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 Britain at the Edinburgh Festival in 1974 and screened last Christmas on television, Dark Star began as a forty-five minute student project while Carpenter was still at USC, and was then turned into a feature costing ＄60,000 when several people became interested. Not exactly a parody of 2001, the film nevertheless turns Kubrick's clock back a good many years: ‘I've loved science fiction since I was a kid,’ Carpenter says, ‘and some of the film was paying tribute to the old science fiction films … the beach ball alien was like the 50s rubber monsters running around. We had no money to compete with 2001, but its religious overtones insulted me so much that I just said I'm not going to do that, I'm going to make a down to earth movie, how do you clean your underwear when you're on a spaceship and so on.’
Almost all done by animation camera and cartoons, the special effects in Dark Star actually look extremely elaborate and expensive, and true to his promise, Carpenter puts the skids under the one moment when mystical overtones threaten as the spaceship runs into trouble and the acting captain, as a last resort, goes to consult the dead captain preserved in a ‘cryogenic freezer compartment.’ Appealed to for advice, the oracle first complains that no one has visited in ages, then lapses into silence, sleepily trying to collect its wits before anticlimactically muttering, ‘Well, if you can't get it to stop, talk to the bomb, teach it phenomenology.’
Characteristically, Carpenter then turns anticlimax into climax. Absurdly the acting captain approaches the recalcitrant bomb—primed by a malfunction, it has resisted blandishments from the computer (no HAL but a sexy siren) to un-prime itself—and engages it in philosophical debate, the astronaut arguing that objects are merely ideas while the bomb stoutly insists, ‘I think, therefore I exist.’ Interested, the bomb finally withdraws to think it over, re-emerging for a moment of strange and haunting epiphany worthy of Ray Bradbury. Now converted to the idealistic position, the bomb is back with Genesis: ‘I saw that there was darkness and I was alone … Let there be light!’ And a blinding white flash obliterates the screen as the bomb creates its world and in empty space the two surviving astronauts float...
(This entire section contains 4389 words.)
alone with their obsessions.
Wonderfully funny, Dark Star is flawed only by a slight self-indulgence in certain scenes where the original concept clearly (though delightfully) shows signs of having been padded out. This was a mistake Carpenter was not to repeat in his next feature, Assault on Precinct 13 (cost: ＄200,000). A thriller which transposes the basic situation of Rio Bravo (a police station manned by a skeleton staff and some unlikely allies is attacked kamikaze-style by a vengeful youth gang), its relaxed, assured economy of style, reminiscent of the best of 40s film noir, had the audience at the London Film Festival last December unabashedly cheering and applauding like 14-year-old film fans.
Carpenter manages to send his action up and take it absolutely seriously at the same time, keeping his audience simultaneously on the edge of their seats and on the brink of gleeful mockery. The film is a virtuoso display of old-style professionalism, shot with beautiful functionalism in the head-on camera style that marked nearly all the Hollywood greats from Ford and Hawks to Billy Wilder, who might have been talking for John Carpenter when he condemned any director who does otherwise with his camera. ‘He isn't doing what he should be doing: telling the story.’
[Carpenter]: Exactly. I believe in that so much. Because when you use the camera to express an emotion by an exaggerated angle or something, that is fine, but if you have to do it because what is happening on the screen is not interesting or compelling enough, then you're in trouble. If people are talking, that's more important than the director saying hey, look at me, I'm a director, I can do all this. Who cares about that anyway? The audience cares about what is on the screen. Film school allowed me to grab the camera and zoom in and out and show off. I hate show-offs and I hate pretension. My first films were very avant-garde because, as young as I was, you don't know what the hell you're doing, so I tried everything and kind of felt my way along. I made some awful movies. I couldn't show them, they're just so horrible.
Sometimes of course you have to have an angle or a camera trick for a dramatic effect, and then, if it's used right, you hope it works and the audience will respond to it emotionally. For instance, I shot the opening of Assault on Precinct 13 myself, using a hand-held camera, following the gang coming out of a doorway and walking down an alley, then they hear something but go on and are suddenly gunned down, and you look up and see the police ambush above. I knew that it would be a bit self-conscious but that people would pay attention to it right away, and then I could get on with the film and move them into it.
[Milne and Combs]: Do you really see yourself as belonging with the older generation of filmmakers, people like Howard Hawks?
Absolutely, yes. If I had three wishes, one of them would be ‘Send me back to the 40s and the studio system and let me direct movies.’ Because I would have been happiest there. I feel I am a little bit out of time. I have much more of a kinship for older style films, and very few films that are made now interest me at all. I get up and walk out on them. And in that sense I have a tough battle.
I like genres, and regardless of what film I do, I identify for myself what genre I'm working in, so that I can relate it to others. Not necessarily that I want to say to the audience hey, you've seen this before, but for myself I identify it. And I find that I make films differently, and my ideas are basically different from most directors in Hollywood because—and I may be wrong—films are getting more and more pretentious. Even something like Close Encounters of the Third Kind … It's a movie about flying saucers, and the potential of a big budget movie about flying saucers could be great, but the way the film was made they just … went out the window!
How do you feel about the New Wave then, Godard and Truffaut and their early attempts to extend the genres?
It's very difficult for me to reflect on that. I have a feeling that Truffaut and Godard, a lot of European filmmakers … whether it's the system they are working under or … their movies are texturally inferior somehow, there's something missing in them, just in terms of a visceral approach to a movie. And I can't figure out whether it's intentional, or whether they haven't the technicians, or what. But there is a distance from the screen to the audience. And my whole philosophy of movies is that movies are not intellectual, they are not ideas, that is done in literature and all sorts of other forms. Movies are emotional, an audience should cry or laugh or get scared. I think the audience should project into the film, into a character, into a situation, and react. The great thing about some of the B movies or the film noir, say, is that the audience did just that. In The Big Sleep they wanted to know what Humphrey Bogart was going to do. These other directors don't do that. They take the superficial aspects of it but they don't get down to the real guts of the thing, which is that the audience has to care. I don't feel you can just sit and analyse the film intellectually, because then it has failed. So in terms of extending the genres, philosophical ideas, I'm not as interested in that as I am in getting the audience to react, really to project into the film, and come away having had an experience.
At the same time you are also in a sense distancing the audience, alerting them to be aware of what they are seeing in genre terms, through your humour and your movie allusions.
Because I think audiences are more sophisticated now and they've seen too many genre films. I'm trying to get them in all sorts of directions, but it's not an intellectual idea. They don't sit and think, ‘What's he trying to say?’ They'll laugh or chuckle their way with me, or they'll feel their way.
You said that the humour in Dark Star was a later development. Is the same true of Assault on Precinct 13?
Exactly. I found in both films that I had constructed a situation which, the grimmer it got, the funnier it was to me. In Dark Star these men have been in space for twenty years, there are no women, and they are kind of going crazy. I put myself in that situation and said it's horrible, then I began to think it was funny. The same goes for Assault on Precinct 13. I began with a very serious idea about people being attacked which began to become humorous to me. So it arises out of the situation rather than the decision, well, I'm going to make this funny. The first part of the picture, setting up the characters and the conflict, before they all arrive at the police station, is fairly straight, because I've learned that you want to take an audience up to a certain point and set them up, let them know what's going to happen. Then I begin dropping in the humour, like the girl wailing, ‘Why would anybody shoot at a police station?.’ From then on I can carry the absurdity. So basically, as soon as the lights go out in the station and the siege begins, I figured I had a chance to start putting some humour in, because the audience by that point is hooked.
The humour is also backed by another sense of slight dislocation that comes with the introduction of Napoleon Wilson, the killer on his way to Death Row who becomes a hero and seems to belong to another film.
Or maybe another time. Out of the Old West, I hope. I try to make him so that he doesn't really belong with the people around him. He's completely out of place as a prisoner. He is, in a way, removed in a heroic sense from everyone else, and I try to define his character less in terms of him being psychologically strange than through his lines, through the sort of metaphysical level on which he judges people. He is always asking people for a smoke, for instance, and there are two people who respond to him with some sort of kindness. One is the black police lieutenant, who says ‘No … sorry,’ and Wilson thinks, ah, he gave me a little respect as a human being. The other is the girl, she gives him a cigarette. So through his eyes those are the two people who are worthy of his respect. At the end, after what they have been through, Wilson and the lieutenant have established a sort of bond; I could have built up their characters and the relationship, but I thought that would have been copying Hawks right down the line, so I just didn't want to do it. Basically it's Wilson's ending, and all I wanted was, through the lieutenant, to state the fact that he deserved some dignity for what he'd done. It wasn't meant to be more … just a very simple ending, clean, heroic.
Wilson's dialogue is very Hawksian; isn't some of it quoted from Rio Bravo?
Not to my knowledge. Maybe unconsciously. There's the line when Wilson says to the girl ‘You were good!’ after her part in the shoot-out, and I thought, wait a minute, I've heard that before, where did that come from? And I think it's from a lot of Hawks films. But I wasn't consciously quoting it, it sort of came out of the character.
Apart from the unmistakable Hawksian feeling, there do seem to be replays from Rio Bravo, like the ‘No quarter’ banner that the Cholo gang throw down before the police station and the ‘No quarter’ music played throughout the wait for the attack in Rio Bravo.
I really never thought of that. The closest thing to another film that I was consciously aware of is the tossing of the shotgun, which is from Red River. The police being alerted to what is going on when blood from the dead telephone linesman starts dripping on to the roof of their patrol car … yes, I guess that's the blood in the beer scene in Rio Bravo. And nobody seems to have noticed that the black lieutenant's story about being taken to a police station as a child by his father is Hitchcock's own story.
But the tossing of the shotgun is the closest I ever got to taking something and really using it, because I don't like to do that. I find a lot of directors, specifically somebody like De Palma, virtually copy a film as he did with Vertigo, and I hate that. Bogdanovich copies too. He wants to make movies about old movies, to say, ‘Hey look at me, I have good taste, I love Hawks, I love Ford, I love Hitchcock, isn't that great?’ I don't want to copy another film, simply to get the ambience. In the case of Assault on Precinct 13, I was approached by a backer with a certain amount of money, and he said, let's make a picture that we can sell. And I wanted to make a Western, very badly, because I love Westerns. So I thought, I'm going to make a modern-day Western, and I'm going to transpose the Indians attacking the fort. I'm going to use youth gangs. And I'm going to use archetypal heroes, I'm going to stylise a great deal, I'm a great Howard Hawks fan. And it just sort of came out of that. But the point is that the film has to stand on its own, without the inferences from Hawks. That can't be the central point of it. After all, although I also made it for people like you to get an added attraction out of it, I made the film basically for audiences who don't know Hawks from anybody.
Isn't there a slight anomaly in that, although you see yourself back in terms of the Hollywood studio system, you are practically a one-man band, not only directing, scripting and editing, but writing the music and virtually producing your films. So where's the system?
The system back then, as I understand it from having talked with people, is that the control and the style and the point of view was basically left up to the director. Today in Hollywood the mechanics of getting a film going, the number of hands that grab on to it, is ridiculous. When I say studio system, I would have loved to have worked with the stars they had on the roster, the technicians they had, the kind of movies they were doing where a director could move from one genre to another in succession. I would love to give up writing films. I hate writing. I hate editing. I'm doing it only out of self-defence, because there's no one else who can do it to my liking. And the reason I have done the music on my films is because I'm the cheapest and the best I know for the price! I would love to work with a Goldsmith or somebody like that, but I can't afford to, so it's me.
Do you foresee difficulties in surviving now that the studio system doesn't exist any more and so many deals have to be made with people wanting a piece of the pie?
I know, this comes down to my present dilemma, because I don't want to compromise that much and I see the writing on the wall to get to a position of power where I can do my own films my own way. I must compromise to a certain extent, and the least painful way is through writing. So, writing my way towards a position of power, I have to write scripts that I often wouldn't want to direct, and I have become a good journeyman writer. I've written a lot of scripts that are successful but that I wouldn't give a damn about, although I always apply the craft and do a good job. What I'm saying is that I don't put John Carpenter into those scripts—and in the past year I've written six—I write them for the machine and for an end purpose. I want to do Assault on Precinct 13 with five million dollars and big stars: this is what I'm after, taking a low budget film like this and getting the power to be able to do it within the studios. They're not going to let me walk in, I have to work my way up there. It's very frustrating.
And paradoxical. Assault on Precinct 13 might reasonably be described as a surefire commercial movie. Yet the major distributors weren't exactly falling over themselves to distribute it in Britain.
Yes, I know. I feel I'm treading on thin ice in a way. The film was distributed all wrong in America, as blood and guts, without any of the suspense or mystery. And Assault doesn't deliver that, so it has done just fair. If I had made this film brutally realistic, without stylising it at all, it probably would have done much better in America. I wanted the audience to have fun with the characters, laugh with them, while at the same time having the violence of the situation going on. But because the youth gang problem is so serious over there, they don't want it to be stylised.
Although you elide the violence so that there is remarkably little of the currently fashionable blood-letting, despite the fantastic number of killings, there is still one fairly shocking moment: when the little girl—conventionally to be menaced but not killed—is shot through the ice-cream.
When I thought of that, to me it was the most absurd death I could think of, getting shot through an ice-cream cone. You don't really see very much when she is shot; it's the idea of it that is kind of horrifying. A simple dramatic trick: I wanted the bad guys to be bad. And if they could kill that little girl, there is no way you'll sympathise with them, there is no way you'll say, well, they're poor, they have reasons. I didn't want any political or social messages at all, and that scene was specifically planned for that reason. An incident that really happened started me on it. A youth gang was standing round a bus stop and a bus pulled up. One of them said, the next person that gets off, I'm going to kill him. A little girl stepped out and he shot her, got in a car, and drove away. What kind of people will do that? In broad daylight? I mean, they don't care about anything, it's completely senseless and psychotic. So I thought, well, I'll make the villains that way, because to me that's a frightening thing, utter horror, to think I'm going to walk down a street and be shot for nothing.
I was discussing the character with the actor who plays this gang member who shoots the little girl, and he gave me the best explanation of the villain. He said, ‘I don't want to play this as a man with a gun, I want to play it as a man who is a gun.’ That was exactly what I wanted these people to be like, killing machines with the mechanics of the trigger. They just don't care, which is why this character, when he gets out of the car to confront the dead child's father, just stands there and is shot down. Basically, to me the evil outside was totally irrational and senseless. Had I wanted the gang to be realistic, to make a social comment, it probably would have been either an all-Chicano or an all-black gang. I deliberately made it racially mixed, not being too specific about it, keeping it a little shadowy and indistinct.
Talking about B movies, you said that one of their great qualities was in going straight from A to B; but you also said that in Dark Star you meander, giving yourself a chance to explore personality. Do you feel the same is true of Assault on Precinct 13?
Yes, very definitely. With Dark Star we had a stricter narrative at first. Then as the picture grew, I began to realise that there were variations on the basic situation, that I could go off in this direction or that, explore this guy a little bit more and then over to another, and that the audience would go along. It was an episodic kind of thing, the closest I've come to improvisation; but the thing that allowed me to do this was the central concept, without it I'd have been lost. Now I've become a little bit more disciplined. I don't think I would do anything that loose again.
In Assault on Precinct 13, Wilson has a very simple story, and all I have to do is set him up to get him to a certain point. But I like to meander around, taking in Wilson's philosophy and how he feels about things: the scene in the bus where he talks to his police escort; the silly game whereby he and Wells decide who goes out to make the break for help; when they're downstairs in the basement looking for a way to defend themselves, and Wilson and the girl talk, discuss really a kind of love relationship while the movie stops for a minute, just going off on a sidetrack.
Much of Wilson's dialogue has this meandering, teasing quality, with his philosophical asides, his half-completed explanations, and the unresolved question of how he came to be named Napoleon.
I'm trying to build a certain mystery, curiosity, romance about this man, compared to the police lieutenant, who's really a straitlaced kind of guy whom I wouldn't want to spend a lot of time with. He isn't black because I'm saying something about blacks. Nor did I want to say anything about policemen. I just wanted somebody, a kind of one-dimensional character who represents law and order, who accepts responsibility in that situation.
You clearly calculate everything down to the last detail. Was this why the part of the girl was cut down during editing?
Yes. Of the actresses I tested for the role, Laurie Zimmer was absolutely the best. We experimented with the role a little, but I think I failed and she failed in one specific area. There's a line in this character between being cool and assured and strong, and being cold and bitchy. And she crossed the line several times. It was my fault. She was very nervous, this was her first film. So when I got it into the cutting-rooms, I realised … this was a nuance, but it had to do with how you feel about this woman. So I had to cut a great deal of her part out, a lot of good lines which, if they had been delivered correctly, would I think have added to the film, though she works pretty well now. Most of what was cut had to do with her relationship to the other girl, Julie, the one who gets killed, who had a part that made much more sense originally. Now you perhaps wonder why I have her in the film at all, except to get killed. But originally there were tensions between the two girls, with Julie resenting Leigh for various reasons: Leigh is not only more attractive, she is an upper middle class girl who has come down into the ghetto, and being a cop is trying to help people. It gave a little more complexity, a little bit more shading, so that you understand why Julie fell apart before she was killed. You have to be careful of these fine lines: if you dip over, the audience is lost …
Can you envisage yourself turning to literary adaptations?
There's a book I very much want to film by Alfred Bester, The Stars My Destination. Terrific science fiction … it would cost millions and millions of dollars, I'll never be able to do it. I also, strangely enough, would love to do Edgar Allan Poe's A Descent into the Maelstrom. I think it could be a tremendous film. But that's all in the future. I have to establish myself as a writer first, and then explore.
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 apparently indestructible madman. He has escaped from the mental institution where he spent the last 15 years for murdering his teenage sister, whom he had discovered having sex with her boyfriend.
In fact, “sex kills” seems to be Halloween's message. Of the three girls, the virginal Laurie alone survives; one is led to believe that her sexual reticence and her homely print dress and knee socks, more than anything else, account for her salvation. Certainly her intelligence is not responsible. After stabbing the killer once, she neglects to make certain that he is dead. When he comes at her again, she locks herself into a closet, of all places, that he easily breaks into. Twice she fails to take away the knife when he lets it fall. Not since The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has a heroine so narrowly, so often, and so improbably escaped death at the hands of a masked homicidal maniac. Her stupidity about survival is exceeded only by his utter incompetence at murder.
As Laurie, Jamie Lee Curtis (daughter of Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, the showering victim in Psycho) displays a pleasantly equine face and modest acting ability. P. J. Soles, featured in Carrie, is somewhat better as Lynda, another of the young trio. The direction, by someone named John Carpenter, who also wrote the script (with Debra Hill) and the music, is pedestrian when it isn't merely the attempt of a film-school graduate eager to impress auteurist critics.
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, Kurt Russell (Used Cars was his last film vehicle) and sends him in to bring out the President: It must be done in 22 hours because the President has with him a tape on which rests “the survival of the human race” and, besides, Russell's been injected with something that will explode him unless he's given an antidote in 22 hours.
Well, no one really expects much sense out of these juvenile action-adventure exploitations. But for ＄7 million, one would hope for an imaginative rendition of a 1997 Manhattan as something more than a pigsty, without the St. Louis Union Train Station pretending to be Madison Square Garden and its Chain of Rocks Bridge a fictitious 69th Street Bridge. At least Ernest Borgnine shows up, immutable as ever, driving a Yellow Cab.
Since the action takes place primarily at night, it's all as murky as Carpenter's morality. The hero, you see, is admirable because he's a decorated Vietnam veteran who attempted only to rob a Federal Reserve Bank—and he becomes a true-blue hero by destroying the President's tape at fade-out time. To complete this old-hat kid-rebel point of view, there are only two women in the federal pen—and one is wiped out immediately, the other at crash-bang finale time.
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 space.
However, director Carpenter and screenwriter Bill Lancaster have gone back to the classic 1938 science-fiction novella on which the 1951 film was based, John W. Campbell Jr.'s Who Goes There? (a work that also influenced Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Alien). In Campbell's story, the “thing” is dangerous because it has control over its own biology. By becoming an exact copy of any living creature it consumes it can conquer the world.
Lancaster's claustrophobic screenplay reduces the 37 men in Who Goes There? to 12. It's still far too many characters for us to keep track of. And we become more confused because the “thing's” takeover of humans follows no logical pattern.
The most recognizable characters are Kurt Russell as a hard-drinking helicopter pilot who reluctantly assumes command; Keith David, a hot-headed cynic who shares a mutual antagonism and respect for Russell, and A. Wilford Brimley, who plays the equivalent of the original movie's mad scientist.
Because Carpenter's film opens spectacularly, we are more disappointed by what follows. In the midst of winter landscape of smoke-blue mountains, capped with ice, we see a midnight-blue husky running across the snow. For no apparent reason, a Norwegian helicopter appears and its pilot fires frenetically at the fleeing dog. Here, Carpenter is able to evoke tension and fear in this chilly story, awesome in its physical beauty.
However, there ends the best part of the film. From then on, the film maker covers up his story holes by unleashing gory and horrible occurrences, taking your mind off logical continuity.
Carpenter's film is also notable for its lack of female characters. Once again we return to a boy's world of science-fiction where romance always has halted the action. In another movie, which also featured only male characters, Das Boot, we still sensed the presence of women in the men's minds because they spoke about their sweethearts and wives to one another. Here, there are absolutely no references to male-female relationships.
In the 1951 film, the “thing” itself was asexual. In this version so are the human characters. Their only carnal encounter occurs when the “thing” entwines with them and symbolically rapes them. It even rips off their clothes when it overtakes them. The “thing” itself possesses an oddly malevolent sexual quality. When it explodes it oozes what looks like dry, rotted blood, afterbirth and malformed creatures.
The Thing traffics in paranoia. Since you can't always tell the differences between humans and the “thing” in human form, it's open season on murder. It's better to have a dead friend than a live enemy. Hamlet wouldn't have lasted five minutes in this Antarctic realm of paranoia where nobody trusts anybody. In the 1951 version, the movie's paranoia had its roots in McCarthyism. Here, it serves no real purpose except as a kind of nihilistic chic. And the negative energy of the film kills its pace.
Technically, the film is superb. It has terrific sound effects, a pounding, edgy score by Ennio Morricone and frostbitten cinematography by Dean Cundey. But what we are finally left with is the film's abiding paranoia and its gruesome, empty effects.
Rated R for relentless, yet oddly depersonalized violence, The Thing offers no humanism to vitiate its nihilism.
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 love story. A sort of space-to-Earth It Happened One Night, it places husky-voiced Karen Allen as an unwilling driver in a cross-country car race against time and potentially lethal U.S. government agencies. At her side is a creature (Jeff Bridges) who is like her dead husband, down to his bone marrow. But she has watched this exact replica grow from a glowing alien baby to a man, cloned from one hair of her dead husband's head.
We are faster than Allen to understand that Bridges means her no harm. She spends the first half of her enforced trip from her remote Wisconsin house, where he had crash-landed, to Arizona, where he must meet his mother ship or perish, trying to escape. Intellectually you might understand the impulse. But face to face with Bridges—inquisitive, intuitive, unintentionally funny and almost all-powerful—you don't ever want the trip to end or anything to happen to this precious visitor, with his awkward, slightly probing walk like an ambulatory dunk-'em bird toy.
In the screenplay by Bruce A. Evans and Raynold Gideon, a lot of extraneous science-fiction clutter is done away with, especially the tracking of the couple by sympathetic government agent Charles Martin Smith and by National Security Agency baddie Richard Jaeckel, his dissecting table all ready to welcome this visitor. The economy is as welcome as a knife through bureaucratic red tape. By now the film makers assume we know the form of the genre by heart; we don't need '50s pinpointed maps or crisp directives from captains to lieutenants. Right. It gives us more time for our endangered central couple, too.
Allen and Bridges seem to work perfectly on each other's wave-lengths; their acting styles are in the same slightly low-key, faintly comic naturalism. (Bridges has not been this well matched since with Lisa Eichorn in Cutter and Bone, a high-water mark Bridges film.) The fun for us is watching each one change—for Allen to relax from wariness to sensuality; Bridges to really inhabit his human's body, with a full range of emotions, and to learn the tenderness of earthly love.
This may be spelled out a little patly, just as some of the plot points are occasionally too simply solved. (At the desert roadblock we never understand why that daring young hot rodder acts so obligingly as Allen's decoy.) But along with its great visual elegance, Starman has its own romantic undertow, and it is really too much to resist.
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 film—it's competently done and reasonably involving—but next to the warm and engaging Starman, it plays like an astronomy lesson.
Unfortunately, 2010 suffers in comparison not only with Starman, but with its predecessor, which arrived in 1968 like a blazing comet of nearly incomprehensible and totally exhausting originality—the kind of originality that must have prompted the invention of the expression “mind-blowing.” Even those who didn't understand 2001 were fascinated by its visual wit, its frighteningly believable premise of a computer with a mind of its own, its esoteric prologue of apes going through the evolutionary process and its dazzling epilogue of apocalyptic light effects. (Fact: More pot was consumed during those latter two sequences than during any other footage in film history.) Convoluted and pretentious as it was, Kubrick's version of the Arthur C. Clarke scenario was unmistakably visionary.
2010 was billed in advance as being “more mass-market” than 2001—an absurd statement considering that 2001 was a huge hit—and that is much of the film's problem; it is calculated to be a hit. Those calculations must have been done on a computer. Despite forced human touches like the astronauts reminiscing about hot dogs, or Roy Schneider relaying hopeful messages to home and his son, the film seems remote.
There aren't many deft futuristic touches, either (a commercial for Pan Am flights to the moon, with the slogan “The sky's no longer the limit” is one of the few). Instead, the film doggedly follows the joint mission of a U.S./Soviet team investigating the mysterious monolith near Jupiter that claimed astronaut David Bowman (Keir Dullea) nine years ago. But it has really been sixteen years since 2001, and in those years space fantasies have been done in fifty-seven varieties, from light-hearted (Star Wars) to sardonic (Blade Runner.) 2010 takes the straight approach, with thought-provoking but rarely inspirational results.
As directed by Peter Hyams from Clarke's book, 2010 is littered with isolated good moments: John Lithgow stepping out of the spaceship with a look as terrified as the one he had when he spotted a gremlin on the airplane wing in the Twilight Zone movie; or Helen Mirren telling Scheider, “You have been drinking your ‘viskey’ from Kentucky.” But the film simply doesn't have a visionary's imagination. By the end, when Scheider voices-over some awestruck nonsense to his son about having found a whole new world, you're left not oohing and ahhing, but going “Huh?” If you are looking for this film to explain 2001, return to planet earth immediately. 2010 doesn't even explain 2010. Wait for 2019—or until then—for a clearer explanation.
Starman isn't breathtakingly original, either. It is the fourth film in a year to deal with an alien adapting to the American way of life. Parts of it unintentionally echo other such films (unintentionally because Starman was in development for four years before it was made). Not unlike E.T., who left a trail of Reese's Pieces, Starman (Jeff Bridges) drops a handful of magical, marble-like spheres; like John Sayles' Brother from Another Planet, he discovers the joys of earthly lovemaking; like the Michael Biehn character in The Terminator, he impregnates his earthling love interest with a son he will never see; and like Darryl Hannah's mermaid in Splash, he is followed by officials in helicopters and makes a narrow escape back to his own civilization.
If much of Starman seems familiar, Carpenter and screenwriters Bruce A. Evans and Raynold Gideon revive it with quirky humor and observations. Unless you count Paris, Texas, with spacy Harry Dean Stanton searching for his roots, it is probably the first alien road movie ever filmed.
Bridges plays an extraterrestrial who has come to observe human life. The catch is that he must reunite with his fellow aliens in Arizona within three days for their return home or he will die. After landing near the Wisconsin home of Jenny Hayden (Karen Allen), he changes himself into a clone of her dead husband and drags her with him on the cross-country journey. If you guess that they begin to like each other a little, you probably see at least three movies a year.
Starman is a departure for Carpenter, who probably thinks of the smarmy Escape from New York as one of his lighter films. He last brought us the idiotic Christine and directed before that the ugly (in every sense of the word) remake of The Thing.
This time the lightness is for real, and the actors cut loose with obvious delight, delivering both comedy and chemistry. Bridges, twitching his facial muscles and enunciating like Eric Roberts in Star '80, is an absurdly sympathetic outsider, mimicking everything he sees and hears (his version of “New York, New York” out-Sinatras Sinatra), and eventually proving his own “humanity.” Allen is one of the few film actresses who registers as a real person. Through her, we live Jenny's changing responses to this bizarre replica of her dead husband, as she progresses from horror to confusion, to deep, requited love.
The story could have been cloned off Splash, which even had similar flaws—uneven pacing and over-sentimentality. When Bridges tells the previously infertile Allen, “Tonight I gave you a baby,” you could cringe in anticipation of the corn to come. Don't. Be grateful for the human emphasis that gives Starman the edge over more high-minded fantasies. It is sci-fi not with gadgets, but with heart.
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 too much money enters the pockets of humankind, sense flies out the window.
Big Trouble in Little China is a try at mock-Oriental movie magic that goes leaden about a third of the way through—and finally detonates into great, whomping firebombs of overcalculated, underinspired absurdity. Since it's a failure by gifted people (director John Carpenter, writer W. D. Richter, star Kurt Russell), it annoys you more than a bad movie by obvious dullards: The film makers here have the talent to compel you to watch it. Everything that shows care and skill—settings, fight choreography, Dean Cundey's cinematography, Carpenter's musical score, the performances of Dim Sun's Victor Wong or James Hong, the karate of Carter Wong—only increases your dissatisfaction; this is excellence in the service of balderdash.
How did this movie go so wrong? Certainly Richter is partly to blame. He has attacked the original version of the script (set in the Old West) as dreadful. But how could this revised screenplay—full of formula action and sapless one-liners—be an improvement on anything?
Russell simply missteps. He's been so good in movies like Silkwood and The Best of Times, in Carpenter's Elvis and The Thing that you know his problem here must be conceptual. He does a whiny, overly bellicose John Wayne impersonation that keeps you from accepting his character and completely misses its target. (Wayne was right when he called himself a “reactor”; if you don't get a sense of catlike awareness, you miss his persona.)
The director, trying for speed, spectacle and whimsy, seems hamstrung—like his pratfalling hero, Jack Burton. One wonders if Carpenter got overly wounded by the press on The Thing, probably, along with Dark Star, his best movie to date. It came out within a week of E.T., and maybe the critics punished it for its deliberately paranoid view of alien contact. Since then, as if in reaction, he's been working in a near-Spielbergian mode: His fine Starman owed something to E.T., and this movie is indebted—in fact, way overdrawn—to both Indiana Jones movies.
But Carpenter isn't a Spielberg. He doesn't seem to have either Spielberg's genius for spectacular kitsch or his overwhelming desire to please. Usually Carpenter's dark side makes his movies work; it's also the source of most of his humor. By making this Hong Kong demonic folderol so kittenish and unthreatening—making the hero a macho oaf who keeps blundering around, stumbling and swearing—Carpenter distances us too much. Elaborate nonsense usually has to be unabashed; it either has to have a real purity, or be kidded mercilessly.
Big, hollow action-filled movies—some much worse than this—have sometimes succeeded spectacularly in recent years (if nothing else, they're triumphs of marketing). The pity is that the film makers here had the stuff to win their public and do something remarkable—and they've probably missed both.
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 USC graduate students in an abandoned church on Temple Street, put them up on cots and try to crack a bunch of Coptic or Gnostic codes—to find out what the Devil is up to. Obviously they're mostly lambs to the slaughter—it's like Halloween without sex or TV—but the method is varied. The woman tend to get green slime spit at them, while the men get skewered.
This church, the remarkably centuries-old hangout of a secret society called the Brotherhood of Sleep, Satan's jailers, is genuinely bizarre. For one thing, it seems to be twice as big on the inside as it is on the outside. It's full of vast corridors and bedecked with thousands of flickering candles. Who keeps them lit? The Brotherhood of Sleep? (No wonder they're tired.)
It's also full of bugs—3,000 worms, 6,000 stink beetles and 30,000 ants according to the movie's press book—swarming at any stimulus.
And it's been fitted for the weekend with dozens of computers, although no one seems to have run in a phone line or a two-way radio. Naturally, the Devil runs hog wild when faced with such feeble resistance. Outside, his minions—a gang of homeless zombie derelicts led by Alice Cooper—stand motionless, on comatose guard duty for hours on end, without anyone inside or outside trying to check them out or call the police.
There's curious emptiness to many of Carpenter's movies, yet The Thing, despite bad reviews, was probably his best work. Here, he's trying to reawaken the same kind of mounting horror in tight quarters. Yet The Thing was plausibly isolated; it was set on the North Pole. Here, we're in downtown Los Angeles. Zombies or not, it shouldn't be that hard to contact the outside world.
Carpenter, along with writer Martin Quatermass—brother of the British rocket scientist, Bernard—sets up this mongrel premise. Then the director pumps it up with a driving, minimal, repetitive score that suggests Stewart Copeland under Phillip Glass. But much of the movie remains an accretion of carnage and glop, interspersed with stone-faced scientific bibble-babble—and set against periodic maulings, marauding bugs and those incessantly flickering candles. No doubt coincidentally, some of these insects are actually carpenter ants—their jaws removed to prevent them from chewing the actresses.
To give the movie its due, it's been directed, at least on the visual level, with unusual elegance: filled with graceful, gliding tracking shots, and icily precise Hitchcockian setups of the bleak decor and scary effects. Wong and Pleasence are both fine; these two know how to make the most of shallow excess. And, even if the shocks throughout seem as patterned as an aerobics class, the movie's climactic kicker is electrifying.
Prince of Darkness, (MPAA-rated: R for violence) though, can't survive on actors' skills or director's touches. It has too many holes, too much green slime clogging it up. Obviously, Carpenter is thinking as much of Hawks as Hitchcock here. The physicists are a pseudo-Hawksian group and, at one point, Jameson Parker reads one of Lauren Bacall's To Have and Have Not lines to a stony-faced Lisa Blount. But, at these moments, Carpenter's far from his masters. He's like a man who's got all the footwork down but misses the soul—maybe because he's too busy dancing over squishing bugs.
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 (Daryl Hannah), who produces documentaries for the Smithsonian.
Is the fact that Alice produces natural history movies supposed to explain why she has such a hankering for Nick, the ultimate human oddity? If so, it doesn't come out in Hannah's performance. She falls in love with an invisible man for no visible reason. Certainly not out of pity or kinkiness or profit; she's more like Nick's angelic enchantress, but the film, which was directed by John Carpenter from a script by Robert Collector, Dana Olsen and William Goldman based on the H. F. Saint novel, doesn't sustain a tone of enchantment. It wavers uneasily between soggy slapstick and dour surrealism. There are preternatural echoes of movies ranging from Blithe Spirit to Carpenter's sappy Starman, where Jeff Bridges played an extraterrestrial with pigeon-like head swivels who takes up with an Earthwoman. The weird, funny bits, like Nick's casual retrieval of a stolen purse, or the graphic view of his stomach in mid-upchuck, are more successful than the moony, deep-dish miseries.
Comic actors often ache to play tragedy, particularly after their careers have crested and their inspiration has turned to shtick. Chevy Chase is trying to stretch himself here, and there's plenty of precedent for what he's doing: some successful, like Steve Martin in Pennies from Heaven, others less so, like Bill Murray in The Razor's Edge. But Chase seems more interested in the idea of stretching than in what he actually accomplishes.
As a comic, he's often capitalized on his blandly appealing persona by playing off it for squiggly, goofball effects. Chase's squareness was a kind of invisibility; it allowed him to pass unimpeded through straight-arrow society—all the better to toss his whoopee cushions. Playing an invisible man must have appealed to him as a metaphor for his own career, and maybe it also suggested a way out of a career that had devolved into a series of going-through-the-motions kiddie-fests.
But Chase's idea of serious acting is to efface himself with dourness. As Nick, he's so bummed out that he cancels even his stray antic streak. He gives some of his line readings a forlorn undercurrent but he doesn't demonstrate the ways in which despair can also be grotesquely energetic. There's no fervor in the performance, and that's a loss. There's no attempt to broaden the film's scheme: to demonstrate, for example, how Nick the yuppie, with his instant outcast status, might suddenly feel connected to society's many other outcasts. Nick's predicament has resonance far beyond Chase's career. His anxiety about whether his invisibility will wear off or whether it will wear him down connects up with our own fears of mortality. The conception ought to inspire an actor's and director's most magical flights.
Carpenter, best known for Halloween and The Thing, works up a few ghostly effects, like the shot of Nick silhouetted by pouring rain, but for the most part his models are grimmer and more mundane—Double Indemnity, the TV series “The Fugitive,” early Hitchcock, and so on. The special effects tricks are often nifty, but where's the wit? Memoirs of an Invisible Man doesn't earn its seriousness. It fades into invisibility while you're watching it.
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 in a few days. Heston sends Trent and Cane's tart, take-charge editor Linda Styles (Julie Carmen) off to New Hampshire in search of Cane, who lives there in a small town, Hobbs' End.
That the town is not on the map is not the first weird phenomenon in the darkly humorous film—and there's a torrent of strange happenings to follow, of course. When Trent and Styles manage to locate the picture-postcard village, it is all but deserted.
When they register at the community's charming inn, they cannot see that its elderly, Mildred Dunnock-like proprietor (Frances Bay) likes to keep her naked husband handcuffed to her ankle! Carpenter begins in a low key, building tension slowly but steadily, in a first-rate display of style and craftsmanship.
Understandably, Trent thinks that he's become a patsy in some kind of publicity stunt perpetrated to generate publicity for the latest Cane book. But soon he's caught up in what seems to be a nightmarish Cane novel, loaded with effective eerie occurrences, courtesy of Industrial Light & Magic, that brings him into a confrontation with the sinister, malevolent Cane (Prochnow), who has become the instrument of an ancient evil force—that is, if Trent somehow hasn't lost his mind and is imagining all that is happening to him. (You even begin to think that Trent just may be Cane himself.)
In the Mouth of Madness is concerned with the power of imagination, the very human tendency to have more confidence in the strength of evil than good, and it may—or may not—be invoking Lovecraft's notion that we're engaged in a struggle for control of the universe with an ancient species that is its true ruler. In any event, you'll most likely be inclined to agree with this engrossing film's most memorable line, “Reality isn't what it used to be.”
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 but also thrilled with the mysteriously simultaneous pregnancies—arrives a federal government epidemiologist (Kirstie Alley), a tart-tongued, chain-smoking loner who suspects that the women have been impregnated via xenogenesis—i.e., by alien beings during that inexplicable blackout.
Drawing upon John Wyndham's 1957 novel The Midwich Cuckoos as well as the earlier film, writer David Himmelstein and Carpenter shrewdly treat Alley's opinion almost as a throwaway line, shifting our focus to the larger question of how to deal with the children after they're born—no one takes up Alley's no-pressure suggestion to think about abortion. The infants start demonstrating deadly telepathic powers, including the ability to read the minds of their elders. The youngsters, who tend to pack and seem to share a common mind, are like ultimate Hitler Youths; sober, single-minded, blue-eyed, blond Aryans.
Carpenter's stylish authority is crucial in keeping this lethal predicament and its fast-developing consequences from seeming too implausible to accept. As a result, the children, in their indifference to emotion and suffering, can emerge as symbolic of the effects of dehumanizing media images upon today's youngsters. The film also has subtle and various implications for women's rights and roles and also for the Darwinian theory of the survival of the fittest among competing species. Village of the Damned is the kind of supernatural allegory that invites you to find your own meanings in it as well as catching you up in its increasing tension, an effect underlined by the eerie, ominous score composed by Carpenter and Dave Davies.
Village of the Damned is a good-looking, well-wrought film with some knockout special effects, some dark humor and crisp portrayals. As fine as the stars are, amid a large and capable ensemble cast, the two standouts are Lindsay Haun as Reeve's icy, brilliant and implacable daughter and Thomas Dekker as Kozlowski's angelic-looking son, the one child among the towheads who suggests the possibility of possessing a capacity for human emotion and compassion.
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 humans being taken over, Body Snatchers-style, by the aliens, or simply being driven to destroy each other? It hardly matters; the film is far more concerned with playing off the different levels of reality, with Sam Neill's cynical investigator first finding himself trapped within the pages of a book he despised, and finally watching himself—as we are—in the film of that same book as apocalypse cracks open around him.
In playing games with genre conventions and competing realities, In the Mouth of Madness strays into much the same territory as the recent, unlooked-for turnaround in the Freddy series, Wes Craven's New Nightmare. But comparison with Craven's film, which managed to combine post-modern jokiness with genuinely scary moments, shows up the chief weakness of Madness: for all its skill and ingenuity, it just isn't very frightening. Rather than screams or shudders, it's more likely to provoke knowing grins from horror aficionados as they check off the references: now a nod to Lovecraft, now a glance at King, now an echo of Carpenter's own work. (Linda's metamorphosis into a scuttling spider-creature with her face on upside-down was done, and better, in The Thing.) Other horror-movies are drawn on, too: Hobbs End recalls the Hobbs Lane tube station of Quatermass and the Pit, and the intern at Trent's nuthouse is a Dr Sapirstein, like Ralph Bellamy's urbane gynaecologist in Rosemary's Baby.
The film is something of a virtuoso performance. But virtuoso technique notoriously precludes much digging into the depths, and Carpenter here rarely touches the emotions his earlier, cruder efforts so readily got to. Lovecraft's writings, at their best, are genuinely disturbing, lingering sombrely in the mind; given such a source, it's disappointing that In the Mouth of Madness should provide not much more than a diverting hour-and-a-half.
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 giving it another whirl. That certainly goes for Escape from L.A., which transplants his 1981 premise to the Pacific coast in 2013. It mixes hi-tech Armageddon in the Blade Runner mould, mockery of the pious right and PC left alike, and honest-to-badness action scenes sporting mammoth sidearms and plenty of bangs for your buck. Carpenter aims for spectacle with a lemony twist of satire. And few punters will complain by the time that Kurt Russell shuts down the entire planet so that he can light a fag at last. Some people (I'm told) will know just how he feels.
As in Escape from New York, Russell plays the villainous hired gun Snake Plissken—a gravel-voiced berserker who makes Arnie look like Aled Jones. After the Big One (in AD 2000, natch), the post-quake city of L.A. has turned into a lawless island gulag. In its debris live the “moral criminals” expelled from non-smoking, church-going mainland USA. Snake's mission is to rescue the errant daughter of a righteous president—Cliff Robertson as a snarling, hatchet-featured bigot—and so earn the antidote to a fatal designer virus that the Feds have thoughtfully injected into him.
Armed with a Secret Weapon (the same one, oddly, as in Goldeneye), young Utopia—A. J. Langer—has holed up on the “island of the damned” with a Latino warlord played by George Corraface as a Che Guevara lookalike. We can tell that Utopia has decided to party with the street people because she forsakes her prissy pink suits for leather hot pants. In fact, L.A.'s reversion to the Dark Ages has (as in Blade Runner) meant a sales boom for the Leather Manufacturers of America. The two films share a designer, Lawrence Paull, who strews the nocturnal sets with his trademark roadside braziers, punkish wreckage and a general air of grunge bazaar. Dystopia, did someone say? I've seen worse at London's Camden Lock on Sunday afternoon.
Amid these flame-lit ruins Snake meets a menagerie of exotic local fauna. There's Steve Buscemi as the pallid tout with a Hollywood hustler's line in patter; Pam Grier as a sassy transvestite mobster—half Tina Turner, half Ice T—and Bruce Campbell, a demented cosmetic surgeon who runs his body-parts workshop on KwikFit principles. Oh, and Peter Fonda does a little night-time surfing whenever a tsunami rips down Wilshire Boulevard.
Carpenter crafts all of them as sulphurous cartoons of L.A. types today, not in 2013. But then he has to hurry Russell into the next heavy-metal showdown. So the mischief and the mayhem seldom coincide—except in one glorious shot through the Hollywood, sign, looking down on the vast bonfires below. “Why, this is hell, nor are we out of it,” as Mephistopheles (that well-known casting agent) once remarked.
We never quite grasp how the mainland land has fallen prey to such a toxic blend of Pat Buchanan and Jane Fonda. With Snake spitting dialogue along the lines of “Don't piss me off or I'll pull the plug,” neither will anyone care. (They do. He does.) Carpenter gives a fine lurid spin to the Puritan fantasy of a shattered metropolis, complete with blasted freeways and toppled tower-blocks skulking on the ocean floor like images from J. G. Ballard. “Divine retribution,” snaps the Pres. Still, urban damnation has its benefits. At least “a girl can still wear a fur coat if she wants to,” says one of Russell's short-lived sidekicks.
The satire never really moves beyond animal hides and nicotine jokes. Stuck at that level, this spirited hybrid of Judge Dredd and The Handmaid's Tale can't deliver the Big One for John Carpenter. All the same, it should set some teacups rattling in the smug, smoke-free conventicles that stretch from sea to shining sea.
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 black-armoured police troops, appears not unreasonable, the exact nature of a career so monstrous that the entire underworld is in awe of him is left disturbingly unspecified. Serial killer? Great train robber? Chain smoker (cigarettes are now banned)? How would he actually spend his freedom if he had any? Belying his name, he has no time to waste on charm, although he automatically comes to the rescue of women in distress only to walk away when they're out of danger. Snake's main purpose seems solely to survive in situations where survival is unlikely, an often remarkable achievement which serves only to deepen his perpetual scowl.
Substituting Stacey Keach for Lee Van Cleef, the ubiquitous Steve Buscemi for Ernest Borgnine, and Che Guevera lookalike George Corraface for Isaac Hayes, Escape from L.A. is the weaker for having found no clear equivalent to the Harry Dean Stanton/Adrienne Barbeau partnership in the earlier film. Clumsily handled as that was, it conveyed a pathos, even an illusion of purpose, that the new adventure throws aside except, perhaps, in the case of the wistful surfer (a wholly self-absorbed Peter Fonda) briefly riding his dreams on the edge of the action. Intended, of course, as nothing more significant than a subversive romp for Plissken admirers, the film is welter of in-jokes, out-jokes, allusions and references, sprinkled lightly with great special effects. At this level, exercising indulgent goodwill, we may cheer the glimpse of Paul Bartel, the running gag “I thought you'd be taller” (last time it was “I thought you were dead”), the glee with which Carpenter has reduced identifiable bits of Los Angeles to ruins, and the happy invention of the Surgeon General, cosmetic specialist of Beverly Hills, with his desperate band of clients whose face lifts are coming apart at the seams.
Indicative of what it might have been, the earthquake opening—while inevitably in the shadow of Independence Day as all disasters must now be—is appealingly cataclysmic, and there is a glimpse of the submersible gliding among drowned buildings that suggests a much classier mood and pace. What the film lacks is certainly not the sparkle of unusual images but any sense of confidence about what to do with them. Even the wonderfully ridiculous spectacle of a tidal wave pursuing a car down Wilshire Boulevard fails to dissipate the film's drudging quality. As happens disappointingly often in John Carpenter's later work, an increasing tedium suggests that while variations on themes of siege and evasion are no end of fun for him to think up, the business of filming them is something of a chore.
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 homestead in New Mexico as Jack Crow (James Woods) and his team of specially equipped mercenaries attack a vampire “nest.” No-nonsense Crow, who lost his parents to fanged critters, was raised by the church to drive stakes through vampire hearts or harpoon the undead and drag them into the sunlight using a winch-equipped Jeep. Forget garlic, forget crosses: It takes a lot of aggressive pummeling and blasting to subdue a vampire enough to get him out of a dark shelter.
As the story evolves, these particular vampires seem impervious to the so-called “magic hour” before sunset beloved by cinematographers. This makes for some very nice shots of the undead rising up out of the scrubby plains against a sky streaked with vibrant colors.
Not unlike Snake Plissken, tough, lean Crow is fearless, married to his work and looks mighty cool staring down the camera. He and his team are framed like gunslingers who happen to wear fang-deflecting chain mail on their throats. At the aptly named Sun God Motel, Crow is celebrating with his crew and a batch of prosties when master vampire Valek (Thomas Ian Griffith, very tall, very Gothic) literally breaks up the party along with the chests and spines of most of the revelers.
Only ones to get out alive are Jack, his buddy Montoya (Daniel Baldwin) and Katrina (Sheryl Lee), a hooker Valek has already bitten. Their plan is to use Katrina as a sort of divining-rod-cum-bait to find Valek, who's been on the loose since a botched “inverse exorcism” in the 1300s rendered him unstoppable. Cardinal Alba (Maximilian Schell) sends earnest young padre Guiteau (Tim Guinee) to accompany Crow. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to his boss, Montoya has been bitten by the fetching Katrina. At showdown, every character plays a vital role.
Vampires taps into an appealing mix of anti-clerical sentiment, unsentimental rebel codes and gung-ho gouging and splattering. Unlike garlic, Carpenter's humor-leavened handling of evil doesn't leave a bad taste in the mouth.
Woods is a laconic delight as the crusader with an unswerving cause, and Baldwin is OK as the lunk whose feelings for Katrina lead to a satisfyingly bittersweet conclusion. Lee harnesses a certain look in her eyes and various gradations of trembling to convey a striking range of conflicted emotions. Her telepathic frissons, as she “sees” from a distance what Valek is up to, help deepen the pic's basically irreverent stance. Griffith has the requisite stature to convince as malice incarnate, mixed with the studly Byronic looks of a tubercular poet.
Suspense is doled out in manageable packets, and it's hard to anticipate exactly where the narrative is headed—except, of course, that reps of good and evil will end up duking it out. All the nudity, swearing, violence and gore fits smartly into the horror tradition—filling the envelope without pushing it.
Carpenter's own musical score, which ranges from menacing to twang to forthright rock, is a plus. For the record, the coast is left clear for a sequel.
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 Montoya (Daniel Baldwin) and his crew of Vatican mercenaries, who look to have been recruited from the Hell's Angels, have been summoned to New Mexico to exterminate a nest of vampires. Crow is a whiz with a crossbow, and the downed vampires are hauled out to the sunlight via a winch attached to Crow's truck.
Once the sun's rays hit them they incinerate. It's a dangerous, bloody business but somebody's gotta do it, and who better than Jack, whose introduction to the profession came when he was forced to slay his own father when the man turned into a vampire.
The local padre understands that these vampire slayers, having finished their grisly task, are going to want to have a little R&R, and he's arranged for booze and girls at a local motel. Just when the party starts to swing, with the priest himself getting a little tiddly, Valek (Thomas Ian Griffith), who has a specific reason for being in the Southwest, turns up to be the ultimate party pooper, leaving in his wake 19 dead, with Crow and Montoya barely escaping with their lives.
They have in tow a hooker (Sheryl Lee), whom Valek has put the bite on, but, because she now has a telepathic link to Valek, can theoretically lead Crow and Montoya to him for a final showdown. Along the way, Crow is determined to find out who set up him and his crew. Meanwhile, Crow has a meeting with his boss, no less a cardinal (Maximilian Schell), who assigns to him a scholarly young priest (Tim Guinee), a colossal good sport and a handy expository device for the filmmakers.
Woods has all the lines, but everybody's game, and we get a sizable slice of New Mexico scenery and historic locales thrown in. But in the end John Carpenter's Vampires is junk, and it leaves you with the feeling that its makers know it, too.
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 to shoot his prey with a crossbow bolt attached to a steel wire which when winched hauls the screaming “goon” into the sunlight like a landed fish. After wiping out this first nest, the team retreat to the Sun-God Motel for a party with gallons of beer and a Peckinpahish gaggle of topless hookers, only to be interrupted by Valek (modelling a black spaghetti-Western duster and a hippie haircut) who turns up to slaughter everyone with his bare hands. Director John Carpenter stages both massacres with a few effective initial strokes lifted from Sergio Leone or Peckinpah but then hurries through the death counts (as he does with other major sequences, including the finale) with elliptical fades that only render the action confusing and minimise their impact.
Valek, supposedly the world's very first vampire, is a sadly feeble opponent: straight-to-video action star Thomas Ian Griffith has height and a snarl on his side, but his master plan is vague and nothing at all is made of his potentially interesting pre-vampire careers as a priest and a revolutionary. The film has to be carried completely by the vampire killers, and at least James Woods sneers his way through cynical speeches about how loathsome his enemies are. As with a lot of 90s action movies, much of the tension between heroes and villains seems to arise from homosexual panic: Crow characterises vampires in the sort of terms that might be expected from a dedicated gay-basher (“if you wear cloves of garlic around your neck, one of these buggers will take a walk up your strata chocolata while he's sucking your blood”) and taunts Father Guiteau by asking whether violence gives him an erection.
The thin script by Don Jakoby (also responsible for the vampires of Lifeforce) paints Crow and his gang as brutal, macho thugs scarcely more appealing than the monsters. Woods spends much of the film battering his supposed allies or innocent parties while sidekick Daniel Baldwin's contribution is limited to stealing a car at gunpoint and being offensive to a hotel receptionist. The moral lines are so blurred the final revelation of how deeply corrupt their superiors are has no weight. In this atmosphere, ‘attitude’ is a coded term for obnoxiousness, and the treatment of women—we only see whores and vampires, and the ‘heroine’ gets to be both—is especially reprehensible; Sheryl Lee is bitten on the inner thigh and spends much of the film naked and/or in bondage, treated as disposable by either side. Carpenter (Halloween, 1978, Escape from New York, 1981), whose decline over the last ten years has been alarming, still has an eye for widescreen imagery, a knack for getting the plot rolling swiftly (only to have it fall apart) and an ear for apt music, but Vampires is rarely as exciting as it would like to be and never remotely scary.
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 as the murderer's mask is removed and a shock cut reveals the clown-suited killer to be the victim's six-year-old brother. The camera stares, then backs off, becoming a 15-second crane shot up away from the silent, blank-faced boy holding the bloody knife as his parents look on, questioning.2
Thereafter, as in Jaws, the shift to subjective camera often deliberately signals the presence, or possible presence, of the beast. In addition to imputing guilt to the audience, the subjective camera also serves the purpose of concealing the killer's identity in the crucial opening scene. The subjective camera technique was taken up by Friday the 13th and the raft of Halloween imitators that followed and became such a convention that it was parodied in the opening to Brian De Palma's Blowout. But it became a convention for a purely utilitarian reason—preventing us from seeing the killer's face—and acquired the unfortunate side effect of creating a sadistic woman-killing persona as the point of audience identification, something many critics and viewers reacted against.
THE MOVING CAMERA WRITES
Carpenter has described the genesis of his use of the subjective camera in Halloween in this way:
This all comes from my idea about scary films. It seems to me that the subjective camera as monster has been used all the time. It's not any kind of new idea. I recall 1957, Bert Gordon made a movie called Beginning of the End—giant locusts. There's one shot when they first discover the giant locusts where there's a deaf … or mute … character who's out there, and he sees one, and it takes the locust's point of view. It just zooms in at him and he screams.
I used to see that hundreds of times in old Fifties monster movies. Here it came … waaaugghhhh! … and you screamed. Then there was Jaws, which at the beginning of the film took the shark's point of view coming up, which I thought was odd, but it seemed to work for everybody. Then there was Grizzly.Grizzly was a ripoff of Jaws, and they didn't have the bear for a long time, so they used a hand held camera walking through the woods. And it was so bad. It was like, “Come on, there's nothing scary about this.” There's nothing that gets you, because you know it's this jiggling camera.
I got obsessed with the idea of doing a smooth camera for a subjective shot, but it wasn't one that was constricted by tracks. In other words, when you dolly with a camera, what you do is lay down tracks, like railroad tracks, put the camera on it—sometimes you put it on a dance floor or a big piece of plywood—and you smoothly move the camera in, but the mobility—because you're dragging along about four or five people on the camera—is very limited. And you really rarely can spin around and do the kind of things that you can do when you're walking along and looking with your eyes.
So, along comes something called Steadicam—or, in the case of Halloween, the Panaglide—which is a gyroscopic camera that's mounted on one person and it has an arm that comes out from his waist, and the camera's just mounted and it floats. So it doesn't have the rock-steadiness of a dolly, but it also doesn't have the human jerky movements of hand held—it's somewhere in between. I felt it would be a perfect subjective camera because it could float and kind of move through some places, then turn around and run and go up stairs, and so forth. [In] Eyes of Laura Mars, they used a hand held camera for the killer. I was immensely disappointed because, again, it was like Grizzly, there's nothing scary about it.
So I wanted to use this weird camera that would zoom around, and so it seemed somewhat successful in Halloween. And, it also seems successful when you have to do a scene that has a lot of movement to it. You can just kind of walk around with the actors and keep shooting. Wall Street's an example of that, where they just keep dodging that Steadicam in and out. Probably the greatest example of subjective camera was Dark Passage with Humphrey Bogart. I'd love to do something like that; that's a great film.
The long take that begins Halloween works for several reasons: First, the unmounted camera, steady though it is, wavers just enough to keep us unsettled, off balance, vulnerable to shock even if slightly prepared for it. Second, the shot establishes the motif of the subjective camera as the killer's point of view. Third, and most important, the shot draws us into the action by a point of view that is unedited. Had the opening sequence been presented conventionally, as a mounted sequence of shots, the viewer's mind would become an editor's mind, classifying, comparing, and relating the shots to assemble the story—in other words, a mind participating in the creation of the work and therefore more conscious of it as a work. The single take suppresses the artistic detachment that comes from mental montage, creating instead a direct involvement that—like real life—we are unable to edit. The impact, in other words, is visceral, not intellectual.
The strongest precedent for Carpenter's long-take opening to Halloween is found not in the annals of horror film but in the spectacular single-shot opening credits sequence of Orson Welles's Touch of Evil—a crane shot that begins on an extreme close-up, then pulls back to a cityscape, tracks the movements of two different sets of characters, and culminates in one character's reaction to an offscreen explosion. Both of the opening two shots of Halloween are grounded in the same technique: The first shot concentrates on setting a scene, building suspense, and culminating in shock. The second shot, because it is a crane shot, is a more direct descendent of the Welles shot, but it is shorter, simpler than the Welles shot, beginning close and ending high and wide, without the comings and goings and focal changes of Welles's Touch of Evil opening. Moreover, it establishes the ground rules under which, for the remainder of the film, Carpenter will switch from subjective to objective point of view, from killer's eye to director's eye.
The crane shot up and away, dwarfing the characters in the context of their surroundings, is a shot potent with emotional impact, and most commonly used as an end title shot, as in such diverse films as Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Michael Cacoyannis's Zorba the Greek, and Sergio Leone's Once upon a Time in the West. It was also used to great effect by Alan Pakula in the mountain-of-work library research scene of All the President's Men. But the second shot of Halloween though as powerful in its way as any of these, is most remarkable if seen as a reversal of Hitchcock's celebrated crane shot in Young and Innocent, moving from high and wide over an entire ballroom of dancing couples to come to rest on the extreme close-up detail of the twitching eyelid of an onstage musician—the killer, as it turns out, masked in blackface. Carpenter, by contrast, begins on the unmasked face of his killer and pulls away to set the boy with the knife in the anomalous context of his quiet middle-American neighborhood.
THE BOY WITH THE KNIFE
The idea of the juvenile murderer as psychotic adult was not a new theme in horror film when Halloween appeared: Nearly a decade earlier, Bernard Girard's The Mad Room had assayed the same idea; a decade before that, in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, Norman Bates's adult psychosis was revealed to have been manifest in a murder committed in adolescence. Halloween's structure—opening with a hideous murder as prologue, then focusing on events that occur many years later—is observable in Hush … Hush,Sweet Charlotte,Strait Jacket, and other Psycho-influenced thrillers of the Sixties. Halloween's first, horrifying knifing itself owes as much to the stabbing of a plump justice of the peace by the bride during a marriage ceremony in William Castle's Homicidal as it does to the shower murder in Psycho. Note, too, that in all three films—Psycho,Homicidal, and Halloween—the knife-wielding killer wears a disguise.
There is a sort of “second introduction” before the film proper gets under way. This sequence—set in Smith's Grove, Illinois, on October 30, 1978—depicts the now-adult Michael's escape from an asylum.3 His psychiatrist, Dr. Loomis—a name borrowed in homage to Psycho—and a nurse have come to transport Michael, under sedation, to a different facility. Loomis meditates on the strange case of Michael Myers (“He hasn't spoken a word in 15 years”), and suggests what he will later make explicit: that Michael is not conventionally, or even unconventionally, sick, but is the embodiment of pure evil:
Nurse: “You never want him to get out.” Loomis: “Never.”
When, moments later, Michael leaps silently, unpredictably, and from an almost impossible angle onto—then into—the van, the confining order of the classical movie frame is violated, its borders no longer safe. This violation of visual order is a correlate to the way in which the quiet order of life in Haddonfield is also about to be changed utterly. Richard T. Jameson observed, “Virtually every shot contains corners, apertures, black holes potentially fillable by a white ghost of a face; and the ever-drifting camera eye … may be just the neutral, conveniently mobile recorder of the scene, or an inhabited point of view, an indicator of the one direction the vulnerable characters ought not to proceed in.”4 (“The first time I used Panavision,” says Carpenter, “I thought, ‘This is like painting a picture. Look at the room you have, on the sides. You can use the space.’”5)
The off-kilter atmosphere created by Carpenter's ambivalent use of the subjective camera carries into the film proper, suggesting an underlying disorder in the superficial order of small-town life in middle-American Haddonfield (cf. the Hadleyville of High Noon—itself evocative of Mark Twain's corruptible Hadleyburg). The idyllic calm of tree-lined residential streets and picturesque falling autumn leaves is set off balance by the camera's insistence upon sneaking around trees and peering at its subjects from behind bushes. When Laurie, having been told to leave the key to the Myers house under the mat for her realtor father, approaches the now-abandoned house of murder, the camera gives us a point of view inside the Myers house, so that even before a shoulder slides into view, we sense a presence watching her. With Carpenter, a camera position is never arbitrary—it always conveys the presence of a narrative or participating eye.
Now Carpenter begins to lace atmosphere-building technique with plot-defining words. When Laurie hears a dull teacher lecturing on the notion of fate in the writings of someone named Samuels, the idea of an inescapable, repeated destiny is planted. Little Tommy Doyle is tormented by his schoolmates: “The Bogey Man is going to get you!” As the boy heads home from school after this incident, Michael's stolen state car cruises the school, tracking Tommy, with us in the back seat. The camera presence, which sometimes is that of Michael Myers and sometimes not, is nudged by incidental dialogue into something conveying a supernatural intrusion into the world.
Laurie sees Michael go behind a bush, and Annie skeptically jokes when she doesn't find him there: “Laurie, dear … he wants to talk to you … he wants to take you out tonight.” All Annie wants to do is to tease Laurie about her skittishness and about her datelessness, but she's also making an unintentional prophecy. The dialogue Carpenter puts into her mouth points the attentive viewer in the direction of the film's sub-surface psychodynamics.
HE COMES HOME
Laurie gets the shakes from seeing Michael turning up here and there. She's spooked by screams but then recognizes the source of the noise as only a group of trick-or-treaters. “I thought you outgrew superstition,” she says to herself.
A headstone is stolen—the headstone of the sister Michael murdered as a child.
We start to get glimpses—always in long shot and in dusky semi-darkness—of Michael's face, ghostly white, like a supernatural being. A closer look will reveal that The Face is a mask, but for now its paleness—possibly explainable as the result of spending 15 years inside, out of the sunlight—enhances our sense of Michael as a supernatural being. So do the increasingly grotesque events and dialogue: Dr. Loomis and Deputy Sheriff Brackett explore the Myers house and come across something we can't see:
Loomis: “What's that?” Brackett: “A dog.” Loomis: “He got hungry.” Brackett: “Coulda been a skunk. A man wouldn't do that.” Loomis: “This isn't a man.”
A little later, Michael finishes off the Wallaces' German Shepherd. This stomach-churning—and suggested rather than depicted—motif is an elaboration of one of the classic devices of horror and science-fiction films of the Fifties: A dog was frequently the first victim of an unseen, monstrous presence that only the dog could sense. (Carpenter would put yet a different spin on the idea a few years later in his version of The Thing.) The dog incident sparks a dialogue between Loomis and Brackett, in which Loomis makes explicit what has so far been only suggested: “I realized that what was living behind that boy's eyes was purely and simply evil.”
Visions of Michael's evanescent presence are shared by Laurie and Tommy, but never at the same time. Tommy, after a not-sure-I-saw-anything glimpse of Michael recalls the taunting of his school-mates, asks Laurie: “What's the Bogey Man?”
Annie, meanwhile, is about to find out. Michael appears behind her as she chats on the phone, wearing a loose shirt that visually echoes the hospital gown Michael discarded after he escaped from Smith's Grove looking like one of George Romero's living dead.
As a metaphor for the intrusion of the supernatural into the quotidian world of Haddonfield, Carpenter merges the world of the horror film into the world of the characters' reality. A special Halloween night double feature is being shown by a local TV channel—The Thing and Forbidden Planet (matted-in in proper frame ratio!). We see the opening credits to The Thing and later hear the dialogue in the famous scene in which the soldiers and scientists discover the Object in the ice: “Spread out, everybody … we're going to try to figure out the shape of the thing.” In Halloween's credits, the adult Michael Myers is pointedly referred to as “The Shape.”
Lindsey Wallace, whom Laurie takes on as a second charge to her evening's babysitting chores, stays glued to the movies for most of the night, while Tommy can't keep himself away from the window—a different kind of screen—through which he keeps seeing odd goings-on. He never tells Laurie what he sees, though at one point he is visibly, and inarticulately, upset by it. Laurie, upon going to investigate, of course sees nothing.
Laurie tells Tommy, “The Bogey Man can only come out on Halloween night”—a point that's not especially reassuring on Halloween night. What she thinks of as an entertaining scary tale is to Tommy confirmation of his worst fears. Informing Carpenter's atmosphere of terror in Halloween are a number of the elements of fairy tales—which is to say, of the human personality's deepest native fears and desires. The primitive fear of darkness is evoked throughout the film by under-exposure. Parents are relatively absent, serving only to give an instruction or two (the Strodes to Laurie, Brackett to Annie) and vanish into the realm of ineffectuality, leaving their offspring to face monumental horrors alone. A supernatural presence—witch or Bogey Man—roams abroad. There is at least one haunted house (the Myers place), though by the end of the film two others are possessed by the monster's presence.
It is not only dialogue and innuendo that suggest Michael's superhuman attributes. There is much in the events depicted on the film's own terms that is explainable only in supernatural terms: The escape from Smith's Grove (how did Michael know? How did he get out?); Michael drives a car well, without ever having had the opportunity to learn; he gets into the Myers house (his own house) despite the locked door; he gets into Annie's locked car; he repeatedly returns from the dead; he manifests a strange power over space, being able to inhabit any part of the frame, emerge from any dark area at any time. After Halloween, in the hands of inferior imitators, such carefully composed shots became clichés of the horror film, and we are now conditioned to distrust any portion of the frame that's slightly darkened. But in Halloween the innovation and visual mastery of John Carpenter is still present in every frame.
Carpenter's cross-tracking of Laurie's approach to the Wallace house cues us to the coming of disaster, much as did Hitchcock's cross-tracking of Melanie Daniels's approach to the Brenner house in The Birds. The inside is no longer a haven: Being inside can be as frightening as being outside. Laurie, in the gardening shed, tries to break through a locked door to get away, while Michael tries to break through a locked door to get at her. Moments later, she finds herself trapped outside, the opposite of claustrophobia being invoked at the very crescendo of the film: “Let me in!”
The final battle takes place inside the Doyle house. Laurie struggles to conceal the children—who, from what we know of Michael's choice of victims, aren't really in any danger—while she delays protecting herself against the monster. After the first encounter, Laurie tells Tommy (mistakenly, it turns out), “I killed him.” Tommy knows better: “You can't kill the Bogey Man.” Twice Laurie commits the blunder of dropping her weapon beside the killer, assuming he's dead.
As Laurie sits panting in the hallway, and with the children safely dispatched down the street to a neighbor's house, the presumed-dead Michael returns to life in the just-out-of-focus bedroom beyond, sitting up stiffly, corpselike, and swiveling his head robotically our way, an almost mechanical move that visually reverses the stiff keel-over of the psychotic gang killer shot by Lawson in Assault on Precinct 13—and in so doing associates Michael with the conscienceless “pure evil” of the Street Thunder psychopath who shot Kathy Lawson.
In the last battle, Laurie rips Michael's mask off to briefly glimpse an unimpressive face that Michael again immediately covers. He must be masked—as if the mask is a persona he hides behind, as if the mask gives him strength—and, masked, he faces Dr. Loomis's pistol. Michael is, in fact, always in costume, imparting to him a kinky suggestion of sadistic fantasy: boy in clown suit, man in hospital gown, masked murderer in garage mechanic's overalls, in a sheet as a bespectacled ghost. Danny Peary sees Michael as a mischievous boy trapped in a man's body, playing tricks and games with his victims, never losing his profound sense of the pain of his own childhood—and, pointedly, never harming a child6 (though this characteristic of Michael changes in Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers).
Finally, climactically, a man (if it is a man) is shot six times, falls from a second story window, and yet vanishes into the night. Nothing can ever be the same again. “[I]n my opinion,” says John Carpenter, “evil never dies.”7
HALLOWEEN IN ITS TIME
The classic horror films were morally ambiguous. Mr. Hyde and Dr. Jekyll were two sides of a normal, even likeable, human personality. Although Dr. Frankenstein suffered from hubris, he probably didn't deserve the downfall he got, and our response to his monster wavers between horror and sympathy. Larry Talbot, the Wolf Man, commits unspeakable murders, but is ultimately a victim of fate, not an instrument of evil. The great Val Lewton horror films of the Forties used images of horror as metaphors for the psychological state of troubled characters: Does Cat People's Irena really metamorphose into a cat, or does she merely think she does?
Even in the Fifties, dominated by science fiction invaders from space who were mostly crypto-Communists, monsters tended to arise as correlates to the upsurge of a dark side of the personality of one of the lead characters, or as a symbol of some aspect of modern sociopolitical life. The late Fifties and the Sixties saw the return of Dracula and Frankenstein, courtesy of Hammer Films, and Psycho spawned a rash of imitations, all about two-sided personalities—good-bad characters rather than all-bad ones.
But in the Seventies, horror films abandoned the tradition of moral ambiguity and unleashed monsters that were purely evil. No amount of deference to “mental illness,” “inbreeding,” or “the dark side” can make morally ambiguous the out-and-out evil of the hillbilly killers in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes. The Devil himself set the tone for the decade in The Exorcist, a film that, on its worst level, dared to explain troublesome children as a simple epitome of evil. Jaws is perhaps the least morally ambiguous horror thriller of all. Its villain is nothing more than a killing machine, and there is no shame or hesitation in wanting it not simply stopped but utterly destroyed.
Halloween falls squarely into that tradition. Even Carpenter's atmospheric music for Halloween seems derivative of Mike Oldfield's “Tubular Bells,” which contributed so evocatively to the atmosphere of The Exorcist. Combined with the teacher's lecture on fate, Dr. Loomis's explanation of Michael as pure evil completes a thematic thread of supernatural possibility, tying in Tommy Doyle's (and all children's) fear of the Bogey Man. At the climax, after Michael's clearly superhuman effort to keep on coming despite repeated lethal injuries, Laurie breathes with recognition: “It was the Bogey Man!” Loomis agrees: “As a matter of fact, it was.” Laurie begins to cry anew—though from where she sits she can't possibly know what Loomis, at the window, has just discovered: Michael's thrice-stabbed, six-times-shot, pushed-out-the-window corpse (?) has, impossibly, disappeared. There ensues a brief montage of places—the Doyle house, the Wallace house, places Michael has been, places he might be now, places that will never again be the same because he has been there and left his mark on them—ending at the Myers house, where it all began, reprising from the opening shot the sound of heavy breathing behind the mask. Michael Myers has come home to die … or to live forever.
THE MORAL DIMENSION
Halloween has been accused of being a sick film, primarily for the often-cited reason that the film's (and the subjective camera's) most visible victims are women who indulge their sexuality. But to talk of the film as being about the sadistic victimization of women is to over-simplify. Michael Myers kills men, too, and animals. He fixes on vulnerability, on weakness, not simply on femininity or sexuality. And when he fixes on Laurie, he makes his first mistake.
Loomis, describing Michael in the sanitarium, says “15 years … waiting”—as if to suggest a real motive in Michael's atrocities. Jealousy? Revenge? Punishment of the wicked? Moments after Michael has carried Annie's dead body into the house, Bob carries Lynda into the house in an evocation of the traditional prelude to intercourse between both the married and the unmarried. Not just sexuality but domesticity is associated with impending violence. Bedrooms are the sites of the key killings. Michael arranges corpses in the bedroom where Lynda and Bob have recently enjoyed sex. Michael's sister Judith, then Annie, then Lynda are all glimpsed partly nude before they are murdered, and their sexual liberty seems to be a motivating force for Michael's murderous wrath. This is a tempting argument, and one that has attracted many critics. But if there is anything to it, why does Michael fix on Laurie, who is the exact opposite of these other girls?
In his major killings—Judith, Annie, Lynda—Michael seems to associate sexuality with the need for punishment. But those who mess around—men or women—are insufficiently vigilant to protect themselves against death (an idea that acquires greater potency from the retrospective vantage point of the era of AIDS). Laurie, by contrast, is able to protect herself, albeit at great risk.
The nakedness of the female victims seems to suggest punishable sexuality. But with the exception of the nurse in the van, all of Michael's victims are at some time or other naked, including the male victims: the garage man, whose clothing Michael takes, and Lynda's boyfriend Bob. Nakedness is not here a simple suggestion of sexuality, but the most extreme image of vulnerability. All of Carpenter's early films evince an interest in people who are trapped, and—in the Hawksian tradition—consistently contrast characters who are “good” in such situations, and thus save themselves, with characters who are distracted by self-interest and thus fail to protect themselves adequately. Broncho Billy is rewarded for his vigilance against the entrapment of contemporary urban stress; Laura Mars's understanding of the camera eye enables her to solve the murders and to protect herself from the killer; the astronauts of Dark Star are self-absorbed in their claustrophobic plight and thus unable to prevent the final conflagration; the defenders of Precinct 13 break down into the Hawksian “good” and “bad.”
To the suggestion that Judith, Annie, and Lynda are “punished for their sexuality,” Carpenter responded in a 1980 interview,8 “No, they're unaware because they're doing something else. They're interested in their boyfriends, so they're ignoring the signs.” And of Laurie: “She's aware of it because she's more like the killer, she has problems. She and the killer have a certain link: sexual repression. She's lonely, she doesn't have a boyfriend, so she's looking around. And she finds someone—him.” Laurie and The Shape connect in a darker version of the passing spontaneous attraction between Leigh and Napoleon Wilson in Assault on Precinct 13—itself based on the coming together of Howard Hawks's couples in Red River,Rio Bravo, and the Bogey-and-Bacall films.
Richard Jameson noticed it, too: “Halloween establishes an un-verbalizable but completely compelling connection between its teenage female protagonist and the murderous male interloper from the home-town past, simply by photographing a virginal Jamie Lee Curtis walking away from us singing a song about a secret love, with the dark-jacketed shoulder of ‘The Shape’ sidestepping into foreground right.”9 The image Jameson describes is all the more potent considered alongside Annie's joking “He wants to take you out tonight” to Laurie. Jameson has been virtually alone in noticing that the movie is more about the killer's sexuality than the victims'.
In this sense, Halloween—as Robin Wood has noted—has much in common with the films of David Cronenberg (and for that matter David Lynch's later Blue Velvet), in which sexuality is treated as an infectious, corrupting disease. This, in turn, is little more than a development of the traditional horror theme of vampirism, consistently treated on film as a combination of eros and pestilence.
The madman, always a force of disorder in the world, is himself a very ordered figure: He sees the world too clearly, too simply. That is the danger of true madness. It is a comfort for the Loomises and the Lauries of the world to describe him as “the Bogey Man.” It is somehow simpler—more ordered—to see the evil as a supernatural intervention rather than the darkly possible human aberration on whose fringes we all must live.
Halloween, with its roots in Psycho and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, follows Assault on Precinct 13 in recognizing psychosis as the real horror of contemporary life. However, from this point, Carpenter begins a gradual return to more fantastic, more conventional supernatural horror, signaled by the identification of Michael Myers as the Bogey Man, and pointing toward the ghost and possession stories recounted in The Fog,Christine,Big Trouble in Little China,Prince of Darkness, and In the Mouth of Madness.
Finally, it really was the Bogey Man: Laurie wants to believe these things can't happen; Loomis knows all too well that they can and do. Much as he may want to be able to explain the workings of psychopathy in terms of his own commitment to psychiatric science, he is forced to confront the reality of Michael not as a measurable and understandable phenomenon of mental illness, but as a manifestation of evil abroad in the world. Seeking a scientific order, he instead must confront a larger metaphysical one—just as Professor Birack and his students will do in Prince of Darkness.
Robin Wood's analysis and criticism of the contemporary American horror film in American Nightmare damns Halloween with faint praise: “[T]he pleasures of Halloween are not of the kind that (in D. H. Lawrence's words) ‘lead the sympathetic consciousness into new places, and away in recoil from things gone dead.’ Halloween in fact, does nothing new, but does it with extreme cinematic sophistication and finesse.”10 It is particularly disturbing that a critic of Wood's experience should so cavalierly separate style from content, praising Carpenter's technical skill while dismissing the very viewpoint that informs that skill. However jarringly conservative it may seem to Wood, the insistence upon a classical cinematic order mirrors an insistence upon a certain social and psychological order. “Style is content,” as Raymond Durgnat pointed out.11
As we saw in his comments on Assault on Precinct 13, Wood has a tendency to use his own radicalism not as a vantage point but as a criterion: “Sisters,Demon,Night of the Living Dead,The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, in their various ways reflect ideological disintegration and lay bare the possibility of social revolution; Halloween and Alien, while deliberately evoking maximum terror and panic, variously seal it over again.”12 It never seems to bother Wood that “the possibility of social revolution” invoked in the American horror films he most admires is depicted in wholly negative terms—murder, dismemberment, cannibalism—with no suggestion of a positive result for society after the metaphoric “revolution.” The aim, in Wood's view, seems to be entirely vindictive, purgative at best.
But the viewpoint of Halloween—“reactionary” as it may look to Wood—is yet entirely legitimate. Carpenter's work in Halloween is not invalidated by the fact that his monster doesn't comfortably fit the revolutionary, anti-family pattern that Wood perceptively finds in the threatening forces of the films of Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper, and Larry Cohen.
Trying to track the meaning of Michael the monster, Wood notes that the characterization of Dr. Loomis—and his conviction that Michael is the embodiment of pure evil—represents “the most extreme instance of Hollywood's perversion of psychoanalysis into an instrument of repression.”13 Worrying over how Michael learned to drive, Wood suggests that either Michael has not spent the intervening years between the murder and the present staring blankly at an asylum wall, or he really is possessed of the supernatural powers Dr. Loomis attributes to him. “The possibility that this opens up,” reasons Wood, “is that … Michael's ‘evil’ is what his analyst has been projecting onto him.”14 This possible subtext, though not pursued by Carpenter in Halloween, has honorable cinematic roots going back to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and is pursued in the treatment of Loomis's increasingly obsessive behavior in Halloween II,Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, and Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers. In his analysis of Halloween, Danny Peary says Loomis “seems a bit batty … but it probably takes an insane type to want to track down the destructive Michael. So we're glad he's on our side.”15
Wood sets the doctor's obsession off against another possibility, that of “psychoanalytical explanation” for Michael's actions: that Laurie is his real quarry because she reincarnates the sister he murdered as a child. (Interestingly, the metaphor is needlessly extended into literalism in Halloween II with the revelation that Laurie is, in fact, Michael's sister—a “lost” sister, given up for adoption by her parents without Michael's knowledge.) Michael's fixation on Laurie in Halloween is further supported by the fact that Laurie is seen in relation to the little boy she's babysitting—a little boy reminiscent of the young Michael of the film's prologue. Here again the possibility of Michael's representing the Return of the Repressed comes into play, for—unlike the other victims—Laurie is visually associated with images of domesticity: She stays home, she cooks, she washes dishes, she takes care of children. She wears an apron and enters the room wiping her hands with a dish-towel (after carving a pumpkin in the kitchen). In her final combat with Michael, her weapons are a knitting needle, a coat hanger and a kitchen knife.
The small-town order that Michael Myers destroys is a social order in which people don't kill one another, and a sexual order in which young women find young men, mess around a little, and eventually settle down to a quiet life of raising children. It is, in other words, the very kind of world that is threatened by the Return of the Repressed in Robin Wood's interpretation of the American horror film.
The tension between Michael's assault on the rebellious sexuality of Judith, Annie, and Lynda and his assault on the conventional domesticity of Laurie, between the hint of a “psychoanalytical explanation” and Loomis's (Carpenter's?) insistence on treating Michael as the personification of pure evil, finally confounds Wood, in much the same way that the sex-as-pathology conservatism of David Cronenberg has always confounded him. What bothers Wood most is that Michael Myers refuses to fit Wood's formula: “[T]he monster becomes … simply the instrument of Puritan vengeance and repression rather than the embodiment of what Puritanism repressed.”16 But if this is so, then Halloween speaks for itself: The image of the repressor is as scary as the Return of the Repressed.
McCarthy, Todd, “Trick and Treat” [John Carpenter interviewed by Todd McCarthy], Film Comment 16:1, Jan/Feb 1980, p. 21.
The “edited for television” version of Halloween damages this opening sequence by narrowing the eyeholes of the “mask” through which much of opening scene's action is seen. The purpose of making the eyeholes smaller is, of course, to obscure Judith's nudity and the graphic shots of her stabbing. But its effect is to compromise the compositional virtuosity of that stunning opening shot.
The “edited for television” version of Halloween—though not the video version—contains a transitional sequence that was not in the theatrical release version. Labeled “Smith's Grove, Illinois, May, 1964,” this sequence takes place at the hospital and has Dr. Loomis arguing with hospital administrators. He claims that Michael's catatonia is feigned and that the boy is too dangerous for a minimum security environment. He loses the argument, then walks down the hall and drops in on Michael, who sits in his room staring out the window. He tells Michael words to the effect that “You fooled them, but you don't fool me.” Besides doing little to elucidate or color the characterization of Michael, the scene distorts the original film in several ways. It doesn't mesh well with the preceding “Halloween, 1963” opening, because it shows us all too clearly a Michael who doesn't look like the Michael we just saw unmasked, and whose daylight-visible presence takes away much of the menace and mystery of the Michael Myers character. The sequence also becomes, after the fact, the first in which Dr. Loomis appears, and has the effect of introducing him to us with the Michael-obsession that haunts his character later on already in place. For this reason, the inserted sequence also doesn't mesh well with the ensuing, redated “second introduction” sequence, “Smith's Grove, Illinois, October 30, 1979,” whose original force and economy are diminished by dialogue that now seems redundant.
Jameson, Richard T., “Style vs. ‘Style,’” Film Comment 16:2, Mar/Apr 1980, p. 12.
Fox, Jordan R., Interview, “Riding High on Horror,” Cinefantastique 10:1, Summer 1980, p. 40.
Peary, Danny, Cult Movies, New York: Dell, 1981, pp. 125–6.
Fox, “Riding High on Horror,” p. 40.
McCarthy, op. cit., p. 24.
Jameson, “Style vs. ‘Style,’” p. 12.
Wood, “World of Gods and Monsters,” American Nightmare, pp. 85–6.
Durgnat, Raymond, “The Mongrel Muse,” Films and Feelings, Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T. Press, 1971, pp. 19–30.
Wood, “Introduction,” American Nightmare, p. 28.
Wood, “Introduction,” p. 26.
Wood, “Introduction,” p. 26.
Peary, Cult Movies, p. 125.
Wood, “Introduction,” p. 26.
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 ), outré films noirs (In the Mouth of Madness ) and tension-filled suspense-thrillers (Halloween , Eyes of Laura Mars , Someone's Watching Me! ) was first a determined and impressionable little boy who knew exactly what he wanted to do with his life. At four years old, John Carpenter saw his first movie in a theater in Bowling Green, Kentucky: John Huston's adventure flick The African Queen (1952), starring Humphrey Bogart. After the end credits rolled, Carpenter was a changed person. He became obsessed with film and the notion that he too could contribute to the stream of images he watched unfold on the silver screen. Although Carpenter also followed in his father's footsteps and studied the piano and violin, he longed to create moving film portraits and compositions like those conceived by Hawks, Ford, Huston, Hitchcock, Capra and the other filmmaking luminaries of the time. He wanted to be a movie director.
John Carpenter's early cinematic influences included not just westerns such as the Howard Hawks classic Rio Bravo (1959), but also science fiction productions focusing on the possibility of life from other worlds. Among his favorites were Ray Bradbury and Jack Arnold's It Came from Outer Space (1953), the quasi—Shakespearean outer space version of The Tempest,Forbidden Planet (1956), Roger Corman's low budget It Conquered the World (1956), Nigel Kneale's Quatermass adventure Enemy from Space (1957), and the grandaddy of all monster movies, King Kong (1933).
By age eight, John Carpenter was inspired to realize his fantasies and produce his own films. Equipped with an 8mm camera and ingenuity to spare, Carpenter began directing his schoolyard buddies through intense cinematic paces in the Carpenter family back yard. Through age 14, John continued producing and directing 40-minute genre shorts with evocative 1950s exploitation titles like Revenge of the Colossal Beasts,Terror from Space,Gorgo vs. Godzilla, and even Gorgon the Space Monster. All the while, the young director experimented with his craft by employing stop-motion photography (à la Willis O'Brien or Ray Harryhausen), rear projection, forced perspective, and other special effects uncommonly seen in home-made movies. At the same time, Carpenter indulged his desire to dramatize entertaining and often frightening adventures.
Clearly John Carpenter was no ordinary child. His precocious nature may have come from his father and mother, also highly creative individuals. His father, Howard Ralph Carpenter, had earned a Ph.D. in music and had attended the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. Howard Carpenter later played in sessions with celebrity musicians Johnny Cash, Frank Sinatra, Roy Orbison and Brenda Lee. Often, young John Carpenter would ride with his father to Nashville, Tennessee, to watch his dad perform with these icons, and so Carpenter Junior was exposed not only to a universe of creativity, but the world of celebrity as well. Desire and determination are two of the most important factors in forging a successful life in Hollywood, and Carpenter learned early on from his father's career that the stars were within his reach, whether they shone on the world of music or the world of cinema.
As he grew, John Carpenter continued to find inspiration not only in motion pictures, but on the printed page as well. He was an avid reader of science fiction and horror stories, and he was exposed to the works of Edgar Allan Poe and H. P. Lovecraft through a book entitled Tales of Terror and the Supernatural. A teenage Carpenter also fueled his imagination on a regular diet of '50s pulps, from Weird Science and Weird Fantasy to the behind-the-scenes magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland. As he matured, John Carpenter also made a stab at producing his own genre fanzines, devoted to King Kong and the universe of “fantastic” films. These endeavors established that John Carpenter's talent extended beyond the realms of music and film: He was a skilled artist, and his aptitude for drawing would later serve him well in the story-boarding process of his earliest films, Dark Star,Assault on Precinct 13, and in part, Halloween. The developing medium of television also played a role in his growth as an artist, and in the late '50s and early '60s John Carpenter often stayed up late on Saturday evenings to view the local Shock Theater presentations.
After attending Western Kentucky University, John Carpenter prevailed upon his parents to send him to U.S.C. the foremost film school in the United States. There, Carpenter gained the practical experience he needed to become a filmmaker, while at the same time investigating the artistic side of film. At U.S.C. Carpenter learned how to be comfortable and adept with the mechanical and technological nature of filmmaking, and the school also presented him with the opportunity to watch the films of John Ford, Orson Welles, Luis Buñuel, Sergio Leone, and Howard Hawks, Carpenter's favorite director. At U.S.C., Roman Polanski and Howard Hawks visited and addressed Carpenter's class. For John, to be in the presence of his idols was a dream come true.
Film school also stressed the importance of making personal films, an in-vogue idea of the day expressed in unique cinema like Easy Rider (1969) and Five Easy Pieces (1970). Demonstrating his maverick qualities, Carpenter did not completely buy into the party. Instead, he saw it as important to bring his own personality to big, entertaining films like those of Hawks or Hitchcock.
In 1969, John Carpenter earned his first official credit, serving as co-writer, editor, and composer—and, uncredited, as co-director—on a 15-minute short subject entitled The Resurrection of Bronco Billy (1970). The 16mm production, which concerned a young man who fancied himself a modern cowboy, gave Carpenter valuable experience in cutting film and scoring film music. It also turned out to be a prestigious assignment: The Resurrection of Bronco Billy won the Academy Award for best short subject in 1970. The award went to producer John Longenecker, but there was no doubt that John Carpenter's contributions to the project were important and considerable.
John Carpenter's life and career even reflect the main character of Bronco Billy in some intriguing ways. John Carpenter too often is a “man out of a time,” an artist who would rather make Howard Hawks westerns and “big” entertainments than the personal but non-commercial visions of the late sixties and early seventies such as The Graduate (1967) or The Last Picture Show (1971). Although there is always a danger of reading too deeply into film, John Carpenter's desire to be a “retro” director like Hawks, Hitchcock or Ford is a theme that reappears throughout his career. He acknowledged this goal in an interview with Films in Review in 1980:
I want to make westerns and comedies and detective films. … I'd love to be the Howard Hawks of the '80s. … Hawks … influenced me the most stylistically … but also in terms of control. He always talked about how much control he had over his films. And Hawks was a dedicated commercial filmmaker. … That's where I relate myself. In terms of telling good stories, working with good people, making films that make money.1
To some of the academic minded at U.S.C., Carpenter's approach was unthinkable. Here was a talented young student who saw film not only as art, but also as (gasp!) entertainment. This retrograde desire to make fun movies rather than “important” ones often left Carpenter feeling out of step with his colleagues, but it would become part and parcel of his choices as a filmmaker.
WHEN YOU WISH UPON A DARK STAR
Although John Carpenter had made a name for himself in the early 1970s with his work on The Resurrection of Bronco Billy, he still wanted to be a director, even an auteur. He wanted to be the one to call the shots and to forge his vision on the screen. So, unlike many students, as well as his hero, Howard Hawks (who had worked his way up the filmmaking roster after beginning in the unglamorous role of assistant propman), Carpenter started not at the bottom of a long credits list, but at the top, as a director.
With a friend from U.S.C. whom he had met in 1965, John Carpenter set out to make a very special student film for his Master's thesis project. In August of 1970, John Carpenter and Dan O'Bannon met to discuss the production of a very low budget sci-fi film that Carpenter was calling The Electric Dutchman. The duo labored on the screenplay together throughout the fall semester, and the film changed titles. Now it was Planetfall. Despite the changing title, the essence of the outer-space story remained the same. Carpenter and O'Bannon wanted to make a response to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), as well as a film that would look at the nuts and bolts of space travel in a completely different and unique way.
What eventually came out of the script was an unusual science fiction piece entitled Dark Star. It concerned the lives of four “slacker” astronauts who were doomed to spend eternity on an endless, absurd space mission. Their spaceship was a wreck, the astronauts did not get along well with one another, and the meaning of their existence was more than just a tad obscure. Years later, John Carpenter aptly described Dark Star as Waiting for Godot … in Space. As Dan O'Bannon characterized the unusual setting and non-traditional protagonists of Dark Star, it was obvious that the film reflected the slightly off-kilter sensibilities of its two creators:
The characters and their spacebound living conditions became a reflection of the way we ourselves were living our lives: young alienated males forced together in communal poverty. … Astronauts' days aboard the Dark Star resembled the days and nights of our lives … inspiring, sad, ridiculous.2
The Dark Star screenplay was ambitious from a technical perspective, filled with miniature effects, seemingly expensive opticals, zero-g effects, and ail the other bells and whistles associated with space travel movies in the post—2001 film era. Despite the challenges, principal photography on Dark Star began in the spring of 1971. As it was a low-low-budget production funded solely by Carpenter and O'Bannon, no professional actors were utilized on the project. Instead, friends from U.S.C. were enlisted to play roles, and Dan O'Bannon himself essayed the important role of Sergeant Pinback, the spaceship know-it-all and resolute idiot.
Sets were constructed by O'Bannon and Carpenter, and the complex instrumentation and control panels of the Dark Star were created through many nights of rummaging through garbage and picking up Styrofoam forms, appliance knobs, and cast-off machine parts that might fit the bill. Dark Star was then filmed in basements, in rented sound-stages, and even the Producers Studio. Amazingly, only about 10 percent of the film was actually lensed on the U.S.C. campus.3 The Dark Star production crew was small, too, consisting mostly of O'Bannon and Carpenter again. Still, there were times when as many as five or six people were contributing time and energy behind the scenes of the unusual project.
Contributing special effects to the Carpenter-O'Bannon affair were some notable technical artists who would go on to become the greatest of such talents in the industry. Jim Danforth (When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth , The Day Time Ended , Clash of the Titans , They Live ) contributed matte paintings of starscapes and planets, and Greg Jein (Star Trek V: The Final Frontier ) constructed the miniature of the Dark Star spaceship based on the utilitarian design sketches of Ron Cobb (Star Wars , Close Encounters of the Third Kind , Alien , Blade Runner , Conan the Barbarian , Leviathan , Total Recall ). Cobb was a friend of Dan O'Bannon's from the Los Angeles Free Press Cartooning Association. When he learned that O'Bannon needed a spaceship blueprint, Cobb devised a unique exterior shell, the projectile-shaped craft of the title. According to Cobb, it was a good conjunction of talent:
We shared an enthusiasm for films, science fiction and filmmaking. … I started scribbling out things on napkins at an all-night coffee shop. They [Carpenter and O'Bannon] liked it, I drew up the plans, and it appeared in the film as a model built by Greg Jein.4
By spring of 1972, Dark Star was substantively complete. The only problem facing Carpenter and O'Bannon was that the final cut came in at a length of just under 50 minutes. Thus John Carpenter's debut film was too long to qualify as a short picture, like The Resurrection of Bronco Billy, and far too short to qualify as a marketable, releasable feature film. Broke and despondent, Carpenter and O'Bannon realized that they needed an investor to provide additional cash to beef up the production and pave the way for new shooting. In response to this exigency, Jonathan Kaplan, a Canadian money man, put up ＄10,000 to extend Dark Star to an acceptable length of 80 minutes. Excited about the chance to improve their student/professional film, Carpenter and O'Bannon prepared a great deal of additional footage in 1972, much of it improvised.
Interestingly, much of the newly lensed footage tended to be rather humorous, pushing Dark Star from a semi-serious science fiction film with some moments of way-out humor to a full-scale 2001 satire filled with broad comedy and edgy repartee. An alien resembling a beachball was added to the cast to vex Dan O'Bannon's Pinback, and an extended comedic scene in an elevator shaft also emerged. This latter set-piece was very reminiscent of the silent film era, particularly the work of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Designer Ron Cobb explained the change in Dark Star's thematic thrust this way:
When they got a chance for theatrical release, extra footage was shot. They brought people back and the extra footage was down-right slapstick. It was added to the body of the student film which was kind of solemn. … The slapstick scenes, the elevator, and the alien make the rest of the scenes look funnier than they did originally when that was all the humor there was, Pinback griping and all that. They did a number of re-edits.5
So with Kaplan's cash providing the impetus, Dark Star, Mark II, was completed—at least until it was time for the important post-production work to come together. John Carpenter and Dan O'Bannon realized they would require at least another ＄35,000 to assemble all the opticals, do the sound recording, and create a professional film worthy of national distribution.
Entrepreneur and frequent film backer Jack H. Harris (The Blob , Beware! The Blob , Eyes of Laura Mars ) swooped into the picture in 1973 and bought all rights to Dark Star outright, while demanding even more reshoots. By this time, all of the actors involved in Dark Star had changed haircuts several times, and some had aged dramatically in the intervening two years since the recording of the original footage. Still, the reshoots were conducted, with some actors wearing unconvincing hairpieces, and Dark Star, Mark III, was completed in February of 1974.
By this late date, more than four full years since the inception of the project, John Carpenter and Dan O'Bannon were often getting on each other's frayed nerves. Each one was exhausted, and each felt that he had contributed more to the picture than the other. Additionally, the two men had become irritated by the micro-management style of Harris, who is rumored to have been quite a tyrant. What finally resulted for pals Dan O'Bannon and John Carpenter was a parting of the ways that, fortunately, would be rectified in 1976 when the duo would rediscover each other as friends, if not as coworkers.
After six years at U.S.C., John Carpenter dropped out of the film program, but Dark Star was finally completed—at a total cost of ＄60,000, including ＄10-12,000 of Carpenter's own money. Dark Star premiered in a wide multiple theater in Los Angeles in January of 1975, and the black comedy almost immediately earned Carpenter a reputation as a clever underground director. Dark Star was also warmly received by science fiction critics and given considerable nationwide attention, even meriting a review by Time magazine.
From a financial standpoint, things did not look so cheery. Carpenter and O'Bannon were paid only ＄5,000 apiece for their years of hard work. That amount did not even begin to recoup the money each man had contributed to Dark Star.
In addition, Dark Star failed as a calling card. It did not inspire the all-important decision-makers in the big Hollywood studios. John Carpenter quickly learned that the average moviegoer had not really understood or even liked Dark Star, and that there was very little chance of Paramount, 20th Century—Fox, Columbia or any other Hollywood organization plucking him from obscurity and handing him the reins on a major new movie. Instead, Carpenter found that he had to earn his living as a writer, which he considered a poor substitute for directing. Still, Carpenter found success in this alternate venue. He penned a suspense thriller called Eyes, which was eventually filmed as Eyes of Laura Mars in 1978; a Western called Blood River, which was intended to match screen and music legends John Wayne and Elvis Presley; and a crime-thriller called Black Moon Rising, filmed in 1985 with Tommy Lee Jones. The other project he framed during this period was the unusually titled Escape from New York City, a futuristic gang action picture designed to cash in on all of the Death Wish hoopla of 1975. In 1981, John Carpenter directed this screenplay, retitled Escape from New York, with Kurt Russell as his star.
UNDER SEIGE: ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13
Though Dark Star had failed to secure a directing career for him, John Carpenter came back with a vengeance with the production of his second independent feature, Assault on Precinct 13 (1976). An investor from Philadelphia, the C K K Corporation, took a gamble on Carpenter and put up the money for a new exploitation picture he was planning. More importantly to John Carpenter, his backers offered him free rein to make any kind of picture he desired.
What he desired to make was a Howard Hawks—style western in the tradition of Rio Bravo (1959), El Dorado (1967) and Rio Lobo (1970), but there was simply not enough money in his ＄100,000 budget to sponsor a full scale Old West adventure. Instead, John Carpenter planned a stylized updating of the classic Rio Bravo scenario, replete with the stereotypical Howard Hawks woman and much macho dialogue. He cleverly substituted modern urban gangs for Indians, and beleaguered cops for the cowboys. A rotting station house, Precinct 9 Division 13, became the equivalent of the Alamo.
Even more than Dark Star,Assault on Precinct 13 indicated the path of John Carpenter's career. A true “auteur” merits that title by, among other things, working with the same actors and same settings again and again. Appropriately then, Assault on Precinct 13 found John Carpenter carefully selecting the foundations of his repertory company, the people who would populate his movies, as well as a group of behind-the-scenes personnel who would follow him from picture to picture.
After an open casting call, a group of talented actors was selected to star in the production. Charles Cyphers (Halloween,Someone's Watching Me!The Fog,Escape from New York,Halloween II,Buffy the Vampire Slayer: “Go Fish” ), Darwin Joston (The Fog) and Nancy Loomis (Halloween,The Fog,Halloween II,Halloween III: Season of the Witch) all began their long association with John Carpenter on this film, and in the lead role of Lieutenant Bishop the African-American thespian Austin Stoker (Battle for the Planet of the Apes , Time Walker ) was excellent.
Behind the scenes, Carpenter continued to work with art director Tommy Wallace (Halloween,Dark Star,Halloween III), Craig Stearns (Dark Star) and a young new talent, Debra Hill. A graduate of Temple University, with a bachelor's degree in sociology, Hill had cut her teeth editing and producing documentaries for an East Coast outfit called Adventure Film Limited. She relocated to Los Angeles and quickly landed work as script-supervisor on Goodbye, Norma Jean. After that assignment, she served as John Carpenter's script supervisor on Assault on Precinct 13. A year later, Debra Hill was Carpenter's co-writer and producer, in fact a full partner. With Carpenter, Hill co-wrote and produced Halloween and The Fog, and produced Escape from New York (1981) and Escape from L.A. (1996).
As he had with Dark Star and would do again with Halloween and later pictures, John Carpenter wrote the riveting musical score for Assault on Precinct 13. He was assisted in the effort by Dan Wyman. The final result was a unique, synthetic sound that is still quite catchy, even after 20 years.
The script John Carpenter had fashioned for Assault on Precinct 13 told of a diverse trio of heroes caught in a siege as an urban Los Angeles prison house is attacked by rampaging gang members. Although that premise may sound like a typical 1970s action picture, it was quintessential Carpenter in execution—which meant it was really quintessential Howard Hawks. Of primary importance was not the bloodshed or action, but rather the developing friendship and respect in evidence between white convict Napoleon Wilson and black cop Lt. Bishop. As writer Leigh Brackett, the author of Rio Bravo,El Dorado and Rio Lobo, once described the men of Hawks films:
There were certain basic themes which were very important to Hawks: the relationship between two men, which was actually a love story; the obligations of friendship—what a friend is required to do for a friend. If you examine his films carefully, there are great parallels among the character relationships.6
The same could easily be said of the characters Bishop and Wilson in Assault on Precinct 13. Though originally the two are on opposite sides of the law, cop Bishop quickly gains convict Wilson's respect and trust by saving his life, twice. In return, Wilson becomes loyal to Bishop, saving his life. Their dialogue, bordering on flirtatious at points, artfully highlights both their differences and similarities.
Also important to Assault on Precinct 13's homage to director Hawks was the unforgettable presence of actress Laurie Zimmer as a prototypical “Hawksian woman,” i.e., a female who gives as good as she gets and is both tough and feminine at the same time. As Robin Woods wrote of Angie Dickinson's character in Rio Bravo:
Dickinson's marvelous performance gives us the perfect embodiment of the Hawksian woman, intelligent, resilient and responsive. There is a continual sense of a woman who really grasps what is important to her … It is not so much a matter of characterization as the communication of a life quality.7
Zimmer, relatively inexperienced, managed to convey the same emotions and life quality as Angie Dickinson, Lauren Bacall, and other classic Hawks women. She was solid, calm, and passionate at all the right moments. And, in the best tradition of Howard Hawks films, she was always ready to share “a smoke” with the male who caught her eye, Napoleon Wilson.
Further cementing the homage to Hawks in general and Rio Bravo in particular, Carpenter spiced his Assault on Precinct 13 screenplay with a variety of nice in-jokes. Laurie Zimmer's character was named “Leigh” after Rio Bravo scribe Leigh Brackett. And Carpenter even edited the picture under the pseudonym John T. Chance—the name of John Wayne's sheriff in Rio Bravo.
Because John Carpenter was able to wield total control on the set of his Assault on Precinct 13, as well as pay loving homage to his favorite director without interference, the film has become his favorite, and he often refers to its creation as the most fun he has ever had directing a film. With all of the interiors shot inside a studio, it would have been easy for a young Carpenter to imagine that he was continuing in the Hawks Hollywood western tradition. The details may have been updated, but Assault on Precinct 13 emerged as a great western.
Unfortunately, nobody got it. A the same time that Carpenter had taken such caution to infuse his project with Hawksian humor and characters, he added his own unique touch: contemporary graphic violence along the lines of urban action flick like The Warriors (1979) or Death Wish (1974). This explicit violence resulted in a serious misreading of the film's intentions, first and foremost by that self-proclaimed guardian of cinematic morality, the MPAA. The organization demanded that Carpenter cut out a crucial scene wherein a young blond girl named Kathy gets shot down in cold blood while asking politely for vanilla twist ice cream. The anti-authoritarian Carpenter, who has hated censorship all his life, pulled a fast one in response to this request. He cut the sequence all right, but only in the print sent to the MPAA. The rest of the Assault on Precinct 13 prints went released untouched and uncensored.8
When the film was released in 1976 by distributor Turtle Releasing, other factions joined the MPAA in their misinterpretation of this strange, stylized western. When it was not being ignored by critics and the public, the film was being marketed mostly as a blaxploitation picture. Europe, however, was a different story. There, Assault on Precinct 13 was recognized as the genre-buster it was. It emerged as the surprise hit of the 1977 London Film Festival, and its warm reception overseas did much to cement Carpenter's reputation as an auteur there.
Although financial success was still a year or so away, Assault on Precinct 13 built much of the John Carpenter mystique that would come to dominate his career. It was a stylish, audacious film, like Dark Star, but it showed his versatility in tackling a very different genre from sci-fi. Carpenter revisited “seige” film territory in 1987 with Prince of Darkness, another movie set in a rotting L.A. structure, this time a church. And Darwin Joston and Austin Stoker, so powerful and charismatic together in Assault on Precinct 13, were reunited briefly in a rather dopey 1982 Mummy flick called Time Walker that also starred Ben Murphy (The Gemini Man 1974), James Karen (Poltergeist , Return of the Living Dead ), and Shari Belfonte (Beyond Reality [1991–93]).
After Assault on Precinct 13, John Carpenter had an interesting offer in 1976. Like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg before him, Carpenter was approached by Paramount Studios to write the movie version of the classic sci-fi TV series, Star Trek. Feeling that he could not do anything creative with the material, Carpenter turned the job down. Considering the budget, scheduling and special effects problems to emerge from Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), this was probably a wise decision. Still, one has to wonder how the 23rd century (and film history) might have been different with John Carpenter at the helm of the Starship Enterprise.
THE TRICKS AND TREATS OF HALLOWEEN
Although John Carpenter had in many senses already mastered the technical requirements of film making in Dark Star and Assault on Precinct 13, he found that he was still not being called to active service by the studio system he hoped so much to work within. All that changed after 1978, the most important year, perhaps, in the director's career.
In late 1977, Carpenter was recruited by Irwin Yablans, a producer for Compass International Ltd. who had a compelling idea for a new exploitation picture:
I was in Milan and suddenly I thought we should do something with a babysitter. Put some nubile girls together and terrorize them. There's common denominator there, I thought, everybody's been a babysitter, or had one. So I called John and he was enthusiastic.9
John Carpenter later recalled the same conversation, as well as his own lack of enthusiasm about the original idea. It was not until Yablans came up with a second marketable movie notion that Carpenter realized that the new project had some real potential:
It started with a distributor saying to me: “I would like to do a movie about a guy killing babysitters. We'll call it The Babysitter Murders.” Being unemployed … I said “OK, fine, I’ll do it.” … Then he said, “Let's set the movie on Halloween night because Halloween is such a good time—the Bogeyman.” I thought that was a great idea.10
Carpenter then agreed to write the Halloween screenplay with Debra Hill. Additionally, he would direct the picture and Hill would produce it. Carpenter, however, had three conditions before committing himself to the film. First, he waned complete autonomy on film, a status he had enjoyed so much on Assault on Precinct 13. Secondly, he wanted to write the musical score as he had done on both of his earlier feature films. His last demand was a corollary of his first: Not only did he want complete control on Halloween, he also wanted a promise of no interference from the money men, perhaps remembering his experiences with Jack H. Harris on Dark Star in 1973. Yablans and financier Moustapha Akkad agreed to Carpenter's terms, and production on Halloween was set to commence with a budget of $300,000 dollars.
Debra Hill and John Carpenter fashioned the entire Halloween screenplay, about an escaped mental patient named Michael Myers who breaks free from an asylum and terrorizes babysitters in his home town on All Hallow's Eve, in just 10 days. Debra Hill wrote the first draft, focusing on the sections involving the teenage babysitters. Carpenter wrote a second pass, including all the material that had to do with the psychologist who would hunt down pure “evil” in Haddonfield.
A the behest of his daughters, who were fans of Assault on Precinct 13, Donald Pleasence [Fantastic Voyage , THX-1138 , The Freakmaker ,) joined the cast after Christopher Lee turned down the role. (Pleasence would become a regular contributor to Carpenter's films, appearing in Halloween II , Escape from New York , and Prince of Darkness .) Just as Assault on Precinct 13 had been designed as a Howard Hawks tribute, Carpenter and Hill envisioned Halloween as an Alfred Hitchcock style film, and so named Pleasence's character Dr. Sam Loomis after John Gavin's character in Psycho (1960). Additionally, Loomis's partner in many sequences was a nurse (played by Nancy Stephens) named “Marion”—Janet Leigh's character name in Psycho. So entrenched in modern slasher lore was Donald Pleasence's Halloween character (reprised in Halloween IV: The Return of Michael Myers , Halloween V: The Revenge of Michael Myers , and Halloween VI: The Curse of Michael Myers  that scribe Kevin Williamson named a character in the crossover hit Scream “Loomis” as well—thus referencing an earlier film reference of an earlier film!
Cast in the lead role of Laurie Strode was 19-year-old Jamie Lee Curtis, the beautiful daughter of Janet Leigh (Psycho,Night of the Lepus .) Before Halloween catapulted her to stardom, Jamie Lee Curtis had appeared only on the Operation Petticoat (1977–1979) series as the regular character Lt. Barbara Duran. Following Halloween, Curtis became horror's favorite star and was dubbed “The Scream Queen” for her appearances in The Fog (1980), Halloween II (1981), Prom Night (1980), Terror Train (1980), and Road Games (1982). Curtis traded horror for comedy in 1983's Trading Places, but returned to the genre in Halloween: H20 (1998), the 20-year anniversary sequel to John Carpenter's original picture.
Another horror veteran in Halloween was the delightful P. J. Soles, one of the nasty high school girls in DePalma's Carrie (1976), as Laurie's doomed friend Lynda. After Halloween, Soles went on to do another cult classic, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, in 1979. Nick Castle, the man who played the Shape, Michael Myers, graduated from horror movies to direct such notable pictures as The Last Starfighter (1983). According to the documentary film Halloween: Unmasked, directed by Mark Cerulli, the name Michael Myers came from a real source. The real Michael Myers was a film distributor in London who brought Akkad, Yablans, Carpenter and Hill together after Assault on Precinct 13.
Rounding out the Halloween cast were Carpenter repertory regulars Charles Cyphers (of the Bette White Show [1977–78]) as Sheriff Leigh Brackett (another reference to the Hawks collaborator) and Nancy Loomis as Annie. Both of these actors had appeared in Assault on Precinct 13.
Behind the scenes of Halloween, one of the most important John Carpenter film contributors joined the team: cinematographer Dean Cundey, the man responsible for the look of Carpenter films Halloween,The Fog,Escape from New York,Halloween II,Halloween III,The Thing (1982), and Big Trouble in Little China (1986), as well as big non-Carpenter flicks such as Romancing the Stone (1984), Back to the Future (1985) and The Flintstones (1995). A graduate of U.C.L.A. Film School, Cundey had worked his way up in the business, starting as a makeup artist on a low-low-budget Roger Corman flick called Gas-s-s-s (a.k.a. It May Become Necessary to Destroy the World in Order to Save It) in 1971. He also lensed certain scenes on Beware! The Blob before becoming director of photography on such pictures as the lurid-sounding Satan's Cheerleaders (1976), Without Warning (1980), and Galaxina (1980). With much of the Halloween story occurring during the impenetrable night, Cundey's lighting and photography were crucial to the success and look of the suspense film.
After three weeks of preproduction planning, principal photography on Halloween began in spring of 1978. Starting in March, production ran for a scant 22 days. Donald Pleasence, in America for only a short time, was available for only five days of shooting. Exterior daytime scenes were shot in Pasadena, an unlikely location to represent the mythical town of Haddonfield, Illinois. Although the residents of Pasadena were cooperative with the film company, a continuing headache for John Carpenter during the exterior sequences was keeping the ubiquitous California palm trees out of the frame. Night scenes and interiors for Halloween were shot in and around Hollywood, and Carpenter and Cundey lensed the film in Panavision, making extensive use of Panaglide technology, the precursor to the popular Steadicam.
The props which made Halloween so memorable also caused some difficulties. Since the production was lensed in the spring, there were no pumpkins to be found anywhere. The crew's creative answer to this dilemma was to spray paint squashes orange for the sequences requiring jack-o-lanterns! The mask that Michael Myers wore throughout the flick also had a unique origin. John Carpenter and Debra Hill had originally intended their psycho-killer to wear a frightening clown mask, but instead they settled on a William Shatner Captain Kirk mask from Don Post Studios. The eyeholes were enlarged, the pointed Star Trek sideburns were cut off, and the face was painted a stark white. Although the creators of the film could not have anticipated it, this bizarre mask became one of the most effective scare images in film history. At many points throughout Halloween (and even Halloween II) there is total darkness in the frame until the blank, chalky mask appears suddenly out of the shadows. Still, it is strange to realize that the cast of various Halloween movies have been offed by none other James T. Kirk. (It gives new meaning to the catchphrase, “He's dead, Jim.”)
Halloween completed production on time, on schedule, with no overtime whatsoever. It was the first of his films not completely storyboarded by Carpenter, although he did storyboard the conclusion of the film following Laurie's discovery of her dead friends in the upstairs bedroom of the Wallace house.
Satisfied with his efforts, Carpenter screened the film, minus its musical score, for studio executives around Hollywood—and the unanimous conclusion was that Halloween was not scary. Alarmed by the reaction, John Carpenter devoted two weeks to writing and performing the musical score. Using the work of Ennio Morricone and Bernard Herrmann as his guide, Carpenter created what is perhaps the most memorable theme song in horror movie history, except perhaps for the screeching melody of Psycho.
When Carpenter rescreened the film complete with its score, the same executives who had claimed the film was not frightening raved that Halloween was in fact the most terrifying movie they had ever seen. Moustapha Akkad and Irwin Yablans saw the first reel in a mixing room at Goldwyn Studios and knew they had a winner on their hands. With a budget of ＄24,000 devoted to advertising, Halloween was set to take America by storm.
Halloween, which featured the ad line “The Night He Came Home,” opened in John Carpenter's hometown of Bowling Green, Kentucky, on October 25, 1978. Its sub-distributor in the New York and Philadelphia market was Aquarius Releasing, and the film played at the Rivoli Theater in the Big Apple. It also opened in Los Angeles, where it played for four weeks on 232 screens.
Strangely, critics hated the picture until Tom Allen of the Village Voice picked up on its finer points and afforded it a rave review. Soon, other critics, including Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, followed suit and called Halloween a four-star film in the tradition of Alfred Hitchcock. Boosted by strong word-of-mouth and critical support, Halloween became a cult sensation.
Realizing that they had a crossover hit on their hands, the producers of Halloween and Aquarius mastermind Terry Levene pulled it abruptly from release. Aquarius Releasing representative Ron Harvey explained the unique strategy to Fangoria:
The film was doing great business … and it would be smart not to blow it, to instead take the film out of release and do it up right the next year. They booked it … in Greenwich Village … before it disappeared … creating “cult” status. … A year later, word of mouth had spread like wildfire. … People that had seen it … were really talking up this film. This marketing ploy paid off in spades. … We had teaser trailers … running weeks ahead of time hyping how “Halloween is back” and that sort of thing.11
The ploy worked, and Halloween quickly went on to gross more than 50 million dollars, making it the most profitable independent movie in film history, even edging out George Romero's runaway horror hit Dawn of the Dead (1979). By 1990, when Halloween lost the title of most profitable independent film to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the picture had generated more than ＄80 million in the United States alone. On a budget of ＄300,000, such a return was unprecedented, but most welcome.
At the same time that Halloween made a killing at the box office and transformed director John Carpenter into a horror celebrity (thanks in part to articles in the New York Times by Vincent Canby and a positive review in Newsweek by David Ansen), Halloween also prompted a spate of imitator “slasher” films, most of them clearly lacking in the style that made Carpenter's film so successful. Among the myriad imitators were Friday the 13th (1980), Prom Night (1980), Mother's Day (1980), Christmas Evil (1980), My Bloody Valentine (1981), Graduation Day (1981), New Year's Evil (1982), Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984), April Fool's Day (1986), and Bloody New Year (1987). Each one of these knock-offs matched a mad slasher with some lesser holiday. Lacking the explicit holiday connection were numerous other slasher films that imitated the Halloween story and “stalker” aspects. These included He Knows You're Alone (a.k.a. Blood Wedding) (1980) starring a young Tom Hanks; Visiting Hours (1981) with William Shatner; Hell Night (1982) with Linda Blair; The Driller Killer (1979), directed by Abel Ferrara; The Toolbox Murders (1979); and the terrifying When a Stranger Calls (1979) with Charles Durning and Carol Kane. (For a complete list of post—Halloween slashfests, see Appendix B.)
Carpenter and Debra Hill were quick to insist there would be no sequel to Halloween, but the financial success of the film dictated otherwise, and the pair found themselves aboard a sequel project in early 1981. And the sequels were to continue: To date, there have been seven Halloween films.
In 1980, NBC-TV bought the rights to air Halloween on network television for a whopping ＄3 million. New footage with Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasence and other cast members was shot for the TV version when the original was found to be too short for its time slot. One of the new scenes included a hearing wherein Dr. Loomis attempted to keep Michael Myers incarcerated. This second version only succeeded in causing confusion, because it was this extended (but less violent) version that was mistakenly released on videotape in 1981 rather than the original—at least until the distributor pulled it off the market.
Halloween, for all intents and purposes, signaled the real start of John Carpenter's career. He was examined by critics not just as a good director, but as part of a “school” of young Hitchcock-inspired directors which included Steven Spielberg (Night Gallery [1970–73], Duel , Jaws ), and Brian DePalma (Carrie, The Fury , Dressed to Kill , Body Double .) More a fan of classic Hollywood in general and Howard Hawks in particular, Carpenter did not find the comparison to Hitchcock particularly apt:
Critics compare me to Hitchcock, but I know that's bullshit. If I start taking myself seriously that's bullshit too. I'm just out to make a good film. … I try my best with each one, and then go on to the next one. If people don't like it, I will have failed, but there are worse things in life than failing.12
THREE BIG DEALS: EYES OF LAURA MARS,SOMEONE'S WATCHING ME! AND ELVIS
Perhaps the reason so many critics compared John Carpenter to Alfred Hitchcock had more to do with the cumulative result of his many 1978 projects than his overall career. For Halloween was not the only prestigious project to sport his name on the credits that year. Remarkably, there were two others as well, both of which actually preceded the production of Halloween. Both were suspense-thrillers which involved a stalker pursuing lovely young women.
The first was a major motion picture, Eyes of Laura Mars, based on John Carpenter's screenplay Eyes. Jack H. Harris, the final backer on Dark Star, contacted Carpenter in 1977 and was interested in making a film based on one of his scripts. Soon producer Jon Peters was on board too, and ready to do an “A” budget film. For a time Barbra Streisand was to star in the picture, but this was a span in her career when her name was attached to many projects, including Universal Studios' unmade remake The Legend of King Kong in 1976.
Before Streisand left the project, Carpenter was assigned to direct the film, which concerned a Hollywood resident who had a psychic link with a skid row psycho. Because Streisand, a major star, was interested, Carpenter was asked by producer Peters to make significant changes in his screenplay to take advantage of her audience and abilities. Although Carpenter had hoped to make the psycho killer another of his “faceless” evil villains, like the blank-faced Michael Myers or the roving, unstoppable gang members of Assault on Precinct 13, the producer wanted the killer of Eyes of Laura Mars to be someone with whom the main character was in love. In addition, the setting was changed to New York, and the main character became a glamorous celebrity photographer rather than just a workaday protagonist. Eager to please, Carpenter made the changes, but Streisand soon dropped out nonetheless. When Carpenter's screenplay was rewritten with all new dialogue, he left the project, too, but retained screenwriter and story credit. After his departure, nine other writers took a shot at the script, and Dave Goodman did the final rewrite.
Eyes of Laura Mars was made into a big, glossy ＄8 million feature film. It starred Academy Award Best Actress winner Faye Dunaway (Bonnie & Clyde , Network , The Wicked Lady , Supergirl ) as Laura Mars, a woman who photographed a dazzling and “hip” combination of fashion and violence. Also in the cast was a delightful group of character actors who would go on to be major voices in the horror and science fiction genres. Brad Dourif (Child's Play , Spontaneous Combustion , Dead Certain , Exorcist III , Alien Resurrection , Urban Legend ), Rene Auberjonois (Night Gallery: “Camera Obscura” , King Kong , Star Trek: Deep Space Nine [1993–1999]), Raul Julia (Overdrawn at the Memory Bank , Presumed Innocent , The Addams Family ), and Tommy Lee Jones (Black Moon Rising , The Fugitive , Men in Black , U.S. Marshals ) all made terrific murder suspects in Eyes of Laura Mars, and the picture was helmed adeptly by veteran genre director Irvin Kershner (The Empire Strikes Back , Never Say Never Again , RoboCop II ). Still, the picture took a critical drubbing when it came out. And, importantly, John Carpenter hated the final product, feeling that his original story had gotten lost in the Hollywood rewrite shuffle. Still, John Carpenter's name on an ＄8 million movie starring Faye Dunaway gave him a certain respectability in Hollywood, and he knew it.
The year 1978 also saw John Carpenter responsible for one other suspense thriller, the TV movie first known as High Rise and finally as Someone's Watching Me! This Carpenter teleplay was about another faceless slasher stalking a woman in a high-tech apartment building. Carpenter originally wrote High Rise as a theatrical movie for Warner Bros., but the studio wanted it to be a TV movie instead. As a result, John Carpenter joined forces with producer Richard Kobritz (Salem's Lot , Christine ) to make an exciting and very Hitchcockian thriller. Reminiscent of Rear Window and North by Northwest, with its Saul Bass—like opening credit sequence, High Rise moved fast, and Carpenter was afforded only 15 days to complete principal photography. The film starred Lauren Hutton (Once Bitten ) and a woman who would become very special to John Carpenter: Adrienne Barbeau (Maude [1972–78], Swamp Thing ). After completing work on the film, Carpenter and Barbeau were married on January 1, 1979. Barbeau later appeared in The Fog and Escape from New York.
With Harry Sukman writing the music, and director of photography Robert Hauser ensuring that the film met Carpenter's artistic standard, John Carpenter's first union shoot went smoothly, and Someone's Watching Me! gained Carpenter his Directors Guild of America card. Although he had a little trouble with the Network Standards and Practices Department about the level of violence he was allowed to depict in his television venture, Carpenter was pleased with the final results.
Someone's Watching Me! aired on November 29, 1979, and earned solid ratings. Still, there could be no denying that by making three intense thrillers like Halloween,Eyes of Laura Mars, and Someone's Watching Me! in one year, Carpenter was providing the critics with plenty of fodder for their “son of Hitchcock” theories. Interestingly, Brian DePalma would stage a virtual re-make of Someone's Watching Me! in 1984, this one entitled Body Double and starring Craig Wasson and Melanie Griffith.
Though 1978 was seen primarily as the year of horror (and success) for John Carpenter, it ended on a determinedly different note. The sky was truly the limit, and the young director who so deeply loved westerns, film noir and all of Hollywood's classic genres was intent on exploring his abilities outside the slasher craze his film had ignited. Carpenter selected his next project, and surprisingly it was another television movie, this time a three hour mini-series documenting the life of rock ‘n’ roll idol Elvis Presley. Since Carpenter had once written a western for Elvis Presley called Blood River, the project was perfect. Carpenter also took it as a sign of good karma that Elvis had once played a character named “Dr. John Carpenter” in a 1969 film entitled Change of Habit starring Mary Tyler Moore.13 Determined to make the “biography” of his hero absolutely accurate, John Carpenter enlisted the aid of a Presley bodyguard named Charlie Hodges, and he approached his new project with glee and a sense of fun.
Elvis was written by producer Anthony Lawrence, and John Carpenter found that ABC TV gave him carte blanche on the product, again a situation that Carpenter found irresistible. Disney teen idol and former Lost in Space guest-star Kurt Russell was cast as “the King,” and Russell soon became a part of Carpenter's repertory company, later to appear in the director's Escape from New York,The Thing,Big Trouble in Little China and Escape from L.A. Kurt Russell's then-wife, Season Hubley, was cast as Priscilla Presley.
Elvis was shot in a fast 30 days, commencing production in the September of 1978. Carpenter recreated the look and sound of Elvis's musical numbers with the help of the talented Russell and a sound-alike singer. When it premiered in 1979, Carpenter's Elvis bio-pic handily won it's time slot, outgunning Gone with the Wind and One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest.14 The picture was a success through and through, and Kurt Russell revealed charisma, wit and screen presence unseen in his Disney years. Both Carpenter and Russell were well on their way to greater stardom.
In 1979, John Carpenter and Adrienne Barbeau formed their own production company, Hye White Bread Productions. Enjoying the spotlight, Carpenter found that his success allowed him to select any project he wanted. Although he toyed with writing Fangs (1978)—a “revenge of nature picture” featuring rattlesnakes and apparently inspired by Kingdom of the Spiders (1976), Frogs (1972) and Empire of the Ants (1976)—he did not, in the end, do the picture. His nuclear “accident” musical comedy, The Prometheus Crisis, and El Diablo, his long delayed western, were also bandied about as future projects, but again, neither film was made. At this time, Carpenter also expressed his desire to film an adaptation of Alfred Bester's science fiction novel, The Stars, My Destination. That too, failed to come off. In fact, one of the many interesting facets of John Carpenter's career is that he has as many interesting unmade projects as he does filmed projects attached to his name. Through the years, he came to be associated with these titles and many others, though they never came to fruition.
Despite the fact that these projects never materialized, Carpenter received a high honor for the exemplary film work he had completed. In late 1979, he won the “New Generation Director” award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.
CAUGHT IN THE FOG
The film Carpenter finally decided to make in 1979 is one that is usually unheralded in his filmography. Although The Fog, co-written and produced by Debra Hill, was a huge hit at the box office, it goes unfairly unremembered today as one of Carpenter's best films.
The Fog is a disturbing and beautifully filmed ghost story that harkens back to the “town in jeopardy” subgenre represented by films such as The Blob (1958) and Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds (1960). In this case, the menace is not a pack of flying sparrows, or a malevolent ball of protoplasm, but rather a deadly fog bank that cloaks vengeful spirits in its murky insides. Like Assault on Precinct 13 and Halloween,The Fog also dramatizes another of John Carpenter's “faceless evils”: an encroaching shroud of fog that envelopes its victims and spits out cadavers. And, delightfully, the film ends with yet another reference to a Howard Hawks film, this time The Thing from Another World (1951). At the climax of that picture (which was already referenced by Carpenter in Halloween when youngsters Tommy Doyle and Lindsey watch it on TV), a worried news reporter warns the world to “watch the skies!” for further extra-terrestrial menace. In The Fog, Carpenter and Hill's screenplay culminates with Adrienne Barbeau's disk jockey sound-alike warning to ships at sea to “look out for THE FOG!”
The visual aspects of his unusual villain in The Fog were also motivations for Carpenter to do this creepy supernatural film:
The idea of fog provides a framework in which I've always wanted to work. There are opportunities to do certain cinematic things with ghosts that can only be done in the movies. You don't really see the ghosts in The Fog as much as you think you do. The fog moves around, it glows, it comes through windowpanes. … I think that audiences are going to have fun with it.15
Halloween graduates Tommy Wallace, Charles Bornstein, Dean Cundey, Ray Stella and Debra Hill all reteamed with John Carpenter and his executive producer Charles B. Block for production of The Fog, which was budgeted at ＄1 million. The cast of the film came primarily from Carpenter's repertory company, with Jamie Lee Curtis, Adrienne Barbeau, Charles Cyphers, Darwin Joston, and Nancy Loomis playing critical roles. New to the mix, but no less welcome, was the cool Tom Atkins, a laconic and underrated actor who would later act for John Carpenter in Escape from New York and Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982). And an additional Fog casting coup saw the wonderful Janet Leigh herself essay a major role. George “Buck” Flower also joined the Carpenter Club as one of The Fog's first victims. He too returned for more scares in the director's Escape from New York,Starman (1984), They Live (1988), John Carpenter Presents Body Bags (1993) and Village of the Damned (1995), as well as non-Carpenter horror such as Wes Craven Presents Wishmaster (1997). The great John Houseman of The Paper Chase opened the picture in stylish fashion as a crusty old sailor recounting a haunting ghost story around a campfire at midnight.
The Fog was John Carpenter's tribute to the E.C. Comics of the 1950s (an inspiration also for fellow horror director George A. Romero's and writer Stephen King's Creepshow in 1981). The ghost story of The Fog was frightening and wonderfully conceived, and just as Halloween had done with slashers, The Fog initiated a slew of new “ghost” stories on the silver screen, including Peter Medak's The Changeling (1981), Peter Straub's Ghost Story (1981) and Sidney Furie's The Entity (1983).
Like his Halloween script, John Carpenter's teleplay for The Fog was also packed with delightful in-jokes. Characters were named “O'Bannon” after Carpenter's Dark Star collaborator, “Nick Castle” after the Dark Star camera assistant (who also played the masked Michael Myers in Halloween), and even “Kobritz” after the producer who had given Carpenter so much creative lee way on Someone's Watching Me!
Lending immeasurably to the eerie look of The Fog, Carpenter and Hill opted to shoot at an isolated, century-old lighthouse at Point Reyes in beautiful Marin County. The picturesque lighthouse could only be reached by a tremendous staircase carved into the side of the mountain. The 640 steps seemed to stretch on forever, and one of the many atmospheric moments in the film saw an isolated Barbeau traversing the neverending staircase alone as fierce winds whipped all about her. Other fine moments included a poltergeist disturbance at midnight in the scenic Marin County town Antonio Bay, and a night scene involving a haunted clipper ship, the Elizabeth Dane.
The look of “the fog” was engineered by Dick Albain, Jr., of L.A. Special Effects Film and A&A effects. With the help of dry ice vapors, fog filters, optical tricks, and a naturally foggy locale, the malevolent fog was able to move convincingly across the landscape, claiming victim after victim in stylish and suspenseful fashion.
The Fog opened in early 1980 to rave reviews. Tom Allen of The Village Voice, the critic who had championed Halloween, called it “classy looking,” while Bruce Williamson of Playboy referred to it as “edge-of-your seat terror.” The horror picture opened in a relatively dry season, facing competition only from forgettable fare like Hero at Large starring Three's Company star John Ritter, Foxes starring Jodie Foster and directed by Adrian Lyne, and Marshall Brickman's Simon. Not surprisingly, the film made a financial killing.
Despite the positive reviews and the financial success at its release, The Fog later fell prey to much critical second-guessing in what might be termed the first anti-Carpenter backlash. Since The Fog remains one of the best and most stylish ghost stories ever put to film, the perception that The Fog failed in some way is difficult to understand. In the late '80s, for instance, an interviewer once asserted to star Janet Leigh that The Fog was a very “slick and good-looking film,” but one that really didn't come off well. Rather than echo the reporter's own perception, Leigh replied diplomatically:
I too thought it was done well. … The special effects came across and everything; maybe it was just a little too farfetched. Halloween had a more understandable, basic kind of menace, whereas in The Fog, they were really reaching.16
What John Carpenter had been reaching for, of course, was another fascinating but faceless representation of evil. If The Fog, failed to connect with some viewers, it is, as Janet Leigh suggests, because people were not ready to accept a more intellectual style of horror than that of the knife-wielding psycho popularized by Halloween. Still, John Carpenter was not dissuaded from his goals, and many years later he would try again to create an intellectual brand of horror with the unique In the Mouth of Madness (1994). Sadly, his efforts on that account failed both with the critics and at the box office. Though currently out of critical favor, The Fog remains a beautifully done film that deserves to be remembered as one of Carpenter's best and most unusual features.
TAKING A BITE OUT OF THE BIG APPLE: ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK
After The Fog cleaned up at the box office, John Carpenter was eager to shift to his dream project. Back in the mid-1970s he had written a script for a movie called Escape from New York City. It was a futuristic yarn about a hero turned convict (shades of Napoleon Wilson in Assault on Precinct 13) assigned to rescue a kidnapped American president from the island of Manhattan, which in the 1990s had been transformed into a maximum security prison. Below, Carpenter describes his inspiration for this bizarre futuristic adventure story:
I wrote Escape from New York way back in 1974; I believe I was inspired by the movie Death Wish, that was very popular at the time. I didn't agree with the philosophy of it, taking the law into one's own hands, but the film came across with the sense of New York as a kind of jungle, and I wanted to make an SF film along those lines.17
Also critical to the shaping of the story was the talent of co-writer Nick Castle, a friend of Carpenter's from U.S.C. and the actor who had played Michael Myers in the first Halloween picture. Castle took Carpenter's grim action-adventure, a reaction originally to the era of Watergate, and added what Carpenter later referred to as a “skewed” sense of humor. Thus the story's hero encountered not just thugs and convicts, but crooks singing a Broadway musical. (After Castle's contributions to Escape from New York, he went on to direct The Last Starfighter in 1983.)
Avco-Embassy, aware of John Carpenter's record for transforming low budgets into huge profits and thrilled with the success of The Fog, greenlighted a budget of ＄7 million for the film. With his largest budget yet, Carpenter and partner Debra Hill embarked on the creation of the pessimistic, fascist world of 1997. Although Avco-Embassy wanted either Charles Bronson or Clint Eastwood as anti-hero Snake Plissken, Carpenter prevailed in his desire to see Elvis star Kurt Russell essay the important part. His perseverance paid off, and Escape from New York was the first action picture to headline Kurt Russell.
After working for John Carpenter again in The Thing and Big Trouble in Little China, Russell would become a mainstream action star in Hollywood, appearing in films such as Tango and Cash (1989), Stargate (1994), Executive Decision (1996), Breakdown (1997) and Soldier (1998). For all intents and purposes, Escape from New York was really Russell's big break. Before working on the film, Russell turned down the opportunity to star in Dino De Laurentiis's remake of Flash Gordon (1980). That role instead went to Sam J. Jones, but Russell made the right decision, and was grateful to Carpenter for standing by him during the casting process. Just as John Wayne and Howard Hawks had forged a very close actor-director rapport through the '50s, '60s and early '70s, so did Kurt Russell and John Carpenter begin to explore a similar relationship in the '80s. For his part, Russell knew he was in the hands of a master:
I'd be not only contented but honored to work with John on as many more films as possible. Apart from being a really nice guy and, I feel, a very good friend … he's also very talented. To me that's the best of both worlds. I've seen lots of movies, and I think he's on top of the hill. He's fearless, he's got a great visual sense, and he's got a wonderful imagination.18
Another long-time John Carpenter fan and performer, Donald Pleasence, also returned to the States to play in Escape from New York after appearing in a dreadful low-budget Superman knock-off entitled The Pumaman (1980). This time, however, Pleasence was cast against type, playing an American president. Pleasence characterized his character as the unholy union of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.
The larger budget of Escape from New York also made available to John Carpenter a cast of well-known character actors. Ernest Borgnine (The Devil's Rain , The Black Hole , Deadly Blessing ), Harry Dean Stanton (Alien ), music legend Isaac Hayes, and Carpenter's childhood hero from It Conquered the World, Lee Van Cleef, were welcomed aboard. Also returning from the Carpenter repertory company were George “Buck” Flower, Adrienne Barbeau, Tom Atkins, and Charles Cyphers.
Behind the scenes, Dean Cundey was back to lens the film, and Carpenter selected Joe Alves (Night Gallery,Jaws , Close Encounters of the Third Kind , Jaws III ) as his production designer. Carpenter was especially thrilled to work with Alves when he learned that the artist had animated the infamous “Monster from the Id” sequence of Disney's Forbidden Planet, another of his favorite childhood films.
The most difficult task for Alves and director Carpenter on Escape from New York was to find a city that could double for the Big Apple. New York itself was out of the question for the shoot, because it was too expensive to film there. Alves and Carpenter embarked on a trek across the country to find the right city, and they eventually settled on St. Louis. Alves explained to Starlog why St. Louis proved to be such a good double for New York City:
Around the turn of the century, New York City and St. Louis were very much the same. … New York began to change radically in the 1930s, but St. Louis has kept many of the old qualities. … John and I … came here [St. Louis] to inspect a bridge and started walking the streets; we looked around at the old buildings and thought they were fantastic. These were structures that exist in NY now, and have that seedy run-down quality that we're looking for.19
Also noteworthy in the Escape from New York crew was an unknown matte-painter who would one day become an Academy Award winning director: James Cameron. A young Cameron (Galaxy of Terror ) was in charge of painting a glass matte that would double for a decaying Central Park near the film's finale. Of course, Cameron, like John Carpenter, later became a genre icon, directing such notable films as The Terminator (1984), Aliens (1986), The Abyss (1989), and Terminator 2 (1991), not to mention his nongenre megahits such as True Lies (with Jamie Lee Curtis) and the unsinkable Titanic (1997).
With its cast, crew and locations settled, John Carpenter started principal photography on a film that was Avco-Embassy's most expensive and complex production in years. The Escape from New York shoot lasted two and a half months and stretched through a hot, humid summer. Making it even more taxing, virtually all of Escape from New York was a night shoot, with shooting “days” lasting from 9:00 P.M. all the way through 7:00 A.M. It was an exhausting schedule, but as was typical for Carpenter, he brought the film in on time and on budget. Outside St. Louis, additional footage was lensed in Atlanta at the Metro Atlanta Rapid Transit System, although the scene at the subway was eventually cut from the film. Finally, there was a brief location shoot conducted on Liberty Island off of Manhattan, so Carpenter could work the Statue of Liberty into his action flick.
Escape from New York premiered in the summer of 1981 against such blockbusters as Steven Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), and it more than held its own against the competition. In fact, Escape was another monster hit, earning Avco-Embassy more than ＄50 million. On an investment of ＄7 million, that huge revenue was terrific news for all involved. As the icing on the cake, the film garnered great notices, with critics engaged by the unusual premise and the clever New York jibes, as well as by the film noir style and production values. Escape from New York was John Carpenter's third block-buster in a row, and the director was rapidly becoming known to everyone as one of the hottest and best directors around.
THE NIGHTMARE ISN'T OVER: HALLOWEEN II
Next up for John Carpenter was a film that for him represented more of a business transaction than a creative endeavor: Halloween II. Neither John Carpenter nor Debra Hill had expressed any real interest in creating a sequel to their 1978 stalker film, but financiers Moustapha Akkad and Irwin Yablans understood that a Halloween sequel could be very profitable. When faced with the possibility that the film was going to be made with or without them, Carpenter and Hill elected to write the sequel so it would have at least a chance of being a good film. Also, John Carpenter has readily admitted that one motive for doing a sequel to Halloween was financial. He and Debra Hill had not shared in the original film's enormous profits, and Halloween II was an opportunity for re-negotiation, and a piece of the franchise's box office pie.
So Carpenter and Hill agreed to produce Halloween II as well, overseeing the production and assuring that it met their high standards for quality. The film's story would take place on the same Halloween night as the first film (October 31, 1978), and it would feature Myers's ongoing attempts to kill Laurie Strode, who is revealed in the course of the picture to be his younger sister. To recreate the distinctive look of the already classic Halloween, director of photography Dean Cundey returned to the camp along with stars Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasence, and Charles Cyphers. In one incredibly well-done moment of continuity, Nancy Loomis even appeared in the Halloween sequel—as a corpse. Directing Halloween II in Carpenter's stead was a young new director, Rick Rosenthal (Darkroom ), who put the cast through its paces in Pasadena. Dick Warlock replaced Nick Castle as Michael Myers (known now and forever as “the Shape”) and shooting for the most part was uneventful and easy.
However, when Rosenthal delivered his final cut of Halloween II, John Carpenter was not at all pleased with what he saw. He felt the film was neither suspenseful nor scary, and a controversy soon erupted. Additional shots of intense gore were shot to buttress the film's box office potential. Rick Rosenthal claimed that the gore only ruined his vision, and that it made the film a target for critics who had grown tired of the “inventive” murders of films like Friday the 13th (1980) and Prom Night. Carpenter, who admits to “fixing” a film which he once described as “about as frightening as an episode of Quincy,” asserts that he did not shoot any additional gore, and that Rosenthal's cut was gory, but not scary.
Regardless of the specifics of the case, it was obvious upon release that Halloween II was not the great film its predecessor was. However, it was not at all the terrible sequel that some pundits have suggested. In fact, it is better than all the Friday the 13th films, which is something, at least. Reaction to Halloween II also depends heavily on which version a person sees. In the television version, there are altered sequences, particularly the ending of the film which sees Laurie's paramedic boyfriend (actor Lance Guest of The Last Starfighter ) survive the massacre.
Despite all the controversy, Halloween II opened well against Michael Crichton's Looker, Mommie Dearest and Neil Simon's Only When I Laugh in the final week of October 1981. The film generated more than enough money for the producers to greenlight a further sequel: 1982's [Halloween III: Season of the Witch]. And many critics, perhaps ashamed of missing the boat on Halloween in 1978, were even quick to praise the sequel as a worthy heir to Carpenter's classic.
After Halloween II, Rick Rosenthal went on to direct episodes of television programs such as Life Goes On (1987), Early Edition (1996) and Dellaventura (1997). He also directed another sequel to a horror classic, Birds II: Land's End (as Alan Smithee).
THE PLAY'S THE THING
John Carpenter's next directing assignment after Escape from New York resulted in a movie that forever changed the tenor of his career. Although he had toyed with many projects since completion of The Fog and Escape from New York, John Carpenter signed on with Universal Studios to helm a remake of the Howard Hawks horror-science fiction classic, The Thing from Another World (1951). The Texas Chainsaw Massacre director Tobe Hooper and his Massacre writer Kim Henkel had been ensconced on the project first, but the duo left after being unable to create a script with a satisfying and unique monster. When John Carpenter became connected with The Thing, he surprisingly opted not to remake the Hawks picture he so revered, but rather to reshoot the original short story, “Who Goes There,” written by John W. Campbell, Jr. (as Don Stuart) in the 1940s:
I'm only doing it because of the story. Hawks didn't do the story, and nobody else has either. If I had to remake it just in terms of the movie I wouldn't dare because it's so well done it wouldn't be worth it. But there's this element of the story which is so fine and interesting and unique, and that's what I'm going to concentrate on.20
Howard Hawks's 1951 version (starring Kenneth Tobey, James Arness, Margaret Sheridan and Robert Cornthwaite and directed by Christian Nyby) concerned the staff of a U.S. Arctic base who excavated a crashed flying saucer from the ice and then encountered a deadly alien “thing,” a living humanoid “vegetable” that fed off the blood of humans and was intent on breeding. By contrast, John W. Campbell's source material was about an Antarctic team that encountered a deadly, malevolent alien capable of changing shapes and, by absorption, assuming the identities of human team members. Thus Who Goes There was not just the title of the novella, it was the central issue of the chilling story. None of the characters could be sure who was the alien, and so the short story took on the eerie and demented air of a paranoid nightmare. Today, “Who Goes There” is considered to be the inspiration not just for both versions of The Thing, but for Invasion of the Body Snatchers (another story wherein people's identities are absorbed by aliens) and Alien (with the alien hiding inside people's bellies).
What appealed to John Carpenter about The Thing was the chance to make a horror film about issues of trust, as well as the occasion to dramatize a formless, insidious evil. Carpenter had been a fan of monster movies like Gorgo (1961) since childhood, and this was his opportunity to make perhaps the ultimate monster film. He was inspired to do so by the work of 22-year-old Rob Bottin, a talented special effects guru who assured Carpenter that in 1982, unlike in 1951, it was possible to believably portray a shape-shifting alien monstrosity. As Carpenter told Steve Swires, a reporter for Starlog:
Rob's concept was that the “thing” could do anything. It doesn't look like any one particular entity, and has no respect for what it imitates. It can look like a million life-forms from a million different planets. … That gave me the opportunity to do things that have never been done in a movie, because there's been no excuse to do them before. The audience isn't going to expect this … they'll never be ahead of us.21
To write the film, Bill Lancaster, author of The Bad News Bears, was selected. Before and after The Thing premiered, Lancaster was lambasted by the science fiction community for his script, and many prominent “authorities” vocally wondered how the writer of The Bad News Bears could possibly have been selected to rewrite a classic genre film. Of course, everyone who has worked in Hollywood realizes that there are times when one accepts assignments on sub-par material. After all, James Cameron directed Piranha II: The Spawning (1985), Wes Craven began his film career in the New York 1970s porno industry, and so forth. It was unfair of the critical community to lambaste Lancaster because he had worked on a kids' movie (which was a hit, after all). In fact, Lancaster wrote a brilliant script for John Carpenter's The Thing, and he was extraordinarily faithful to the details of the Campbell story not just in the recreation of scenes like “the blood test” and the names of characters, but in Campbell's intent to create an atmosphere of paranoia as well. Bill Lancaster did add considerable action and carnage to the project, but such was necessary for an audience weaned on Star Wars,Halloween and Alien.
John Carpenter and Bill Lancaster met half a dozen times in preproduction to iron out the details of the The Thing script, and the collaboration was a very positive one. Lancaster wrote the first 40 pages of the script, which John Carpenter loved, and then he went back to finish it up on his own.22The Thing was the first film directed by John Carpenter that he did not write himself, but that was fine with the director. He was just as happy visualizing another's work.
Universal's The Thing was budgeted at ＄10 million, and the film ended up being the most difficult shoot of John Carpenter's career. Many of the film exteriors were shot in Stewart, British Columbia, a small mining town accessible to the film crew only by a 27 mile dirt road. It was there, on the side of a huge glacier, that the American Antarctic base was constructed. (So believable was this installation that stock footage of it was utilized in the first season X-Files episode “Ice.”) The interiors of the base were shot entirely on the Universal Studios lot in Los Angeles, but it was necessary to refrigerate the shooting stages so that the breath of the actors could be seen on film. To create this effect, the stages were brought down to a temperature of 40 degrees in the heat of the summer.
Special effects presented incredible difficulties, and Bottin led a crew of 35 artists and technicians, each one responsible for the care and feeding of the Thing. Because most of these special effects were tricks that had never even been attempted, let alone captured on film, John Carpenter and his team shot for 14 hours a day, seven days a week for weeks on end in 1982. As Carpenter remembers it, the special effects sequences, which added up to ＄1.5 million of the ＄10 million budget, were the most grueling element of his ultimate monster movie:
They go on-and-on-and-on-and-on-and-on-and-on. … You do one shot in a day, or two shots in a day. They are a pain in the neck if you try to do 'em in the first unit, and try to do 'em all at the same time.23
Still, Carpenter and his team persevered through over a hundred complex special effects set-ups with the assistance of exquisitely detailed storyboards from Marvel Comics illustrator Michael Ploog (Planet of the Apes), art director John Lloyd, and Carpenter's reliable director of photography, Dean Cundey, who labored on The Thing for 13 months and even shot special effects insert shots when necessary. Despite the multiple hardships, production of The Thing remained a highly creative and inventive time for both Carpenter and Cundey. Though stretched to the point of exhaustion, both men did the best work of their careers on the picture.
Dean Cundey recalled how his own input helped to make the final film an unforgettable cinematic exercise in white-knuckle horror and nearly unbearable paranoia:
I suggested putting ceilings on all the sets and bringing the pipes into the frame line, to increase the claustrophobia. … I suggested using practical lights to make it look realistic, so we lit whole scenes with just the flares the actors carried. … We ended up using color selectively, with the ‘thing’ … the most colorful object. … We painted the … Arctic station in shades of gray. … Even the wardrobe was coordinated to be in somber colors of dark blue, gray and brown.24
These decisions ended up giving The Thing an almost documentary-style texture throughout its 100 minute running time. The film was also very realistic in art design and execution, and Carpenter opted for believability and restraint over flashy camerawork. His work in The Thing was smooth and efficient, but not showy. Since he was dealing with a rather fantastic alien creature, Carpenter's decision to infuse the film with a kind of “you are there” feeling, from actors' performances to mise en scène, dramatically increased the realism of the entire venture.
Although Howard Hawks had told his version of The Thing with overlapping, rather theatrical dialogue, Carpenter applied a different tenet to his masterpiece. All the actors, from Kurt Russell in the lead to actors Keith David, Donald Moffatt and Wilford Brimley (who filled in for Carpenter veteran Donald Pleasence when the British thespian became unavailable), were understated in their approach. They were “real” people, dealing with every nuance of human behavior, from long stretches of boredom to instants of intense fear and anxiety.
But because “the thing” was to be such a horrible creature, literally erupting and bursting out of human flesh throughout the picture, John Carpenter and his technicians knew that they had to stray into the terrain of the unbelievable if they were to avoid the dreaded X rating from the MPAA. Special effects architect Rob Bottin understood that he could not use “human” flesh tones and torrents of blood in the picture, for fear that audiences would run vomiting from auditoriums, and so instead he concentrated on making the alien's internal physiology more withdrawn from the audience's everyday reality:
I thought, “This movie could be really terrible to watch”; I mean, not only are there five transformations … it couldn't help but be bloody. … I suggested we play it more fantasy. In other words, when something bursts open, or changes, the insides don't look like they really should. So, we ended up using these wild colors. Blood makes you turn away, almost as a reflex, but the colors sort of draw your attention.25
Everybody involved had high hopes for The Thing. It boasted a terrific look, the most frightening monster in film history, a pulse-pounding soundtrack from Ennio Morricone, an overall air of believability courtesy of Carpenter's restrained direction, and a sympathetic, attractive lead in Kurt Russell. Astonishingly, the film bombed upon its release in the summer of 1982. Facing cutthroat competition from Steven Spielberg's E.T., Nick Meyer's Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Tobe Hooper's Poltergeist, Clint Eastwood's Firefox, and Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, the progressive Carpenter film quickly disappeared from theaters. After three full weeks, The Thing had grossed only ＄13.8 million. With a budget of ＄10 million (not counting advertising costs), that tally was more deadly than the creature dramatized in the film. For the first time in his illustrious career, John Carpenter was riding a box office bomb. Worse than that, critics responded not just negatively, but hatefully. From Siskel and Ebert to Newsweek and Time,The Thing was trashed by critics as a pointless gore-fest. Science fiction critics, who should have known better, were equally caustic. Harlan Ellison called the film “dreck,” and writing for Starlog, Alan Spencer reported that John Carpenter was more suited to directing “traffic accidents, train wrecks and public floggings” than science fiction films.
The Thing's critical and box office reception remains bewildering. The film is a successful horror picture not only because it masterfully depicts a new kind of alien threat (above and beyond anything seen in Alien) and spins an engrossing web of paranoia, but because it makes audiences acutely aware of how fragile the human body really is. At the core of The Thing is fear and loathing of the flesh and an awareness of its true vulnerability. Like some kind of sick cancer or tumor, the malevolent alien in The Thing twists and boils human flesh, corrupting the very thing that is our contact with the world outside ourselves.
One gets the feeling from reading the reviews of The Thing that critics had been waiting for a very long time to take their potshots at the wunderkind, John Carpenter. Ahead of its time by at least fifteen years, The Thing gave them that opportunity. They wanted to take John Carpenter, a critical and box office sensation for five years running, down a notch or two, and so they did. Additionally, bad timing surely played a part in the film's poor reception. Audiences around the country were busy loving the story of that cute alien, E.T., and The Thing, which espoused an opposite and rather frightening philosophy about life on other planets, was not welcomed in the slightest. So strong was the backlash against The Thing that even cast member Wilford Brimley came out and said that it “stunk.”26 Although it is within any person's rights not to like or enjoy The Thing as cinema, it seems beyond the pale for so many critics to attack John Carpenter personally for the film, and sadly, that is exactly what happened after the release of The Thing.
I was called a “pornographer of violence.” I had no idea it would be received that way. I knew what a great film I had made. … The Thing was just too strong for that time. I knew it was going to be strong, but I didn't think it would be too strong. I made it as strong as I thought it should be.27
Though Carpenter was the target of vitriolic commentary on all sides, something surprising began to happen as the 1980s slipped by. People began to defend The Thing—loudly in many cases. Peter Nicholls, editor of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, named John Carpenter's The Thing as one of the top ten science fiction films of all time. Acclaimed author Alan Dean Foster noted that John W. Campbell himself would have loved the remake because Carpenter went back and filmed his story faithfully, rather than attempting to duplicate the story and effects of the Hawks film.28
Then, in 1991, Terminator 2: Judgment Day premiered, featuring a shape-shifting automaton from the future. The CGI transformations of the T-100 were highly reminiscent of (though less visceral than) those seen in The Thing, and the shape-shifter's death scene was almost identical. Dying, the T-100 began to assume all the shapes it had assumed during the course of the film, just as the final appearance of the Thing was a combination of dog, human and alien when Kurt Russell blew it to pieces.
The tide really turned in the 1992 when a comic book continuation of The Thing was written by Chuck Pfarrer and published by Dark Horse Comics.29 The adaptation picked up at the conclusion of the Carpenter film, and featured all new adventures with hero MacReady and the nightmare monster from Carpenter's film. Then, in a first season X-Files story called “Ice,” John Carpenter's The Thing was referenced not just with stock footage of the base constructed for the film, but thematically as well. The story involved an Arctic team who had drilled deep into the ice and pulled up a prehistoric but extra-terrestrial life-form that invaded the human bloodstream. As the people of the base became infected, their identities were altered by the entity. “We're not who we are,” one paranoid researcher realized, echoing the “Who Goes There” plotline in surprising detail.
And, in 1995, the television series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (“The Adversary,” “Way of the Warrior”) went where John Carpenter had gone before by introducing a “new” enemy: a race of alien shapeshifters (like The Thing) who could only be detected through, you guessed it, blood tests. So while Carpenter's The Thing was reviled in the Reagan era, it was ground zero for a new generation of science fiction productions in the 1990s.
Still, for John Carpenter all the attention and backtracking must seem like too little too late. After The Thing was booed off screens by audiences and critics alike, he was probably the one feeling paranoid. Carpenter's career path forever changed at this point: He had gone from being genre filmmaking's golden boy to its whipping boy in just one year.
Kurt Russell, who also weathered some nasty attacks after the release of The Thing, was one of the few commentators who really understood how relevant and important a film The Thing was:
In terms of the human condition, it certainly has a recognizable theme. People today are experiencing … paranoia in their daily lives. You read a headline about a murder and, the next day, you begin looking at the person walking next to you a bit more carefully. This movie takes that underlying feeling and lets it grow.30
It is no coincidence that as the '80s progressed, and the paranoia about “random violence” grew in the United States, the critical estimation of The Thing also improved. Perhaps one day it will be recognized as not only the best science fiction film of 1982 (a field which includes the revered Ridley Scott feature Blade Runner and E.T.), but perhaps the best and, in the long run, most influential science fiction and horror film of the entire decade.
Today, John Carpenter counts The Thing as his best film, and hopes for the opportunity to some day prepare a sequel.
HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH: SOMETHING OLD, SOMETHING NEW
In the year 1982 also saw the release of the third installment in the ongoing Halloween franchise. John Carpenter and Debra Hill produced the second sequel, which they had decided early on would send the film series in a bold new direction. Carpenter and Hill both felt that the slasher formula had been done to death (so to speak), and that it was better to move the Halloween series into an exploration of other horror stories, all of which would revolve around the “trick or treat” aspects of Halloween night.
The new Halloween, ultimately titled Season of the Witch, started off promisingly when John Carpenter enlisted a seasoned science fiction writer to pen the screenplay. While on a trip to England to discuss horror and sci-fi on a BBC program, John Carpenter had the opportunity to meet Nigel Kneale, the respected author of the BBC Quatermass TV series and films. Kneale was interested in working with Carpenter, and so he began to toil away on a screenplay for Halloween III.
He penned a script that was a sort of high-tech, high-concept combination of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), The Stepford Wives (1975) and Village of the Damned (1960). His script was ambitious and determinedly different from the previous Halloween “Michael Myers” concept. Unfortunately, the money end of Halloween III did not like what was happening. Kneale later explained the situation in an interview:
I got drawn into writing Halloween III for John Carpenter. … I wrote an original, large-scale screenplay with a lot black humor in it debunking sentimental “Irishry.” … The front office … demanded that Halloween III should be exactly the same as Halloween I and [Halloween II]. … So my screenplay was cut down to B-picture size, and had eye-gougings and electric-drillings added. … It bore no resemblance to what I had written.31
What happened was that the backers of Halloween III became worried when they realized that the latest installment would diverge from the popular (and profitable) formula. They did not want a science fiction scenario with humor and intelligence; they wanted a horror flick with lots of violence and gore—elements that had made money in the Halloween series before. Kneale left the project in disgust, and Tommy Lee Wallace, frequent Carpenter contributor and writer of Amityville II: The Possession (1982), fashioned his own screenplay based on Kneale's work. He was then given the assignment of directing the film.
Halloween series stars Jamie Lee Curtis and Donald Pleasence were not involved in the second sequel, and Tom Atkins, star of The Fog and later Night of the Creeps (1986), took center stage. Instead of the faceless evil of Michael Myers, Dan O'Herlihy (The Last Starfighter , RoboCop ) played Conal Cochran, the technology-minded warlock of the film. Lensed by Dean Cundey, the film retained the creepy nighttime look that distinguished the earlier Halloween pictures. Unfortunately, however, Cundey and Carpenter had an undisclosed problem on the set of Halloween III that resulted in the duo not working together again until 1986 and Big Trouble in Little China. Still, all was not lost. With Carpenter and frequent co-composer Alan Howarth doing the music for the film, [Halloween III: Season of the Witch] not only looked, but also sounded very much like the first two franchise pictures.
Halloween III: Season of the Witch premiered near Halloween, 1982, and it was a dismal failure at the box office, satisfying neither critics nor audiences. The die-hard series fans missed Michael Myers, Jamie Lee Curtis and Donald Pleasence (whose character had died at the end of Halloween II), and in the final analysis the film was not very good, despite a solid performance by Atkins and an interesting central concept. Tommy Lee Wallace did a fine job directing the picture, mimicking Carpenter's use of foreground “jolts” in his compositions to a high degree, but it was hard to reconcile the intellectual sci-fi nature of the premise (technology and superstition blend in modern witchcraft) with the very graphic, very gory murders. An attempt to do something noble and different, Halloween III ended up a hodgepodge of ideas that did not really fit together well. The weak nature of the sequel resulted in the collapse of the Halloween film series. Another sequel was not prepared for six years, until 1988's The Return of Michael Myers. As the title indicates, that film chose not to be a meditation on the Halloween ethos, but rather an extension of the first two Halloween pictures.
Exhausted by the rigors of maintaining a franchise he had no real interest in perpetuating, John Carpenter departed the Halloween universe after Season of the Witch, and never looked back. Tommy Lee Wallace continued to work in the horror genre, directing Twilight Zone revival episodes in 1985, Fright Night II in 1989, and the TV miniseries It (based on Stephen King's novel) in 1990.
Following the disastrous reception to The Thing, John Carpenter was left to reassess his career and his filmmaking skill. This difficult period of introspection led him to accept a job as a director on the only film of his career which he maintains he did as a hired gun, purely for the money: Christine (1983).
Stephen King's novel about a 1958 Chevrolet Fury haunted by the spirit of a deceased owner was delivered in manuscript form to producer Richard Kobritz (of Someone's Watching Me!) in the summer of 1982 by America's favorite horror author. Interested in adapting the property to film, Kobritz took the Christine manuscript to Mark Tarlov of Polar Film, and together they made a bid on the material.32 The bid was accepted, and Kobritz selected a director for the project: his old friend Carpenter, who quickly agreed to take his shot at adapting Stephen King.
As Stephen King's novel hit the market to record sales, principal photography on the ＄10 million film began in earnest on April 15, 1983. The shoot lasted for five weeks; twenty-three 1958 Furies were purchased (and destroyed) by the film crew to simulate the villainous moves of the haunted Christine, and a highlight of the shoot involved the blowing up of a full-scale gas-station mock-up near Valencia, California, with special effects accomplished by Roy Arbogast.
Although John Carpenter always liked to work with his repertory company in front of and behind the scenes, Christine represented a bit of a departure for him since Dean Cundey did not shoot the picture. Filling in was cinematographer Donald M. Morgan. The cast was also filled with new talents, with Harry Dean Stanton (Escape from New York) being the only familiar face. In the lead role of Arnie Cunningham was Keith Gordon of Dressed to Kill. The hero of the film was played by John Stockwell (My Science Project , Stag ), and the beautiful Leigh was essayed by Alexandra Paul, later a star of Baywatch. In the character role of Darnell was Robert Prosky of The Keep (1983) and Gremlins 2 (1990).
John Carpenter also wrote the musical score for Christine and peppered the King adaptation with his favorite rock ‘n’ roll and bebop music from the late '50s and early '60s. Songs such as Bad to the Bone and Keep a Knockin' were expertly used in the motion picture to sometimes humorous, sometimes menacing, effect. Overall, Christine revealed a more humorous side of Carpenter, and many scenes involving the interplay among the teen stars were dynamic, interesting and realistic. Also of real dramatic impact was the opening “flashback” to Christine's manufacture in a Detroit assembly line. Shot on Fuji film stock to give it the appearance of being old, the scene graphically depicted how Christine was bad from birth.
Because of the negative reception of The Thing, John Carpenter did not speak to the press during or after the shooting of Christine. He hoped that the work he did would be judged for itself, rather than as an opportunity to take personal potshots at him.
Despite the press blackout, Christine opened to good reviews throughout the country, with many critics noting John Carpenter's satiric and humorous touches. Christine was a light film to be sure, but Carpenter carried it off with distinction, style, and wit, and the critics acknowledged the finer touches. Audiences also liked the picture, though it was only a moderate success in the final analysis, competing with other King adaptations The Dead Zone and Cujo. Despite the nice reception, John Carpenter considered Christine distinctly unscary, and today counts it as his worst film.
As far as Stephen King adaptations go, Christine is probably somewhere in the top third of a very large pack (at this point over 36 films and mini-series). While perhaps not as good as Carrie,The Dead Zone (1981), Misery (1990) or The Shining (1980), it is undeniably better, funnier, and a lot more stylish than most of the King film adaptations that have come down the pike (including Firestarter , Maximum Overdrive , Silver Bullet , The Dark Half , Graveyard Shift , Sleepwalkers , The Mangler , and Thinner ).
AIMING FOR HEAVEN: STARMAN
Although Christine had been only a mild success, John Carpenter found himself at the helm of a large-budget science fiction adventure in 1984. Originally written by Bruce A. Evans and Raynold Gideon, Starman had been a troubled project for several years when Carpenter arrived. Columbia Pictures had originally turned down Steven Spielberg's E.T. to do the picture, but then abruptly shelved Starman after E.T. made a killing, fearing that the two projects were too similar in tone and story. Still, executive producer Michael Douglas (Romancing the Stone , Black Rain , The Game ) was determined to make the movie. After several writers took a shot at rewriting the screenplay, and directing luminaries such as Tony Scott, John Badham, Adrian Lyne and Mark Rydell came and went, John Carpenter, at age 36, committed to the picture.
A new draft by Hollywood script doctor Dean Riesner (Play Misty for Me) proved to be just the story Carpenter was looking for. The tale of a Christ-like alien who has but three days to learn about humanity before ascending to the Heavens, Starman was a more intimate and personal effort than most of Carpenter's earlier film work. It was also appealing to Carpenter, ever the film buff, because it was something of a genre buster, artfully combining Frank Capra's road picture It Happened One Night (1934) with Robert Wise's science fiction masterpiece, The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). Although Carpenter had been pigeonholed as a horror genre director by 1984, he was still able to make the movies he wanted to make by turning action pictures into modern westerns (Assault on Precinct 13) and science fiction blockbusters into comedy-romances (Starman).
As John Carpenter began to assemble his team—including Joe Alves (Escape from New York), Daniel Lomino, Roy Arbogast, Donald Morgan (Christine) and producer Larry Franco—authorship of the Starman screenplay became a bone of contention. Though Carpenter planned to shoot the revised draft by Dean Riesner, the Writer's Guild determined that writers Evans and Gideon, associate producers on the project, should receive sole screenplay credit. Miffed, Carpenter acknowledged Riesner's contributions to Starman by adding the line “For Dean Riesner” in the film's closing credits.
Working with a budget of ＄23 million, Carpenter's largest budget yet (more than twice the budget of The Thing), Carpenter spent much of the shooting schedule in Tennessee, location of the Starman's crash early in the film. Because of rain and humidity there, special effects were slow in coming off, and the schedule was delayed. Overcoming these technical difficulties, Carpenter once more established his ability to direct actors in his experience with stars Jeff Bridges (King Kong , The Big Lebowksi ), Karen Allen (Raiders of the Lost Ark ), Richard Jaeckel (Black Moon Rising ) and Charles Martin Smith (Never Cry Wolf ).
Jeff Bridges's challenge was to create a fully grown, adult alien life-form that lacked experience not only with the human condition, but even the human body. The actor rehearsed with a dancer and observed the movements of his young children for weeks in preparation for his role in Starman:
For me, the toughest part of the picture was in the beginning when I get inside this fellow's body and start it up. I am not at home in this body. I don't know how it works. I had to try to imagine I was sitting inside my head operating the control center. … I worked with dancer Russell Clark to figure out the right moves.33
It may have been tough for Bridges to create this unique character, but his diligence paid off. He turned in a marvelous performance, brimming with childlike innocence and pure goodness. Bridges was rewarded with an Academy Award nomination for best actor of 1984.
His acting partner, Karen Allen, had a less flashy but equally difficult role to tackle in Starman. She was playing a tragic woman who had lost her husband in an accident. At times suicidal and depressed, Allen's character, Jenny Hayden, was forced to undergo a transformation in the film. She was caretaker, lover, teacher and example to Bridge's Starman. Predictably, the talented actress was remarkable in the role.
According to Allen, John Carpenter understood that it was the relationship of the two central characters who would make Starman a special viewing experience, and so he provided a very supportive, very open atmosphere for the performers:
Carpenter is surprisingly sensitive. He's very open-minded, very willing to listen to ideas. He uses an interesting combination of skills to direct because he clearly knows what he wants, using storyboards and all, yet he's very open to actors. He wants the actors to play a strong role in making the movie, having them help shape their own characters.34
What emerged from Starman when it opened on December 14, 1984, was pure movie magic: a beautiful science fiction romance filled with heartfelt emotion, real personalities, natural humor, and even joy. John Carpenter had never made a more “human” film, and again the critics and audiences responded with enthusiasm, making Starman a full-fledged hit. More importantly, many critics called Starman the best science fiction film of the year—no mean feat in a year crowded with 2010: The Year We Make Contact David Lynch's Dune, and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. However, many diehard fans of John Carpenter were disappointed that he had veered so far from horror territory and into what some fans term his “Spielberg” phase.
Starman was so successful that it spawned a one-season ABC TV series starring Robert Hays in 1986. Like the film before it, the television series ended up with a substantial cult following that remained enthusiastic long after the series was canceled. Still, the television series was a distortion and distillation of the film's touching love story. With Starman and son scouring the country in search of the conveniently missing Jenny Hayden (Erin Gray), the television series was more The Fugitive than genre-blending Christ parable. The series lasted for 22 episodes before fading to an afterlife on the Sci-Fi Channel.
From Starman, John Carpenter also learned a valuable lesson about himself and his image with audiences. No longer needing to second-guess himself and his perceptions, he went back on the publicity circuit and explained what he had discovered:
Columbia conducted a market survey of what my name means to an audience. The survey showed that it doesn't mean horror movie. The audience thought it means good movie, which delighted me. So there was never any thought of not doing interviews because I wanted to distance myself from the film. … Columbia wants me to talk—so here I am.35
The icing on the cake for John Carpenter after Starman was that he was named by Starlog magazine as one of the most important people in science fiction. He shared that title with such luminaries as Walt Disney, Stanley Kubrick, Gene Roddenberry, Orson Welles, Robert Wise, Roger Corman, Jim Henson, Irwin Allen, William Cameron Menzies, George Pal, Rod Serling, and Steven Spielberg. Not bad company at all.
TIME FOR AN EXPERIMENT
Also in 1984, another project with origins in John Carpenter's imagination came to fruition. A screenplay entitled The Philadelphia Experiment, originally designed to be directed by Carpenter for Avco-Embassy after Escape from New York in 1981, was developed by New World Pictures into a low-budget film. Carpenter had abandoned the project after experiencing trouble in engineering a believable climax after an intense first act build-up. His story concerned a naval experiment in 1943 that went disastrously wrong, and involved that old sci-fi convention, time travel. After The Final Countdown (1980) starring Kirk Douglas, Katharine Ross and Martin Sheen trod very much the same territory as his screenplay, Carpenter was no longer interested in directing the story. Still, The Philadelphia Experiment caught the eyes of producers Joel B. Michaels and Douglas Curtis, and they assigned Michael Janover to take a shot at the script. The screenplay was then rewritten by William Gray, with the time travel aspects of the tale becoming more prominent.
John Carpenter was given story and executive producer credit and was paid a substantial amount of cash to serve as the film's consultant, a position in which he made comments on the script. Stewart Raffill (The Ice Pirates ) directed the ＄9 million film, which starred Michael Pare (The Greatest American Hero [1980–83], Streets of Fire , Village of the Damned , Bad Moon  and Nancy Allen (Carrie,Dressed to Kill,RoboCop). The film was lensed for roughly 50 days in locations as varied as Charleston, South Carolina; Wendover, Utah; and Southern California.
Although John Carpenter did not direct the film himself, The Philadelphia Experiment proved that his name on the credits was as good as money in the bank. The Philadelphia Experiment was a hit, and it spawned a sequel nine years later, The Philadelphia Experiment II, starring Brad Johnson.
BLACK MOON RISING: FROM THE MIND OF JOHN CARPENTER …
So profitable was The Philadelphia Experiment for New World Pictures and producers Joel B. Michaels and Douglas Curtis that the studio and producers decided to produce another movie based on one of Carpenter's abandoned screenplays. In this case, they struck on his 1975 screenplay for Black Moon Rising, an action teleplay involving a high tech car thief ring. Again, Carpenter received screen credit as executive producer and a “story by” credit for his participation—which amounted to reading the script and giving his comments about it.
Harley Cokliss (Warlords of the 21st Century ) was given the nod as director of Black Moon Rising, and the picture was provided a budget of ＄3 million. Tommy Lee Jones, who had starred in another Carpenter script (Eyes of Laura Mars) back in 1978, played the protagonist, Quint, and he was joined by villain Robert Vaughn (Battle Beyond the Stars , Superman III ), and leading lady Linda Hamilton (The Terminator , King Kong Lives , Terminator 2 , Dante's Peak ). Also aboard was Starman co-star Richard Jaeckel. Handling the dangerous special effects on the long night shot for this nonunion job were Cinemotion Pictures and Max Anderson (The Philadelphia Experiment,The Ice Pirates,Altered States ).
A large percentage of Black Moon Rising's action revolved around a specially designed car which could travel faster than 300 miles an hour and ran on hydrogen, so critics were quick to compare the completed film to the Glen Larson Knight Rider television series. When it premiered in January of 1985, Black Moon Rising was advertised far and wide as being “from the mind of John Carpenter.” Despite the fact that the film was well-acted and nicely paced, it did not make much of an impact at the box office. Carpenter was nonplussed by the whole experience because the final product, though sold on his name, had very little to do with his original script.
Otherwise, 1985 was a rather unproductive year for John Carpenter in a professional sense. He still wanted to see his western El Diablo made, and Dino De Laurentiis almost produced it with star Kurt Russell in the saddle. When that deal fell apart, Carpenter worked for a time with Richard Zanuck and Dave Brown on an adaptation of Eric Van Lustbader's novel The Ninja. Carpenter left that project and then shifted to an assignment he had long been excited about: an adaptation of The Stars, My Destination by Alfred Bester. After a time, Carpenter left that project as well, unhappy with Lorenzo Semple's screenplay and producer Jack Schwartzman's intention to do a big science fiction movie on the cheap. Carpenter was also offered the opportunity to direct Tai-Pan, an adaptation of the novel by James Clavell, but he felt that the work would have entailed too much time outside of the United States. For a time, he also considered doing Chickenhawk, a story about American helicopter pilots in the Vietnam War.
For a brief period, John Carpenter was slated to direct a Dan Aykroyd comedy vehicle entitled Armed and Dangerous, but Carpenter and Aykroyd each departed the project separately, leaving the film to star Eugene Levy and director Mark Lester. Along with horror veterans Tobe Hooper and Wes Craven, John Carpenter was also invited to direct episodes of the 1985 revival of the Rod Serling television series The Twilight Zone, but John Carpenter was not a fan of short stories, and he declined the offer. He did briefly consider, however, a television movie sequel to The Fog to be written by Dennis Etchison. This interesting-sounding effort, like so many others, failed to materialize.
Undoubtedly, the best thing that came out of the year was a new addition to the Carpenter clan: John Cody Carpenter, son of John Carpenter and actress Adrienne Barbeau.
BIG TROUBLE FOR JOHN CARPENTER
Having tackled outer space (Dark Star), suspense (Halloween), action (Escape from New York), Stephen King (Christine) and even romance (Starman), John Carpenter turned his attention to another beloved genre in 1986: the kung fu movie! Carpenter had been a fan of martial arts films since he saw Enter the Dragon in 1973, and so was very excited when an opportunity arose to make his own, big-budget karate/action/magic/kung-fu adventure. He reviewed a number of Chinese films to prepare himself for the task of directing a kinetic, rollicking high-voltage motion picture:
These are Chinese films, and you must get into that genre. They are done on a different level than our movies, and they are stunning. But you must respect that difference to fully appreciate them. One picture … The Warrior from Mystic Mountain, really knocked me out. It's basically the Chinese Star Wars. It's nuts.36
The project that gave Carpenter the opportunity to realize his dream of making a martial arts film was Big Trouble in Little China, from a script by Gary Goldman and David Weinstein. In a virtual replay of the events surrounding Starman, however, it was not the original Goldman-Weinstein Old West era adventure that Carpenter eventually shot, but instead a contemporary rewrite by scribe W. D. Richter (The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension ), penned in ten weeks. Richter, a classmate of Carpenter's at U.S.C., wrote so compelling a script that Carpenter turned down the opportunity to direct the similarly themed Eddie Murphy Asian adventure, The Golden Child, even though that film, with celebrity Murphy at its center, was a guaranteed blockbuster.
Instead, John Carpenter relied on his own solid repertory star, Kurt Russell, to carry the film. Where Russell had portrayed a scowling, Clint Eastwood style of character named Snake Plissken in Escape from New York, he shifted to a sly, swaggering imitation of John Wayne as Jack Burton throughout Big Trouble in Little China. This was more perfect a role than either John Carpenter or Kurt Russell may have realized at that time because in many senses Russell had always been John Wayne to John Carpenter's Hawks.
Also in the cast were Victor Wong (Prince of Darkness , Tremors ) and Dennis Dun (The Year of the Dragon , Prince of Darkness ), both of whom would return in later Carpenter pictures. The immortal villain, Lo-Pan, was played by Blade Runner's James Hong, and the beautiful Gracie Law was played by genre favorite Kim Cattrall (Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country , Split Second ).
Big Trouble in Little China was a big film, like Starman, and its budget has been variously reported at ＄19, 20, 23 and 25 million, with ＄2 million alone devoted to special effects. After ten weeks of preproduction in which art director John Lloyd designed amazing, labyrinthine sets for the film's subterranean world, production began in October of 1985. The film was shot for 20th Century-Fox over a 15 week period, and it involved huge stunts and fights, the likes of which had not been seen before in American film. One kung fu fight in a back alley involved more than 60 players, and martial arts experts from Hong Kong, including Jim Lau, Kenny Endoso and James Lew, were flown to the set to supervise and comment on the intense action.
With Boss Films, managed by Richard Edlund (Back to the Future , Romancing the Stone ), handling the effects, Larry J. Franco producing, Carpenter and Howarth composing the musical score, and Dean Cundey back as director of photography, Big Trouble in Little China should have been a smash hit and a Carpenter renaissance. But, like The Thing, the film was not at all well received when it premiered on July 2, 1986. In fact, the big-budget film bombed, falling to such heavyweight competition as James Cameron's Aliens and David Cronenberg's The Fly, as well as Tobe Hooper's Invaders from Mars, Anthony Perkins' Psycho III, Prince's Under the Cherry Moon, Disney's The Great Mouse Detective, and Jim Henson's Labyrinth. Adding insult to injury, the critics did not like Big Trouble in Little China much either, with some even calling it a rip-off of Steven Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark.
John Carpenter was more than disappointed by the failure of his electric kung-fu movie; he was crestfallen. Big Trouble in Little China, though not a masterpiece like The Thing, was a solid piece of work. The action was terrific, the kung fu fights were awe-in-spring, and the film's steamroller pace obliterated any small inconsistencies. Even better, Kurt Russell and Kim Cattrall brought real charm to their unusual roles, and the film was brimming with tongue-in-cheek humor. Add great special effects to that mix, and Big Trouble should have clicked. But it did not, partially because of the lackluster ad campaign, which asked the audience the cryptic question “Who is Jack Burton?” Apparently, finding out the answer was not an important thing for most audiences, and viewers stayed away.
His heart broken after spending almost six years behind the front lines of the Hollywood studio system pouring his soul into genre adventures of great distinction. John Carpenter retreated. Exhausted and burned out, he took a vacation and reconsidered his life and career goals. He had once stated (in A Biographical Dictionary of Film by David Thomson) that he felt he would have been happiest in the Hollywood studio system of the '40s and '50s, making big-budget entertainments designed to appeal to a large audience. Now, Carpenter had been at the short end of that very studio system, a victim of marketing problems, executive second-guessing, and other Hollywood politics. He had seen his films, and himself, attacked by critics from all sides, and a revision of his dreams was clearly in order.
Upon introspection, Carpenter realized that the best experiences of his life had been those times in which he had been outside the studio system, making small films with complete autonomy. He remembered the fun, and the creative control, of Assault on Precinct 13 and Halloween. Making a bold decision, Carpenter stepped back from Hollywood and returned to the independent arena.
Years later, in the 1990s, Carpenter was able to reflect on his unpleasant experiences inside the Hollywood studio system with a different perspective, and eventually he even found some good amidst all the bad:
I got to do my romantic comedy with Starman. And I got to do my kung-fu movie with Big Trouble in Little China. I feel really lucky that, in the context of the horror-fantasy-sci-fi genre, I've gotten to do so many things. But when I really look at it deeply, I love those kind of movies.37
But in 1987, Carpenter had not yet found that peaceful state of mind or realization. On the contrary, he was worn out, angry, and tired of all the hassle that was required to practice his craft. That is, until a new opportunity sparked his imagination.
HOLLYWOOD'S PRINCE OF DARKNESS SIGNS A NEW DEAL
Stung by his experiences with The Thing,Christine,Starman and Big Trouble in Little China, as well as the marketing of his name on The Philadelphia Experiment and Black Moon Rising, John Carpenter in early 1987 signed a four-film package deal with Alive Films, the small company that had produced Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985) starring William Hurt and Raul Julia as well as The Whales of August (1986). Alive Film's two executive gurus, Andre Blay and Shep Gordon, wanted John Carpenter to make films for them, and Carpenter appreciated the freedom they were willing to extend to him. As he enthusiastically reported to interviewer Steve Swires:
They don't even get to read the scripts before approving the deals. I only submit basic concepts to them, in a short paragraph. For Prince of Darkness … it was something like: “The Devil is buried under a Los Angeles church, and graduate science students come to fight him.” If they approve the concept, then I deliver them a print. I can't ask for more than that.38
Because autonomy was something important to Carpenter (as it was to his hero, Howard Hawks), the Alive Films deal was perfect.
The first movie John Carpenter made under the deal was another homage, like Assault on Precinct 13, but this one was dedicated not to Hawks, but to another hero, Nigel Kneale. As a child, Carpenter had been engaged by Kneale's ability in the Quatermass film trilogy (The Creeping Unknown , Enemy from Space , Five Million Years to Earth ) to so adeptly mix science fiction, science fact, physics, the supernatural, and of course, horror. Though the same trick had been attempted unsuccessfully with 1982's Halloween III: Season of the Witch, Carpenter nonetheless engineered a script under the pseudonym Martin Quatermass that sought to carry on the tradition of the Quatermass films and Kneale's expressive writing. Early on, it was even set in the '50s to cement the association, but that conceit had to be abandoned when Carpenter realized he could spend the film's entire ＄3 million budget just on renting vintage 1950s era automobiles.39
Instead, Carpenter formulated Prince of Darkness, a contemporary story about graduate students in physics who encounter an evil life-form, the Anti-God, living under an abandoned church in run-down 1980s Los Angeles. The screenplay featured lengthy discussions about particles (and anti-particles), differential equations, and even tachyon transmissions beamed backwards in time from the future. With all of these details, Prince of Darkness emerged as Carpenter's most layered screenplay, and it was a critical step in his transition from visceral horror (Halloween) to a more intellectual, chilling horror (In the Mouth of Madness).
Prince of Darkness was not just a complex film loaded with science and Quatermass riffs, but also an AIDS allegory. For the devil in this case, the Prince of Darkness of the title, was not a humanoid creature with cloven hoof and horned head, but rather a vat of prebiotic liquid evolving into intelligent life out of chaos. It could transmit itself by “splashing” (ejaculating?) its essence into the faces and mouths of the endangered graduate students. They in turn, spread the “devil disease” through their bodily fluids and emissions. On top of that, Prince of Darkness also recalled Assault on Precinct 13 because it was, at one level anyway, a siege film about people trapped in an abandoned locale by minions of evil.
Far from the universe of big Hollywood budgets and star salaries, John Carpenter went back to relying on his tried-and-true repertory company. Donald Pleasence was back in Prince of Darkness, this time playing a Catholic priest confronting the Anti-God. He was thrilled to work with his old friend again, and he enthused about the director to Fangoria magazine:
John Carpenter is the best director I've ever worked with. One of the main reasons is his bravery. … Casting against type is what made Prince of Darkness such a lovely bit of business for me. People were … expecting me to be bad, and I ended up representing all the good in the universe.40
Also back from Big Trouble in Little China were Victor Wong and Dennis Dun. Rounding out the cast were Simon & Simon's Jameson Parker, Lisa Blount, and a new addition to the repertory company, Peter Jason. (Jason would go on to appear in Carpenter's They Live , Village of the Damned  and Escape from L.A.) Also cast in Prince of Darkness as a psychotic street person was rock icon Alice Cooper.
After seven weeks of pre-production preparations, Prince of Darkness began filming on May 18, 1987. Lensing stretched on for approximately 40 days, and the shoot, from all accounts, was a pleasant and untroubled one. With a Halloween release date planned, Carpenter and Alan Howarth composed the musical score, another pulse-pounding classic, and Steve Mirkovich (I Know What You Did Last Summer ) edited the picture. There seemed to be only one potential problem for this smooth-running production: When Prince of Darkness was completed, the MPAA nearly slapped it with an X-rating, but distributor Universal backed the picture and the MPAA softened its stance.
When Prince of Darkness premiered (with the ad line: “There is Evil. It is Real. He is Awakening”), it faced competition from Night Flyers,Suspect,and The Sicilian, but it was an immediate hit with the horror-knowledgeable. Nevertheless, despite the financial success of the low-budget production, Prince of Darkness was fodder for the critics, most of whom took the attitude that Carpenter should have evolved beyond horror at this point in his career. In addition, horror was not taken very seriously as a genre in the mid '80s because of the proliferation of genre films. Variations on Hellraiser,Nightmare on Elm Street,Friday the 13th and Child's Play seemed to be coming out every week, and Prince of Darkness was lost in the shuffle.
Today, feelings are very much mixed about Prince of Darkness. Some people find it to be a clever, intellectual horror film that asks the questions of existence, whereas others see it as a disturbing turning point, the beginning of John Carpenter's long slide into the valley of mediocrity.
In the continuum of John Carpenter films, Prince of Darkness lacks the spare, lean qualities of Halloween, the lyrical nature of The Fog, the brass balls of Assault on Precinct 13, the oddball humor of Dark Star, the sentimentality of Starman, and the relentless paranoia of The Thing. So perhaps it really is one of the director's lesser films, but that does not at mean it is not a good film in its own right. At the most basic level, it is the film Carpenter wanted to make at that juncture in his career, and it fits in with his career pattern. He had already done variations on favorites Hawks, Hitchcock and Capra, so here he did Kneale. Additionally, the film made some intriguing comments about the place of man in a world dominated by science.
Not long after Prince of Darkness, Carpenter once again found himself battling the press, who wanted to pigeonhole him as a horror-meister. He bristled at the suggestion that his image was related only to horror:
What's my image? Was Elvis, the 3-hour TV film, a grisly and gory film? … I'm just trying to do good stories. You should service your story. If your story is about fear, then, certainly, you should draw from real fears. If your story is about myth, you connect the myth to the human condition.41
Unfortunately, most critics continued to see John Carpenter as horror's main man, and they lamented the fact that he was not doing more “respectable” films, when in fact the talented director was making exactly the kind of film he loved and wanted to make. At this juncture, Carpenter also revealed that he had turned down two films he had no desire to be involved with: blockbusters Top Gun and Fatal Attraction. Those films may have been “respectable” to Hollywood, but Carpenter was not interested.
THEY LIVE, CARPENTER THRIVES
From Dark Star forward, John Carpenter has remained a symbol of subversive filmmaking. He espoused a hatred of authority in Dark Star (where there was no real captain on the ship), in Halloween (where the police and medical community were unable to stop the terror of Michael Myers), in The Fog (where a town had developed its assets by murdering lepers), in Escape from New York (where the hero was a criminal, and society was fascist), and so forth.
In 1988, John Carpenter delivered his most ambitious and well-articulated jab at authority by writing and directing the science fiction satire They Live as his second picture in the Alive Films deal. They Live suggested that the Reagan Revolution and Yuppie movement of the 1980s were actually the result of an invasion by greedy, skeletal aliens. For Carpenter, the story was designed to be a wake-up call to middle-class America, which he felt had become complacent and avaricious in the capitalist free-for-all of the Reagan presidency. To wit:
I'm disgusted by what we've become in America. I truly believe there is brain death in this country. … Everything we see is designed to sell us something. My awareness became so acute … that I couldn't even watch MTV. It's all about wanting us to buy something. The only thing they want to do is take our money.42
John Carpenter was not alone in his desire to expose the greed and conspicuous consumption of Ronald Reagan's era. Fellow director Wes Craven had also seen the same disturbing signs, and responded with productions such as Invitation to Hell (1984), which suggested that Yuppies had sold their souls to the Devil, and People under the Stairs (1991), a modern urban fairy tale about the exploitation of black Americans at the hands of demented white Republicans. So while most of America was relishing in Yuppie fantasies like The Secret of My Success and Wall Street, and critics were dismissing horror films as too violent and disturbing for the children of our culture, it took two lowly horror movie directors to make socially relevant motion pictures. Those who believed Carpenter should have moved on to more “respectable” material by 1988 should also have been pleased at the awakening social conscience at play in They Live—but of course, they did not see it that way.
They Live was John Carpenter's battle cry, and his concentrated effort to expose what he felt was one of the United States' greatest weaknesses: its overwhelming greed and the “winner” mentality.
I wanted to make some political statements, one of the biggest being that everybody is proud to be an American as long as they can make money at it. For the longest time, I wasn't quite sure how to tell the story. One way was to make it scary, but this element of humor always kept creeping into it.43
That element of humor is what made They Live entertaining, rather than merely a diatribe about the state of the country.
They Live was based on a short story by Ray Faraday Nelson entitled 8 O'Clock in the Morning, first published in the 1960s in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. The story concerned a man who woke up one day and discovered that aliens had infiltrated the human race. Carpenter tackled the adaptation of the story, adding much social commentary, under the pseudonym Frank Armitage (a character in H. P. Lovecraft's The Dunwich Horror.) Budgeted at ＄3 million, like Prince of Darkness, the film was shot for eight weeks in downtown L.A. in March and April of 1988. One of the central issues in the film was the ever-growing class of poor Americans, and the plight of the homeless. Carpenter's hero was even named “Nada,” meaning “nothing.” This was appropriate since Nada was unemployed, and therefore worthless in the eyes of America's middle class.
They Live starred wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper as Nada. Piper was a man who had absorbed 17 years' worth of bruises as a professional wrestler, and even a few bruises as an actor, showing up in lowbrow fare like Hell Comes to Frogtown (1988). Carpenter had met Nada at Wrestlemania III, and realized that he was perfect for his new film. It was a good gamble: Piper's performance in They Live came across as sincere and believable, and he projected a sort of realistic, mellow charisma that made They Live something out of the ordinary. He was supported in his dramatic efforts by Keith David of The Thing and the beautiful Meg Foster (Masters of the Universe , Leviathan ).
Director of photography Gary Kibbe captured the underside of Los Angeles in painstaking detail, and Jim Danforth, a friend from Dark Star, contributed a dozen effects cuts to They Live, including matte paintings of the alien space gate and miniature stop-motion of an alien surveillance satellite.
Distributed by Universal (again like Prince of Darkness), They Live premiered shortly before Election Day 1988, and the timing was perfect. Since Carpenter's film was political in nature, it benefited from the political atmosphere. Was George Bush an alien? Was Dan Quayle? As a result of its humor and good timing, They Live was a box office hit.
Critics were mixed about They Live, however. Some liked its cheeky political touches and humor, but others thought that Carpenter really miscalculated with his action centerpiece: a seven-and-a-half minute brawl between Keith David and Roddy Piper. This bloody brawl went on for so long that it could easily have been described as Wrestlemania IV. Carpenter included it not only because of his love of wrestling, but because he hoped to outdo the extended fight sequence in The Quiet Man.
For those inclined to see its message, however, They Live seemed a great success. It had not only oodles of style (with some sequences lensed in black and white), but some very ironic humor too. When Piper donned the sunglasses that would show the alien-controlled world as it really was, he saw how advertising was converted into alien propaganda. On dollar bills was the legend “This Is Your God.” On a billboard for a Caribbean vacation was an alien message “Marry and Reproduce.” Even better, John Carpenter staged a sequence in which Siskel & Ebert clones were unmasked as aliens just as they were complaining that the horror movies of George Romero and John Carpenter were much too violent.
Underneath the humor, They Live also had a serious message about success, and about how often people have to sell out to achieve monetary and career success. For Carpenter, this was not just a political message, but a personal one as well. He could have directed big budget extravaganzas in Hollywood for the rest of his life, but he did not sell out. Would not sell out.
They Live was a reminder to everyone that John Carpenter had not lost his touch. The picture was fast-paced and alive—qualities some felt had been lacking in the slow and rather ponderous Prince of Darkness. If They Live did not represent a return to classic Carpenter territory, it at least represented an upswing after what many people considered to be a career slump in the mid-'80s. Though it was a financial success, They Live did not make as much money as another film John Carpenter had turned down the opportunity to direct, 1988's Halloween IV: The Return of Michael Myers.
John Carpenter's other news in 1988 was not so positive. In November of that year, while They Live was playing on theater screens around the country, he and wife Adrienne Barbeau divorced after nine years of marriage. Following this break-up, John Carpenter went through what amounted to a three year down-time. His Alive Films Halloween spot in 1989 was covered by friend Wes Craven's newest horror venture, Shocker, and John Carpenter found himself serving as the author of two television westerns. This was the era of the highly successful Lonesome Dove (1989), and every television network was looking for its own western to compete in the Nielsen ratings.
The long delayed El Diablo was finally made in 1990. It starred Anthony Edwards of E.R., Louis Gossett Jr. (Enemy Mine ), John Glover (In the Mouth of Madness ) and Star Trek: Voyager's Robert Beltran as El Diablo himself. Directed by Peter Markle, the television film was shot in Tucson, Arizona, and it aired on July 22, 1990.
The second western was Blood River, the project that John Carpenter had written expressly for the first screen teaming of “The Duke,” John Wayne, and “The King,” Elvis Presley. The television version starred The Thing's-Wilford Brimley, Carpenter's ex-wife, Adrienne Barbeau, and Rick Schroeder (NYPD Blue). Directed by Mel Damski, Blood River aired on CBS on March 17, 1991.
Other projects on Carpenter's plate in the early '90s included a long-hoped-for sequel to Escape from New York, titled tentatively Escape from Los Angeles; a science fiction adventure for Cher called Pin Cushion; a straight vampire flick called Dracula in Europe; and even a low-budget film for Larry Cohen called So Help Me God. Most interesting of all was the talk that John Carpenter would soon be helming a remake of Creature from the Black Lagoon with a script from idol Nigel Kneale. For a brief time, Carpenter also considered doing a sequel to They Live, subtitled Hypnowar. Again, all of these projects failed to materialize, though Escape from L.A. would finally be produced in 1996.
In 1990, John Carpenter remarried, this time to his frequent script supervisor, Sandy King.
MEMOIRS OF AN INVISIBLE FILM
Confident over the success of his independent pictures Prince of Darkness and They Live, John Carpenter felt prepared to tackle a major studio project again in April of 1990. The film in question was Memoirs of an Invisible Man, an adaptation of the novel by Harry F. Saint. As was the case with Starman and Big Trouble in Little China, John Carpenter found himself in the middle of a long revision process, shepherding William Goldman's script (originally intended for director Ivan Reitman) into new form courtesy of writers Robert Collector and Dana Wilson. Adding pressure to the situation, Memoirs of an Invisible Man was to be a high-profile, expensive film budgeted at ＄40 million. And star Chevy Chase had an agenda. He was intent on proving that he could be a serious leading man after a string of daffy slapstick comedies. More directly, Chase had to prove that his Hollywood star had not lost its luster after his appearance in Dan Aykroyd's disastrous directorial debut, Nothing but Trouble (1991).
As usual, John Carpenter was well aware of the complicated minefield he needed to navigate to create a film that would not only satisfy Carpenter and Chase fans, but also be a hit. In the quotation below, he voiced some of his concerns about being in the thick of Hollywood politics again:
There's always some pressure when you're working for a major studio. … Chevy wants to show that he can be a serious actor, and I'm trying to get the most out of him in what is a very complicated shoot. … Whether or not this film is going to do anything different for Chevy's or my career is up in the air.44
It was Chase who had hand-selected the Harry F. Saint novel for adaptation, and he was one of the two primary producers on Memoirs of an Invisible Man. The project represented Chase's ambitious and sincere attempt to transcribe a novel he loved into film, while simultaneously transforming himself into a serious leading man capable of some acting range. Unfortunately, Carpenter's view of the film clashed somewhat with Chase's. He did not see the story as deadly serious and “dark,” but rather as a light romantic comedy—the exact thing Chase hoped so desperately to avoid. In a moment of candid frustration, Chase explained the problems surrounding Memoirs of an Invisible Man:
Everybody wants this movie to fit into some kind of little niche. The studio wants it, the press wants it. … With John Carpenter directing, I think that already suggests this is something that people haven't seen me in. There's high tension, adventure, romance and a little bit of comedy as well. The closest thing … might have been Deal of the Century, but even that doesn't come close to this film's kind of suspense.45
So just as Chase was eager to prove himself solemn, sturdy and serious, John Carpenter was working to opposite ends, hoping to showcase his lighter side. Memoirs of an Invisible Man was his version of North by Northwest, a genre action adventure with dangerous stunts, romance, and even espionage.
Memoirs also boasted a great deal of talent besides Carpenter and Chase, so the differing perceptions of the film could easily be glossed over during the shoot. Lawrence G. Paull constructed a fabulous half-invisible full scale building for an early set-piece and George Lucas's ILM outdid itself with the amazing “invisible” special effects. Among the jaw-dropping wonders: An invisible man smoking, throwing up his half-digested food, and even chewing gum and blowing a bubble. From a visual standpoint the resultant film, shot at Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank, L.A., and San Francisco, was virtually flawless. In addition to all these strengths, Shirley Walker wrote a Hitchcock-esque musical score, and Australian Sam Neill (Jurassic Park , In the Mouth of Madness) made for a terrific villain reminiscent of James Mason.
Memoirs of an Invisible Man was originally scheduled to premiere December 13, 1991, the same day as Bruce Willis's action adventure The Last Boy Scout and the franchise entry Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Although John Carpenter's film had generated high praise in preview screenings, Warner Bros. inexplicably held the film back and dumped it into release the following February, a season when studios traditionally ditch films they do not expect to hit big.
Not surprisingly, Memoirs of an Invisible Man bombed with audiences and received mixed notices from the mainstream critical community. Of all of John Carpenter's films, it was the most anonymous and innocuous. There was less of him in Memoirs of an Invisible Man than any John Carpenter film before or after it. The film was not that bad, however. It had good special effects, Chevy Chase was competent if not inspired, and the film was enjoyable in a middle-of-the-road kind of way. But something did not click. There was not quite enough humor, not quite enough suspense, and not quite enough fun. The final result was just … average. Of course, in the forum of John Carpenter's career and track-record, “average” equaled “bad” for many of his long-time admirers. Because it is so lacking in his distinctive style, sans even his trademark music, Memoirs of an Invisible Man is maybe the most undistinguished entry in Carpenter's film roster, alongside the 1995 remake of Village of the Damned.
After Memoirs of an Invisible Man failed to generate much enthusiasm, Carpenter dissected the failure of the film:
The advertising and publicity were promising you a romantic comedy thriller and our star Chevy Chase … gave interviews saying it was the most serious film he'd ever made and that he needed to explore a very dark side of himself. … Chevy never really understood what we were doing. It was a very funny movie … but I knew we were in trouble when Memoirs … didn't open as big as They Live, which was a three million dollar film.46
Whatever the reasons for the stillbirth of Memoirs of an Invisible Man, Carpenter was saddled with another studio bomb after the failure of another big budget picture, Big Trouble in Little China. As he had done before, he responded to failure by retreating and switching gears. This time, he fled to television.
ZIPPING UP BODY BAGS
In 1993, Sandy King and Dan Angel produced a horror anthology for Showtime. Written by Dan Angel and Billy Brown (The X-Files: “All Souls”) Body Bags was also a perfect vehicle for that longtime fan of E.C. Comics, John Carpenter. With Carpenter aboard as executive producer, the special program became known as John Carpenter Presents Body Bags. Though Carpenter had traditionally scorned television, even referring to it as “talking furniture,” he took on the project when he found that he once again would be able to work autonomously.
The made-for-television movie was intended as a back door pilot for an ongoing series like Tales from the Crypt. There would be three segments, and Carpenter hired fellow horror director Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre , Eaten Alive , Poltergeist , Lifeforce ) to direct the third and final installment of the anthology, “Eye,” while he directed the first two: “The Gas Station” and “Hair.”
The genre-intense cast of Body Bags included contemporary horror directors Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead , Darkman , Army of Darkness , The Quick and the Dead ), and Wes Craven (Last House on the Left , A Nightmare on Elm Street , Scream ); Craven played a character called “The Pasty-Faced Man.” The actors populating the tribute to E.C. Comics were also familiar ones: George “Buck” Flower, Tom Arnold (Freddy's Dead ), David Naughton (An American Werewolf in London ), David Warner (Time After Time , Time Bandits , Waxworks , In The Mouth of Madness , Titanic ), Stacy Keach (Road Games , The Class of 1999 , Escape from L.A.), Deborah Harry (Videodrome ), John Agar (Revenge of the Creature , The Mole People ), and Mark Hamill (Star Wars , Black Magic Woman , Sleepwalkers , The Guyver ) among them. Also present were Sheena Easton, Charles Napier and Twiggy!
Wes Craven and Sam Raimi appeared in “The Gas Station,” the first story directed by John Carpenter. It told the tale of gas station night attendant, Alex Datcher, during her first night on the job. As the night progressed, she learned that a killer from nearby Haddonfield (nudge, nudge!) was on the loose. Stalked by the madman, Alex Datcher endured a night of terrifying thrills and scares.
“The Gas Station” is significant in John Carpenter's filmography because it quotes verbatim from sequences in Halloween. The shots wherein the killer rises from the dead and stalks a surprised, weeping Datcher are exact duplicates of the climactic scenes from the 1978 hit. This is significant not because John Carpenter was paying homage to himself, but because he was once again emulating his hero, Howard Hawks. Hawks remade Rio Bravo twice, first as El Dorado and then as Rio Lobo. Both times, he restaged identical sequences in an identical manner. As John Wayne once told writer Leigh Brackett: “It was good once … it'll be good again.” “The Gas Station” shows Carpenter revisiting material from early in his career instead of treading new territory.
The second story in Body Bags was more inventive, the very funny “Hair.” Playing a man facing middle age and a receding hairline, Stacy Keach experiences horror as he receives a deadly hair transplant. “Hair” moved at a fast clip, and Keach is always a joy to watch, so this was a fun episode. It was followed by “Eye,” a story of a deadly eye (instead of hair) transplant.
Throughout all three Body Bags stories, John Carpenter appeared as a Crypt Keeper-like host. Covered in ghoulish makeup by Rick Baker, Carpenter tiptoed playfully through a morgue, zipping and unzipping body bags, and delivering very bad puns.
Not surprisingly, Carpenter thoroughly enjoyed his experience on low-budget television, finding that it afforded him more freedom than the restrictive, cookie-cutter world of big studio filmmaking:
The freedom in TV is wonderful. There's something really exhilarating about doing low-budget TV: you have to do it fast, and you have to sometimes be inventive. … It's fun, and I find myself having a good time doing it. The last movie I did was a really grueling experience.47
Despite the fun and Monster Club atmosphere of Body Bags, the pilot did not generate a series. However, the anthology did do quite well when released to videotape in 1994.
IN THE MOVIE OF MADNESS
John Carpenter's 1994 film, In the Mouth of Madness, is also among the director's most controversial efforts. It is a film despised by many, misunderstood by more, and praised by only a select few. In this case the disdain may be understandable, for in a single viewing which is all the film got from most people—it's hard to perceive what a provocative and unusual work it is. But the film improves on each viewing, and it represents a very different, very intellectual kind of horror film for John Carpenter, one that is understood best after knowing the context of its creation.
In the Mouth of Madness was conceived and written by New Line Executive Michael DeLuca (Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare ) in late 1987 as an homage to H. P. Lovecraft. Born Howard Phillip Lovecraft, this unusual author wrote various stories from 1917 to 1937 for publications such as Weird Tales. Lovecraft is considered a major inspiration for many filmmakers and writers working today, and his work is unusual and extremely frightening, often dealing with strange nether worlds and horrible creatures dwelling just outside human existence and perception. These creatures are always malevolent, and they are described in enigmatic language which escalates the horror of the situation. Lovecraft has been translated to film in adaptations such as The Dunwich Horror (1969) and The Unnamable (1988), but there is always the same nagging problem: How does a director portray an unnamable, indescribable horror in clear, concise, visual terms? Although each of the above films featured Lovecraftian moments of horror, both also fell short of being full translations, of capturing the essence of Lovecraft's writing.
So DeLuca, inspired jointly by Lovecraft and horror films such as Equinox (1971), Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Jacob's Ladder (1990), showed his script to an interested Carpenter in 1988. Carpenter felt it needed more work and continued with his own projects. Mary Lambert, director of Pet Sematary (1989) and Pet Sematary 2 (1992), was interested in directing In the Mouth of Madness for a time, but the project went nowhere.
When Carpenter saw the script again in 1993, DeLuca had improved it dramatically, and Carpenter had several interesting ideas to further develop the Lovecraftian material. One of the primary items of interest in the script was the central conceit, which had a best-selling author writing books that caused unbelievable violence and even insanity in readers. Carpenter saw this as a timely theme, as many conservative politicians were accusing horror film violence of causing people to kill. There was even one notorious case in England where a man who had seen Halloween renamed himself Michael Myers and went on a killing spree. As a result, Halloween was banned in Great Britain. John Carpenter believed that In the Mouth of Madness would allow him to address society's concerns about horror movies and deal frankly with issues on both sides of the Atlantic:
I wanted to direct the movie because of the relevance it has to what's happening both in America and Britain. This ludicrous argument that television/video violence is the cause of society's ills. When I was growing up it was horror comics that said, “Religion seeks discipline through fear.” That's what this current moral crusade is all about. It's called Dominion Theology. Government under God, and you only have to look at Iran to see where this avenue of thought ends up.48
For his part, DeLuca saw other interesting horror tropes in In the Mouth of Madness. His goal was to create a film as influential and important to the genre as those that had inspired him to write it in the first place:
I wanted the film to come off like Body Snatchers, with the books being like the pods and turning you into something else as opposed to saying these people were screwed up beforehand. It's more of a paranoid thriller where you become part of a conspiracy.49
With a budget of ＄10 million—the same budget as The Thing in 1982—Carpenter began production on In the Mouth of Madness, casting Memoirs of an Invisible Man alumnus Sam Neill as the film's central character, a cynic and misanthrope called John Trent. The talented Australian, who had proven himself a serious leading man in Jane Campion's The Piano (1994) as well as Jurassic Park, was supported ably by Jurgen Prochnow (The Seventh Sign , The English Patient ) as the Stephen King-like New England author, Sutter Cane, who orchestrated the return of the Lovecraftian “Old Ones.” Present too were favorite genre veterans Charlton Heston (Planet of the Apes , The Omega Man , Soylent Green , Solar Crisis ), Bernie Casey (Gargoyles , Never Say Never Again , David Warner, John Glover, and the beautiful Julie Carmen (Fright Night Part II ).
Like Laurie Zimmer in Assault on Precinct 13 nearly 20 years earlier, Carmen found herself playing a prototypical Howard Hawks female: a centered character with a sharp wit and an innate toughness. Julie Carmen very much enjoyed her collaboration with director John Carpenter, finding that if anything, he was just as enthusiastic about In the Mouth of Madness as he had been about any other high-profile film in his 20 year career:
Carpenter is really challenging himself. That's what I like about him. He's the opposite of a hack. Even though he's done similar genre films before, this feels completely new to him and so he's struggling with the cutting edge at the end of the envelope.50
With KNB, the firm that handled Wes Craven's Wes Craven's New Nightmare (1994), Vampire in Brooklyn (1995), Scream (1996), and Wes Craven Presents Wishmaster (1997), in charge of special effects, and John Carpenter writing another of his patented horror film scores, In the Mouth of Madness looked and sounded terrific. Not unexpectedly, it was also packed with Lovecraftian touches such as a character named Mrs. Pickman, a town called Hobb's End, and a story which saw evil entities hoping to cross back into our earthly domain.
In the Mouth of Madness premiered at London's Phantasm 1994 Film Festival in July of 1994, but its American release was held back until January of 1995. Again, as in Memoirs of an Invisible Man, the results of this “bomb” release slot were devastating. Audiences ignored the picture, and critics were back to their merciless The Thing tenor. Before being pulled from theaters, In the Mouth of Madness earned only 8.9 million dollars, earning it 117th slot for the year 1995.51 There was no doubt about it: The film was a bomb.
The reasons for In the Mouth of Madness's failure are numerous. On first viewing, the film came off like a terrible, confused stew of mismatched elements. But in fact it was simply pitched too high and required total concentration, an attention to detail, and a background in Lovecraftian lore. In other words, In the Mouth of Madness required an educated and engaged audience. Like The Thing, it was a film ahead of its time, and people looking for just a “good” horror film with a few thrills and chills were put off by the intellectual nature of the tale, not to mention the self-reflexive aspects which dominated the story-within-a-story-within-a-story.
Secondly, Carpenter had been beaten to the punch with In the Mouth of Madness. In 1994, Wes Craven's New Nightmare handled much of the same territory, self-reflexiveness, defense of horror movies and all. And that film, perhaps Wes Craven's best, felt more cohesive, more linear and more insightful than In the Mouth of Madness, also, perhaps, because viewers already had an entree to its world through familiar personalities Robert Englund, John Saxon and Heather Langenkamp. However, the average film-going audience did not like New Nightmare either, and they may have been reluctant to see a similarly themed film just months after New Nightmare's release.
Last, but no less important, 1995 was a terrible year for horror. The genre had hit hard times. Audiences were tired of the same old tricks, and even though In the Mouth of Madness was original and different from most of the other pictures coming out, it also came from John Carpenter, whose track record in the late '80s had not been very good. In 1995, In the Mouth of Madness was not the only horror movie to tank at the box office. Sadly, John Carpenter's Village of the Damned failed as well, earning even less than In the Mouth of Madness. Other failures included Wes Craven's Eddie Murphy picture Vampire in Brooklyn, Spike Lee's Tales from the Hood, Dean Koontz's Hideaway, Clive Barker's Lord of Illusions,Candyman II: Farewell to the Flesh, Tobe Hooper's The Mangler, and even Halloween VI: The Curse of Michael Myers. Although big budget spectacles like Seven,Species and Outbreak made a great deal of money in 1995, they were high profile studio products pushed aggressively by big advertising budgets and featuring highly bankable stars like Brad Pitt and Dustin Hoffman. In the Mouth of Madness and the rest of the pack had fewer front-line draws and less financial support.
Many critics really missed the boat about In the Mouth of Madness. It is a film with many layers, and many creepy images (such as a dark-highway bicycle sequence which eloquently speaks the language of nightmares). It is audacious and clever, and it deserved better than the negative reception it received. Michael DeLuca, anticipating the reaction of the masses, apparently knew that In the Mouth of Madness was a gamble:
It's like dropping acid for the first time. It just stretches your whole psyche. Some people will go for the ride, and some people will say, “What was that all about?”52
Though the description of In the Mouth of Madness as a mind-altering experience is quite accurate, so is the second part of that remark. Too many people were unable to determine what the film was about. Still, things could have been worse; Carpenter could have underestimated his audience instead of overestimating it. If In the Mouth of Madness failed, it failed only because its director chose the high road rather than the low road.
REMAKE OF THE DAMNED
At first blush, Village of the Damned would have seemed a perfect assignment for John Carpenter. The original film, assembled by director Wolf Rilla in 1960, had scared a generation of filmgoers, and its source material, the novel The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham, has been elevated to the status of minor classic. Carpenter, who managed to reinterpret The Thing and create a remake that was as good as if not better than Howard Hawks's film, could easily do the same for Village of the Damned. Or so the argument went.
Although Village of the Damned had almost been remade once before in 1978 by Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) producer Robert H. Solo and writers Joyce and John Carrington (Battle for the Planet of the Apes ), John Carpenter was the first to have a hand at re-directing the classic. Hopes ran high among genre aficionados when they learned the film would be remade. After all, the original film had been about the mores and manners surrounding the unexpected pregnancy of a group of women who were artificially inseminated by extra-terrestrials. Times had changed since 1960, but issues surrounding birth and infancy had proliferated and grown so much more complicated in the '90s. A new Village of the Damned for the '90s could deal with surrogate motherhood, the divisive issue of abortion, advances in prenatal care, homosexual couples having children, children's rights, or any number of related topics. The film could have been retitled It Takes a Village … of the Damned. Clearly, a 1990s version could speak to a new generation just as Village of the Damned spoke to the elder one.
Even better, John Carpenter hired a dream “B” movie cast to perform the rewrite of the original Sterling Silliphant script. The three great genre franchises of the 1970s and 1980s were represented with Christopher Reeve (Superman ), Mark Hamill (Star Wars) and Kirstie Alley (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan ). Other '80s sensations Linda Koslowski (Crocodile Dundee ) and Michael Pare (The Philadelphia Experiment) also had substantial roles. Carpenter's repertory squad was represented too, with Peter Jason and George “Buck” Flower present once more. With such talents, a modest but serviceable budget, and modern special effects, Village of the Damned should have been a triumph.
Sadly, it was not. What emerged in 1995, scant weeks after In the Mouth of Madness was dumped in theaters, was an uninspired remake that seemed dashed together. No new moral issues were explored at even a surface level, and aspects of the film seemed botched. For instance, the film begins shortly before the alien pregnancies are instigated and extends well into the children's lifetime (at least age 7 or 8). Yet throughout the picture, none of the adult actors or actresses age visibly or even change hairstyles and fashions. Worse, the striking image of gray-suited children in white wigs seems silly in the 1990s. The one new touch involved the addition of a “sympathetic” alien child, a character not seen in the original. This character, though interesting, pretty much ruined the “hive mind” impact of the other children. The aliens could not be hated by the audience (like the children in the original film) because it was obvious that they did have the capacity to feel human emotions if nurtured properly.
Though Carpenter did stage some terrific effects and action sequences in Village of the Damned, the remake of the classic film is only a shadow of the original, and an uninspired piece of work—especially for a director of Carpenter's abilities. His style and his wit are nowhere in evidence in Village of the Damned. When the film premiered in January 1995 against Dolores Claiborne,Bad Boys,Kiss of Death,While You Were Sleeping and Tommy Boy, it received bad notices and disappeared even more quickly than In the Mouth of Madness, earning a paltry 8.6 million dollars by the end of the year. It also won the Razzie Award of 1995 for the Worst Remake of the Year.53
TIME TO ESCAPE
Those watching John Carpenter's career in 1996 were very worried. The director who had won the hearts of science fiction critics with Dark Star and Starman, earned accolades for his stylish Assault on Precinct 13 and terrifying Halloween, inspired cult fandom with Big Trouble in Little China and Starman, and won grudging respect for his underappreciated but brilliant remake of The Thing seemed to be in a slump. Looking back, many were not satisfied with the ponderous nature of Prince of Darkness, the wrestling interlude at the center of They Live, the mediocrity of Memoirs of an Invisible Man, and the perceived low quality of his two 1995 pictures, In the Mouth of Madness and Village of the Damned.
In 1996, Carpenter returned to the big leagues, but he also played it safe. His project of choice was the long-talked about sequel to his 1981 classic, Escape from New York. With Kurt Russell (now 45 years old) and Debra Hill in tow, Carpenter finally prepared Escape from L.A. The conceit of the new film, co-written by the Escape from New York trio, was that this time America would be the prison, and the actual prison itself, L.A. island, would be a place of freedom. As Debra Hill explained:
The United States of America has become a sort of right-wing Christian fundamentalist country. What they're doing in order to clean it up and keep it right wing and keep people from exercising free speech, free thought and having any sexual freedom and all that kind of stuff, is they deport anyone they deem to be bad. And Los Angeles, the island, is where they deport them to.54
This premise was clearly a return to the politically and socially conscious John Carpenter of They Live. Decrying the conservative “Contract with America” that was sweeping the United States ever further to the radical religious right, Carpenter put together not a legitimate action follow-up to Escape from New York, but a rollicking satire of 1990s mores and politics. In L.A., Snake Plissken encounters not just old-fashioned despots and villains, but a beautiful, good woman who was banished because she was Muslim (instead of Christian). This character, played by Valeria Golina, reflected Pat Buchanan's 1992 Republican Convention speech, where he incited Christians to win back “their” culture in America. Carpenter's America in Escape from L.A. was also a place where political correctness was out of control. Not only was wearing furs illegal, but so was eating red meat.
With a budget of ＄50 million, Carpenter's biggest yet, Escape from L.A. began principal production in late 1995. The shoot went on for a grueling 70 nights. Featured in the film were not only Kurt Russell but Carpenter repertory players Stacy Keach and Peter Jason. Playing the president “for life” of the United States was Cliff Robertson (Academy Award winner for Charly ), and appearing as his daughter was the talented young actress A. J. Langer (The People under the Stairs , My So-Called Life , Brooklyn South ). Noted character actors Steve Buscemi (Desperado , Con Air ), Bruce Campbell (The Evil Dead , Army of Darkness ), Pam Grier (Jackie Brown ) and Peter Fonda (Futureworld , Ulee's Gold ) also had extended comedic cameos.
John Carpenter, Kurt Russell and Debra Hill also cut a mean deal with Paramount Studios to do this sequel to their popular first Escape. Russell earned ＄10 million, Carpenter five, and Hill two. Additionally, the trio was guaranteed 20 percent of the profits.55
Escape from L.A. premiered in August of 1996 and received mixed reviews. Roger Ebert called it a better film than the big movie of that summer, Independence Day. Other critics were not so kind, especially about the cartoonish CGI special effects that were featured in the film. Diehard Carpenter Escape fans were ambivalent about the picture too. It was funny all right, but it was not at all the straight sequel they had expected and desired. Essentially, it was a remake of Escape from New York, but with tongue planted firmly in cheek. Of course, the decision to do a remake (which duplicated exactly the story details of the original film) was made because Paramount felt that many people did not remember the original 1981 film, especially young ticket-buyers. Therefore, John Carpenter had to reintroduce Snake and his world to the kiddies while still picking up the older Escape crowd with the film's satirical jabs.
In remaking Escape from New York, Carpenter again fell into the pattern of his film-land hero Howard Hawks, who repeated incidents from film to film and even cross-pollinated characters (particularly females) from project to project. With his ever-loyal John Wayne in Kurt Russell going through the same paces as he had 15 years earlier, the parallels to Hawks were complete.
Escape from L.A. was also another chapter in Carpenter's subversive film book, representing his utter disregard for the establishment. As he told Cinescape about Snake Plissken before the film's release:
Snake represents my ultimate hatred of authority. You really don't want him to change. It's like saying, “How is Clint Eastwood different in A Fistful of Dollars from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly?”56
On the final scoreboard, Escape from L.A. was not seven times more entertaining than Escape from New York, even though it cost seven times as much. Indeed, few longtime Carpenter fans would place the sequel to Escape from New York in the same class as the original—or even in the same class with Big Trouble in Little China, especially because many had waited for so long and harbored such high hopes for the project. Though Escape from L.A. was packed with fun social commentary and it had several comedic and action highlights, particularly in a wonderfully ambitious climax, it did not emerge as the career-reviving film that many had hoped for. The film did poorly at the box office after the first weekend and never met Paramount's expectations.
THE STAKES ARE HIGH: FILMING VAMPIRES
In August of 1997, John Carpenter was back doing what he does best: helming a horror film that just might be a western in disguise. In this case, he was in Santa Fe, New Mexico, working on the big-screen adaptation of John Steakley's 1990 novel Vampire＄. The book, about the Vatican's vampire-hunting team of soldiers led by Jack Crow, was converted to screenplay form by Dan Jakoby (Blue Thunder , Lifeforce , Invaders from Mars ), Dan Mazur and an uncredited Carpenter. Starring Maximilian Schell (The Black Hole , Deep Impact ), James Woods (Videodrome , Casino ), Sheryl Lee (Twin Peaks ) and Thomas Ian Griffith, the film version of Vampire＄ was lensed in eight weeks, and it stayed on schedule and within its ＄19 million budget. The story, about vampire redemption and Catholic hypocrisy, was set in the American Southwest, and its cowboy-like protagonist, an anti-hero in the tradition of Napoleon Wilson, John Nada and Snake Plissken, promised to return Carpenter to the strangely stylized “modern western” genre he spearheaded with Assault on Precinct 13. As Sandy King described the picture:
It's real rough, and has more in common with The Wild Bunch than it does with anything else. It's very edge, very violent. These are mercenaries hunting the vampires, not pussyfooters. These are whoring, drinking outcasts from society who take over places and then go kill vampires. This is a Sam Peckinpah vampire film—not just in its level of violence, but also its edginess and roughness.57
What this passage makes clear is that Vampires was tailor-made for John Carpenter's touch. Filled with suspense, horror and the genre touches he had always hoped to portray on film, Vampires promised to be his comeback movie.
The film opened strong in France in the spring of 1998, and was long in coming to the United States. It was scheduled for release first on September 11, and then it was pushed back to an October 30 debut. Vampires did, however, face a serious marketing problem. It was not the only Vampire-hunter script planned for the year 1998. Action star Wesley Snipes was also headlining in the similarly themed Blade, which opened August 28. Just as in 1986, when Golden Child and Big Trouble in Little China went head to head for the “supernatural Chinese ghost story” sweepstakes, Carpenter found himself in 1998 competing with similar material at the box office.
Whether Vampires or Blade emerged triumphant would be one of the best stories at the box office in 1998. Early indications were troubling. Blade had made more than ＄64 million by October 1, 1998, making it one of the summer's genuine hits. Would people who loved that film go back for more with Vampires? Adding further problems, Kurt Russell's science fiction epic Soldier was opening on October 23, the week before Vampires was to bow in the United States. Would fans choose Russell over Carpenter on October 30?
In 1997, John Carpenter found himself occupied not just with Vampires, but with news of a very special project: the twentieth anniversary sequel to Halloween, referred to variously as Halloween: The Revenge of Laurie Strode and Halloween: H20. With Jamie Lee Curtis involved in the Miramax production, and Scream's Kevin Williamson writing the original treatment, the film promised to be more than a low-budget continuation of middling fare such as Halloween V: The Revenge of Michael Myers and Halloween VI: The Curse of Michael Myers. Despite the quality of the people involved, John Carpenter met with Kevin Williamson and told the writer some surprising news, which Williamson reported to an interviewer:
He wasn't interested at all. … It's silly. He's a wonderful director. John was on some vampire movie and he said, “You know what, I'm not interested in doing the same movie again.”58
With Carpenter off the project, the director's reins of the eighth Halloween fell instead to Steve Miner (Friday the 13th Part II , Dawson's Creek). Carpenter's refusal to be a part of the sequel is further evidence of his maverick status in Hollywood. Even though public opinion would like to see him reunited with Curtis and the Halloween saga, the director continues to make films only for his own reasons.
Halloween: H20 was released on August 5, 1998, the middle of a cutthroat summer season, but it almost immediately achieved blockbuster status, grossing more than ＄40 million in two weeks. Although the picture suffered from the absence of the late Donald Pleasence, it was a good “anniversary edition” of Halloween, and it did (it seems) manage to end the killing spree of Michael Myers once and for all. The film was still playing in first run on the weekend of October 1, proving that the summer picture had legs, even if it had fallen out of the top ten.
THE SUN GOES DOWN ON VAMPIRES
John Carpenter's Vampires opened on October 30, 1998, the Friday before Halloween. It was heralded in horror circles (Cinefantastique and Fangoria magazines) as Carpenter's comeback picture, and even as his best film since Halloween in 1978. The film was heavily promoted on television and inside theaters. Promos for Vampires ran before Bride of Chucky (the fourth in the Don Mancini Child's Play film series) and during the Buffy the Vampire Slayer television series. Despite all this publicity, mainstream critical reaction was quite negative.
Worse, Vampires opened into a saturated market. It had to compete not only with Bride of Chucky, but Halloween: H20 (which was still playing in theaters almost three months after its release date!), Urban Legend, and the pop witchcraft picture Practical Magic. In 20 years, a Carpenter film had never opened in a more competitive market. H20 headlined Jamie Lee Curtis, Soldier headlined Kurt Russell, Bride of Chucky genuflected to Halloween by displaying a Michael Myers mask in the first scene, and Urban Legend was a child of Scream (which in turn was a child of Halloween). In other words, Carpenter's Vampires was not only competing with “horror” pictures and big stars, it was competing with Carpenter's own stars, characters and legacy. Additionally, all the talk of a significant “comeback” had upped the ante on expectations for Vampires, expectations that would have been hard for any film to live up to.
Despite these considerable obstacles, Vampires was the top film of the Halloween weekend. It earned ＄9.2 million and defeated such heavy competition as Pleasantville (＄6.6 million), Antz (＄4.1 million), Bride of Chucky (＄4 million), Soldier (＄2.6 million) and Apt Pupil (＄1.7 million). Incidentally, the opening weekend take of Vampires was equal to, if not slightly higher than, the total box office take of Village of the Damned and In the Mouth of Madness back in 1995.
The bottom line was that Vampires opened strong, but faded fast in ensuing weeks. Its final box office tally did not approach Blade's unexpectedly strong midsummer take. Worse, the film was lethargically paced and remarkably lacking in suspense. Though James Woods gave a powerhouse central performance, Vampires was not the critical success or Carpenter comeback many had looked for. Like Village of the Damned and Memoirs of an Invisible Man, it was a deeply flawed film.
John Carpenter is no stranger to adversity. Had he not been persistent and totally committed to a career in film, Dark Star would never have been made at all in the early 1970s. Although the director had his share of box office failures in the '90s, as well as critical disappointments, one thing is certain: He will continue to blend genres and create provocative horror films. The question is, will he enjoy it? The critical reception of The Thing shook his confidence badly, and the failures of In the Mouth of Madness,Village of the Damned and Escape from L.A. may have magnified the effect. In 1996, Carpenter made a telling and oft-repeated comment which suggested he felt unloved and unappreciated after a long film career filled with hard work:
I'll tell you what I am. It depends on what country I'm in. In France, I'm an auteur. In England, I'm a horror movie director. In Germany, I'm a filmmaker. In the U.S., I'm a bum.59
There is a real sadness in that remark, but John Carpenter, genre director extraordinaire, should remember one thing before he labels himself “a bum.” His hero Howard Hawks was unloved and unheralded in his time too. It was not until he was an older man and well past his prime that people (in France, of all places) began to realize the thematic complexity and style of his varied filmography. It was not until the John Carpenters of the world in the early '70s vocally lauded Hawks that his contribution to art of filmmaking was noted and celebrated. John Carpenter is not an old man yet, but already the next generation is seeing the beauty and care with which he has crafted his many motion pictures. Kevin Williamson's screenplay for Scream idolized John Carpenter's work in Halloween. Quentin Tarantino wore a T-shirt with the legend “Precinct 13” placed prominently on it in his vampire flick From Dusk Till Dawn in honor of his favorite film. And The Thing, that unfairly maligned masterpiece, has been flattered with imitation on The X-Files,Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,Terminator 2 and elsewhere. Carpenter has left his mark on the universe of film, but the world is only now seeing the light behind this maverick dark star.
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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).
And as usual, he wrote the music. He has composed the music for most of his films, including the aforementioned heavy metal.
The white-haired filmmaker chuckles when asked about the similarities between Ghosts of Mars and his other films, as if the thought hadn't occurred to him.
To him, the film is yet another of his tributes to the legendary Howard Hawks, who directed such classics as Red River and Rio Bravo and produced the original The Thing. But finally Carpenter concedes there is an awful lot of his past in the new film.
“I look at this movie as a summation,” said the director, looking very suburban in a well-worn sweatshirt and pants while puffing on a series of cigarettes. “It's also a jumping-off point. But most of all, it's a lot of fun. You can't take it seriously. It's just a movie—a movie about folks [fighting] on Mars.”
He says the film demonstrates that he has survived in Hollywood through three decades. “There are a lot of directors who we all grew up with that are no longer working, that no longer have any support in the industry. Look at Michael Cimino [the Oscar-winning director of The Deer Hunter]. He's gone, he's not around. My point is to keep working.”
And he is truly devoted to genre films that may not win Oscars. Carpenter is not looking to make his Saving Private Ryan.
“Whenever I think about something like that, the God of Hollow Laughs taps me on the shoulder. … The grand artistic statement is just a recipe for disaster.”
In Ghosts of Mars, Carpenter finally realizes a long-standing dream to make a film about Mars that isn't a “space helmet” movie. “I wanted to make something in which Mars would be colonized, and the air is breathable.”
The movie imagines Mars in 2176, where people live in distant outposts, mining the planet for resources. But the mining has unearthed the remains of an ancient Martian civilization, and its spirit-warriors have set about taking over the bodies of the human residents to regain control of the planet.
Meanwhile, the Mars Police Force is transporting James “Desolation” Williams (Ice Cube), the planet's most notorious criminal, to justice. The police and the criminal eventually join forces to combat the deadly warriors.
The film cast also includes Joanna Cassidy and Pam Grier, who is working for the second time with Carpenter. She starred in his sequel to Escape from New York, called Escape from L.A.
“There's always a balance when working with John,” said Grier, who plays the no-nonsense but sexually active veteran of the police force.
“He really wants the actors to have fun, and he doesn't want them to take things all that seriously,” she said. “But on the other hand, he is very demanding. He strikes that balance, and he won't work with any actor who doesn't work as hard as he does.”
Despite the far-fetched premises of his movies, Carpenter never approaches them as exercises to wink at audiences. “I take every story that I write and every movie very seriously. It's as if this is really happening. It's not a joke.”
He writes in an office in Van Nuys behind a nondescript residence. The office is crammed with artifacts from old horror movies such as King Kong, posters and pictures from his films, a massive amount of books and scripts and a sizable supply of junk.
An object many young writers might find most scary and intimidating sits on his desk—an old IBM electric typewriter. It's the instrument Carpenter uses to compose his scripts. “I need to see the word on the page,” he said. “I can't get that on a computer.”
Carpenter has honed his craft for more than 30 years; he won a 1970 Oscar as a USC film student (under the name John Longenecker) for his short film, The Resurrection of Bronco Billy.
Carpenter went on to direct several low-budget films, such as Dark Star,Assault on Precinct 13, and Halloween, the film that really launched his career.
Carpenter downplays the significance of Halloween, which sparked several sequels and whose impact can be seen in recent films, including the Scream trilogy and the Scary Movie spoofs. He's drawn to the genre because there's something enduringly visceral about it.
“You cannot kill horror,” he explains. “You cannot stop it. It's one of the essential elements of mankind. We're all afraid of the same things.”
He is pleased with Ghosts of Mars, finding it a satisfactory addition to his creations.
“All I really want is to have a body of work,” says Carpenter. “And to survive.”
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, site of a prison from which they are to transport back to the capital the most dangerous criminal on Mars, surly James “Desolation” Williams (Ice Cube).
When the squad arrives, it is confronted by an array of strung-up corpses. Apparently, only the prisoners are still alive, still in their cells. It seems that Professor Whitlock (Joanna Cassidy), an archeologist, having discovered what looks to be the entrance to a subterranean tomb, has led an expedition that literally raises the dead, unleashing hordes of Martian ghouls who take over the bodies of humans they regard as invaders. In the face of so overwhelming a threat, the line dividing police and criminals fades in the common struggle to survive.
None of this is very compelling or persuasive, and Henstridge and Ice Cube are required primarily to be sullen and surly, respectively. Carpenter is skilled at allegory but doesn't make much of the fact that Mars is under female rule or that Shining Valley's prison population seems disproportionately African American and Latino, just as that population is on Earth in 2001.
Making the most of what must have been a modest budget, production designer William Elliott has evoked a sense of dark desolation amid stark, monumental industrial-institutional structures, and cinematographer Gary B. Kibbe has been imaginative in his use of light and shadow to create a mood of foreboding (which also helps sets look more costly and convincing).
Indeed, the film does have the sense of scale of some of Carpenter's previous futuristic adventures, but it unfortunately has few other pluses. Grier is always welcome, and veteran Doug McGrath has a vivid sequence as a hapless prisoner being overtaken by a Martian spirit.
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 amalgam of Assault on Precinct 13,The Thing and the dystopias in Escape from New York and Escape from L.A. Long ago, Roger Corman made or produced such exploiters, playing off our worst fears and happily transplanting anachronistic pop style and attitudes into a weird, scary future. What's almost charming about Carpenter's new film is that he doesn't seem concerned about providing auds with their weekly fix of new screen effects but instead prefers his space adventure on the funky side, even if that means the funk gets ridiculous.
The angle here is that a matriarchy rules the Mars colony of 2176. At a hearing in the colony city of Chryse, cop Ballard (Natasha Henstridge) is grilled by ruling councilwomen about why she came back as the sole survivor from her unit's latest assignment, bringing feared killer James “Desolation” Williams (Ice Cube) back into custody. Ballard's testimony defines the heart of pic's action, starting with her crew's trip aboard a transport train for the mining outpost Shining Canyon. Her comrades include vet cop Braddock (Pam Grier), rookie Bashira (Clea Duvall) and utility guy Jericho (Jason Statham), who is forever trying to get inside Ballard's sleek black leather uniform since he knows that she, unlike some of the other women on board, is “straight as they come.”
As Shining Canyon is approached, the talk is all about “beaucoup corpses” and “370 clicks” and other bits of Vietnam-speak. To add to the strange trip, Ballard drops some drugs that send her into a dreamy state full of images of Earth. It's a way of setting us up for a war movie, although, once the cops arrive, the red clay landscape and squat buildings—while evoking Mars as designed by William Elliott—lend the mood and atmosphere of a low-budget frontier Western. Right away, they find the camp's the resident workers butchered and hung up, slaughter-house style.
Safe in a jail cell with a few others, scientist Whitlock (Joanna Cassidy) explains that she had been traveling by weather balloon days before and had to crash-land nearby. But new comer or not, this is a woman who apparently absorbs the meaning of strange phenomena quicker than Fox Mulder, yet takes her own sweet time passing on her knowledge to others. Besides, there are a few complications that intrude on the exposition, such as Williams himself, who cleverly takes Bashira hostage, but is soon on Ballard's side as they have to face off with the real menace: some nasty-looking banshee types, who look like they're metal fans in a foul mood because they were shut out of the concert.
They're virtually everywhere, and though they seem to have been taken over by some evil cosmic force in the form of red dust from the mine shafts, they can't actually stop Ballard's crew. They manage to plunge Braddock's head on a stake, but otherwise, this is a zombified mob, led by the snarly Big Daddy Mars (Richard Cetrone), that's always one step too slow, one punch too little.
The less time Carpenter spends on the reasons why all bell broke loose at the mine and the more he spends on pure action and dumb-lug dialogue, the higher the movie's fun quotient. The action, though, finally hits a wall during two terribly choreographed battle scenes on which even Corman might have ordered retakes. A repeated digital video effect, providing the p.o.v. of the unleashed evil force invading and possessing unsuspecting victims, is almost comically antique by today's standards, but nothing surpasses the Goth-inspired makeup by Robert Kurtzman, Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger for sheer goofy excess, confirming that this movie's soul lies somewhere deep in a teenage wasteland before CD players.
Everyone in the cast is directed to act as if this could be the end of the colony—that is, dead seriously—and it only adds to the project's retro feeling. Henstridge and Ice Cube play two sides of the same tough coin, and they pair nicely. Cassidy, Duvall and Grier efficiently depict the brain and brawn of the colony's female domination. Statham's horndog gunman is a sideshow from the big gals' act.
Pic is literally heavy metal in its music—as always, by Carpenter himself, with bands Buckethead and Anthrax joining in on the jam session—and its interiors are given a sepulchral appearance by Gary B. Kibbe's lensing. The exteriors look like they can only be taken as a spoof of past genre cousins.
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 a jail in the mining settlement of Shining Valley, are simply copied from Assault but here they don't work. Part of the problem is that the film's cast are given far sillier things to do than the crew of Assault. The supposed sexual tension between Natasha Henstridge's Ballard and her police colleague Butler, played by Jason Statham, is laughable for all the wrong reasons, as is the macha/macho cop/crook banter between Henstridge and Ice Cube's career criminal Williams. Clea Duvall's luckless rookie, meanwhile, is apparently only in the film to make stupid mistakes whenever it seems the heroes might have a breathing space. Even more damaging is the weediness of the villains, especially in comparison with such sinister Carpenter menaces as the Street Thunder gang from Assault. Here, the head baddie (Richard Cetron's Big Daddy Mars) is a characterless Marilyn Manson lookalike who stands out from the crowd only by being taller, and his back-up are a rabble of pierced, tattooed possessees who never seem like anything but badly drilled stuntmen.
Given that it sets out to be a low-rent action picture, it's amazing how many things Ghosts of Mars finds to do wrong. The structure, which at one point includes a flashback within a flashback within a flashback, is dizzyingly complex. This is unusual for a straight-ahead genre piece, but also pointless—because there's no Rashomon-like accounting for different views of events, Ghosts of Mars seems like a film reworked in the edit, one that can't even manage to tell its simple story properly. Some bits of business are set up but never followed through: Williams' brother, for instance, is possessed, but we don't get the expected pay-off fight between these two siblings. Elsewhere, the film is just plain dumb: Ballard discovers that taking drugs will get rid of the possessing Martian but fails to make any further use of the knowledge, insisting instead on the suicidal idiocy of blowing up a nuclear power plant even though it has been repeatedly demonstrated that killing the human hosts only liberates the unimpressive red cloud to possess again. Given the obvious frontier parallels, there's a disturbing Manifest Destiny chill to the script's insistence that “this is our planet now” and that the original Martians have no rights to a world terraformed against their wishes.
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.
Carpenter required his audience not just to suspend their disbelief, but to tie it up, gag it, and then leave it in the closet before they went to the movie theatre; yet his influence on the cinema and popular literature of the past 25 years cannot be overstated. It's doubtful that the hockey-masked, boiler-suited Hannibal Lecter could ever have existed without the similarly attired, and similarly disposed, Michael Myers. And Wes Craven's Scream movies are little more than reinventions, for a younger generation, of the Halloween genre—what else can you call it but a genre, given that Carpenter's original film spawned five sequels?
During the 1980s and 1990s, Carpenter made more films. Of these, however, only The Thing (1982) was any good, and since then the once talented filmmaker has looked more like a zombie. His latest film, the modestly titled John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars (presumably this is just a precaution, in case Merchant Ivory decides to make a picture of the same name), is no exception to this decline, in that it finds the director now feeding off his own rotting corpse.
Jorge Luis Borges once claimed that the basic devices of all fantastic literature were only four in number; but Carpenter, for almost his entire filmmaking career, seems to have been working on the assumption that there is just one device. Borges would probably call Carpenter's one plot the Contamination of Reality. Carpenter himself probably calls it something rather more prosaic and self-referential, because his latest film is a cocktail of Assault on Precinct 13 and The Fog, with a dash of The Thing.
A couple of hundred years into the future, human beings have colonised Mars. We are also told that society is now matriarchal, if only to take our minds off the more pressing inquiry of how it is that human beings are able to walk around and breathe on a planet with a reduced gravity and no air. But maybe that's just me being picky.
A group of miners uncovers an underground mausoleum and, before you can say contamination of reality, a supernatural force consisting of the souls of a now extinct Martian civilisation has been released to attack the red planet's colonisers. This thing—not so much a yellow fog as a red one, for this is Mars, after all—causes the miners to mutilate themselves with body piercings, wear leather, sharpen their teeth and, apparently, listen to driving rock music. But for their alarming propensity to kill those humans who remain uninfected by the red fog, they could be a bunch of harmless Death Metal fans at an Ozzfest.
Into this rich mix of drivel arrives a bunch of men and women from the Mars Police Force who have been detailed to collect Desolation Williams, a very dangerous prisoner in the person of Ice Cube, the diminutive rapper and aspirant thespian, who looks about as sociopathic as my son's Action Man.
Carpenter's Stallone-tough, sneering dialogue is no less risible. “Don't you believe in anything?” Police Lieutenant Melanie Ballard asks Desolation Williams. “I believe in staying alive,” Ice Cube snarls. But it is this line that takes the cake: “If you blow up the nuclear reactor, there'd be a huge explosion, right?” Now that's what I call smart.
Cops and convicts soon bury their differences, and their brains, as they set about combating the greater evil of the Martian menace. Which is pretty much where we came in, back in 1976, with the cops and convicts in L.A. Precinct 13, battling with invisible urban guerrillas.
Fans of Marilyn Manson and aspirant spree-killers will doubtless love this drop-tuned, three-chord paean to all things Gothic. I myself was sad to see a once inventive talent eating his own excrement.