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.