Thursday, October 30, 2014

GUEST POST -- Masters of the Macabre: Carpenter and Romero

Written by: Brandon Engel

John Carpenter and George Romero: The Godfathers of Splatter
Despite being full of ghostly tropes that never seem to die, horror films — when they’re done right, or even when they’re done terribly wrong — are a perfect way to put the world on “pause” for a few hours. No other film promises fear and anticipation, murder and suspense. Two of horror’s most iconic directors, John Carpenter and George Romero, have forever changed the landscape of the genre with their groundbreaking films and film scores. Together they are responsible for films such as Halloween, The Thing, Dawn of the Dead and Night of the Living Dead, leaving no question as to why our culture is obsessed with all things mysterious and and only partially alive. Dive into the world of these masterminds and take a deeper look at the mayhem and blood that defines their legacy.

John Carpenter: "Master of Horror"
John Carpenter, having earning the nickname the “Master of Horror”, has written, scored, directed and produced some of the most memorable horror flicks of American cinema.  His soundtracks, as well known as his films, have been revisited by other contemporary composers and used as inspiration for countless electronic musical artists. Also regarded for his ability to craft a compelling film from meager financing, early in his career he was heavily influenced by the work of low-budget B-movie director Howard Hawks.

Carpenter’s most popular and widely-seen release is his 1978 classic Halloween and its subsequent film saga. “Michael Myers”, a young but very deranged boy, becomes enraged when he discovers his sister is sexually active. He stabs her and is institutionalized for fifteen years. Upon his escape, he sets out to get revenge by murdering teenagers and young adults alike, whomever he deems “impure.” Halloween is still replayed each year around the holiday, like a gorier version of It’s a Wonderful Life.

The Fog 
Another relatively early release from Carpenter, and was also generally well-received among critics and viewers. It tells the story of vengeful ghosts who have come back to haunt the hundredth anniversary of their death. Through an old journal, it’s discovered that the founders of a small fishing village in California deliberately caused a ship full of lepers to sink just outside their harbor. At night, before the celebrations, a fog sets in and neutralizes the town’s phone and electricity lines. Soon zombies and ghosts appear, seeking the deaths of those who betrayed them. Filmed after the success of Halloween, The Fog also stars Jamie Lee Curtis as the “Final Girl” to survive the ghostly attack.

The Thing
Released in 1982, The Thing is a science fiction flick featuring a crew of scientists working in the Antarctic. Considered by Carpenter to be the first film in his “Apocalypse Trilogy”, it follows an alien life form with the ability to perfectly imitate other Earth creatures. When fellow scientists and animals begin to come up missing or dead, the crew (led by Kurt Russell) decide to dynamite the complex, hoping to destroy “the Thing.” With a synth-heavy score by Ennio Morricone, the film still draws viewers in with its chilly atmospheric paranoia and gruesome physical effects.

Underrated Carpenter Productions
Dark Star, Carpenter’s debut as a filmmaker, was finished in 1973 while he was still a student at the University of Southern California. The story revolves around astronauts attempting to colonize new planets on the fringe of the galaxy while destroying whatever lies in their path. But when the audience is introduced to the astronauts, we discover that everything in space is not going according to plan - 20 years away from Earth, they’ve become dependent on gallows humor to ease the tedium of being trapped on an interstellar space craft. Their commander is dead, a mischievous alien has been brought on board, the computer malfunctions and one of their bombs is threatening to detonate while still in the ship’s bay. With alien life and god-like technology lurking beyond the void, Carpenter’s first work remains one of his best.
They Live, released in 1986, is also one of Carpenter's most underrated tales, despite a large cult following that still adores the film today. “Nada”, a character played by Roddy Piper, finds a pair of sunglasses that lie unclaimed while in the city for the day. Curious and eager to grab a freebie, Nada quickly puts the sunglasses on. But while wearing them, Nada's life is completely shaken up, allowing him to see the true nature of the world around him.

Challenges in Carpenter's Later Career
Despite experiencing nearly two decades of success, when Carpenter created films such as Escape from L.A. and Memoirs of an Invisible Man, he had trouble connecting with audiences. With financing issues in the early 90's, it was difficult for him to rebuild his credibility and reputation. Although Carpenter reaped financial gains from Halloween and its successors, he stepped into semi-retirement in the 2000’s. His latest project has been appearing on the El Rey Network’s new series “The Director’s Chair” (local listing information here) allowing Robert Rodriguez to interview him and revisit his body of work. He will always be still known as one of the best directors to-date who is capable of producing such well-liked films on such restricted budgets.

The Dead Saga and the Work of George Romero
George Romero, like John Carpenter, is renowned for his ability to craft tension, terror and suspense on film. He’s also famous for the resplendent display of guts and gore in most of the films he has created. Responsible for such classics as Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, and three other horror films in the series, Romero has also directed additional films that are just as brilliant, yet vastly underrated. His contributions to the genre of horror have resulted in the creation of other subgenres, the “zombie” concept containing the contemporary relevance.

Night of the Living Dead
In 1968, George Romero finished a low-budget horror film that would forever change the way people thought of the “undead.” Without ever mentioning the word “zombie”, he created a timeless classic that would continue to influence the genre. Night of the Living Dead. Night of the Living Dead is a stark, black and white film, shot in a single, small location. With the Vietnam War on the news every night, audiences in 1968 were not unaccustomed to seeing real gore on television. Romero’s ghouls, cheaply costumed as they were, treated violence in an unexpectedly terrifying way - reminiscent of the anarchic chaos that exists in the real world.  Romero introduced the "brains must be destroyed" zombie concept in Night of the Living Dead, and the film remains a benchmark for all other horror filmmakers that came after him.

Dawn of the Dead
In his 1978 Dawn of the Dead, Romero features survivors who are attempting to survive a zombie apocalypse, while stuck in a mall. Sound familiar? The Dawn of the Dead remake was released in 2004, although not directed by Romero himself (but still written by Romero). Dawn of the Dead has since inspired a plethora of video games centered on zombies attacking humanity.

Day of the Dead
In Romero's follow up Day of the Dead, he chose to change humans into the ultimate antagonist, fueling the zombies and apocalypse themselves. Military and government agents are the central focus of Day of the Dead, contributing to the disease and zombie outbreak themselves.

Lesser Known Films of George Romero
Although George Romero is known for the Dead saga and other cult classics, there are a plethora of his lesser-known films that genre fans will no doubt find both shocking and inspirational.

Martin and Monkey Shines
Monkey Shines, released in 1988, offers an uncomfortable and creepy take on the relationship between primates and humanity. The movie itself centers on a man who uses a monkey to help regain feeling and emotions once paralyzed. As time passes, the monkey begins to develop feelings and emotions including rage, leading viewers on a suspenseful ride as the monkey turns against his master unexpectedly. Martin is another underrated film directed by George Romero in 1976. A young man who believes he is a vampire, takes a journey to live with his older cousin. However, once he arrives, his taste for blood and humans returns with a searing vengeance.

Collaborations with Stephen King
Romero is also famous for his collaborations with the infamous Stephen King on Creepshow, which brought five of the author’s horror stories to the big screen simultaneously. "Call Girl", "Alice", "The Professor's Wife", "The Radio" and "The Haunted Dog" are the different tales shared in this horror anthology film. In film vignettes, Creepshow features men seeking revenge from the dead, scary creatures and plenty of vengeance.

Watching both Carpenter's and Romero's contributions to the horror and thriller genres is a lesson in ways to develop film techniques, dialogue and methods of creating chaos, mystery and madness on screen. Although Romero and Carpenter may not be creating large feature films as they once did, ultimately they both helped provide filmmakers today with an unending supply of inspiration.

Post a Comment