John Carpenter on the set of Ghosts Of Mars
During the late Sixties and early Seventies, the Hollywood that was disintegrated, the studio system broke down and out of the chaos emerged an American New Wave, similar to what was going on in Europe in some ways, stylistically different and aimed at a younger generation of folk whose outlook was very different from their parents. Generalising here, the essential difference between these two film cultures was that the Europeans wanted to break all the rules and create art, while these young American revered the product of the past and sought to stamp their own mindset upon it and produce entertainment.
John Carpenter grew up on movies, aged five, he cites It Came From Outer Space as making an indelible impression on him with its 3-D meteor crash – he was sold on fantastic films. Aged eight, he was shooting his own 8mm films and by age 16 was producing a fanzine, Fantastic Films Illustrated.
"Everyone who ever made a low budget film was influenced by Night Of The Living Dead" ~John Carpenter
I'll not dwell on Halloween other than to note that the film scared the bejesus out of us back in 1979. As with Dark Star and Assault On Precinct 13, Carpenter fills multiple roles as writer and/or editor and generally as music composer.
Carpenter went on to the TV movie biopic of Elvis still unreleased on DVD courtesy of music rights complications. It's a pity, since it is rather good and if it were better remembered, Carpenter might have had more varied movie assignments over the years.
A splendid reteaming of Carpenter and his Elvis impersonator, Kurt Russell, resulted in one of the most hip and influential of all early 80s films, Escape From New York. By turns goofy and exciting, Carpenter's cynical anti-hero, Snake Plissken, has to infiltrate Manhattan Island which has been turned into a vast open prison, to rescue Donald Pleasence' President who has become a hostage there. With varying degrees of help from a motley crew of inmates, Snake manages to save the day…sort of.
The curious rise of a group of special-effects artisans, many students of respected make-up artist, Dick Smith, provided a unique opportunity for horror filmmakers in the early Eighties. Rick Baker came to the fore with An American Werewolf In London, Rob Bottin proved himself on The Howling. The latter was hired by Carpenter and Universal Studios to provide the make-up illusions for a big budget remake of The Thing, a favourite of Carpenter's.
Greeted with critical scorn, possibly because 1982 was the year of endearing E.T.s courtesy of Mr. Steven Spielberg, the film didn't do as well as expected, but later did a raging business on home video.
"I've written a couple of real westerns… but you have to pick up all that horseshit after each shot." ~ John Carpenter
I suspect the next few years were frustrating for Carpenter, a couple of projects fell through: a Dan Aykroyd comedy, an adaptation of Stephen King's Firestarter went elsewhere, sadly. The consolation prize was a lesser King story about a possessed Plymouth Fury, Christine. Carpenter did well, aided by a cracking score of oldies mixed in with own trademark sound.
Big Trouble In Little China tapped martial arts, comedy and horror all slightly numbing in effect and definitely before its time. Perceived failure at the box office plus one suspects Carpenter's disillusion with the major studios drove him back to lower budget efforts with more control.
The first of these was the underrated Prince Of Darkness, a comic horror paying tribute to Brit sci-fi scribe, Nigel Kneale, that takes a couple of swipes at organised religion along the way.
"They Live was made as response to the horror of the Reagan years." ~John Carpenter
They Live concerns aliens that have already successfully infiltrated society. The populace made pliable through vacuous television and advertisements hiding subliminal messages to "obey" and "consume". Fear not, along comes Roddy Piper's drifter to "chew bubblegum and kick ass". As sci-fi and horror the film somewhat misses the mark, but as satire it is possibly even more relevant for the George W. era than the Reagan one.
As 1992 rolled in Carpenter got his chance to make an out-and-out comedy, teaming with Chevy Chase for Memoirs Of An Invisible Man, but despite a William "Princess Bride" Goldman script and state-of-the-art special effects from Industrial Light and Magic the film refuses to work on any level. Again one suspects the experience wasn't a happy one although Carpenter seems to have established a good rapport with actor Sam Neill that would pay off in his next film.
A remake of Village Of The Damned failed to assail the perfection of the original despite good work from Christopher Reeve, while Escape From LA brought Snake Plissken back the screen in an altogether too jokey sequel that only gels towards the end.
Vampires contains the first half of John Steakley's novel of modern day bloodsuckers and the Vatican sponsored hit squad seeking them out. Problems occur when the team encounters a particularly ferocious vampire. Slightly overwhelmed by James Woods' exuberant performance as ace vampire hunter, Jack Crow, and hurt by an awkward misogyny towards its leading lady, the film still manages some memorable set pieces. Pity the plot didn't follow the novel's most interesting twist though. Carpenter seems to have had a blast recording the score with a band entitled The Texas Toad Lickers comprising Booker T's Steve Cropper and Donald Dunn and Steely Dan's Jeffrey Baxter among others.
A certain apathy hangs over Ghosts Of Mars which languished in distribution hell for a while, Carpenter's last big screen effort again courted critical and popular disdain, possibly because it lacked the punchy in-your-face editing that is required for action movies in the digital age. The feature has certain parallels with Assault on Precinct 13 which gave his career a certain closure or so I thought at the time.
Scoring pride-of-place on the TV series for out-of-vogue horror film directors, Masters of Horror, JC provided a couple interesting efforts but I would argue that even second string Carpenter outshines the competition.
When asked: "Do you feel like you've influenced so many modern film makers like Guy Ritchie or Quentin Tarantino?" Carpenter's simple reply was: "No." But if you listen to the commentary tracks on the likes of Robert Rodriguez' Planet Terror though, you'll hear a different story.
"My own personal view of things…is that we're pulled towards doom" ~John Carpenter
The appearance of Carpenter's back catalogue on DVD has served him well and the director gives great DVD commentaries, plus the array of extras on The Thing DVD set the bar for all releases back in 1998. Whenever he is interviewed these days Carpenter projects a weary cynicism for the industry, suggesting one minute he'd like to make porn, the next saying he'd do such and such a sequel for a really big paycheck.
"In France I'm known – in America, I'm a bum" ~John Carpenter
At time of writing he has a couple of projects in the works, I still hold out the hope that the stars will align for him again to produce more memorable movie magic.