Tag Archives: john carpenter

Link Dump: #38

Hey, look! It’s the cutest kitty in all of science fiction! Of course I speak of Jones, resident feline of the spaceship Nostromo. He may have led Ripley to risk her life needlessly, but really, look at him. You can’t be angry with that kitty. Now here are some links:

Not much lately in the way of search terms, but I did enjoy “why copy editors are important.” In case you were wondering, it’s because copy-editing makes writing coherent and professional. Hurray for correct grammar and spelling!

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There’s Something in the Fog!

First of all: I’m severely tempted to reference Carl Sandburg’s poem “Fog” over and over again throughout this post. I just thought you should know this. The lack of puns on “little cat feet” is only because I’m a master of self-restraint. Second of all: Why in the name of zombies didn’t anyone force me to watch The Fog (1980) before last week??! It’s a brilliantly told, old-fashioned ghost story, with nary a structural missteps and a premium on likeable, intelligent characters. It may well be one of director John Carpenter’s 2-3 crowning achievements.

It’s also a very smart meta-horror movie, as it deals with the scary stories we tell ourselves, and how those interact with the other myths our lives are based on. (Cf. Bernard Rose’s Candyman [1992].) The coastal town of Antonio Bay, California is about to turn 100 years old, and the town elders, like Kathy Williams (Janet Leigh) are planning a big celebration, complete with the unveiling of a commemorative statue. But there’s eerie doin’s a-transpiring, as the residents of Shelbyville would say, and a thick, glowing fog rolling in. Namely, the kind of thick, glowing fog that contains hook-and-sword-wielding ghosts out for blood…

But Carpenter makes this into so much more than your typical thriller about hook-wielding ghosts. Yes, the movie’s plot, with its build-and-release model of suspense, is rooted in the Hitchcock-influenced slasher formula that Carpenter had pioneered with Halloween. But The Fog‘s greatest priority is establishing Antonio Bay as a tangible place with an embattled community of diverse citizens, each of whom is affected by the town’s troubled nautical heritage. (Many of Carpenter’s films, including The Thing and Prince of Darkness, have claustrophobic premises based on Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo, which Carpenter himself remade; The Fog bears a similar, but less obvious, debt.)

We’ve got Father Malone (Hal Holbrook), the drunken priest who discovers his ancestor’s secret-laden diary; Stevie Wayne (Adrienne Barbeau), the DJ whose sultry voice stretches across the town, not unlike the fog itself; Nick Castle (Tom Atkins), an intrepid seaman who’s investigating the town’s mysteries; and Elizabeth (Jamie Lee Curtis), an itinerant artist who tags along with Nick. We spend the majority of the film getting to know these characters, learning about their relationships to Antonio Bay and to each other. Each of their stories is intercut, and each character gains new insights into the mystery that they must slowly piece together with the others’ help. It’s kind of like a small-town horror version of Nashville.

The terror of The Fog comes less from the occasional impalements, and more from the sense of dread as the fog bank approaches, determined to exact revenge for the sins of the fathers. The plot’s focus on old, scary stories, like the one that Father Malone accidentally uncovers, or the one told during the film’s prologue by guest star John Houseman, is what allows Carpenter to engage in some clever meta-commentary. This is a “cursed small town” story about cursed small town stories. It reminds me of a less mechanical, more ludic version of Jaws; it too is about civic responsibility, but with a greater curiosity about the directions a story can turn, and how viewers react to them.

Stevie’s son Andy, for example, lets his imagination run wild after he finds a piece of driftwood carved with the name of the ghost ship, the Elizabeth Dane. Andy’s enthusiasm here and throughout the film, as when he sees the danger he’s in and laughs, “I think it’s kinda neat!”, reflects our eagerness as audience members for the film’s approaching climax. Carpenter is a resolute classicist, devoted to retelling old stories in new, fun ways. Like his idol Hitchcock (whose film The Birds gets a shout-out when a character mentions Bodega Bay), he wants to tantalize and play with his audience. The Fog does an admirable job of giving its viewers the chills.

Of course, I have to touch on The Fog‘s Lovecraft connections: although Antonio Bay is on the west coast, the way Carpenter treats its haunted history resembles that of certain New England towns, Innsmouth among them, and Antonio Bay isn’t far from a spot called Arkham Reef. But The Fog is definitely less downbeat than most of Lovecraft, and espouses a worldview of qualified optimism through the fates of its characters: stick together and you’ll pull through, but somebody still has to pay (and with their life, not just a giant gold cross).

The Fog brings together all manner of horror legends under the auspices of solid writing, crafty editing, and Carpenter’s always reliable synthesizer score. It’s a movie that merges old and new in the mother/daughter pairing of Leigh and Curtis; in the confrontation between the town’s not-so-buried past and its living present; and in its telling of the oldest kind of horror story through the newest techniques. With its angry, shadow-shrouded ghosts, The Fog is a very scary movie, yet it’s also good-natured and thematically deep. It’s just the kind of entertainment we need as Halloween grows closer, sweeping across the calendar like a fluorescent cloud of fog.

Wait a minute, wait a minute, I’m not done yet! Well, OK, first: isn’t it cool how Adrienne Barbeau never physically interacts with any of the other characters? I love subtle tricks like that. Second and most importantly: totally by coincidence, I recently saw Barbeau and Holbrook in a movie together – that is, George Romero’s Creepshow. As a whole, I found it pretty uneven and only occasionally successful (note: Ed Harris used to be hot, and Leslie Nielsen makes a good psychopath); the Barbeau/Holbrook episode, “The Crate,” was probably the movie’s peak. (Either that or the last one, “They’re Creeping Up On You!”, where E.G. Marshall is plagued by some icky cockroaches.)

Barbeau and Holbrook play a dysfunctional couple living in academia. The story is pretty much Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? meets Monster on the Campus (with, as usual, a little Lovecraft thrown in), as Holbrook’s colleague pries open the titular object… and finds a very hungry, very toothed beastie inside. Can you guess who tries to use the monster to kill who? I’ll give you a hint: Holbrook is a hen-pecked, fed-up husband while Barbeau is his verbally abusive, drunken, uncensored wife. She gives a fantastic performance, by the way. So there! A little tangentially related bonus review to tide you over.

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Hawks/Carpenter/Lovecraft

[This piece was written as part of John Carpenter Week over at Radiator Heaven. Go there for a comprehensive listing of other Carpenter-related writing.]

Together, The Thing from Another World (1951) and John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) comprise one of my favorite original/remake couplings. They’re both chilly and paranoid, using the narrow corridors of polar research stations to elicit maximum terror. The 1951 version is a mix of high adventure and Cold War sci-fi, told with Howard Hawks’ consummate classicism (although the direction is credited to Christian Nyby); Carpenter’s, meanwhile, amps up the mistrust and the gore, the latter courtesy of Rob Bottin and Stan Winston’s special effects.

My point is that these are both top-notch sci-fi/horror movies that I love. During the summer, I read H.P. Lovecraft’s novella At the Mountains of Madness and, what do you know, I caught some strong parallels with both Thing movies! Of course, there’s the basic plot – intrepid scientists uncover a long-buried eldritch horror in the icy wastes – but even beyond that, we’ve got similarities galore. This is probably not a coincidence, as Mountains was published in Astounding Stories in 1936, with John W. Campbell’s “Who Goes There?”, on which both Thing movies were based (and which I have not read), appearing in the same periodical just two years later.

But hey, pointing out parallels like this is fun. Thus, I’m going to reveal them in the most dramatic form possible: through quotes and screenshots! Everybody loves those, right?

“I hope I have said enough already to let me glide briefly over the rest; the rest, that is, of the horror at the camp. I have told of the wind-ravaged terrain, the damaged shelters, the disarranged machinery, the varied uneasiness of our dogs, the missing sledges and other items, the deaths of men and dogs…” (Chapter 4)

Exhibit A: In The Thing, the Norwegian camp operates with basically the same significance as Lake’s camp in Mountains. Except Lake and his men didn’t leave behind anything so informative as a twisted mutant corpse; all that remained was those weird alien snow-tombs.

“At first all that Lake found was dry, but as the heated tent produced its thawing effect, organic moisture of pungent and offensive odor was encountered toward the thing’s uninjured side.” (Chapter 2)

Whoops! Better not let that ancient ice block defrost! After all, it might contain ghastly creatures beyond man’s reckoning. Never mind; it’s too late. That’s what you get for introducing heat to the damn polar regions. (Fun fact: Mountains and The Thing ’82 take place in the Antarctic; The Thing ’51 is set in the Arctic.)

“Having trouble with dogs. They can’t endure the new specimen, and would probably tear it to pieces if we didn’t keep it at a distance from them.”

Note for future polar explorers: listen to your dogs. They are smart. They have that special dog sense, the one that helped Balto transport all that diphtheria vaccine. They can discern when eons-old beings with little regard for humanity have sneaked into your midst. And when earthquakes about to strike. Man, dogs are useful.

“A good-sized blast had laid open the subterrene secret; and now, through a jagged aperture perhaps five feet across and three feet thick, there yawned before the avid searchers a section of shallow limestone hollowing worn more than fifty million years ago…” (Chapter 2)

Guys, what’s the lesson you’re trying to give us? Don’t go digging in the earth? I guess Lovecraft would say that geology is just another branch of science, and all scientific/mathematical endeavors inevitably lead to failure or madness. As for Hawks’s men, Andrew Sarris said they were driven by “professionalism.” And not digging up a potentially groundbreaking discovery would probably be a breach of their code. In Carpenter’s case, it’s not even the Americans’ fault. They’re just pitifully following in the Norwegians’ footsteps.

“They had done the same thing on other planets, having manufactured not only necessary foods, but certain multicellular protoplasmic masses capable of molding their tissues into all sorts of temporary organs…” (Chapter 7)

“Must dissect when we get back to camp. Can’t decide whether vegetable or animal.” (Chapter 2)

The greatest difference between the two Things is their monsters: Hawks has James Arness in pretty scary alien makeup; Carpenter has a series of icky, protean critters that turn into other critters. Here’s my proposal: the ’82 monster resembles Lovecraft’s “Shoggoths,” which also imitate other life forms. When the protagonist encounters one, he describes it as “a shapeless congeries of protoplasmic bubbles, faintly self-luminous, and with myriads of temporary eyes forming and un-forming as pustules of greenish light.” These same threateningly amorphous qualities are present in Carpenter’s thing.

Hawks’s thing, on the other hand, is more like Lovecraft’s Old Ones. Not so much in appearance (they have starfish-shaped heads), but in the vegetable/animal ambiguity that Dr. Carrington raves about. In any case, the thing’s extraction from the ground, its thawing, and its escape match what happens with the corpses of the Old Ones, practically scene for scene. Let the inquiring minds over at Miskatonic ponder that one for a while.

So what’s the point of this exercise? Well, it’s threefold: 1) it’s cool, 2) it shows how supplemental reading material can give new insight into this pair of films, and 3) it’s another example of Lovecraft’s ongoing influence on horror fiction. Plus, At the Mountains of Madness is not going away any time soon. Here, for your reading pleasure, are some reassuring quotes from Guillermo del Toro about his upcoming film adaptation of Mountains. (Also, not as reassuringly, there’s prequel to The Thing in the works.) So there you have it: Lovecraft is alive and well and living in Arkham!

“I hope I have said enough already to let me glide   briefly over the rest; the rest, that is, of the   horror at the camp. I have told of the wind-ravaged   terrain, the damaged shelters, the disarranged   machinery, the varied uneasiness of our dogs, the   missing sledges and other items, the deaths of men   and dogs…” (Chapter 4)

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Announcing… The Halloween Countdown!

That’s right, ghouls and boys (and those off the gender binary), it’s that spooktacular time of year again! I.e., the best time of year. The time of year when it’s actually legal and legitimate to go from house to house, ringing doorbells and terrifying the inhabitants, and even get paid for it. In candy. My point is, we’ve only got 30 days left till Halloween. So as the leaves turn orange, let’s get our pumpkin-carving knives ready and start watching some horror movies.

And speaking of horror movies: for the next 30 days, Pussy Goes Grrr will become one long Halloween party. If it’s in any way tangentially related to horror in film, literature, music, or art, we’ll be writing about it. Check back often for a deluge of altogether ooky posts about spine-tingling favorites, new and old! Our salute to witches, goblins, and things that go bump in the night kicks off now. (And please pardon my huckster-ish jargon. I can’t help it; call it “William Castle syndrome.”)

P.S. – Awesome, it looks like every other horror-loving blog is doing this, too. Great minds think alike, right? I’m sure we’ll be posting up plenty of links to their Octravaganzas as the month wears on.

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Link Dump: #6

Halloween’s getting closer every day! Aren’t you excited?? Can’t you feel the tangible excitement in the air?! I know I can. But alas, we’ve still got a month and a half, so in the meantime, here’s some reading material with the PGG stamp of approval. Also, tune in next week as we bring you The Fifth Element, The White Ribbon, Julianne Moore, and more.

  • The one and only Paracinema Magazine is releasing their 10th issue, and it’s available to pre-order for the low, low price of $7. Added incentive: you can read my short piece on the exploitation film Sex Madness. What are you waiting for? Go, pre-order, and support high-quality film writing! Also, congratulations to the Paracinema crew on 10 great issues.
  • Elli Agg, a Greek fan of Amanda Palmer, posted this amazing song called “Dear AFP” on YouTube. She’s so cute, talented, and inspiring; you owe it to yourself to listen.
  • Via the Found Footage Festival, here’s a hilariously nightmarish PSA made by an insurance company. I have a strange affinity for bizarre PSAs, as I’ve demonstrated in the past, and this is a pretty great one, with its laughably over-the-top accidents.
  • Having followed it since December ’09, this week I won The Film Experience’s movie identification game “First and Last” twice in a row! My satisfaction in winning is only matched by the pettiness of my achievement.
  • This ad for “Great Old Spice” body wash is both professional-looking and full of lolz. Of course, I’m a sucker for all things Cthulhu, but seriously: they worked in so many Lovecraft references.
  • John Carpenter made another movie! The Ward, his first since 2001’s widely panned Ghosts of Mars, debuted at TIFF earlier this week, and MUBI has the scoop on its critical reception. Consensus so far is that it’s not Halloween great, but it’s solidly good.
  • Want more classic Carpenter? Radiator Heaven is hosting John Carpenter Week from October 3-9 in honor of the maestro’s revived career. I’ll probably be writing something for it too. (Like so much else, it will involve Lovecraft.)
  • Whether you love her or hate her, you can’t argue with the power and passion of Lady Gaga’s “Repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” crusade. Go her! Talk about having a positive impact on the nation.

And now that you’ve read our online recommendations, here are our weirdest, ickiest, WTFest search terms from the previous week, most of which contain the word “pussy”:

  • We’ve got some pussy abuse, like “why do women like doing dog food in puss” and “fire extinguisher in pussy.” Please, no. Dog food and fire extinguishers have their purposes, and they do not involve pussies.
  • Oddly enough, we had two searches for Yakov Smirnov jokes, those being “in soviet russia leg breaks you” and “in russia bread eats you.” Maybe they were looking for this?
  • FYI: “please rape me style clothing” is not a productive search. There is no such style of clothing.
  • I suspect that the person looking for “excited cock and wild pussy have cartoon” may have been after this very old, very NSFW cartoon
  • And finally, nothing could beat the raw strangeness of “agatha christie books + bottle in vagina.” Don’t explain it to me. I just don’t want to know.

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Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Lovecraft

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.

Lately, a surprising amount of people have been finding Pussy Goes Grrr by searching for the word “Cthulhu,” so I figured it was time to write about H.P. Lovecraft‘s Cthulhu Mythos. (Even more hits have come from “lady gaga hot,” but that’s neither here nor there.) Although he picked up from where others like Poe and Lord Dunsany left off, Lovecraft blazed new trails in “cosmic horror,” and his impact has been felt in many corners of popular culture. Of course, he was also an unabashed racist who apparently didn’t believe that fictional characters should have sexual desires.

He’s such a divisive, mammoth figure in horror history, one who led respected authors to write glorified fanfiction, one whose complex legacy has reached its ungodly tentacles into the 21st century — and beyond?? Lovecraft’s influence, both good and gruesome, is spread like glowing ichor all across weird and scary stories. So here’s some musings on Lovecraft or: how I learned to stop worrying and love the Great Old Ones.

1. Knowledge

As the quote above (the first line of “The Call of Cthulhu“) indicates, Lovecraft’s stories are implicitly opposed to any form of scientific rationalism. In his fictional universe, the scientific method or any other attempt to unearth the truth will inevitably lead to tragedy, and probably insanity too. Lovecraft’s narrators constantly blur the lines between truth and falsehood, sanity and madness, and “the real and the unreal,” as Jervas Dudley says at the beginning of “The Tomb.” Basically, when we try to discern the laws by which our universe functions, we’re asking the wrong questions, because things don’t necessarily make sense.

Lovecraft’s life span (1890-1937) puts him squarely in the midst of one of modern history’s greatest ruptures. He came of age just after the turn of the century, and really started publishing short stories during World War I. So it’s easy to read his grim work in the context of the early 20th century’s massive technological and political flux – like the deformed twin brother of literary modernism. Along with this symptomatic fear of the impending future is a tension between the old and the new: his stories are replete with mentions of antiquated tomes (most notably, the Necronomicon) and with stilted Victorian jargon and racial epithets. His characters often have long (sometimes cursed) bloodlines, and of course the evils that emerge are the oldest of all.

Yet his stories, by and large, take place in the present he knew, namely the 1920s-’30s. And although the evils may have been ancient and buried away, the stories are often about archaeology, exploration, and vanishing frontiers. The scientist or adventurer of the modern day will dig up the secrets of history, and it’s this desire for knowledge that unleashes the irrational destruction. This was a time when science was, more than ever, intent on mapping out and naming everything – all the world’s places, peoples, animals, and phenomena. In Lovecraft, a wrench gets thrown in the works. Knowledge is not purely good; in fact, exactly the opposite. In many ways, then, although he died 8 years before the invention of the atomic bomb, Lovecraft anticipated the course that science fiction and horror would take in the 1950s. (Now think about John Carpenter’s remake of the 1951 Thing from Another World from this perspective. Maybe a little Lovecraft was present in the story all along? “Keep watching the skies…”)

2. The Mythos

Lovecraft was one of those rare artists who constructed vast, terrifying worlds from the sheer force of his imagination. In the disturbed universe of the Cthulhu Mythos, he implemented the ideas above (fear of knowledge, the past erupting into the present) as the concrete material of his fiction. To the human characters of the Mythos, these aren’t just abstract intellectual crises; they’re perceptible (if indescribable) and usually life-threatening realities. Their universe has its own elaborate cosmology, built up through tiny details scattered here and there across dozens of stories, through subjective glimpses into its remote corners. At its core is a basic premise, tying together the sci-fi, fantasy, and horror aspects of Lovecraft’s work: mankind is not alone, and what’s out there doesn’t really care about us.

Going back to the connection between Lovecraft and modernism, the Mythos certainly engages in a very modernist project, namely displacing humanity from the center of consciousness and power. It’s a very cold, bleak project as well, since unlike most ancient myths or other sci-fi, Lovecraft’s alien gods are primarily nonanthropomorphic. They’re hard to communicate or fight with, and they’re totally unsympathetic to any of our desires or dislikes. Their physical natures inspire terror in human beings unlucky enough to perceive them. They’re also incredibly powerful, and when you add that to a lack of common ground with humans, that makes for horror. They preceded us and they will outlast us, so human pride and the importance of human affairs are suddenly reduced to the smallest of footnotes on the universe’s history.

So: Cthulhu. The most iconic, well-remembered character in all of Lovecraft. Somehow he (she? it?) was seized upon as a representative of everything Lovecraftian, but Cthulhu is an effective envoy of cosmic terror. (And easier to spell/pronounce than Yog-Sothoth or Nyarlathotep.) Introduced in “The Call of Cthulhu,” s/he’s relatively approachable as Great Old Ones go. Dwells in the sunken city of R’Lyeh, has cults spread across the world, and awaits the moment the stars are right so s/he can burst forth and start a new era of life on earth. Cthulhu is also a great demonstration of how Lovecraft is so effective: s/he is revealed through fragments, never seen for long, and never speaks. Yet through hints and suggestions, the reader receives a giant, terrifying impression. Despite being so distant and inscrutable, we still somehow feel like we know Cthulhu.

3. Lovecraftian

And now Lovecraft and Cthulhu are part of pop culture. And naturally, they’ve become subject to endless appropriation and parody. His stories are so delightfully morbid and well-realized, brimming with imaginative realms and creatures, yet also so unrelenting and self-serious. It makes perfect sense for an artist who admires Lovecraft to imitate him while deflating the grandiosity of his writing. So we have examples like the filk love song “Hey There Cthulhu” by Eben Brooks, or the musical “A Shoggoth on the Roof.” Or the 1980s resurgence of Cormanesque horror-comedies, where Lovecraftian tropes were used in over-the-top, gory classics like Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead and Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator.

And in literature? Suffice it to say that Lovecraft doesn’t just have a legacy; he has a subgenre. As a sample of the endless homages, I’d point you toward the anthology Shadows Over Baker Street, which introduces Sherlock Holmes to the eerie world of the Cthulhu Mythos. (I especially recommend Neil Gaiman’s “A Study in Emerald” and Paul Finch’s “The Mystery of the Hanged Man’s Puzzle.”) With his huge collection of stories, Lovecraft provided a potential framework for the writers who followed him, between the fictional world he created, the dark angle from which he confronted his themes, and his mastery of ornate diction and tense pacing. These fantastic tools can also be used by authors from different backgrounds, thereby producing Lovecraftian fiction that isn’t so aristocratic, racist, and sex-phobic.

This is a pretty broad view of Lovecraft’s career and effect on horror fiction. Since his legacy is so colossal, he’s pretty much a one-man field of study, so far more specific and in-depth analyses are available all over the Internet. For the curious, I’d recommend the AV Club’s Gateway to Geekery for Lovecraft, or just going over to Wikisource’s collection and diving in. But if you dare to delve into these untold horrors, do not be surprised when you find yourself thrust head-first into a ghastly, unspeakable fate worse than death. I mean, it’s always possible.

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