William Friedkin, Brian De Palma and John Carpenter share a similar cinematic origin story. All three began making a name for themself throughout the 70’s, each breaking through to the big time by directing an iconic horror film of the decade. Friedkin did bad things with a crucifix in The Exorcist. DePalma threw pigs blood all over Sissy Spacek in Carrie. Carpenter turned a William Shatner mask inside out and the world got Halloween. All three clearly had a love of the darker genres, frequently delving into the stories of monsters, murderers and those they stalked or were stalked by. They are divisive directors, with movie lovers becoming rabid fans of their work or harsh detractors. DePalma espesially seems to make people swell with love or fume with hate. All three went on to create an extensive filmography but as time marched on the output became very erratic. These three high profile helmers are still kicking but stranded on the sidelines, often called on to do little more than reminese about past achievements. With the chance to direct features making itself less and less available I decided to take in one work from their heyday that I had never seen and give it a whirl. Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness, De Palma’s Blow Out and Friedkin’s Cruising.
Prince of Darkness – Carpenter’s better judgement was starting to become questionable with this one. After the non-success of Big Trouble in Little China, Carpenter was seen as a guy who could get unique films made but not necessarily deliver financial success. Prince of Darkness is Carpenter clearly starting to slip becasue it feels like a story he dreamt up after smoking a bad doobie. His trademarks are present: minimal, ominous, self composed film score, people being trapped in building surrounded by people/something that will kill them, a patient style of story that builds into a slow vibe of dread and a sturdy sense of unflashy direction in service of a supernatural slanted plot. But John Boy screwed up two crucial pieces of his well worn puzzle. He didn’t write a part for Kurt Russell, or any actor involved, and his McGuffin is so silly it would one day give birth to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. That’s right, it’s a tall cylander containing the glowing green ooze of Satan.
Some of Carpenter’s favorite actors are here, Donald Pleasance, Victor Wong, but there’s no anchor or supporting character worth noticing. As an ensemble piece it is a dull failure, total in its ability to not generate any interest in what little is happening. Carpenter’s limitations with less than talented actors is crushingly obvious. Most of the actors just walk around each other waiting for their death scene. The lead is some nobody who looks like he was recruited from the ranks of Hollywood’s $5 discount bin. Because of all this Darkness walks and talks like a Carpenter movie that’s been hit in the head with a shovel. You could argue that he never really rebounded from this as one film after another become more and more erratic and unfulfilled. He followed this up with They Live which was another step down.
Cruising – William Friedkin began the 70’s by making two back to back masterpieces, The Exorcist and The French Connection, and if you remove them from his resume he’s got little left worth discussing. His entire career is littered with the forgettable (Deal of the Century), the forgotten (Rampage), the just fucking rotten (Jade), and even a Shaquille O’Neal movie (Blue Chips). In the middle of this long and misshapen career lies Cruising, a notorious bit of 80’s explotation that drew a lot of poison pens to its attention at the time. Friedkin takes Al Pacino into the leather clad chambers of New York’s gay S&M scene where a serial killer is stabbing and then dismembering homosexuals. While focusing an eye towards this subculture of the gay community isn’t inherently wrong, Friedkin’s gazing is ill timed, in poor taste and shockingly dull.
Finding admirable representations of gay people and gay culture in mass media was rare in the early 80’s. For a major motion picture to fixate on any part of gay culture was a wildly daring move. Though Friedkin had focused on the less lurid parts of homosexual culture in an earlier film, here he gives us nothing but a freak show that could’ve accomplished little but generating disgust towards the gay community. His insistence on shooting endless scenes of gay men in Rob Halford inspired costumes, blowing and fist fucking each other in view of anyone probably mortified scores of people with no exposure to the expanding homosexual world. Cruising has minimal interest in showing a gay character as anything other than someone who indulges in deviant sexual behavior with strangers. Way to open the mind of middle America Billy. It helps nothing that Friedkin actually makes Pacino turn in boring, stoic work as the personality impared undercover cop. His character is a chalk board with nothing drawn on it and his reactions to the sweaty world he’s getting thrown into are ambiguous and unformed. The story concludes on a note which feels poorly thought out and purposefully vague.
Blow Out – I’m a life long hater of many Brian De Palma movies but Blow Out is a fantastic work which sits high above his other efforts from the same time. While his imitation Hitchcock tendencies are still shamelessly full blown, De Palma works from a story which isn’t aggressively stupid or trashy as he has long been prone to gravitating towards. See The Fury or Body Double for De Palma at his mind boggling worst. Getting what is easily one of John Travolta’s finest performances, De Palma tells the story of a b-movie sound guy who inadvertently records the audio of a car accident that results in the death of a prominent politician. After going over his recording, he determines the blown tire was caused by a gun shot. Cue conspiracy shenanigans.
Blow Out’s plot is pretty standard fodder, even by 1981 standards, but De Palma keeps himself in check and allows Travolta to carry the movie. It’s a great turn for Travolta, proof he had gravity and could do more than sing and dance. It remains a startling shame that this film kicked off a career downward spiral from which it would take over a decade to escape. De Palma favorite Nancy Allen gets a tricky part as the naive girl caught up in a scheme she doesn’t grasp. Her character isn’t very bright and easily could have become grating, but she keeps it sweet and likable which gives the ending a lot of resonance it would not have otherwise had. John Lithgow, another De Palma favorite, shows up as an aggressive assassin who seems adamant about killing off everyone even when ordered not to. Folks looking for a first rate thriller would do themselves right by picking up Criterion’s spiffy new Blu Ray edition.