I Wish I Were a Carpenter
By Desmond Reddick
30 April 2007 — He's been called an unimaginative hack, a rip-off artist and a flash in the pan. From a film school dropout whose project won an Academy Award to a prodigal son returning to visceral horror in the new millennium, John Carpenter is one of genre film's most important directors. His work, however, can be neatly parsed into two eras: early and latter. And in this column I will be discussing the early films of this master of horror.
The aforementioned Oscar-winning film that began his career was a love note to the Westerns he grew up with. His role as writer, editor and composer of The Resurrection of Broncho Billy would set in motion a theme that carries through many of his films. The Western serves not only as a source of inspiration for Carpenter, it's an obsession — especially Rio Bravo. (As an aside, it should be noted that Rio Bravo's plot inspired George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead.)
His first film proper was the science fiction black comedy, Dark Star. This film, co-written with Dan O'Bannon of Alien and Return of the Living Dead fame, was a super low-budget masterpiece that had a crew of astronauts going nuts while they are on a mission to destroy unstable planets. It's flawed, but hysterical — especially in its references to 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Carpenter followed it up with a 70s exploitations masterpiece: Assault on Precinct 13. This film is a direct homage to Rio Bravo in that its plot relies on a street gang launching a siege on the officers and prisoners inside an isolated police precinct. This film, cast with unknowns, has all the tension and action one could want in such a film with an underlying feeling of dread throughout. It is his first truly great film.
Seemingly on a roll, he then released his greatest film: 1978's Halloween. While I have previously written about the film at length, I'll merely remind you of its almost single-handed recreation of the slasher genre and the themes therein. Here again, Rio Bravo inspired the filmmaker, in that many scenes are overrun with claustrophobic terror.
After directing a critically lauded TV biography of the life of Elvis Presley (starring Kurt Russell of all people), he released The Fog in 1980. While it was not a box office or critical success, it's still a taut ghost story which probably suffered from its proximity to Halloween than anything else.
Next, Escape from New York was an immediate sci-fi classic, and catapulted Kurt Russell into icon status as Snake Plissken. Though it spawned an unfortunate sequel, Carpenter wants to complete a trilogy by filming Escape from Earth. But with the announcement of an Escape from New York remake, the completion of the trilogy seems unlikely.
Kurt Russell returned for The Thing, which was a remake of The Thing from Another World: the greatest horror / sci-fi film ever made. One part Ten Little Indians, one part Alien, yet almost entirely unique. An American research team faces cabin fever as they are isolated in their Antarctic research centre while being besieged by a shape-shifting alien. The film's effectiveness is achieved by coupling a bleak atmosphere with creepy scares.
Following a rather humdrum adaptation of a rather humdrum Stephen King novel, Christine, Carpenter came back with his most critically lauded film: 1984's Starman. I would have to agree with them. Jeff Bridges stars — in a Golden Globe and Oscar nominated portrayal — as an alien stranded on Earth who takes the form of a widow's deceased husband. He asks her to take him to a rendezvous point while he is hunted by the military. On this journey he learns about love and what it takes to be human. It's a beautiful and criminally underrated film.
Still in fine form, Carpenter turned back to Kurt Russell and made the biggest commercial mistake of his career: Big Trouble in Little China. This film combined action, kung fu, fantasy and comedy into one crazy little package. It was a complete bomb, but I think it was merely ahead of its time. Look at Kill Bill or the crazy kung fu of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and you will see similarities. Some may disparage this film but I defy them. For me, Big Trouble in Little China is a desert island film: I could watch it in perpetuity.
In Prince of Darkness the essence of Satan resides in a vial of green liquid discovered in the basement of a church. It is eerie and atmospheric and stretches its low budget to great lengths, but shows the beginning of Carpenter's inability to secure sufficient funding for his films.
He bounced back with 1988's They Live by using a low budget to awesome effect. Another popular theme running through many of Carpenter's films has always fascinated me: an entire hidden world running parallel to ours. They Live explores this brilliantly by having a blue collar guy (portrayed by Roddy Piper) discover a pair of sunglasses which allow him to see the world in all its sinister, naked horror. It is a beautiful political allegory that contains one of filmdom's greatest lines: "I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I'm all out of bubblegum." As it goes, this would have been a fantastic film to go out on.
Carpenter's career up to the late 80s is marked with B movie classics. His are among the most critically successful horror films and the most inventive science fiction films. His love of genre cinema is clear in these efforts, and it seems like he doesn't make films — he makes love letters to those who influenced his career. It's a damn shame what the 90s would do.