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Bad Seeds

In the past two decades, filmmaker John Carpenter has directed 17 movies, and has established himself as a towering figure in modern horror -- a celluloid counterpart of novelist Stephen King, setting spooky stories in present day, recognizable settings, from suburbia (Christine) to the inner city (Prince of Darkness, Assault on Precinct 13) to small towns (Halloween, The Fog).

In technical terms, he's some kind of lowbrow genius: he has a better idea of how to build unease through freaky camera movements, dissonant sound effects and crafty placement of objects in the frame than any of his contemporaries. Where most directors obscure their monsters with tricky editing and dim light, Carpenter often shows them full-frame in long, unbroken takes.

Although he can stage an out-of-nowhere jolt as well as anyone, his preferred mode of suspense is the grindingly slow, ritualized stalking sequence, in which the hero or heroine (often badly wounded) is inexorably pursued on foot through acres of open space. In Carpenter's movies, evil is presented in cold, robotic, utterly banal terms; even when his monsters aren't zombies they often act like them, shambling instinctively and joylessly ahead toward the next kill.

The banality of Carpenter's storytelling sense only heightens the tension; he creates characters so flat and cliched that when they die gruesome deaths, the sense of implacable sadism is increased tenfold. In Halloween, when The Shape sticks P.J. Soles' clueless, bespectacled dullard of a boyfriend to a kitchen door with a huge carving knife and then stands before him for a chilling eternity, dispassionately inspecting his handiwork, the image is freakishly unsettling. It's as if a giant butterfly has just been added to a maniac's personal collection.

Why, then, has Carpenter consistently failed to make a transcendently great movie? A couple of his fright flicks, notably Halloween and Christine, are about as good as films of their type can hope to be -- which is, of course, faint praise. His non-horror projects are generally structurally and visually richer, not to mention emotionally warmer. I'm especially fond of his sci-fi love story Starman; his brilliant 1980 TV biopic Elvis, in which Kurt Russell was allowed to give the richest, strangest, most deeply felt performance of his career; and Big Trouble in Little China, a furiously kinetic ode to chopsocky movies, comic books and video games that never found the audience it deserved.

Perhaps Carpenter's too intellectually limited to completely rethink cliched, familiar, rigidly defined material -- something his chief sci-fi/horror contemporaries, David Cronenberg and James Cameron, have managed to do with regularity. Or maybe he has too much reflexive respect for horror film structures -- especially old horror film structures -- to risk tampering with them very much. In any case, his horror movies almost always leave me feeling vaguely disappointed, even hollow inside.

Carpenter's latest outing, Village of the Damned, is a case in point. The story begins with a first-person shot of an otherworldly force streaking over the ocean toward an isolated California coastal town called Midwich, to the accompaniment of Carpenter's self-composed synthesized score -- an atonal, growly hum that suggests unleashed demonic forces.

The town's residents are momentarily knocked unconscious; when they awaken, ten women, including a virgin, have been mysteriously impregnated. (Carpenter uses the simultaneous pregnancy plot as the basis for a slew of wonderful sight gags. My favorite comes when all the women go into labor at once, and Carpenter cuts to a nighttime shot of a country road packed with cars, all headed for the local medical clinic.)

There are ten births; nine children survive, and they all look spookily similar, with whitish-blond hair and cobalt eyes. A team of shadowy government researchers led by an epidemiologist (Kirstie Alley) sees to it that the mysterious brood is allowed to mature and be studied, and a sensitive local doctor (Christopher Reeve) instinctively protects the kids against the townspeople who despise them and want them dead.

By the time they're six, the brood has become a self-contained unit. They walk down the streets in a perfect, paired-off formation --four rows of two kids each, boy-girl boy-girl, with the sole loner child taking up the rear. They're hyperintelligent, quoting lines from great works of philosophy in arguments with their parents. Most disturbingly, they can read minds and control other people's actions. (When agitated or angry, the children's eyes pulse like tiny stoplights, and the soundtrack fills with an unholy mix of whooshes, groans and growls, as if Satan held a tape recorder to his stomach after eating a really bad bowl of beans.)

Carpenter never explains exactly where these demon spawn come from (although a suggestive shot of the stillborn tenth child offers a hint or two). He's content to let them suggest various worse-case scenarios -- an alien invasion, a toxic spill, a government experiment gone awry -- and to milk them for sociological associations.

When the original Village came out 35 years ago, it was linked with Them! and Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the original Thing. Critics viewed it as a parable about the loss of free will and the rise of collective consciousness, which plugged perfectly into Cold War paranoia.

Today's ticket buyers are likely to think about the rise of violence and the perceived decline of moral behavior among young people. When the kids decide to leave their respective homes and start a colony at the edge of town, it's hard not to think about the splintering of traditional families, and of lonely children's determination to find surrogates in the form of gangs. And the idea of the government interfering with family planning and raising kids according to its own twisted agenda will probably win a rueful grin from paranoid right-wingers.

The problem with Carpenter's Village is that these notions just linger at the edges of the narrative, like metaphoric wallflowers waiting for some brave soul to ask them to dance. The filmmaker doesn't tease them out the way David Cronenberg teased out the venereal disease paranoia in his classic remake of The Fly, and James Cameron teased out his anti-technology and dehumanization themes in both Terminator pictures. Carpenter seems more interested in the literal technique of filmmaking -- how to make an individual scene as creepy, nasty or violent as possible -- than in integrating his set pieces into a grand, hellish, indelibly coherent cinematic vision.

He wants to be taken seriously as an artist, but he doesn't have the intellectual discipline or the ability to milk scenes for every last drop of symbolic meaning. Strip away the terrific premise, and Village of the Damned looks like every other Carpenter horror film: a series of gruesome, protracted killings leading to a final blowout showdown. Parts of the picture work magnificently; a couple of don't-open-that-door shocks made me jump right out of my seat, and there are least two mind-control sequences so scary they actually gave me nightmares, something that hasn't happened since Silence of the Lambs.

And the finale rises to a level of brilliance Carpenter hasn't achieved in a very long time. In it, Reeve's doctor is trying to hide a crucial piece of information from the children's telepathic snooping. He's desperately trying to put up a psychic wall -- literally represented as a glowing brick wall -- between himself and the kids, and as they respond by hammering away at it mercilessly, Carpenter keeps hurling his camera toward the wall like a battering ram, finding a visual equivalent for an abstract mental contest.

When that wall breaks down, you feel elated, not just because the hero has held his ground, but because the director has pushed the creative envelope and shown you what's possible. Which only underscores Carpenter's shortcomings as a director: creatively speaking, in film after film, he leaves way too many walls intact.

Village of the Damned.
Directed by John Carpenter. With Christopher Reeve and Kirstie Alley.
Rated R.
91 minutes.

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