When I was fifteen, it was a very good year. It was a very good year for John Carpenter fans. Maybe more than his fans, it was a very good year for his reputation. He was coming off Memoirs of an Invisible Man, his most mainstream film in eight years and it had bombed hard. But in June of 1994, when New Line Home Video released Escape From New York on LaserDisc in a collector’s edition, as well as on VHS with a “director’s special edition,” which had some of the same features. But was also pan and scan.
I was vaguely familiar with Carpenter. I had seen and liked The Thing (after years of hearing it was terrible), I had seen and liked Starman (it was a family favorite), I had seen and did not like Halloween (after years of hearing it was the only good slasher movie), I had seen and did not care for Big Trouble in Little China (if you had a friend with HBO in the late eighties, you saw Big Trouble a lot), I had seen and did not care for Memoirs of an Invisible Man. I was, in my younger days, quite the Chevy Chase fan.
One of the guys at the video store sent me home with the Escape From New York special edition VHS. I was back the next day to buy it. I think with scrounged together pennies. I made my mom and sister watch it with me either that night or immediately following. I loved Escape From New York.
And I started seeing other Carpenter films, so by October 1995, when I had moved from “special edition” VHS tapes to my own LaserDisc collection, I bought The Fog sight unseen. And I watched it. Probably twice in a row, the second time with the commentary. And it got me to appreciate Carpenter’s filmmaking. I would have shown the Fog (on LaserDisc in its glorious Panavision OAR) to my friends. I might have even made my sister watch it. I loved The Fog.
Then came Escape From L.A.. Wait, what? A fifteen years late sequel. Kurt Russell, on a second career high, got to bring back Snake Plissken. He and Carpenter palling around for the Escape From New York commentary got their wheels spinning. I saw it opening night. And I loved it, which is really embarrassing because it’s terrible.
That November–I guess Criterion couldn’t make it happen for Halloween–they released a special edition of Halloween. CAV LaserDisc. The film was now legitimized. And I’d seen it a few times. And I still didn’t like it. Whenever I finally bought the LaserDisc (not at release), I had done so for the special features. I wanted that Carpenter, Debra Hill and Jamie Lee Curtis commentary. I knew his commentary tracks were awesome.
(Halloween is still my least favorite Carpenter film of this era, even if it is better than The Fog).
In February of 1997, Image released Assault on Precinct 13, which I think I saw right away and hated the cover art for the LaserDisc. I tried transferring the commentary and effects track to Sony MiniDisc. I was a commentary fiend back then. And, of course, I loved Precinct 13.
Carpenter didn’t disappear–I couldn’t wait for Vampires, which teamed him with James Woods, another of my nineties enthusiasms–but I did have to wait. Its distribution was a nightmare of looking through “Entertainment Weekly” or maybe reading “Dark Horizons” hoping for good news. But it was a time for appreciating old Carpenter, not new.
And then, in August 1998, Universal Studios Home Video released The Thing in a Signature Collection LaserDisc release. Universal made some great LaserDiscs, but usually of popular films. The Thing had been a box office failure. But Carpenter was draw on LaserDisc–his Panavision composition can’t be pan and scanned well. All these special editions with the great commentaries would introduce Carpenter to a whole new audience–the casual home video consumer, trying out the new DVD format. All these LaserDisc special editions soon became early DVD special editions.
These films–and these LaserDisc releases–forged Carpenter’s ironclad reputation as a filmmaker. No matter how many Children of the Damned or Memoirs he made, no matter how crappy remakes of his films got, no matter how many times Anchor Bay released Halloween on DVD, Carpenter’s reputation leaped out of the hole Memoirs dug. No one liked Memoirs. Even with awesome special effects as CG-appreciation became a mainstream fixation, no one liked Memoirs. I’m sort of scared I liked Memoirs in the theater now, because I remember renting it on VHS and I have no idea why I would have done such a terrible thing.
These five Carpenter films still get all the hype–they’re still the ones in the public consciousness, whether through remakes or awesome new Shout! Factory blu-ray special editions. The commentary tracks usually make it over too, which is fantastic. Not quite the same thing as Criterion putting out Halloween and forcing it into the film enthusiast consciousness (complete with a reassuring clip of Siskel and Ebert explaining why it’s okay to like Halloween), but the content is out there for people to discover. It’s just the community isn’t there, which is too bad.
As for Carpenter, he just put out an album, Lost Themes. I love it.