Knowing When to Leave: John Carpenter, Part Two
By Desmond Reddick
07 May 2007 — As I outlined last week, there is a very clear divide splitting John Carpenter's career. The first two decades of his career are riddled with classic genre films loved by fans and critics alike. The second two decades? Not so much.
The last 20 years have been a spotty period creatively for the director. There are a few hits, but they tend to get lost in the pile of misses. Possibly due to funding issues, it seems that Carpenter has resolved himself to making B movies that look like B movies, as opposed to making B movies that are instant classics. Let's take a look at these films.
Imagine the pitch session: "Okay, we'll do an update of The Invisible Man, only we'll have him running from the CIA. And it'll be a romantic comedy starring Darryl Hannah and Chevy Chase!" Memoirs of an Invisible Man was doomed from the beginning. Comparatively speaking, after viewing Memoirs of an Invisible Man, critics and audiences who dismissed Big Trouble in Little China now must have been lauding it like Citizen Kane. What a poor choice and an awful way to start off the 1990s.
And then all seemed right again. In the Mouth of Madness is another film that probes the duality of reality. Sam Neill plays an insurance investigator assigned to track down a reclusive author named Sutter Cane. Cane — one part Stephen King, one part H.P. Lovecraft — has disappeared with his latest novel, and Neill has been tasked with finding him. Of course, things are going very oddly with the readers of the latest Cane release. Their murderous rampage is only one effect the writer is having on the world. After some investigation, Neill and a woman who works for the publisher end up in the fictional town described in many of Cane's novels, and the world collapses in around him. This Lovecraft homage is both a brilliantly bleak film and a great meditation on the effects fictional works may or may not have on their readers. It is also referred by many Carpenter fans as the third film in his Apocalypse Trilogy (along with The Thing and Prince of Darkness), but I question The Thing being one of these films.
And then it all went downhill again. Village of the Damned was a misguided remake of the 60s film that was marginally good in the first place. This one seemed truly phoned in.
Escape from LA quickly followed. Although Kurt Russell returned to play Snake Plissken, the sequel came across as an intentionally campy macho film that never needed to be made. A death knell was sounding for Carpenter's career at this point.
Vampires might have been garbage, but at least it was entertaining compared to his previous two efforts. A very weak script was partially saved by a great James Woods performance. Still it seemed like Carpenter would never return to his former greatness.
The much hyped sci-fi action film Ghosts of Mars came across like something written by a tween and directed by Uwe Boll. Carpenter fans tend to be split on this one: there are the rational ones who know it for the hackneyed work it is, and the mentally ill who like it. It remains the only Carpenter film I've ever turned off, so you know where I stand.
It was five years before Carpenter released another film and let me tell you, expectations were low. When Masters of Horror was announced, I have to admit I was psyched. A series of 13 one-hour short horror films by the masters of the genre can only be a good thing... right? The inclusion of Don Coscarelli, Joe Dante and John Landis made me have my doubts. And for the most part, I was right. Almost all of them sucked. Carpenter's Cigarette Burns was one of the diamonds in the rough, however. It follows Kirby Sweetman, theater owner and dealer of rare films, as he tracks down a film whose only screening caused the audience to go murderously mad. Cigarette Burns is a movie about the power of horror and hints at that underlying reality we've seen in Carpenter's work before. It is by no means a great film, but it harkens back to his earlier work and is the best thing he'd made in a decade.
The next season's installment, Pro-Life, was a major departure from the first. In it, a young woman intending to have an abortion is pursued by her father (Ron Perlman) and her brothers who are on a mission from God to stop it from happening. Of course, the girl is the only one who's sure of what she has inside her. This film shoots right from Carpenter's other hip; it's a mile-a-minute Rio Bravo-style siege film with mounting tension, creature effects and loads of questionable content. It combines elements of exploitation, creature feature and religious themed horror films. Again, not his greatest work, but still leaps and bounds above his other recent work.
His next project has the working title of Psychopath, and will be a psychological serial killer thriller. It's a departure from his earlier work, so I'm a little leery — but it's Carpenter, so my hopes are high. Besides Psychopath, the only real activity he's had lately is the signing off on the rights for remakes of his earlier films.
I do hope that the recent work is an omen of a return to form for Mr. Carpenter. Although he has had a recent fall from grace, I consider him the most prolific and talented genre film director. It is only right that he return to prove that he is still a master of horror.