The following six selections involve what I believe is a series of degree of separation. One movie ties into the other movie for reasons obvious and perhaps not so obvious. The funny thing is that I didn’t intend that when I selected this films, it just sort of happened.
If you still don’t know what I’m getting at, I’ll let the reviews of the movies themselves spell it out better.
The Fog (1980)
The first two films come from one of my favorite directors, John Carpenter. Hot off the success of slasher pioneer Halloween, he went for a less mundane, more supernatural horror experience.
Now there is not one emotionless, darkly lit killer to fear but an entire 19th century merchant ship crew seeking to right the wrongs of a coastal California town. Accompanied by a spooky titular mist that goes against the weather patterns.
I’ve wondered why so many of Carpenter’s movies have found critical and commercial success after the fact rather than during it. Assault on Precinct 13, The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China and They Live didn’t get the respect they deserved on release and the same was true here.
Ironically, Halloween, Carpenter’s entry in the often derided slasher genre was praised on release and the box office was kind enough for once to reflect that.
The Fog features various citizens and passerbys in the fictional town of Antonio Bay dealing with the nightly arrival of an undead crew as they get revenge at the 100th anniversary of the town’s founding.
The local pastor, played by Hal Holbrook, discovers the why, while everyone else experiences the what that the crew of the Elizabeth Dane intends to do. Adrienne Barbeau, who was married to Carpenter at the time, plays a single mother and disc jockey situated at a lighthouse.
Jamie Lee Curtis is a college grad hitchhiking her way first into the heart of a middle-aged pickup truck driver and then into the paranormal horror of the Elizabeth Dane’s vendetta. Curtis’ mother, Janet Leigh, plays the town’s mayor who is supervising the centennial celebration. Carpenter himself plays one of three unfortunate fisherman who act as the revenants’ first victims.
Considering the title, it is well that the atmosphere is perfectly established and as chilling as was intended. It is the pre-CGI effect of the fog, how it suddenly appears out of nowhere when the clock strikes midnight and how it’s not quite clear when the horror will strike once the location of the scene has been engulfed.
Not dissimilar to Carpenter letting the tension drag out before the strike of Michael Myer’s knife, the Elizabeth Dane’s crew don’t instantly start wreaking havoc. Early on, they have the courtesy, I suppose, to knock on their potential victim’s doors.
The Fog is a great example of something I mentioned when I covered earlier six slasher films: using the time of day to judge the pace of the movie. This movie actually takes place over the course of two days so it doesn’t necessarily fit entirely into the pattern of afternoon, late afternoon, evening, night and resolution, which is apparent best in Carpenter’s Precinct 13, Halloween and Big Trouble. It’s oddly fun, despite the horror based drama.
It’s a movie that works best once night falls and the fog rolls in, endangering the Antonio Bay denizens, soon trapped where they are at the moment. It’s not quite as memorable an experience at daytime though some tension is had from knowing that inevitably night will fall once more and almost no one knows the peril that’s coming.
This film, along with Halloween and Prom Night, helped dispel the notion I had that Jamie Lee Curtis was an unattractive actress. It might be because I’m used to her latter day work once she had turned middle-aged like the Freaky Friday remake from 2003. But at the same time, she was certainly unconventional in appearance, which definitely made her stand out then and now.
It’s more Barbeau’s movie than Curtis’, though I can’t say there’s any one central protagonist, not that there need be one. The town and it’s people are an ensemble facing against a horror that was not their own fault but their ancestors. The final scene that resolves the ghostly maritime threat is at once sad and strangely comic in its black humor.
Very much a campfire story writ large and with Carpenter’s remarkable ability to take a small budget and make it appear a hundred times larger. Not his best, but compared to what was said back in 1980, anything but his worst.
Carpenter, three years after the Fog and also having directed Escape from New York and The Thing, delivered an adaptation of Stephen King’s homicidal car novel, released the same year as the novel. It is pretty different in structure and tone than most of what I’ve seen from Carpenter, though that’s probably because this is a Stephen King story, not his own.
Unlike Kubrick with the Shining, Carpenter has no qualms with being faithful. in 1957, a Plymouth Fury, sporting a blood red paint job that is decidedly not of the line, is seated by a black maintenance worker in the Detroit factory. Seconds later, he’s dead by what is explained later to be carbon monoxide poisoning.
Two decades later, a high school nerd buys that same car from a rural hick who is glad to be rid of it, seeing as how he blames that car for his brother’s death. Arnie immediately falls in love with the vehicle and it’s safe to say that in her own warped way, she reciprocates him back.
Arnie’s jock best friend Dennis grows increasingly concerned with Arnie’s obsession over Christine. On the one hand, having Christine dramatically raises Arnie’s self-esteem and confidence, ditching the glasses and even getting a hot girlfriend called Leigh in the process. On the other, both Dennis and Leigh both learn that nothing gets in the way of Arnie and Christine. Nothing.
Christine is less an expression of Carpenter I feel as it is Carpenter’s expressing Stephen King. For one, as was evident in Carrie and controversially, Rage, King utilizes school bullies and their tormenting behavior in a way that appears both archetypal yet raw.
The bullies that torture Arnie and eventually compel retaliation through Christine are foul-mouthed, armed with switch-blades and should really be arrested by the cops, let alone expelled. Considering the author’s own hardline dislike of his high school years, even saying that no one actually liked theirs if they’re being honest with themselves, King is exorcising some serious demons.
It’s even possible that writing works like Christine was a more constructive rather than self destructive way to work through the hell he likely suffered growing up.
Rage, which King requested be taken out of publication, was about a bullied student going on a shooting massacre, which is even more uncomfortable a topic now then when King wrote it. Who’s to say that King, in another time and place, wouldn’t have committed his own Columbine?
The horrific effects of bullying are more Carrie and Rage’s point than Christine‘s. From the film’s interpretation, it is about toxic, obsessive relationships. Christine, which wields a supernatural, psychological hold on Arnie, makes him eschew everything else in his life. His parents, Dennis, Leigh, any other conceivable hopes and dreams.
Christine is a controlling, obsessive partner in her own right and helps along, with or without Arnie’s involvement, in revenge against any that would slight them. It’s left ambiguous if Arnie is even present when Christine hunts down the bullies one by one.
Aside from commentary on abusive relationships and abusive people in general, Christine can also be read as commenting on man’s occasionally too close for comfort relationship with automobiles themselves. How we fetishize our own connections with these machines which have no obvious visual relation to us.
Where does Christine’s themes begin and end? It seems both obvious and not too apparent at the same time which is for my tastes the right mixture of symbolic merit. For those looking for another John Carpenter classic, you won’t really find one. Aside from Carpenter’s talent with horror playing well with Christine’s violent deeds, this is really just a more than competent Stephen King production.
It’s more a case where following the unfortunate initial reception to the Thing, Carpenter took the work he needed to stay afloat. He took the job less for his own particular vision and more because hey, Stephen King’s line up of works was hot at the time ( and still is) and it was a job he needed to do, not a project of any real passion. He turned it in well and Christine is still an unassuming yet effective monster movie.
If Christine wasn’t evidence enough, Stephen King has been known to take things that aren’t necessarily if at all scary and make them such. I mean, come on, how could an adorable gentle giant like a St. Bernard dog possibly frighten anyone who doesn’t have an irrational fear of mutts in the first place?
Well, give that St. Bernard rabies and one hell of a killing streak and you have your answer. The background behind the novel is what really makes this doggone story so interesting. Stephen King’s success had given him access to some “party treats” so to speak.
Cocaine being one of them. Apparently, while high on the white, he wrote the entirety of Cujo and has no recollection of actually doing so. He says that it is the only book of his that he can read as if he was not himself the author. This is an exceptionally rare and benign example of cocaine having a positive impact on a person’s life.
Everyone is probably aware that Cujo involves a killer dog attacking people being the crutch of the story. “Cujo” has since the novel and film’s release become short for a killer dog. I had no earthly idea that the breed of the dog was a St. Bernard, a dog that virtually no one thinks of being remotely dangerous, even if in truth it’s still feasible.
We do know that dogs can hurt and kill people. Why do you think military, police and guard dogs are a thing? So, of course, King in a manic high, takes a breed not associated with harming people and has it through rabies become a monster that grows more and more bloody, unkempt and disgusting as the story plays out.
Cujo is also the story of two families. One is well-off if not entirely rich. The Trentons consist of Vic, a cereal advertiser, his wife Donna the home-maker( Dee Wallace) and their young son Tad who has a hard time overcoming his fear of monsters in the closet. Donna is having an affair with Steve( Christopher Stone), the local handyman.
Wallace and Stone were married in real life ironically enough until the latter’s death in 1995. This won’t be the last time in this blog entry when Wallace and Stone appear together.
The other family are the Cambers, the owners of Cujo. They’re a poor family with an abusive mechanic father, and an abused wife and son. Before the rabies, Cujo was the most well adjusted member of the family.
Eventually, after Donna’s husband discovers the affair, the family decides to take some “time off” with Vic going on a business trip to Boston and Donna and Tad going to visit some family in Connecticut. But first a stop to fix their car’s transmission at the Cambers, where Cujo has already begun his onslaught.
Donna and Tad, due to their car not being able to start, are soon trapped in it as Cujo relentlessly keeps trying to break in and when that fails, waiting patiently for them to leave. Lack of food, water and heat stroke on Tad’s part will eventually force Donna’s hand.
In spite of Cujo still being a St. Bernard, the gradual degradation of his appearance and the ruthlessness in which he hunts makes him an effective and unconventional “bad dog”.
What I will close on is that the movie has a much more uplifting conclusion than the mean-spirited note the book leaves you with. I won’t tell you the big difference but I imagine King in a not drugged state would’ve written a different conclusion, assuming he wrote Cujo at all.
The Dead Zone (1983)
Despite being a Stephen King adaptation and directed by David freaking Cronenberg, The Dead Zone is not actually a horror movie. There are moments that could qualify as horror scenes including one of the most f***ed up use of scissors ever put on screen. But instead it’s a science fiction drama that deals with dark subject matter that won’t necessarily spook you.
Christopher Walken plays Johnny Smith, a poetry teacher living in Castle Rock, a recurring town in King’s library of work, though for some reason the Maine town is located in bordering New Hampshire for this adaptation.
He has a lovely girlfriend/ fellow teacher in Sarah, played by Brooke Adams though I swear I mistook her for Karen Allen in both appearance and voice. In an inverse of bad things happening when unmarried people have sex in fiction, Johnny declines the chance to get some “coffee” with Sarah and instead heads home. He then proceeds to get into an insane car accident involving a milk truck that puts him in a coma for five years. Nice.
Upon waking and touching the nurse, Johnny has a vision of her daughter in mortal peril. Turns out, Johnny’s vision is real and allows the girl to survive a house fire.
Johnny has the ability to sense events that involve A) a person’s moment of demise, B) an action that will lead to a whole lot of people dying or C) discovering if someone who is thought dead is actually alive. The cost is that using this ability slowly kills Johnny over time.
Walken, in spite of his psychic abilities, acts like the everyman he is supposed to be. His accent can’t help but recall all the eccentricities he is renowned for, but it does instill the idea that the fate of his character could have happened to anyone. His religious mother believes he was “blessed” with a gift though he in return sees a curse. A curse that can help people, nontheless.
The Dead Zone explicitly forgoes the idea of fixed destinies and states that what Smith sees could happen but through proper intervention can be avoided. This plays into a sequence that without the proper context behind it may seem tasteless.
Basically, Smith has growing suspicions about a politician called Greg Stillson, played in hindsight ironically by Martin Sheen, the West Wing president himself. Upon touching his hand during a campaign rally of his, he sees him become president and reveals himself to be a madman who wishes to start a nuclear holocaust.
So, Johnny sees justification to buy a sniper rifle, find a secluded spot at a future rally site for Stillson and well, you can guess the rest. So, yeah, a movie can be dark without becoming horror and the Dead Zone is a great example of that working, despite King’s predilection as a horror writer.
I obviously know that King has wrote non-horror like Shawshank, The Green Mile and arguably The Dark Tower series but when you have a title like THE DEAD ZONE, you discover another reason not to judge a book or movie by its cover/title.
Pretty solid as King adaptations go, in spite of me being a novice to viewing them in the grand scheme of things. If you want a non-horror King film to watch for the Fall season or in general, this more than works and it is a more thought-provoking experience than both Christine and Cujo to boot.
Wolfen is not a werewolf movie. Yes it involves the supernatural and something certainly wolf-like, but there are no men/women who transform into werewolves to be found in this little cult gem.
There’s a scene where Albert Finney’s Detective Dewey believes that the cause of a series of wolf-like killings are indeed supernatural and that they are derived from a native American people of the New York area. The tribe (likely fictional) is never named but Edward James Olmos’ Eddie Holt( Mexican playing Native American problematic? You decide) trolls him big time by pretending.
So, Olmos’ Eddie strips completely naked near a beach( we see all of EJO), digs his hands in the sand, grunts, howls and basically messes around as Dewey watches. You expect that eventually Eddie will fully transform into a Wolfen but nope. Dewey and the audience have been had.
In the same year that delivered the excellent An American Werewolf in London and the not nearly as excellent The Howling (coming up next), Wolfen is often put together with the two as making 1981 the year Hollywood went Howlywood, for some reason.
The Wolfen are in truth, super intelligent wolves that are distinct from actual wolves and have the mystical ability to teleport, turn invisible and basically be invincible for all intents and purposes.
For all of Dewey’s attempts at solving the murders that have been occurring around NYC, he learns that his targets are not human, not quite animal and beyond his standards of morality or understanding aside from “respect my territory, son.”
Along with the different take on horror involving wolves, Wolfen also serves as an interesting time capsule to New York City in the early 80s.
The major reason behind the Wolfen killings is because their home is situated in the South Bronx. This is what the South Bronx looked like at the time.
I won’t get into the messed up and almost certainly racist political reasons behind why the South Bronx looked like the future in the Terminator, but it helps explain why these magical wolves aren’t so keen on their human neighbors.
What’s worse, a church they metaphysically inhabit is set for demolition to be replaced with a swanky apartment/marina complex. One of their targets is from a rich corporate family with ties to some pretty shady individuals.
So, yeah, Wolfen is overtly political. True, all art or works can be construed as being political, intentional or not, but this one wants you to know it has something to say.
Wolfen works as political commentary, not just on gentrification, native American rights and perhaps the nature of political hierarchy but with our often skewed perspective on how nature and our treatment of it has a effect/countereffect. In other words, Wolfen is a violent demonstration of what goes around, comes around.
Nothing new, but it’s a pretty interesting and entertaining demonstration that nature will never capitulate no matter how much we hurt it, whether or not it’s on purpose or with malice.
With the way the planet is going, what with climate change and all, a whole hell of a lot of Wolfen will be on the hunt soon enough, if you get my drift. And we have only ourselves to blame.
The Howling (1981)
Joe Dante’s The Howling is significant for two reasons. It spawned a series that has had seven sequels, all reportedly terrible, and that it basically created a new look for the werewolf in the public consciousness. The more modern image that of an actual wolf but with an anthropomorphic, bipedal shape began with this movie.
I’ll be honest, even for a cult classic, this isn’t really the best movie. It does pick up pretty strongly with an eventful third act, but the acting is not the strongest, the twist of the movie is pretty obvious even if Amazon Prime’s summary hadn’t already given it away and the pacing is sluggish in spite of its 90 minute length.
A news reporter named Karen (Dee Wallace again) for an LA channel gets a hot tip to go to a porno store where a guy called Eddie Quist is waiting. Wouldn’t you know it, he’s played by Robert “The Doctor” Picardo and unlike the Eddie from Wolfen, he does transform into a werewolf. He’s also a despicable human being.
An incident at the store causes Karen not only to scream at what she sees but also suffer some awfully convenient amnesia at what exactly transpired.
She is convinced to take a break from her job due to the PTSD and goes to a nice wooded, coastal retreat called the Colony with her husband Bill, played by Wallace’s real life husband Christopher Stone, to be reunited later in Cujo.
Bill also brings along his very unattractive mustache. This is just me but the only time a guy ever looked remotely sexy to me with a mustache was Tom Selleck. Just…soak him in for a minute.
……Anyway, it just happens that the Colony is a pretty accurate name as it is where Eddie and a whole bunch of werewolves have set up a home. To make matters worse, this ain’t no curse to them, it’s a fun gift that unlike in most werewolf fiction, they have complete control over. The full moon has nothing to do with it, except I imagine being aesthetically pleasing for them.
Two of Karen’s coworkers are doing some digging in to Eddie’s history and discover a little too late the Colony’s secret. Chris (Adam Sandler’s future collaborator/director Dennis Dugan) and Terri split up unwisely.
One ends up dead, the other wisely finds and brings some silver bullets which still work and Karen’s husband gets bitten and subsequently frisky with the most voluptous of the colony, Marsha. Karen is kept around and left unharmed by the colony until the end because they believe she would be a perfect candidate for werewolfdom.
All of this is happening as their is internal dispute on how to conduct themselves as werewolves. Patrick Macnee’s Doctor Waggner proposes a “self control regimen” to rein themselves in and in turn be more acceptable were they to expose themselves. The rest, led by John Carradine, think little of that and more “Why fix what ain’t broken anyway?”
As messily executed as all the various plot points can be and although they all come together quite well admittedly at the end, Joe Dante’s referential humor does elevate my opinion somewhat of what is still one of my least enjoyed films so far this season.
The film plays a scene from the 1941 Wolf Man as Chris and Terri do some research on their subject. Once Terri gets into a werewolf-Picardo-pickle at the colony, at the same time Chris is watching an old Warner Bros. short with a cartoon wolf bumbling around comedically. Now ain’t that just clever.
The effects of the wolves, especially as they transform, are still pretty good considering the passage of time since 81′ but still nowhere near as impressive as the just as prolonged but much more painful looking scene from AWWIL.
I do think there is some merit to watching the first Howling, especially as a film of historic merit. But An American Werewolf in London and Wolfen are much more fun in my experience and if you’re strapped for time, I would take those two and the four other films on this marathon in its place.
Next time, more slashers, more creatures of the night, more allegory for sexual predation and hopefully more entertainment this October month.