Judge Mike Rubino can never find a pair of sunglasses that fit right.
Our reviews of They Live (Blu-ray) (published February 20th, 2013), The Thing (2011) (Blu-ray) (published January 31st, 2012), The Thing (1982) (Blu-ray) (published September 29th, 2008), and Village Of The Damned / Children Of The Damned (published February 22nd, 2005) are also available.
"I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass…and I'm all out of bubblegum."—Nada, They Live
John Carpenter is a lot of things. He's a rugged indie filmmaker responsible for action classics like Escape from New York and Big Trouble in Little China. He's an orchestral minimalist who scores most of his movies with repetitive synth tracks. He's also a pioneer when it comes to special effects. Oh yeah, and he's a "master of fear" who, arguably, hasn't made a great movie in quite some time (Escape from L.A. notwithstanding).
John Carpenter: Master of Fear Collection crams together four films from the auteur's canon just in time for Halloween—sorry, Halloween's not one of them.
Facts of the Case
The Thing (1982): A group of scientists living in Antarctica discover an unknown alien "thing" frozen within the ice. The alien's ability to impersonate any living creature sends the scientists on a paranoid manhunt to pin the thing down. Featuring Kurt Russell (Escape from New York), Wilford Brimley (Liberty Medical commercials), and Keith David (They Live) among the scientists.
Prince of Darkness (1987): A group of graduate students must investigate a discovery in the basement of an ancient Catholic mission in California. In the basement of the church is none other than Satan trapped in a jar. Soon enough, the local homeless people turn into zombies and the grad students turn into possessed killing machines. Featuring Donald Pleasence (Halloween) as a priest, Victor Wong (Big Trouble in Little China) as a professor, and Alice Cooper (rock star) as a vagrant.
They Live (1988): A nameless transient moves into a shanty town and discovers a pair of sunglasses that let him see the world as it really is. Turns out corporate America, the media, politicians, and the majority of the upper class are all aliens in disguise, hypnotizing the lower class with television. The nameless vagrant is played by professional wrestler "Rowdy" Roddy Piper.
Village of the Damned (1995): A coastal hamlet is struck by some unknown force, leaving ten women suddenly pregnant. Nine women give birth to a white-haired boy or girl at exactly the same time. Clearly, these children are evil. Soon the town learns that these kids possess telepathic powers, shoot crazy light from their eyes, and cause folks to commit suicide. It's up to a few brave adults to find out the truth about where these kids really came from. The film features Christopher Reeve (Superman), Kirstie Alley (Veronica's Closet), and Mark Hamill (Star Wars).
John Carpenter: Master of Fear Collection is a solid sampling of the great director's uneven career. I've always enjoyed John Carpenter's jaunts into the action genre moreso than his horror efforts, but I continue to see the guy marketed as a "master of scary emotions." Carpenter emerged as a big-time filmmaker in the late '70s with hits like Assault on Precinct 13 and Halloween, but he flat-out exploded in the '80s. Just about every movie this guy made during that fantastic decade was golden. Unfortunately, his films since have been more misses than hits. And so this set combines the best of both worlds, two bonafide classics, a decent horror flick from his heyday, and one of his '90s snores.
The Thing, featuring a Kurt Russell who looks like he just didn't shave after escaping from New York, is a groundbreaking film in terms of practical special effects. While the film is a remake of The Thing from Another World (1951), it feels a lot like Ridley Scott's Alien in the snow. The film's slow pace is punctuated by intense moments of violence, gore, and pithy comments. Every character in the film is three-dimensional and unique, and like any good ensemble piece, they each have a moment to shine before they're picked off by The Thing.
Out of all the films in the collection, The Thing is the most visually arresting. Carpenter's framing techniques are consistently strong, with plenty of wide-angled tracking shots and dramatic color schemes. Once paranoia takes over the camp, the whole movie becomes shrouded in deep blues, with the occasional neon-red signal flare lighting the way for Mac (Russell) to take on the squiggly monster. Carpenter isn't afraid to show that monster, either. Each appearance of The Thing is more gruesome than the last; to even try and describe each outrageous set piece would do the film, and the shocking special effects, an injustice. They just don't make movies like this any more, and that's a darn shame.
Prince of Darkness is located on the same disc and, despite being made just five years later, feels tame in comparison. The film maintains the same pacing and suspense elements of The Thing, right down to hodgepodge group of academics discovering a mysterious monster beneath the Earth's surface, but it doesn't have the same visceral horror. Instead, the film gets weighted down by an intellectual debate between a cryptic priest (Pleasence) and a philosophy teacher (Wong). While it's true that the movie was made in the '80s, during Carpenter's string of awesomeness, it's probably the weakest film he made that decade. The dialogue is as quirky as ever, but the characters aren't very relatable or likable. As they get picked off one by one, you sort of root for the shambling homeless folk taking them on (after all, they're led by Alice Cooper, who's more than willing to stab a nerd with a bicycle.)
The film does have its moments, including a number of fairly creative special effects sequences and a super creepy, recurring VHS dream sequence. Carpenter's script (written under the pseudonym "Martin Quatermass") is filled with great one-liners and more than a few awkward moments. It all fits in nicely with his off-beat style; a style he would put in to full effect with his next film.
I'll start by saying that They Live, alone, is worth the price of this set. It's a film that has given the zeitgeist more than we could ever ask: the classic one-liner quoted at the beginning of this review, that surprising black and white sequence when our nameless hero first dawns the sunglasses, and that legendary fifteen minute brawl in the alley over that very pair of shades. The movie's ridiculousness is only outdone by its epic scale and acerbic satire. Just thinking about the premise of a dude putting on sunglasses and discovering that the world is really led by aliens (an idea adapted from a short story, no less) should get you pumped to see this movie.
Every bit of action and dialogue goes to serve the satirical element of the film: a reaction to the political and economic atmosphere at the tail-end of the decade. It's more sci-fi than horror, and more comedy than anything. It's like Plato's "Allegory of the Cave," except that you have to put on sunglasses to see the light? Either way, the supporting characters' continuous refusal to dawn shades and see the truth speaks volumes. Even when Nada is dropping lines like, "I'm giving you a choice: either put on these glasses or start eating that trash can," his friend Frank (Keith David) can only reply, "Not this year." It's non-sequiturs like that that lead to extended fight scenes in alleys.
They Live is certainly an underrated gem, often forgotten in the Carpenter canon. If you've never seen it before, I suggest watching it with a group of like-minded friends.
Village of the Damned is, by default, the weakest of the set. Filmed in the mid-90s, it somehow feels more dated than They Live or The Thing. The biggest problem is the slow, rather predictable story. The plot crawls but never learns to walk, even during the explosive climax. The characters are generally cold and uninteresting, despite decent performances by Christopher Reeve and Kirstie Alley—don't even get me started on the clownish portrayal of Rev. George by Mark Hamill. And making matters worse are the monotone children. Everything about the movie is slow.
There are a few positive notes on the film, like the rather creative death scenes that the children force people into. At first they start small, like a mother sticking her hand into a boiling pot of water, and escalate to almost Dr. Phibes-levels of convolution. Almost. Overall, though, the film is tamer in the horror/gore department when compared to the rest of the set. Carpenter's directorial style is still in tact, as is his synthy score, but that isn't enough this time. Village of the Damned plays out like one of those 60-minute episodes of the Twilight Zone, when you sort of tune out the filler and wait for the twist ending.
John Carpenter: Master of Fear Collection offers up these four films across two discs in the plainest way possible. You're getting decent transfers, likely from the last time each of these were released on DVD, and no-frills audio tracks. The Thing probably looks the best, with vibrant colors and sharp edges. The other three films are okay, but have occasional grain and dust on the transfers. Each film also has a Dolby Digital English track and basic SDH English subtitles. That's it. No trailers, no bonus features of any sort, not even animated menus. This is a release strictly for people wanting to get four movies for little coin.
If you approach John Carpenter: Master of Fear Collection in terms of value, you can't really go wrong. As of this writing, it retails on Amazon for under $15. That's an incredible deal two fantastic movies, a decent one, and a clunker. But, if you care at all about special features or audio options, you may want to steer clear. The Thing has a fairly robust special edition floating out there, and They Live can usually be nabbed pretty cheap.
I say the studios stop beating around the bush and release "John Carpenter: Master of the '80s Collection."
Guilty of being a no-frills good value.
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What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
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