|by Matt Bartley
Welcome to the Hollywood Bitchslap Hall of Fame. This is the place where, we, the critics of this site induct a person - be they actor, actress, director or other - into our own Hall of Fame for their outstanding contribution to the cinema that we know and love. The criteria is simple: we are not bound by volume or era, so anyone from the 1920s to the present day, anyone with a career of 80 films or 8 films can be inducted. All we ask is one thing: that they have provided we critics, who are film lovers above all else, another reason to keep going to the cinema week after week.
This months inductee - John Carpenter
When John Carpenter was announced as the latest recipient of our Hall of Fame honour, this created more feedback on the forum than any other recipient, and the vast majority of it was overwhelmingly positive. Yet this is for a man who most people would describe as being off the boil for at least a decade. So, what is it about Carpenter that inspires such passion and affection for his work? And has he become as tired and dull a filmmaker as critics like to routinely label him?
Part of the reason that Carpenter has such respect from critics (and respect he does have - it's no exaggeration to say that most critics would have at least one Carpenter film in their top 50 films of all time, if not top 20) is that he has no shame whatsoever in making unabashed genre films. Whereas most directors harbour dreams of making historically and politically important three hour epics, Carpenter is never happier than working within the easy labels of horror or thriller. There's nothing wrong with the kind of ambition that those other directors display, but equally there's nothing wrong with the choices that Carpenter has made either. For Carpenter, a genre film is something to be admired, not to be mocked. For Carpenter telling a 90 minute story is as ambitious as telling a 180 one. Carpenter has the sincere belief that genre can be an art form, and he has the talent to make it one too. And this is part of the reason that he has been so unfairly derided of late too. As our own Peter Sobczynski says, "John Carpenter still creates brilliant films. The problem is that everyone has become so enamored with self-conscious and post-modern storytelling techniques that they apparently can no longer recognize a lean, straightforward and unironic genre film when it is standing right in front of them.
His films stress the advantages of personal and professional teamwork and loyalty in a world where such commodities have become increasingly rare. There is also an intriguing Libertarian streak running through his work in which the rights of the individual are under constant assault from intrusion from all sides of the political spectrum. (Note how the heroine of "ghosts of Mars" survives precisely because she is a drug user)"
Lean is probably the key word in Peter's statement there. There is not one film in his entire career that goes over the two hour mark, and few even approach that. Instead, Carpenter gets in, gets out, delivers the goods and displays a tremendous economy of storytelling. Take The Fog for example. It's a Carpenter film that has its fair share of detractors among its admirers, but what can't be denied is that it tells one of the greatest ghost stories ever in the opening scene of John Houseman telling some terrified kids around a campfire the history of the bay. It's a simple scene, maybe two minutes in length, yet gives us all the necessary backstory that we need that another director would take 20 minutes to tell - and all the while creating a bewitchingly spooky scene that rattles around in your brain for afterwards.
It's a trademark also seen in the openings of The Thing or Halloween. No messing around, no unnecessary scene settings or characters, just a killer introduction (if you'll pardon the pun) into the essential story - and it works too (do we even need to mention the long tracking shot from Halloween here?). Carpenter can hook you into the story right from the beginning like no-one else. Part of this lean storytelling undoubtedly comes from the fact that he had to work with a strict budget with most of his films, certainly with his first few efforts. Dark Star displays this, as does Assault on Precint 13, as Jason Whyte points out "Assault on Precinct 13 only cost $100,000 and Halloween about $350,000 (a significant portion of both of those budgets was due to the anamorphic cinematography) and were both successful." This success is because Carpenter makes the cheapness work for him and not against him. Dark Star looks cheap and scuzzy, yet that perfectly sums up the crumbling, 'ah, who gives a fuck', attitude to the future that the film revolves around. Assault on Precint 13 also utilises its potential negative as a positive instead. What could have been a flabby, overdirected mess (i.e. the remake) becomes a stripped down, bare bones thriller instead. Look at the scene where the police station front desk gets shot up. With a bigger budget, that scene could have been overloaded with huge explosions and a booming soundtrack. Instead, Carpenter gets creative and the deadly shots become little hissing snaps, splintering the walls and the furniture into messy little bits. It's an uncommonly eerie and viscious little scene.
Viscious. Now there's a word to describe Carpenter and his films. Not viscious in a misanthropic or exploitative way, but viscious in an adult, realistic, 'shit happens and it's BAD' way. Take the most infamous scene he's perhaps ever shot, from Assault on Precint 13. It's best described by a conversation between our own Rob Gonsalves and David Cornelius:
"Almost everything you need to know about Carpenter can be learned from one quick, notorious scene in Assault on Precinct 13. You know the one:
"I want a vanilla twist!"
It's ruthless, it's surprising, it has a rough kind of humor — it's Carpenter in microcosm."
"That scene in Precint 13 is precisely the reason I never watch that movie, despite its being one of his best: it's the most frightening, most unsettling moment in all his movies. So unexpected, so random, so overwhelming, and then it's sort of over, as if it didn't matter, which makes it sting more."
"It fucking well does its job, though: Damn, these guys are SERIOUS.
I can't think of another director who'd have the balls to do that. Especially not in his first real feature (Dark Star was an expanded student film, I believe). Even in horror films, kids don't get killed. It's an unwritten rule. Carpenter was all like, "These guys are bad motherfuckers. They will kill children and not even blink. I will kill children onscreen. I am a bad motherfucker. And anyone in this movie you get attached to? They're not safe. No one is safe."
Dave picks up a particularly important point there. The cute little girl that gets brutally murdered? Forgotten about by the end, with her grieving father a catatonic mess, with no cathartic moment of revenge for him. Carpenter treats the audience with respect but also plays them beautifully, hammering away at your nerves, which again shows just why he has the respect that he has. Witness Scott Weinberg's reasons for his Carpenter love: "Moreso than any other "pop" filmmakers I can think of, Carpenter is so obviously a hardcore movie geek it's not even funny. The love for cinema practically oozes out of every frame of his movies. Westerns, comedies, action, horror... His best works are deeply steeped in movie passion, and that definitely comes across to the similarly-afflicted geeks out in the audience.
Anyone who can't appreciate the beauty of The Thing or Halloween is not someone I care to see movies with.
Plus, yes, there is something about a director who writes his own scores. Aside from the opinion that most of 'em are very excellent pieces of music, there's also the theory that ... this is precisely what the score sounded like in Carpenter's head. There COULDN'T be a better (or let's say "more appropriate") score (literally) because hey, the writer/director is the one who put it in there. But then he goes ahead and lets Ennio Morricone score one of his best flicks. Unpredictable one, that JC.
Regarding his more recent output, well, John Carpenter has more than earned a lifetime "get out of jail free" card where I'm concerned. That doesn't mean I'll blindly praise whatever the guy happens to churn out, but that he's in my Hall of Fame; no matter how many late-career turkeys he turns out, he's still the guy who gave me Halloween, The Fog, Escape from New York, Big Trouble in Little China, Assault on Precinct 13, Dark Star, Christine, Starman, They Live and In the Mouth of Madness -- so he'll always be a hero in my book.
Come to think of it, Carpenter is probably the filmmaker who influenced me the most when I was a kid, thereby turning a perfectly normal little jewlet into one of the planet's most ravenous movie geeks. And for that I am extremely grateful."
Scott gets it dead on there. Carpenter is rooted in genre movies yes, but damn if he doesn't elevate them to greatness. There's something primevally exciting about watching a Carpenter movie, because you know that he GETS movies on the most instictive level, and at his best, he gifts a film a propulsive energy, pace and life that few others can. The Thing and Assault on Precinct 13 deep down are westerns (town under siege stories specifically) and Escape from New York and yes, Escape from L.A. are essentially retoolings of Leone westerns (a bad man walks into town to clean up even badder men), but they are perfectly pitched within another genre entirely, and they work on a gut level. As our own Charles Tatum remembers, "The John hooked me with "Halloween." The best slasher film ever made because of suspense took precedent over gore. Sure, there were some script hiccups here and there, but his simple but chilling score and his camera scared the hell out of me almost thirty years ago (Christ, has it been that long?) and it still gives me the chills today.
On the other hand, "The Thing" may very well be one of the goriest films ever made, and yet it, too, scared me to death. Maybe because the gore shown did not seem to be for exploitation's sake. We don't get winking murders for teen's sakes (like the entire Final Destination series), we got a bunch of adults dealing with a monster the best they know how."
Simplicity. Adult reactions. Suspense. Perfect knowledge of how to use special effects. This is what Carpenter excells at. Yet, this is perhaps shortchanging just how creative Carpenter is (let's remember he owns an Oscar for best short film...). As Scott mentions above, let's not forget his musical scores for a lot of his own films that are among some of the most memorable scores ever - has any horror film had a score as subtly terrifying as Halloween or as foreboding as The Thing? - and as our fellow critic Jay Seaver points out "One thing I always note is that he really doesn't give a damn about home video when shooting his films. It's less of an issue now than it used to be, but even ones shot when a widescreen release was no sure thing are framed in a way that uses the entire 2.35:1 frame, and he'll stick small elements in the corner because they'll look fine on the big screen, even if it makes for a less-than-satisfying experience at home."
Nowhere is this better seen than Halloween. Look at how Carpenter stretches out the long and lonely roads of Haddonfield. Michael could be hiding anywhere. Look at how even living rooms take on an ominously wide quality, swamped in darkness, again hiding Michael Myers anywhere. Our eyes skitter nervously over the screen, looking to find the killer who is hiding somewhere. Christ, was that him looking through the kitchen window? God, he's gone now...Halloween is an exercise in pure fear, and all with barely a trace of blood in sight. Noteworthy is how the face of Michael Myers just fades into view above Laurie as she quivers in a corner at the top of the stairs. Look at how Carpenter stretches the bedroom out so when Myers rises up from his coathanger stabbing behind the bed, it seems an eternity between him and Laurie, despite it being a matter of feet. For a full and brilliant exploration of just how good Halloween is, I'd recommend reading Rob Gonsalves' review on this site (http://hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=1126&reviewer=416), but suffice to say that the ending - as Carpenter takes us back to the various places that Michael Myers has stalked through, scored by that eerie theme and Michael's offscreen breathing before fading away - is one of the greatest ever.
So, before we present the various choices for Carpenter's best film, let's answer the question - has Carpenter lost it? Peter Sobczynski says no: "As for going off form, as some have accused, he has actually stubbornly stuck to his guns over the years, much like the similarly unappreciated Joe Dante. Clearly he has enough technical skill to make the kind of empty blockbusters that Hollywood thrives on if he wants to but he is more interested in doing his thing. Yes, his work in recent years has largely gone unappreciated in the States (though he is still looked upon fondly in Europe) but I suspect that his films will be rediscovered and appreciated in the years to come.", Rob Gonsalves agrees to a point: "Carpenter off form?
No, I think he's just tired. Specifically, tired of horror. But that's all anyone will pay him to make.
I get the sense he always wanted to be Howard Hawks, dabbling in a lot of genres. Which is how he started out. I think if a studio said "Here's $30 million [or whatever], go make a kick-ass western," we'd see Carpenter's best and most committed work in many years.
But in the past fifteen years or so, I think he sees himself as an old hack who'll take whatever script is kicked his way. He's clearly sick of talking about Halloween and he's sick of horror and he never really wanted to be Horror Guy, and I think he envies the careers of Wes Craven and especially Cronenberg, who have managed to escape horror to a greater or lesser degree.
Give him a musical. Give him a comedy. Give him an action flick. Give him a western. Give him King's Dark Tower to do as an HBO series with Kurt Russell as Roland. Give him a really radical change of pace like Gosford Park or a Jane Austen adaptation. Any of these, I think, would inspire and challenge him more than horror movies. Because he's done that. And it shows. I thought Ghosts of Mars was fucking awful and I thought Cigarette Burns was fucking terrible (haven't seen his latest Masters of Horror episode).
And I speak as a horror fan who thinks Halloween is one of the high-water marks of the genre. Look at Carpenter's early resume: a sci-fi comedy, an action thriller, a suspense TV-movie, an Elvis biopic. He got trapped in one genre he happened to be great at. It's like watching Cronenberg having to do Scanners or The Fly over and over."
Jack Sommersby avers that Ghosts of Mars is sadly underappreciated, and David Cornelius also sticks up for Carpenter: "While I haven't seen it since its theatrical run, I'm a staunch defender of Ghosts of Mars - while twenty kinds of stupid, it's a great big ball of fun. It feels like Carpenter woke up one morning and said, "I just wanna make something big and dumb, and only on my terms."
Although I agree that he's tired, perhaps a reaction to the lack of response his movies received in the mid- to late-80s. Sure, Big Trouble and Prince of Darkness and They Live are cult favorites, but a cult audience doesn't pay the rent. Seeing audiences dwindle must've sucked the life out of the guy, and the fact that the horror died off around the same time probably didn't help things at all. His late-80s work was still vibrant and punchy; his 90s fare was too varied.
But even then, he made good movies. Memoirs of an Invisble Man is an underrated gem, Vampires is smarter than it looks, and we all know how great Mouth of Madness turned out. I'll even defend Body Bags as the fun result of a cheapo done on a lark.
And yes, I love Escape From LA, because it works if viewed as a comedy, a (then-) modernized spoof of his own classic. It's Carpenter taking a bite out of LA culture in a far more exaggerated tone than New York, and most of the gags work. (The special effects are embarrassing, sure, but c'mon. Peter Fonda surfing!) Many fans grumbled about the watering down of Snake Plissken, but I read it another way: Snake's the only non-"comic book" style character here, the voice of sanity in a city gone stupid. He's the tough guy looking at the world and telling everybody to go fuck themselves.
The Village of the Damned remake, is, in my mind, his only failure, and that's only due to a faulty screenplay and the fact that those kids are creepier if they're British and in black and white. The color photography made their white hair look just silly.)
And yes, Carpenter needs to make a western, and fast. The man's a huge fan of the genre, if I recall correctly, and I'd love to see what he could do with the old west. Especially if Russell's in it.
(By the way, are there any DVD commentaries at all that are more fun than Carpenter/Russell chat sessions?)."
So, while there may be critics who maintain that Carpenter isn't the force he was, he's clearly done enough to earn our everlasting respect. Let's answer the final question then, what is his best? Our critic Marc Kandel has a firm love for Big Trouble in Little China: "For me, Big Trouble in Little China is the movie you can't put down. If I see it for even a second on TV, I've got to stay on through the end, no matter where I pick it up from. Its such a rare animal- a fantasy epic that's not afraid of silliness, yet never surrenders to it. Carpenter always keeps the stakes present, no matter how ludicrous the situation, and man does this guy know how to use Kurt Russell.
And the fun... God this is a fun, funny movie that doesn't skimp on the thrills, action, and would'ya believe it... intelligence and performance. The Chinese Mythos explorations alone are fascinating material that Carpenter deftly avoids making light of or ridiculing despite the garish whackiness of the situation (he even manages some Lovecraft Homage in the catacombs- and fuck yeah any director that knows his Lovecraft is pretty aces with me). And fucking-A has there ever been an arch villain so magnificent and slackjawed awesome as James Hong's crisp, mirthful, delicately vicious Lo Pan?
You put me in a room where I had to choose between burning the last copy of "Kill Bill" or "Big Trouble" and, much as I like the former, its toast- not even close.
There isn't a single scene that's a chore, a single character out of place, one joke that shouldn't be there, and the echoes throughout fantasy and even Kung Fu homages that this movie has set off... I mean, is there anyone out there who's seen this film and Fifth Element who doesn't think Luc Besson caught 'Big Trouble' on the French equivalent of TBS one evening? Hell, the Mortal Kombat video game series owes its entire life to Carpenter's whacked out cast of heavies and heroes. Raiden, Liu Kang, Johnny Cage? Well shiiiit, that's Lightning, Wang and Jack hisself (okay, Cage is a stretch, but keep up with me).
Carpenter doesn't just know how to make superior, driven, keenly visual films, he knows how to make it all so damn fun. At least in this case. I'm surpised he could fumble the ball so badly on one of my favorite books, John Steakley's Vampires. I can't lay that all on his doorstep though, Steakley himself handled screenwriting chores, and man they made all sorts of hash brown out of that marvellous book.
It's hard to disagree, and it's a film that looks better and better each year, while making both volumes of Kill Bill seem like a tired, vulgar imitation with no heart. I would humbly defend the merits of The Fog to anyone. Sure, it's not prime Carpenter, but when it works it's terrifying. He again makes the cheapness work for him, with the simple effect of rolling fog with a light pulsing behind it becoming the stuff of nightmares. The opening prologue has already been mentioned, but there's a great double shock with Jamie Lee Curtis on an abandoned boat that demonstrates Carpenter's wicked sense of humour, and the scene with the little boy trying to crawl out of his bedroom window while a zombie splinters through his bedroom door may be the stuff of cliche (particularly when it's followed up by a car that just...won't...start!), but all it does is show how Carpenter elevates cliche to something freshly horrifying.
Peter Sobcyzski cites The Thing as his favourite: "If I had to pick one Carpenter title as his definitive film, I would probably go with "The Thing" It stands as the ultimate expression of the themes and concerns that he has explored throughout his entire career while still working as an incredibly effective monster movie. It is also significant because it provided a worldview so bleak, despairing and cynical that it all but destroyed his career as a mainstream filmmaker and forced him to more or less work on the fringes ever since."
Indeed, has there ever been a film that has managed to be as creepily terrifying, grotesquely disgusting and shatteringly bleak as The Thing? Probably not, and while it may have stiffed on release with another alien taking the box office that year (E.T. The Extra Terrestial), it has grown from a flop, to a cult favourite, to a genuinely critically acclaimed film - appropriately enough, it's a film that just spreads and spreads. And it probably is Carpenter at his most ruthless. The freezing landscapes, the dark howling nights, the endless stretching corridors, the doomladen score, the brilliantly coarse and frenzied script...it is an intense experience quite unlike any other. It has 200 user comments on this site, with a 87.6% Awesome rating, which helps to show just how beloved it is. The inevitable remake is coming (is Carpenter the most remade director ever?) but we all know deep down that no scene will ever top the blood test scene. Without wishing to exaggerate too much, it's surely one of the greatest scenes ever constructed as a simple petri dish of blood and hot wire hold the key to discovering who's human and who's not. And if it's not one of the greatest scenes ever, it certainly has a claim to the most tense. There's also a sly bit of direction going on here too - as MacReady explains why he'll be taking blood from everyone, Carpenter slowly pans over the other crew members, all rapt in attention. As MacReady says "We're gonna find out just who this Thing is..." the camera is fully focused on the character of Palmer - who eventually turns out to be the thing. It's not obvious in the slightest, and is done with so much subtlety that you may not pick up on it until about the fiftieth time you've seen it.
If the majority of this article has justly focused on his horror/thriller offerings, let's not forget that he has dabbled in biopic (Elvis), comedy (Memoirs of an Invisible Man and gentle fantasy too (Starman), all perhaps unfairly neglected and forgotten. And as Marc Kandel points out, "Carpenter may be one of the only directors who can successfully translate Lovecraftian Imagery as a thing to be seen rather than inferred (Cronenberg being perhaps the other example of a director that can do so). In the Mouth of Madness is a beautiful love letter to the master, and yes of course, there is the colossal fright, dread and hopelessness to be found in The Thing."
Ultimately then, he may not have made an out and out classic for a good few years now, but John Carpenter has an amount of goodwill and hope pinned on his every new endeavour like no other director - simply because Carpenter thinks like us, feels like us, and makes films that we would want to, given the money. As Rob Gonsalves says, "Carpenter can give you mighty fine hamburgers from time to time, or occasionally a steak. He'd have been happiest (as he's said) in the old studio system, where he'd get to make one or two films a year in all sorts of genres. He's essentially a throwback. There's no mechanism to support a director like him any more, hasn't been for decades. A libertarian streak runs through his work, but I can't say there's any sort of unifying theme or concern. He would scoff at the very idea."
John Carpenter - for entertaining us, for terrifying us more times than any other director, for never selling out, for never bloating a film's running time beyond what it needs to be and for quite simply being one of us - we salute you.
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originally posted: 03/02/07 22:50:52
last updated: 08/26/07 20:51:36