenter went where no hippie had gone before with his gloriously goofy sci-fi debut that put the space into spaced out.

A cult classic in the truest sense, Dark Star's slacker sci-fi is smarter than its cheap and cheerful veneer lets on and deserves its place on the shelf alongside the greats of the genre

A cult classic in the truest sense, Dark Star’s slacker sci-fi is smarter than its cheap and cheerful veneer lets on and deserves its place on the shelf alongside the greats of the genre

In the wake of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Solaris (1972), science fiction had entered a new, grown up phase, one where contemplation and big ideas had replaced explosions and cheap entertainment.

For Carpenter and fellow University of Southern California student Dan O’Bannon, Kubrick’s masterpiece represented a summit they could never hope to reach. In response, they cobbled together $60,000 and made Dark Star, a film that may represent the mirror image of 2001, but has proved just as influential.

Pinback (Dan O'Bannon), Doolittle (Brian Narelle) and Boiler (Cal Kuniholm) - the crew of Dark Star

Pinback (Dan O’Bannon), Doolittle (Brian Narelle) and Boiler (Cal Kuniholm) – the crew of Dark Star

Without the budget to lavish on grand sets or grander special effects, Carpenter and fellow screenwriter O’Bannon came up with the inspired notion of injecting a dose of blue-collar mundanity to their vision of space travel.

Think about it for a moment; who would you expect to see being sent on a 20-year mission to blow up unstable planets in systems marked out for future human colonisation? Dark Star’s crew – Doolittle (Brian Narelle), Pinback (O’Bannon), Boiler (Cal Kuniholm) and Talby (Dre Pahich) – are the other guys; the ones who do the donkey work so that others more glamorous and well-paid than themselves can take all the credit.

State of the art special effects, ahem, in Dark Star

State of the art special effects, ahem, in Dark Star

This ‘truckers in space’ approach has been used in numerous sci-fi movies since, most notably in the O’Bannon-scripted Alien (1979), while Carpenter himself has elaborated on the blue-collar Joe Schmoe concept in The Thing (1982). Anyone who’s watched Ghostbusters will also spot where that film got its idea for Murray and co’s jumpsuits.

The shorthand dialogue and bored, petty resentments between the crew, especially from the highly strung Pinback, are completely plausible, as is their unkempt appearance. After all, with only each other for company, why bother cutting your hair or trimming your beard?

The solitary Talby (Dre Pahich) in Dark Star

The solitary Talby (Dre Pahich) in Dark Star

Shoulder-shrugging observations about the deteriorating state of the ship are another nice touch, such as Doolittle’s ship’s log report about the Dark Star’s stock of toilet rolls blowing up thanks to a computer malfunction; a previous explosion which has destroyed their sleeping quarters; and the ship’s complement of talking bombs, which have become increasingly unpredictable and are responsible for the film’s darkly humourous final act.

The mind-numbing length of their mission also suggests itself in nicely observed exchanges and asides (“chicken again!”), with Doolittle’s admission that he can no longer remember his own first name being an amusing case in point.

The cheeky alien beachball in Dark Star

The cheeky alien beachball in Dark Star

With only a shoestring budget to play around with, the decision to use a beachball to represent a squeaky-voiced alien the crew have adopted as a mascot is brilliantly inspired. Pinback’s increasingly desperate efforts to first feed and then track down the mischievous creature is its own mini-movie; half-slapstick and half-dramatic that drives much of the film’s middle section.

Surfing on a space wave in Dark Star

Surfing on a space wave in Dark Star

The limited finances are also evident in Dark Star‘s wonky special effects, which have an old-school DIY aesthetic that gives the film an anti-establishment feel in keeping with its theme of sticking two fingers up to the Man. Meanwhile, Carpenter’s otherworldly score (a long-running constant throughout most of his oeuvre) harkens back to the sci-fi movies of his youth.

A cult classic in the truest sense, Dark Star‘s slacker sci-fi is smarter than its cheap and cheerful veneer lets on and deserves its place on the shelf alongside the greats of the genre.

Review – ’71

The Troubles serve as a suitably murky backdrop to this taut and absorbing thriller that a young John Carpenter would be proud of.

One of the year's most suspensful thrillers, '71 is edge-of-the-seat stuff and another feather in the cap for its leading man

One of the year’s most suspenseful thrillers, ’71 is edge-of-the-seat stuff and another feather in the cap for its leading man

It’s been quite a year for Jack O’Connell, the rising star of the superb prison drama Starred Up and Angelina Jolie’s latest Unbroken.

What makes O’Connell stand out is the honesty of his performances and the physical and emotional spectrum he’s able to tap into. He brings that range to bear in his portrayal of Gary Hook, a recent army recruit whose regiment is shipped off to Belfast during the height of the Troubles – the political and sectarian conflict between Irish nationalists and unionists loyal to the Queen.

You're in the army now: Soldier Gary Hook (Jack 'O'Connell) in '71

You’re in the army now: Soldier Gary Hook (Jack ‘O’Connell) in ’71

The regiment (and the viewer, of course) are reminded that, by being deployed to Northern Ireland, they “are not leaving this country”, but when they arrive and are sent to support the Royal Ulster Constabulary’s search for guns along the Falls Road – the fault line that largely separated unionists and nationalists – director Yann Demange potently illustrates just how far away from ‘home’ these young men suddenly feel.

Essentially thrown in at the deep end, their disorientation and fear spirals as they are confronted first by women banging dustbin lids on the ground (to warn fellow Republicans that British soldiers are approaching) and then by an increasingly angry mob. Hook gets cut off from his fellow soldiers when he’s sent after a boy who has snatched a rifle and, following the regiment’s hasty retreat, must fight for survival behind enemy lines.

I predict a riot: things turn ugly in '71

I predict a riot: things turn ugly in ’71

And while the solider tries to evade capture by hiding out (and gets a lesson in soldiering from Richard Dormer’s kindly Eamon, who describes it as “posh c***s telling thick c***s to kill poor c***s”), he becomes a pawn in a larger game being played between senior IRA members and shadowy British operatives led by Sean Harris’ Captain Browning.

Escape from Belfast: Hook (Jack O'Connell) tries to think of a way out in '71

Escape from Belfast: Hook (Jack O’Connell) tries to think of a way out in ’71

The Troubles have inspired some absorbing cinema and ’71 can sit proudly alongside the likes of Alan Clarke’s Elephant (1989), Ken Loach’s Hidden Agenda (1990) and Paul Greengrass’ Bloody Sunday (2002).While not as overtly political as those films, Gregory Burke’s economical script doesn’t ignore it either, although the briefing to senior officers prior to all hell breaking loose does come across as a little too ‘are you paying attention?’.

The film is at its strongest when following the hapless Hook as he stumbles from one terrifying episode to the next. A heart-pounding cat and mouse chase between the fleeing soldier and two gun-toting young IRA members is brilliantly done, while an explosive scene in a pub and its nightmarish aftermath as Hook staggers through what resemble the streets of hell makes you question whether he’ll make it out of there.

Troubles, troubles: Life in Belfast circa '71

Troubles, troubles: Life in Belfast circa ’71

Anthony Radcliffe’s immersive and atmospheric cinematography, the murky nighttime setting, David Holmes’ retro-inflected score and the questionable loyalties of its characters bring to mind Carpenter’s Assault On Precinct 13 (1976), while the against-the-odds battle to survive tips a wink to Escape From New York (1981); comparisons not made lightly, but ones that speak very highly of just how impressive ’71 is.

One of the year’s most suspenseful thrillers, ’71 is edge-of-the-seat stuff and another feather in the cap for its leading man.

In Retrospect – The Thing (1982)

Fans of John Carpenter’s gleefully gory sci-fi horror may have felt their pulse quickening when stories emerged earlier this year of ancient bacteria coming back to life after lying dormant in the arctic tundra for thousands of years.

Still thrillingly chilling more than 30 years on, The Thing has rightly earned its place along other classics of horror and remains an eye-popping (and stomach chomping) movie experience

Still thrillingly chilling more than 30 years on, The Thing has rightly earned its place along other classics of horror and remains an eye-popping (and stomach chomping) movie experience

Thankfully, said bacteria pose no danger (we are told) to humans or animals, but the same can’t be said for the parasitic organism that unleashes industrial-level havoc on a remote Antarctic research station after having been dug up by unwitting scientists.

Carpenter had already shown himself a master of genre cinema in such classics as Assault On Precinct 13 (1976), Halloween (1978) and Escape From New York (1981) and went one better with his adaptation of John W. Campbell’s novella Who Goes There? by fusing horror and science fiction into a singular nihilistic entity.

The memorable opening from John Carpenter's The Thing

The memorable opening from John Carpenter’s The Thing

A painful box office failure on its release – thanks in no small part to it having been released on the heels of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and on the same day as Blade Runner The Thing, like its relentless antagonist, refused to go softly into the night and instead ground out a cult following.

One of the strengths of the film is its tremendously strong cast, each of whom treats the material with the respect it deserves and gives their character a distinct personality. The cliques and clashes that already exist among the cabin fevered occupants of the American research base are already there before the Thing shows up.

Macready (Kurt Russell) makes a discovery he'll soon regret in The Thing

Macready (Kurt Russell) makes a discovery he’ll soon regret in The Thing

Carpenter has never been one to waste a shot and launches into The Thing as he means to go on with a husky running towards the station as it’s being chased down by two strangers in a helicopter frantically shooting at it. It’s a memorable, action-packed opening that immediately introduces us to the film’s adversary and impishly undermines the old saying ‘man’s best friend’ (the director has more fun a little later when Stevie Wonder’s Superstitious plays in the background).

The director cleverly fades scenes out early on to heighten the suspense and make you question who the dog is visiting. Indeed, rarely has a canine’s neutral expression been laced with so much foreboding as it stares out of a window or looks off camera.

Blair (Wilford Brimley) loses it in The Thing

Blair (Wilford Brimley) loses it in The Thing

The moment the Thing finally shows itself is as shocking as it is grotesque (“it’s weird and pissed off, whatever it is” as Richard Masur’s Clark succinctly points out). It’s here the film could so easily have gone off the deep end, but it’s down to the then 22-year-old Rob Bottin’s sensational creature effects (assisted by veteran Stan Winston, who declined opening titles credit in order to give full kudos to Bottin) that it works so brilliantly.

Ask anyone what they remember most about The Thing and, more often than not, they’ll point to the scenes where the creature appears, most indelibly in the celebrated chest defibrillation scene, wherein David Clennon’s bewildered Palmer speaks for all of us when he sputters “you’ve gotta be f**king kidding…”.

"You've gotta be f**king kidding..."

“You’ve gotta be f**king kidding…”

The sense of encroaching paranoia and hopelessness (“Nobody trusts anybody now. There’s nothing else we can do; just wait.”) is amplified both by Ennio Morricone’s menacing synth score, built around a simple two-note structure, and the hugely impressive production design. While filmed mostly on artificially frozen sound stages in Los Angeles, the decision to also film on a purpose-built research station in British Columbia in the depths of winter pays off immensely. The location adds a desperate remoteness that underlines just how vulnerable and threatened the team are.

Led by Kurt Russell’s increasingly mad-eyed Macready, the film is chock full of memorable performances, in particular Wilford Brimley’s crazed Blair and Donald Muffat’s station leader Garry, who gets one of the film’s best lines when he says: “I know you gentlemen have been through a lot, but when you find the time, I’d rather not spend the rest of this winter tied to this f**king couch!”

Things start going very, very wrong in The Thing

Things start going very, very wrong in The Thing

It isn’t perfect; characters are implausibly sent off on their own instead of staying together and make other odd decisions in order to keep the film going, but master of suspense Carpenter outdoes himself by constantly turning the screw.

Still thrillingly chilling more than 30 years on, The Thing has rightly earned its place along other classics of horror and remains an eye-popping (and stomach chomping) movie experience.

Directors Who Should Call It A Day

I recently ran the Debuts Blogathon with Chris at Terry Malloy’s Pigeon Coop which examined the first features of directors from the length and breadth of world cinema.

One of the areas I was keen for each entry to examine was whether a director’s early output matched their later work. It’s rare to find a director with an unblemished record, but there’s nothing sadder than seeing one whose work you once fervently followed becoming a shadow of their former selves.

In the same way that too many highly respected icons of the big screen gradually transform themselves into jobbing actors (I’m talking to you De Niro), there are unfortunately numerous examples of directors whose later films are a stark contrast to their early career.

You may disagree with some or all of these, but the following are five directors who really should call it a day for the sake of their professional credibility.

Who are the directors you wish would call it quits?

John Carpenter

John Carpenter

From his under-appreciated stoner sci-fi debut Dark Star, Carpenter went on a near-spotless run that included such undisputed genre classics as Assault On Precinct 13, Escape From New York, Halloween, Big Trouble In Little China, They Live and, of course, The Thing. It was always going to be a challenge to keep that sort of hit rate up, but the poorly received Escape From LA ushered in a slow, steady decline. Carpenter’s since limped on to direct a number of critical and commercial failures, including the ill-conceived Chevy Chase-starring Memoirs Of An Invisible Man, Ghosts Of Mars and, most recently, the little seen horror The Ward. Although Carpenter’s involvement in the numerous shoddy remakes/reimaginings of his best films seems to take up more of his time these days, one can only hope he decides not to tarnish his once great reputation by sitting himself down again in the director’s chair.

Francis Ford Coppola

Francis Ford Coppola

It can be argued that it’s a little unfair to include Francis Ford Coppola on this list as his last three projects – Youth Without Youth (2007), Tetro (2009) and Twixt (2011) – are smaller, more personal films, but the decline in the quality of his output is sad indeed when you consider what a titan he was. There was no greater filmmaker during the 1970s – The Godfather (1972), The Conversation (1974), The Godfather Part II (1974) and Apocalypse Now (1979) is as incredible a run as you’re ever likely to find – and Coppola recaptured some of this magic in his 80s movies Rumble Fish, The Cotton Club and Peggy Sue Got Married. But the wheels started to fall off with 1990’s The Godfather Part III (not a terrible film by any means, but a pale shadow of its earlier chapters) and by the time of the Robin Williams ‘comedy’ Jack Coppola had turned into what we hoped he’d never become – a hack-for-hire.

M. Night Shyamalan

M Night Shyamalan

What the hell happened to M. Night Shyamalan? Or was he nothing more than a one-trick pony? The Sixth Sense announced Shyamalan’s arrival in some style, while its superior follow-up Unbreakable (his best film) and alien invasion movie Signs seemed to suggest he was the real deal (let’s forget the final five minutes of Signs just for now). Even 2004’s The Village had its moments, but the cracks started to show in 2006’s Lady In The Water, which features a film critic being horribly killed (in case you wondered whether Shyamalan has a sense of humour, that was your answer). From there his movies have continued to soil a once-promising career, most notably 2008’s The Happening, a film so baffling in its concept and so inept in its execution you have to admire the fact it got made in the first place.

Brian De Palma

Brian De Palma

Five years before Robert De Niro exploded onto the big screen in Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets he got his big break in De Palma’s 1968 satire Greetings. De Palma actually gave De Niro his first screen appearance in The Wedding Party, released in 1969, but made six years earlier. For this alone De Palma deserves credit, although he didn’t need Bobby’s help to direct some genuine classics of late 70s and 80s American cinema, including Carrie (1976), Blow Out (1981), Scarface (1983), The Untouchables (1986) and the troubling Casualties Of War (1989). His last great work – Carlito’s Way – was made 20 years ago and in the intervening period his career has gradually nose-dived, from clunky sci-fi Mission To Mars, to the heavy-handed War on Terror polemic Redacted and deeply disappointing The Black Dahlia, which merely underlined his status as the poor man’s Alfred Hitchcock. To make matters worse, his most recent film, 2012’s Passion pales in comparison to his earlier erotic thrillers. Time to bow out Brian.

Tim Burton

Tim Burton

There was a time when I awaited a new Tim Burton film with genuine anticipation. In the late 80s and 90s Burton was responsible for a whole new aesthetic in Hollywood moviemaking. Burton-esque even became a term to describe a certain brand of weird and wonderful cinema, while his surprising appointment as the director of 1989’s hugely successful Batman became the template used by Marvel two decades later (Kenneth Branagh being chosen to direct Thor, for example). Burton has generally been at his best when sticking to more personal material; the problem is that he doesn’t stick to this, choosing instead to clutter his filmography with ever-more disappointing big budget studio pictures, from the misguided Planet Of The Apes remake, to the lacklustre Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, woeful Alice In Wonderland and boring Dark Shadows. There was hope in 2012’s Frankenweenie, but when taken alongside his recent output this feels like a blip in an otherwise stalled career.