Tag Archives: John Carpenter

Top Ten: Ghost Stories

I love a good ghost story. They are without doubt my favourite strain of horror movie. Vampires are fine, werewolves are fine, psychotic killers with masks are just fine, but for me there’s nothing quite as terrifying as a ghost. As a kid I would scare myself witless with tales of the supernatural, both fictional and otherwise, aided in no small part by my father, an anthologist of Victorian ghost stories.

Cinema struggles a little with ghost stories. In literature the best of the genre are usually short stories, and some of the finest on-screen examples were a series of British TV shorts based on the stories of M.R. James (Whistle and I’ll Come to You, Lost Hearts, A Warning to the Curious). Often, in trying to fill a 90-minute running time, feature-length ghost stories can lose much in terms of atmosphere and momentum. Also, a good ghost story requires subtlety and suggestion in addition to shocks, qualities which most modern horror movies seem unable to cultivate.

Here is my list of the 10 best feature-length ghost stories. I’ve strictly limited it to scary movies, so there’s no place for the likes of Ghostbusters or Always, even though I adore those movies. After all, ghosts are meant to be scary.

I also have a question. You’ll notice that the majority of the ghosts featured here are female. Personally, I believe that women make scarier ghosts than men. I have no idea why, though. Do you agree? And if so, why do you imagine this is? I look forward to hearing your theories.

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10. Carnival of Souls

Herk Harvey – 1962

Made for a paltry $33,000 dollars, and shot in just three weeks, this was director Herk Harvey’s only feature-length movie. The story follows organist Mary Henry, who begins seeing strange apparitions after surviving a traumatic car accident. As she tries to rebuild her life, Mary finds the haunting becoming increasingly worse. Harvey builds an unnerving mood, using some excellent locations. Candace Hilligoss, in the role of Mary, was the only professional actor involved in the movie and projects an iciness and detachment vital to the part, as it builds toward its final revelation. One which M. Night Shyamalan clearly remembered.

Meet the ghost: Harvey himself appears throughout as ‘The Man’, a pasty-faced, raccoon-eyed spirit with a message for Mary. And he’s not the only one after her.

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9. What Lies Beneath

Robert Zemeckis – 2000

Back when Zemeckis was still making live action pictures, he used the six-month break in filming Cast Away (so Tom Hanks could do some serious dieting) to put together this Hitchcock tribute. Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer star as the couple whose lives are interrupted when Pfeiffer becomes convinced there is a ghost in their house. As she digs deeper, she begins to uncover some very dark secrets. Although it is a little heavy-handed at times, What Lies Beneath has a great atmosphere. Zemeckis fills the silence of the big, old house and its garden with unsettling sounds, making the ghostly presence felt even if it is rarely seen.

Meet the ghost: It would be giving away too much to give you the full details of this wrathful spirit. Suffice it to say she’s young, angry and nowhere near as dead as her killer would have liked.

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8. Ghost Story

John Irvin – 1981

Based on the novel by Peter Straub, the simply titled Ghost Story does just what it says on the tin. The tale is spun around four old men, who get together every week to tell each other ghost stories. When one of their number loses a son in bizarre accident, and his brother comes to them with a story of his own, they realise that the very old secret they all share has come back to haunt them. Set within a snowbound New England town, Ghost Story takes all the classic ingredients of the genre and serves them cold.

Meet the ghost: Alice Krige gives an intense and chilling turn as the vengeful Alma, probably one of the most brazen spirits in movie history. She doesn’t just go after you, but your entire family. This is one girl you don’t want to piss off. Or kill.


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7. The Eye (Gin Gwai)

Danny and Oxide Pang – 2002

Blind violinist Wong Kar Mun has a successful cornea transplant and begins seeing ghosts wherever she goes, some friendly and some otherwise. Together with her doctor, she determines to find out the identity of her eye donor. The Eye starts off as an effectively spooky ghost story, but deepens into something more heartbreaking as the mystery behind Wong Kar Mun’s new eyes is uncovered. The ghostly encounters make the hair stand up on the back of the neck, and just when you think the story is resolved, The Eye throws in a surprise ending.

Meet the ghost: Actually, make that ghosts. There’s a whole buffet of grisly spirits on offer here. Highlights are a great scene in an elevator and a very angry schoolgirl. Oh, and you’ll never look at the hanging food in Chinatown the same way again.

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6. The Devil’s Backbone

Guillermo del Toro – 2001

Something of a companion piece to del Toro’s more famous Pan’s Labyrinth, since it is also set during the Spanish civil war, The Devil’s Backbone is a rich and complex tale of a boy, Carlos, who arrives at an orphanage while his father fights in the war. Carlos finds himself involved in the nefarious plans of one of the orphanage’s staff and attracts the attention of a resident ghost, who warns Carlos of impending disaster. A great ghost story and much more besides.

Meet the ghost: Wandering the orphanage and watching events from a distance, Santi is just one of the mysteries waiting to be solved in The Devil’s Backbone. With the help of minimal special effects, Santi carries the haunting signs of his murder with him, in the form of an ever-bleeding wound.

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5. The Fog

John Carpenter – 1980

Carpenter, a huge fan of ghost stories, gave the genre his all with this tale of drowned mariners returning to the coastal town of Antonio Bay, 100 years after they were betrayed. Originally intended as a straight ghost story, Carpenter was unsatisfied with the finished result and re-shot large parts, upping the violence somewhat but still retaining the brooding atmosphere and sense of foreboding that mark out the best of the genre. It even starts with a ghost story from John Houseman, a prelude to his role in…Ghost Story.

Meet the ghost: More a crew of ghosts and a ghost ship. For the most part Blake and his men are shadowy figures, masked by the fog, and they’re all the creepier for it. Something the creators of the dismal remake failed to grasp.


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4. Ju-on: The Grudge

Takashi Shimizu – 2003

The third in Shimizu’s Ju-on series, but the first to get an international theatrical release, The Grudge centres on a cursed house and the characters who come into contact with it over varying timelines, usually to their extreme detriment. Complex, layered and often disturbing, The Grudge is also very, very creepy. This one will definitely make you feel less safe under your covers, which is traditionally where you are supposed to feel safe. Neat trick. The movie spawned an American remake and further sequels but this remains the finest.

Meet the ghost: Another movie boasting more than one spectral star, including another little boy. However, it is the crawling, bloodied woman, Kayako, who sticks most in the mind as the final credits roll.

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3. The Haunting

Robert Wise – 1963

Based on the 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House, Robert Wise’s movie sees paranormal investigator Dr. Markway invite a carefully selected, eclectic group of people to spend several nights with him at the supposedly haunted Hill House. Almost immediately the group are besieged by a series of terrifying things that go bump in the night, all of which seem to focus on the shy, reclusive Eleanor. Wise makes sure that it is what you don’t see that scares you. Never has thumping on a door or voices heard through a wall been so utterly spine-tingling. Just make sure you stick with the original rather than Jan de Bont’s laughable 1999 remake.

Meet the ghost: Or not. The Haunting leaves the finer details to your imagination, and it works beautifully.

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2. Ringu

Hideo Nakata – 1998

Journalist Reiko Asakawa’s niece dies, one week after viewing a mysterious video tape. Reiko views the tape herself and is warned, by way of a phone call, that she now has only one week to live. After catching her son watching the tape, Reiko and her ex-husband, Ryuji, race against the clock to discover the secret behind the cursed video. A hugely influential movie, Ringu is heavy on atmosphere from the outset. Rather than subject the viewer to a series of shocks (although there are one or two) Ringu slowly builds itself up to a single, extremely scary, moment.

Meet the ghost: Sadako is one of the scariest ghosts ever committed to film. Although she is very rarely seen until the end, her reputation is cleverly crafted beforehand, priming you for her grand entrance. And what an entrance it is.

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1. The Woman in Black

Herbet Wise – 1989

The Woman in Black is a little known (and hard to find) English TV movie, based on the novel by Susan Hill. A lawyer is sent to a coastal town to settle the estate of a recently deceased widow. Once there, he finds the locals reluctant to discuss both her and the mysterious woman who sometimes appears around the town. Deciding to go alone to the widow’s house and unravel the truth, he attracts the attention of something utterly malevolent. If you enjoy an old fashioned spine-chiller you won’t find anything better than this on film. It is the perfect ghost story. This year’s Hammer produced remake has a lot to live up to.

Meet the ghost: She’s glimpsed only a few times and yet remains a constant presence. And when she does appear, particularly in a scene toward the end, The Woman in Black is terrifying.

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Top Ten: Alien Invasion Movies

Sometimes they are benevolent visitors. Sometimes they come in peace, to aid mankind in our hour of need and help us overcome our struggles. Sometimes. Most of the time, however, they come to kick our ass, steal our resources and breed with our females. Yes, those aliens are rarely here for the good of anyone but themselves. More often than not they are just intergalactic hoodlums and Earth is the bar they choose to pick a fight in. Probably because the human race is so willing to oblige them.

With the recent release of both Monsters (reviewed on this site) and Skyline, the alien invasion movie is enjoying a spell of popularity. So, I tip my hat to the genre and present my list of the ten best it has to offer. Die, alien scum!

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10. Independence Day

1996

Roland Emmerich’s first exercise in monument pounding has arguably some of the worst dialogue in summer blockbuster history, but it more than compensates with its on-screen carnage. These visitors don’t even say hello before calmly giving the planet both barrels. Luckily, our fair globe has three lines of plucky defence. We have Will Smith, to see them all off with his smug wise-cracks. We have Bill Pullman, a US President who doesn’t carry on listening to kids read a story when trouble hits. And we have Jeff Goldblum, who is able to upload a virus to an entire alien computer system using just his laptop and a pair of ‘I Am Super-Smart’ glasses.

Great invasion movie, but if you’re looking for gritty realism and convincing plot developments, look elsewhere.

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9. Signs

2002

The alien invasion movie that doesn’t actually show you the alien invasion. Inspired! Budget friendly! And thanks to the now increasingly dwindling skills of director M. Night Shayalaman, it works beautifully. The invasion itself is set in place as a backdrop to the story of widowed Reverend Mel Gibson’s crisis of faith. The aliens are rarely seen, and their presence on a global scale is made known only through TV broadcasts. It’s a neat approach, and Signs features Gibson’s last great performance before he, too, was invaded by aliens.

Just try to ignore the basic premise that a group of extra-terrestrials who are fatally allergic to water plan to invade a planet which is 70% covered in the stuff. Dumb asses.

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8. Killer Klowns from Outer Space

1988

As dumb as it sounds, but a total hoot from beginning to end. Special effects trio The Chiodo Brothers brought us this singular tale of an American town invaded by aliens who look like…clowns! Yes! Landing in their Big Top shaped spacecraft, the malevolent harlequins set about harvesting the inhabitants for food, cocooning them in cotton candy, liquidising them and then drinking them through huge straws. Armed with such deadly weapons as killer shadow puppets, rabid balloon animals and brightly coloured ray guns, the clowns seem unstoppable. But they have a weakness. A big, red weakness in the middle of their faces.

Sophisticated, high-brow filmmaking this is not, but Killer Klowns from Outer Space has a rare, anarchic imagination.

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7. District 9

2009

The passive alien invasion, and allegory for any race of people who find themselves unwelcome in a foreign land. These aliens come to Johannesburg…and just don’t leave. Segregated into their own ramshackle part of the town and referred to as ‘prawns’ by the indigenous population, they are only a threat in the paranoid imaginations of the humans. Director Neill Blomkamp and lead actor Sharlto Copley deliver a well-observed, cutting, but thoroughly entertaining examination of the human capacity to loathe what it doesn’t understand.

One of the more successful uses of the ‘mockumentary’ style, District 9 is a lot of fun. And the prawns themselves, thanks to New Zealand based FX company Weta, are strangely sympathetic.

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6. Men in Black

1997

Not only are the aliens coming, they’re already here, have been for years and someone needs to keep an eye on them. Cue deadpan veteran Tommy Lee Jones and livepan new recruit Will Smith (yep, him again) as the titular Men in Black. Like the CIA for alien visitors. This is the kind of movie that could have been truly awful, but thanks to the light touch of director Barry Sonnenfeld, his two leads and a fantastic supporting cast, the alien invasion movie has rarely been so much fun.

Playing on popular stories among UFO conspiracy theorists of shadowy government figures, it’s possible the whole project was part of a government plot to hide the true existence of shadowy government figures. And aliens. Probably.

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5. They Live

1988

The first of two from director John Carpenter, They Live was arguably the last of Carpenter’s great movies. Released in 1988, at the end of a decade which celebrated greed and the accumilation of wealth, the movie sees an out-of-work drifter inadvertently discover that the ruling elite of America are aliens. Disguising themselves by manipulating humans through broadcast signals and subliminal messages, the aliens encourage a culture of ruthless aspiration designed to turn humanity upon itself, preparing the way for an easy invasion. Sound far-fetched? No, I didn’t think so either.

Carpenter’s dialogue isn’t always the best, but any movie that contains the line, ‘I have come here to chew bubble-gum and kick ass, and I’m all out of bubble-gum,’ is a winner.

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4. The War of the Worlds

1953

The first movie adaptation of H.G. Wells’ classic book, which in turn was the first piece of alien invasion fiction, Byron Haskin’s movie deviated greatly from the source material. Out went the tripod machines, replaced by floating ships which looked a bit like green coat hangers. Cooler than they sound, trust me. The aliens are just as ruthless and relentless as Wells intended, however, bringing destruction to the world with their unstoppable and diabolical death rays. Is there any other kind?

Steven Spielberg brought his own considerable talents to the story in 2005, also straying from Wells’ original, but this first attempt still stands as a spectacular piece of science fiction from an earlier age of fantastic cinema.

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3. Invasion of the Body Snatchers

1978

Jack Finney’s original novel The Body Snatchers has been filmed a total of four times, with several looser adaptations along the way, but Philip Kaufman’s version is by far the best. A dark, brooding exercise in paranoia, Kaufman squeezes every last drop of fear and melancholy from Finney’s source material. As aliens invade us by the simple act of becoming us and disposing of us while we sleep, Donald Sutherland and a small group of survivors struggle to find a way out, the odds against them increasing by the hour. You don’t have to be a narrative expert to know it’s not going to end well.

As if the premise itself isn’t scary enough, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is filled with macabre imaginary. Look out for the dog. And the closing scene will stay with you for a long time.

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2. The Day the Earth Stood Still

1951

The Day the Earth Stood Still is possibly the first great alien invasion movie, rising above the B-movie fare of its time with a premise and an agenda that demands to be taken a little more seriously. When a flying saucer lands in President’s Park, Washington, the sole occupant, a man called Klaatu, emerges and tells the people of Earth that unless they mend their violent ways they will be eliminated. Backing him up is a big-ass robot called Gort. This is an alien who hasn’t come to kick our ass. He’s come to spank it.

Smarter than the average invasion movie, The Day the Earth Stood Still was remade to disastrous effect in 2008 with Keanu Reeves. Believe it or not, he didn’t play the robot.

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1. The Thing

1982

John Carpenter’s remake of Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another World is essentially a more faithful adaptation of the original source material, the short story Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell, Jr. Similar in theme to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the alien invader is an organism which can overcome and imitate anyone. Infiltrating an American research station in the Antarctic, the alien picks off the 10-man team, one-by-one, leaving the survivors mistrustful and increasingly paranoid. Featuring some of the best live-action special effects ever seen, The Thing is a complete master class in taught, streamlined storytelling.

How next year’s prequel will measure up to this classic remains to be seen, but it will have to work hard. Other attempts to remake Carpenter have left expectations on the floor.

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15 Directors Meme

I got tagged by Peter at Magic Lantern Film Blog for this Meme. The mission? Come up with 15 filmmakers that helped shape the way I look at motion pictures. These are the filmakers whose movies not only inspired (or fanned the flames of) my passion for cinema, but taught me the rich language of the genre. The education never ends, of course, which is why I love it so much.

I’m running late, due to a two week holiday, but here I am and here it is. Enjoy, discuss, mock or admire.

1. Steven Spielberg

If you were to perform some crazy chemistry experiment and dilute cinema down to its purest form you would probably end up with a Steven Spielberg movie in a test tube. You can write him off as a bubblegum filmmaker if you like, but few directors can boast such a distinctive style and absolute grasp of the visual medium as this guy can. Able to inject his work with simple human warmth or terrifying human cruelty with equal ease, Spielberg understands his audience and how to entertain them. His influence is everywhere, in a generation of talent, and his adoration for the moving image is tightly woven into every frame he shoots. Absolutely peerless.

Signature movie: Raiders of the Lost Ark

2. David Fincher

One of the most striking and unique filmmakers to emerge in the last twenty years, Fincher’s lens peers into the darkness and brings it to life. He survived the studio and star nightmare of Alien 3, picked himself up and moved from strength to strength. Unlike many of his imitators, Fincher combines style and content, making intelligent and brooding films. Innovative title sequences, dizzying camera work and stark imagery that burns itself into the mind are the hallmarks of a Fincher movie. That, and his often surprising project choices. Frankly, he’s the only director who could make me interested in seeing a movie about Facebook.

Signature movie: Fight Club

3. John Carpenter

Carpenter has waned considerably over the last twenty years, and yet I still look forward to his upcoming The Ward simply because this could be the movie where he gets his mojo back. And Carpenter with his mojo is a force to be reckoned with. With Halloween, Carpenter demonstrated a mastery of suspense that few have matched. Of all the carbon copies that followed, not one ever measured up. And they’re still trying 32 years later.

Signature movie: Halloween

4. Alfred Hitchcock

Obvious choice, of course, but how can you avoid this one? Hitchcock may or may not have been the greatest filmmaker of all time , but he was certainly one of the most inventive. Without Hitchcock there might never have been the Dolly Zoom, director cameos, the slasher movie or Brian DePalma. Hitchcock constantly came to blows with the censors and pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable, plausible and possible in filmmaking, paving the way for modern cinema.

Signature movie: Vertigo

5. Francis Ford Coppola

If you need a lesson in the pitfalls and insanity of filmmaking, look no further than the CV of Francis Ford Coppola. From the daily battles with studio execs which haunted the production of The Godfather (where Coppola was often shadowed by a replacement director in case he was fired) through the Hurculean task of getting Apocalypse Now made (a production so troubled it got its own documentary), to the single-minded madness of One From the Heart (the cost of which eventually bankrupted him), Coppola is the guy who gets what he wants on film, at any cost.

Signature movie: Apocalypse Now

6. Martin Scorsese

The little guy with the big talent, Scorsese is the director you would want as a mentor. A walking encyclopaedia of cinema, he talks with the same frenetic pace that his movies use to tell their stories. With incredibly long tracking shots, slow motion zooms, fast zooms and quick cuts, Scorsese’s camera is an extension of the man’s boundless energy and is rarely still. He is also one of the industry’s best arrangers of soundtrack music, always choosing the perfect song to complement his scene.

Signature Movie: Goodfellas

7. Ridley Scott

His style has mellowed a little of late, his movies becoming grander in scale, but early on in his career Scott was one of the most visually unique directors around, producing two of cinema’s most influential Science Fiction films. Taking a B-movie script called Star Beast, Scott added his inherent eye for design, a desire to elevate the movie beyond the B, and gave us the outstanding Alien. He followed this with Blade Runner, which set the standard for visions of the future for years to come. Design has always played an important part in Scott’s work, and it is an area in which he excels.

Signature movie: Blade Runner

8. John Hughes

As a kid developing a passion for movies in the 80s, it would have been impossible for me not to include the late John Hughes in this list. Hughes was a capable talent behind the camera, but his true strengths lay in his screenwriting, his ability to coax career-best performances from his teenage casts and the warmth he instilled into his movies. Few filmmakers before or since have possessed Hughes’ skill for representing teenage angst without falling into the more patronising traps of lesser efforts. Hughes was a man of his time, who struggled when that time was over, but he was the best at what he did.

Signature movie: The Breakfast Club

9. The Coen Brothers

From the release of Blood Simple onwards, the Coens have continually marked themselves out as true originals with a remarkable record of hits. Save for only one or two exceptions, every Coen movie has been both singular and excellent. The next Coen project is always worth looking forward to. As accomplished as screenwriters as they are as directors, you are guaranteed cracking dialogue, inspired visuals and characters that are just a little larger than life. You will also most likely get screaming fat people, repetition of a single line for comic effect and at least one speedy tracking zoom. There’s no movie quite like a Coen movie.

Signature movie: The Big Lebowski

10. Sam Raimi

Joel Coen began his career helping out on the editing of a friend’s debut movie. That movie was The Evil Dead, and the director was Sam Raimi. Made on a shoestring budget, The Evil Dead showcased the arrival of an inspired, and rather crazed, talent. Raimi delivered the kind of camerawork usually reserved for those with far more expensive equipment at their disposal, and a few of his techniques can be seen in subsequent Coen movies. However, Raimi’s anarchic style seemed a little lost in mainstream cinema until the arrival of Spider-man.

Signature movie: Evil Dead II

11. Terry Gilliam

The least seen member of the Monty Python team, Gilliam makes movies brimming with the singular and surreal imagination which was present in his Python animations. Usually working with the most meagre of budgets, allowing him to retain creative control over all his work, Gilliam has sometimes struggled to get his projects completed. However, when they are completed they have a magical style and a sensibility all their own. They usually feature characters whose imagination is too large for the world they live in, crushed by the mechanics of a clockwork society. The irony is clearly not lost on Gilliam.

Signature movie: Brazil

12. Sergio Leone

The man who made Clint Eastwood famous with his trilogy of ‘Spaghetti Westerns’, Italian director Leone took the western genre and made it look ugly. Rejecting the good guy/bad guy set-up of classic American westerns, Leone’s contributions were simply filled with varying shades of bad guy. Even Eastwood’s ‘Man with No Name’ is merely the best of a corrupt bunch. The characters are unwashed, morally vacant and greedy, the landscapes unforgiving and barren. Leone’s frontier is a harsh place to be. Often utilising both extreme close-ups and haunting long-shots, Leone has long been held by Eastwood as a major influence on his own directorial style.

Signature movie: Once Upon a Time in the West

13.  John Landis

During the 80s, Landis was responsible for some of the best comedies of the decade, including The Blues Brothers and Trading Places, but it was when he introduced horror into the mix with An American Werewolf in London that he really reached his peak. Landis made comedies that looked as good as any of the more high-brow movies, each littered with his unmistakeable trademarks (static shots of watching statues or paintings, and references to ‘see you next Wednesday’). His career tailed off toward the end of the decade, but perhaps the forthcoming Burke & Hare will be a return to form.

Signature movie: An American Werewolf in London

14. George Lucas

As a director, George Lucas is included in this list on the basis of one film, and one alone. But what a film. Star Wars changed everything. It’s impossible to gauge exactly what impact that movie had on the 7-year-old kid I was, but I know it was profound, as it was with almost every kid around my age. Star Wars was like saying hello to the wonder of cinema for the first time. We’d never seen anything like it. There were a few flashes of that directorial skill in the three prequels, but for the most part those films were engineered rather than directed and Lucas would not have made this list based on those. But for changing the way we viewed cinema, his one contribution cannot be underestimated.

Signature movie: Star Wars

15. John Lasseter and Pixar

Before Toy Story, the feature length animated movie industry was sputtering along at an uninspired pace. Disney’s output had suffered a gradual slump in both quality and popularity, boosted only by the success of The Lion King. Pixar, a computer company which was originally part of Lucasfilm, had been experimenting with computer animation for years and entered into a deal with Disney to produce three computer animated movies. Toy Story was the first, directed by John Lasseter, and the rest is history. Not only did Pixar revolutionise how movies were animated, but they also completely modernised the storytelling. Suddenly, animated movies were not just for kids, but were written with a sophistication which could appeal to all ages. Pixar kick-started animation, with other studios quick to follow suit, and they are yet to produce a bad film.

Signature movie: Toy Story

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Okay, my turn to tag. Apologies in advance if you’ve already done it and I missed it.

Cantankerous Panda at Back in the Day

Rory Dean at Above the Line

John at John of the Dead

Dan at Top 10 Films


Favourite Movie Scenes: The Fog

This blog was written as part of the John Carpenter Week at Radiator Heaven.

The Movie

The Fog (1980) is often overlooked when discussion turns to the best of John Carpenter, yet it is something of an underrated gem, snuggled between the more successful Halloween and Escape from New York.  As a great lover of traditional ghost stories, however, I have always ranked The Fog as my favourite Carpenter movie. It was the very first horror movie that I bluffed my way into a cinema to see, and it scared the hell out of me. I ended up sitting next to the closed door, in the dark, at the bottom of the auditorium. Bad placing in this movie, trust me. Ghost stories are always best kept simple, with simple scares, and The Fog obeys this rule eloquently.

Antonio Bay, a small coastal town in California, is about to celebrate its centennial.  However, on the eve of celebration the town priest discovers a dark secret about the founding of Antonio Bay and the curse that has been put upon it. Then the fog rolls in and brings something else with it, looking for revenge for a 100-year-old crime.

Big on atmosphere and complemented by one of Carpenter’s finest soundtracks, The Fog is a glorious exercise in plain, old-fashioned spooky.  Made on a shoestring budget, not unusual for a Carpenter movie, it wasn’t the easiest of productions. Carpenter has admitted that the first cut of The Fog was hugely disappointing, even going so far as to state, ‘This was the lowest point I had come to in my professional career’. Together with his editor Tommy Lee Wallace, he set about shooting additional material, including a new opening scene.

The Scene

Antonio Bay, 11:55pm on the 20th April. Old sea dog Mr. Madchen is entertaining (or scaring the hell out of) a group of children with ghost stories around the campfire. They are five minutes away from the Bay’s cenntenial, and Mr. Madchen has one more story to tell. This one is close to home…

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Why I Love It

Storytelling

The great pleasure of the ghost story is the simple act of telling, or being told, one. Storytelling, around a glowing fire at night, is one of man’s oldest activities. Few movies convey that simple pleasure, and no movie has done a better job than The Fog. Dear old John Houseman, who would tell more ghost stories the following year in the aptly titled Ghost Story, has the kind of tranquil, seasoned voice that could make any story come alive. He certainly does this one justice, even going so far as to make us jump with his fob watch. It certainly got me the first time around, in that darkened cinema, and just look at those wide-eyed kids! Bastard!

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Wide-eyed Kids

There’s a moment, as the kids sit there rapt and attentive, that always makes me smile. Mr. Madchen tells them that the drowned crew of the Elizabeth Dane will come back and look for the campfire that drew them to their deaths. At that moment, they all cast nervous glances to the fire they are sitting beside. A little moment of Spielberg-worthy magic.

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Music

John Carpenter has always been a curious rarity as a filmmaker. Not only does he direct and, more often than not, write his movies but he also composes and performs the soundtracks. I consider The Fog to be Carpenter’s finest work in this area. He uses his synth piano keys sparingly in this opening scene, subtly enhancing the atmosphere. As a backing to Houseman’s fireside tale, it is perfectly eerie.

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The Title Shot

As Mr. Madchen finishes his story, we pan up to see a view of Antonio Bay. Carpenter uses the lonely sounds of a deserted beach, with the wind and the town clock chimes, to chilling effect. And just look at that place. Dark and foreboding, would you want to be there? Not exactly cosy, is it? There is something intrinsically unsettling about a deserted, isolated beach at night. At least there is to me. It is the perfect setting for a ghost story, and Carpenter uses it masterfully in this opening scene.

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Mr. Madchen’s Story

‘Eleven fifty-five. Almost midnight. Enough time for one more story. One more story before twelve, just to keep us warm. In five minutes it will be the 21st of April.

One hundred years ago on the 21st of April, out in the waters around Spivey Point, a small clipper ship drew toward land. Suddenly, out of the night, the fog rolled in. For a moment, they could see nothing, not a foot ahead of them. And then, they saw a light. My God, it was a fire burning on the shore. Strong enough to penetrate the swirling mist. They steered a course toward the light. But it was a campfire, like this one. The ship crashed against the rocks. The hull sheared in two. The mast snapped like a twig. And the wreckage sank with all the men aboard.

At the bottom of the sea lay the Elizabeth Dane with her crew, their lungs filled with salt water, their eyes open and staring into the darkness. And above, as suddenly as it had come, the fog lifted, receded back across the ocean and never came again. But it is told by the fishermen and their fathers and grandfathers that when the fog returns to Antonio Bay, the men at the bottom of the sea, out in the water by Spivey Point, will rise up and search for the campfire that led them to their dark, icy death.

Twelve o’clock. The 21st of April.’


Top Five: Original Movie Soundtracks

They say the best movie soundtracks are the ones that you don’t notice are there. They feature music that enhances a film but never tries to compete for your attention. That’s all well and good, but personally I like the soundtracks that do both; the music that you find yourself humming later on and then buy because it is good enough to survive on its own.

I’ve been listening to soundtracks for as long as I’ve been watching movies, and that’s a long time. Sometimes I’ll listen because the music is excellent in its own right, sometimes because it’s just great music to daydream to, and sometimes because a particular score is the perfect inspiration for the writing of a screenplay. I once wrote an entire script around the music to a single scene in Aliens. Thanks for that, Mr James Horner.

Selecting a paltry five soundtracks from the plethora I admire was no easy task but eventually, after much hand-wringing and begging for forgiveness from the aforementioned James Horner, I settled on my Top Five. These are the soundtracks which I believe best represent the art in all its forms; as beautiful music in its own right, as the perfect enhancement to the story and visuals, and as examples of craftsmen at the top of their game.

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Alien – Jerry Goldsmith

1979

Long considered one of the most successful and enduring movie composers of all time, Jerry Goldsmith has been around since the Fifties and continues to work sporadically today. The story of his music for Ridley Scott’s Alien is one of disagreements and disappointments, but there is no denying the beauty of his work for the classic Sci-Fi/Horror movie. Hired by Scott at the ‘suggestion’ of 20th Century Fox, Goldsmith and the director clearly had differing ideas about how the movie should be scored. As a result, much of the music Goldsmith wrote was omitted from the final cut of Alien. The romantic, sweeping and eerie theme originally written was rejected by Scott and replaced by the composer’s second effort; a simple series of unnerving sounds which, it must be said, are extremely effective. Scott also chose to use a pre-existing piece of classical music for the end credits, further alienating Goldsmith. The original score is available in its entirety, but what remains within the film is deeply unsettling, beautiful and dark. Elements of his original opening theme survive in scenes where the Nostromo lands and takes off, making the process of landing a spaceship seem like an adventure in itself. And, taking the title of the movie to heart, Goldsmith creates ugly, unnatural sounds whenever the creature appears. Don’t ask me what they are, I prefer not knowing.

See also: Chinatown, Star Trek: The Motion Picture and The Omen.

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Edward Scissorhands – Danny Elfman

1990

The fourth collaboration between composer Elfman and director Tim Burton, Edward Scissorhands remains one of the most influential scores of the last twenty years. Elfman began his career in film by scoring his older brother Richard’s movie, Forbidden Zone, and soon after began his creative relationship with Burton working on Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. Utilising a 79 piece orchestra and a choir, the music for Edward Scissorhands is rich, dreamlike and perfectly encapsulates the bittersweet themes of Burton’s most personal film to date. In addition, Elfman creates a hilarious tick-tock theme for the bland suburbia into which Edward appears, and a signature bombastic march which touches on the near insanity of the inventor (Vincent Price) and his bizarre machines. Elfman and Burton represent a perfect understanding between director and composer, and even if Burton’s work isn’t always accomplished, Elfman’s usually is. They say that imitation is the highest form of flattery, and it is a measure of this soundtrack’s success that its music-box chimes and soulful choral voices have become the signature sound for fairy tales and Chanel advertisements ever since. It has even been adapted into a ballet.

See also: Midnight Run, Batman Returns and Big Fish.

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The Fog – John Carpenter

1980

John Carpenter has always been a curious rarity as a filmmaker. Not only does he direct and, more often than not, write his movies but he also composes and performs the soundtracks. Not even Spielberg can do that (all praise His name). So, as sole creator of every component, Carpenter’s synth-based scores have always been the perfect accompaniments to the action on the screen. Often using a heartbeat thump as the base, Carpenter’s soundtracks heighten the tension considerably. His most famous is probably Halloween, but my personal favourite has always been The Fog. Carpenter uses very little in enhancing the eerie atmosphere of his coastal ghost story, but every fog horn sound and every light stoke of piano key burrows deep under the skin, priming the viewer for the experience. The thumping sound as the fog rolls into Antonio Bay mimics the pounding on doors, the noise which announces the spectres before they strike. It is one of the greatest horror movie scores of all time, by a composer who fully understands the genre. Carpenter’s band, The Coup De Villes, also provided the somewhat cheesy tunes which play on the radio, or serve as jingles for the KAB Radio station.

See also: Halloween, Escape From New York and Big Trouble in Little China.

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Jaws – John Williams

1975

If you mention Jaws in conversation, one of the first things that will come to mind is the theme tune. Dum dum dum dum, etc and so forth. Effective and iconic as that theme is, it sometimes results in the rest of the soundtrack being overlooked. This is a shame because, beyond the ominous strings which more than compensate for the killer shark’s rather rubbery presence, Jaws enjoys one of the most accomplished scores in cinema history. John Williams has been working in the industry for half a century, and is responsible for some of cinema’s most recognisable theme tunes, including Star Wars and Indiana Jones. Jaws marked Williams’ first collaboration with Spielberg, a collaboration that has now spanned 35 years and 19 movies. By turns haunting, joyous, foreboding and terrifying, Jaws is a master class in writing music to accentuate the moving image. Williams’ strings make the ocean seem filled with dread, he quietly adds atmosphere to Quint’s tale of the USS Indianapolis, and the cheerful sea shanty which accompanies the Orca’s doomed pursuit of the Great White strikes a gloriously upbeat note in the midst of the peril. It was the perfect start to such a successful collaboration.

See also: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars and Schindler’s List.

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The Mission – Ennio Morricone

1986

The chances are there is at least one Ennio Morricone score that you love, and probably more. Morricone has been producing music for film for over 50 years, across a diverse range of genre and language. He gained wide acclaim for his work with Sergio Leone on the Spaghetti Westerns of the Sixties and managed to write a score for John Carpenter’s The Thing which sounded like a Carpenter score. However, when I hear the name Morricone I immediately think of one movie: The Mission. Roland Joffé’s story of Spanish Jesuit missionaries in 18th century South America, and their struggles with the Spanish and Portuguese colonial governments, was graced with some of the most beautiful music ever composed for film. Morricone mixes classical Baroque orchestra, South American Guaraní instruments, Spanish guitars and haunting choirs to magnificent and often heartbreaking effect. The emotional punch of Morricone’s work even filters down to the simple tune which Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) plays on his oboe, a tune later reprised with full orchestra for the track On Earth As It Is In Heaven, which is breathtaking.

See also: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, The Untouchables and Once Upon a Time in America.

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The Also Rans:  Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan – James Horner, The Bourne Identity – John Powell, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford – Warren Ellis and Nick Cave, Psycho – Bernard Herrmann, Solaris – Cliff Martinez.

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