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A Dark and Scary Place
In my humble opinion, John Carpenter has been the great unsung hero of filmmaking over the last thirty years. His name won't be known to most casual cinema-goers in the same way as Stephen Spielberg, George Lucas, Peter Jackson and a handful of others, but most people will have seen at least one of his films, and for me he has achieved much more. That might be a bold statement to make; however, although throwing pots of money at a script does not necessarily make for a good movie, it is undoubtedly infinitely more difficult to turn a low- budget project into both a successful celluloid experience and a huge financial reward for the backers - which he has managed on a regular basis.
Whilst inevitably being known for horror and science fiction, Carpenter has also ventured into the realms of suspense thriller, action adventure, crime, western and comedy. The man himself is fairly forthright and does not suffer fools gladly, but simultaneously he is one of the most self-deprecating individuals you are ever likely to come across, as I found out at a masterclass he held at the National Film Theatre on London's Southbank a few years back. Invariably, when congratulated on a particular film or sequence, he would point out what he saw as faults. When once compared by a critic to Alfred Hitchcock, he simply said you can't take yourself too seriously. "I'm just out to make a good film. I try my best with each one and then go on to the next. If people don't like it I will have failed, but there are worse things in life than failing."
But make no mistake, John Carpenter is an accomplished storyteller (writing, directing and composing the music score for the majority of his movies) and a rare talent.
John Howard Carpenter was born in January 1948 in Carthage, New York, in the USA. From the moment he saw African Queen, aged only four, he knew what he wanted to do. Early influences were Ray Bradbury and genre movies such as It Came From Outer Space,Forbidden Planet and King Kong. By eight years old he had begun producing his own 8mm films, and by fourteen he was making his own shorts in the style of 1950s monster flicks, using stop motion techniques. He was also a keen reader of horror, SF and pulp magazines, even making his own with intricate artwork for which he also had a flair. After university, Carpenter attended the U.S.C. film school. Here he learned all aspects of filmmaking, including studying the directing skills of Hitchcock, John Ford, Orson Welles and in particular Howard Hawks, whom he revered. In 1969 he co-wrote, directed, edited and composed music for a short film called The Resurrection of Bronco Billy, which won an Academy Award.
In 1970 Carpenter teamed-up with Dan O'Bannon (who would later write Alien) to make what would eventually become Dark Star, personally funded, for his Master's thesis. After he left film school, Carpenter sought more money to shoot extra scenes in order to extend the running time to feature length for a cinematic release. $10,000 was secured from a Canadian backer. It's from this that we get the brilliant darkly comedic elevator sequences with the alien. The rights to the film were purchased for an extra $35,000 by a well known film backer. The total budget was $60,000 and the film made its debut in 1975. However, although applauded as a valiant underground release, it failed to attract the interest of the Hollywood executives. Carpenter was forced to turn his hand to selling scripts (The Eyes of Laura Mars, Blood River, Dark Moon Rising) to tide him over to his second major independent release - Assault on Precinct 13...
Lt. Ethan Bishop is assigned to Precinct 13 in Anderson, which is being systematically shut-down and moved elsewhere. Only a skeleton crew of the captain, a desk sergeant and two administration women are in place. Bishop is understandably expecting a quiet night, but chaos is about to descend in a manner he could never have predicted. A handful of dangerous prisoners (including the notorious Napoleon "Got a Smoke" Wilson) are being transported by bus to another location, but when one of their number falls seriously ill they are obliged to divert to the nearest police station - namely, Precinct 13. Meanwhile, a man is driving through the district with a little girl. As he stops to make a phone call, the girl goes to get an ice-cream... just as a street gang member is confronting the driver of the van. Consequentially, she is gunned-down. The distraught man drives after the gunman and kills him, but when the rest of the gang appears he is forced to flee for his life to Precinct 13. What follows is all-night assault on the station. If Bishop and the others are to survive, they will need the help of Napoleon Wilson. But can they trust him...?
This is much more than a straightforward street gang shoot-em-up. Carpenter ideally wanted to make a western in the vein of his hero Howard Hawks, but westerns were beginning to become outdated, and he couldn't afford the sets and costumes. So he elected to do something rather clever; he wrote a then contemporary reworking of Hawks' Rio Bravo, with a siege situation on a police precinct. It's important for the sake of the story that there is only a handful of people holding out in an essentially disused station. The telephone lines are dead so there's no contact with the outside world, and no back-up support from other units. There is also a limited supply of ammunition for the few guns they have. The gang use silencers so that their gunshots cannot be heard and attract unwanted attention. The Street Thunder gang created by Carpenter is interracial, raising its status to pure retaliation against the police for its surprise shoot-to-kill attack on the gang at the start of the film.
Assault on Precinct 13 was the first of a number of films he would make with a siege theme. He also incorporated a strong woman character (Leigh, named after Leigh Brackett - the writer of Rio Bravo) which he always felt was very important. Carpenter edited the movie under the pseudonym John T. Chance, which was the name of the sheriff in Rio Bravo. There's an element of wry humour present, especially in the scene when the hot potato game is played to decide who goes into the sewer through a manhole cover to seek escape. This is also John Carpenter's first full music score, and he produces a memorable theme said to be influenced slightly by Led Zeppelin's 'Immigrant Song' and the music from the Dirty Harry film.
Remembering what happened on Dark Star, Assault on Precinct 13 was the first film he had total control over; something he would insist on from this point onward. The film was released to a muted response in America. The MPAA made Carpenter cut out the scene wherein the little girl is shot dead. This he did, but only in the version sent to the MPAA, thereby sneaking the film out intact. He obviously knew that the entire plot pivoted on this moment, because the avenging man is followed to the precinct. It was its release in Europe which proved momentous, particularly its successful presentation at the 1977 London Film Festival. Irwin Yablans of Compass International saw the film and asked Carpenter to make a movie of his idea for babysitter murders set on Halloween. A classic and timeless movie was about to take the industry by storm.
Fifteen years after the young Michael Myers brutally stabbed to death his teenage sister, Judith, Doctor Loomis - who has followed the subject's case and tried to break through to him without success - is on his way with a nurse to the sanitarium from which Myers is due to be transferred. When they arrive the compound gates are open and patients are wandering around. Fearing the worst, Loomis rushes off toward the building. The nurse is attacked and the car stolen. It is Michael Myers. Suspecting Myers has returned home, Loomis phones to warn the sheriff, but he is reluctant to place restrictions for something which might not happen. Meanwhile, in Haddonfield, whilst her teenage friends prepare to celebrate Halloween with a night of promiscuity, the sensible (some might say, boring) swot, Laurie Strode, plays babysitter to two young children. This respectable neighbourhood is about to be terrorised by a masked force of "pure evil." This is The Night HE Came Home...
Halloween is often referred to as the granddaddy of slasher movies. This title is meant to be complimentary, but in my opinion is a little unkind considering some of the hack 'n' slash, gore-for-gore's-sake excuses for movies which emerged afterward. Admittedly, it did unknowingly set the ground rules for what was to become known as the Teen Horror Flick. For example, the sex-mad teens always seem to get killed, while the goody-goody virgin normally survives after a battle. And when a character says "I'll be right back," it's normally the last the others see of him/her.
Halloween is a very stylish horror with more creepy than violent moments. There is very good use of lighting, to chilling effect. The idea of a completely silent masked psychotic killer is infinitely more frightening than, for instance, the wise-cracking Freddy Krueger, who came later. Financial backer Moustapha Akkad agreed to John carpenter's condition of non-interference when convinced that this movie would be made for a budget of only $30,000. The young director set about writing the script with new long-time collaborator Debra Hill. By now he was assembling the film crew which would serve him well through several projects.
The part of Laurie Strode was played by then newcomer Jamie Lee Curtis (daughter of Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh) whereas, conversely, Carpenter went for a big name for the important character of Loomis. When Vincent Price turned down the role, it was offered to Donald Pleasence, who was persuaded to accept by his children who were fans of Assault on Precinct 13. Myers was played by Nick Castle, who would later co-write Escape From New York with Carpenter. His stance and stylised actions would prove instrumental - even all these years later, when Rob Zombie's remake had Michael Myers' body language all wrong.
The main Halloween theme is probably Carpenter's most instantly recognisable music, the musical timing originating from a memory of his father (a professor of music) playing the bongos. Along with Psycho's screeching and The Exorcist's Tubular Bells, Halloween is the most famous horror film music in history.
The Shape, as he was referred to in the script, was named after the British distributor who had Precinct included at the London Film Festival - one Michael Myers. The mask was an adapted and spray-painted William Shatner Captain Kirk retail prop. Various in-jokes and names are present, including some in homage to Psycho.
Shortage of space prevents me passing-on a hundred and one fascinating facts about this film, suffice to say it's a true classic which opened to mixed reviews. As with most of his films, Carpenter proved to be a man ahead of his time. Word of mouth would make Halloween a sensation, and for twelve years the highest grossing independent film of all time. By the time news of its phenomenal success filtered through to him, Carpenter was well into his next project.
The little town of Antonio Bay is preparing for its centenary celebrations, but it has a dark secret. 100 years before, the Elizabeth Dane ship, lost in a thick bank of fog, crashed on the rocks at Spivey Point, misdirected by a campfire intended to ground the vessel. The vicar of the church discovers the diary of Father Patrick Malone when a brick falls from the wall of the vestry. The writings give credence to the possibility of the fog returning, bringing back the dead crewmen seeking revenge for cold-hearted betrayal ("Midnight till one belongs to the dead.")... Stevie Wayne is a single mother who runs a radio station from the lighthouse at Antonio Bay. Kathy Williams learns from the vicar about the town's curse and considers the celebrations a sham. However, for the sake of the people she is persuaded to go through with them regardless. The fishing trawler, The Sea Grass is the first subject of retribution, when an ancient ship emerges from a ghostly glowing fog and barely seen figures butcher the handful of men. During a candlelit vigil held by the town, the fog rolls in along the coastline. Stevie Wayne warns the people via her radio station, and stays at her post to report on its curiously purposeful direction ("There's something in the fog!"). She tells the fleeing people to congregate at the church, but is besieged herself at the lighthouse. The church proves to be the focal point, as the stolen gold being transported by the Elizabeth Dane was forged into the large cross which adorns the church. Then the figures emerge from the fog...
Having scripted The Eyes of Laura Mars, Someone's Watching Me, and Elvis after Halloween, John Carpenter was rewarded by receiving the New Generation Director Award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. But there was no resting on laurels. His successes prompted a two-picture deal with Avco Embassy, the first of which was The Fog.
Carpenter and producer Debra Hill were in England and decided to visit Stonehenge. Behind it was a low, eerie mist which seemed to pulsate, and Carpenter commented, "What do you suppose is in the fog?" Keen to follow-up Halloween with another scary tale, he borrowed a true event from the 1700s when a ship laden with gold was lured on to the rocks by the locals. The crew was drowned and the gold stolen. The Fog is therefore essentially a supernatural tale of revenge.
Jamie Lee Curtis returns to the Carpenter fold after her debut in Halloween; this time she plays an older character and shares the credits with her mother Janet Leigh of Psycho fame. A couple of other actors from Halloween also return: Nick Castle and Nancy Loomis, and Dan O'Bannon returns from Dark Star. Oscar winner John Houseman is also in the cast, but the biggest plaudits should go to Adrienne Barbeau (Carpenter's then new wife) as the sultry-voiced Stevie Wayne, who manages just the right balance of calmness and urgency - another very strong female character. Many times Carpenter has enjoyed Hitchcock-like cameos in his movies, but in The Fog he has a brief talking part as the church handyman.
Although The Fog proved to be less of a milestone than Halloween, it is an extremely effective film simply told - one of my favourites. The pacing of this movie is spot on, with early shocks and scares being only part of the steady build-up to the church siege conclusion. The dead mariners from the Elizabeth Dane are kept in darkness or backlit in the fog so that they are nearly always seen in silhouette, the active principle being that less is more. Also greatly enhancing the atmosphere is the very impressive music score, easily one of his best. Some music introduced by Stevie Wayne as The Coupe de Villes is in reality a jamming band formed by Carpenter, of which he is a part.
The Fog also made a respectable financial income, recouping significantly more than its initial outlay. For the second of the two-picture Avco deal Carpenter returned to a script he had written and carried with him since 1974.
Snake Plisskin ("I thought you were dead!") is an ex-Special Forces hero who is currently serving life imprisonment in a maximum security penitentiary for robbing the Federal Reserve Depository. He is offered a complete pardon in exchange for rescuing the President from New York, where his plane has crashed. New York is a walled-off prison where gangs and hardened criminals have made their own hierarchy. To ensure his co-operation Plisskin is injected with two minute capsules; if he doesn't return with the President within 22 hours the capsules will dissolve setting off fatal heat-sensing charges. The President's location tracker proves to be a false lead, and Plisskin eventually discovers via a character called "Brain" that the man has been taken by the Duke of New York, a powerful and ruthless gang leader. But Snake can be pretty ruthless himself, let down by the government he fought for he cares about nothing but his own welfare...
Snake Plisskin is a great character, an anti-hero who sneers at the establishment and whose quiet tones are reminiscent of Clint Eastwood. The plot, settings and lighting are once again near faultless, and it's amazing we have so many big names (Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, Donald Pleasence, Harry Dean Stanton and of course Kurt Russell from Carpenter's Elvis in his first action figure role - although Avco wanted Charles Bronson) in a movie budget reportedly between 5 and $7 million. Making another welcome return is Adrienne Barbeau.
Nick Castle co-wrote the script with Carpenter and is mainly responsible for the low-key dark humour in the film. A fascinating fact is that the matte painter of the movie was none other than James Cameron, later director of The Terminator, Aliens, Titanic and others. Shooting took place through the nights between 9:00pm to 7:00am. It would be Carpenter's and Avco's most ambitious project to date.
Upon its release, Escape From New York went up against Raiders of the Lost Ark, but was incredibly well-received for a relatively small picture and still made the huge return of $50 million.
Next, Carpenter was offered Halloween II to write and direct. He was reluctant to return to a previous venture, but Yablans and Akkad told him it would be made with or without his involvement, so he took it on as a business venture, electing, along with Debra Hill to write and produce the film, as well as adapt the original music. The director would be Rick Rosenthal. Carpenter wrote into the storyline that Myers was trying to kill Laurie Strode because she is his younger sister. He never liked the premise, believing events to be more frightening when the reason for them is unknown. Signing up with the mighty Universal Studios, Carpenter went on to make what many consider to be the greatest movie of his career.
JR MacReady is a helicopter pilot and part of the crew of a US Antarctic research station. When a Norwegian helicopter mysteriously crashes whilst chasing and trying to kill a dog, the station takes the animal in and allows it to wander. MacReady and others fly to the Norwegian base to find out what took place. They discover it uninhabited, bleak and cold. A huge area in the ice has been cut away to reveal part of what appears to be a spacecraft. A man-sized block of ice is taken back to the US base where it accidentally thaws out. When the dog is placed with the sled dogs they cower in fear as it erupts into a hideous creature. A flame thrower destroys it, but this is in fact a shape-shifting extraterrestrial which can take the form of any living thing. When attacked it reveals its previous forms in a sickening amalgamation of twisted body parts. From that moment on, the station becomes a hotbed of fear, panic and ultra-paranoia, as nobody knows who to trust. MacReady thinks he has the solution, but is he too late...?
This was at face value a remake of the 1951 SF-horror film, The Thing From Another World - directed by Carpenter's hero Howard Hawks. However, Carpenter returned to the original short story, Who Goes There, by John W. Campbell, rather than copy Hawks' version which was radically different.
A young and talented effects man called Rob Bottin convinced him that the multiple-shape-shifting of the creature could be realised by hand. He was right; although no video or CGI effects were used, it all holds-up very well even today, aided once again by the excellent lighting. There is a very claustrophobic feel to The Thing; no doubt coming across from the film crew itself which was snowed-in at a small mining town in British Columbia accessible only by a 27 mile dirt road. The set was built and left for them to return to in the snow-covered bitter winter.
This is a film about professional relationships, mistrust and paranoia as much as it is about a monster. The plot and pacing is very finely balanced, and works beyond all expectations. The blood-testing scene is inspired, being edgy, scary and funny. As in Escape From New York, Kurt Russell slips easily into the role, whilst ensuring the characterisation is completely different.
Upon its general release, The Thing bombed. Cinema-goers were apparently appalled and disgusted by the hideous shape-changing scenes - missing the point entirely. E.T. had just been released and the public was not ready for Carpenter's intelligent and well-crafted monster flick after such a popular and benign alien from Spielberg. However, a few years later critics began to reassess the film, and it picked up a huge following retrospectively.
The premise of a shape-shifting creature is said to have inspired the T-100 from Cameron's Terminator 2, particularly the scene when it loses substance and goes through one shape after another. There was also an episode of The X-Files which was heavily influenced by The Thing. Dark Horse comics published a continuation of the story, which also brought a new audience to the film. Carpenter has toyed with the idea of a sequel ever since, but in semi-retirement he's unlikely to get around to it.
John Carpenter and Debra Hill jointly took on the production of Halloween III: Season of the Witch, and invited Quatermass writer Nigel Kneale to take this story in a new direction without the support of the Myers character. After Kneale's disagreement with the backers, Tommy Lee Wallace was brought in to adapt the script and direct the finished piece. Carpenter again composed the music.
In 1983, Carpenter accepted an offer to direct a film adaptation of the Stephen King novel, Christine, and again handle the music. Although it's not one of his own personal favourites, he stamped his identity and dark humour on the piece and it was fairly well received.
The following year it was Starman, a big-budget SF / comedy / romance, and Carpenter's proof after The Thing that he could turn his hand to lighter concepts. Two scripts from Carpenter were made into movies, both for which he was paid handsomely for acting as executive producer: The Philadelphia Experiment and Black Moon Rising.
Turning down a directing job on The Golden Child, Carpenter instead stamped his authority on a martial arts movie which bridged several genres. Big Trouble in Little China, again starring stalwart Carpenter regular Kurt Russell, was a kung fu / science fiction / action adventure / horror / comedy / romance. It succeeded on all levels, but again cinema-goers didn't get it at the time.
Carpenter went on holiday to lick his wounds, and returned to accept a new four-movie deal with Alive Films. It was here that he rediscovered his biggest strength: complete autonomy over his own low-budget projects. The first of these was...
When the last guardian of the forgotten sect, The Brotherhood of Sleep (a religious organisation kept secret even from the Vatican), dies he leaves a key to a Catholic priest. The key opens a door into the basement of an abandoned church. Inside is a large canister which appears to contain a green sludge. The priest asks a college professor of theoretic physics to investigate, and he agrees, taking along a handful of his students. They discover, via an old manuscript, that the canister is seven million years old and can only be opened from the inside. The substance it holds is the essence of pure evil - Satan itself, if you like. As the students attempt to study it, the sky begins to change, and hoards of mysteriously psychotic homeless people surround the building, making it a prison. The green substance begins to spread its contagion by spraying in the face of its victims - while the survivors try to barricade themselves in a room - preparatory to bringing through Satan's father, the Anti-God...
Having paid tribute to Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock in previous movies, Carpenter wanted to do the same with Nigel Kneale, who had always impressed the young director with his solid and believable combinations of science fact and fiction, physics, horror and the supernatural. Consequentially, Carpenter wrote the script for Prince of Darkness under the honorary pseudonym of Martin Quatermass.
The part of the priest was offered to Donald Pleasence, who was glad to accept, having openly told the press in recent years that Carpenter was his favourite director. The professor was played by Jason Wong who had enjoyed a prominent part in Big Trouble in Little China. The leader of the homeless people was acted by none other than horror rock singer Alice Cooper.
The film can be enjoyed on two levels, but is essentially an intellectual exploration of the spatial universe. What actually is 'evil' and does it have a purpose? The spreading of the evil through bodily fluids is an obvious allegory to AIDS.
Although the eighties was awash with horror films (most of them franchises or inferior copies), thereby losing this one somewhere in the middle, Prince of Darkness was well- received by the public and most Carpenter fans. A small contingent saw this moment as the beginning of a slide in talent by the director, but I think those people simply saw this as students versus demon, missing the intelligently written script which explores anti-particles, tachyon transmissions, and differential equations - along with questions such as what is Man's place in the universe, and where does he fit in with science?
The important thing here is that Carpenter was making a film that he wanted to see - which is all any writer, director or artist of any kind can do. It is proof of his conviction in this regard to know that he turned down big-money directing jobs on Top Gun and Fatal Attraction. His second project for Alive Films was...
John Nada is a homeless and jobless drifter who comes to town looking for labouring work. He finds refuge with a large destitute homeless community, but it is soon mysteriously attacked and destroyed by riot police. Most of the individuals are taken away. When Nada witnesses a similar raid on a nearby building, he waits it out before entering to look for clues as to what the purpose of the raid was. Inside he finds a pair of sunglasses which changes everything around him when he puts them on. A percentage of the population actually consists of aliens with skeletal faces, and just as importantly all advertising and media is subversive brainwashing aimed to instruct the populace with messages such as Consume, Procreate, Submit, Obey, No Independent Thought, and on the money, This Is Your God. When Nada meets Frank he has a hard time convincing him, but a scrawled message, They Live - We Sleep, convinces them that there are others who know the truth. The problem is how does this small band of rebels open the eyes of the world...?
Carpenter has always had an inherent dislike of authority; this comes across in some of his films (such as the anti-hero Snake Plisskin in Escape From New York), but none more so than in They Live. This was his comment on Regan-era USA, with money, consumerism, capitalism and middle-class "Yuppies", not to mention the plight of the forgotten homeless (the name Nada means 'nothing'). He believed at the time that everything we see is designed to sell us something, that the only thing society wants to do is to take our money.
Carpenter adapted and scripted a short story by Ray Faraday called 8 O'clock in the Morning, which was published in a magazine in the 1960s. Under the pen name Frank Armitage (a character in The Dunwich Horror by H. P. Lovecraft) Carpenter added plenty of social commentary and found that a lot of humour was creeping into the story. In fact, it's this dark, knowing irony and satire which makes the film stand out so prominently as original and entertaining. One such example is when two TV icons are revealed to be aliens while they are criticising John Carpenter and George Romero films for being too violent.
As with Prince of Darkness, the budget was only $3 million and the shooting schedule 8 weeks. For the part of Nada Carpenter recruited experienced wrestler "Rowdy" Roddy Piper, whom he had seen at a Wrestlemania event. Taking a chance paid off, because Piper brings much more than brawn to the part. Keith David (who had appeared in The Thing) was alongside him with Meg Foster. Mind you, Piper's profession did help when Carpenter scripted-in a seven minute alleyway brawl because he wanted to out-do The Quiet Man as the longest on-screen fight.
As with his previous film, Carpenter composed another excellent mood-enhancing music score. Releasing the film just prior to the 1988 elections was either inspired or a very lucky happenstance, because it proved to be a hit at the box office - seemingly the only Carpenter film that audiences 'got' straight away. An inherent message in the film about not selling-out for big financial success was not lost on Carpenter fans, who know that he has never been close to doing so. There was talk of a sequel to They Live, titled Hypnowar, but it was never made.
Also in 1988 Carpenter turned down the offer to direct Halloween IV: The Return of Michael Myers. A light-hearted western, El Diablo, which he had scripted some years before was finally filmed as a TV movie in 1990, and another, Blood River, followed in 1991. Back behind the camera where he belongs, Carpenter went on to direct Memoirs of an Invisible Man, the TV anthology film Body Bags, In the Mouth of Madness, a remake of Village of the Damned, Escape From L.A., Vampires and Ghosts of Mars - as well as contributing two one-hour segments to The Masters of Horror TV series, and the psychological horror The Ward. In addition, in recent years he has taken his excellent music on the road, playing it with a live band to a backdrop of his film montages.
So John Carpenter has enjoyed a successful, but sometimes uncomfortable career. But he has remained resolute and has a formidable arsenal of fine films in his canon.
If I were to choose seven films to represent his finest work, I would select those included in this set. They are strong and diverse achievements. Although the majority of extras available out there in the retail world are here to compliment the films, there are a couple of individual releases which are much more packed with special features, especially on region 1.
However, this isn't a huge problem, as most avid Carpenter fans such as myself will already have these remastered films, and for those coming to John Carpenter afresh there's no better place to start than here.
*See below for John Carpenter Picture Gallery
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