Thursday, December 31, 2015

John Carpenter, part XXIII: Xenogenesis


In which we undertake a reappraisal of one of John Carpenter's lesser-regarded works.

Directed by John Carpenter
Written by David Himmelstein, Steven Siebert, and Larry Sulkis (based on the book The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham and the screenplay by Stirling Silliphant, Wolf Rilla, and Ronald Kinnoch)
With Christopher Reeve (Dr. Alan Chaffee), Kirstie Alley (Dr. Susan Verner), Linda Kozlowski (Melanie Roberts), Michael Pare (Frank McGowan), Karen Kahn (Barbara Chaffee), Mark Hamill (Rev. George), Thomas Dekker (David McGowan), and Lindsey Haun (Mara Chaffee)

Spoiler alert: high

When is a remake justified?  What makes a remake good?  Can a remake that does precious little other than bringing the scenario of an old movie forward in time be considered "good"?  Why not, if the original was good?  What if the "little" it does that's new is quite precious indeed?  What even makes a "good movie," anyway?  And why is mere novelty such an important factor in that formula?  But, yes, the fact that John Carpenter's Village of the Damned raises questions like these means that, taken in context with both its director's career and with the film it remakes, it really isn't that interesting, in and of itself.

Not that it does anything too wrong: Village is one of Carpenter's most despised films, and personally I'm at a loss to understand why.  We can, with the tremendous benefit of hindsight, know that it represents a tipping point for his career, where he began an embarrassing slide into irrelevance.  But this wasn't remotely apparent in 1995, when Carpenter had but a few months earlier dropped the career-defining conclusion to his thematic Apocalypse Trilogy, In the Mouth of Madness.  From the perspective of 1995, there's no reason to treat Village as anything other than the perfectly palatable B-side to an instant super-classic: it's obviously nowhere as good, but then, only a few films in his filmography (or anybody's filmography) are even close.

So it comes back to its status as a remake; and not Carpenter's first.  Leaving aside the career-spanning influence of Rio Bravo upon his work, and the funhouse mirror of Halloween that was his script for Halloween II, we're left with The Thing, and Village isn't about to stand up to that comparison—unfair as it is in the first place, given that The Thing is far more a re-adaptation of "Who Goes There?" than it is a remake of the Howard Hawks production of The Thing From Another World, which unfaithfully rendered an entertaining (if quotidian) classic out of a very, very weird short story.  (We may also refer further afield, to those other major 1980s reimaginings of old sci-fi standards, namely The Fly and The Blob, both of which are absolutely fantastic—largely due to taking their material in unprecedented directions.)

Village, on the other hand, is hardly more than a terrifyingly straightforward remake of the 1960 film by Wolf Rilla, in turn an adaptation of John Wyndham's novel The Midwich Cuckoos.  Both films reproduce the book with extreme fidelity, and are thus in most ways totally redundant with one another; in fact, Village '60 is probably the superior picture even when we disregard Village '95's lack of novelty altogether—the black-and-white cinematography suits it better, and its starchy Britishness lends it a certain stilted creepiness that Carpenter's Village never quite attains.  And, of course, the pulverizing cruelty of the original film's ending,  slavishly recapitulated here, is bound to pack more of a punch within the original's own historical context.  Murdering a room full of schoolkids will probably always be a little edgy, but as a challenge to the boundless optimism of the Space Age, it's vicious and shocking in ways that a piddly horror movie made in the last decade of the 20th century could never, ever hope to be.

So I've got a problem here; and Village has always been the Carpenter film I've had the most trouble with, in that I can never really tell how good it is, and sometimes even whether I like it or I don't.  It is, I think, the very first JC movie I ever saw—I must've originally seen it when I was quite young—and for most of my life I thought it was extremely good (if never great).  Then I finally saw the original; so, when I happened to screen Village '95 just a few weeks later, I soured immediately upon the apparent lack of originality in Carpenter's piece.  Watching it again now—without the curse of a recent viewing of Village '60—I once again found myself enjoying it for itself.  But in the meantime—even longtime readers will probably not recall this—I had the opportunity to inoculate myself with a remake of the truly dire variety: Kimberly Pierce's arid retread of De Palma's pinnacle work, Carrie.  Faced with such ambitionless garbage, I found myself primed to appreciate what Carpenter and his screenwriters actually added.

It only starts with a removal in time and space.  Village '95, like Village '60, tells the story of a town—Midwich, California, as opposed to Midwich, England—visited upon by an inexplicable force that puts the entire community to sleep for several hours one fateful day.  When the town wakes up, its fertile female population discovers, with some surprise, that they have all been rendered pregnant.  In the fullness of time, they all give birth—on the same day.  The children—half male, half female—are all clearly of the same breed, and although there's nothing completely inhuman about them, it's obvious from their their striking eyes and platinum blond hair—not to mention their precocious intelligence and cold demeanor—that they are not wholly of this Earth.  Things take a turn for the outright horrific when the children demonstrate their telepathic hivemind, as well as their power to control others' actions.  Perhaps owing to bureaucratic incompetence, it takes several years before the government decides to simply obliterate Midwich and all its inhabitants, by which point it is almost too late.  In the end, our hero—one of the children's "fathers"—takes it upon himself to smuggle a bomb into their segregated, isolated classroom and barracks on the edge of town.  Killing himself as well as the children, he saves the innocent folk of the village, and perhaps human civilization itself.

(In the latterday version, our hero is the town's physician, Alan Chaffee, played by Christopher Reeve in what turned out to be one of his last roles before the accident.  Since I won't have space to specifically praise him later, let's just say he does a fine job, and I think we lost a terrifically solid actor.)

Carpenter's film doesn't change any of that, really—although one key detail is different.  Village '95 is mostly content to accrete detail to its story, rather than reinterpret it.  In terms of mechanical plot, it throws in a scientist—Dr. Susan Verner—who is placed in charge of studying these humanoid brood parasites, securing the government a more permanent presence in Midwich than in the previous adaptation.  To the extent that the Evil Government Subplot is traditionally the very worst part of every science fiction film of this era—and Village is, for all intents and purposes, a movie from 1985 that simply happened to be made a decade late—it's a surprisingly good addition to this one, principally because the Evil Government isn't actually that Evil.  As much as Kirstie Alley's Dr. Verner is a hard-nosed jerk about things, it's clear she doesn't actually have any malice toward anybody at all, just a combination of scientific curiosity and prudent fear that would have served a mid-century science heroine quite well.  And since it strains credulity that the government wouldn't be more involved, her presence is a good piece of updating—Dr. Verner even makes it a point to remind all the women of Midwich that it's 1995 and abortion is an option.

She doesn't say "the obviously superior option," but perhaps it's implied.

It's perfectly clear that most/all of the women would take her up on this suggestion, too, except that their telepathic fetuses visit them with a weird dream vision that convinces them otherwise.  It's a sequence that is superbly goofy while also being legitimately creepy, but which also (and more importantly) closes an extremely serious plot hole.  (I probably don't have to mention that Village '60 never even raises the possibility.)

Carpenter's contribution, as usual, is to create a community out of quick brushstrokes, and he does a good job with Midwich; although the better characters (Mark Hamill's minister) are sadly dragged down somewhat by the overly-broad stereotypes (George Buck Flowers' drunken janitor is frankly awful, while Meredith Salenger's depressed teen mom isn't much better, on top of being somewhat ill-cast, given that Salenger was 25 at the time and is, let's say, quite clearly 25 in terms of her physicality, particularly in the chestal region.)

Carpenter also ups the grue—and the kids' malevolence manages at least one moment of serious horror when the infant Mara, Chaffee's child and the apparent leader, compels her mother to thrust her hand into boiling water, over and over, even when an outside agent tries to stop her.  But despite some occasional gross content, however, it's difficult to see where the film's R-rating actually comes from: the very worst of it's a man who accidentally grills himself to death when Midwich is put to sleep, but his corpse wouldn't have been out of place on The X-Files; and nothing subsequent to this mild gore-shock is remotely heavy enough to place Village alongside Carpenter's more visceral pictures.  (There's even a bit toward the end where the children command Dr. Verner to conduct her own vivisection—and Carpenter cuts away from this potentially awesome guignol with a deeply disappointing cowardice.)

Still, Carpenter's typical mastery of mood goes an awful long way, and Village is certainly an unsettling experience, even when most of it takes place in broad daylight: Carpenter and his cinematographer Gary Kibbe know how to shoot a rural Northern California idyll with menace, and they know how to block their children to their absolute maximum effect, as well.  Meanwhile, there are isolated scenes here and there that are pure vintage Carpenter: the stately line of cars proceeding through the night to the maternity ward; the way Mara's mother commits suicide in between cuts; and that climactic scene, where the children vie with all their telepathic might, and the previously semi-terrible CGI used to change the color of their eyes finally pays off, as the visual sign of their power blossoms into a horrifying glimpse of the luminous monsters hiding beneath their human suits.

A glimpse, mind you, that would have been rather more effective had we not already seen the corpse of the infant who strangled herself on her own umbilical cord, as mocked up by the art department with approximately zero imagination.

This brings us to the biggest change that the remake exacts upon the material, along with its most effective: David.  Of the dozen children born after the event, half are male, half are female, and the film makes it (somewhat tediously) clear that their function shall be to eventually mate and have alien children of their own, thereby getting the process of colonization started in earnest.  (As an aside, you really have to question how good a reproductive strategy this is; but it's not like this inherent weakness to the premise is the remake's fault.)

David's counterpart being dead, this leaves him open to another kind of influence: his mother's own love and affection.  (Dr. Chaffee gets in on this, too, and one of Village '95's best scenes is Reeve and Thomas Dekker having a conversation about death and pain in a graveyard—young Dekker might not be particularly adept, but he's better than you would expect, and all of the cuckoos have the right intensity to their gaze, going beyond traditional "good acting.")  The ultimate effect is not a Spielbergian-style uplift, though—it's Carpenter right to the bone.  Thanks to his mother's protection, David alone survives the massacre that closes Village down.  But Carpenter's shot design on their night ride away from the holocaust makes it abundantly clear that this is not necessarily any kind of happy ending.  It's a gloomy finale instead—only a little to the left to those of his Apocalypse Trilogy itself.

That's how Village '95 survives: it takes the themes of the original and takes them further—subtly, but surely.  Village casts a withering eye on all the things which we would like to believe represent the better angels of our nature—above all, our unconditional love for our children.

Score:  7/10

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