This director profile of John Carpenter is yet another joint-venture of White City Cinema and my wife Jillian’s feminist blog Exploring Feminisms. This is our first time discussing the body of work of a filmmaker rather than a single film.
MGS: So we just finished watching virtually all of John Carpenter’s movies together and I guess I’d like to start off this “director profile” by discussing how we got on this particular kick. When I was a kid in the early to mid-Eighties I remember that Halloween, Escape from New York and The Thing were all a big deal to me. Those movies ruled cable television at the time and I watched them over and over. Then, when Prince of Darkness came out in the fall of 1987, I saw it in the theater as a budding 12-year old horror movie aficionado, fully aware that I was seeing the “new John Carpenter film.” I also saw They Live the next year and loved that too. Then, I started watching serious art films as a teenager and kind of lost touch with what Carpenter was doing until a couple years ago. I think the motivation for our retrospective was when we bought Halloween on blu-ray. I hadn’t seen it in years and probably never in its original aspect ratio and I was just blown away by how great it is: the suspenseful, brilliantly edited set pieces, the elegant camera movements and, of course, that incredible, minimalist synthesizer score. It made me want to see and re-see all of his films. Do you remember your earliest impressions of Carpenter and what exactly hooked you during our recent retrospective?
JM: I can honestly say that growing up, I didn’t know who Carpenter was and though there was an awareness of his cultural presence, didn’t link his films together. I knew that I liked Halloween, but didn’t like, or really didn’t understand, They Live or Big Trouble in Little China, for example. I didn’t see a connecting thread or appreciate his abilities as a director until we began our Carpenter-kick, and that is where my interest snowballed. When you picked out movies for us to watch in our Netflix and Facets queues, I was constantly surprised at the films that I was aware of, but never knew that he directed. Do you see an interconnected thread throughout his films that is indicative of his directing style, apart from his often 80s-sounding synthesizer music?
MGS: Absolutely. The most obvious thread would be his mastery of (and unironic love for) genre filmmaking. The critic Kent Jones said the best thing about Carpenter, that he’s the last straightforward genre filmmaker in Hollywood and the only one who doesn’t look at genres as “museums to be plundered.” In other words, unlike, say, the Coen brothers or Quentin Tarantino, who self-consciously mash-up different genres or run genre conventions through a kind of post-modern blender, Carpenter plays the conventions straight and true, as if he were making his films in the 1950s. Obviously, the genre he’s most known for is horror. But, in a way, a lot of his films can be characterized as modern-day or futuristic takes on the western as well; virtually all of Carpenter’s movies follow one of two basic western-style plots: the group of people who become trapped in an isolated, claustrophobic location who find themselves being menaced by an enemy from without, or the group of people who are forced to enter a foreign, hostile territory and must battle their way out from within. It seems that most aspects of Carpenter’s visual style flow organically from these archetypal stories (the use of cross-cutting to generate suspense, an expressive use of Cinemascope framing featuring geometric groupings of actors, etc.)
Kurt Russell, obviously, is the ultimate Carpenter actor and can be seen as the director’s alter ego: Snake Plissken in Escape From New York, R.J. MacReady in The Thing and Jack Burton in Big Trouble in Little China are all very similar and yet very distinct. They are all anti-authoritarian “lone wolf” types who nonetheless differ drastically in terms of personality and morality. Snake is Russell doing Clint Eastwood, Jack is Russell doing John Wayne (hilariously, I might add), and Mac is essentially Russell being Russell. This reminds me – it seems you and I agree that the real golden age for Carpenter was between 1978 and 1986. Everything from Halloween to Big Trouble in Little China is just incredible (with the partial exception of Christine, although that has its virtues too) and nobody really appreciated what he was doing at the time. After that, there’s a drop off in overall quality although he still does good work intermittently up through the present. So, my next question for you is what do you think Carpenter’s best and worst films are? More specifically, what do you see as Carpenter’s strengths and weaknesses as a filmmaker?
JM: Without a doubt, The Thing is his best film, followed by Halloween, then The Ward.
The Thing: very much ahead of its time. It’s shockingly scary, even for today’s standards of visual and gore overload.
Halloween: one of the first extended scenes from a murderer’s point of view and, though it was only his third full length film, it’s difficult not to appreciate how steadfast his style has been throughout the years.
Village of the Damned: let me clarify by first stating that this isn’t in my top ten, but it does a great job of being a classic horror film by making you feel really uncomfortable, and it’s difficult to make an audience feel so consistently out of control.
The Ward: an awesome comeback after a few not so inspired films and like a few of his other flicks, such as Halloween, it has a really strong female lead.
Regarding what I consider to be his less than perfect films, I can’t criticize them too vehemently because I think they all have their strong points. Ghosts of Mars, for example, is missing a more fleshed out story, but how can you not love Pam Grier? Similarly, Christine falls into the same category where large chunks of information are left out, jumping from scene to scene when there should be some meat in the middle. However, the car, especially when it’s on a rampage, is terrifying.
Another film that had such potential but fell flat was Pro-life from the Masters of Horror television series, which featured one of our joint favorites, Ron Perlman. Though I am pro-choice and did work at Planned Parenthood, I do try to keep an open mind when it comes to anything even slightly anti-choice in art. Given that this is a horror film, I was hoping that whichever way it went, pro or anti-choice, it was going to be entertaining. All in all, the film had a lot of holes in it; some scenes were gruesome to the utmost, and other scenes made it obvious that it was a TV movie. As the movie ended, though it did slant towards a pro-choice point of view, I kept thinking of ways that it could have been made better.
Overall, I think he has two strengths that attract me to his films. The first is that he’s really good at scaring the audience through gore, the unknown, and even downright creepy music. Two: even though their butts are often hanging out, he has a good amount of tough female leads, i.e. The Ward, Halloween, The Fog, and Ghosts of Mars. I’m sure that you disagree with some of my picks, so what are some of your favorites and not-so-favorites?
MGS: Well, I agree Pro-Life is bad all around, which is interesting because it obviously carries the Carpenter stamp. It falls into that group-of-people-under-siege storyline that I brought up earlier. But, as Pauline Kael would tell you, just because a director’s signature is identifiable doesn’t mean the work is inherently valuable. I’m also in full agreement that The Thing is his masterpiece. Of course, we also saw it under the most optimum conditions imaginable: a 35mm ‘Scope print at a midnight show with a packed audience, which is not true of the other Carpenter films in our retrospective. And you’re right that the gore in that film is both shocking and unbelievably effective. I couldn’t believe how gory it still looks after all these years. A big part of that, I think, is realizing that you’re looking at good old-fashioned effects and make-up, which have a thick, heavy, moist presence on screen (in contrast to say, the thinness/cartoonishness of CGI). Halloween is also right up there for me, obviously. My other favorite is Starman. That’s a film I saw and liked as a kid but was just floored to realize how good it still is as an adult. I see it as kind of love story version of The Thing (in much the same way that Big Trouble is the comedy version of Escape from New York)! There’s a real sense of wonder to that film, a feeling of what it’s like to look at the world through truly innocent eyes that goes much deeper than the faux-innocence of, say, Steven Spielberg. The scene where Jeff Bridges brings the deer back to life made me want to cry and the ending of the film – the final interaction between Bridges and Karen Allen – is just sublime.
I’m surprised by your singling out Village of the Damned. I actually liked the first 30 minutes of it but, as soon as the children appear and the mystery becomes more concrete, I thought it became much less interesting. Also, Kirstie Alley’s performance strikes me as one of the weakest to be found in any Carpenter film. In general, I don’t think that he’s the best director of actors. I think he needs to work with strong actors who kind of already understand the spirit of what he’s doing, like, say, Kurt Russell. I’m glad that you like The Ward though. I too thought it was pretty great, a kind of b-movie version of Shutter Island centered on a female protagonist. I felt like he was really returning to his low-budget roots with that one and I think he directed the hell out of it. I’m also glad you brought up the female protagonists; Natasha Henstridge was a really appealing action heroine in Ghosts of Mars and I liked the chemistry between her and Ice Cube. But that script was so lame; it was just one endless shootout after another and the whole thing quickly became noisy, monotonous and irritating. For me, it’s a toss up between that and Vampires for the title of worst Carpenter film. However, having said that, we saw a few Carpenter films that were very pleasant surprises for me. Chief among them is probably Memoirs of an Invisible Man. I always assumed that would be one of the low points of his career but, after finally seeing it, I was surprised at how well it worked as a light comedy thriller. There are a few set pieces in it that are really excellent, like the scene where Chevy Chase as the invisible man uses the body of a passed out drunk to hail a cab and catch a ride across town. I think of it as Carpenter’s version of North By Northwest. Any last thoughts you’d like to add?
JM: Now that our Carpenter-thon is over, I am left with a profound sense of respect for him as a director, writer and cheesy synthesizer musician, and possibly as someone who may even stick his toes into the feminist pond.
Jill’s Top Ten John Carpenter Films
9. Escape from L.A.
8. Memoirs of an Invisible Man
6. The Fog
5. Escape from New York
4. Someone’s Watching Me!
3. The Ward
1. The Thing
MGS’ Top Ten John Carpenter Films
10. Memoirs of an Invisible Man
9. In the Mouth of Madness
8. They Live
7. The Ward
6. Assault on Precinct 13
5. Big Trouble in Little China
4. Escape from New York
1. The Thing