The Wonder Years
Between 1974 to 1981, John Carpenter directed five independent feature films–Dark Star, Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, The Fog, and Escape from New York. Three of those first five films–Dark Star, Precinct 13, Escape–are phenomenal motion pictures and should have established Carpenter as a significant seventies American filmmaker. They did not. Only recently have Carpenter’s accomplishments gotten their due and it’s been a long road. Carpenter, with his casts and crews, innovated–sometimes big time (popularizing POV in Halloween or steadicam usage in Escape), sometimes small (Halloween’s emphasis on female characters)–and created low budget genre films with a far greater depth and ambition than most of their big budget contemporaries.
Carpenter’s first film, Dark Star, was a collaboration with fellow University of Southern California film student Dan O’Bannon. They co-wrote the screenplay; Carpenter produced, directed, scored; O’Bannon acted, edited, and did many of the special effects. The film, shot for around $60,000, tells the story of a spaceship on a dumb mission in deep space. It’s always absurd, sometimes touching. Instead of seeing 2001 stoned, Dark Star is “2001 with stoners.” Doofus astronauts who really don’t get along, usually in hilarious ways; they also aren’t equipped–intellectually–for dealing with their mission, which turns out to be their last. Mostly just because they’re so bad at their jobs.
What Dark Star doesn’t have in budget, Carpenter and O’Bannon compensate with ingenuity, whether for special effects or just set design. The film’s got a short present action, forcing the filmmakers to establish characters and settings quickly. And, while the script’s hilarious, it’s through O’Bannon’s editing and Carpenter’s directing Dark Star reaches its rather significant heights. It’s seems like the ending, where the film gets so touching, is all thanks to Carpenter. Of course, O’Bannon is also acting–in the film’s “biggest” role (or at least the one with the most memorable moments)–so he gets to be responsible for a little more of the film’s excellence. Dark Star is the best the (too small) sci-fi comedy genre has to offer, regardless of budget.
And the film gets no love, even though it’s had numerous home video releases, including DVD and blu-ray special editions. Unfortunately, the latest blu-ray edition does not contain the sixty-eight minute version of the film–Carpenter and O’Bannon’s cut–and instead includes only the padded out theatrical release. The film’s very “un-Carpenter” and very low budget for its concept, which probably–and tragically–hinders more interest. It never even got interest for its “hunt the alien” sequence, which O’Bannon basically repeated a few years later in, you know, Alien. Not even being a proto-Alien in parts can get Dark Star love.
In addition to getting some love with his next film, Assault on Precinct 13, Carpenter also established a number of his early output’s tropes–he’s shooting in Panavision, he’s got Charles Cyphers and Nancy Kyes in supporting roles, he’s working filmic miracles without a lot of money. Precinct 13 has a relatively simple story–a police precinct under siege from a gang–albeit with quite a bit of setup and a nice assorted cast to get through said siege. There’s competition, tragedy, romance, friendship, fear, and a lot of jaw-dropping action. Even more jaw-dropping considering the film’s low budget. Carpenter handles the editing himself (along with the music) and brings cinematographer Douglas Knapp along from Dark Star, but their visual collaboration here is leagues ahead of that film.
Unlike Dark Star, which felt like a collaboration between Carpenter and O’Bannon, Precinct 13 is all Carpenter. He’s outrageous, he’s subtle, he’s sensitive, he’s vicious. The script is lean, but full of material for the actors, even in the smallest roles. There’s a sterile precision in its wide Panavision frame, but still a good deal of warmth. I’ve seen the film almost a dozen times and there’s always something else to find in it. Carpenter’s assured and enthusiastic in his film with his name possessively above the title. And the cast is phenomenal.
Assault on Precinct 13–after apparently being forgotten for about twenty years–got a lot of home video attention in the late nineties. Not just LaserDisc, but also a letterboxed VHS so people could finally appreciate Carpenter and Knapp’s Panavision composition. After some lackluster DVD releases, the film finally has a nice blu-ray release; people now get to see Assault on Precinct 13 for the first time not just widescreen, but with a great transfer. And, to a certain extent, people are seeing it. It doesn’t have the recognition it deserves–Carpenter films rarely do–but it’s got a far better one than it once did.
Carpenter’s third film is still his biggest hit. The simple story of a confused young man visiting his hometown on Halloween. Sure, he’s an inhuman, murderous psychopath on a killing spree, but it’s still a pretty simple film. Carpenter and co-writer Debra Hill split the film between Donald Pleasence (in his first of three memorable performances for Carpenter) hunting the psychopath–Pleasence was the boy’s questionably capable therapist–and three teenage girls who become the killer’s targets. Nancy Kyes is back–memorably, as always–as one of the targets, along with Jamie Lee Curtis (who would also work with Carpenter again until legitimate stardom) and P.J. Soles. Charles Cyphers is back. Besides being the first film where Carpenter worked with Hill (who also produced), it’s also his first film with Dean Cundey as cinematographer, kicking off a quintet of five stunning collaborations. Carpenter handles the music himself; it’s his most famous score.
As far as the film itself goes, I appreciate it. I do appreciate Halloween. I’m not a particularly big fan of the film, but I do appreciate it. It’s spectacularly made, but there’s just something off about it. As writers, Hill and Carpenter split tasks–she handled the teenage girls, he handled the manhunt. When the two plot lines come together, it gets messy and doesn’t end anywhere near as well as it should. But it’s a technical masterpiece, no doubt. Some excellent acting, some not so excellent acting. Great music, which does too much work. Halloween ends up being either too much of one thing or not enough of another.
For a long time, Halloween was Carpenter’s de facto most popular film. At least until the late nineties. It didn’t cease being his most popular film because of anything he did, rather because in the early days of DVD, Anchor Bay littered stores with various editions. Yes, they had a spectacular initial one, but then they kept double, triple, and quadruple dipping until it became a pain to find the right one. They might have even released it pan and scan, which is a travesty not just because it ruins Carpenter and Cundey’s composition, but because the film’s widescreen release was a big deal. Criterion released a special edition LaserDisc in the mid–1990s, with audio commentary, letterboxed, with the TV edition footage (which Anchor Bay later tracked down widescreen, something Criterion said didn’t exist) and Halloween got elevated to a better position. It wasn’t just the first in a slasher franchise. The double and triple-dipping has continued–exhaustively–into blu-ray. There’s finally a decent edition or two, but enthusiasm for the film has waned as audiences discovered there’s a lot more to John Carpenter than Halloween. There was probably also some franchise fatigue.
Following Halloween’s financial success (it was the highest grossing independent film for a couple decades), Hill and Carpenter tried another horror film with The Fog. “There’s something in the fog,” the poster warns, with Jamie Lee Curtis trying to keep something monstrous outside. It’s a very big cast and Carpenter’s first use of well-known actors (outside Donald Pleasence anyway)–Janet Leigh, Hal Holbrook–plus John Houseman in a cameo. As far as returning actors, in addition to Curtis, Charles Cyphers and Nancy Kyes are back–along with a cameo from Darwin Joston (from Assault on Precinct 13). The cast also includes Adrienne Barbeau and Tom Aktins, who’d both work with Carpenter again. The Fog is a ghost story with graphic violence and monsters and people on the run from the ghosts, who live in–you guessed it–The Fog. Cundey’s back on cinematography, Carpenter’s back on score.
The Fog is a spectacular looking film. Even better looking than Halloween, with Cundey and Carpenter having a great time doing California seaside. There are some excellent special effects, there are some good performances, some fine moments in the script, some excellent sequences. It’s a technical champ. It’s also got the same serious dramatic problems when bringing all the pieces together. Just like in Halloween, Carpenter and Hill can’t quite transition things together neatly enough. The script gets too bumpy. But The Fog’s still gorgeous.
Even though The Fog got a special edition LaserDisc around the same time as the other early Carpenter films in the nineties, it’s never really caught on. Growing up, I always knew about it as another of Jamie Lee Curtis’s scream queen movies and not a significant one. There’s an excellent blu-ray for interested viewers, but the film doesn’t seem to get discovered often. Maybe its successes are too technical and not engaging enough. But it has gotten a far better reputation than it once had.
Carpenter’s last film from this period, before going Hollywood, is Escape from New York. It’s his last film with Hill for fifteen years (until the sequel) and it’s his last film with Jamie Lee Curtis’s involvement–she provides a voice over. It’s also his first film with Alan Howarth associating with him on the score. It’s also his first film with Larry J. Franco producing (Hill’s not on the script here, just coproducing); Franco and Carpenter would work together for the rest of the eighties. Charles Cyphers is back for a bit, along with Donald Pleasence (in something of “guest starring” role). Adrienne Barbeau gets the closest thing to a female lead. But the star–besides the exceptional visual effects–is Kurt Russell. He’s a renegade bank robber in the future who has to go into New York City–now a prison island run by various gangs–and rescue Pleasence (in the future, U.S. Presidents come from Worksop, UK). Along the way he runs into oddballs like Ernest Borgnine and Harry Dean Stanton, not to mention Isaac Hayes as the Duke of New York. Tom Atkins is back in a small part, playing second fiddle to Lee Van Cleef’s future cop. They’re the ones forcing Russell to do the rescue. Action, glorious action, ensues. All beautifully shot by Dean Cundey.
Escape from New York is John Carpenter doing his biggest budget action movie and it’s phenomenal. The film moves at a great pace, with Carpenter hurtling Russell through the story. Escape only slows down once–and only for a few minutes–and then it races even faster towards its conclusion. Carpenter’s direction is inventive and deliberate; he knows when to restrain the film and when to let it go wild. And he does let it go wild. Only, with a lot of control. Wild, but with a lot of control. It’s the culmination of everything he’s been working on. Maybe not the humor of Dark Star, but everything else. It’s one of the great action movies.
Back in the nineties, when New Line Home Video released Escape from New York on LaserDisc and on a special edition VHS, Carpenter’s career had hit the skids. He had just made a Chevy Chase comedy, but here was this fantastic movie with a nice new video release. A fantastic movie a lot of people hadn’t seen, at least not letterboxed. Escape from New York had that memorable poster–the Statue of Liberty crashed down in the middle of Manhattan–and had been a hit on release, but it didn’t have the best VHS life. At least not into the nineties. New Line really saved it and kicked off a reevaluation of Carpenter’s early work. Since that first release, the film has had some weak DVD releases (New Line either lost the license or gave it up) until finally getting a blu-ray from Shout! Factory. Now everyone can see Escape from New York. But it hasn’t really caught on again like it did back in the nineties. It’s overdue for another rediscovery.
The best John Carpenter film is The Thing, which was the film he made right after Escape from New York (when he went Hollywood). Unless you’re talking about best in terms of most inventive filmmaking, in which case it’s Assault on Precinct 13. Unless you’re talking about best in terms of most ambitious–and successful–filmmaking, in which case it’s Escape from New York. Unless you’re talking about best in terms of moment-to-moment entertainment, in which case it’s Dark Star. Carpenter might not get the respect and regard he deserves, but at least people can finally see how beautifully and exquisitely he made his first films.
The Studio Quartet
With the summer 1982 release of The Thing, John Carpenter finally fully arrived in Hollywood; he’d made a studio picture. And he didn’t come alone. He brought cinematographer Dean Cundey, who shot all of he and Debra Hill’s films, and at least three from Escape from New York: editor Todd C. Ramsey, co-producer Larry J. Franco, and star Kurt Russell. The Thing would start an entirely new chapter in Carpenter’s filmmaking. Even with some of the same “pieces,” cast or crew, this period would be very different from what came before.
Four films, one for Universal (The Thing), one for Fox (Big Trouble in Little China), and two for Columbia (Christine and Starman), comprise this period of Carpenter’s career. Two with aliens, two with Russell and Cundey, two with famous composers, two with Carpenter and Alan Howarth composing, all with Franco involved to some degree. Carpenter ambitiously mounts these productions, occasionally with mixed results, occasionally with goodness, occasionally with horrifying brilliance.
That horrifying brilliance is The Thing. It’s one of Carpenter’s only two remakes. The Thing From Another World already showed up in Halloween, a movie playing on TV during some of that film’s action, and Carpenter had started paying director homage to Howard Hawks productions with his second film, Assault on Precinct 13. Hawks produced the original Thing.
The Thing is a different film for Carpenter in terms of budget (two and a half times Escape from New York’s $6 million) as well as producers. He doesn’t have comrade Debra Hill standing offside producing, he’s got David Foster and Lawrence Turman, a team of mainstream Hollywood guys. With the exception of this film, their best work was always apart (i.e. The Getaway and The Graduate separately, Short Circuit 2 together). There’s also an Ennio Morricone score: orchestral, Gothic and terrifying, not the traditional Carpenter synthesizers. The film’s screenplay (written by Burt Lancaster’s son, Bill; his only other credits were a couple of the Bad News Bears movies!) moves the action from Another World’s Arctic airbase to an Antarctic research station. While the film’s initially sci-fi discovery, it soon moves into a horrifying ordeal.
The Thing is a serious, depressing, exciting, exhausting film. Carpenter’s direction is phenomenal–he’s doing people in claustrophobic, dangerous situations, which he’s done before, but never like The Thing. There’s not much else like it. Cundey’s photography is magnificent, whether he’s doing the talking heads scenes or the phantasmagoria. The film’s Rob Bottin effects are breathtaking; Carpenter knows how to direct the effects, knows how to integrate them into the narrative, knows how to get the actors to work with them. It’s probably Carpenter’s best film. The scope of it, the subtle mix of genres, that Morricone music threatening throughout. It’s so good.
Still, if there were one John Carpenter film I thought would never catch on, it’s The Thing. It’s beyond gory, it’s hostile in its despondence, there aren’t any women; sure, it’s brilliant, but no one seemed to notice in 1982–it got terrible reviews and was a box office disappointment–and I never thought they’d come around. When I saw it at fourteen, I immediately convinced my dad to watch it before I returned the VHS rental. He’d never seen the film (thanks to those bad reviews) and The Thing is one of those movies you want to share. Or at least you did, but now everyone’s seen it. And they’ve seen it widescreen, which was impossible in the eighties and difficult in the nineties (there was a letterboxed laserdisc). It actually may have gone too far–I remember seeing someone tweet a day couldn’t go by without a random guy trying to telling someone else they just have to see The Thing.
Still, everyone should see The Thing.
After The Thing, and its disappointments, Carpenter headed to the relatively safe world of the Stephen King adaptation. Christine, released in 1983, is from before Stephen King adaptation ubiquity, but only just. Carpenter brings back Harry Dean Stanton for a supporting part (he’s the only actor from a previous Carpenter film–Escape from New York) and Alan Howarth to collaborate on the score, but otherwise it’s an all-new cast and crew. It’s also an all-new studio–Columbia–and a cast of teenagers (or actors playing teenagers) in a high school movie. Sure, it’s about a killer car, but it’s a killer car in high school. With a soundtrack of fifties pop hits; well, except Bad to the Bone. There’s a lot of undeniable personality to the film, problems or not.
The film’s beautifully made–Carpenter might not have Cundey shooting it, but Donald M. Morgan does a fantastic job on the cinematography. Christine looks phenomenal, both in the setup, suspense, and special effects; though the first half is better directed than the rest, mostly because the material’s better. Carpenter’s got a weak lead in Keith Gordon, but a solid everyman in supporting star John Stockwell. Carpenter also does get one of Alexandra Paul’s best performances. Maybe not an amazing achievement, but an achievement nonetheless.
For a Stephen King adaptation, Christine has had a relatively successful reputation. It’s not a genre with many standouts, technical or otherwise, which does put Carpenter’s contribution ahead by default. When I first started hunting down Carpenter films to watch, Christine was always on the “last to see” list of his pre-nineties work. Technical accomplishment and acceptable Alexandra Paul performance aside, it’s still just a Stephen King adaptation. One with a not-entirely undeserved okay reputation to this day.
Carpenter’s next film, again at Columbia, again with Morgan on photography (and Marion Rothman also returning from Christine on edits), is his most “Hollywood.” Well, his most successful “Hollywood” film. Not because of content (a space alien clones himself the body of recently deceased blue collar dude, Jeff Bridges, much to the surprise and consternation of the widow, Karen Allen) or the setting (crossing the country from Wisconsin to Arizona), but because of the production backstory. Michael Douglas produced the film, Bridges and Allen both should’ve been bigger stars at the time (1984) than they were, an uncredited Dean Riesner spent years rewriting it for various directors. A lot about the film–starting with the casting of Raiders of the Lost Ark star Allen and American Graffiti co-star Charles Martin Smith–makes Starman seem like grown-up, mainstream, grounded sci-fi from the Spielberg or Lucas stable.
Much like Christine, Carpenter (and Morgan) do a fantastic job on Starman, but again the script just isn’t there to support them. Carpenter does a lot of work with the actors–it’s the only love story in his oeuvre–and he navigates the film to something of a success. The script problems, seven rewrites or not, are just too much to overcome. The set pieces just don’t fit with the film Carpenter ends up making, even if they are memorable–“yellow means go very fast.” It’s almost like he doesn’t know why he needs them; they’re so at odds with the way he’s plotted his films to that point.
There’s also a wonderful score from Jack Nitzsche.
Starman’s legacy is probably Carpenter’s most troubled. It was relatively successful on release, very much so on VHS, yet it appealed far more to the Jeff Bridges and Karen Allen demographic than the John Carpenter. Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment never even got around to rereleasing it domestically with a Carpenter and Jeff Bridges audio commentary (from the UK release). Instead, they put it off until the blu-ray release; market research must’ve determined there wasn’t much “double dipping” potential for Starman. However, it does seem like the film enthusiast prejudice against the film–John Carpenter doing a sci-fi love story with a super cute Jeff Bridges–has fizzled. Unfortunately it’s been more out of disinterest than anything else. Starman is a perfectly solid eighties movie. It doesn’t transcend its problems, which makes it difficult for a rediscovery.
Carpenter’s final studio film of the eighties–Big Trouble in Little China is a bit like old home week. Kurt Russell is back in the lead, Dean Cundey is on photography, Larry J. Franco is producing, Alan Howarth is back. It’s also the only time Carpenter made a film released through 20th Century Fox. And what a film. Russell’s an obnoxious truck driver who bumbles his way into a magical Chinatown gang war. He’s got Victor Wong and Dennis Dun as his sidekicks and Kim Cattrall as his love interest. Of course, Russell’s also an idiot and it takes all of his compatriots to save the day. There’s magic, martial arts, fistfights, stolen semis, magic–wait, I already said magic. More magic. Lots of magic. Lots of humor. Lots of martial arts fisticuffs.
I was never much of a Big Trouble fan growing up. I saw it in pieces on HBO at friends’ houses, I’m sure I watched it on VHS at least once, but I never cared for it. I had a problem with absurdist humor for a long, long time, but of all Carpenter’s mainstream efforts–leaving something utterly hostile like The Thing out of consideration–it’s the most successful. Russell’s hilarious, Cattrall excels through his idiocy, Dun and Wong are both good. Villain James Hong is awesome. There’s also quite a bit of technical achievement, between Carpenter doing a lot of fight scenes and then he and Cundey’s ability to mix harsh reality, ornate Chinese decoration, American stupidity, and special effects. Big Trouble is from 1986–twelve years after Dark Star–and Carpenter’s only gotten better with how he handles humor. It’s finally accessible. So long as the viewer is ready for a buffoon “hero.”
Even though Big Trouble in Little China was such a box office bomb it sent Carpenter back to independent filmmaking, it almost immediately found a rather big audience through home video and pay cable. Just because I didn’t like the movie as a kid didn’t mean most people agreed with me. Fox even gave it a nice two disc special edition DVD–now long out of print–back in the early days of catalog DVD. More recently, however, it does seem like the least regarded of Carpenter’s popular films. Maybe not in terms of people undervaluing it, but definitely in terms of overlooking or just forgetting its existence. Even though the brand has gone through an unexpected resurgence in the last few years, along with occasional remake talk, it hasn’t led to more appreciation of the film itself.
Looking back now at this period of Carpenter’s films, it’s depressing. Things weren’t clicking. But at the time, if you’d just discovered him with Halloween and Escape from New York, you’d have been thrilled. The Thing is a peak, one very few filmmakers are going to reach. Christine’s good enough for a studio horror programmer. Starman’s interesting enough for a misfire. Big Trouble works its ass off to great result. Sure, there would’ve been bumps, but Carpenter ends this period on an uptick. He’s figured out how to make a studio picture by Big Trouble in Little China.
Of Carpenter’s four studio films, two made money, two didn’t. The better two didn’t. If it had been the other way around, who knows? But it’s the end of Carpenter’s significant output as a director. Not as a filmmaker, but definitely as a director. So how can’t it be depressing.
The Alive Duet
Following Big Trouble in Little China’s disappointing box office returns, director John Carpenter returned to low budget filmmaking. For Alive Films–and distributed through Universal, back in the Carpenter business following the failures of The Thing and Halloween III–Carpenter wrote and directed Prince of Darkness and They Live. His last two films of the eighties, the Alive Duet turn out the lights on the first half of Carpenter’s career while foreshadowing the second half.
Prince of Darkness is particularly notable as it brings back Donald Pleasance, who last worked with Carpenter on Halloween II (which Carpenter wrote and produced, but did not direct) six years before. Pleasance’s presence gives the film a very familiar feeling–he even has the same name as his Halloween character. So Prince of Darkness is visibly Carpenter, not studio Carpenter and not seventies Carpenter, but a somewhat pulpy one. Gary B. Kibbe’s photography on Prince of Darkness is muted, mundane. There’s no glamour to Prince of Darkness, so Carpenter’s able to get away with that lower budget. He’s still thinking about how to best connect with the viewer. What’s too much–and Prince of Darkness gets wackier than any other Carpenter script–and what’s acceptable. The film also returns Carpenter to his closed locations and limited cast members–they’re being held hostage by Satan slime. Dennis Dun and Victor Wong are the only other returning Carpenter players–they’re back from Big Trouble–but Peter Jason does start his run for most often cast in a John Carpenter film award. He’s got five, all theatrical, unlike Charles Cyphers who has four theatrical and two television movies.
Oddly enough, Prince of Darkness would have been one of my first John Carpenter movies growing up. It was on cable a lot; on one of the movie channels. We didn’t have cable yet, but I did see it around. I’ve got a lot more respect for it today than I ever did as a kid. The pan and scan wouldn’t have helped, but you also need a certain intellectual detachment with Prince of Darkness and I wouldn’t have had it as a kid.
Prince of Darkness got a relatively early DVD release–2000–back when Image was releasing Universal’s catalog. And people finally got to see it widescreen. Universal had pan and scanned the LaserDisc in 1988. The film’s ridden a tide of casual affection–there’s a nice blu-ray special edition and everything. It’s actually rather surprisingly because I distinctly remember it being bandied about as an example of the new depths of Donald Pleasance’s career at the time. Of course I was a kid, but I feel like I paid attention to it enough. People didn’t like back to low budgets Carpenter, not on Prince of Darkness. Maybe because Jesus is a space alien too; just saying.
So while Prince of Darkness didn’t inspire a new generation of Carpenter fan, the next one did. People loved They Live, kids, adults, whatever. Guys. Let’s be clear. Always guys, but the strangest and widest variety of them. Something about Rowdy Roddy Piper in what otherwise would’ve been a Kurt Russell role, finding out the world’s being taken over by space aliens, running out of bubble gum. It’s a lot. And Meg Foster’s in it. Meg Foster was in a certain type of movie in the eighties–genre crap, basically; at the time, They Live fit into an existing genre, something Carpenter was never comfortable doing before. The more he tried, the more he failed. Except with They Live, because he didn’t take it seriously.
He brings back Peter Jason from Prince of Darkness, Keith David from The Thing, and George ‘Buck’ Flower from–wait, George ‘Buck’ Flower is in five theatricals. Sorry Peter Jason, you lose. Anyway, some of They Live feels like it’d pair well with another Carpenter movie or pretty much anything else. It’s accessible and iconic, but it’s also occasionally lazy and not imaginatively done enough from Carpenter. His direction is perfunctory, maybe because he doesn’t have an actor to connect with. Piper’s not good enough, Foster (in the Laurie Zimmer part) is underwritten and underperformed; maybe Keith David? But the writing isn’t there.
They Live also didn’t get a letterbox release until DVD. It too was an Image Entertainment release when they had the Universal license; it came out the same day as Prince of Darkness actually. Since then it’s had rereleases and special features and a blu-ray or two. It’s become a film people have seen, which wasn’t always the case. It’s easily Carpenter’s most referenced film in pop culture; I mean, the video game Duke Nukem just ripped off all Piper’s lines but no one really realized it for a few years because the Internet was smaller back then.
After They Live in 1988, it’d be another four years before Carpenter made another film and another thirteen before he’d make one better than They Live. They’re the last of many things in Carpenter’s filmography. The last Alan Howarth collaboration, the last time Larry J. Franco is producing; they’d both been around since Escape from New York. It was the end of the archetypes Carpenter had been working with since he started–no more Laurie Zimmers, no more Snake Plisskens (not even when Snake Plissken would come back). It’d be a heck of a lot less depressing if They Live didn’t have a weak final third, because in context, the Alive Duet feel more like defeat than anything else. Carpenter tried, it didn’t work. And when he returned after four years, there’d never be any real expectation again when you saw the preview for John Carpenter’s Memoirs in the Mouth of Damned Mars Vampires.
The Mundane Years
In the four phases of John Carpenter’s career, the final one–starting in 1992 and going on eighteen years–contains almost forty percent of his theatrical output. This final period is almost an afterthought’s afterthought. While Sandy King produces most of the films, Gary Kibbe photographs most of them, and Peter Jason has a part in most of them, the films are not defined by Carpenter’s collaborations but by their lack of success, creatively, critically, and commercially. It’s a somewhat cynical way to classify these nine films, but not an inaccurate one. Nothing Carpenter does works, regardless of cast, regardless of budget. He’s no longer creating or recreating genres, he’s firmly–and often disinterestedly–in established ones. His closest thing to a success from the last half of his career is just a return to his early standards, only half as good.
Given 1992’s Memoirs of an Invisible Man kicks things off, I suppose Carpenter’s final phase could be a lot worse because Memoirs–four years after Carpenter’s last film, They Live–threatens an already asleep at the wheel John Carpenter. Memoirs is the first Hollywood “Invisible Man” with CGI, it’s an attempt at (another) revitalization of Chevy Chase’s career, and it’s the return of John Carpenter. It’s also one of the least “John Carpenter” John Carpenter films. He’s doing a studio picture without his regular supporting cast, without his regular crew (though he did previously work with editor Marion Rothman on Starman and Christine); it’s very different John Carpenter film.
It’s also an unfortunate John Carpenter film. The script is weak and Carpenter is checked out. It’s like he knows it’s not going well. The CGI’s good, anyway, but it’s fairly clear Carpenter hasn’t got any more a handle on it than he does the rest of the film. There’s a distressing lack of personality when it comes to the production, except maybe in Carpenter’s indifference.
Memoirs of an Invisible Man was a fairly big box office bomb, but it’s not like anyone blamed Carpenter exactly. You don’t blame the directors for bad Chevy Chase movies. They’re not the problem. Even when they’re bad, they’re not the problem. Since its release, Memoirs has not gotten a better reputation or a discovery. There’s nothing to discover; at least it’s available widescreen now, so you can see the Panavision, but you shouldn’t because there’s no reason to see the movie.
Carpenter’s next film, In the Mouth of Madness, stars Sam Neill in the lead. Neill was the villain in Memoirs, promoted here to an insurance investigator who has to try to stop a Stephen King wannabe from ending the world. It’s made more difficult because the entire world is going crazy from reading the author’s books. Violence and chaos ensues. It’s New Line–written by studio exec Michael De Luca no less–so some occasional gore. The film does bring back a bit of Carpenter “flavor,” with Peter Jason in a cameo, Sandy King producing (she worked on Starman through They Live), and Gary B. Kibbe on photography.
Mouth of Madness has a lot of varied fans. I’m not one of them. The Maltin guide, at least at the time, described it as (partially) Carpenter’s “best work as a director” or something to that effect, which is a ludicrously absurd (and patently wrong) claim. The acting is terrible–Neill and leading lady Julie Carmen in particular. It’s got a bad script, the production isn’t good, Kibbe’s photography is bad. Some of the editing does work out. Otherwise, it’s a too short, unfocused slog.
Of all Carpenter’s post-They Live films, which is actually almost half his career, In the Mouth of Madness easily gets the most regard. Still, it’s never had much curation on home video; solid home video releases always encourage Carpenter discovery. But I still think it’d be too much of a slog to catch on. Neill’s really lame.
Squinting at Carpenter’s remake of Village of the Damned, one can almost pretend there’s a parallel to The Thing. It’s a Universal release, it’s a remake, it’s… no, it’s just those two elements. It’s Carpenter’s only other remake and has his most “all-star” eighties genre cast, with Superman Christopher Reeve, Star Trek Kirstie Alley, and Star Wars Mark Hamill, along with Michael Paré, Linda Kozlowski, and Meredith Salenger. It’s like the perfect cast for a movie in the HBO Guide from 1987. Unfortunately, it’s from 1995 (the same year Madness got a domestic theatrical release, those two films the only Carpenter pictures from the same year–features at least). Carpenter brings back some familiar players–Peter Jason, of course, and George ‘Buck’ Flower–and crew–producer King, cinematographer Kibbe, editor Edward A. Warschilka. Village of the Damned sort of kicks off a sub-period for Carpenter, one where he’s no longer casting unappreciated character actors and leads, but trying to tap into something retro. Sort of. It might just be a signal of what kind of Carpenter films are to come.
And those films, like Village of the Damned, are going to be pretty lame. I even remember when Village of the Damned came out in the theater and I wouldn’t walk six blocks to see it. I just couldn’t subject myself to another lame Carpenter. It’s got a weak script, it’s utterly lacking in terms of Carpenter’s interest. He’s done confined towns successfully before (Halloween), even in Northern California (The Fog), but he doesn’t do anything to make it work in Damned. But Carpenter also hasn’t got any idea what to do with the “monsters” in the film. Why remake Village of the Damned if the damned kids aren’t going to be scary? Again, there’s some gore, but not to any great effect.
Village of the Damned had a decent Universal LaserDisc release–which I also couldn’t bring myself to purchase back in the nineties because the movie’s crap–and a late DVD release, but has since had a Blu-Ray release with some kinds of special features. Not enough to make it worth a look (Carpenter doesn’t contribute an audio commentary); it’s another sore thumb in Carpenter’s nineties bevy of sore thumbs. I don’t think I’ve ever even heard of anyone liking it.
However, while the nineties didn’t bring much in the way of good John Carpenter, the decade did do something to (temporarily) resurrect Kurt Russell’s stardom and he utilized it to get Escape from L.A. made. Released fifteen years after Escape from New York, Russell’s the only returning actor, though the film does finally reteam Carpenter with Debra Hill. She and Russell produce; she, Russell, and Carpenter write. Kibbe’s back on photography, Warschilka on edits. The film also reunites Carpenter with production designer Lawrence G. Paull, who did Memoirs (though one assumes his Blade Runner experience came more in handy than that one). And Peter Jason’s back, of course.
It’s a film with a lot of familiar actors–from standards like Cliff Robertson and Stacy Keach to trendier ones like Pam Grier, Bruce Campbell, and Steve Buscemi (as Russell’s sidekick)–and some solid performances, but it doesn’t work out. If his nineties output showcases anything about Carpenter, it’s his inability to work with CGI. Escape from L.A. relies heavily on it to terrible result. And Paull’s production design turns out pretty lame. I was a moderate fan when it came out–as a teenager–but I was hopefully just hopped up on “Starlog” press about it.
If anything, Escape from L.A. starts Carpenter’s final phase of his nineties work, where he gets a bit of a pass. Unlike almost every other Carpenter film, Escape has never had anything approaching a special edition. Russell’s star power got a grateful studio–Paramount–to make the film, but after it flopped (and helped knock Russell’s career back down), it’s not like they were going to put anything into special features. The film’s since been released on Blu-Ray (from Warner, through their Paramount catalog deal), but still without special features. Presumably there’s nothing anyone wants to say about it; though people do watch it. There are some Carpenter films from the nineties no one watches (Memoirs of an Invisible Man, for instance).
And so, Vampires, Carpenter’s last film of the nineties, gives him a perfect post-Kurt Russell lead in James Woods and a strong supporting cast. Unfortunately, most of that strong supporting cast gets killed off too soon and it’s not like Woods has a good face-off with lead vampire Thomas Ian Griffith. The film’s got a high concept–the Vatican employs a band of vampire hunters, led by Woods, and they get in trouble. That trouble involves combining a road movie with a star-crossed romance (not even for Woods, but Daniel Baldwin and Sheryl Lee). There’s comic relief too, albeit entirely thanks to Woods’s yelling. Carpenter’s nineties crew stable is present–King, Kibbe, and Warschilka; but… the film’s distressingly without a Peter Jason appearance.
Before it came out, I was waiting what seemed like forever for Vampires to get picked up for domestic release. Columbia eventually picked it up–Carpenter’s first Columbia Pictures release since Starman in the eighties–and it’s not a terrible film. I mean, it’s boring, dramatically inert, entirely phoned in creatively by Carpenter, but it’s watchable. It’s also maybe the only Gary B. Kibbe photography to impress me. He does a lot better with the New Mexico location shooting than one would think.
The film doesn’t have much of a reputation, but it does have enthusiasts. Again, it’s James Woods in a John Carpenter movie called Vampires. You get what you paid for (and not a thing more).
After five films playing with different genres (and sub-genres), in 2001, Carpenter went as back to basics as he could, sort of remaking Assault on Precinct 13, only on Mars with zombies–or, more accurately, Ghosts of Mars. Even with a limited budget, it had the biggest mainstream, “name” cast for a Carpenter film in years. Leads Natasha Henstridge and Ice Cube were at (or near) the tops of their careers and showy co-star Jason Statham was about to be on his way up. Pam Grier and Robert Carradine are back from Escape from L.A.. Peter Jason returns. Kibbe and King are back, with Paul C. Warschilka (Edward’s son) handling the edits. Carpenter even co-writes (with Larry Sulkis), which goes a lot better than the L.A. script, even with less budget.
I’ve always had something of a soft spot for the film, which I saw reluctantly in the theater; Carpenter’s not reinventing the wheel with the handling of the special effects, but at least he’s trying. There’s a mix of miniature and CGI, with the CGI nicely blending in the miniatures; Carpenter knows how to make this film. His cast isn’t the best in terms of, you know, acting, but they’re all eager. Unfortunately, a lot of the editing implies shortcuts–whether actual or just perceived–and Warschilka, fils isn’t particularly subtle with his cuts. Still, it works out far better than expected. Carpenter’s got ideas, context, and momentum, something his nineties films otherwise severely lack.
Ghosts of Mars, despite being somewhat well-received and having a number of casual fans, has never garnered much more attention. It doesn’t really deserve much more, but it does deserve some. It’s workman, but gloriously so. I should note some Carpenter fans really can’t stand it–I spent years trying to get it on the “Alan Smithee Podcast” schedule but my co-host steadfastly refused.
Following Ghosts of Mars, it was another nine years until Carpenter’s next feature. The Ward is Carpenter’s only ghost story–and his only period piece (the film’s set in the mid-sixties)–and his only eighty-five percent female cast. It takes place in a women’s mental hospital, features no Carpenter regulars in the cast or on the crew. It’s just him (and some of his regular effects crew).
It’s a disappointing film, no doubt, but not an entirely worthless one. There’s some bad acting and some okay acting. The script’s weak. The lead (Amber Heard) is one of the bad performances, which never helps. But there are twists and turns, even if Carpenter’s not really good at this kind of film. He just doesn’t care enough.
The Ward has become an footnote in Carpenter’s filmography; maybe it never was anything more than a footnote in it. I’m fairly certain I’ve never talked to anyone else who’s even seen it. The Ward’s biggest impact is–since its release–there hasn’t been much clamoring for Carpenter to return to the director’s seat.
Since I was a teenager, I’ve wanted John Carpenter to stage a great comeback. The strange thing about these seven films is any of them could have been a critical comeback for Carpenter. He could’ve created a special effects driven comedy genre, he could’ve done super-literate gore, he could’ve done moderately budgeted, moderately successful genre remakes, he could’ve made an Escape from L.A. so awesome Escape from Earth got greenlit before the first Sunday box office was in, he could’ve started a series of awesome collaborations with James Woods, he could’ve done sci-fi Westerns on a budget, he could’ve done great twenty-first century low budget, CG-enhanced horror. But he didn’t do any of those things. It just didn’t work out. It sucks. But it didn’t work out.
What has worked out is the preservation and presentation of Carpenter’s films on Blu-Ray, usually thanks to Shout! Factory. And it’s not like Carpenter isn’t finally interested in doing something; it’s just music, not movies. At least not directing them. Maybe it’ll be a good thing.
It can’t get much worse than Memoirs of an Invisible Man, after all.