Monday, April 23, 2012

Sons of a Carpenter – Attack The Block and The Raid

It’s hard to explain how crushingly disappointed I was by John Carpenter’s The Ward from 2010, when I finally saw it on DVD earlier this year. It wasn’t a terrible film, but it was almost exactly what you would expect from that kind of story, from the troubled back-stories right down to the inevitable twist. There were no real surprises.

And while that was perfectly okay, I always expect more than perfectly okay from John Carpenter films, even if he hasn’t really delivered anything more than that in two decades.

He lost his mojo somewhere around the period where he did the terrible, terrible remake of Village of the Damned, and even though there have been the odd sparks of that old Carpenter magic in things like Ghosts of Mars or Vampires, they have still been extremely poor movies.

Especially when you compare them to the films Carpenter did as a hungry young filmmaker – Dark Star, Assault on Precinct 13, Escape from New York, Halloween and The Thing are all slices of raw and jagged genius, and even mid-period films like They Live, Big Trouble in little China, In The Mouth Of Madness and Prince of Darkness have more good points than bad.

So even if Carpenter never makes a great film again – and I really do believe he still has the potential to do something brilliant – at least he has a fine body of work behind him that will continue to excite and inspire for many years to come.

That inspiration is all over the place in modern pop culture. Carpenter was doing things in the nineteen seventies that seemed extreme and taboo-bending, like killing off cute little kids and offering only the bleakest of endings, but now that sort of thing is regularly served up on network television in endless torture and crime show, the shock diluted by sheer ubiquity, the taboo becoming bland.

His influence is also obvious in endless waves of intense horror, action and science fiction films that try to capture that same spark that Carpenter once showed. Some of them are blatant – the Thing remake/prequel/whatever fed off Carpenter’s original film like a succubus without adding anything new, and other remakes of his films, including Assault on Precinct 13 and The Fog, have been notably inferior to the original.

This kind of carcass feeding should not be encouraged, but it is pleasing to see filmmakers who pick up the right things from Carpenter’s film, and generate similar moods and vibes, while crucially doing their own thing.

There have been two excellent examples in recent months of this, neither of which were American, but neither could still be none more Carpenter.

The first of these is Attack The Block, Joe Cornish’s excellent British film about aliens with big fucking glowing teeth who make the mistake of invading a London housing estate. It’s scary and funny and fast-paced and unexpectedly tender, and while Cornish shows plenty of film influences from all over the place, it’s the work of John Carpenter that seems the primary source.

It’s not just the sparse synthesized score, although that is the most obvious thing lifted from Carpenter's films, and shows that the simplest tunes are still the most effective. It’s also the fact that it has the same pacing as a classic Carpenter, going from grim to fucking mental with speed and has characters who seem pretty reprehensible, but who show hidden depths and strengths when the shit goes down.

Attack The Block is a film that takes its time getting to know the characters, while still cracking into the plot at a running pace. The main protagonists aren’t just dull thugs, they’re young confused men who actually have a sense of responsibility, so when the craziness kicks off, they almost end up doing the right thing by default. (Helped by some great acting too – John Boyega is going to be a goddamn star.)

The movie shares a mood of creepy efficiency with some of Carpenter’s finest – this could easily take place in the same world as The Thing, with both films grounded in a I-can’t-believe-what-I’m-seeing reality. That reality extends into the action sequences, where things don't always go to plan.

Jack Burton is a tough talking idiot in Big Trouble In Little China who knocks himself out right at the start of the big final battle, the gang in Attack The Block escape the aliens by riding their bikes down steps, trying to do clever things they’ve seen on YouTube and everybody ends up painfully falling on their arses.

This attention to detail, a continued ramping up of tension and focus on real humanity are all shared by Cornish and Carpenter's film, but Attack the Block still has its own unique story and setting, and doesn't slavishly follow Carpenter's rules, bending them enough to produce something new and interesting. That's the way to soak up the influence.

The other film that left me with a definite Carpenter vibe was another film directed by a British filmmaker, but this one came from the other side of the world – The Raid.

The Raid is just as good as everybody keeps telling you it is, and is highly recommended. Its director and star richly deserve any success coming its way, because Gareth Evans and Iko Uwais' successful partnership makes The Raid one of the most exciting action films of the past decade.

It shares the same pace as Attack on Precinct 13, with a short burst of rapidly increasing dread soon exploding into unceasing action, and also uses a minimal score to terrific effect.

The Raid is very definitely its own film - it has moments of crazy balls-to-the-wall action that are more energetic than anything Carpenter ever dreamed of - but the influence is still fairly obvious, if you go looking for it. There is one bit in particular that is pure Carpenter: a group of police are trapped in an open stairwell, and above them is only darkness, but then the camera pans up – painfully slowly - into the darkness and the gloom gradually reveals a gang of armed gang members, all ready to unleash some fury.

There are a couple of moments like that, when the action slows down, while the tension only racks up, where the film takes its time before the next explosion of violence, and it's just as effective now as it ever was.

Both of these films don’t just rely on the simplicity of a decent score, a mood of malevolent menace, and a story that sings with sheer efficiency, and they don’t just rely on the fact that they both take place in singular confined spaces, filled with characters that you end up liking, no matter how reprehensible they first appear.

But soaking up these kinds of lessons that John Carpenter started teaching more than 20 years ago certainly doesn’t hurt a film, as long as the new generation remember to bring something new to the table.

Because when they do, any disappoint I feel with Carpenter’s most modern efforts doesn’t really matter, when the results are this good.

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