Thursday, 6 August 2015


John Carpenter earned his reputation as a feature film-maker with the off-beat sci-fi gem DARK STAR whilst studying at USC Film School. What I hadn’t known till watching the making-of documentary is that he’d already won an Academy Award for Best Short Subject with THE RESURRECTION OF BRONCHO BILLY (1970). Like his next film, as a student, Carpenter had to be not just director, but also editor, co-writer and score composer.
BRONCHO BILLY is a charming film about a young modern-day man (Johnny Crawford) who’s obsessed with westerns from the moment he gets up in the morning. He dresses in the cowboy-style and emulates his hero John Wayne in his mannerisms. 

The story is a day-in-the-life beginning as his landlady chides him for spending all his money at the movies instead of rent. He goes to sit with an elderly friend who was born at the end of the Wild West era and dresses like Buffalo Bill, regaling him with stories of the legendary figures. After a bartender spoils his saloon role-playing by asking for I.D. he is beaten up as a ‘faggot’ by two youths in the alleyway who take his antique fob watch the old man gave him. At a coffee stand, he tries to impress the pretty barista with the tale:
“I’ve just been in a helluva fight”.
“That’ll be twenty-six cents”.

While sitting in the park, his luck seems to change when a gorgeous young sketch artist asks to draw him in his regalia. He is at pains to convince her not all cowboys own a horse. When she solicits his approval of her work, his ‘expert’ knowledge of the period blows it for him. He drawls cowboy-style: “If it’s good enough fer you, it’s good enough fer me. But it could be a lot more authentic”.
The artist politely leaves him after the insult. Suddenly, the film changes from monochrome to colour as, Walter Mitty-like, he rides after her on horse-back, sweeps her up and they ride off like the end of a western mythically across the hills…

BRONCHO BILLY is a simple and beautifully-shot calling-card of the talents of Carpenter and his colleagues (including Nick Castle, John Longenecker and James Rokos – nicknamed the Super Crew). The cinematography by Castle makes great use of monochrome mood lighting and the ending looks exactly like an old western’s tones. Johnny Crawford as the young man is funny, genial and nicely captures the slightly-sideways walk and the ‘So long’ two fingers off the temple goodbye gesture familiar from the genre’s movies. This is not so surprising as he became well-known as a child actor from the TV series THE RIFLEMAN. The sound design is inventive as well, over-dubbing the modern-day street traffic with cattle-drive effects.

Carpenter’s life-long love of westerns is clear. He often said the style influenced every film he ever made.

Sadly, after the film won the coveted Oscar and made his name on campus too, it had a sour after-taste for Carpenter in that USC claimed ownership of the finished film - since it had been shot using USC equipment and post-production facilities. There was nothing Carpenter could do. Enraged at what he saw as unjust, he felt it ludicrous and drew a comparison with the idea of art schools claiming to own their great masters’ paintings.

DARK STAR (1974)

(73-minute Director’s Cut – Hyperdrive Bluray release)

Whilst still a USC student, John Carpenter then threw himself into an even more ambitious project, with the same crew and the addition of actor/writing partner/technical wizard Dan O’Bannon. The film was to be a longer piece than BRONCHO BILLY, a science fiction movie entitled DARK STAR. It would have its own share of trials but would ultimately be vindicated by posterity much later.

DARK STAR concerns a crew of four (technically five) astronauts in a spaceship armed with sentient ‘Thermostellar Triggering Devices’. Their job is to bomb unstable planets to assist in the safety of colonising others. The overall plot can be summed up as: they deal with a rogue troublesome Alien on board, then a bomb that verbally refuses to release itself and finally blows up the vessel leaving only three survivors. However, within this there is much to enjoy along the way…

Firstly, Dan O’Bannon conceived of the crew and the ship design as a ‘used future’. He was a huge fan of Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY but hated the spotless perfection of the ship and its interiors. He also wanted the crew to be essentially ‘truckers in space’ (this coupled with the Alien would later be recycled by him as the film ALIEN, though to me the men always resembled hippy Woodstock burn-outs. They are composed of Lt. Doolittle, the bearded almost afro’d dry helmsman, played by Brian Narelle; Cpl Boiler (navigator - Cal Kuniholm), Talby (target specialist, Dre Pahich – whose accent was so strong that Carpenter dubbed all his lines; the ship’s Commander Powell (Joe Saunders) kept in cryo-suspension for advice – and most notably O’ Bannon himself as Sgt Pinback.
O’ Bannon is a joy to watch. His intensity, grumpiness and eccentric black humour are marvellous, for example when he records video diary entries (eerily fore-shadowing TV’s BIG BROTHER) recalling schoolboy pranks on Doolittle and dead-panning “I am not Sgt Pinback. My name is Bill Frugge. Sgt Pinback’s clothes do not fit me”.  While Talby has opted to spend all his time alone in the dome on top of the vessel, the other three are confined within the ingenious tiny sets (built in any USC rooms the film-makers could find). They have had twenty years of monotony and clearly it is Pinback who gets on everyone’s nerves the most with his in-your-face energy and quirkiness. Their duties are utter tedium with only the occasional frenetic burst of surf-music boogying to enliven the boredom.

O’Bannon has two wonderful set-pieces involving dealing with their non-compliant mascot Alien, literally a beach-ball with hand-operated claws, which goes rogue and plagues him, and a superb sequence where he clings dicily to the underside of the elevator as it journeys up and down the huge shaft.

The other famous scene is where Narelle is forced to use phenomenology to reason verbally with one of the bombs when it develops an existential crisis and won’t exit the bomb-bay. Like the counter-culture look of the crew, this spoof of the navel-gazing ‘human potential workshop’ movement is very much a product of the period. Finally, the counselling of the bomb leads it to develop a God complex and delivering the beautifully understated “Let there be light” it detonates the ship. As Talby and Powell spin off into the blackness, Doolittle the mournful surfer spies a board of wreckage and surfs optimistically into evaporation in a wonderful upbeat ending.

The sweet simplicity of the ending is also sweetly augmented by the ditty ‘Benson, Arizona’. Most country and western songs leave me cold but this is a lovely tune of offbeat hope juxtaposed against Narelle’s final ‘trip’. It’s definitely one of my favourite film endings. Incidentally, the lyrics by Bill Taylor incidentally were a tribute to the named small town where he received generous car break-down help once on a Christmas Day.

It’s also been asserted that the end of the film borrows heavily from Ray Bradbury’s story ‘Kaleidoscope’ – but hey, if you’re going to ‘steal’, be inspired by the best…

The model effects/optical work done by O’Bannon and ship design by Ron Cobb is amazing for the micro-budget they initially had, being composed of ‘99c store’ items such as ice-cube trays. Let’s not forget this was enormously ambitious for a student project. DARK STAR took three years to make, being shot whenever the team had time.

The difficulties came really after the initial 16mm cut of the film was finished. Carpenter submitted it to producer Jack Harris who was appalled by the evident padding in the 68-minute version. The original opening was an interminably dull five-minute static shot in their sleeping quarters of the lazy crew unwilling to wake up; their lengthy snoring was explained by Carpenter as being left in to increase the necessary running time to hopefully feature length. Harris told him it was fifteen minutes too short as it was, and that at least thirty of the existing minutes was garbage. He gave Carpenter a whopping (to them) $60,000 to create extra scenes and blow up the negative to 35mm for theatrical release. This is how the terrific Alien and elevator scenes came to be in the movie as well as a less welcome sequence of Doolittle playing the Loom bottle-music instrument.

In the end there are two versions of DARK STAR: an 83-minute cinema release at the time and later the Carpenter-supervised 73-minute Director’s Cut where the Loom scene was dropped and some of the more primitive effects were enhanced. This is the one I chose to watch on the superb ‘Hyperdrive’ Bluray edition. The Movie Censorship website breaks this down into greater detail:

Sadly, Carpenter and O’ Bannon fell out subsequently over misunderstandings as to their future collaborations, hinted at on the terrific ‘Let There Be Light’ two-hour documentary on the Bluray. They both had strong directorial visions and would go on to helm their own projects. O’Bannon, as mentioned before, expanded his storyline into the claustrophobic and far more ‘used-future’ griminess of ALIEN. Carpenter went on to have a string of huge genre hits before returning to his low-budget roots with less success. They were never reunited right up to O’ Bannon’s tragic death recently due to Crone’s Disease, symptoms of which surfaced and were dismissed as hypochondria during filming. One thing they agreed on though was that by expanding DARK STAR, they turned one of the most impressive student films ever made into one of the most under-appreciated cinema releases. Although fans wildly appreciated its off-kilter humour and ideas at the time, it was many years before college audiences gave it the cult status it has deserved ever since…

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