Tag Archive: They Live


The 5th Wave invasion

The aliens have arrived.

It’s flat-out one of our favorite sci-fi sub-genres.  The alien invasion flick.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), The Thing from Another World (1951), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), E.T, the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Predator (1987), Alien Nation (1988), They Live (1988), Independence Day (1996), Star Trek: First Contact (1996), Men in Black (1997), Starship Troopers (1997), Signs (2002), War of the Worlds (2005), Cloverfield (2008), District 9 (2009), Cowboys & Aliens (2011), Edge of Tomorrow (2014).  These are some of the most exciting and fun sci-fi movies to watch and re-watch.

Kick-Ass and The Equalizer’s Chloë Grace Moretz stars in a new Sony/Columbia Pictures release, The 5th Wave, which looks like it’s mixing the alien invasion film with the disaster movie, the epidemic movie, and the body snatcher movie.  The only thing missing is zombies.  But body snatchers are close enough.

Alien ship in The 5th Wave

The 5th Wave co-stars Office Space star Ron Livingston, X-Men Origins and The Sum of All Fears’ Liev Shreiber, and Prime Suspect and Assault on Precinct 13’s Maria Bello.  Is Moretz a normal Earthling or one of us taken over by the aliens?

Check out this first trailer for The 5th Wave:

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Matthew Skiff poster art

Yesterday sci-fi icon (and ex-pro WWE Hall of Fame wrestler) Roddy Piper died at age 61 of a heart attack in his sleep, a great loss to his family, friends, and fans around the world.  For me, and undoubtedly thousands of others throughout this weekend, that meant my own tribute: dropping in to revisit the Blu-ray of John Carpenter’s They Live when I arrived home, the classic sci-fi masterwork starring Piper as a modern Sergio Leone-inspired drifter whose curiosity reveals the hero within.  And it means queueing up Carpenter’s soundtrack to that film in the car for the next week, including that immensely cool theme that followed Piper around that film.  Carpenter said yesterday about Piper, “Devastated to hear the news of my friend Roddy Piper’s passing today.  He was a great wrestler, a masterful entertainer and a good friend.”

I barely knew who “Rowdy” Roddy Piper was when I went to the opening of They Live back in November 1988.  When the name Roddy Piper appeared on the screen in all caps I made no connection that this was the same guy as the wrestler in the red kilt.  The trailer for They Live appeared to be typical B-movie sci-fi horror fare, yet it revealed that the film had some subliminal message concept that was intriguing.  For years my friends and family would watch the ads between movies at the Drive-In theater and wait for the furtively inserted single frames that would state in red and white “BUY” and similar sneaky words, presumably to create zombies of us all as we stumbled unwittingly to the concession stand to spend all our dollars on fresh popcorn from O’Dell’s.  So the concept was certainly worthy of a cool flick.  The movie?  It blew me away and I remember talking about it for days.  It has remained a standout among cult classics, and if I can proclaim any cult classic as worthy of repeated watching, They Live is #1.

Piper They Live

If you haven’t seen it yet, there’s no better time than now.  Piper, in an incredibly underplayed performance, stars as a loner trying to keep to himself.  He is thrown into the middle of a waking-up-to-reality by a group of grassroots rebels who discover that the wealthier elements of society (plucked right out of the Reagan years) are actually hideous aliens in cloaked bodies, attempting to keep us asleep through subliminal messages in our advertising.  When our hero discovers special sunglasses and later contact lenses that show the true world, we soon learn the secret behind the plot and why this is a classic sci-fi film.  They Live also has the best of Carpenter’s soundtracks–including the repetitive theme of our hero, following him and leading us through Piper’s dark discoveries.  And just like Steve McQueen’s Bullitt is known for its famous San Francisco car chase, here They Live has a standout best fight scene, a hilariously choreographed, iconic, hand-to-hand fight scene between Piper and co-star Keith David that stretches in excess of 15 screen minutes.

Speaking of Steve McQueen, if you ever want to create a list of the coolest performances to ever appear on film, you’d be remiss not to include Piper in They Live in your deliberations.  And as cool celebrities go, it goes without saying that the fact Piper wore a kilt already makes him surpass in coolness anyone else around who hasn’t worn one.

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They Live poster and glasses by Matthew Skiff

Sometimes you find an artist that seems to be very in sync with your interests.  If you’re into John Carpenter movies, the Twin Peaks TV series, 3D glasses, and anything that glows in the dark, then you might find yourself stumbling upon the website of artist Matthew Skiff.

Skiff has a great understanding of design, blending clever retro-style elements, eye-popping color combinations, and nifty classic poster techniques to give us an entirely new look at some genre greats.  Take for instance his poster for They Live, shown above, to be viewed with blue-red polarized 3D glasses that were included with the print.  As with Roddy Piper’s hero in the film, you need to wear glasses to see the messages hidden in plain sight.

Matthew Skiff They Live print close-up

The same technique was used for an earlier print for Twin Peaks, featuring Agent Cooper and Bob–with Bob revealing his true self to those with the 3D glasses.

Twin Peaks Matthew Skiff

Or glow-in-the-dark ink that reveals the secret of the crystal ball…

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Cruise in Jack Reacher

Tom Cruise.  No matter the character, no matter the story, no matter the director, he just can’t make a bad movie.  Last year’s release, Jack Reacher, available now on Netflix streaming and DVD and Blu-ray, is another home run.  But for the lackluster title and so-so marketing effort, Jack Reacher might have been a really big hit last year.  Cruise turns in a solid performance again, similar to his high-calibre lead acting in last year’s sci-fi release Oblivion, reviewed here at borg.com.  Later this year the 51-year-old screen legend is back again, in another sci-fi release, Edge of Tomorrow, with co-star Emily Blunt.

Jack Reacher, odd name aside, could be one of those heroes you compare to Harry Callahan, Frank Bullitt, or a Daniel Craig-era James Bond.  The character is that good, as is Cruise’s fit into the role of a smart and tough drifter who turns to the aid of a comatose defendant and his struggling defense attorney in the case of a shocking, random mass shooting.  Cruise’s drifter is also ex-military, the kind of ex-military that can take on a group of thugs by himself, and take part in a big-screen shoot-‘em up.  We see Reacher learning and growing as he tries to make all the right moves–and get constantly set back–throughout the movie, not something many films give audiences much of these days.  He thinks like a lawyer or detective and does so believably, and Cruise taps into his work in The Firm or A Few Good Men, making Reacher a good follow-on for fans of those films.

Duvall and Cruise in Jack Reacher

As Reacher attempts to find the top gunman at a rifle range, we find Robert Duvall in another great role similar to his work in A Civil Action, this time as a craggy expert with a rifle.  Along the way we meet several villains, including one played by A Good Day to Die Hard’s Jai Courtney, but far and away the most intriguing is writer/director/producer Werner Herzog as what could be a Bond villain as “Zec”.  Creepy.  Vile.  Evil.  He gives a pawn who screwed-up a choice: death, or chew off his own fingers.  Yikes.  Rosamund Pike (Surrogates, Pride and Prejudice) excels as the defense attorney in several scenes with the opportunity to convey a wide range of emotions for a single film–and cinematography by (Zooey and Emily’s dad) Caleb Deschanel (The Right Stuff, The Natural, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, National Treasure), gives her plenty of well-timed, stare-into-the-camera close-ups.

Rosamund Pike in Jack Reacher

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By C.J. Bunce

The focus of my creepy movie list is mood and surprises and re-watchability, as the setting and ambiance is what calls to me when it’s time to pull out some movies every October when each day gets darker and the wind starts kicking up the leaves.  I don’t like slasher flicks, and over-the-top shock horror isn’t my thing.  Movies like Hellraiser II and Phantasm may be flat-out scary, but they don’t give you much else entertaining.  I like the “modern classics,” the original Friday the 13th and Halloween, but ultimately they didn’t make my list because I don’t re-watch them as much as other movies.  I really liked The Ring and Donnie Darko, but ultimately they didn’t make it to the Top 10 for me, only because I haven’t had time to watch them over and over as much as most of those that made the cut.  On another day the ceiling hopping raptors in Jurassic Park, non-fantasy horrors of Coma and The China Syndrome, the creepy terror in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, the stylish suspense in Hitchcock’s Rear Window or Otto Preminger’s Laura, the sheer panic in Steven Spielberg’s Duel, the nervous tension in Blair Witch, as well as the “Zuni fetish doll” segment of Trilogy of Terror and one of my favorites–the “oil spill attacking kids at a lake” segment of Creepshow 2–could have made this list for me.  Every one of the shows above will make you jump when you least expect it.

So here’s where I did end up:

10.  Young Frankenstein (1974).  I figured any list I’d create for creepy/suspense/Halloween watching would have to reflect the classic Universal monster movies in some way.  My favorite is the parody of all of them, made by the master of parody, Mel Brooks.  Brooks held the classic horror films with such reverence that he re-created the original design for the Frankenstein laboratory for Young Frankenstein.  Yes, I know it’s not scary.  But as dark, gothic ambience is concerned, I know of no other film that did it so well, and in black and white this movie could have been made 40 years earlier–it feels like a 1930s film.  It’s also a movie all ages will enjoy–kids won’t understand the innuendo in most of the comedy, but the physical humor will have them laughing out loud.  I’ve watched this one so many times I have it practically committed to memory.  One of the best ensemble casts I can think of performed in this one.  Look for Gene Hackman in a great cameo, too.  Like a funhouse, there are startling jumps here, but they are all cloaked in humor.  Pull out the humor and you have a ghoulish Frankenstein story where off-camera you know the monster, with an inside joke-like smirk to the audience, is going to launch that little girl into the well after the last flower petal is gone.  Not a scary film, but Transylvania never looked creepier.

9.  28 Days Later (2003).  In a tie as the most recent film on my list, this is a rare occurrence where zombie-like people are actually interesting, creepy, and scary.  A few weeks after an outbreak engulfs Great Britain, a handful of characters try to find sanctuary away from the sub-humans that have resulted from the disturbing virus.  It doesn’t get much creepier than the plague in the single drop of water falling into Brendan Gleeson’s eye in 28 Days Later.  The movie is full of characters who look like they really are feeling the panic you would feel when there is no hope left and it’s left to every man for himself.  An opening scene with Cillian Murphy playing a patient who finally awakens to find an empty London was instantly a classic piece of cinema, reminiscent of the Australian film The Quiet Earth or The Day the Earth Stood Still.  With the feel of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the creepy UK film Lifeforce, and a little An American Werewolf in London, the filters and UK setting for the American viewer adds to the strangeness of this movie’s vibe.

8.  Prince of Darkness (1987).  My addiction to the TV series Simon and Simon and series star Jameson Parker is what caused me to rent this one back in the late 1980s.  It is John Carpenter’s approach that makes this one plain scary.  It is almost a scientific view of what university types would do if they were encountering an invader entering our world.  This time the invader is the devil, and the gateway is via a “hellmouth” of sorts made of gelatinous green goo.  Forget about any prior appearance you’ve seen of Alice Cooper.  He’s the coolest right here as one of the zombies creeping about to usher in the evil and trapping the researchers in their building with some very bad happenings.  The classic Carpenter crew is here, too, with Donald Pleasance as the priest, Peter Jason as the doctor, and Victor Wong as the professor.  The ultimate form that the “prince of darkness” takes at the end of the film is the big shocker.  And, yes, there’s some gore, but ultimately this film tries to be a lot better film than straight horror, and like all Carpenter flicks, manages to succeed.

7.  Final Destination 2 (2003).  Although this film certainly brings in the latex blood and gore by the boatload, this movie takes the concept of “death stalking those who cheated it” further than the original film and is actually a lot more fun.  It’s the first Final Destination mixed with some more carefully concocted Rube Goldberg-inspired chain reactions.  Ali Larter, co-star of the first film, gets a bigger role here, trying to help the cast of “lucky” survivors.  Suspense is amped up in this film, and non-stop angst, as you wonder just who and how the next guy is going to get eliminated by the seemingly random events.  Lots of red herrings, but all are fun, with plenty of opportunity for you to jump out of your seat.

6.  They Live (1988).  I saw the premiere of this film in 1988 and the name Roddy Piper went by in the credits.  I never made the connection the star was THE Rowdy Roddy Piper of WWF fame til years later.  The guy could act an dhe is very cool as this character.  They Live has a number of cool elements for a genre film:  an outsider-type fringe hero, a sci-fi twist, surprises around every corner, a feeling of paranoia seeps in, a big revelation that makes you question what is going on around you as you walk from the theater, and cool gimmicks–contact lenses and sunglasses that let you see the truth, including some creept subliminal messages.  My bias toward John Carpenter is evident on this list, but his movies are so dissimilar I just can’t help it.  Oppressive government, unfair economic advantages, sell-outs–this movie is much more than another horror flick–it’s part horror, part sci-fi, part political thriller, part action flick.

5.  The Birds (1963).  Like John Carpenter’s The Fog and Spielberg’s Jaws, this movie takes place on the seacoast, one of my favorite locations for an eerie thriller.  Alfred Hitchcock’s direction in this movie makes you feel claustrophobic, like you’re almost choking on the birds that inexplicably attack this little seaside village.  In the end it all comes down to being trapped again, this time in a house.  As a kid this one caused its share of jumps out of bed in the middle of the night.  It must be scary if it causes nightmares, right?  Some of the imagery will stick with you forever.  And check out the sultry and creepy character played by a young Suzanne Pleshette.  Compare The Birds and Jaws and you can see common themes and approaches the best masters of suspense use.  As Tom Petty says, “the waiting” is the hardest part, and sometimes you don’t really want to see what’s coming next.

4.  Silver Bullet (1985).  A series of deaths in Tarker’s Mill promps a town to band together to flush out the killer.  A fog shrouded forest, men splitting up, and one by one the men don’t make it out of the woods.  The town becomes paranoid of the night, canceling Independence Day festivities.  Enter cool uncle Gary Busey, who gets his wheelchair bound nephew Marty, played by a young Corey Haim (Lost Boys), a rocket and surreptiously fire it off despite all the adult fear.  An old covered bridge, a sheriff played by Terry O’Quinn (John Locke in Lost), a preacher played by Everett McGill (Twin Peaks), and a lot of creepiness.  The killer isn’t human.  Hey, sheriff, don’t go snooping around in there.  And a bat named Peacemaker.  Probably the quietest creepy thriller in the Stephen King adaptation arsenal, that quiet makes the gotchas all the better.   A perfect autumn night movie, not too much gore or irrelevant gross-outs, but the surprises are guaranteed to make you jump.  Megan Follows (Anne of Green Gables) plays Marty’s older sister, who sells a good portion of the fear through her powerful expressions.

3.  The Fog (1980).  I was 10 years old when I saw this at the drive-in theater.  It was a double feature with Phantasm and my brother and sister smuggled me in.  I got no sleep that night.  At the time both movies were blurred together, and I don’t know which movies the nightmares came from.  Years later I realized Phantasm was just another cheesy slasher flick, but I have re-watched John Carpenter’s original The Fog too many times to count.  This is my favorite ghost story movie.  One hundred years ago, Antonio Bay’s founders weren’t quite as honorable as the townsfolk see them today at the town’s centennial celebration.  It’s setting makes this an old sea tale of sorts.  Sultry-voiced Adrienne Barbeau (yes, I like sultry brunettes in my scary flicks) plays Stevie Wayne, who works in the lighthouse as a radio jockey, also warning boats about this strange fog… inching closer to the bay.  Hal Holbrook is the preacher who is slowly losing it as he realizes the truth of the town’s past.  Jamie Lee Curtis is a drifter who stumbles into the wrong town on the wrong night.  And there are a lot of ghosts that, despite looking like giant ticked-off Jawas, deliver sufficient creepiness.  Check this out for some great atmosphere.

2.  Jaws (1975).  Thinking I would quickly fall asleep my folks took me to this one at the drive-in theater.  I did fall asleep, but not before the opening scene.  How many movies can claim all that Jaws has accomplished?  Where Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho made everyone check behind the shower curtain, Jaws has kept people on the beach.  There are generations now who still feel a little nervousness whenever they put on fins and take that first step in.  The defining tuba theme alerting us to when the shark is really coming is forever apart of everyone’s musical vocabulary.  John Williams’s score is so brilliant because most of it is a light-tempo, summer frolicking medley, so when the clashing violin scare themes arrive the contrast makes the music its own character.   The fear is underscored by Robert Shaw’s ominous USS Indianapolis speech.  One of the best films of all time in any genre.

1.  Watcher in the Woods (1980).  When I was in junior high, as a treat to students, the school would play movies on Friday afternoons, each movie split over two Fridays.  I saw this movie on a full size screen in our huge auditorium, which roughly looked like the Ford Theater where Lincoln was shot.  My friend Jeff lived literally next door to the woods…you could see them out his window.  Jeff held his hands over his eyes for the first hour of the show and didn’t come back the next Friday for the rest.  Twenty-five years later my co-worker asked me for a recommendation because he was hosting a Halloween party for his kid’s group of 10 12-year-old boys.  I recommended Watcher in the Woods instantly.  The following Monday he thanked me and said the boys, and he, were glued to the entire movie.  Watcher was one of Disney’s first forays into something new.  It’s probably my favorite Disney movie.  Imagine you fall into a creek, what would be creepier than Bette Davis standing above you trying to push you down deeper with a stick?  Look for a lot of ambience and mood in this one, and a few things that go bump.  Bette Davis is scary here, even compared to her prior frightening performance in make-up in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?   She was made for creepy roles.  And, hey, that strange little girl, Kyle Richards, has her own TV show now.  Note:  Stay away from the original director’s cut or expanded version as it was so bad it almost canned the film in pre-production.  Stick with the theatrical release.

And that’s it!

So where did the four of us end up? 

Jaws gets the highest ranking, making three of our lists, and The Shining, The Exorcist, The Exorcist 3, Watcher in the Woods, The Ring, and Paranormal Activity seem to rise above the rest, showing up on two lists.  Seaside locales are the favorite location for scares, with Jaws, Rebecca, The Birds, The Ring, The Fog (both the original and remake) all taking place there, and creepy little girls are the favorite subject of–count ’em NINE–of our haunts (The Ring, The Exorcist, Let Me In, Paranormal Activity 3, Watcher in the Woods, The Sixth Sense, The Shining, Turn of the Screw, and The Others).  And the supernatural wins out over monsters, saws and axes.  Four movies were by John Carpenter, three by Alfred Hitchcock.   The oldest movie was Rebecca from 1940, the newest came out this year, Paranormal Activity 3.

I hope you like our lists and they prompt you to check out something you haven’t seen before.  Look for other lists here in the future.

And let us know what is on your list!

Review by C.J. Bunce

As Hollywood slowly realizes that Philip K. Dick wrote forty-four novels and 121 short stories, you’ve got to wonder what took them so long.  The best of his works are his short stories.  In a parallel universe you could see each story as its own episode of The Twilight Zone.  It’s probably why more of his short stories have made it to the silver screen than his novels (not to knock any of his novels).

The most recent addition to the PKD stories adapted for the screen is The Adjustment Bureau.  And it may be the best yet.  And yes, I am including Blade Runner.

The Adjustment Bureau pulls ideas from PDK’s short story, “The Adjustment Team.”  The film is good enough and close enough to the original story that you easily feel both the story and movie exist in the same place.  More so than PKD’s complete novels or stories, it is his ideas that still amaze readers and audiences.

In “The Adjustment Team” and The Adjustment Bureau, there are… “others” on this Earth.  Not aliens, but akin to angels.  They are members of the Adjustment Bureau, which in turn works for the Chairman, presumably a manifestation of God, but we don’t need to get into that detail to believe what is happening.  Also, the Bureau–the visitors who are always here–are not frightening aliens or strange apparations like we have seen in The Matrix or They Live.  Very easily this film may not be science fiction at all.  In that concept, this is a very PKD story, as he often toyed with religion in a very serious way and challenged the religious world around us.

There is a Plan–one best timeline for all events–and when circumstances show that the Plan is straying, the Adjustment Bureau is sent in to do what is necessary to get the Plan back on track.  In the short story, that means a dog needs to bark on queue.  In the movie it means the protagonist needs to spill his coffee at a certain moment, or he will end up in a chance encounter with the girl of his dreams.  There lies the rub, for our protagonist is a truly good guy, a good Senator on a path to the White House, compared to other sci-fi senators that usually have ulterior motives, like we saw in The Dead Zone.  If this senator ends up with the girl of his dreams, the woman he is destined for, he will become content, and will lose the desire to complete his political path.  Yet there is no choice when the Plan is involved.  So what is he supposed to do?

As with PKD’s story, the believability of the timeline science and the ability to interfere with chance meetings, coupled with fate and destiny, make the movie nicely high concept for a not-so-elaborate production.  It is also not epic or overblown–it doesn’t need to be; what is at stake is the love of two people for each other.  The treatment of that reflects a similar treatment in an equally great PKD story adapted for film, Paycheck.  You also don’t see a lot of sci-fi that would make a great first-date flick.

I liked Matt Damon’s character and performance here over any other to date.  Emily Blunt is perfect as the target of his affections.  Plenty of cameos are also fun, including Jon Stewart, James Carville, Mary Matalin, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg playing themselves.  The very best performance and role comes from an unusual character that we get to know and appreciate, Harry Mitchell, played by Anthony Mackey.  Terence Stamp (Zod from Superman I and II) as Thompson and John Slattery as Richardson are also perfectly cast as members of the Bureau.

The world of the Bureau is not overly complicated and amazingly easy to fall into.  The themes of fate, happenstance and missed opportunity have rarely seen such a nice treatment in film.  The lack of any need for special effects, overly long action scenes and irrelevant tangents results in a very polished final film that is all about story.  For such a great PKD-inspired film that remains true to PKD’s original world building, for great performances, entertaining twists, and a fun overall movie, The Adjustment Bureau gets 5 of 5 stars.

While we wait for the opening night of Cowboys and Aliens on July 29, two days ago we walked through the top western movies to get psyched for Jon Favreau’s big budget clash of Old West and classic sci-fi story.  Today we run down the best alien movies Hollywood has created.  We’re not thinking so much about aliens in their native environment, or Star Wars and Star Trek films would top the list, but unexpected human encounters with otherworldly, friendly and not-so-friendly brethren. 

1.  THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951).  It should be no surprise that a movie from the director of West Side Story, The Sound of Music, The Sand Pebbles, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (and the editor of Citizen Kane and The Hunchback of Notre Dame) makes the top spot of this list.  Robert Wise’s classic story would fit solidly alongside the best Twilight Zone episodes.  And story is the point–no modern glitz and special effects necessary.  Michael Rennie appears to be just a man.  But he is not.  He is Klaatu, a visitor who has come to observe us in his flying saucer with the giant robot Gort.  How would we react to an alien visitor?  The first look at ourselves revealed paranoia and fear–it is the original self-reflection story that would later inspire V and Alien Nation.

2.  PREDATOR (1987).  He’s a hunter.  A collector.  And he’s on vacation.  That doesn’t sound like a high calibre story description.  Substitute the alien visitor and Predator is a western not unlike High Noon.  Our creature is a visitor with a secret past like any of a number of Clint Eastwood gunslingers.  And he is just as cool, a hunter that would stand firm alongside Boba Fett, Bossk, Dengar and Zuckus.  His make-up is unreal–truly alien to us–and he looks like a Nausicaan–that race that shoved a pool cue though Captain Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation.  Let’s see, who has an unusual skull that would look good on his trophy mantle?  How about that melon on Arnold Schwarzenegger?  There’s a cool vibe throughout the film and a great cast–and what other genre film features two future state governors?  And one of those gauntlets looks like Daniel Craig’s from the Cowboys and Aliens trailers.

3.  CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977).  But for Star Wars this picture would have gone off the charts the year it was released.  Because of multiple Star Wars viewings by me in 1977 and 1978 (I saw it ten times with my brother and sister instead of going to see anything else), I didn’t get to see this movie until years later when it was released on video.  But once I saw it, I realized how grand in scope it was.  Mix all the episodes of Leonard Nimoy’s old TV series In Search Of… and you’ll end up here.  A ship in the middle of the desert, a 1940s squadron appears out of nowhere, and we keep seeing this shape, painting it, making models of it.  Near the place where the Sundance Kid grew up is a destination for sci-fi fans now, at Devil’s Tower, Wyoming.  And those five musical tones.  And an alien kidnapping scene, revealing nothing about the aliens, toys that seem to come alive, shocking and scary.  Invaders or friends?  Richard Dreyfuss’s second best movie.  One of Spielberg’s best.

4.  E.T.,THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (1982).  Not only did Close Encounters and The Day the Earth Stood Still teach us that aliens can be our friends, with E.T. a lot of us would never think to put up a fight when the invasion arrives.  Ugly but lovable, E.T. was funny, thrilling, and made us all cheer.  Ignore the recent edited, updated version–the original was just fine, thank you very much.  A classic pop culture film that gave us several catch phrases: “Home,”  “I’ll be right here,” “Be good,” “Phone home.”  And I am still addicted to Reese’s Pieces.  Another great Spielberg picture in his long list of blockbusters.

5.  ALIENS (1986).  Bill Paxton’s Private Hudson had it right when he said, “Game over, man, game over!”  The polar opposite of the aliens-as-friends films, these exoskeletal aliens have nothing in common with humans.  As villains, there is nothing for us to sympathize with.  They will just exterminate us.  This was a wake-up call for everyone who wants to meet our galactic neighbors.  Stay home and draw your curtains instead.  It was destiny that someone would pit them against Predator years later and it was no contest that we’d cheer the Predator.   And I don’t care what anyone says about the first movie with these monsters, Alien–Aliens, the sequel, was tons better with less unnecessary gross-outs.  You’ve seen one stomach burst, you’ve seen them all.  Skip the sequels but check out Aliens vs Predator for even more fun.

6.  THE LAST STARFIGHTER (1984).  When Robert Preston, the original salesman from River City in The Music Man, comes to your planet looking to sell you something, like being a Starfighter, you know you have a different kind of film.  Here we expand the alien movie archetype from either good  or bad–aliens are shades of gray, like people, some are good, some are evil.  Directed by Nick Castle, John Carpenter’s colleague, a simple, quiet movie that has a lot of heart and makes everyone wish they’d get Alex Rogan’s calling.  And Grig’s make-up was the greatest thing until Enemy Mine.   With a great ending for the bad guys, with an all-time classic exchange:  “We’re locked into the moon’s gravitational pull!  What do we do?”  Answer?  “We die.”  Back in the days of arcades, this movie rivaled Tron as to coolness factor.  “Greetings, Starfighter.  You have been recruited by the Star League to defend the frontier against Xur and the Ko-Dan armada.”  Where can I sign up? 

7.  THEY LIVE (1988).  This is a John Carpenter classic reviewed in an earlier post and puts Carpenter’s storytelling up there with Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.  Here, the story goes that Earth has already been invaded and They have been living amongst us.  We could just ignore them.  After all they aren’t hurting anyone.  But once we see them they are sooo ugly.  And we were here first.  Some of us will play along to get the “good life”.  But for one guy trying to keep to himself, this is something he can’t ignore.  The truth must get out.  Roddy Piper is here to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and he’s all out of bubblegum.  But no happily ever after will be had here.  They are here to stay.  On the one hand, some movie watchers and critics dismiss They Live as just another action flick.  But if  you pay attention, like with all Carpenter movies, you can see Carpenter’s masterwork is much more complex and dips into our own world’s politics and those who do, and those who don’t, sell-out.

8.  ALIEN NATION (1988).  Much more than just a morality play and allegory to our own prejudices, Alien Nation digs into the struggles all lifeforms surely must face in a multi-species environment.  What motivates us, how do we get along with others?  James Caan (The Godfather, Elf) and Mandy Patinkin (Princess Bride) were perfectly cast as human and Tenctonese cops.  The film’s themes prompted an immediate successful TV series starring Gary Graham and Eric Pierpont.  Beyond the deeper themes, it’s a great police story and an odd, but fun, buddy movie of the Odd Couple variety. 

9.  WAR OF THE WORLDS (2005).  I almost didn’t see this remake in the theater.  But Tom Cruise movies are exciting and enjoyable 95% of the time.  So I saw it and just re-watched it a few weeks ago.  Here we see the futility of combating an invasion of even slightly more technology and might than us.  The situation really is hopeless.  All one can do is run.  As in They Live, with War of the Worlds the aliens have been here for a long time, only here they parked their vehicles here and are just now coming back to rev ’em up.  This movie has great special effects, truly creepy unsympathetic villains, and a lot of dread.  You really feel the pain of the result of alien visitors who don’t want to be our friends.  Yet another Spielberg blockbuster.

10.  DISTRICT 9 (2009).  A great film of political complexity.   A variant on Alien Nation, yet the same basic story.  An extraterrestrial race is forced to live in slum-like conditions on Earth.  Their vessel runs out of resources and parks itself over South Africa.  It’s a blunt morality tale about the brutality of prejudice.  This one will strangely make you cheer against the humans.  Luckily for the visitors, they find a kindred spirit in a government agent who is accidentally exposed to their biotechnology.  You’ll find yourself asking:  What are your values?  How do you treat others who are different?  Where would you draw the line between life worthy of mutual respect and not?  Its documentary-style filming and non-American cast is refreshing and new.  And half the time you have to cringe at the protagonist’s actions.  Are we with him or not?

Honorable Mention: Starship Troopers (giant bugs destroy Rio de Janeiro, Johnny Rico is a classic western hero type), Enemy Mine (like Stagecoach, a human is stuck with an alien and even without a common language they come to realize how alike even different species can be and how valuable relationships can be formed by just trying to get along).

C.J. Bunce

Editor

borg.com

A lot of directors or producers have cameos in their films.  Some, like Clint Eastwood, direct and compose scores for their films.  John Carpenter has served as writer, director, actor, editor, and composer of the score in a number of films.  Maintaining control of a vision from beginning to end doesn’t work that well for many directors.  As a viewer you wish some of those powerhouse Hollywood directors would let someone else edit their works.  Not so for Carpenter.  You can come in on the middle of a Carpenter movie, past or current, and you know it was made by John Carpenter.  His signature style is truly his own.  And who else bills his movies under his own name–John Carpenter’s They Live, John Carpenter’s Vampires, etc.?

Carpenter is a genre bender–one film can be billed under several categories, from action-adventure, to sci-fi, horror, fantasy, and thriller.  Most of his films fall in all of these categories to some extent.  You’ll know his films through a dark thread of chills, a thumping baseline of a guitar or synthesizer, and a rebel or outcast lead character just trying to get by but being threatened by something, usually something otherworldly.

My first Carpenter movie was The Fog, back in 1980.  Because of the rating, my older brother and sister and their friends rolled me up in a sleeping bag and smuggled me in the back of our parents’ Ford pickup into a two-movie drive-in showing.  I remember The Fog was just plain spooky and as the sky got darker and the shocks came out of nowhere there was no chance I was going to get any sleep that night.  Years later I rented it and re-rented it and to this day love the ghost story that is the backbone of the picture.  And Carpenter’s now former wife and then-mega TV and pin-up star Adrienne Barbeau played sultry Stevie Wayne.  Working alone at a lighthouse radio station, she encounters a strange fog bank inching ever closer into Antonio Bay.  The Fog itself becomes a character, a breathing, classic villain in its own right.   The Fog was remade in 2005 with Tom Welling (Smallville), Maggie Grace (Lost), and this time Selma Blair (Hellboy) as Stevie Wayne.  It’s a great remake with its own twists and turns–both versions of The Fog are a lot of fun.

In 1981 we got to see our first taste of a “modern” dystopian vision of future in movies–a vision that to this day has been copied again and again– in Escape from New York.  Carpenter brought together a low-budget production but with a creative team whose work still stands the test of time, including Kurt Russell, Adrienne Barbeau, Donald Pleasance, Jamie Lee Curtis, co-writer Nick Castle and Carpenter’s longtime collaborator, producer Debra Hill.  All of these individuals would work in more than one Carpenter picture.   Russell plays anti-hero Snake Plissken.  Plissken is why we like Russell to this day and think Russell is just plain cool.  Convicted bank robber Plissken takes on a suicide mission to rescue the downed-flight of the President of the United States in future Manhattan, which has become a free-for-all maximum security prison.  New York was a major hit and its low budget but high box office gross vastly surpassed a certain box office flop with a similar dark vision of the future: Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner.   Plissken would return in 1996’s Escape from L.A., which unfortunately doesn’t rise to the level of New York.  Russell would return in a similar role in 1986’s now-cult classic,  Big Trouble in Little China.  A bizarre story of a trucker in Chinatown–today what stands out is how much fun co-star Kim Cattrall is to watch early on in her career.

In the past ten years I caught up on Carpenter’s films and was amazed by his 1976 low-budget Assault on Precinct 13, a remake of sorts of the old John Wayne/Dean Martin classic western Rio Bravo.  Here you won’t recognize any big-named actors but the story and setting feels gritty and real.  A psychotic gang of killers tries to bust one of its own out of an understaffed local jail.  Precinct 13, too, would be remade, in 2005 with Ethan Hawke and Laurence Fishburne, and although not as good, again, even remade Carpenter stories stand the test of time.  Watch the original, and you’ll never again go back to the ice cream man when he gets your order wrong.

And who hasn’t seen 1978’s Halloween?  Carpenter created the definitive Halloween holiday thriller with Michael Myers and summer camp-defining gotchas.  And it set Jamie Lee Curtis on her long and successful career path.  Carpenter’s primarily horror-genre films are classics: in 1982, The Thing (itself a remake and I have to admit I like the original better because Stan Winston’s special effects here were just too over the top), an alien film set in the arctic; in 1983, Stephen King’s Christine, a fun romp about a guy and his car and their mutual (!) obsessive relationship with each other; and several other films including the popular John Carpenter’s Vampires, starring James Woods as a kick-butt vampire hunter out for revenge.

In 1992 Carpenter directed a more mainstream film, Memoirs of an Invisible Man, starring Chevy Chase and Darryl Hannah, Sam Neill and Michael McKean.  The film is classic science fiction from beginning to end, with Chase as a businessman in the wrong place at the wrong time who becomes invisible, and Hannah stars as his girlfriend.  Carpenter showcases Chase’s humor and a simple film concept resulted in a fun chase/thriller.  It was the first time i n over a decade that we got to see Chase as the classic leading man we saw him play in Foul Play and Seems Like Old Times (both co-starring Goldie Hawn, who is now married to Kurt Russell).  Until his role in Chuck last year, it was the last time we got to see Chase performing in a non-comedic role.

Two other Carpenter films rise about the rest in terms of textured storytelling, depth and intrigue in the sci-fi and fantasy realms.

First, in Prince of Darkness, Jameson Parker (Simon and Simon) and Donald Pleasance lead a great character ensemble of experts trying to stop the devil from breaking into our world via an old church and a creepy and scary hellmouth of green plasma.  Alice Cooper has a cameo as a zombie drawn to the churchsite.  Parker is superb and the jolts are perfectly timed.  A creepy, dark, fantasy-horror film.

Finally, probably tied with The Fog my favorite Carpenter film is They Live.  Professional wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, in an incredibly underplayed performance, stars as a loner trying to keep to himself.  He is thrown into the middle of a waking up-to-reality by a group of grassroots rebels who discover that the wealthier elements of society are actually hideous aliens in cloaked bodies, attempting to keep us asleep through subliminal messages in our advertising.  When our hero discovers special sunglasses and later contact lenses that show the true world, we soon learn the secret behind the plot and why this is a classic sci-fi film.  They Live also has the best of Carpenter’s soundtracks–including the repetitive theme of our hero, following him and leading us through Piper’s dark discoveries.  And just like Steve McQueen’s Bullitt is known for its famous San Francisco car chase, here They Live has a standout best fight scene, a hilariously choreographed, iconic, hand-to-hand fight scene between Piper and co-star Keith David that stretches in excess of 15 screen minutes.

Carpenter’s horror film The Ward premiered last year and he has several Halloween themed projects in the works.

C.J. Bunce
Editor
borg.com