In the 20th Century people were big into the idea of the post-apocalypse created by nuclear war, instead of by realistic causes like zombies. The apocalypse, it was presumed, would happen after the Soviet Union and the United States laid waste to the world and civilization was wrecked. A few films were made along this premise in the 1970s, like A Boy and His Dog and Damnation Alley, yet none of these fantasies struck a chord in the public imagination until 1981 when George Miller directed his masterpiece The Road Warrior and rising auteur John Carpenter made Escape From New York. Carpenter’s conceptual masterstroke was combining what the new subgenre was getting at – that the future would be looking more like Lord of the Flies than The Jetsons or even Zardoz – with the assumption that New York City was so far gone to crime it may as well drop dead. Aside from Walter Hill’s The Warriors, no sci-fi / action / adventure films had explored the fantasy of New York as a lawless playground for gangs and Carpenter’s conception of Manhattan island as an inescapable prison colony captured the imagination of genre fans everywhere.
He also gave Kurt Russell a second career after years of Disney boy Bobby Driscoll roles, as Snake Plissken, a truly self centered and cynical antihero who perfectly matched the grim, bleak tone of his dystopic future adventure. Further rounding out the cast is possibly the best array of character actors ever assembled: Harry Dean Stanton, Adrienne Barbeau, Ernest Borgnine, Issac Hayes and Lee Van Cleef invest a sense of reality to the low budget landscape like no other cast ever has. As we discuss, this film truly shows off Carpenter’s auteurist skills at their peak from the synthesizer score to impeccable cinematography by his best collaborator Dean Cundey. Escape From New York is one of Carpenter’s greatest films and for the first time since our first episode we do our best to summarize its brilliance.
2019: After The Fall Of New York is by its title alone something of an admitted ripoff. What’s delightful and oft-stupefying is how many other science fiction genre ideas Ernesto Gastaldi, Sergio Martino and Gabriel Rossini decide to borrow when the premise of a Kurt Russell lookalike going into an abandoned Manhattan island to get someone out isn’t enough to sustain an entire movie without copying every single plot beat from Carpenter. Amongst these ideas are escape from Earth via spaceship, de-evolution of humans into ape-like creatures, infiltration of humanity by cybors, and a global infertility crisis threatening to wipe out humanity. This last idea may sound familiar to viewers and readers of Children of Men. 2019: After The Fall Of New York is a textbook case of Italian knockoff cinema complete with a totally overdubbed soundtrack and an exhilarating absence of narrative logic. Highly recommended to fans of Escape From New York and The Road Warrior who are also fans of every other sci-fi adventure ever made.
NEXT EPISODE: BREATHLESS SPECIAL! BREATHLESS (1960, JEAN-LUC GODARD) & BREATHLESS (1983, JIM MCBRIDE)
Which is the more forgotten, John Landis or An American Werewolf In London? Which was the more important? The latter, his masterwork sole feature foray into horror. If everyone has one good story in them, perhaps every comedian has one jarring scary story. Before the Twilight Zone: The Movie debacle killed the legitimacy of a career, Landis introduced comedic horror into from the fringes of exploitation into 1980s big budget Hollywoodland and set the precedent for films like Ghostbusters (scored by American Werewolf composer Elmer Bernstein.) Besides genre blending innovations, Rick Baker’s makeup special effects caused such a stir that the Oscars felt compelled to create a new award just to recognize them, right at the cusp of the decade’s special effects renaissance.
However ahead of their time all technical or comedic aims achieved were, they’d be moot if the rest of the film weren’t so meticulously empathic as the horror mounts. The story is deceptively simple in taking the audience along on the experience of being in denial about becoming a werewolf, transforming for the first time and coming to grips with the aftermath. The momentum builds up to and winds down from David Naughton’s first night of lycanthropy as the fulcrum of the movie and this is a brilliant idea.
Praised at the time for giving a passe genre a “contemporary” take – costar Griffin Dunne was cast from a national Dr Pepper campaign – An American Werewolf In London retains a dry laconic wit and sympathetic story that hasn’t aged a day. After a diminished legend in tandem with the industry’s near-abandonment of practical special effects in favor of CGI, this film deserves renewed esteem as a modern classic of the newly humorous and splattery direction mainstream horror films took off into afterward.
The splatter boom of Freddy and Jason was long over and recently deconstructed by Scream when the ill-advised sequel An American Werewolf In Paris was finally released in 1997. Unlike the similarly belated but goofy and genial Escape From LA, Paris involved none of the original cast or crew. The film is barely even be recognizable as a sequel except for the clumsy mis-reuse of Landis’ subplot about werewolf victims haunting people as undead corpses. In deference to diminished attention spans in the intervening 16 years, there are a lot of werewolves this time around. The only titular American werewolf, Tom Everett Scott, is an obnoxious bore compared to David Naughton. They transform constantly thanks to a special serum, and their transformations are CGI video game sequences of the totally cheap and gratuitous kind made possible by recent technology.
An American Werewolf In London has been slated for remake in 2011 through Dimension Films and penned by coincidentally British hack Fernley Phillips (an upperclass twit of the year name) whose only previous credit has been the Jim Carrey laughingstock The Number 23.
We assure you, we don’t find this in the least bit amusing.
NEXT EPISODE: KING FEATURES SYNDICATE SPECIAL! FLASH GORDON (1980, MIKE HODGES) & POPEYE (1980, ROBERT ALTMAN)
With the Academy Awards once against swelling like a malignant infection, An Alan Smithee Podcast takes a completely inadvertently coincidental look this week at two films from frequent Oscar nominees: the late great Robert Altman and the not so great lately James Cameron. Altman’s career began anonymously in television before graduating to film and earning the acclaim of the academy when it was fashionable for them to do so. Only by making a film about Hollywood years later did he fall back into their favor, receiving at least the courtesy of nomination for the remainder of his life and career while the honors ultimately were bestowed upon keepers of the middle brow like Robert Zemeckis and Ron Howard.
James Cameron blossomed in the special effects boom of the 80s which drove directors like Altman into the darkness. He also did arguably more for the mainstreaming of special effects driven films than Steven Spielberg or George Lucas by making The Terminator and Aliens, blockbusters which established a permanent market for violent action films involving robots and/or aliens targeted at teenage boys instead of the entire family. Flash forward to the present day when serious Academy Award nominated dramatic actors vie to play villains in superhero movies and Cameron stands to sweep the industry’s highest self-congratulatory accolades for directing a 3D aliens and robots movie. Male adulthood has been replaced by perpetual adolescence and Cameron is truly king of the world. Yet even kings have to start somewhere as big fish in little ponds, before they spread their wings.
Gosford Park contains many of Altman’s trademarks, most prominently a sprawling cast with overlapping dialogue in the service of social satire. Ostensibly a murder mystery, the first half of this long story is spent establishing a myriad of ladies and gentlemen and their faithful servants gathering for a party in the countryside of England, 1932. Their social protocol is antiquated yet not so far in the past as to be unrecognizable, and the duality between the hosts and help is a fascinating look at the function and perception of privilege. The depiction of the servants behind the scenes is of particular interest to anyone wondering what the daily lives of maids, butlers et all were busy exchanging bon mots and stabbing each other in the back. Altman’s roving camera and Julian Fellowes kaleidoscopic screenplay create an amazing tour through the waning days of the British empire’s high society and one of the director’s most transportive works.
Roger Corman is scheduled to receive a lifetime achievement award at this year’s Oscars. The actors and directors he gave breaks to are legion and it will be interesting to see whom among them have enough self confidence to be associated with him, or even give their permission to be shown in the inevitable compilation reel alongside Jack Nicholson in The Little Shop of Horrors and Sylvester Stallone in Death Race 2000. Actually, Stallone will probably be too proud to OK the use of that clip.
Whether Cameron will give a tip of the hat to his earliest employer is a toss-up. Corman’s 70s outfit New World Pictures not only gave Joe Dante his first directorial work on Hollywood Boulevard and Piranha, but Cameron’s first special effects work on New World’s Galaxy of Terror and Battle Beyond The Stars. Surely this got Cameron the recommendation for the non-Corman produced sequel Piranha Part Two: The Spawning. Whereas Dante’s original spoofed Jaws while simultaneously making an exciting monster movie, Cameron’s sequel rather straightforwardly takes itself seriously even with the idiotic premise that some of the killer piranha have learned to fly.
If nothing else – and there really is nothing else – at least Cameron got some more special effects expertise under his belt for the future, which was only looking up. There’s a half-eaten Jamaican who looks remarkably similar to a battle damaged Arnold Schwarzenegger.
NEXT WEEK: COMMENTARY TRACK SPECIAL! BATMAN (1989, TIM BURTON)
Leatherface. Michael Myers. Hannibal Lecter. These great men stand in the shadow of one forebear, and he wears a dress. His name was Norman, and this is his special.
Our movies this week are a bold venture for and cold, cruel experiment forced upon this legendary horror icon, and their results tell as much about the nature of film as the longevity of the genre’s most unforgettable mama’s boy. The Psycho series has a lineage unlike any horror movie franchise, born in the wane of mythical vampires and werewolves and shortly after the booming atomic age of giant spiders, giant grasshoppers – who could believe such nonsense? Inspired by the 1957 arrest of real life mama’s boy grave robber transvestite Ed Gein, Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel Psycho was quickly acquired and filmed on the cheap by Alfred Hitchcock. For better or worse, movies made on the cheap about pretty naked girls being stabbed by the mentally disturbed and/or sexually frustrated were forever in style.
That Halloween, John Carpenter’s epochal renewal of this irrefutable truth starred the daughter of Psycho‘s most famous naked dead girl of all time is contrived providence but providence nonetheless.
What Psycho had that none of its spawn ever did was Anthony Perkins. With respect to all of horror’s masked and unmasked psycho killer performances, Perkins coined the eponymous moniker for one singular reason. Qu’est-ce que c’est? Unlike Anthony Hopkins or even Robert Englund, actors who have owned the faces of their villains, Perkins made Norman Bates probably the most sympathetic villain in horror movie history – every bit as disarmingly human as alarmingly off-kilter.
Thus after 22 years, one chainsaw massacre, two Halloweens and three Friday the 13ths did Norman Bates finally come home. He had to, Mrs. Voorhees and her son Jason were practically stealing his bit.
Quentin Tarantino has said that Psycho II is superior to the original, and in his defense this facetious provocation might have had a point assuming he didn’t actually mean it. Great sequels like Aliens or The Road Warrior tend to be praised so much that their predecessors are neglected, while Psycho II is neglected for merely being a worthy sequel to a film regarded as an immaculate all-time classic regardless of genre. To recapture even a little of that magic 22 years later with none of the same creative forces behind the camera is so extraordinary that the film’s true accomplishment is really being one of the greatest sequels of all time – as in a Part II, a roman numeraled continuation which cannot stand alone the way The Road Warrior or Aliens entertain without requiring prior viewing.
After ruining the twists to not only part II but parts III and IV as well, we turn to an official ruination of not only beloved Norman Bates but the original masterpiece as well. Gus Van Sant’s Psycho is probably the most reviled remake of all time, in a rare consensus where everyone is right. Despite being publicized as a “shot-for-shot” remake, Van Sant actually reworks 5 to 10 percent of them to arbitrarily insert pointless art house imagery and literal masturbation to accompany the metaphorical. Psycho II (great) III (great) and IV (not bad) proved that Norman Bates had a life beyond Alfred Hitchcock as long as Perkins was around to guard his character’s integrity. Psycho the remake only proves that not only is Gus Van Sant an egomaniac who believes he can replicate someone else’s classic movie in a science lab, but a trendy whore who will cast Vince freaking Vaughn as Norman Bates to be hip.
Go get lost in a desert and make a movie about it, Gus. The only good thing about this movie was the poster. You’re the man now, dog!
NEXT WEEK: GOSFORD PARK (2001, ROBERT ALTMAN) & PIRANHA II: THE SPAWNING (1981, JAMES CAMERON)
This week on An Alan Smithee Podcast we roll up our sleeves and git-r-dun Paul Schrader style with Blue Collar, his directorial debut after becoming a household name writing Taxi Driver. The leads are one part household name, one part Hollywood name and one part b-actor on the verge of breakout. Richard Pryor was in his prime and does a dramatic turn while still being funny. Harvey Keitel was still riding high on the Martin Scorcese train but was about to disappear for ten years. Yaphet Kotto had a bunch of blaxploitation movie credit before Roots but it looks like he’ll always be remembered as the black guy in Alien. He’s in this too – and he’s awesome.
Schrader’s direction was probably never better after this, and his first time success is all the more impressive considering the accounts that his three leads hated each other’s guts. This is a very underappreciated movie, especially since Richard Pryor rapidly began his descent into lame movie mediocrity almost immediately after this unheralded serio-comic performance. Things kind of fall apart at the end but this odd mix of crime story, comedy and drama shows a ton of best effort from every talent involved.
To say The Hand is not the worst killer hand movie ever made is a backhanded compliment. You’ve got to hand it to Oliver Stone for having a career after this sophomore writing-directing effort (his debut was the even more forgotten Seizure.) Michael Caine is always handy for starring in crappy movies when he needs a new garage and gives Stone a performance just unpleasant enough to match the paranoid, misogynist and mean-spirited screenplay he wrote for him. Stone even gets hands-on and has himself killed in a cameo at one point. There’s more than a handful of things to talk about as we manhandle this rightfully neglected piece of shoddy handiwork.
Also, someone should have lent Stone a hand directing the “scary” scenes. They’re none too handsome.
NEXT WEEK: HARLEY DAVIDSON AND THE MARLBORO MAN (1991, SIMON WINCER) & BLOWUP (1966, MICHAELANGELO ANTONIONI)
In celebration (or acknowledgment) of Rob Zombie’s Halloween 2 (or H2), the sequel to his remake of Halloween …or remake of the sequel to Halloween, it’s a Very Special Alan Smithee Podcast.
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Don’t forget to check out the Q&A with Rick Rosenthal, Gloria Gifford and Alan Howarth at a recent screening
and if you don’t have a copy of this fine film … there’s always Amazon