The Bottom Shelf: John Carpenter, Absurd, Intruder, Creepy

Vampires, Ghosts Of Mars and the super-tense Creepy lead our latest round-up of horror DVDs and Blu-rays...

Any regular readers (there must be a few of you; there must be) will be more than aware of this writer’s borderline obsessive love for the movies of one John Carpenter. You’ve got your Halloween, The Thing, They Live or The Fog, but everyone knows the real quality comes in the form of the later films in this cult film-maker, lord of the synth and accomplished ‘tache-wearer’s career and the classics that are Escape From L.A and his TV-movie take on Village Of The Damned. No? Ok, those are both more than a little iffy, but with the latest Blu-ray release of two other generally maligned late efforts in Carpenter’s body of work, we ask the age-old question ‘Was Vampires really that bad?’

Yes, is the answer. Yes. Sorry: that should have been ‘Was John Carpenter’s Vampires really that bad?’, for the 1998 bloodsucker romp was, indeed, another of those wonky productions that desperately needed the director’s name branded before the actual title (see also: Dario Argento’s Dracula, Wes Craven’s Chiller) to remind people of a perhaps long-lost spark of brilliance threatening to burst out at any moment. Turns out this didn’t happen with Carpenter’s tale of vamp-hunters working with the Catholic church in New Mexico to track down Thomas Ian Griffith’s familiarly evil-faced head honcho erm, fang-o.

Though the sweeping widescreen desert backdrops look great in resplendent Blu-ray (one scene with undead emerging from the ground is surprisingly great) and Carpenter’s Southern-fried full-band bluesy score is a decent departure from his usual style, the only other reason to watch Vampires is for a never-ending supply of unintentional comedy. This is mainly to be had from our antihero, a deeply unlikeable James Woods, slaying the undead with the same gusto his real-life counterpart pursues actually dead libellous Twitter users.

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Dressed a little like an undernourished Jeremy Clarkson in gloriously high-waisted jeans, Woods’ Jack Crow (yep) has a penchant for repeatedly hitting his good-natured priest sidekick (The Good Wife’s Tim Guinee), spouting knob-related unfunny one-liners and generally being the kind of dick no audience could get onboard with, so to speak. Jack’s rapey right-hand, Montoya (a lesser Baldwin; Daniel, I think), drives the pick-up truck that drags stake-harpooned vampires out into the burning daylight as audiences yearn for such a swift demise.

John Carpenter’s Ghosts Of Mars (for again, that is the full title) fares somewhat better in retrospect, though the Blu-ray transfer has the opposite effect to the almost deceptive sheen it lends Vampires, in that the sandy red planet sets and oddly one-tone black night skies are rendered positively seventies Doctor Who-grade in unforgiving HD, giving the impression of various B-list action stars playing lazer tag in a shaky former nightclub.

Still, despite this, or maybe because of this, the tale of Mars colonists (just eight years from now, in 2025) besieged by those possessed by malevolent spirits has a certain lo-fi charm as a retread of Carpenter’s own Rio Bravo retread, Assault On Precinct 13. Great zombie ghost-native-marauder makeup from esteemed pairing Robert Kurtzman and Greg Nicotero and an endearingly stupid-looking Jason Statham cancel out some of the blandness of Species sex-alien Natasha Henstridge’s protagonist.

Likewise, the reassuringly stupid-named prisoner turned hero Desolation Williams, played by Ice Cube, offers enjoyably daft gangsta ridiculousness, all of which is heightened by a nicely overblown sci-fi score churning away. Fun Western-style set-pieces and some decent gore make for more of a good-rubbish feel than this month’s bad-rubbish Carpenter release.

Kurtzman and Greg Nicotero again crop up on Blu-ray this month, responsible for some impressive head-slicing effects in the otherwise pretty anonymous 1989 supermarket-slasher (as in supermarket-based, not produced by Aldi), Intruder. Billed as “starring” Bruce Campbell, Sam Raimi and his Hercules/Xena-bothering brother Ted, what you actually get for your buck is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from an entirely un-slapstick Campbell, more-substantial-but-you’ll-still-likely-have-missed-it appearance from the Evil Dead creator and an apparent attempt from rubbery sibling Ted at out-gurning the “chocolate is the symbol of love” guy from The Room.

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The plot involves an abusive ex harassing one of said supermarket’s nightshift shelf-stackers, only to be chucked out by her colleagues. Said ex (the deeply unintimidating David Byrnes) sticks around to cause trouble, which makes for a great excuse to put various superstore equipment to occasionally very good use (a turkey slicer offers particularly wholesome larks), but sadly the overall feeling is a kind of gentle shrug of indifference. With Scooby Doo twists offering only annoyance, considering the talent involved (Pulp Fiction producer Lawrence Bender even turns up), this also-ran is a wasted opportunity.

A far more accomplished Blu-ray journey into nastiness comes in the form of Joe D’Amato and George Eastman’s sequel to their notorious 1980 release Anthropophagus, the far less phonetically challenging Absurd, originally released the following year. With ‘sequel’ used in the loosest possible way, Eastman and D’Amato’s later film’s only real link to the first movie (other than the fact they were both members of the 72-film club of infamous eighties UK video nasties) is that it also stars a crazed killer who happens to be both of Greek heritage and casually disembowelled on the way, not that those two factors should be linked.

Criticised on release as a bit of a Halloween rip-off in that it features baby-sitters doing what they can in the face of reckless, bearded peril, there’s something a lot more deranged going on with producer of the legendary Troll 2, D’Amato’s often disturbing slasher. From a shocking disregard for energy bills (cooking a victim alive with the oven door wide open) through to an interesting use of a compass, creative and long, drawn-out death scenes alongside a weird sub-plot involving mad church-sponsored experiments make for a beast far more interesting than the average ‘bloke with a knife’ affair.

We end this particular scraping of the barrel with something a whole lot classier, coming in the form of Cure and Pulse director Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s masterfully tense suburban psychological thriller, last year’s sinister Creepy, out on Blu-ray this month.

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Marking Kurosawa’s return to the genre, The Wind Rises’ Hidetoshi Nishijima stars as an ex-copper turned police academy tutor (this film might have been so much better starring Steve Guttenberg, by the way), who begins to suspect his new neighbour, the bug-eyed oddball Nishino (a memorably slimy Teruyuki Kagawa) is working his way into and then bumping off families in the area, with his own the latest target. Everyone needs a hobby (even Michael Portillo has his trains), you could argue, though our hero doesn’t agree, allowing himself to be driven to distraction by his off-the-record investigation.

For all fans of seeing people unravel slowly before events reach a chilling climax (who don’t happen to already be watching Celebrity Big Brother, if that’s still on), Creepy is perhaps a little too tame in that it doesn’t go as far into the depths of truly despairing horror as the likes of Takeshi Miike’s Audition. Still, for those less sadistic individuals (presumably reading some other blog), this skilfully put-together and affectingly-acted paranoid fantasy offers high quality Hollywood-style thrills with that wonderful J-horror duskiness.