In the past two decades, filmmaker John Carpenter has directed 17 movies, and has established himself as a towering figure in modern horror. In technical terms, he's some kind of lowbrow genius: he has a better idea of how to build unease through freaky camera movements, dissonant sound effects, and crafty placement of objects in the frame than any of his contemporaries. Where most directors obscure their monsters with tricky editing and dim light, Carpenter often shows them full-frame in long, unbroken takes. And although he can stage an out-of-nowhere jolt as well as anyone, his preferred mode of suspense is the grindingly slow, ritualized stalking sequence.
The banality of Carpenter's storytelling sense only heightens the tension; he creates characters so flat and clichd that when they die gruesome deaths, the sense of implacable sadism is increased tenfold. In Halloween, when The Shape sticks P.J. Soles' clueless, bespectacled dullard of a boyfriend to a kitchen door with a huge carving knife and then stands before him for a chilling eternity, dispassionately inspecting his handiwork, the image is freakishly unsettling. It's as if a giant butterfly has just been added to a maniac's personal collection.
Why, then, has Carpenter consistently failed to make a transcendently great movie? A couple of his fright flicks, notably Halloween and Christine, are considered about as good as films of their type can hope to be--which, of course, is faint praise. His nonhorror projects are generally visually and structurally richer, not to mention emotionally warmer. I'm especially fond of his sci-fi love story Starman; his brilliant 1980 TV biopic "Elvis," in which Kurt Russell was allowed to give the richest, strangest, most deeply felt performance of his career; and Big Trouble in Little China, a furiously kinetic ode to chopsocky movies, comic books, and video games that never found the audience it deserved.
Perhaps he's too intellectually limited to completely rethink clichd, familiar, rigidly defined material--something his chief sci-fi-horror contemporaries, David Cronenberg and James Cameron, have managed to do with alarming regularity.
Carpenter's latest horror outing, Village of the Damned--a remake of the 1960 cult favorite of the same name--is a case in point. The story begins with a first-person shot of an otherworldly force streaking over the ocean toward an isolated California coastal town called Midwich, to the accompaniment of Carpenter's self-composed synthesized score--an atonal, growly hum that suggests demonic forces unleashed. The town's residents are momentarily knocked unconscious; when they awake, 10 women of childbearing age have been mysteriously impregnated, including a virgin.
There are 10 births; nine children survive, and they all look spookily similar, with whitish-blond hair and cobalt eyes. A team of shadowy government researchers led by an epidemiologist (Kirstie Alley) sees to it that the mysterious brood is allowed to mature and be studied, and a sensitive local doctor (Christopher Reeve) instinctively protects the kids against the townspeople who despise them and want them dead.
By the age of six or so, the brood has become a self-contained unit. They walk down the streets in a perfect, paired-off formation--four rows of two kids each, boy-girl boy-girl, with the sole loner child taking up the rear. They're hyperintelligent, quoting lines from great works of philosophy in arguments with their parents. Most disturbingly, they can read minds and control other peoples' actions. (When agitated or angry, the childrens' eyes pulse like tiny stoplights, and the soundtrack fills with an unholy mix of whooshes, groans, and growls, as if Satan held a tape recorder to his stomach after eating a really bad bowl of beans.)
When the original Village came out 35 years ago, it was linked with Them!, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and the original Thing. Critics viewed it as a parable about the loss of free will and the rise of collective consciousness, which plugged into Cold War paranoia perfectly. Today's ticket buyers are likely to think about the splintering of traditional families, and of lonely children's determination to find surrogates in the form of gangs. And the idea of the government interfering with family planning and raising kids according to its own twisted agenda will probably win a rueful grin from paranoid right wingers.
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The problem with Carpenter's Village is that these notions just linger at the edges of the narrative, like metaphoric wallflowers waiting for some brave soul to ask them to dance. The same is true of the original, but that shouldn't absolve the filmmaker of the responsibility to dig a bit deeper; after all, one of the luxuries of doing a remake is the chance to make the incidental purposeful. Unfortunately, Carpenter doesn't plug into the script's mother lode of symbolic meanings and tease them out, the way David Cronenberg teased out the venereal disease paranoia in his classic remake of The Fly. Carpenter seems more interested in the literal technique of filmmaking--how to make an individual scene as creepy, nasty, or violent as possible--than in integrating his setpieces into a grand, hellish, indelibly coherent cinematic vision. He wants to be taken seriously as an artist, but he doesn't have the intellectual discipline. Strip away the terrific premise, and Village of the Damned looks like every other Carpenter horror film: a series of gruesome, protracted killings leading to a final blowout showdown. Parts of the picture work magnificently; a couple of don't-open-that-door shocks made me jump right out of my seat, and there are are least two mind-control sequences so scary they actually gave me nightmares, which hasn't happened since Silence of the Lambs came out.
And the finale--a furiously torqued-up reworking of the original film's climax that combines surreal computer animation and intricately mixed digital sound effects--rises to a level of brilliance Carpenter hasn't achieved in a very long time. In it, Reeve's doctor is trying to hide a piece of information from the children's telepathic snooping until a crucial deadline has passed. He's desperately trying to put up a psychic wall--literally represented as a glowing brick wall--between himself and the kids, and as they respond by hammering mercilessly away at it, Carpenter keeps hurling his camera toward the wall like a battering ram, finding a visual equivalent for an abstract mental contest.
When that wall breaks down, you feel elated, not just because the hero has held his ground, but because the director has pushed the creative envelope and shown you what's possible. Which only underscores Carpenter's shortcomings as a director: creatively speaking, in film after film, he leaves way too many walls intact.
Village of the Damned. Universal. Christopher Reeve, Kirstie Alley. Written by David Himmelstein. Directed by John Carpenter. Now showing.