John Carpenter's love of science fiction and horror has given fans a multitude of well-made and
exciting films. Carpenter's prowess both as a writer and adapter has made him quite popular among
horror and science fiction aficionados. Moreover, his directing skills and music composition talents
have given many of his films a surreal yet edgy quality that enables them to stand the test of time
and warrant repeated viewing. Recently, however, Carpenter's abilities as a writer and director have
become less formidable as in his early career, and fans now wonder if he once again can capture the
magic found on classics such as Halloween, The Thing, and Escape From New York.
Born January 16, 1948, in Carthage, New York, John Carpenter grew up in Bowling Green, Kentucky, where his father taught music at Western Kentucky University. Science fiction and horror films, such as Forbidden Planet (1956) and The Creature From The Black Lagoon (1954) fascinated him as a child and, in his teen years, Carpenter took advantage of such inspiration, creating his own 8mm movies, such as 'Gorgon, The Space Monster'.
In a 1978 interview with Time Out (London), Carpenter recalled one of his early movie experiences: "When I was four years old, my mother took me to see the movie It Came from Outer Space, directed by Jack Arnold. It was in 3D. I sat in the front row, and this meteor came out of the screen and blew up right in my face. I got up and ran down the aisle, completely and utterly terrified. But by the time I reached the lobby, I knew that this was the greatest thing that had ever happened to me." In a 1982 interview with Herald magazine, Carpenter's father Howard described his son's story-telling talents: "He always had a way with words, a feel for writing. He liked science fiction films - he would think up a story and type it on the typewriter by the hunt-and-peck method."
After graduating high school, Carpenter attended Western Kentucky University then transferred to the University of Southern California, where he studied film. It was while at USC that he made The Resurrection Of Bronco Billy, which in 1970 took an Oscar for Best Short Live Action Film. The momentum had begun, and in 1974 he and fellow classmate Dan O'Bannon created Dark Star, a bizarre short film that later was expanded to feature length.
The assault begins
With a feature in the can, Carpenter was ready to begin a directing career, but the studios, as always, were reluctant to try out a new talent. So Carpenter managed to secure an independent investor to make Assault On Precinct 13 (1976), a low-budget action picture that combined western ideology from Rio Bravo (1959) with the invasion sensibilities of Zulu (1964) and more importantly Night Of The Living Dead (1968). The story itself is quite simple: a vicious gang known as Street Thunder lays siege to an almost abandoned sheriff's office, within which law enforcement and prisoners must unite to fend off overwhelming forces.
Although not very successful in the United States, Assault On Precinct 13 became a cult classic in Europe, where it was a hit at the London Film Festival. Despite some success, Carpenter still could not break into the big studios, so instead he turned to scriptwriting, penning genre efforts such as The Eyes Of Laura Mars, and mainstream fare such as Zuma Beach, and Someone's Watching Me - which he directed for TV (all 1978).
The scariest night of the year
While Carpenter busied himself with writing, Moustapha Akkad took notice of the young director's success in Europe and paid him a call. In 1978, Carpenter unleashed Halloween, which would serve as the foundation for a new wave of 'slasher' films, such as Friday The 13th (1980), Prom Night (1980), and A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984). In the August 1979 issue of Chic magazine, Carpenter mused: "Halloween, true crass exploitation. I decided to make a film I would love to have seen as a kid, full of cheap tricks like a haunted house at a fair where you walk down the corridor and things jump out at you. All cheap tricks. But when you come out, you love it. I remember a William Castle film, The House On Haunted Hill, where a skeleton came out of a box next to the screen and it floated on a string out over the audience. Real cheap stuff, but I watched that and thought, 'Wow, isn't that the greatest stuff of all time!' So I thought I'd make a film like that. Fuck everybody. I don't care if this is something I shouldn't be doing. I really like it."
Halloween propelled Carpenter to popular status; it also helped push forward the acting career of Jamie Lee Curtis (daughter of Janet Leigh, the screamer in Hitchcock's Psycho, 1960), revitalised the career of Donald Pleasence, and made Michael Myers a name to be reckoned with (he was the new Dracula or Frankenstein). But there was a curse with Halloween, as money-men pinched and squeezed every ounce of popularity from the film by creating sequel after sequel, with Myers becoming less of a bogeyman and more an unstoppable killing machine.
In an August 1982 interview for Penthouse, Carpenter explained his jolting technique for Halloween: "What I was able to do with Halloween was take the time to play around with the audience's expectations. I gave them a couple of jolts to set them up, then tried to play out the rest of the film in surprises, dropping things on them when they least expected. I played on the fact that they knew what was going on. I let them get ahead of me. Then I got them."
Without taking a rest, Carpenter pushed forward, writing and directing The Fog (1980), which starred mother and daughter Janet Leigh and Jamie Lee Curtis, as well as the busty Adrienne Barbeau. Behind the scenes was producer Debra Hill, who also worked with Carpenter on Halloween. The Fog was an interesting piece filled with creepy settings and effective acting, but the story is a bit weak. The writing, however, is very strong, particularly when it comes to telling spooky goings-on. Here is but one example: "It is told by the fisherman, and their fathers and grandfathers, that when the fog returns to Antonio Bay, the men at the bottom of the sea will rise up and search for the campfire that led to their dark and icy death." - Machen, played by John Houseman, relays this campfire tale at the beginning of the film.
With several horror films under his belt (including the sequel to Halloween, which he reluctantly wrote), Carpenter was ready for a change. With wide eyes he looked to another genre, science fiction.
Of snakes and things
Carpenter was not the only one looking to change genres. Having grown up a child star and a live-action cartoon for Disney, Kurt Russell also was looking for a change. Both men came together to create the TV movie Elvis (1979), and it was this collaboration that led to Carpenter's foray into science fiction adventure with Escape From New York (1981). Carpenter's script reflected his love for westerns, and casting Lee Van Cleef (The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, among countless other films) was an inspired move.
Russell dropped his boy-next-door image and created a wisecracking, ultra-macho action hero named Snake Plissken. Snake's attitude contributes greatly to the feel of the film. For example, when Cleef explains to Russell that the President's plane has crashed in New York, which is now a maximum-security prison, Russell casually asks, "President of what?"
Working with Carpenter was James Cameron as cinematographer, who would go on to direct films such as The Terminator, Aliens, and The Abyss. Although the film's special effects now appear dated, they were cutting edge at the time of the film's release. Of these effects, the computer graphics seen in the film's opening sequence were particularly effective at the time. Unfortunately, today's CGI sequences make the clunky computer effects seen on Escape From New York look like cave drawings.
The Carpenter/Russell relationship struck gold and the two men forged ahead to create another science fiction film, this one inspired by the short story Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell, previously filmed as The Thing From Another World (1951). Scripted by Bill Lancaster (son of Burt), The Thing did not fare well when released in 1982, principally because other films of that time, such as Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977) and E.T. (1982), featured benevolent aliens with soft faces and gentle souls. The horrific transformation scenes, in which the creature assumes intermediate shapes while 'sampling' terrestrial animals such as dogs and humans, are either lauded or heavily criticised to this day. Moreover, some critics have called Lancaster's screenplay void of character development and have claimed that the actors were often stiff in their performances.
Unfortunately, most of these critics have missed the point of the film. Not only is it much more faithful to its source material, the screenplay is in fact an emotionally charged play filled with mistrust, isolation, and subsequently self-sacrifice. The talented cast then gives the play life; here are a few examples: Kurt Russell as MacReady is a cynical helicopter pilot who must assume command to maintain a fragile order; Richard Masur is Clark, a gentle giant whose bulk often gets in the way of his stoic philosophy; Richard Dysart as Dr Copper, whose logic fails under the human condition; Donald Moffat as Garry, who loses command despite his best efforts to maintain order; Joel Polis as Fuchs, whose scientific method leads to his own self-destruction; David Keith as Childs, who acts before he thinks; and Wilford Brimley as Blair, who figures out the nature of the thing and then succumbs to inexorable panic.
Commercialism versus independence
Like David Cronenberg (The Dead Zone), Carpenter ventured into Stephen King territory with Christine (1983). Killer cars were nothing new; the territory had been mined before with films such as Duel (1971) and The Car (1977). King later would return to killer vehicles three years later when he adapted his short story Trucks into the film Maximum Overdrive, which owed more to Night Of The Living Dead (with vehicles and power tools coming to life instead of the undead) than anything else.
Although well made, Christine lacked Carpenter's usual flair, although its music soundtrack and some sequences (such as the car's ability to 'speak' by using song cues, such as "you keep a' knocking but you can't come in" and "we'll always be together") were pure Carpenter. Although King was rumoured to have been disappointed with the film, the screenplay (by Bill Phillips) is pretty loyal to the source material, down to the "nothing smells better, 'cept maybe pussy" line, and the flaming 1958 Plymouth Fury that runs down its lover's enemies. It is King's source material that weakens the film, not Carpenter's direction.
Carpenter continued his softer, gentler approach with his next production, Starman (1984). One of Carpenter's most critically acclaimed moves, this romantic science fiction piece concerns a stranded alien (Jeff Bridges) who assumes the guise of a woman's dead husband. The widow, Jenny Hayden (Karen Allen) reluctantly tries to help the Starman return home. Yes, Starman is as sappy as it sounds, and yet Carpenter still manages to provide some scathing critical commentary about man's underlying fear in the face of the unknown, thereby holding firm to a thesis that he earlier had presented in The Thing. The success of Starman led to a TV series, with Robert Hayes in the title role.
Both films helped establish Carpenter as a big studio director, but as always, Carpenter would walk his own path. After directing these two films, Carpenter turned to Kurt Russell a third time, and both men tackled another genre, the Hong Kong action movie. The end result was Big Trouble In Little China (1986), a mixture of action, the supernatural, martial arts, magic, and heavy doses of camp and even a little romance. The movie was not well received and Carpenter once again realised that audiences preferred to be spoon-fed rather than enjoy films as independent entities. Big Trouble In Little China owed its source material to what were then little-known genres, and as a result few moviegoers could understand and enjoy the proceedings.
But Carpenter persevered, creating a more bizarre horror film in Prince Of Darkness (1987). Starring Dennis Dun (Big Trouble In Little China) and Donald Pleasance, Prince of Darkness was written and directed by Carpenter, although the screenplay credit went to Martin Quartermass (or should that be Quatermass, as in Bernard, who faced, among other things, The Creeping Unknown in 1956?).
Although some of the dialogue in the film borders on the ridiculous (with physics and metaphysics clashing and banging like pans on concrete), Carpenter's thesis that humans from the future are trying to communicate with contemporary 'sleepers' is chilling, particularly when the evil is seen to be unleashed in the future. The desperation felt at that moment is one of the most chilling in all of horror cinema. Most audiences failed to grasp the concept and critics dismissed the film outright - too bad, for if watched with an open mind, Prince Of Darkness is sure to cause a sleepless night.
For his next film, Carpenter went for straightforward cynicism, and the end result is the movie They Live (1988). Directed by Carpenter, the film's screenplay was credited to one Frank Armitage. In fact, it was yet another Carpenter pseudonym, this one taken from a character found in the H.P. Lovecraft tale The Dunwich Horror (see the movie version, with Dean Stockwell, in which Professor Armitage is played by the venerable Ed Begley). They Live stars professional wrestler Roddy Piper as John Nada (the last name is Spanish for 'nothing'), an everyman who discovers much to his horror that aliens have invaded Earth. These hideous creatures use sophisticated subliminal messaging technology not only to cloak their countenances but also to subject humans to mass consumerism and slavery.
With the help of some sunglasses with specialised Hoffman lenses, Nada discovers the real world underneath the billboards, magazines, radios, television sets, and other media outlets. Single-word messages, such as 'eat,' 'consume,' and 'buy' have turned humanity into mindless automations. After a much-too-long fistfight with a fellow labourer (Keith David, who played Childs in Carpenter's The Thing), Nada convinces the man to don the sunglasses also. This in turn leads them into an underground network that is working toward jamming the aliens' messages, thus exposing the longstanding invasion.
Carpenter's explanation for why he made They Live is interesting: "I wanted to return to low-budget movies that would turn a profit for the studio [because] it cost shit to make. I wanted to say something about a lot of things that were going wrong in the country at the time. There was this trend to unrestrained capitalism, it was absolute total stupidity some of it. All the problems I thought had been solved were back: censorship, racism. But I didn't want to preach. So I took a short story and adapted it. And I also wanted to make the longest fight scene in film history."
The short story Carpenter referred to is Eight O'clock In The Morning, which was written by Ray Nelson, a science fiction writer and cartoonist whose novels include The Ganymede Takeover (1967), with Philip K. Dick. After They Live, Carpenter returned to big-budget studio work, this time helming Warner's science fiction comedy Memoirs Of An Invisible Man (1992), which starred Chevy Chase, Daryl Hannah, and Sam Neill. Carpenter had nothing to do with the film's music or screenplay and for the most part his direction feels phoned in. This film represents Carpenter's career low point.
Although made one year before Carpenter directed Village Of The Damned (1995), In The Mouth Of Madness was released only a few months before the former film, and was an instant hit - although some critics simply didn't get the concept of terror over horror (a Lovecraft conception brought to the cinema by Carpenter) - and was nominated for Best Horror Picture at the Saturn Awards. Many critics have speculated that the film was more about Stephen King than H.P. Lovecraft, but these reviews, unfortunately, have relied on a most superficial assessment of the movie. Although the sketch Carpenter draws of Sutter Cane (played with creepy flair by Jurgen Prochnow) seems to be that of King, principally because the author writes best-selling books that no one can resist, the final rendering of Cane is of a recluse whose books drive others insane with fear. And this concept is the core of Lovecraft's writings. The author, who maintained extensive correspondence with other writers of his time, often discussed his desire to bring out the inner terror within his readers. Lovecraft wanted more than to illicit fear; he wanted to induce deep-seated terror, a sort of cosmic anxiety that would be difficult to shake off once a tale had been read. In The Mouth Of Madness works hard to convey this idea on screen, but it is very difficult, and in the end Carpenter must resort to showing monsters in an attempt to generate cosmic terror. The same is true for Lovecraft, whose abominations were often too horrible to describe but pages later were expounded upon in excruciating detail.
The one problem with In The Mouth Of Madness is Carpenter's desultory layers within the film, such as calling the hotel owner Mrs Pickman (after the short story Pickman's Model, which tells of an artist who draws ghouls and other creatures from true-life models) and having some of the villagers transform into misshapen monsters (this is a common theme in Lovecraft, but the most clear example is A Shadow Over Innsmouth, in which villagers are turning into amphibian-like creatures called Deep Ones). But Carpenter's deeper layers make the film a success, particularly for fans of Lovecraft. For example, the character of Sutter Cane resembles the insane violin player Erich Zann (from Lovecraft's The Music Of Erich Zann). When Cane faces a door and screams that he no longer can hold the forces back from the beyond, he is like Zann, who begins to lose his skills at playing the deranged music that keeps the Great Old Ones at bay. Then there are the abominations that chase insurance investigator John Trent (Sam Neill), some of which appear like Deep Ones. Unfortunately, the creatures lurk in the shadows; if you have a DVD player, however, you can look at the creatures at your leisure.
It is also interesting to note that Carpenter's twist in the film later would appear slightly altered in films like The Sixth Sense (1999) and The Others (2001). In Carpenter's film, Trent discovers that he may be a character 'thought up' by Sutter Cane, much like the plot twists of those later films. Critics mostly dismissed In The Mouth Of Madness, whereas The Sixth Sense and The Others were widely lauded. Go figure.
The path of the damned
In 1995, Carpenter remade Village Of The Damned, which, like his remake of The Thing was not well received. I have not read the original story (The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham), but I have seen the 1960 film, which enthralled me as a kid. Following the outline of the original, much scarier film, Carpenter opens Village in the town of Midwich, where a strange force causes everyone to pass out. When the population wakens, they find that all the local women have been impregnated. A local town doctor (Christopher Reeve) soon comes face-to-face with 10 strongly telepathic children that the local minister (Mark Hamill) wants destroyed. Trying to understand the phenomena is epidemiologist Kirsty Alley, who may or may not be Reeve's ally. With their white hair and cobalt eyes, the children look menacing, but the child actors lack the uncanny charisma of the children in the original film.
Village Of The Damned is a fine movie, but it does not come close to the original. As usual, Carpenter works wonders with celluloid, creating perhaps one of the spookiest opening sequences ever. There are other powerful sequences as well; such as when one of the boys loses his mate and the other children show no emotion for the death.
This is what Carpenter had to say about the original movie: "I must tell you, when I was 12 years old I saw Village Of The Damned, and it stuck in my mind for several reasons. The whole idea of a whole town blacking out was 'Wow!' Also, I somehow got this incredible crush on one of the girls in the original. She was the first love object I had; I wanted her to zap me and take me over and make me do whatever she wanted." (The Orange County Register, April 29, 1995.)
Village Of The Damned was produced for Universal Pictures. Although Carpenter's relationship with the studio was amicable, he had grown weary of working with big studios and wanted very much to return to making low-budget movies. Here is what Carpenter said at the time: "There was one big-budget movie I did that after it was done I thought, 'I've got to get out of this. I cannot do this anymore, I'm just not made for it.' You have to want to be a politician. I don't want to. I'm a hillbilly. I want to have a nice life." (OCR...)
On the minus side is George Corraface as Cuervo Jones. Jones doesn't come close to the ultra-hip, ultra-cool Duke of New York. This character weakens the film considerably. Another weakness s Steve Buscemi's Map-to-the-Stars Eddie, whose role it seems is to comment on happenings and provide plot synopses along the way. After Escape From L.A., Carpenter, now revitalised, wanted to return to making low-budget films with attitude. And then a script about vampires came his way.
In 1998, Carpenter revitalised vampire cinema with the film Vampires. Thanks to films such as Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1992) and Interview With The Vampire (1994), vampires had become whiney, sissy, Victorian-dripping creatures that even attempt to curb their bloodlust. Taking source material from the novel by John Steakley, Carpenter reinvigorated the bloodsucker and the venerable vampire hunters. Say goodbye to gothic and get ready to embrace attitude and action.
James Woods is Jack Crow, who was forced to kill his own father because he had been bitten by a vampire. Working for the Vatican, Crow assembles and trains 'slayers,' who systematically hunt down and eradicate hives that consist of goons (humans turned into vampires) and masters (original vampires, many of whom were created by demonology and a strong hate for the Catholic church).
Carpenter's bloodsuckers are evil incarnate; they are not suave, articulate, well-dressed socialites, but rather killing machines that secrete absolute depravity and immorality. It is refreshing to see the vampire become a true monster again; as an enemy of man, it must be destroyed. However, the vampire's appeal remains intact principally because of its immortality. As with his other films, Carpenter infused Vampires with some hilarious dialogue, which Woods spews forth with great glee. As antihero, Jack Crow is worse the Snake Plissken. Crow has little tact, a foul mouth, and a predilection toward violence.
With Vampires, Carpenter let his fans know that he had returned to his roots. With his next project, he would remind fans of a little film known as Assault On Precinct 13.
With Ghosts Of Mars (2001), Carpenter at last has embraced his past, and in turn has received well-deserved accolades from fans and critics alike. Carpenter's love of westerns, particularly Rio Bravo, his continued obsession with siege warfare (there's Romero's influential zombie trilogy), and of course the director's own work, particularly Assault On Precinct 13 and Escape From New York, all come into play in Ghosts Of Mars.
The script relies heavily on Assault, and Carpenter worked with scriptwriter Larry Sulkis (whose other credits include uncredited writing on Village Of The Damned, and producer for They Live). In 2176, Mars is being colonised, but when an archaeologist touches some protective runes, she unleashes the spirits of long-dead Martians. These spirits begin to systematically possess the miners and colonists, thereby forming an unstoppable and bloodthirsty army led by 'Big Daddy Mars' (Richard Cetrone).
Standing in the Martians' way is a motley crew of police officers and prisoners that, like in Assault, must join forces to survive. Leading the police officers is Captain Helena Braddock played by the always luscious Pam Grier, whose credits include Coffy (1973), and Jackie Brown (1977). Also on board are Lieutenant Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge, of Species fame), a two-year veteran with a drug problem, Sergeant Jericho Butler (Jason Statham), and several rookies. Taking on the lead bad-guy role is the ever-cool Ice Cube, who manages to make 'Desolation' Williams more than a simple criminal. Fellow criminals include Uno (Duane Davis), Dos (Lobo Sebastian), and Tres (Rodney A. Grant).
Logic is thrown out the window: for example, the Martians use human martial arts techniques in the battle sequences; wouldn't it have been better to have developed a 'alien' fighting art? Despite such quibbles, Ghosts Of Mars is the film that has brought Carpenter full circle. Perhaps, Carpenter is now ready again to create more films from the heart, such as Halloween and The Thing.
Carpenter's score for this film breaks loose the heavy metal riffs and percussion. Among the guest musicians invited to work on the soundtrack were Anthrax and guitarists Steve Vai and Buckethead. Some critics lambasted the soundtrack, as some tend to do for all of Carpenter's films, but metal-heads should enjoy the guitar-oriented stings, droning bass throbs, and tribal rhythms.
There is something very intimate about watching a John Carpenter movie. Whether inside a movie theatre or sitting at home in front of the TV set, audiences are easily drawn into Carpenter's movies. Although some of Carpenter's films have been better received than others, his films have never lost money for the studio. He likes working with a small group of talented actors, but he is always surprising with his casting. For example, who ever would of thought of Charlton Heston appearing in a Carpenter film?
In the August 1996 issue of DGA Magazine, Carpenter clearly stated that, although he writes many screenplays, he would much rather be regarded as a director: "I am a writer, and a director, and let me tell you something, a screenplay is not a movie, it's a bunch of words. The director makes the movie. All this other bullshit can just go away. I've had my screenplays directed by other people. The Eyes Of Laura Mars was directed by Irvin Kershner and he is the author of that movie, not me. As a director, I am the author of my movies. I know that's not a popular view with the writers, but I'm sorry. If the writer thinks he's an auteur, then let him thread up his screenplay in a projector and we'll take a look at it."
John Carpenter's... (A-Z, as director):