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A Tribute to John Carpenter Pt. 2

Posted on October 31, 2013 at 8:40 PM

A Tribute to John Carpenter (Part 2)

Read Part One Here



By the early 1980s, everyone knew who John Carpenter was. Even though his last film, The Thing, underperformed, with the box office success of Halloween and The Fog, his name was associated with horror and he wasn't going to slow down just yet as his next project was to tackle the Stephen King novel, "Christine." The funny thing is, the novel hadn't even come out yet. King's name was so big at the time that the studio bought the rights, got the script written by screenwriter Bill Phillips and had Carpenter prepping production before the book was even published.  That's thanks to the relationship King had with producer Richard Kobritz who got early manuscripts of the book.

All that being said, Carpenter was probably not as involved in the early processes of the film as he often is in his movies. Everything was moving along and then he was attached to direct: one of the biggest names in horror film at the time with arguably the biggest name in horror literature teaming up.

Here, Carpenter sets a shot with actor Keith Gordon. The book and film are entirely different from each other, but that's more because the writer nixed early plot elements and Carpenter probably didn't have early access to those manuscripts like the writer and producer had when they put it together. Still, the movie is a fun watch.


1983's Christine was a movie I remember playing on TV a lot in the 1990s. I hadn't seen it in years until recently to do this blog, but I can now see why: it's a pretty safe R-rated flick with it's biggest editing issues for the censors probably being the language. There's not a lot of gory things and nothing too violent that wasn't on television at the time. Plus, it's about a killer possessed car killing people and that's just silly.


But that doesn't take away from the fact that Christine still holds up fairly well. It may not be as ambitious or unique or even scary as other Carpenter films, but it has good characters throughout it. Arnie (Keith Gordon) is what really holds it together as he's this loner kid who finds this car, makes it his own, and it begins to change him to the point of being a dirtbag. While most people remember Christine the car, they're really not seeing what the film is actually about: it's about Arnie. It's about obsession. It's about losing yourself with a material object and not even realize it, the same way someone might lose themselves in drugs and alcohol and not recognize the person in the mirror.

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Plus, love this theme. One of my favorites of Carpenter and John Carpenter and Alan Howarth. Like the film, the main theme is about escalation, slowly building and building to its climax.

While Christine isn't close to Carpenter's usual fare, the element of solid filmmaking and suspense is still there. It's in the same vein as Halloween: more thriller than horror, and there are some great thrills to be had, notably its unflinching honesty about its main character. Plus, it made it's money back at the Box Office, being low-budget already helped in that regard, which kind of made up for The Thing underperforming.

After that, Carpenter did one of his most riskier films but one that I think is criminally underrated. Yes, by now he's known as the horror-guy, but at his heart he's just a good director and 1984's Starman, about an alien that comes to earth and falls in love, is a beautiful piece of filmmaking.



Here Bridges goes over the script in between shots. Carpenter is quoted "Jeff Bridges is the greatest, as an actor and a person. He's the best actor of his generation, bar none."



At it's core, it's It Happened One Night (another reviewer's comparison) meets ET (my crappy comparison). An alien comes to earth, takes the form of a widow's former husband and they go on a road-trip. Along the way, the alien starts to exhibit strange powers while trying to understand humanity.  The screenwriters would go on to write Stand by Me a few years later, and it had that similar feel of nostalgia and "coming of age." Only instead of children you have an alien understanding life and making dead deer come to life.


It's a hard movie to explain, actually. It's a small film full of small moments, and that's what makes it work. That and the fantastic acting by its stars, a dreamy Jeff Bridges and the gorgeous "girl next door" Karen Allen. Best of all is that it did really well for itself. Bridges was nominated for an Oscar and Golden Globe, Karen herself with some genre awards and so on.



Starman didn't break Box Office records, but it at least made some people give some nominations to a genre film about an alien in love.


Though success, either critically or financially, was a bit up and down, Carpenter's track was at least consistent.  His next films didn't get anywhere near any of that though, and the industry seemed to turn on him.


Big Trouble With Little Success

Big Trouble in Little China is a favorite of a lot of people from my generation. I think, like me, it was a film that seemed to be on TV quite a bit and just was a hell of a lot of fun. But that was later. It's one of those films that you appreciate in hindsight if anything for the creativity involved. It's b-movie action at its best, and that was kind of the point. I think that point was lost on a lot of people when it was released in 1986.


Carpenter and Russell reuinited on this promo shot for the film. You can just feel the aura of fun and senselessness of it already.

In it, we have Kurt Russell back in the saddle - an interesting turn of phrase now that I look at it because Big Trouble was originally going to be a western. About a cowboy instead of a truck driver and a stolen horse instead of a stolen big-rig. Carpenter always wanted to do a western, or a fantasy western, or basically have a bunch of cowboys fighting men with magical powers based on Chinese lore and in the early 80s screenwriters Gary Goldman and David Weinstein had such a script. Though that didn't quite come to fruition, mainly because of studio involvement and rewrites and WGA lawyers I'm sure, but Kurt Russell's Jack Burton is as "cowboy" as they come: fast to shoot first and ask questions later as long as he gets his big-rig back at least.

It was full of tongue-in-cheek humor and homages to a lot of classic action tropes and was a movie that kind of knew what it was and just played around with it. Unfortunately I don't think the producers quite got that which is why the film can kind of be seen as a mess. But it's a lovable mess, and that's because of Russell's performance and Carpenter just having a handle on it all and having a good time.


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Though, this might be something Carpenter might want to forget. Ah...the 80s.


Big Trouble was rough. Real rough. Much like The Thing, it didn't do so hot by critics and by the box office and wouldn't really get that cult following until later. You can tell by the trailer or even the music video above that maybe the studio didn't quite know how to market the thing to begin with, not that their interference in its production helped in the first place. Due to its failings, Carpenter had a rough go for the years to come to get anything going. Carpenter, after falling out with the studio, in 1986 is quoted "Hollywood is a weird place. The film industry has changed. Business is bad. Directors are treated like bums now. This is a bad time for creative people. Hollywood is a mean place to work."

It's sad when you look back. Starman in 84 was nominated for awards and did pretty well for itself, then a few years later everyone turned on him. He kept at it, though, and in 1987 he returned to his horror roots and reunited with actor Donald Pleasence and character actor Victor Wong for Prince of Darkness: which Carpenter labels the second in his "Apocalypse Trilogy" that began with The Thing before it, only this one he actually wrote himself (the first time since The Fog though he also wrote the film Black Moon Rising in 1986) only under the guise of "Martin Quartermass."


With Prince of Darkness, Carpenter returned to his low-budget horror movie roots with mixed results. As a fan of his work, I appreciate the film quite a bit. However it's flawed, but in that "reach exceeding its grasp" kind of way. Still, it's wonderfully shot with great framing and lighting and use of an old church that becomes a character itself.

I didn't see Prince of Darkness until much later. It's certainly the black sheep of his Trilogy and certainly one that wasn't all that easy to find, though I do remember the VHS box. Specifically, I was rummaging around a local video store in the late 1990s and going through their lackluster horror section and just remember the box. For some reason, I didn't really pick it up back then and really only saw the film a few years ago for the first time. As a fan, I enjoyed it, but it's not a strong film. It's a movie with ideas but little to connect those ideas together.

Prince of Darkness is a solid thriller more than outright horror, focusing on suspense than scares, though much of it is muddled and makes little sense. Carpenter was interested in theoretical physics and wanted to blend horror, religious allegory and science. Well, that was some strange ingredients to throw in to the pot and eventually it starts to boil over with nonsense. Though Prince of Darkness is a hard film to follow, its pace kind of all over the place and acting as well, it has some incredibly imagery and looks damn good for a film that, reportedly, only cost about three million to make. If you go in to it thinking it as surrealist horror, you might enjoy it more.

Carpenter's They Live two years later, on the other hand, was less strange horror and more social commentary. Well, the best of science fiction often is, but here it's direct. It's about 80s consumerism and, as Carpenter note himself a "response to the horror of the Reagan years." It was the late 80s, Regan would be out of office in a year or so, and They Live is pretty much a reflection of all that. In another interview he notes that "…it's a document of greed and insanity. It's about life in the United States then and now. If anything, things have gotten worse."

Plus it has the most recognizable line of any John Carpenter film. It had quite a few one-liners and zingers in there, showing Carpenter could have a touch of dark comedy when it suited the material.

And that's why people love They Live. It's not the extended fight scene between Keith David and "Rowdy" Roddy Piper, or the fancy sunglasses to detect aliens or even about the sense of fear and paranoia…it's that all those things are representative of something. The fight represents fighting for the truth (in its own clumsy way) as Roddy will absolutely not give up on getting David on his side, the sunglasses about seeing the truth and that sense of fear and paranoia about not trusting authority, whether it be companies selling us something, our nightly news or our political system. Or I could just be bullshitting all that because in the end, it's a cathartic release of pent up frustration on society as Piper just goes around killing people.

Though it has all that and a Hell of a lot to say, Carpenter actually adapted it from a short story, at least on the conceit of it all. Everything else, notably the political angle, is entirely from Carpenter. Like Prince of Darkness, he only had about three million to work with, cast Roddy Piper after meeting him and got Keith David back from The Thing, specifically writing the character of Frank for him. As a result we have incredibly likeable characters doing a hell of a lot with very little, and I'd also say we have Carpenter at his most creative as writer, producer and again, scorer of the soundtrack.

On the left, Carpenter takes a moment to pose with a couple of those aliens on They Live. On the right he sets a shot with Roddy Piper for the very famous "reveal" scene where he realizes his sunglasses are a little more than just sunglasses.

I find They Live just an absolute brilliant film. Though it's very much a product of its time, much like Escape From New York it has a way to still be timeless in its themes and situations. It's a clever script from beginning to end. However, it still didn't do all that well, and Carpenter found himself at a bit of a crossroads as he decided to play the studio-game again on his next picture.


Memoirs of the Mixed 90s

The decade of the 90s wasn't great for John Carpenter. He's the type of guy that would probably admit that, and would especially admit it starting with his first film in 1992. Should I spend more than a minute talking about Memoirs of an Invisible Man? If John Carpenter was reading this, he'd probably say "Shit, just leave it off." He probably said the same thing about having his name above the title, which is why it's the only John Carpenter film to not have "John Carpenter's..." slapped on it. The reason? Carpenter knew it wasn't his film and he knew the studio would have final say in everything because Hollywood "is in the business of making audience-friendly, non-challenging movies." he noted.

"To survive you have to withstand the changes in the business. This business has gone through so many changes since I was young and now it is on to something else. It is all weird today, for me, because I am from the old times. You just have to keep adapting. Isn't that Darwinism? The creature that adapts to its environment survives." - John Carpenter in 2010

It's not a Carpenter film so we won't spend too much time on it, but it at least had some interesting ideas. The studio bought the rights to the book for over a million dollars and Carpenter wasn't even their first choice as director. He was attached to it after the original director (Ivan Reitman) and screenwriter (William Goldman) left and was nothing more than a vanity project spearheaded by star Chevy Chase, which is why the original director and writer left in the first place according to Hollywood tales. Carpenter had little to do with anything and probably only took up another studio gig for the paycheck. Unfortunately it was a big picture that didn't make any money at all and the critics made damn sure of that.

After that, he was even more up-and-down. First was Body Bags, a film where he was one of three directors on and that wasn't meant to be a film at all. At the time, HBO's Tales From the Crypt was huge and Showtime, HBO's rival pay-network, wanted to try their hand at it. He was taxed to produce the series and direct two of the episodes, but Showtime ended up pulling the plug and we ended up with a horror anthology film instead.

As a result we have a pretty solid flick, though it's nothing really to write home about mainly because you can tell it's cobbled together and that it still feels very much "TV." His segments were still entertaining, though, as was Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre/Poltergeist) with his. But it's kind of "made by horror fans for horror fans" because within it can be found a ton of horror staples: Sam Raimi, Roger Corman, Wes Craven and Corman and Hooper themselves as well as a lot of "that guy/girl" actors such as Mark Hammil and Stacy Keach.


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Body Bags is being remastered and released on Blu Ray for Nov 2013 release, this promo shows a few of the "making of" featurettes. It's been out of print on DVD for a long time, going for 50 bucks on Amazon these days, so this is nice to have for any horror fan.

Though those past two projects were miss and hit, at least to a degree, Carpenter came back in force with In the Mouth of Madness in 1994, the final installment of his "Apocalypse Trilogy" and probably the last great film Carpenter made. And by "great" I mean "it took a decade or so, but people seem to now see it as incredible."

It's a love-letter to Lovecraft as we follow an insurance investigator (Sam Neill) traveling to a remote town to hunt down a "lost" horror writer and, well, madness ensues. Describing it doesn't quite do it justice because In the Mouth of Madness if a film you have to find yourself lost in, just like Sam Neill's character, and try to make sense of it all. Unlike Prince of Darkness, though, there's more focus and direction to it all as it plays with you psychologically.

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Lovecraft's stories are a hard piece of literature to adapt, but Carpenter did a smart thing: he just looked to capture the spirit of the author's work, not try and be literal. As a result, we have something that's faithful to Lovecraft without even be adapted from his work.

That doesn't make it perfect, though. The path through the Mouth is brilliant, but some elements in its third act might just leave you cold and scratching your head. One thing you can't deny is the ending, which is pretty bold and daring and probably why most Carpenter fans like myself look at it as a return to form. It's less neat, less perfect and more dark than we've seen in quite a while.

Perhaps it was the fact that Mouth of Madness took place in a small town with crazy people that John Carpenter followed it up with a remake, Village of the Damned, the following year. As it stands, it's not a good movie. Not because it tried to "remake" the original but because there wasn't anything to really "redo" in terms of the original in the first place. It pretty much has the same beats and big scenes with few surprises or style to it, unlike Carpenter's remake of The Thing which re-invented it from the ground up and took a completely different route from the original.

On the left a lobby card for In the Mouth of Madness showing the stars and director. On the right Carpenter and Christopher Reeve on set of Village of the Damned.

Conceptually, it's a great story. But it's just poorly executed and thus making it kind of, well, pointless in the end. Bas casting, a bad script to be honest, and dumb decision like changing the story location made it all a wreck. Is it watchable? Yeah, it's at least that. But it's also painfully bland and uninspired and a movie well worth skipping.

After that, Carpenter actually went on a small little renaissance, at least for genre fans with Escape from LA, his sequel to Escape From New York and reuniting with Snake Plisskin himself, Kurt Russell, Vampires, an inventive and sometimes fun, though sometimes ponderous, vampire flick and Ghosts of Mars, a melting-pot of Carpenter's films in the past.


Escape to a Last Hurrah

Escape from LA is an incredibly fun film. Sure, it's not the original, but there's a sense of go-for-broke in it and seeing Russell, here 15 years after the first film, just slide right in to Snake's eyepatch and tight leather is glorious. Like the first, it's a dystopian and often crazy-violent action movie, unlike the first it's not as aware of its surroundings. You can go back and watch Escape From New York and see it as a place and time reaction of its era. LA doesn't quite have that, which probably shows more of the uninteresting and lack of distinction the 1990s had more than anything.

After the massive 1994 earthquake, apparently this got Kurt Russell and John Carpenter thinking and, with Debra Hill, they revived the LA script that had been kicking around for a decade. Word has it that it was Russell who really spearheaded the thing. Though it didn't pay off critically or commercially at the time, looking back to the time and place I think people have warmed up to it over the years - just like the Carpenter movies of old. It's violent, certainly a classic throwback to the 1980s in style and blood and all that good stuff, and, as I said, it just throws it all against the wall and doesn't care if something sticks or not. In a way, I kind of have to admire that.

While I certainly won't call it a "flawed masterpiece" I sure as Hell will call it a "flawed entertaining-as-Hell" movie. Here we have Carpenter and Russell (who fit in to same costume he did 15 years prior) on set.

Shortly after that Carpenter dished out Vampires, his first foray in to, well..vampires. At least that I'm aware of. Like any of his takes on classic stuff, he had some twists in how it all came out: here its about a group of mercenaries hired by the Church to kill vampires. I don't need to say much more beyond "James Woods is the leader" and you can probably get the idea. It's full of clever scenarios involving the blood-suckers, especially how they die, all with James Woods giving his cynical snark to it all.

Vampires almost didn't happen as Carpenter contemplated retirement from filmmaking, but the project was dropped in his lap for consideration, and he still hadn't made that western he yearned for going back to Big Trouble, and here was pretty much a western. Only with vampires. And James Woods. And pretty awesome gore effects, so much so it was supposedly inches away from a flat out NC-17 rating.

Amazingly, the film was a hit. A huge hit. It was #1 at the Box Office, something Carpenter hadn't seen in over a decade and genre fans seemed to thoroughly enjoy it's Hard-R, no bullshit attitude towards vampires (similar to From Dusk Til Dawn a few years earlier). The same goes for me.

Though Vampires had good returns, critically it was kind of awash, probably because for its violence and gore more than anything. Carpenter took on the next decade with two features. The first, Ghosts of Mars in 2001, was a film that seemed to draw from a number of Carpenter's past films. It has some elements of The Thing, in that an alien "virus" of sorts can infect humans and turn them in to non-human barbarians, as well as have a through-line of a small group of people in a deserted location, as well as Assault on Precinct 13, in that that small group of people have to fight all those barbarians.

It had itself a solid cast, with Ice Cube, Jason Statham and Natasha Henstridge, but probably fell victim to its own conventions. But here's the thing: I kind of relish those conventions. Ghosts of Mars is a film lost in time: a movie that if it were made in 1985 would have been astounding (plus it kind of looks like it came from that decade) but in 2001 it didn't have enough to it. Even worse is that it cost about 30 million, middle-of-road in terms of budget in 2001 so not exactly low-budget b-movie budgeting here, yet made no money. Even Carpenter's usual fare for his soundtracks offered nothing memorable. And I think that's how most look at Ghosts of Mars: just not all that memorable.

Carpenter noted he was burnt out by this point in his career. Is it a bad film? That's hard to say. It's creative at times, but it also feels as though it's just going through the motions other times resulting in dullness. And with this concept, it should be anything but dull.

After a quick stint with Masters of Horror, directing two episodes (with Cigarette Burns probably being the best of those with it's concept alone - a horror movie that drives people insane which brought back similar notions from In the Mouth of Madness), Carpenter's last film released was The Ward in 2010.

As sad as it is to say, The Ward isn't necessarily Carpenter's worst film, it's up there though, but it's the film that he seemed so bored with on a technical level. There's no spark or anything interesting happening here. Perhaps it was because he didn't write it, but he didn't write The Thing either. If you're a completionist, I saw see it, but it's more of a film you think about and just reflect on John Carpenter's past work while watching.



They Live...With Final Thoughts

John Carpenter helped shape the genre film world. Nobody can argue that. His films are a part of pop culture and he's a name synonimous with horror and science fiction. It would be some time before I really got in to knowing who John Carpenter was and his films. Sure, I think I might have flipped by a Big Trouble in Little China, They Live or Escape From LA sometime in the 1990s cable binge-watching, because those always seemed to be on television for some reason, but I didn't really start knowing and appreciating him and his work until I started working in a video store in high school and, by the time college rolled around, became a fan of the horror genre as a whole.

At the heart of it, he just knew how ot tell good stories. Well, when the script was working in his favor, at least. In terms of his ability to direct, he just had such a great handle on how to handle a scene. They call it a "cinematic language" and he'd choose certain angles or positioning of the set or lens usage or just hwo to bring out that "widescreen" element where every corner has something or someone in it. He was bold, and he inspired early on, making younger filmakers take many of his ideas on themselves. Perhaps when he contineud to try and do it, he just fell behind because audiences tastes and expectations weren't as open anymore. A great example of that is Halloween II where Carpenter, noticing that all the newer slasher movies were bloodier and goorier, came in himself to do reshoots to try and match that heightened audience expectations.

By now, though, despite the ups and downs and the lackluster finale, the book on John Carpenter's legacy is written whether he wants to admit to it or not. I don't know if it's humbleness or cynicism, but he never gives himself enough credit going by the various books and interviews on him. He should. Because we do. And Halloween just wouldn't be the same without him.

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