John Carpenter is big in France. Can you believe at one time people said that - along with “Cheap Trick is big in Japan” and “David Hasselhoff is huge in Germany” - and didn't burst into fits of ironic laughter? The adoration other nations bestow on our overlooked and overtacky is a constant source of knee-slappers.
And so it is with a heavy heart that I am here to inform you that, at least in Carpenter's case, the French are right.
Or rather, they were right. From the '70s until the early '80s, he made a string of underappreciated B-flicks that gave him the dubious distinction of being, arguably, our least-recognized master, but a brand name when it came to chills and entertaining cheese.
That blast of inspiration included Halloween, The Fog, The Thing, and Escape from New York. Carpenter has hit rougher creative times in the past 20 years with junk like Memoirs of an Invisible Man and Ghosts of Mars, a dry spell so long it's hard to believe he'll ever pull out. Which makes the new DVD edition of Assault on Precinct 13 ($19.99) not only a video sleeper, but a fond remembrance of things trashed.
His 1976 action nail-biter is a taut, little-seen, much-loved (by those who have seen it) bizarro retelling of Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo by way of George Romero's Night of the Living Dead. Befitting a cult classic, the disc is overstuffed with Carpenter's storyboards, a commentary track that plays like a lesson in filmmaking on a shoestring, and video of a Q&A session that Carpenter and his star, Austin Stoker, held after a recent American Cinematheque screening in Los Angeles. But the real attraction here is the confidence and excitement Carpenter brings to a measly $100,000 guns-and-gangs exploitation flick.
Still not interested? Oh boy, is this one fun as a 1970s relic. It tells the story of a small group holed up in a police precinct headquarters in L.A., fending off wave after wave of walking '70s cliches. One bad guy is even named Napoleon Wilson. But the real menace is a street gang, Street Thunder. When members' bell-bottoms jingle-jangle-jingle, southern California pleads for mercy. They're out to avenge the death of a fellow gang member, but really the plot is a hook; Assault is an exercise in style and suspense, a dry run for Carpenter's next movie, Halloween, right down to the minimalist, five-note synthesizer score that creates another kind of suspense: Will you go crazy after four straight minutes of it?
People of Earth, lay down your remotes. I come to you with a message: “Klaatu Barada Nikto.” And no, that is not an imitation of Joe Millionaire trying to order the combination platter in a Mexican restaurant.
That is the most famous, unintelligible line in movie history, from Robert Wise's 1951 sci-fi classic, The Day The Earth Stood Still ($19.98), just released in a worshipful new DVD edition.
And what timing, too: A smart Cold War fable about aliens who plop a saucer on the Mall in Washington and demand humanity destroy its nukes or they will destroy humanity. Klaatu and Gort, who bring this message, are worried that Earth's warlike tendencies will be exported to the galaxy.
The disc has commentary from Wise, a 1951 Movietone reel full of the vintage Cold War era paranoia, the entire screenplay, production blueprints of the UFO, and a staid, 80-minute documentary loaded with long-winded, but interesting, thoughts on the film's production and its myriad curious details and readings.
Talk about a pop culture trivia gold mine: Gort was played by the doorman of Grauman's Chinese Theater. Day was one of the first films to regard aliens as potentially friendly, and their ships as vehicles rather than weapons. Critics regarded Klaatu as a Christ figure. (Coincidentally, Wise says, the character is later introduced to unsuspecting humans as “Mr. Carpenter.”) When asked where he is from, Klaatu says “Venus and Mars” - which Paul McCartney later used as the title for one of his first albums. And three of the desert guards in Return of the Jedi are named Klaatu, Barada, and Nikto. The next bar bet you win, I want a piece of the action.
NEW ON VIDEO: I Spy (Sometimes Owen Wilson swoops into a bad movie and rescues it with his stoner delivery and busted nose; this is not one of those times); White Oleander (Yo, Michelle Pfeiffer. What happened? Thankfully, newcomer Alison Lohman steals the show as the lonely, shuffled-about daughter of a jailed parent); Swimfan (Erika Christensen squanders the good will, and Oscar nomination, generated by Traffic by following up with this lame stalker flick - call it Fatal Attraction Babies).
NEW ON VIDEO, NEVER PLAYED TOLEDO: Below (Not the kind of movie not to play Toledo, strangely; and too bad, for the most part, because director David Twohy followed his hit, Pitch Black, with this nifty ghost story about a crippled World War II sub losing oxygen and taking on water, along with a boatload of obligatory horror clich s).
JUST IN TIME FOR ST. PATRICK'S DAY: The Chieftains: Down the Old Plank Road - The Nashville Sessions in Concert ($19.98). Put down that plastic cup of lukewarm green foam and pick up this intimate jam between some of America's country and bluegrass legends, past and present, and the Chieftains, those Celtic bearers of modern Irish acoustic roots music, or whatever it's called this week.
The disc has lots of outtake footage and the usual behind-the-scenes blabbing. But the draws are fiddle superstar Alison Krauss, spooky folkie Gillian Welch, and American mainstays like Earl Scruggs mingling with bagpipes and chilling Irish lullabies.
I know what you're wondering: “I'm a hardcore Irish music fan. Is this traditional?” To which I respond: Why are you lookin' at me? I'm Italian.