John Carpenter

“The director is always the guy who says, ‘Go with me up that hill, even though there is a machine gun stuck there shooting at us’.”

1974
Dark Star 21
“They are bored, their machines are falling apart, and even though it was a complete fantasy, it seems to me that ‘Dark Star’ was telling some kind of truth regarding our lives.”

[ “2001“ without the artistry, “Star Wars“ without thrills… I know Carpenter had no budget, but does that excuse the lack of compelling characters or interesting dialogue? And if this is supposed to be a sci-fi spoof, where are the laughs? Oh, a guy chases an alien beach ball, hehe, a guy talks existentialism with a bomb… Definitely not a spectacular start to Carpenter’s filmography. ]

1976
Assault on Precinct 13 75
[ review ]

There was a whole lot of Hawks moments in Assault.”

1978
Halloween 83
[ Reviewed on Extra Beurre ]

I wanted Myers’ mask to be blank and to have this phony Halloween-mask look. I always thought that the mask for evil should be an eerie, featureless mask.

1980
The Fog 62
“I love the theatricality of ‘cheap tricks’ in cinema. One of the things that I love about low-budget movies is the use of these tricks to make an impact.”

[ Ooooh… This I like. I guess I’m more partial to old-fashioned ghost stories than to plain slasher flicks. There is some gory slashing in “The Fog”, but it’s part of a wider “spook ride” of nameless dread, supernatural atmosphere, things moving by themselves and so on. Furthermore, these mysterious occurrences come to the small coast town of Antonio Bay as revenge for how it was founded 100 years ago, through bloodshed… and fog. The production’s on the cheapie side, some of the performances are lame and the ending is both cheesy and anticlimactic, but this all works towards the “Tales From the Crypt” comic book feel of the film. Particularly of note is the sorrowful piano score and the play-by-play by a smooth-voiced late night DJ played by Adrienne Barbeau. ]

1981
Escape from New York 57
“I kind of have been influenced by the old-fashion ideas of unity of time, place, and action, the Aristotelian ideas of drama.”

[ 1988, crime rate in the US rises 400% and Manhattan Island is turned into a maximum security prison. Mmm, I don’t remember that. How about in 1997, when Air Force One was high-jacked by terrorists and crashed into the city/penitentiary, leaving the President hostage of the Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes) and his thugs? That’s the catch with anticipation films set in the not-too-distant future, they tend to play silly after a while: if we were to believe sci-fi movies, by now we’d be living in a post-apocalyptic world ruled by machines and/or apes! Anyway, the Army (led by Lee Van Cleef) sends in Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) to get the Commander in Chief back. A ruthless convict himself, the authorities feel he might be apt to infiltrate the prison island and get the job done.

What’s for sure is that he’s one iconic badass of a protagonist, with his dirty long hair, 3-day beard, eye patch, throaty voice, black wife-beater and leather boots. Unfortunately, he doesn’t get to do much in the film, which is surprisingly quiet and slow. Action scenes are few and far between, and they’re mostly unexceptional. I did like the feel of desolation and isolation; it’s quite creepy to see New York as a wasteland, and Carpenter milks the gloomy mood to the fullest. He’s also composed another nifty score (especially the Duke’s cowbell-heavy theme!), and the film remains reasonably involving as an urban western. It just lacks foot-to-ass or any kind of depth for me to embrace it as more than a minor cult classic. ]

1982
The Thing 70
“The Thing has to do essentially – even though there is this extra-terrestrial virus – with losing your humanity and losing humanness.”

[ Or you could say that it’s a cross between “Ten Little Indians” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”, with a touch of “Alien” and a whole lot of signature Carpenter gloom and doom and isolation… And it doesn’t get much more isolated than a research station in the middle of Antarctica during a snowstorm! Kurt Russell plays a drunken helicopter pilot who watches as a strange dog chased by mad Norwegians brings terror to the base, as if the all-man crew wasn’t getting antsy and cabin-feveric already. You gotta love the gruesome creature effects by Stan Winston, but even more striking is the paranoia that sets in as the guys realise that the “thing” can infect anyone and assume their appearance. No one can be trusted, and there are no heroes here, just men losing their minds. ]

1983
Christine 23
“For the first time in my life I made a movie I didn’t have a feeling for.”

[ After The Thing’s undeserved commercial and critical failure, Carpenter’s career was in trouble and he took on this Stephen King adaptation even though it didn’t speak to him. So we get one of the least distinctive films he ever directed, one of those countless lame King flicks that popped out through the ‘80s. The premise of a nerd who gets revenge over bullies with the help of a possessed 1958 Plymouth Fury is downright ridiculous, the actors are rotten, the characters are boring high school clichés and the “car-attack” scenes are cheesy and devoid of any thrills. The only thing I really liked is the clever use of old rock & roll songs as the car’s voice. ]

1984
Starman 65
“I wanted to see if I could do it as a director. I have a romantic, sentimental side also. It may not appear that way, but I really do. ”

[ Not unlike in “Solaris”, an interstellar being materialises itself in the form of a dead spouse – here the late husband of Karen Allen, played by Jeff Bridges. This makes for a film that’s creepy, amusing and touching, sometimes all at the same time. Beside watered down Tarkovsky, there’s a bit of “E.T.” in there (with hostile army goons chasing the Starman) as well as a good helping of fish-out-water humor and road movie clichés. Even though he’s far off his usual thematic turf, Carpenter still displays his stylistic prowess, multiplying stunning visuals and complex and unusual soundscapes and getting great performances from Bridges and Allen. “Starman” is pretty corny, almost ridiculously so at times, but it works.

“Take it easy!”
“Up yours!” ]

1986
Big Trouble in Little China 66
“Zu Warriors was our biggest inspiration. It had a lot of magical stuff in it. In terms of fighting , the sword fights were amazing. […] I had never seen this kind of fun in an American film. ”

[ Forget Snake Plissken, Jack Burton’s the man! Kurt Russell is pure machobadass joy as a blow-hard yet clumsy trucker who stumbles into an all-out gang war in San Francisco’s Chinatown and ends up in the middle of a big mess of kung-fu and sorcery. This is campy as hell, a delirious only-in-the-‘80s slice of B-movie nonsense revamped as a big glossy Hollywood production. It’s all pretty retarded, but it’s full of quotable dialogue, pretty good fight choreography and hilariously over the top performances.

“You know what ol’ Jack Burton says at a time like this?”
“Who?”
“Jack Burton. Me! Ol’ Jack always says, what the hell!” ]

1987
Prince of Darkness 36
“If I applied anything from [ Lovecraft ] for Prince of Darkness, it was his style, the way he built up his stories very slowly to reach that gasp. And it was something I hadn’t tried before. ”

[ This is basically “End of Days” without Schwarzenegger and on a much tighter budget. Carpenter still pulls off some unsettling imagery and there is some interesting discussion of quantum physics as related to theology/Satanism, but the acting is particularly weak and it’s almost all set-up and no payoff. We do get some gore in the last act, but the promised Anti-God never actually materialises. ]

1988
They Live 84
“I got fed up with being told over and over again that it was so beneficial to be a consumer. We are buying things, accumulating things, throwing money away, but we aren’t making anything good anymore.”

[ Rowdy Roddy Piper stars as a brawny drifter who discovers that the Man is really walking on the back of the little guy – and the Man is an alien monster in disguise! With this subversive sci-fi thriller, Carpenter’s antiauthoritarian sensibilities take center-stage as special sunglasses (!) unveil the subconscious messages sent by TV and ads: Consume, Obey, Conform, STAY ASLEEP. This has got to be Carpenter’s scariest flick, at least to anyone who does feel that’s there’s an unhealthy conspiracy-like feel to class divisions. “They Live” also packs stunning fights and shoot-outs and much hilariously pulpy one-liners. A must-see. ]

1992
Memoirs of an Invisible Man 13
“Chevy didn’t want to play a broad comedy. He wanted to start a career as a more serious actor – and that was the problem. We tried to straddle the line and it didn’t work. It did not work!”

[ Chevy Chase (oh crap) stars as a debonair (right) stock analyst who seduces Daryl Hannah (come on), is turned invisible in a freak accident (good riddance), then gets chased by Sam Neill’s CIA agent and (zzzzzz)… How do you go from the genius of “They Live” to this level of hackdom, and why? Money, I guess, because I don’t see what Carpenter could have seen in this project. It’s got none of the things that characterise his best work, his visual skills are nowhere to be seen, he didn’t do the score, the movie drips with bad voice-over and lousy slapstick… And Carpenter’s stuck with goddamn Chevy Chase, possibly the most boring, obnoxious asshat to ever star in a movie. ]

1995
In the Mouth of Madness 80
“A take on the ridiculous idea that television, movies and books can create killers.”

[ Sam Neill plays an insurance investigator who’s hired to find a best-selling horror novelist who mysteriously vanished, only to find himself in the insane world of his books. It starts with an axe-wielding agent and rioting masses then devolves into a troubling rush of lunatics and creatures straight out of H.P. Lovecraft. This is amongst Carpenter’s most visually accomplished, effectively scored and Ctuhlly-damned scary flicks, and it works on different levels: as a story about the thin line between fiction and reality, or an exploration of alienation, or about the God-like nature of writing… ]

1995
Village of the Damned 27
“I don’t fear children at all, but the tragedy would be if my child had no conscience, no guilt, or is a psycopath. That would be terrifying. That would be very painful..”

[ It’s just another day in a small American town until everyone in the city perimeters suddenly falls unconscious: men, women, even animals. They eventually wake up, only to soon realise that every woman in town is pregnant. 9 months later, they give birth to kids who are all white-haired, brilliant – and EVIL! This is an intriguing premise (first explored in the 1957 novel and in the 1960 film), but after a gripping first act the movie crumbles into cheap uninspired horror. Christopher Reeve and Mark Hamill might be iconic figures but they’re not exactly great actors, and neither are Kirstie Alley or the little brats. Then there’s a lot of hammy dialogue, lousy special effects (aren’t the “glowing eyes” cheesy?) and death scenes less scary than ridiculous. ]

1996
Escape from L.A. 67
“If you take what’s really happening now and just make it darker, you’ll have that future. I didn’t stop thinking of ‘Seven Samurai’ when I shot these movies – characters living in terrible times, you know.”

[ In 2000, a huge earthquake hits California and Los Angeles ends up torn apart from continental US and turned into a deportation point for “undesirables” – I guess the NYC penitentiary of the first flick was full. Flash forward to 2013 and Snake Plissken has been arrested and convicted, again, he’s being transported to a prison-city, again, and the Man wants him to retrieve a doomsday device amongst the ruins and prisoners, again, or else he’ll die from the lethal virus they injected in his bloodstream. Again. This is basically more a remake than a sequel to “Escape From New York”, with a bigger budget (yet still laughably shoddy special effects) and even more colorful characters. There’s Steve Buscemi as con man Map-to-the-Stars Eddie, Peter Fonda as a deadbeat surfer dude, Pam Grier as a ballsy drag queen, Bruce Campbell as a demented Beverly Hills plastic surgeon and of course Kurt Russell, still the badassest badass with the eye-patch.

I actually like this remake/sequel more than the original. The stunts and shoot-outs are more inventive and fun and the anticipation angle is scarily prescient. It’s like Carpenter foresaw the arrival of George W. Bush four years early when he created Cliff Robertson’s self-proclaimed “moral authority” of a President who sees America and the world as a US and THEM situation, who throws away the Constitution and rules as a dictator, kicking out or locking up everyone who doesn’t fit in his vision. Other than that “Escape From L.A.” remains little more than a big silly B-movie, but it’s ridiculously entertaining. ]

1998
Vampires 75
“I wanted to make the vampires like AIDS (…) Everybody is terrified by the blood exchange.”

[ James Woods leads a team of vampire slayers on the Vatican’s payroll who are roaming New Mexico in search of the elusive Vampire Master in this film best described as “The Wild Bunch with vampires”. It’s got men’s men who work and party harder, ghost towns, whores, and ruthless bloodsuckers! This is a very well crafted genre flick, with crisp cinematography, a bluesy score, cheap but effective special effects (no CGI here, which is a good thing), lotsa hard-boiled one-liners and more gore than one could wish for. James Woods’ Jack Crow is another of those great rugged and rebellious Carpenter heroes and Daniel Baldwin… Well, he’s a Baldwin. Still, the movie is much fun, it’s proactive horror the way I like it, i.e. the characters don’t just wait around crying and waiting to be killed, they take action and fight back! “Vampires” is not “From Dusk Till Dawn”, but it’s in that ballpark. ]

2001
Ghosts of Mars 39
“Mars has always been a supernatural/superior force in human affairs. We’ve projected our own darker emotions upon the planet: love, death, war, lust.”

[ This is the only Carpenter flick set in the future and the only one not set on Earth, but otherwise it’s familiar stuff – it’s practically a remake of “Assault on Precinct 13”, except that the precinct is on the red planet and instead of gang members assaulting it, it’s undead freaks possessed by ghosts. The hero cops are icy blonde Natasha Henstridge, cocky cockney Jason Statham and the ever badass Pam Grier (but warning to Blaxploitation fans: she dies after barely 10 minutes of screen time) and the dangerous convict who must side with the pigs if any of them hope to survive is played by Ice Cube. None of them make much of an impression and the film as a whole feels amateurish, from the half-assed sets to the lame make-up and costumes of the ghosts right down to the dumb Ed Woodish premise. Plus visually it feels “off” – what’s with the endless dissolves? There is some cool action and gore, but nothing to write home about. I did get a kick out of the score, which is much heavier than the others Carpenter composed because it’s performed by Anthrax. ]

2005
Cigarette Burns 69
“I shot Masters of Horror in a slightly wider version of a TV image. It’s black banded just a little bit on the top and bottom. But it’s still essentially a TV image. Things read well in close-up. You have to be aware of that visual limitation of TV. But the biggest aspect of working in television is that you shoot it in a very limited period of time. I had a total of 10 days to shoot my episode of Masters of Horror. That’s a lot of work to get done.”

[ “Film is magic and, in the right hands, a weapon.”
The always grotesquely entertaining Udo Kier stars as a collector of the most extreme, obscure and powerful movies who sends an ex-junkie grindhouse manager on a quest to find the Holy Grail of horror flicks: LA FIN ABSOLUE DU MONDE. According to legend, anyone who’s seen it became violently insane and blood flowed through the aisles during its only official screening. This is an intriguing premise, allowing for insightful discussion of cinema (as written by Scott Swan and AICN’s Drew McWeeny) and some disturbingly gory bits (wait until you see Udo Kier’s last scene – “I made my own movie!”). This still feels more like a TV movie (which it is) than like the film as magic/weapon it teases us with, but it’s well worth seeing nonetheless. ]

2006
Pro-Life 65
[ Again, this second stab at a Masters of Horror episode is hardly Carpenter at his most cinematic and it looks like the TV movie it is all the way, but this is another intriguing story effectively -and economically- constructed by writers Scott Swan and Drew McWeeny. It’s quite gutsy how their teleplay deals with the touchy issue of abortion and even brings God and the Devil into it, Rob Perlman makes for a menacing presence and that baby? Bloody disgusting, man. ]

2010
The Ward