John Carpenter. The man is known and recognized by fans the world over for his films. Universal Studios have decided to release a 4-pack of this master of horror's films for the price of 1 DVD. Containing some of Carpenter's best known works, this MASTER OF FEAR collection seeks to reacquaint old fans and bring in new ones with the likes of THE THING, PRINCE OF DARKNESS, THEY LIVE and VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED.
When I busted down the doors and made a pitstop on the AiTH Podcast (even though I was friggin' tired and borderline incoherent), one of the topics that came up from the depths of the JoBlo forums was the topic of overrated directors in horror. Some folks on the board were tossing around names like Wes Craven, Lucio Fulci, and even John Carpenter. Ammon and I reasoned that the director's entire body of work should be taken into consideration (I chose Eli Roth, by the way), instead of playing favorites. That said, John Carpenter's been a fave of mine for a frickin' long time, and this 4-pack of films that Universal's sent our way should show you why (for the most part).
Since there's four films in this set, and because I'm restricted by a word count and your attention span, I'll give you the jist of it all.
THE THING (1982): Screwed over by people whining about the plentiful gore and another alien at the box office (E.T.) when it was released, THE THING (Carpenter's remake of THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD) never got the recognition it rightfully deserved. The whole paranoia about who was/wasn't an imitation (as Carpenter put it) made for freaky times. Add to that Kurt Russell's performance as MacReady (and his beard), Keith David being the short-fused asshat Childs and Wilford Brimley sans mustache, clustered together in isolation with the other dudes (another 'criticism' against the film: no women!) helped up the tension. You can't forget the immortal Ennio Morricone's score, either. It amplified the bleakness and the scares in the film.
Of course, you can't go very far in the film without remarking how f*cking awesome Rob Bottin's special effects were. Hell, even Carpenter himself referred to Bottin's work as 'sculpture' and 'beautiful', which it is. Every effect, from the initial monster at the beginning of the film, to the one imitation's head sprouting legs and walking away from the rest of its burning body (and Thomas Waites' classic line), you can't go wrong with a film that's scary and gooey fun as this. As an extra treat, track down and give the video game sequel a ride. It's not as perfect as this film, but it's still a damn fun (and scary) ride, just like the film it was based on.
Score: 4 out of 4
PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1987): The second part of Carpenter's 'Apocalypse Trilogy', PRINCE OF DARKNESS was Carpenter's rebound from the lackluster box office of BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA. For this one, Carpenter brought in one of his mainstays, Donald Pleasence, and recruited Alice frickin' Cooper to play a part in the film. Where else can you find Pleasence lopping off someone's head (only for them to put it back on), or Alice Cooper impaling a dude on a bicycle frame? Jameson Parker was so-so but played the confused protagonist pretty well. Victor Wong plays Victor Wong, which equals mucho win for us.
While it's cheesier than most Carpenter works, and the fact that people don't keep their mouths closed when folks are spewing Scope at each other, it's a charming ditty that is big on atmosphere and creepy gore moments. If you overlook the uneven pacing at times and the sub-atomic theory jargon, it's a silly yet entertaining way to kill a couple of hours.
Score: 2.5 out of 4
THEY LIVE (1988): Roddy Piper. Do I have to say anything else? Well yeah, I should. How about Keith David and his nearly six minute slugfest with Piper over those damn glasses? Or Piper's one liners that crack me up every time? It's all here in THEY LIVE. Based on Carpenter's distaste with the over-commercialization of 80s culture and politics and Ray Nelson's short story, the film seems even more relevant today, in my useless opinion. It was a sort of 'sign of things to come'.
Like PRINCE OF DARKNESS, there were a few plotholes that kind of bugged me, a swerve I could see coming a mile away, and the cheap budget showing itself at times, but it was all part of the charm. So what if people didn't 'get it' when the film came out? They should get the message now, unless they're really aliens themselves (or arrogant pricks). See it before the remake (and the irony) hits.
Score: 3.5 out of 4
VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (1995): The weakest of the four films, this is another film of Carpenter's that is on the cheesy end of the scale. But unlike PRINCE OF DARKNESS, this one's more on the 'duh' side of things. Yeah, we have folks like Christopher Reeve (pre-quadriplegic), Kirstie Alley (pre-bloating) and Mark Hamill doing adequate jobs, but the script is borderline insulting with the plotholes. You really do have to not think when watching this film, since if you didn't, you'd miss out on the unease and suspense provided by the kids and their staring.
Aside from the violence (which isn't overly gory but still kind of nasty) and the standout jobs from Lindsey Haun and Thomas Decker, VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED was a miss, and part of Carpenter's decline in the 90s and possibly part of the reason why Carpenter has only directed three films since then. Carpenter's contributions to the MASTERS OF HORROR series were better received, so all is not lost for the man who brought us HALLOWEEN and ESCAPE FROM LA. Just don't expect to be wowed with this remake.
Score: 2 out of 4
When it all adds up, the package of films here is pretty solid (save for VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED). For those horror fans looking to get into Carpenter after seeing his stuff in MASTERS OF HORROR (regardless of whether you've seen HALLOWEEN or not), this is a good place to start.
Video: Contained on two dual-layered DVDs, all four films are presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfers. THE THING looks to be about on-par with the more recent remastered DVD, though there are some halos. PRINCE OF DARKNESS looks pretty good as well, showing only minor grain and scratches. The same can be said for THEY LIVE and VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED. Not bad, considering that each film is stuck on a layer.
Audio: THE THING and VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED get Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround tracks, while THEY LIVE and PRINCE OF DARKNESS get Dolby Digital 2.0 tracks. Again, these are all quite good, all things considered.
Here's where things get separated between the casual fans and the horror enthusiasts: no extras. For serious fans, you'd be better off getting the infinitely superior DVD/Blu-Ray CE version of THE THING, which features Carpenter commentary, a superb feature-length doc and more. As for PRINCE OF DARKNESS and THEY LIVE, you'd best go looking in the foreign DVD versions, since Region 1 releases are almost as deprived as this release. For those interested in VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED, the only other release was the practically bare-bones disc that every region got.
An unrelated extra is included, though: a $5 voucher for Halloween candy from selected retailers. Even then, it's only good until November 30th, and the offer is only good in the United States. Damn you, protectionism!
Three good/great films and one lackluster entry make for a suitable introduction for casual horror fans to the great John Carpenter. For the more serious horror fans, steer clear of this package and spring for the superior versions on DVD and Blu-Ray (even though the one that's gotten the most love is THE THING).