Tag Archives: Big Trouble In Little China

Rocks In The Attic #746: John Carpenter & Alan Howarth – ‘Prince Of Darkness (O.S.T.)’ (1987)

RITA#746It’s a sad state of affairs when a horror film provokes not terror, but boredom. The first hour of this film easily qualifies as the worst of John Carpenter’s work up to that point. The audience is just as confused as the students in the film, as they try to understand who the central protagonist is (answer: there isn’t one), and why they’re setting up equipment in a creepy old church (answer: nobody knows, not even Carpenter).

Sandwiched between the director’s mainstream hit (Big Trouble In Little China) and his – in retrospect – return to form (They Live), Prince Of Darkness is an odd film. It’s clear that Carpenter is trying to revisit themes that have worked for him before – a band of individuals in a locked-off location (Assault On Precinct 13) slowly get picked off one by one (The Thing) – but this time, it just doesn’t work.

I admit that things do start to pick up in the second half of the film with some rip-roaring special effects, as the students are finally confronted by their possessed classmates (essentially zombies without the makeup), but by that point any emotional investment in the characters has dried out. Even a cameo appearance by the Godfather of Shock Rock, Alice Cooper, can’t make it right.

As always, the score by Carpenter himself, working alongside his now-regular collaborator Alan Howarth, is the film’s saving grace. A slow-burning synth workout.

Hit: Opening Titles

Hidden Gem: Hell Breaks Loose

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Rocks In The Attic #707: John Carpenter & Alan Howarth – ‘Big Trouble In Little China (O.S.T.)’ (1986)

RITA#707.jpgAcross the space of four years in the late ‘70s / early ‘80s, John Carpenter directed three of the strongest genre films ever to hit cinema screens. The mainstream success of low-budget horror Halloween (1978) awarded him with bigger budgets, which he used to depict dystopian cityscapes in Escape From New York (1981) and sci-fi paranoia in The Thing (1982). Over the same period he also directed 1980’s The Fog and produced the first two Halloween sequels. This was very much Carpenter’s golden period.

Success always attracts attention, and Carpenter was courted by the major studios. As a result, his films of the mid-1980s – Christine (1983), Starman (1984) and Big Trouble In Little China (1986) – all feel like they’re missing something. All of the ingredients are there, but the end results just aren’t as satisfying as his earlier work.

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I’ve written about Christine before, and I’ve always been a big fan of Starman (despite it feeling like the least Carpenteresque of Carpenter’s films). But the real disappointment was Big Touble In Little China. After its commercial failure, Carpenter continually struggled to get films financed, and the rest of his work is patchy. Only 1988’s They Live could be considered as strong as his breakthrough successes.

Big Trouble In Little China should be great. It has a tried and tested Carpenter leading man in Kurt Russell, awesome optical effects, and a terrifically grimy underworld feel. But the plotting is loose, the script is poor, and the performances of the principal actors leave a lot to be desired. Only the soundtrack music – always one of the stronger elements of Carpenter’s work – is up to standard, even if it’s nowhere near his best.

RITA#707cI first saw the film far too young (which is becoming a common theme of this blog). I can vividly recall the first showdown in the alley between Kurt Russell’s character and the Three Storms. This was scary enough, but the appearance of James Hong’s villain – and particularly the light emitted from his mouth and eyes – proved too much and the film was swiftly turned off.

In retrospect, it’s the best part of the film, and one of the great cinematic showdowns of the 1980s. It’s just a shame the rest of the film couldn’t live up to its promise.

Hit: Pork Chop Express (Main Title)

Hidden Gem: Tenement / White Tiger

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Rocks In The Attic #416: John Carpenter & Alan Howarth – ‘Escape From New York’ (1981)

RITA#416John Carpenter films are everything an adolescent boy needs growing up. I can’t remember which of his films I saw first – probably Big Trouble In Little China, as it seemed to reach a more mainstream audience when it was released – but Escape From New York will always be my favourite.

It was always a goal to see the film when I was growing up, right from when I first knew the film existed. I have a clear memory of seeing the front cover of the video that somebody had rented – the great image of Kurt Russell, Donald Pleasance and Adrienne Barbeau running away from a horde of nasties, down a dark New York City street dwarfed by the decapitated head of the Statue Of Liberty. I don’t know who rented it – maybe my parents, maybe a neighbour – but I remember being told that ‘it wasn’t for me’. I must have been really young – maybe four or five when it was released on VHS in the UK. It’s funny when you’re not allowed something; it just makes you want it more. The Statue Of Liberty image must have stuck in my head because as soon as I could, I sought it out.

The set-up is brilliant:

In 1988, the crime rate in the United States rises four hundred percent. The once great city of New York becomes the one maximum security prison for the entire country. A fifty-foot containment wall is erected along the New Jersey shoreline, across the Harlem River, and down along the Brooklyn shoreline. It completely surrounds Manhattan Island. All bridges and waterways are mined. The United States Police Force, like an army, is encamped around the island. There are no guards inside the prison, only prisoners and the worlds they have made. The rules are simple: once you go in, you don’t come out.

Add to that the marvellous minimalistic score by John Carpenter – possibly my favourite film score of all time – and you have the perfect launching-off point for a science-fiction film. The ingredients are perfect: a Han Solo-esque lead character, an anti-hero in a future without heroes; a futuristic setting in a well-known location; and a premise – the rescue of the President of the United States of America, and a McGuffin involving plans for a powerful new weapon – that the whole world can invest in.

Over time, it’s become even more endearing. The film is set in 1997 – now eighteen years in the past. What was once so futuristic – the last dying years of the twentieth century – now seem so lodged in the past. Yet the film still makes sense. It’s still within the realms of possibility that crime in the America would get to such an irreversible point that the authorities would wash their hands of it and create a super-prison. I’ve often thought about the chances of the New Zealand government sending the inmates of our overflowing prisons to the barren wastes of Stewart Island – who hasn’t? Although the cynical twenty-first century motivation behind this would probably be the government wanting to turn the resulting empty prisons into luxury apartment blocks.

The twin towers of the World Trade Centre even make an appearance in Escape From New York, being the landing point for Snake’s entrance into New York – another facet of the film that firmly places it in the past. Even the music could now be considered out of date. In 1981, it would have sounded futuristic – sequenced computer music to appeal to the video-game generation. Today, it still sounds like the future, just a version of the future that’s now locked in the past.

Hit: Main Title

Hidden Gem: The Bank Robbery