John Carpenter 1948-
(Full name John Howard Carpenter; has also written under the pseudonyms Frank Armitage and Martin Quatermass) American screenwriter, director, and producer.
The following entry presents an overview of Carpenter's career through 2001.
Carpenter is a commercially successful film director, screenwriter, producer, and composer whose works encompass the genres of horror, science fiction, action-adventure, and mystery-suspense. He is best known for Halloween (1978), a watershed production in the development of the modern horror film. His other highly acclaimed films include Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Escape from New York (1981) and Starman (1984). Carpenter has been celebrated for his innovative visual style, though some critics have debated the quality of his films, with several reviewers faulting him for his films' gratuitous violence and low-budget production values.
Carpenter was born on January 16, 1948, in Carthage, New York. His family later moved to Bowling Green, Kentucky, where his father worked as the head of the music department at Western Kentucky University. Carpenter graduated from Western Kentucky University in 1968 and entered graduate school to study film at the University of Southern California. While still at USC film school, Carpenter won an Academy award for best live-action short film for his screenwriting, editing, and composing work on The Resurrection of Bronco Billy (1970). Carpenter also began working on a short, low-budget science-fiction film called Dark Star while at USC, which was later expanded to feature length and released theatrically in 1974. In 1979 he married actress Adrienne Barbeau, with whom he had one child. Carpenter divorced in 1988 and married film producer Sandy King in 1990.
Carpenter is widely regarded for his horror and science fiction films that manifest the influence of such classic directors as Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock. Carpenter conceptualized Assault on Precinct 13, one of his earliest films, as a remake of the classic Hollywood Western Rio Bravo, which was directed by Hawks. Assault on Precinct 13 is set in a police station that is in the process of being decommissioned. A young police officer is assigned responsibility for the transfer of the precinct's remaining prisoners. During the transfer, the luckless police officer is forced to provide sanctuary for a father who has killed a gang member responsible for his daughter's death. The gang tracks the father to the precinct house, which lacks both electricity and telephone service. Outnumbered, the precinct's prisoners and the police officer are forced into an uneasy alliance against their attackers. At the beginning of his career, Carpenter also wrote and directed several made-for-television movies, including Someone's Watching Me! (1978) and Elvis (1979). In Someone's Watching Me!, a woman living in a high-rise apartment discovers that her every move is being watched by a stranger. Elvis, a made-for-television movie, starred actor Kurt Russell in a dramatized biography of the legendary singer. Russell would become a long-time collaborator with Carpenter, appearing in several of his films including Escape from New York, The Thing (1982), and Big Trouble in Little China (1986).
Carpenter's first major film and the work he is most widely recognized for is Halloween. The idea for the film was suggested by producer Irwin Yablins, who asked Carpenter to make a film about a killer who murders babysitters. In the opening sequence of Halloween, a child in a clown costume—a boy named Michael Myers—murders his older sister on Halloween night in 1963. Fifteen years later to the day, Myers escapes from the insane asylum where he has spent most of his life and returns to his childhood home. Myers then dons an almost featureless face-mask and begins murdering young women. He eventually sets his sights on a babysitter named Laurie Strode and spends the rest of the film stalking her. Halloween is regarded as one of the definitive “slasher” films—a genre that typically features seemingly unstoppable killers hunting down and violently murdering young adults, either because of their innocence or lack thereof. Halloween has spawned seven sequels, though Carpenter has had little involvement with the series beyond Halloween II, which he co-wrote with Debra Hill. Carpenter next wrote and directed the horror film The Fog (1980), in which the ghosts of a group of lepers arrive in a small town under cover of a thick fog to exact vengeance for crimes committed against them one hundred years earlier. Carpenter's next production, the science-fiction action film Escape from New York, takes place in the year 1997—the near future at the time the film was released. In this future, America's crime rate has risen exponentially and the entire city of New York has been walled off as a maximum security prison. When a helicopter carrying the President of the United States crash-lands in the lawless city, a notorious criminal, Snake Plissken, is sent to retrieve him. Plissken, a war veteran serving a prison sentence for violent crime, is sent into New York with the provision that if he recovers the president within twenty-four hours, he will be set free. If he fails in his mission, an explosive planted in his neck will be detonated. Carpenter brought the Plissken character back in Escape from L.A. (1996), a similarly-plotted film which has the U.S. Government sending Plissken on another mission; this time into the prison town of Los Angeles, which has become an island after a series of massive earthquakes.
Carpenter served only as the director for his next three major films. The Thing remakes the classic 1950s science fiction horror film directed by Howard Hawks. Carpenter's version is set in Antarctica, where a colony of research scientists discovers a buried space ship. The scientists unwittingly awaken an alien presence who begins killing them and assuming their identities. Christine (1983), an adaptation of the novel by Stephen King, centers around a boy who becomes obsessed with a haunted automobile. The car begins killing the boy's enemies and anyone else who would keep him away from the machine. Starman represents a divergence from Carpenter's characteristic action-packed films, focusing more on human drama and romantic comedy. The film follows a space alien who arrives on earth, inhabiting the body of a deceased man. While he flees from the U.S. military, the alien and the widow of the deceased man develop a romantic relationship. Carpenter returned to directing his own screenplays with the films Prince of Darkness (1987) and They Live (1988). They Live is set in Los Angeles in the near future, where a man obtains special sunglasses that allow him to see a hidden alien race that is slowly taking over the planet. The aliens use subliminal messages, broadcast through the mass media, to exert their oppressive control over humanity. In the 1990s, Carpenter directed a number of films, though none were as successful or as critically well-received as his earlier works. Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992), an adaptation of the novel by H. F. Saint, starred Chevy Chase as a man who accidentally becomes invisible and has to run from government agents who want to control him. In the Mouth of Madness (1995) weaves a complex plot—inspired by the works of author H. P. Lovecraft—about a horror writer whose fictional stories become reality for his readers. Village of the Damned (1995) remakes the 1960 film about a group of children in a small town who become possessed by a satanic presence. Vampires (1998) focuses on a team of vampire slayers—sponsored by the Catholic Church—who attempt to foil the plans of a master vampire. Ghosts of Mars (2001) examines the team dynamics of a group of people investigating a mine on Mars where all the workers have been possessed by an unknown force. In addition to his directing, producing, and screenwriting, Carpenter has also composed or co-written the musical scores for many of his films, including Halloween, They Live, and Vampires.
Carpenter's most outstanding achievement may have been the impact of his 1978 Halloween on the development of the modern horror film. Critics have often focused on the innovative opening sequence of the film, which portrays a murder from the point-of-view of the killer, an approach that has since become a standard horror film device. Critics of Carpenter's films have generally agreed that his mastery of cinematic devices, special effects, and visual craft are impressive throughout much of his oeuvre, even in his least successful films. Reviewers have been divided, however, on other elements of Carpenter's filmmaking. Some have considered Carpenter to be little more than a maker of “schlock” films which are meaningless and hold no societal value or positive message. Other reviewers have held him to be a master of the horror genre who has maintained many of the basic elements of classic genre films while also introducing innovative visual techniques. Carpenter has been faulted by some commentators for his portrayal of women in his films. Critics have noted that in Halloween, all of the sexually active females are murdered while the one who survives remains virginal; suggesting, some have said, that women should be punished for their sexuality. Starman has stood out as unique among Carpenter's films for its focus on romance and the drama of the growing relationship between the two main characters. A number of reviewers have found the love story sweet and skillfully rendered, while others have found it sappy, clichéd, and ineffective. Critics have noted Starman's numerous references to the classic Hawks road movie and romantic comedy It Happened One Night. Escape from New York has been praised by critics for the originality of the film's basic premise, the charismatic hero Snake Plissken, and the humorous and satirical elements of the film. Despite his early successes, however, many reviewers have agreed that Carpenter's post-1990 films have shown a marked decline and have been almost universally panned by critics. Memoirs of an Invisible Man, Vampires, and Ghosts of Mars have all received almost unanimously negative criticism. Critics have increasingly charged Carpenter with a lack of originality and described his newer films as unimaginative rehashings of techniques and plotlines from his earlier work.
The Resurrection of Billy Bronco [screenwriter with Nick Castle, Trace Johnston, John Longenecker, and James R. Rokos] (screenplay) 1970
Dark Star [screenwriter with Dan O'Bannon; director] (film) 1974
John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 [screenwriter and director] (film) 1976
The Eyes of Laura Mars [screenwriter with David Zelag Goodman] (screenplay) 1978
John Carpenter's Halloween [screenwriter with Debra Hill; director] (film) 1978
Someone's Watching Me! [screenwriter and director] (television film) 1978
Elvis [director] (television film) 1979
John Carpenter's The Fog [screenwriter with Debra Hill; director] (film) 1980
John Carpenter's Escape from New York [screenwriter with Nick Castle; director] (film) 1981
Halloween II [screenwriter with Debra Hill] (screenplay) 1981
John Carpenter's The Thing [director] (film) 1982
John Carpenter's Christine [director] (film) 1983
John Carpenter's Starman [director] (film) 1984
John Carpenter's Big Trouble in Little China [director] (film) 1986
*John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness [screenwriter and director] (film) 1987
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SOURCE: Carpenter, John, Tom Milne, and Richard Combs. “The Man in the Cryogenic Freezer.” Sight and Sound 47, no. 2 (spring 1978): 94–98.
[In the following interview, Carpenter discusses his cinematic influences, the Hollywood film industry, and his body of work.]
After the 1960s, when younger American filmmakers seemed to be turning increasingly to Europe for inspiration, have come the nostalgic 70s and a return to the old Hollywood. It can be no accident that three of the decade's most commercially successful movies—The Godfather, Jaws and Star Wars—were not only genre pieces (albeit elephantised), but made by directors who had already established themselves more or less in critical esteem.
Like George Lucas, John Carpenter (born Bowling Green, Kentucky, 1948) is a graduate of the University of Southern California cinema department who has made the grade after a debut in science fiction. Unlike Lucas, Carpenter seems less concerned with updating the old Hollywood ways than with trying to prove that nothing in his best of all possible worlds need ever have changed; and the difference between their respective first features, THX 1138 and Dark Star, is very marked, notably by a rather strained quest for significance on the part of Lucas, and a steely determination in Carpenter to have no truck with messages.
First seen in...
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SOURCE: Asahina, Robert. “Film Fantasies.” New Leader 61, no. 25 (18 December 1978): 17–18.
[In the following excerpt, Asahina argues that Halloween is an immature horror film that warns the audience that “sex kills.”]
Tom Allen, Sarris' disciple and fellow Voice critic, who has praised a cheap thriller called Halloween as “a sleeper that's here to stay,” while simultaneously conceding that it is a “schlock film.” Allen even calls it “a movie of almost unrelieved chills and of violence, conjuring up that unique mix of subliminal threat and contrapuntal physicality employed by Hitchcock” (one of the directors in the auteurist “pantheon”). I'm not sure how that description translates into English, but the reference to Hitchcock has some foundation. The first 10 minutes are a blatant ripoff of the shower scene in Psycho, and the entire movie is studded with fancy camera angles and obtrusive tracking dolly shots. There is even a brief nod in the direction of Howard Hawks, who is another “pantheon” filmmaker.
All this trickery, though, cannot disguise the basic inanity of the enterprise. Halloween is, simply, a high school horror film—a combination of Carrie and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Three teenage girls, whose chief activities are babysitting, gabbing on the phone and making out, are terrorized by an...
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SOURCE: Crist, Judith. “A Masterful Lumet.” Saturday Review 8, no. 8 (August 1981): 61.
[In the following excerpt, Crist describes Escape from New York as a “juvenile action-adventure” film.]
John Carpenter, the young filmmaker whose reputation rests on his having made Halloween for ＄300,000, then grossing ＄18.5 million therewith, used bits and pieces of St. Louis, Los Angeles, and Atlanta, along with miniatures and some actual shooting at the Statue of Liberty for his third film, Escape from New York, Carpenter and his screenplay collaborator, Nick Castle, have come up with an interesting starting point: In 1997 crime has reached a point in this country where Manhattan Island has been turned into a high-walled federal maximum security penitentiary; in it the prisoners are left to their own devices, without guards, but the waters around the island are mined, as are the bridges, while security is maintained from Liberty Island.
Given the situation, Carpenter's invention has turned to idiocy: The presidential plane, taken over by terrorists, crashes on Manhattan, the President surviving in a special safety capsule. The prisoners plan to use him as a hostage to buy their freedom. What does top security do? The police commissioner, Lee Van Cleef (an impressive figure in all those spaghetti westerns of the Sixties), takes a good-guy, one-eyed, top criminal,...
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SOURCE: Gross, Linda. “The Thing: No Thing to Cheer About.” Los Angeles Times (25 June 1982): section 4, p. 15.
[In the following review, Gross asserts that The Thing lacks any positive message or element of human warmth to counteract the essential nihilism expressed in the film.]
The childhood moviegoing experiences—including the resulting fantasies and nightmares—of a whole generation of film makers now in their 30s are being recycled for present moviegoers.
The new films are sometimes positive (Star Wars, Close Encounters, Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T.) and sometimes aren't.
John Carpenter's The Thing—even more than Poltergeist—may be the dark side of Steve Spielberg's E.T. Instead of providing us with love, wonder and delight, The Thing is bereft, despairing and nihilistic. It also is overpowered by Rob Botin's visceral and vicious special makeup effects.
The most disturbing aspect of The Thing is its terrible absence of love. The film is so frigid and devoid of feeling that death no longer has any meaning.
This film is a remake of the 1951 Howard Hawks-Christian Nyby movie in which a group of American scientists, stationed at an isolated outpost in Antarctica, eventually come to realize they have been infiltrated by an organism from outer...
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SOURCE: Benson, Sheila. “Starlight, Star Bright, 1st Starman to Alight.” Los Angeles Times (13 December 1984): section 6, pp. 1, 8.
[In the following review, Benson praises Starman as “a sweet surprise,” describing the film as a playful and visually beautiful love story.]
A sweet surprise comes our way with Starman. Director John Carpenter, whose beautiful visual sense is usually trained on something thoroughly unpleasant (such as the Thing, or dripping ghouls shrouded in seaweed), has gone straight. And like the sweetness at the heart of Cocteau's Beast, Carpenter has turned out to be a romantic pussycat.
With the exceptional performances of Jeff Bridges, Karen Allen and Charles Martin Smith and Carpenter's pure, uncluttered spaces, this straight-ahead, simple story of a starman come gently to Earth to observe becomes a chance for us to see ourselves at our most beautiful.
Not at our most hospitable, heaven knows, or our least xenophobic, but as he frames shots of shimmering cobalt skies or the spare delicacy of a storm fence in the sand, Carpenter looks at our country with an outsider's wide eyes. (Cinematographer Donald Morgan's work is rather like the pristine abstractions in German photographer Michael Ruetz's current coffee-table prize, “Eye on America.”)
And at the heart of all this nice richness is a playful, growing...
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SOURCE: Musto, Michael. “Spacing Out.” Saturday Review 11, no. 1 (January–February 1985): 80–81.
[In the following review, Musto criticizes Starman as boring, unoriginal, and unrealistic, but comments that the strength of the film is the element of humanity expressed in the love story.]
A spaceship rockets through the galaxies and the first thing you think is, “That isn't really a spaceship, that's a five-foot model they would like you to think is a spaceship.” The next thought: You are in for two hours of icy-cold technology—laser guns, space-to-earth communications and computer gibberish—dressing up a script that is not even clever enough to encourage willing suspension of disbelief. You are in for a major yawn.
Fighting those expectations is one of the secret missions of every science fiction film. Unless it can combine striking imagination with a basic ring of truth, it inevitably remains earthbound.
Director John Carpenter's Starman avoids the pitfalls of the genre by using all the clichéd sci-fi elements as mere trappings for what is basically a funny, sentimental love story. In 2010 (the sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey), on the other hand, the trappings are the movie. It's a pedestrian adventure, down to the by now over-exploited nuclear war theme coyly worked into the plot. 2010 is not a bad...
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SOURCE: Wilmington, Michael. “Big Trouble in Little China is Big Trouble Indeed.” Los Angeles Times (2 July 1986): section 6, p. 10.
[In the following review, Wilmington offers a negative assessment of Big Trouble in Little China, calling the film foolish and nonsensical.]
There are many dark plots hatching in Big Trouble in Little China. They're being cooked up in devilish hangouts—catacombs beneath the San Francisco streets—by people with names like Needles, the Wild Man and the Sewer Monster, in places like the Honorable Hall of the Infernal Judge and the Room of the Upside-Down Hell. None is darker or deadlier than the movie itself.
Peruse the story and people at your peril: Lo Pan (James Hong), the 2,000-year-old man, celibate for an id-curdling 20 centuries, consumed with lust for green-eyed women. His three martial arts miscreants and kung fu kidnapers: Thunder, Lightning and Rain. Supernatural gangs slugging it out in suddenly flat San Francisco streets. Lo Pan's foes: the plucky Wang Chi (Dennis Dun), the sagacious Egg Shen (Victor Wong), the motormouth Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall) and, most dangerous of all, the dreaded trucker and pig-carrier Jack Burton (Kurt Russell)—a man who runs around in his undershirt doing bad John Wayne impressions. How did this happen? How could the mind of mortal man concoct such foolishness? Truly it has been said: When...
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SOURCE: Wilmington, Michael. “A Jumbled Prince of Darkness.” Los Angeles Times (23 October 1987): section 6, p. 23.
[In the following review, Wilmington asserts that Prince of Darkness is implausible and excessive, but notes that the film is directed with visual elegance.]
In Prince of Darkness, John Carpenter seems to be hovering between cold-eyed mechanical fear-making and horror camp. The movie deals with cataclysmic possibilities—the destruction of the world and the triumph of Hell—in a peculiarly light-headed way, with a premise that jumbles together Night of the Living Dead, The Omen and Carpenter's own The Thing.
Throughout, it alternates between a bogeyman solemnity and a forced humor that makes you wonder if the wilder jokes are always intentional. What can you make of the scene where a zombified black student clumps up a staircase, giggling hysterically and singing “Amazing Grace”? Or the movie's symbol of ultimate evil: a cylindrical canister—supposedly Satan's home for 7 million years—that looks like a green lava lamp from a '60s crash pad? Supposedly, Satan's victory is imminent, unless the devil can be kept in his can. And yet the people in charge—a wild-eyed physics professor (Victor Wong) and a dolorous priest (Donald Pleasence)—can't come up with a more substantial counterattack than to gather about a dozen...
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SOURCE: Rainer, Peter. “Invisible Man Fails to Master the Possibilities.” Los Angeles Times (28 February 1992): F6.
[In the following review, Rainer notes that Memoirs of an Invisible Man has a promising premise at its core, but the film itself is mediocre.]
Most mediocre movies lack even a promising premise but Memoirs of an Invisible Man is so crammed with intriguing dramatic and comic possibilities that, watching it and being disappointed, you may find yourself rewriting it as you go along. What it might have been is so much more suggestive than what it is.
Chevy Chase plays Nick Halloway, a successful, emotionally aloof San Francisco stocks analyst who, through a freak accident, turns invisible. This provokes an all-out manhunt by some scurvy para-military CIA types, led by Sam Neill, who prize Nick as the ultimate intelligence weapon. The black joke in the material is that Nick, who has heretofore slipped through life as a smoothie, suddenly finds himself horribly isolated from, and craving, human contact. The movie (rated PG-13) makes the point that Nick was invisible before he was invisible. As the Invisible Man, he's the ultimate smoothie, but he gets no joy in his enforced subterfuge; he doesn't hang out in the girls' dressing room or abscond with a king's ransom. His only ally is the stunner he met just before he turned invisible: Alice Monroe...
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SOURCE: Thomas, Kevin. “Engrossing Madness: A Darkly Humorous Horror Movie.” Los Angeles Times (3 February 1995): F6.
[In the following review, Thomas offers a positive assessment of In the Mouth of Madness, calling it “a thinking person's horror film.”]
In the Mouth of Madness is a thinking person's horror picture that dares to be as cerebral as it is visceral. An homage to the master of the macabre, novelist H. P. Lovecraft, on the part of its writer Michael De Luca, this handsome, intelligent New Line Cinema production also finds its director, John Carpenter, in top form and provides Sam Neill with one of the most challenging roles of his career—which is saying a lot.
Charlton Heston, Julie Carmen and Jurgen Prochnow round out the key roles impressively; this is hardly your usual roster of horror stars.
Opening with a captivating prologue, In the Mouth of Madness gets off to a decidedly film noirish start with Neill cast as a crack insurance investigator, a cynical guy De Luca has compared to Fred MacMurray's character in Double Indemnity. Heston's commanding Jackson Harglow—now that's a name it takes a Heston to get away with—is a top Manhattan publisher who has hired Neill's John Trent to track down horror-meister novelist Sutter Cane, who outsells even Stephen King—and whose new manuscript is due to be delivered...
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SOURCE: Thomas, Kevin. “Village a Slick, Scary Allegory.” Los Angeles Times (28 April 1995): F10.
[In the following review, Thomas compliments the impressive special effects in Village of the Damned, noting that the film is both visually powerful and well-crafted.]
With Village of the Damned, a sleek and scary remake of the 1960 classic thriller of the supernatural, John Carpenter takes us back to a beautiful Northern California coastal community, the very same Marin County locale seen in his spooky 1980 film The Fog.
With ease and dispatch, Carpenter acquaints us with key locals in the close-knit town: its doctor (Christopher Reeve), school principal (Linda Kozlowski) and clergyman (Mark Hamill), all of whom are likable, intelligent, unpretentious types. Just as we're beginning to envy the laid-back quality of life in this beautiful and picturesque village, we're stupefied to witness in an instant its every living creature losing consciousness, dropping in their tracks. After several hours in limbo during a sunny afternoon, everyone comes to, seemingly no worse for wear, although there have been some fatalities, the principal's husband (Michael Pare) among them. Soon after the funerals, 10 young women, including a virginal teenager (Meredith Salenger), find themselves pregnant. Into an atmosphere charged with conflicting emotions—people are frightened...
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SOURCE: Kemp, Philip. Review of In the Mouth of Madness, by John Carpenter. Sight and Sound 5, no. 8 (August 1995): 52–53.
[In the following review, Kemp argues that In the Mouth of Madness demonstrates Carpenter's virtuoso cinematic technique, but that the film fails to effectively play on viewers's emotions.]
Even if John Carpenter has yet to recapture the gleeful, buzzsaw energy of his earliest work, several of his subsequent films have come sufficiently within striking distance to keep his admirers hoping for a return to form. In the Mouth of Madness isn't that; but it's an accomplished and well put-together piece of work—one that moreover achieves a rare balancing act in parodying the horror genre without sending it up. True, the plot is derivative; but then that's the whole point.
The chief source of the film, as screenwriter Michael De Luca readily admits, is H. P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos, in which an ancient and loathsome race who preceded us, and whose image survives in our earliest myths and nightmares, waits to repossess the world. The ingenious twist in Carpenter's film is that the channel by which they achieve this is the writings of someone like Lovecraft himself, whose imagination has created the requisite alternative reality, centring on the archetypal spooky New England village of Hobbs End. The process is never made too clear—are the...
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SOURCE: Tonkin, Boyd. Review of Escape from L.A., by John Carpenter. New Statesman 125, no. 4301 (20 September 1996): 43.
[In the following review, Tonkin concludes that despite the film's spectacular action scenes and stunning visual effects, Escape from L.A. is not a successful film.]
As Independence Day has proved in spades, Americans just love to trash their towns. Ever since the Founding Fathers taught the rebels to worship sturdy farmers with ten acres and a gun, native art has often treated any settlement bigger than a village (or a suburb) as Sodom and Gomorrah incarnate.
John Carpenter—whose fierce and funny genre films have teased the hang-ups ups of his compatriots for 20 years—first touched on this urban angst with Escape from New York. In 1981 he imagined the Manhattan of 1997 as a barbaric penal colony run by (of all people) soul magnate Isaac Hayes. Well, 1997 is just around the corner. New York boasts a plummeting crime rate, streets awash with firm-but-fair beat cops and a Republican mayor who hosts admiring visits from British Labour bigwigs. A Republican can mayor? Now we're really talking science fiction.
Carpenter, of course, knows very well that his business involves myth and not prediction. The aliens, demons and urban scum of his reliably stylish films sometimes wobble between sending up all-American paranoia and...
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SOURCE: Strick, Philip. Review of Escape from L.A., by John Carpenter. Sight and Sound 6, no. 10 (October 1996): 44–45.
[In the following review, Strick observes that Escape from L.A. has impressive visual effects, but concludes that the film is tedious and repetitive.]
“Sounds familiar,” murmurs the one-eyed Snake in his habitual Eastwood monotone, and much of the point of Escape from L.A. is that it shamelessly copies the Plissken predicament of 15 years ago in Escape from New York. Not much has changed: the president is still an arrogant coward, the country's city-sized primary prison still has all the supplies it needs to maintain a state of enthusiastic anarchy, and there is still one inmate so untameable that he has to be kept in a different prison, making him conveniently available for special projects. When a piece of equipment falls into the wrong hands, there is still no specially-trained undercover unit available to get it back. There is only one grimy, growling, grumpy old Snake, eye-patch and stubble miraculously unimpaired by the passing years, willing to infiltrate enemy lines because the latest designer drug will otherwise shut him down in the next few hours.
Although claimed by Kurt Russell as his favourite role, Snake makes poor company. While his contempt for the New Moral America, with its ranting evangelistic leader and...
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SOURCE: Nesselson, Lisa. Review of Vampires, by John Carpenter. Variety 370, no. 12 (4 May 1998): 83–84.
[In the following review, Nesselson offers a positive assessment of Vampires, praising the film as suspenseful and humorous.]
The pleasures are modest but consistent in John Carpenter's Vampires, a part-Western, part-horror flick that doesn't aim too high but nails the range it occupies. A tale of parallel quests in the photogenic American Southwest, pic centers on a vampire slayer on the Vatican payroll who's intent on destroying a 600-year-old master vampire before the already superhuman creature gets his hands on a secret weapon that will afford 24-hour mobility. Few of the f/x on display will greatly impress youngsters who equate vampires with the over-the-top goons in From Dusk Till Dawn, but there's a mild brainy streak running through Carpenter's movie that could tickle slightly older, better-versed horror fans.
Pic world-premiered to decent numbers in mid-April general release in France, where Carpenter is a recognized minor auteur. Suspenseful to the end, the widescreen movie looks great on the silver screen and would seem exploitable there for reasonable theatrical results, even if it's likely to generate the bulk of its biz courtesy of homevid and cable. No U.S. distrib has bitten yet.
Yarn opens just past dawn on a remote...
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SOURCE: Thomas, Kevin. “In Carpenter's Vampires, the Genre Takes the Stake.” Los Angeles Times (30 October 1998): F22.
[In the following review, Thomas criticizes the plot and direction of Vampires, calling the film “more trash than anything else.”]
Twenty years ago John Carpenter came up with Halloween, which became a classic, but for this Allhallows Eve his savage horror comedy Vampires is more trick than treat, and more trash than anything else. It's so ludicrous—every scene is a sendup, intentionally or otherwise—that it would seem that Carpenter is making an all-out attempt at what he surely knows to be impossible: to drive a stake through the entire vampire genre.
At least Carpenter, who also composed the film's hard-driving score, proceeds with exuberance and energy. That's also true of his star James Woods, who sets the film's tone for sheer outrageousness as a manic, foul-mouthed vampire slayer in the employ of the Vatican. The Vatican? According to Don Jakoby's determinedly lurid script, back in 1340 a priest named Father Johann Valek led a revolt of a group of presumably oppressed Bohemian peasants, which resulted in the Church conducting an exorcism of Valek that somehow—don't ask precisely how—backfired. The effect of all this was to turn Valek into the world's first vampire.
Woods' Jack Crow, his burly sidekick...
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SOURCE: Newman, Kim. Review of Vampires, by John Carpenter. Sight and Sound 9, no. 12 (December 1999): 60.
[In the following review of Vampires, Newman observes that Carpenter's film represents a significant shift in the vampire film genre in the way it moves the narrative focus from the vampires themselves to the band of vampire hunters.]
Along with the comic-book-based Blade and the television spin-off from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, [Vampires,] this adaptation of John Steakley's disposable novel Vampire$ reflects a significant shift of emphasis in the vampire sub-genre. It's comparable to the mutation of the gangster movie whereby the flamboyant hoods of the early 30s were replaced as central figures later in the decade by equally flamboyant G-men, often played by the same actors (Cagney, Robinson). This current cycle similarly recasts the villains themselves as old-fashioned monsters of the night without any redeeming features and concentrates on the vampire slayers, whose inflexible moral superiority is leavened by their striking an assortment of supposedly appealing rebel poses.
In the opening sequence, James Woods' Wild Bunch-style team of vampire slayers surround an isolated farmhouse and, after taking a blessing from their padre, charge in like a combination of a SWAT unit and a lynch mob. Crow's favoured vampire-killing method is...
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SOURCE: Cumbow, Robert C. “It Was the Bogey Man: Halloween.” In Order in the Universe: The Films of John Carpenter, pp. 47–63. London: Scarecrow, 2000.
[In the following essay, Cumbow examines Carpenter's innovative cinematography in Halloween and discusses the film's significance to the horror film genre.]
Yablans … came to us and said, “Would you make us a movie about babysitters?”
The opening of Halloween reprises the metaphor of Eyes of Laura Mars: the camera as peeping Tom … and as killer. The motif is sustained throughout the film, as the subjective camera makes killers—albeit shocked, unwilling ones—of us all, the heavy breathing of Michael becoming our own as we wonder what he/we will do next. As in the opening shot of Assault on Precinct 13, the moving camera presence creates a sense of disorder, an unsettling feeling that grips the viewer throughout the film: fear of sudden, random violence.
Following the main title shot—a slow track-in on a leering jack-o'-lantern—the opening sequence of Halloween is a spectacular tour-de-force, a four-minute single take that builds up to the brutal murder of a teenage girl in a quiet home in a quiet neighborhood in quiet Haddonfield, Illinois, on Halloween, 1963. The take ends...
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SOURCE: Muir, John Kenneth. “A History and Overview of John Carpenter's Career.” In The Films of John Carpenter, pp. 5–52. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2000.
[In the following essay, Muir provides an in-depth overview of Carpenter's films from the beginning of his career through the year 2000.]
As the year 1948 marched to an end, America's major Hollywood studios unveiled a parade of new cinematic westerns, films noirs, and suspense-thrillers from notable directors such as Howard Hawks (Red River), John Ford (Fort Apache), John Huston (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Key Largo), and the master of suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock (Rope). Like their films, these directing talents would one day be idolized and honored by generations of film fans the world over. They would become the modern legends, and the role models of new cinema-loving artists like François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and Brian DePalma. Unnoticed in those long ago days, but perhaps equally important in the annals of twentieth century genre filmmaking, a new cinematic “dark” star named John Howard Carpenter was born in January of 1948 in Carthage, New York.
Not surprisingly, the artist who would one day entertain moviegoers with contemporary, “stylized” westerns (Assault on Precinct 13 , Vampires ),...
(The entire section is 29269 words.)
SOURCE: Braxton, Greg. “Chill Seeker.” Los Angeles Times (23 August 2001): F10.
[In the following review, Braxton comments that Ghosts of Mars is merely a rehashing of elements from Carpenter's previous films.]
Ghosts of Mars is more than just the latest science-fiction and shoot-'em-up adventure depicting the fight between the forces of good and evil on the Red Planet.
It also could carry the subtitle “John Carpenter's Greatest Hits.”
Carpenter, who is credited with creating the teen-slasher movie genre in 1978 with Halloween and who has directed and written numerous other movies dealing with the supernatural, the unexplainable and the gory, has infused his latest film with a mix of the most notable elements from his earlier works.
As usual, Carpenter's name is above the title. There's the female lead leading the charge against the bad guys (Halloween). There's the evil force that travels ominously through airborne matter (The Fog). There are the good guys who suddenly turn bad when they're possessed by otherwise unseen evil (The Thing). There are the hyper-kinetic battle scenes scored by thrashing heavy-metal music (Vampires). There are the cheap-thrills “make-them-jump-in-their-seats” moments (Halloween). And there is blood (most of the movies Carpenter has made).
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SOURCE: Thomas, Kevin. “Ghosts of Mars Attempts to Create a Red Scare.” Los Angeles Times (24 August 2001): F6.
[In the following review, Thomas offers a negative assessment of Ghosts of Mars, describing it as “routine Carpenter fare.”]
John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars is arguably the horror/sci-fi director's most routine movie.
Although Carpenter is sometimes schlocky, sometimes over the top, the maker of Halloween and Escape from New York, among many others, can usually be counted on to generate plenty of thrills and chills in high-energy fashion. But Carpenter's heart doesn't seem to be in this lackluster space adventure set in 2176. What's more, his stars—Natasha Henstridge and Ice Cube—don't exactly energize the proceedings.
Henstridge is a sullen, hard-edged blond lieutenant on the Mars Police Force who's marking time before being able to return to the Earth, even though the Red Planet has been colonized because of overpopulation back home. When she is introduced, she is facing the Inquisitor (Rosemary Forsyth), explaining how she happened to arrive back at the capital of Chryse, alone and unconscious on an otherwise empty train.
Henstridge's Melanie Ballard is part of a prisoner transfer squad led by Cmdr. Helena Braddock (Pam Grier) taking a train to the distant mining community of Shining Canyon,...
(The entire section is 488 words.)
SOURCE: Koehler, Robert. “Carpenter Nails Down Retro, Active Planet.” Variety 384, no. 2 (27 August–2 September 2001): 31, 34.
[In the following negative review, Koehler describes Carpenter's cinematic style in Ghosts of Mars as reminiscent of the low-budget “drive–in” movies of the 1970s.]
The natural element for John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars is the drive-in, and that's the problem. Carpenter's movies, and especially his new one, belong to a bygone filmgoing culture that reveled in cheap—rather than corporate-busting expensive—chills and thrills, where your attention was divided between checking out the screen and checking out your date. Aside from a fluke case like The Fast and the Furious, there's little room for such stuff in the multiplex era, and this deliberately pre-'90s slice of rock ‘n’ roll-tinged sci-fi horror, decorated with anything but the latest in special effects, seems particularly grungy and marginal. That's where many of Carpenter's hard-core fans want to be, but if his recent pics are any measure, there aren't enough followers to push this actioner past a modest B.O. tally, though strong ancillary will probably follow.
To the question of why he inserts his name in his titles, Carpenter once answered: “Who else would make these movies?” Clearly, nobody but Carpenter would now make Ghosts of Mars as it's a kind of...
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SOURCE: Newman, Kim. Review of Ghosts of Mars, by John Carpenter. Sight and Sound 11, no. 12 (December 2001): 51–52.
[In the following review, Newman comments that Ghosts of Mars represents a decline in the quality of Carpenter's films.]
A year too late to count as part of the 2000 blip of Mars movies (Mission to Mars, Red Planet), Ghosts of Mars is honestly titled in that it plunders previous visions of the red planet—the disembodied Martians resisting the human invader from Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles, the ancient savages possessing human hordes from Quatermass and the Pit (a frequent John Carpenter crib-sheet), and the blocky railways from Ian McDonald's novel Desolation Road. Given this interesting mélange of sources, it's a shame that the film should be yet another clunky reminder of past greatness from a filmmaker whose decline continues apace.
As with the last few Carpenter films, there's a sad sense of self-imitation. The template is Carpenter's still-riveting second feature Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), which, with its pared-down plot, translation of Western conventions to an urban setting, Hawksian dialogue, cool-under-fire black humour and relentless pace, should be credited as the first ‘80s’ action film. Sequences in Ghosts of Mars, as miners possessed by Martian spirits besiege...
(The entire section is 588 words.)
SOURCE: Kerr, Philip. “Mars Bores.” New Statesman 130, no. 4567 (10 December 2001): 44.
[In the following review, Kerr argues that Ghosts of Mars simply rehashes devices used in Carpenter's previous films.]
Twenty-five years ago, John Carpenter was one of the most original young talents in Hollywood. Before he was 30, he had directed a string of cult hits, such as Dark Star (1974), Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Halloween (1978) and The Fog (1979)—films for which he wrote not just the screenplays, but also the music scores. Carpenter wore his film references proudly. Assault is a clever remake of Howard Hawks's classic western Rio Bravo, while Halloween pays its own homage to Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho.
Not that his young audience cared about any of that cinéaste stuff. What they enjoyed was Carpenter's laconic, pared-down style, his minimal use of story explication, his cool subversion of whatever genre he happened to be working within, and his near disdain of verisimilitude. He was, for example, the first director to introduce to the horror genre the concept of the visual oxymoron: the idea that you could kill someone without rendering him actually dead—such as in Halloween, when Jamie Lee Curtis finally nails the psycho Michael Myers, only for him to sit up a few seconds later.
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Angell, Roger. Review of The Fog, by John Carpenter. New Yorker 56, no. 1 (25 February 1980): 115–16.
Angell comments that the plot of The Fog is nonsensical and the film is not as scary or effective as Halloween.
Carpenter, John, and Todd McCarthy. “Trick and Treat.” Film Comment 16, no. 1 (January–February 1980): 17–24.
Carpenter discusses his experiences in film school, his musical compositions, and his body of work.
Corliss, Richard. “Making You Scream, for Art's Sake.” Maclean's 93, no. 6 (11 February 1980): 52–53.
Corliss describes The Fog as a funny, scary ghost story with an original visual style.
Jones, Kent. “John Carpenter American Movie Classic.” Film Comment 35, no. 1 (January 1999): 26.
Jones argues that Carpenter deserves recognition as a great genre filmmaker.
Kael, Pauline. Review of Starman, by John Carpenter. New Yorker 60, no. 50 (28 January 1985): 88–89.
Kael criticizes Starman for being overly simplistic and sentimental.
Lane, Anthony. “Scare Tactics.” New Yorker 70, no. 49 (13 February 1995): 92–93.
Lane comments that In the Mouth of Madness is an...
(The entire section is 360 words.)