Wednesday, January 27, 2016

John Carpenter, part XXVII: Hey, it's not quite the absolute end of the world—but we're getting there!

CIGARETTE BURNS (Masters of Horror, season 1, episode 8)

Carpenter returns to meta-horror—and, in the process, proves that sometimes you really can't go home again.

Directed by John Carpenter
Written by Drew McWeeny and Scott Swan
With Norman Reedus (Kirby Sweetman), Udo Kier (Bellinger), and Gwynyth Walsh (Katja)

PRO-LIFE (Masters of Horror, season 2, episode 5)

Carpenter takes on a politically-charged siege film, winds up with boneheaded supernatural horror, and you have to ask, "How the heck did that happen?"

Directed by John Carpenter
Written by Drew McWeeny and Scott Swan
With Caitlin Wachs (Angelique Burcell), Mark Feuerstein (Dr. Alex O'Shea), Emmanuelle Vaugier (Kim), Bill Dow (Dr. Kiefer), and Ron Perlman (Dwayne Burcell)

Spoiler alert: moderate

Having retired from feature filmmaking, John Carpenter still hadn't laid down his camera entirely, and in the mid-2000s, he had occasion to take another tour of the small screen.  But Carpenter's 21st century dalliance with television begins not with him, but with Mick Garris, the director of such enduring superhits as Psycho IV, Critters 2, and Stephen King's peevish remake of The Shining.

With this in mind, it's reasonable to suspect that it was more of a desperate networking move than anything else, when Garris threw a dinner party for nine other horror directors in 2002.  Carpenter listed amongst the invitees, and it was here that Garris made the great filmmaker's acquaintance.  However, it was another attending auteur, Guillermo del Toro, who jokingly (possibly drunkenly) christened this convocation of fearmongers "The Masters of Horror."  That seed took root in Garris' mind, and not three years later, he had established himself as the showrunner of Masters of Horror, an hour-long scary story anthology broadcast on Showtime, the hook being that each episode would be directed (and often written) by a filmmaker with proven genre credentials.  And thus did John Landis, Takashi Miike, Joe Dante, Dario Argento, and more contribute episodes to Garris' show, which lasted two whole seasons, and today barely maintains any hold whatsoever upon the pop cultural consciousness.  Well, so it goes.

It was a good idea, though, and the show's premium cable format—hour-long runtimes, no commercials, and no particular content restrictions—meant that the Masters of Horror installments were less episodes of a television show than they were completely self-contained short films, with all the artistic freedom and narrative coherence that implies.

The former element, I suppose, can still be intuited from the pair of episodes that Carpenter directed, for both are quite bloody, both have conspicuous swearing, and one even features a bit of female nudity.  But coherence, on the other hand, is absent from each.  It turns out that both were drafted by the same writing team, the duo of Drew McWeeny (whose other major claim to fame is that he was once a film critic for Ain't It Cool News, and whose final review reveals a terrifying skeleton in his closet, namely that he liked The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) and Scott Swan (who was born in Pittsburgh, and for whom literacy alone therefore counts as an accomplishment).  It seems likely enough that McWeeny and Swan were writing for their director, given that each episode essentially remakes a previous film in the Carpenter catalog.  Unfortunately for everybody, however, neither episode comes within spitting distance of being as good as its antecedent.  Indeed, only one of them is any good at all.

The first, "Cigarette Burns," is the bad one.  It's also the one where Carpenter's self-recycling is the most apparent, given that it's almost nothing but a badly-faded xerox copy of In the Mouth of Madness.  Now, this is only the beginning of a criticism, since Madness—being Carpenter's utmost masterpiece—is psychotically great, and Carpenter—being a director who's never had the least compunction about revisiting old themes—has routinely riffed upon his own movies to good effect.  Prince of Darkness, for example, is clearly a remix of The Thing and Assault on Precinct 13; Christine is mostly Halloween with a car; Memoirs of an Invisible Man takes several pages from Starman; and all of these movies range from very good to impeccable.  Of course, in this case, we're talking about Late Period Carpenter, and if his autoplagiarism had started to go stale a whole decade earlier with Escape From L.A., it had soured completely by his last theatrical presentation, Ghosts of Mars.  An aimless retread of Madness was clearly not going to be any balm for this weary soul.  In any event, although "aimless retread of Madness" is actually a really great one-clause plot summary, we might as well go into a little more detail.

"Cigrette Burns" concerns itself with Kirby Sweetman, a repertory theater owner who operates a side business as a cinematic detective: for his own purposes—or for the right price—he can track down any film that still exists in this world, no matter how old or obscure.  And it's this talent that's brought him to the attention of the rich old sadist Bellinger, who seeks the most notorious film of them all: Le Fin Absolue de Monde—a motion picture screened only a few times in thirty years, each time resulting in bloody, homicidal riots as its arthouse pretensions tore through the minds of its viewers.  Sweetman treats such talk as essentially mythical; but Bellinger believes, and he has good reason to, for he has one of its magical stars locked in his study—namely, the angel who had his wings torn off to make the film.  Sweetman is introduced to the mutilated seraph, and it's at this point that "Cigarette Burns" basically shuts down as a functioning narrative, since upon meeting this uncanny being, Sweetman musters up a reaction that can only with charity even be described with a term as forceful as "dull surprise."  Is it simply that Sweetman does not believe that the creature, who (in fairness) is obviously just a skinny man in makeup, is evidence that the supernatural is real?

Perhaps, or perhaps not, but we'll never know for sure, because Sweetman is played by Norman Reedus, giving one of the most atrocious anti-performances I've ever seen in anything.  Offering but one single expression of slightly slack-jawed annoyance that he refuses to change regardless of the circumstances, alongside a monotone delivery style that he modifies only when the script requires him to yell (which, I should add, he does noticeably begrudgingly), it is nothing but the deepest, darkest drag to watch Reedus globe-trot through the various fact-finding scenarios McWeeny and Swan have devised for him.  But perhaps it was a drag for poor Reedus, too; for after Sweetman sees the angel in Bellinger's study, the sense of mystery that ought have been this episode's greatest asset is damaged beyond repair.  As an actor, where can you go from there?

Anyway, it's unnecessary, too: Sweetman desperately needs Bellinger's money, and so willingly embarks upon Bellinger's quest.  Some of Sweetman's misadventures are interesting; though one, a Sawish setpiece in a European sex dungeon, is merely perfunctory and wasteful.  There are only a few legitimately creepy, inventive, or memorable images to be found in "Cigarette Burns," but one, at least, comes early enough to make you want to forget the scene with the angel.  When Sweetman tracks down his sole initial lead, the only film critic who managed to write a review of Le Fin, the critic admits that the review just wasn't good enough to do justice to what he actually saw, and it deserves a better one.  At length, we realize that the stacks of looseleaf paper in the critic's house are exactly that: the more accurate 20,000 page review—and he's almost finished.

This is about the only really clever idea in the whole screenplay; but Carpenter manages to have some visual fun with it.  To its credit, "Cigarette Burns" isn't stingy with the gore either—and its best gore shock counts as the episode's other really clever idea, involving unspooled intestines and a movie projector.  Carpenter has even more fun with this one, but it's so awesomely gross that I doubt anybody could screw it up. 

In the Mouth of Madness, you'll recall, dealt with (essentially) a haunted book; whereas "Cigarette Burns," as its title implies, deals with a haunted film.  (What I haven't mentioned about the plot—since it's just an excuse for some pedestrian freakout imagery that seems to be borrowing a lot more from White Worm-era Ken Russell than from anything in Carpenter's visual library—is that once you get into Le Fin's orbit, you start to hallucinate reel change cues, and your world begins to break down accordingly.)

Perhaps it seems counterintuitive that the change from a novel to a motion picture is for the worse.  Film is the medium this story's being told in, after all.  Of course, it won't seem remotely counterintuitive once you realize that this behooves Carpenter to actually show the evil film (whereas Madness had no obligation to give anything more than just the briefest snippets of Sutter Cane's reality-altering prose).  The challenge McWeeny and Swan give Carpenter here—possibly without him quite realizing it—was to create images that could believably tear your mind apart.  Since Carpenter was one of the most qualified people in the world to actually pull this off, maybe this even made sense to them.  Yet it's a terrible handicap for the director to be working under, and it's hardly a surprise that Carpenter whiffs it, though it might be a surprise just how badly, for Le Fin, when we do finally see it, cannot be distinguished—in any essential way—from your gothic buddy's first student film.  There's a moment where it looks like it might tie Sweetman's checkered past into the picture in an interesting way; but then it just vomits that plot beat out, too.  And thus it ends as it began, and despite some nice gore and a theoretically-enjoyable story, "Cigarette Burns" is a wash—entirely consistent, sadly, with Carpenter's last three features.

And this brings us to "Pro-Life," which is significantly better, although certainly it has its own crosses to bear.  This one remakes Assault on Precinct 13, but unlike "Cigarette Burns," "Pro-Life"—as its title quite clearly indicates—comes with a remarkable (and tantalizing) twist upon the formula.  When a doctor driving to work almost runs down 15 year-old Angelique Burcell (played, to slightly dissonant effect, by 17 year-old Caitlin Wachs, who looks 25), he takes the desperate-looking girl to his abortion clinic for some basic first aid.  However, she actually is pregnant; and, declaring her arrival at the clinic to be a miracle, she pleads with him to rid her of the fetus.  Unfortunately, this won't please her father Dwayne at all, because he's a Bible-thumping patriarch who's already had a number of run-ins with the abortionists in town—and his ominous, windowless van arrives hot on Angelique's heels.  Being a minor, the unnamed state's laws dictate that the elder Burcell can veto her abortion; but as Angelique is terribly reticent about telling the doc exactly how she happened to become pregnant, he's not very keen on delivering her back into the clutches of the very man he suspects of having raped her.  The standoff grows tenser until Burcell—and his three sons, whom he's hidden away in the back of his van, along with a full-scale armory—abandon diplomacy, and the violent siege of Clinic 13 begins.

Even leaving aside how incendiary and novel it is to cast abortionists as unambiguous heroes, everything that's good about "Pro-Life" revolves around its siege plot, and the best part is Ron Perlman's performance as Dwayne Burcell, shockingly sensitive and nuanced for what amounts to the episode's unambiguous villain.  But then, the script gives him an awful lot to chew on.  Now, I won't say that "Pro-Life's" siege story doesn't need tweaking; for one example, it indulges in an obnoxiously writerly conceit, recapitulating its feminist themes in a more naturalistic register through another family who've come to the clinic, and who are all unbelievably grating in precisely the way that Perlman's overtly evil dad is not; and for another example, once Burcell and Sons breach the clinic, he seems far too eager to delay his time-sensitive mission in order to score a splattery political point.  (Not that I actually blame Carpenter for giving into the overwhelming temptations presented by the setting; it's more a matter of motivation and priorities.)  Yet despite these minor missteps, "Pro-Life's" central premise is just so damned elegant that, otherwise, it's practically beyond reproach.

The problem, of course, is that "Pro-Life" just can't be content with something as boring as mere elegance, and as other, much shoddier concepts begin to agglomerate like barnacles upon the episode's provocative simplicity, you begin to wonder just what the hell happened in the Masters of Horror writing room when this episode was being pitched.  Perhaps McWeeny and Swan didn't trust their audience to be thrilled with mere gunplay and torture; perhaps they were told to lard up their tale's real-world political implications (which, to their credit, are never compromised) with a heaping helping of hoary supernatural allegory, else it be deemed too partisan for TV.  But whatever the rationale, it's no secret that "Pro-Life" isn't about any mundane teen in trouble.  Nope ,it's about a good old-fashioned satanic pregnancy.  Perhaps inevitably, then, this swerve into Christian horror takes increasing precedence over the allegorical thriller we were previously enjoying.  And with fifteen minutes left on the clock, "Pro-Life" blooms fully into its overlit haunted house scenario, featuring a husky suitmation demon who wouldn't look out of place in battle with a Japanese superhero, and a monstrous newborn who looks like someone bolted a set of animatronic crab legs onto an off-the-shelf baby doll.

Not unlike a coat hanger through a cervix, the galling silliness of it all tears right through the episode's illusion of dour sobriety, and leaves naught but a bloody, distressing mess.  True, "Pro-Life" never makes an effort to disguise Angelique's evil pregnancy—but this is maybe even more unfortunate, since the only way that "Pro-Life's" third act left turn into nonsense could have possibly worked is if it were as much a shock to us as it is to them (especially God-fearing Dwayne).  There's still enough thematic punch here for me to mildly recommend "Pro-Life"—but it is far, far from the great thing that it could have been.

Score, "Cigarette Burns":  4/10
Score, "Pro-Life":  6/10

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