It’s time to get ready for a fight, horror fiends! In 1976, director John Carpenter released Assualt on Precinct 13 and almost single-handedly created the modern siege film. The story of a policeman with a couple of other officers, secretaries, three felons, and a hysterical man trying to keep at bay gang members who are trying to break into a closing police station in an abandoned section of Los Angeles to kill them all was groundbreaking. The gang members were a nameless, faceless threat, while the people keeping them out were charismatic and likable. The film also highlighted a characteristic that would be synonymous with the siege drama: urban blight. These films and stories would literally not be possible if the locations under siege – once functional structures occupying the heart of booming, populated areas – had not been left behind, abandoned by urban growth. Since the film was released, the genre has become a favorite subgenre within Horror (even Carpenter himself returned to it several times) so today, we are going to dive into a siege double feature with John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars and Joe Begos’ VFW.
Ghosts of Mars is a straight away mass possession siege movie with lots of action and some great gore. Set in 2249, the earth has colonized Mars to the point where people no longer need to wear suits to move around on the planet’s surface. Lieutenant Mallory Ballard has been found unconscious on a train pulling into the central station. She is revived and asked to testify before the planet’s governing council about what happened to her. The majority of the film unfolds as her flashback. She was on a mission lead by Team leader Helena Braddock with officer Jericho and two more officers to a mining town to bring in Desolation Williams, a recently captured outlaw. When they arrive, they find a ghost town with decapitated bodies hanging from ceilings. The few survivors they encounter are either prisoners who have no idea what has happened or miners under a debilitating trance. They also locate Williams and his group of outlaws there to free him. Jericho quickly finds a miner putting Braddock’s decapitated head on a pike before joining other miners in a sort of frenzy, who have disfigured themselves. Bollard takes the lead and interrogates Whitlock, one of the survivors. Whitlock reveals she is a scientist who was part of discovery on the planet of an ancient civilization. She surmises that although long dead, the souls of the extinct Martians lay dormant until she accidentally released them, and they now are taking over the bodies of humans and plan to take their planet back in bloody fashion. The situation forces Bollard to team up with Williams and his men, and through the sheer force of their will, fight to get free from the now possessed miners.
This movie is one of Carpenter’s where he copies himself; however, it works. The Science Fiction element helps a lot to disguise Carpenter’s cinematic plagiarism. Instead of a deserted police station, it’s a ghost town on Mars. Effectively, the film blends the sci-fi horror film, the siege film and just a bit of the Western genre. The concept of police officers traveling by train to bring in the wanted criminal from the far outpost is straight out of westerns. But he also disguises that fairly well by making our main character a female police officer with a drug habit and the criminal a streetwise black outlaw. Natasha Henstridge plays Ballard and Icecube Williams, and their chemistry on-screen really works. Ballard’s tough take no shit from anyone attitude earns Williams respect, and thankfully the story avoided any ideas of a romance between the two. There is more camaraderie with the warriors, and that works as well. Surprisingly Jason Statham is also in the film as Jericho, and it’s a little odd to see him play a background character in an action film for someone that has become a modern action star. As for the alien possessed miners, the concept is interesting, as is how the possessed mutilate their bodies to appear closer to the bodies of the Martians inhabiting them. Also, going back to the Western elements, some of the designs for the possessed resemble the appearance of Native Americans in the Western genre. Whereas Carpenter is not only referencing himself and the genres he loves, our second feature is a love letter to the filmmaker from one of horror’s most exciting new voices.
VFW is a violent and gory treat for the eyes that pays tribute to a master director and a generation of action stars who still have some fire inside them. A new, highly addictive drug called Hype has left society crumbling, and police stretched to their limit in the near future. Boz is a drug dealer with a large amount of Hype available with plans to sell it for lots of money. He also has a crew of dangerous people who help him and an army of addicted Hypers living in the abandoned movie theatre from which he operates. When one of the hypers notices the vial of Hype he has in his hand, he tosses it from the balcony simply to watch the Hyper jump to her death. Her sister, Lizard, sees her death and decides to steal the crew’s supply of Hype.
Meanwhile, Fred, a Marine Vietnam veteran, is picking up his friend Abe while his friend Walter sleeps in the back of the truck on their way to the VFW hall Fred runs. Later, at the hall, more of their friends arrive, including Z, Lou and Doug. It’s Fred’s birthday, and Walter thinks they should celebrate with a night of drunken revelry, but Fred wants no part of it, and when a young soldier on leave shows up at the bar, he uses him as an excuse to stay. After Lizard steals the Hype, Boz promises the hypers a large portion of the Hype to recovery it. Attempting to escape the crew and the hypers, Lizard runs into the bar with them pursuing them. When Doug gets hurt trying to help Lizard, Fred dispatches them brutally. With an army of hypers and the crew lead by Boz trying to break into the bar to kill Lizard and Fred and his friends and retrieve their drugs, the old vets have a fight on their hands. But Boz and his crew are about to discover these men survived wars through cunning, brutality, and viciousness and are a lot harder to kill than they expect.
VFW is a cinematic homage to the siege films of John Carpenter under the direction of Joe Begos. From the start, the film has the feel of a Carpenter film. The opening soundtrack has the sound of a Carpenter movie, with the credits having the font used in many of his films. When the film begins, you might think you are starting to watch Escape from New York or Assault on Precinct 13. The atmosphere of the film is perfect for the genre. The near future and the urban plight the film exists in is reminiscent of Assault on Precinct 13 and how quickly our modern cities can fall into chaos quicker than we can possibly expect. For example, a real-world example of this is how quickly homeless people camped out on the sidewalks of Venice Beach during the shutdown caused by Covid-19. The protagonists are charismatic and remind one of the crew in The Thing. They are very likable and just a group of badasses. You can also get a sense of how much they all got along making the film. The cast is a who’s who of older stars with Steven Lang as Fred, William Sadler as Walter, Fred Williamson as Abe, Martin Kove as Lou, David Patrick Kelly as Doug, George Wendt as Z. The one difference from the genre standard is our antagonist are not all nameless, faceless hordes with Travis Hammer as Boz, Dora Madison as Gutter, and Josh Ethier as Tank. There are the bad guys we route against, and they are great. Boz is a rock star-like scumbag, Gutter is vicious and sexy, and Gutter is a dangerous lumbering brute. In this small way, Begos has made the film not just a copy of what he has seen and instead enhanced the genre with his own personal flavor.
Finally, the siege films are worth checking out for the social commentary at the heart of their stories. In Assault on Precinct 13, Carpenter offers commentary on urban plight and the spread of crime and gangs. VFW parallels this. In either case, both problems are cause and effects that remind us that one grows, so does the other. That is to say, as gangs and drugs and violence proliferate, urban plight spreads. Conversely, as commerce and other circumstances create urban plight, poverty and a lack of opportunity lead to drug use and crime. Maybe there are movies made for entertainment, but they also have a point and can be socially conscious at the same time as entertain. Each film also makes a point on concepts in these films. Ghosts of Mars reminds us to be cautious in our exploration and colonization of new places, or we may face the consequences of assuming positions are ours for the taking. In VFW, the point is about how veterans are used in war and discarded and forgotten in our society, assuming they are no longer useful when they are still competent men and women. Both films are available for rent on several streaming platforms, and VFW is available on Shudder and Ghosts of Mars is on Starz.