Color, 1995, 95 mins.
Directed by John Carpenter
Starring Sam Neill, Julie Carmen, Jurgen Prochnow, Charlton Heston, Frances Bay
New Line (US R1 NTSC) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9) / DD5.1


Apparently inspired by the growing cult following for his neglected, masterful Prince of Darkness, John Carpenter decided to explore similar waters again in the Lovecraftian In the Mouth of Madness, a jittery study of reality going straight to hell. Though this material proved to be a little too heady for the multiplex crowd, Carpenter's film has, not surprisingly, enjoyed a solid reputation in the horror crowd thanks to home video and cable.

Called in to investigate the disappearance of popular horror writer Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow), insurance investigator John Trent (Sam Neill) decides the whole thing is a huge publicity stunt.  Meanwhile the release of Cane's latest novel is provoking outbreaks of violence and maniacal behavior among readers who treat Cane's fiction like an addictive drug. Accompanied by book editor Linda Styles (Julie Carmen, Fright Night II), Trent decides to take an investigative road trip after discovering a hidden map in the covers of Cane's novels.  The pair stumble into what appears to be a real life version of Hobbs' End, a cursed town depicted in Cane's novels, and soon the line between reality and nightmare begins to horribly blur.

Though equipped with the usual number of Carpenter cheap shocks (including a reprise of the Prince of Darkness double whammy dream sequence), In the Mouth of Madness works best as a creepy, subversive "what if?" scenario in which the viewer's perspective is constantly called into question. The first half in particular delivers some skin-crawling chills that rank with the director's most accomplished cinematic tricks, such as the nocturnal drive to Hobbs' End (love the boy on the bicycle) and Styles' initial realization that the town may be just as dangerous and supernaturally afflicted as its fictional counterpart.  The underrated Neill makes for an engaging Doubting Thomas protagonist, though one can only wonder how the fervently left wing Carpenter managed to talk NRA spokesman Charlton Heston into making an appearance as Carmen's boss.

New Line's DVD edition looks better than their good but flawed widescreen laserdisc, and viewers have the option of also checking the fullscreen version for comparison.  Though visually butchered, the pan and scan option allows for further appreciation of the quirky, creepy details in the production design and a few crafty subliminal background touches along the way.  Colors and shadow depth are quite strong, but the real showcase of this disc is the 5.1 soundtrack, guaranteed to have the hairs on the back of your neck standing on end from the very beginning.  The disc also includes the theatrical trailer (but no TV spots or featurette from the laserdisc -- not much of a loss, though), a hidden trailer for Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, and the now infamous commentary track by Carpenter and cinematographer Gary M. Kibbe. While the advent of DVD has provided some even more tedious and pointless rambling feature discussions, this one is still pretty tough going, with the technical details of lighting and camera focus filling up virtually all of the 90 minute running time.  Fortunately, Carpenter's other commentary tracks are much better.


THE THING

Color, 1982, 101m.
Directed by John Carpenter
Starring Kurt Russell, Keith David, Wilford Brimley, Richard Masur
Universal
(Blu-Ray & DVD) / US R0/R1 HD/NTSC) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9) / DD5.1


John Carpenter's The Thing belongs to that strange group of early '80's films that were critically reviled and financially ignored on their original release but have now become revered on both fronts in our own darker decade. Just take a look at Blade Runner, The Hunger, Videodrome, The King of Comedy, or Legend, just to name a few, to see how dramatically tastes can change in a decade.

At the time, The Thing was snubbed for daring to take Howard Hawks' rapid fire sci-fi classic and present it as a dark, deadly serious, and horrifically gory vision of mankind stripped down to its most primal elements in the Antarctic. Dispensing with the carrot monster, the female love interest, and the wisecracking newsman of the original, Carpenter instead returned to the original short story, John W. Campbell, Jr.'s "Who Goes There?," to fashion an alien story in which the shapeless menace can inhabit any living form. Thus, the male protagonists, trapped in a remote Army station, must fend off each other in an attempt to determine who is human... and who isn't. Kurt Russell makes a solid, stoic leading man, a far cry from his other collaborations with Carptenter, and Rob Bottin's eye-popping special effects have become the stuff of legend.

Universal now treats their fledgling cult favorite to the deluxe treatment with what is easily one of the best special editions on DVD to date, starting off with a lustrous new THX-approved transfer. Believe it or not, they also finally shelled out the bucks to restore Stevie Wonder's "Superstition" back into an early scene, too! As per their new welcome practice, Universal has included a fascinating 84-minute documentary, Terror Takes Shape, which includes interviews with many of the principal players and some behind-the-scenes footage. It's not as lively or dramatic as their similar documentaries for Psycho or To Kill a Mockingbird, for example, but this is a good example of how to treat a film on DVD. And the extras just keep on coming, including full feature commentary by Carpenter and Russell, an isolated music track for Ennio Morricone's score (access it by going to the documentary's language features button), Bottin's developmental effects footage and drawings, countless photos, drawings, and storyboards, and, most surprisingly, the extra snippets of unused footage which were stuck into the film's airings on CBS and the Sci-Fi Channel.


THEY LIVE

1988, Color, 94m.
Directed by John Carpenter
Starring Roddy Piper, Keith David, Meg Foster
Universal (US R1 NTSC), Optimum (UK R2 PAL), Kinowelt (Germany R2 PAL) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9) / DD5.1


After God knows how many fan requests, Universal finally made available widescreen releases of two highly underrated John Carpenter films from the late '80's, They Live and Prince of Darkness. The previous Japanese laserdisc version of They Live was incompletely letterboxed (about 1.90:1) and had a colorless, washed-out appearance that failed to do much justice to this satiric sci-fi political actioner. No director takes advantage of the full scope widescreen image more than Carpenter; just try comparing the pan and scan and letterboxed editions of Halloween for a textbook example. At last, this DVD presents the full 2.35 image and features incredibly rich, vibrant color and deep shadows, along with a fabulous Dolby Digital surround remix. Though it has no extras (the Japanese laser did have a pretty nifty behind-the-scenes featurette, so don't chuck it if you have it), this one was definitely worth the wait. A later special edition in Europe also adds a Carpenter commentary track, so snap that up if you can.

Roddy Piper (yes, the wrestler) stars as Nada (as in "nothing," get it?), a homeless drifter who goes from job to job and winds up in a construction position in an unnamed large city. A group of radicals keep breaking in on the TV signals and warning of an evil conspiracy that's been brainwashing the general public, but everyone tends to ignore it. After a series of government attacks on one faction holing out in a local church, Nada uncovers a pair of sunglasses which reveal that the world is not quite as he thought. All advertising and written material contains subliminal messages, such as "Marry and Reproduce," "No Individual Thought," and "This Is Your God" (printed on money). Even worse, it appears all the wealthy people are - surprise! - ugly skeletal-faced aliens in disguise. Pretty soon Nada is suiting up for battle, and the fun begins.

Generally dismissed as one of Carpenter's goofier films (along with Big Trouble in Little China), They Live has some pretty serious things to say about right-wing suppression and the growing apathy near the end of the millennium. Piper's role seems tailor-made for Carpenter buddy in crime Kurt Russell (including such lines as the immortal "I've come here to chew bubble gum and kick ass... and I'm all out of bubble gum"), but Piper fills the action hero shoes pretty well. He got a lot of bad press at the time, but after we've endured such action wannabes as Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme, he looks like Laurence Olivier in comparison. In fact, it's surprising how well this film has aged over the past decade, though it does suffer from a few flaws. Piper's idiotic fight scene with Keith David seems thrown in for no good reason at all and drags on way past the breaking point; it seems including solely for the purpose of pleasing wrestling fans. Also, the final sequence is a serious let-down, a knee-jerk jokey finish that wraps the film up on an abrupt, unfinished note. Interestingly, They Live now feels like a dry run for Carpenter's subsequent In the Mouth of Madness, an even more extreme look at the world's seemingly normal sheen being slowly removed to expose a completely different, malicious force lurking underneath (and which also features an unsatisfying ending). As Carpenter has explained, all of his films in one way or another revolve around normal people who become heroes when thrust into situations beyond their control; here, the hero deals with corruption in the aliens and the human beings around him who have sold out for wealth from the invaders. It's one of the most interesting sci-fi conceits of the past few years, and while the execution doesn't always do it justice, there's plenty of food for thought here for the open-minded viewer.


PRINCE OF DARKNESS

Color, 1987, 101m.
Directed by John Carpenter
Starring Donald Pleasence, Jameson Parker, Lisa Blount
Universal, Image (US R1 NTSC), Optimum (UK R2 PAL), Kinowelt (Germany R2 PAL) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9) / DD5.1


Even today, people can't seem to agree on Prince of Darkness: is it a neglected masterpiece or glorified B-movie trash? Seen today it's a lot closer to the former, especially if you're in the right frame of mind.

A group of theology, physics, and mathematics doctoral students is shut in for the weekend in a dilapedated inner city church to study a newly discovered lava lamp-style structure containing what appears to be the essence of Satan. Sound weird? Well, yeah, and the acting is a little stilted here and there, but Carpenter's astonishing visual sense and uncanny knack for maintaining separate, suspenseful storylines is enough to make this serious nightmare material. The script by "Martin Quatermass" (a cutesy pen name for Carpenter himself, as Hammer Film fans will recognize) has gotten flack for being alternately too cerebral and too pandering, but I couldn't disagree more. The ambitious and lofty notions contained in the seemingly basic premise are quite provocative, especially after repeated viewings, and make this one of those rare films that actually becomes scarier the more you think about it.

The throbbing synthesizer score and eerie wide-angle scope compositions have never been presented remotely as well as they are on DVD. As with They Live, Image did a spectacular job of presenting the film as its fans have longed to see it. Previous editions included a watchable but distracting pan and scan transfer in the U.S. and a widescreen Japanese laserdisc that only presented the image at a compromised 1.90:1 aspect ratio and drained most of the color out of the picture (not to mention those pesky subtitles). Here the film is presented in its exact anamorphic ratio and once again glows with the eerie shades of ochre, brown, and green that give the images an uneasy, quasi-baroque atmosphere. In short, no horror fan should pass this one up. While the lack of any bonus materials is a little disappointing (the original trailer was quite effective, and the TV version contained a small amount of alternate and additional material), the presentation of the film itself easily justifies the price tag. "I live... I live..." The subsequent reissue from Universal doesn't add squat, but the European release has a Carpenter commentary well worth seeking out.


STARMAN

Color, 1985, 112m.
Directed by John Carpenter
Starring Jeff Bridges, Karen Allen, Charles Martin Smith
Sony (Blu-Ray & DVD) (US R0/R1 HD/NTSC) (UK R2 PAL, Australia R4 PAL) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9) / DD2.0


After two botched widescreen laser releases (one from Pioneer Special Editions), John Carpenter's heartfelt science fiction favorite was fully letterboxed and looked even better on DVD and eventually Blu-Ray. As Video Watchdog noted, the two laser editions were "zoomboxed" (all of the edges of the widescreen image were zommed in and cropped off to make the image larger, a practice repeated on Big Trouble in Little China). The remaster presents the entire widescreen image and more importantly, looks infinitely more crisp, with accurate flesh tones and remarkable background detail. Some of the landscape shots now look so startling, you could freeze frame them as works of art on your TV screen.

The film itself still holds up well, with Jeff Bridges shining in his Oscar-nominated performance as an alien who takes on the guise of a dead housepainter and takes the man's widow (Karen Allen) on a cross-country odyssey. Characterization and romance take precedence over the effects (which are still good), and Jack Nitzsche's eerie, touching score sounds better than ever in Dolby Digital. Bonuses include the original trailer as well as, oddly enough, the trailer for Jeff Bridges' The Mirror Has Two Faces. Beware Sony reissue discs containing only the full frame version (completely unwatchable); inexplicably, every Region 2 and 4 release has a commentary with Carpenter and Bridges, an "All I Have To Do Is Dream" music video, a vintage featurette, and two trailers, while American fans got completely shafted.