Discovering Life in Lost Avenues: The Films of John Carpenter
reviewed by Dan heaton
This is the first in a series of essays, covering a wide variety of directors and stretching across many different genres and countries. The primary goal is to delve into the films of the great minds of cinema and discover some lesser-known works. The movies discussed will range from classics that almost everyone knows to smaller works that have disappeared onto video shelves over the years. The one common factor is that I will have seen none of the films before conducting this study. Hopefully, that element will maintain a freshness to each piece that might dissipate with preconceived notions. I will usually try to cover different time periods within the director's career for comparison, but it will vary with each one chosen.
John Carpenter has crafted some of the most entertaining horror and science films of the past three decades. Without the aid of gigantic budgets, considerable digital effects, or major stars, this writer/director creates chilling stories that remain in the mind long after their conclusion. He also has served as the composer for all of his films, which gives him even greater control over their effectiveness. His ultimate classic is Halloween (1978), one of the first "slasher" films and an inspiration on numerous directors, including Wes Craven. He also created Big Trouble in Little China (1986), a delightful martial arts fantasy that injected tremendous silliness into the subject matter. Carpenter's other notable works include Escape From New York (1981), Starman (1984), In the Mouth of Madness (1995), and Vampires (1998).
(Please note: Carpenter's films often include "John Carpenter's" before the actual title. For instance, Ghosts of Mars is usually called John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars. I've ignored these extra words since they're unnecessary in recognizing the films and would become repetitive.)
Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
Starring Austin Stoker, Darwin Joston, Laurie Zimmer, Martin West, Tony Burton, and Nancy Kyes. Directed and written by John Carpenter
In only his second feature film, John Carpenter constructed one of his most effective and intense thrillers. The plot is fairly straightforward, and the characters lack much depth, but it still conveys a spellbinding experience. Lt. Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker) has arrived at a discontinued police station to oversee its final night of existence. Through an unfortunate series of events, an incoherent man stumbles into the precinct with a countless group of young gang members on his trail. With only a few employees and several prisoners to help him, Bishop must defend the building from a horde of armed villains. As the night progress, they are quickly running out of bullets, and no easy opportunities exist for an escape.
Reportedly created with a shoestring budget of only $100,000, Assault on Precinct 13 provides plenty of exciting and chilling moments. Borrowing considerably from westerns like Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo and horror pictures like George Romero's Night of the Living Dead, Carpenter enacts a tense siege out of the most basic of elements. The enemies are faceless automatons whose only goal is the destruction of everything in the precinct. Once the action begins, we rarely see their faces, and they become machines of death. The simplistic score (composed by Carpenter) effectively generates an atmosphere of impending dread with just a few basic notes. The other prominent sounds are silencer bullets that only emit a quick pop when they strike their victims. Another reason for this film's effectiveness is the nearly complete lack of sentimentality displayed by Carpenter. In one instance, a young girl is brutally murdered for no apparent reason, and the violence occurs quickly and without warning. The mournful tone actually heightens the realism, as we quickly realize that the conventions of the usual action film mean little here. Assault on Precinct 13 mixes several genres and keeps you enthralled until the last shot is fired.
The Thing (1982)
Starring Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, T.K. Carter, David Clennon, and Keith David. Directed by John Carpenter. Screenplay by Bill Lancaster, based on the story "Who Goes There?" by John W. Campbell
A strange alien being invades a small group of scientists working in Antarctica, and no one is safe from its infective force. This "thing" from another world possesses the ability to absorb its prey and assume their form with little noticeable differences. At the proper opportunity, it discards the body in a mass of slimy blood and tackles another individual. Kurt Russell stars as MacReady, a grizzled helicopter pilot who recognizes the threat and tries to fight it. Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult to battle a presence that can take over anyone through brief contact. Much of the primary conflict exists between the humans who now cannot trust their own comrades. Wilford Brimley is especially effective in portraying the growing insanity of Dr. Blair, who realizes the dire ramifications of the alien's survival. His eventual breakdown is one of the highlights of this bone-chilling, effective thriller.
The Thing showcases John Carpenter at his best in terms of its alarming suspense and grotesque nature. The unforgettable creature is a disturbing mass of tentacles, wolf and human heads, and other unrecognizable features. Surprisingly, it appears for only a short amount of screen time, and the most graphic violence occurs away from the camera. Carpenter utilizes inventive sound and reaction shots to heighten our terror without dwelling on the carnage. The character development is pretty thin here, but this is not a surprise to fans of the cult director. He relies on actors like Russell, Brimley, and Keith David to create interesting personas without much background. They succeed for the most part, but this omission does slightly disassociate the audience from the action. Nevertheless, The Thing stands as one of the better science-fiction films of the '80s and is a must-see for fans of the genre.
Prince of Darkness (1987)
Starring Donald Pleasance, Jameson Parker, Victor Wong, Lisa Blount, Dennis Dun, Susan Blanchard, and Alice Cooper. Directed and written by John Carpenter.
For many centuries, the Catholic Church has been hiding a terrifying secret within the depths of an old Spanish mission. The Prince of Darkness does exist in the form of a strange green liquid, and it wants out of the confining prison. A group of young students and scientists have joined Father Loomis (Donald Pleasance) to discover the true nature of this mysterious force. In predictable fashion, few will survive the night as the evil being quickly infects them and enacts its devious plans. Big Trouble in Little China standouts Victor Wong and Dennis Dun join mostly unrecognizable faces to battle Satan, and the result is an oddball mix of suspense and gore. Along with the problems inside, a group of apparently homeless drones skulk around the building waiting for victims. Their leader is played with perfect grisliness by rocker Alice Cooper, who was born to play this type of role.
The early moments of Prince of Darkness deftly set up the story and create a tense feeling of approaching doom. Large stretches contain virtually no dialogue, and Carpenter boasts the suspense with his own simple score. Unfortunately, the payoff does not live up to the promise of the first act. The green liquid that embodies Satan is a clever device, but it does not correspond with more inventive past creations. Judged simply as a low-budget, B horror film, this story succeeds in generating the necessary shocks and ugly surprises. However, its thin characters never move beyond the basic elements. Also, the events actually slow down in the final section and begin to grow tedious. The conclusion does provide an inventive twist, but the overall effect is only mediocre. Carpenter's skill makes the film a worthy rental for a night of chills, but script limitations keep it from reaching a higher level.
Ghosts of Mars (2001)
Starring Natasha Henstridge, Ice Cube, Jason Statham, Clea DuVall, Pam Grier, Joanna Cassidy, and Richard Cetrone. Directed by John Carpenter. Written by Larry Sulkis and John Carpenter.
In the tradition of Carpenter's own Assault on Precinct 13, this film once again places an unlikely group of characters against a chaotic mob of evil forces. The heroes eventually become trapped within a police complex that offers no simple way out. When the villains attack, they exude little interest towards individual survival. Instead, the destructive goals of the collective group are the focus during the siege. Ghosts of Mars differs from its 25-year-old predecessor most notably with its science-fiction premise. The former inhabitants of Mars now appear in an eerie red cloud that can easily overcome the human body and take over. Once it controls them, the force converts normal people into primitive and vile figures intent on killing all other species. They violently defile their faces and often go insane with rage and confusion. Leading the pack is Big Daddy Mars (Richard Cetrone) - a monstrous, unexplained leader who urges the masses forward to decimate the feeble humans.
Our heroes are lead by Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge), a police officer charged with transporting famous prisoner "Desolation" Williams (Ice Cube). The band of cops includes Snatch's Jason Statham, The Faculty's Clea Duvall, and longtime B-movie actress Pam Grier. Upon their arrival within the mining town, the group discovers a nearly deserted town inhabited only by a few crazy people and several prisoners, including Williams. After some a lengthy buildup, the police must join Williams and fight the savage horde to try and escape this city. Carpenter relates the entire story in multiple flashbacks that add little to the finished product. Once again, this entry feels more like a western than the usual science-fiction release. The ghosts add a supernatural element to the plot, but the basic pattern is the same. Although fairly entertaining, this picture recycles too many elements from other movies and includes some awful lines. Henstridge does an adequate job and Ice Cube exudes his usual attitude, but the script allows little innovation. Originally, Courtney Love was slated for the lead role, but an injury caused a last-minute change. I can't imagine her adding much life to this mediocre creation.
John Carpenter seems to thrive when working under minimal conditions with a low budget and no major stars. This might help to explain the remarkable staying power of such small, early productions as Assault on Precinct 13 and Halloween. They display a remarkable precision and confidence that is rare for such a new director. Their bone-chilling suspense sticks in the back of the mind long after the story ends. In the 1980s, Carpenter teamed with Kurt Russell for two memorable tongue-in-cheek pieces, Escape From New York and Big Trouble in Little China. The second entry was especially effective in overturning the usual action conventions behind the guise of a typical B movie. Russell's Jack Burton appears to be the straightforward action hero, but he actually bungles nearly every situation. Dennis Dun's apparent sidekick actually saves the day and often keeps Burton from dying. Throughout his career, Carpenter has thrived on this type of defiance of genre conventions. Although Halloween was the precursor to numerous sequels and imitators, it still remains original because only a few people die. Its effectiveness stems from a spellbinding amount of suspense generated by its slower pace.
Unfortunately, Carpenter's film output since the late '80s has not reflected the same creativity of his earlier works. His 1995 remake of Village of the Damned lacked the energy needed to sell the eerie story. An even worse offense occurred when Russell's Snake Plisskin returned with the painfully inferior Escape from L.A. in 1996. While it cranked up the special effects and bad one-liners, this spoof grew too ridiculous to remain palpable. Perhaps his early success has limited Carpenter's ability to remain original in the new effects-driven era. Vampires contained plenty of gruesome effects, but it lacked any surprising moments and is possibly his worst film. James Woods has never looked duller than in this lead role, and the supernatural items are oddly unexciting. Can John Carpenter still provide the high level of thrills expected during his early career? I'm really not sure. However, hope does exist due to one recent gem. In the Mouth of Madness worked because its story was so far over-the-top and outlandish that it became entertaining. Throughout much of the events, star Sam Neill seems as bewildered as the audience, which aligns us with his confusing plight. Unfortunately, this film is the one exception to Carpenter's descent into mediocrity.
Regardless of his recent output, however, the films of John Carpenter provide intriguing takes on firmly established genres. Highbrow critics may dismiss his work as below their notice, but in doing so they miss some of the more transcendent films of the past few decades.