|Original art by Stephanie Murr 2016|
It's not a bad time to be John Carpenter. Sure -- it could be BETTER, but when has that not ever been the case? I can't think of another director who was so consistently and almost problematically ahead of his time; not because the movies weren't good, but because they were often a masterpiece of one kind or another that was simply too much for audiences at the time to appreciate. Look at The Thing, today rightly considered one of the greatest horror films ever made in the history of the medium. Witness the love Big Trouble In Little China gets from people who grew up with it on cable or VHS, or have discovered it in the last decade or so, and remember that at the time it was released that it was considered a giant failure. Neither of these examples are news to anyone who follows or has interest in these sorts of things, and this legend that's grown up around the man as being, as his first onscreen antihero Napoleon Wilson would also be thought of, "a man out of time" is now old hat to many. We hear it and almost dismiss it -- water's wet, the sky is blue, and John Carpenter shoulda had a better career. He shoulda been more appreciated when he was really going for it.
Well, he wasn't. And yes, this is a shame. Perhaps if The Thing had been the hit it should have been things would have been different (it almost certainly would have been). Prevailing wisdom tends to blame the period of time the film was released for the audience's unwillingness to follow Carpenter into the nihilism & cynicism of that film, having just left the dark decade of the 70's and their predilection for something uplifting like E.T. (released earlier that same summer of 1982), which became the highest grossing film of all time. The Thing didn't even become one of the highest grossing horror films of all time; it flopped unceremoniously and, as Carpenter himself will tell anyone who asks him, was not so much rejected by the general public as it was despised. "Hated," he has said on more than one occasion. Which is something that seems ridiculous now, but still -- that happened (and it happened to Carpenter more than once, this was merely the first time the perception of failure would get its claws into him).
It doesn't seem to help now when it's pointed out to Carpenter that The Thing is beloved, is appreciated, is one of The Very Best That Has Ever Been -- and really, why would it? Just because he HAD made a great film (no one really argues that point anymore except for the contrary or agenda driven) doesn't mean it was accepted as such at the time. The reality was that Carpenter's talent did not fail him, nor did the movie he helmed fail as a film. But the moviegoing public of the time could give a flying fuck about his movie, did not go, and ultimately WE as a whole failed him. We hurt him with our rejection, and I'll repeat: how could he not take this personally to a degree? The man makes one of the greatest horror films the world has ever seen, then and now, and mainly no one seems to care. Carpenter's heart was broken, and it was the disgust and indifference carried within that rejection that did it. Yet he soldiered on.
This is where the narrative splits, if we're going alternate Fringe-style universes and paths. Had The Thing been the hit everyone was hoping for, Carpenter would have moved right to an adaptation of Stephen King's novel Firestarter that he was already prepping for Universal Studios. Had that movie come to pass, it's safe to say that Carpenter's career would have been markedly different. As much as the fans of Firestarter (they're out there) may love Mark L. Lester's take on the material, this much is known: Mark L. Lester is not John Carpenter. It's safe to say that Carpenter would have brought something different to the whole enterprise, and likely made a better movie overall. But that never happened -- at least not in this timeline. What happened in our world was this: The Thing came out. No one went. Those that did, fucking hated it (by and large -- remember, we're talking not just about perception but the reaction of the film watching populace as a WHOLE -- if we're talking just about the reaction of the hardcore horror fans then we're talking about something else entirely, even if the flick was too much even for some of THEM). So Universal Pictures read some writing on the wall without bothering to have someone translate it for them first, and their reaction was to remove Carpenter from their Firestarter adaptation. His reaction to this was to simply go out and get a job directing -- that is, after all, what he was. He made movies. If it wasn't going to be a big damned headache, he felt he could deliver something solid based on the material, and (this is a HUGE and) if you paid him properly, there was a discussion to be had there. That's how Christine came about with Columbia Pictures; most interviews Carpenter has given regarding that movie, in print and on film, are him simply saying "it was a job, and I was a director who needed a movie to make and a job to do," more or less. From there he took another gig with Columbia making Starman -- I have always loved the irony in that, as ultimately he ended up directing the movie that Columbia essentially pulled off a baseball trade with Universal Studios for when they swapped it for E.T.
Sidenote: this is absolutely true -- each studio had done research that had them believing, regardless of the quality of these two scripts, that there wasn't an audience out there for the one they currently had (really). Somehow they made a deal between them for the script the other studio owned. Spielberg made E.T. and we all know what happened with that (John Carpenter remembers it well); Carpenter ends up directing Starman a couple years down the line...you may be aware that it is not as well remembered as E.T. is. Even if, as I and some others feel, it is a very, very good movie.
Circling back to my earlier point -- it's not a bad time to be John Carpenter. When it comes to the films, he sums it up with "Eventually, they've all made money." Most importantly to us as fans, they still hold up. As a genre director, some may look down their noses at him, but the fact remains that there are legions of us who dismiss those snobs out of hand because the pure truth of the matter is this: John Carpenter is the greatest director of horror films there's ever been. Some may read that sentence and disagree, but think about it. Who's better? Who had a longer, more sustained run than John Carpenter did, in the entire history of genre cinema? Sure, we can drop names like Hitchcock (one would be an idiot not to include that master filmmaker), Wes Craven (without doubt another master whose films will live on for a very long time), George A. Romero (who basically INVENTED an entire genre that shows no signs of going away anytime soon, and perhaps more than any other horror director introduced strong, if often blatant, social commentary into his work), or even Guillermo Del Toro if we're talking about directors of our time (and when it comes to Del Toro we positively SHOULD because there has never been a creative genius quite like him, one that we are all very lucky to have). All of those directors, and others I didn't name but may be your personal favorite, produced a number of strong entries ranging from good-to-great that shall undoubtedly enjoy a sustained and celebrated shelf life among horror fans.
But for my money, if we're taking into account both quality as well as quantity, it's impossible to beat Carpenter as the single best director the genre has given us. You can't do it. You simply can't. All you have to do is look back at when it was the BEST time to be John Carpenter: the 1980's.
Second sidenote: to be clear, when I say "the BEST time" what I mean is that this is the era when he produced almost all of his finest work, not that he had a particularly easy time of making them or getting projects off the ground (here's where I pour one out for his never produced remake of Creature From The Black Lagoon, a flick that was announced as an upcoming film of his on a couple of different occasions that never came to pass...can you imagine?)
Carpenter started his string of winners back in 1976 with his first full feature film (Dark Star was a student film that was turned into a feature) Assault On Precinct 13 and truly broke out with 1978's Halloween. We're all familiar with those -- and if you're not, what are you doing, go watch them NOW -- and since this is an overview of his Eighties work, we're clearly starting with 1980's wonderfully atmospheric and spooky ghosts-on-a-rampage-of-revenge flick The Fog, which saw him collaborating with co-writer/producer Debra Hill again. Reteaming with Jamie Lee Curtis and Nancy Loomis from Halloween, the film marks the first time Carpenter worked with Tom Atkins, Janet Leigh, Hal Holbrook and (in her own first big screen turn) Adrienne Barbeau, his wife at the time. Despite some reshoots after Carpenter viewed a rough cut of a film he felt just didn't play, which added the eerie opening sequence of the town being affected by spectral forces along with a couple insert shots of gore and some extra onscreen kills, The Fog as we all know it still gets it done. It's a refreshingly straightforward ghost story that's simply gorgeous to look at (as with most of his Eighties output, Carpenter's director of photography on The Fog was the great Dean Cundey, who outdid himself here) as well as listen to; the sound design is sharp and effective and Carpenter provides one of the most haunting scores in his filmography. A superb campfire tale-type horror flick (witness the great John Houseman's cameo in the opening sequence for proof of this), The Fog is a solid entry in the Carpenter canon.
For 1981's Escape From New York, Carpenter fought to cast an actor he'd worked with previously in the made-for-TV miniseries Elvis, one who was trying to move beyond his Disney roots: Kurt Russell. As we all know, and have reaped the many rewards of, Carpenter won the battle and, working closely with Russell, a new screen icon was born in Snake Plissken. Having already dipped his toes into the waters of the antihero (as previously mentioned) with Assault on Precinct 13, Carpenter here dove headfirst into the pool of the grizzled, cynical badass brimming with a deep distrust of a system that's done him wrong and hard-earned contempt for corrupt authority figures & institutions. If all Escape From New York had done was introduce the masses to Snake Plissken we'd think of it as a resounding success, but Carpenter, like his protagonist, wasn't feeling so great about the social situation in America. Unlike Plissken, he had some things he had to say about it (a little more, anyway) and went about putting notes of satire and pointed commentary into his propulsive action-thriller. The spoonful of rich, dark genre sweetness went down easy alongside Carpenter's other, angrier notions about a country so out of control with crime that the whole of New York City has been turned into a prison for the nation's many outlaws. Years later Carpenter & Russell would reunite for a sequel (Escape From L.A.) that was less well received, and is one of the rare Carpenter movies that hasn't gone a thorough reassessment among film fans and achieved favor years after it was released. I think it should be, regardless of its semi-remaquel status; for me, the original Escape From New York is the gritty, brooding graphic novel while Escape From L.A. would be the broader, goofier comic book, and both are a lot of fun (even if only one is a bonafide classic). Regardless, Escape From New York was a hugely influential film -- alongside that same year's Australian release Mad Max 2 (known to us ugly Americans as The Road Warrior), it created a kind of cinematic shorthand for post-apocalyptic/urban nightmare settings that was ripped off time and time again -- and a success with audiences.
However, as I said before, The Thing (the second cinematic collaboration between Carpenter & Russell) did not exactly set audiences afire in 1982 upon release. You sure couldn't tell these days, though. This adaptation of the John W. Campbell story "Who Goes There?" (previously filmed in 1951 and produced by Carpenter's hero Howard Hawks as The Thing From Another World), scripted by Bill Lancaster, was and is the high water mark in the horror master's career. The story involving a group of scientists besieged by an monstrous shapeshifting alien in a remote Antarctic outpost played upon the terrors of the unknown right up until FX wunderkind Rob Bottin's outrageously intricate and beautifully crafted practical effects creations took center stage. There's been some speculation throughout the years that the unrelenting viciousness and flesh-tearing gore in these scenes are also what contributed to audiences turning on the film, which is bitterly ironic as the mind-blowing creature work from Bottin (with an assist from Stan Winston in one key scene) have continued to stand the test of time and are STILL as effective today as they were over 30 years ago. Add on top of that the stellar ensemble work from a cast of extraordinary character actors (led by Russell as pragmatic, no-fucks-to-give R.J. "Mac" MacReady) perfectly sketched by Lancaster; the evocative chill of the location you can almost feel through your screen; stark, icy visuals perfectly captured by ace DP Cundey, still as good as the game; as well as (in one of only a handful of films not scored by Carpenter himself) a haunting score by film legend Ennio Morricone. All of these add up to a nail-biting exercise in fear that hasn't been topped before or since, I feel. If asked -- and often even if I'm not -- I'm always going to put The Thing out there as the best horror movie ever made. If you haven't seen it and are a fan of horror, you simply must rectify this. Repeatedly.
After The Thing was released and virtually sunk like a stone, Carpenter signed on for an adaptation of the Stephen King novel Christine, and brought all his considerable skill and style to bear on this tale of a love affair between a teenage boy and his car gone horribly, bloodily awry. Future directors in their own right Keith Gordon and John Stockwell do fine work (particularly Gordon) as the leads, while Alexandra Paul (basically playing the role of "The Girl") does less well but is adequate enough for the film in any case. What makes Christine go and perform as efficiently as it does, beyond Gordon's lead performance charting his character's evolution from loser to winner before spiraling into a villainous role, is almost all due to Carpenter. The look of the film is, as per usual, impeccable; Carpenter's score is one of his most underrated and insistent, his "sonic heartbeat" in full force here. King's effortless storytelling (adapted well by Bill Phillips) and Carpenter's filmmaking work together well and result in a solidly crafted film that retains its power to enthrall moviegoers.
In a change of pace, Carpenter's next film, 1984's Starman, is a romantic science fiction road trip featuring Jeff Bridges (who was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar due to his amazing work here) as an alien who, taking the form of a widow's (Karen Allen) late husband, must cross the country in order to return home before his new body dies. Starman is most likely the largest outlier in all of Carpenter's filmography (even more so than Memoirs of an Invisible Man) due to an underlying sweetness throughout the movie. Sure, it's got dark moments, some thrilling danger and threat within it, but any rough edges are negated by the romantic soul within. Personally, it's one of my favorite John Carpenter flicks simply BECAUSE it's so different, and is just a very entertaining, enjoyable story. Bridges & Allen are utterly wonderful in their roles and possess great chemistry together; that's most likely what made it stand out to a 10 year old kid who saw it and loved it back in the winter of '84 (I truly did) and what makes it resonate with me today all these years and many viewings later -- I buy the love story between these two. They make it work and sell me without feeling like they're exerting too much effort doing so, and as such I simply fall into the story and in love with the characters.
Speaking of falling in love: if you are a person of a certain age and grew up with Big Trouble In Little China, chances are you're more than a little smitten by it. I'd go so far as to say you fell, and fell HARD, for it (if you didn't, don't tell me, seriously, I don't wanna know). Reuniting with Kurt Russell once again, Carpenter brings the fun and good times in a major way with Big Trouble In Little China as he introduces us to one of cinema's most likable buffoons, Jack Burton. A truck driver catching up with an old friend in San Francisco's Chinatown, Jack suddenly finds himself in over his head as he gets involved with street gangs, kidnapped fiancees, and Chinese black magic -- and his truck has been stolen, by the way. Therefore: sonofabitch must pay. BTILC is, quite simply, a blast. I wasn't kidding when I said if you don't like it, I don't wanna know; I try not to be a judgmental person but I don't know that I could truly trust anyone who doesn't love this flick. Another Carpenter special that underperformed upon release but found a receptive and adoring audience over the years, it's easy enough to say that BTILC was just ahead of its time. I can't think of many movies before this one that so gleefully blended influences and tones as this did, or as masterfully: it's got action, comedy, monsters, kung fu, wizardry, and more wrapped up in a brightly colored, fast paced package of screwball joy. It feels like they were making it up as they went along sometimes but it never feels as if it's about to fall apart. One can always feel the sure hand of Carpenter, guiding along his cast and story like a conductor leading an orchestra in an acid-jazz improvisation that takes a particular pleasure in flouting expectations and tropes. It's a true delight, and if you somehow haven't seen it, get on it. Big Trouble in Little China is probably the most purely entertaining film in John Carpenter's entire filmography...and that, my friends, is saying a LOT.
A year later, Carpenter returned with 1987's Prince of Darkness. A dread-infused mixture of metaphysics and science teaming up with religion to battle (literally) the Ultimate Evil, the film has a group of graduate students and their professor spending the night in an abandoned church where Something has been found. Spoiler: it's a canister holding the devil, which for whatever reason is currently taking the shape of a swirling green liquid inside said canister. I cannot express how much I love writing those words, or this movie for that matter. It sounds kinda stupid, and okay, it probably is, but really? Carpenter is smart enough to take this potentially ridiculous setup and plays it completely straight, for keeps, and dead fucking serious. As the satanic force begins to exert influence over things both within and outside the church -- witness the homeless people who essentially become zombies -- everything goes to shit and it's a return to the siege story that Carpenter knows how to tell so well. The flick has atmosphere for days, another score that rips ass all over everything, and some excellent scares to go with some nicely bloody kills. I'd call Prince of Darkness one of Carpenter's most underrated horror flicks without hesitation, and I'd never regret getting a chance to see Donald Pleasance (returning from Halloween), Victor Wong & Dennis Dun (pulling back-to-back duty for Carpenter after BTILC), Lisa Blount (of another terribly underseen chiller, Dead & Buried), and Jameson Parker (plus plus PLUS his mustache) all in the same movie together. Bottom line: Prince of Darkness provides dark and creepy chills done the John Carpenter way, which basically means it is a great goddamn time.
The last movie Carpenter made in the Eighties, They Live (1988), is sort of the perfect note to go out on for that decade, as it more or less stands as the director's statement on the Reagan years of America. Satirical and biting, this tale of a drifter (Roddy Piper) who discovers that the unchecked greed of the ruling class methodically destroying the working class havenots isn't due to humans simply being selfish, stupid and horrible. Nope -- we've all been brainwashed by an alien race taking over the world and putting us to sleep as they make the rich richer, the poor poorer, and turn our planet into another homogenized chain store in the mall of the galaxy. Once Piper can see the truth, it's on. Lots of bullets will be fired, alien heads will explode, bubble gum would be chewed were it present, and Keith David will meet Piper in an alley fight that may be the single finest onscreen hand-to-hand battle in film history. If not, it is certainly the longest; the alley brawl in They Live is probably best compared to the opening battle scene of Saving Private Ryan, not because it's horribly grueling or bloody but because it just goes on and on and ON. If that sounds like a chore, I am sorry; if, like most of us who enjoy happiness and fantastic things, that sounds like the best fucking time ever, rejoice. Because I am here to tell you, They Live is indeed one of the best fucking things ever. Most movies dealing with social satire, especially one so grounded in a very specific era, tend to date themselves as the years pass. They Live is not that movie -- insanely, it has only continued to become more and more relevant with every day. One could point to the cynical side of Carpenter as to why this is the case; there is an argument to be made that as long as people in power fuck over the little people (who then rebel) that They Live will always be relevant and will continue to be as long as human beings exist. There's definitely some truth in that. It's not a shiny happy truth, either -- but you can't deny that the movie those ideas come in isn't a stellar 90 minutes of entertainment, because They Live is very much that. People still watch it today for the fun; the beauty of it is that the flick lingers in the memory because of the ideas it plants in your brain. There's only so many films that have done that, and Carpenter's is a sterling example of having your cake and eating it too.
Looking back at those films, I'm gonna say that my point has been proven: John Carpenter's run in the 1980's goes a long way towards cementing his position as the greatest horror director who's ever been. Not all of those are horror, but the ones that are range from very good to absolutely superb to the best horror film ever made. Carpenter would have other winners in the Nineties (I personally feel In The Mouth Of Madness is one of his all-timers, and have a lot of fun with Vampires), but it's virtually impossible to name another director who had that long a stretch of quality from very early on in his career (I'd say that Walter Hill's run as an action director around the same period is the only one that comes close, but that's a completely different essay for another day). What I'm saying is simple...John Carpenter, y'all. It simply doesn't get any better. And if you're looking for one of his champion flicks that will deliver the goods, you could do worse than throw on one he made in the Eighties.