I thought I’d go for a gamble on my first Directors review, just because I’m feeling slightly adventurous and even a little reckless. I can imagine some people spluttering in disgust over my choice of director when there are so many greats to choose from – and with very good reason. I mean, how could anyone say the guy who is responsible for Big Trouble in Little China and six Halloween sequels is a great director? Does this person need help? Well I’ll be the first to admit that John Carpenter has made some woefully dire films; some embarrassingly so. So what do I see in him? The inspiration behind this came to me when I caught Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars on some random sci-fi channel late at night. So blown away was I by its’ shoddy direction, terrible plot and Jason Statham factor that it made me think; where did it all go wrong for Carpenter? It sent me on a kind of nostalgia trip to some of Carpenter’s past offerings and a realisation that some of his early films were actually brilliant pieces of cinema. Seen as I could rant all day two of his films will be examined to re-discover some of Carpenter’s original cinematic vision. Hopefully once I’ve finished this we can look at Carpenter’s career with a much more positive perspective and learn not pigeon-hole him, as I once did, with the rest of the failed 80s horror/action directors that barely make the bargain bin of your local tescos.
Carpenter once said “I like to be as simple as possible, I don’t like to show off”. This pretty much sums up his attitude to cinema; minimalistic and functional yet very raw and crisp. Carpenter’s films are very distinctive and, although his influences are very common to other directors of the period, he manages to make these films very much his own. He had a real love of the classic Hollywood films; Carpenter claimed: ‘If I had three wishes, one of them would be “Send me back to the 1940s and the studio system and let me direct movies”, because I would have been happiest there. Carpenter was influenced greatly by the classic American westerns; some films are reminiscent of early westerns like High Noon, Rio Bravo and Stagecoach. He rather likes the idea of the flawed, morally grey, John Wayne-esque crusader who becomes an unlikely hero. It is a very common characterisation in action films but he found in Kurt Russell a man who could pull off that kind of role without seeming too clichéd; they would go on to collaborate in five films. He also openly credits Hitchcock as being a major influence in how he uses lighting and in his films. There are many scenes that are reminiscent of Hitchcock classics, like Rear Window, which give his films a typically menacing feel to the films. He also has a taste for the horror genre, his minimalist use of lighting and his inspiration in Hitchcock have contributed to making his horrors some of the most intense and frightening I have ever seen. Carpenter’s other strength is his versatility, he writes, directs and even composes his own scores – being so multi-talented has really added a great deal of personal touch to his films that few directors can better. His piano/ synth music scores are certainly some of the most chilling movie soundtracks; two films that stand out here for that are Assault on Precinct 13 and Escape from New York which would have been considerably worse off without the soundtrack. Carpenter’s career seemed to be in full swing during the 80s, he was widely respected as one of the most prolific American directors of the time and had a sizable cult following. 1986 though brought Big Trouble in Little China which was carpet-bombed by critics and a massive commercial failure – it was Carpenter’s first loss. BTILC was a dreadfully dire film and pretty much killed Carpenter’s reputation. His films prior to that have never matched the same quality of his earlier work and the 90s saw his critical and commercial success spiral. It is difficult to see Carpenter regain his former glory again anytime soon, despite this he has a film coming out in 2010 entitled The Ward. It ends a nine year wait that Carpenter has had to endure to direct a film again; maybe the sabbatical will have done him some good? Now we have been properly introduced to the man we should crack on with looking at his most common techniques and themes in two of his most iconic films.
Night of the Hunters – Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
John Carpenter was a pioneer in integrating the general action genre with the classic Hollywood cinema. Not only was he a massive fan of Hitchcock but also very familiar with film noir in general; the film I think demonstrates this the most is Assault on Precinct 13 (1976). It was his first attempt at the intense action/ thriller and it became an almost instant cult classic. It was made on an hilariously low budget, had poor quality special effects and some flaky actors – yet this is a film that proves if a director gets everything right it makes all the difference. It also shows some fine examples of how Carpenter integrated many classic genres with his films. Set in L.A. during the massive gang riots of the 70s, Assault on Precinct 13 tells the story of an unfortunate bunch of individuals who populate the disbanding L.A. precinct 13 just as a local violent gang attacks and the characters have to survive a deadly siege on the station. This was Carpenter’s first big commercial success and he utilises all the best tricks in the book and more to make this very basic story into one of the most intense action/ thrillers ever made.
Precinct 13 is very dark visually and a vividly violent film. It features similar characters and themes that characterised classic Noir and Western films of the Hollywood studio era. The crux of the story is in homage to the famous Rio Bravo (1959) where a small band of vigilantes take it upon themselves to rid Rio Bravo of a corrupt gang. Precinct 13’s story involves a violent gang that represent a dissatisfied underclass forced into violence and destruction who try to destroy the only source of order in the precinct of Anderson L.A. It is up to a small band of people to stand their ground, in ‘Alamo’ style, and against all odds try to last the night. It is the classic good versus bad fairytale, which is so familiar with these genres, transported into a then modern day setting. Carpenter essentially evolves and re-imagines these classic tales into a more up-to-date setting.
The main characters can also be seen as very genre based and modelled on film noir and western protagonists. The main character Lt. Bishop, as the name suggests, represents the noble American who leads the way and takes the fight to this criminal wave. His unlikely ally, ‘Napoleon’ Wilson, a John Wayne-esque death row inmate represents the courageous rebel with his deadpan dialogue and feisty attitude who is seeking some kind of redemption for his crimes. Wilson has some classic deadpan lines like ‘you got a smoke?’ just as he’s being trundled off to death row. He also shares a very film noir-esque cigarette scene with Liegh (shot below). At first glance they seem like basic character models but Carpenter adds some interesting additions that allow the characters to go beyond these common characterisations. Bishop is a very rounded character that has just the right amount of cynicism and knowledge that makes him a much more likeable hero. He is the very cool-headed detective-like character who is very like the early noir protagonists. Wilson might seem like a brainless cowboy half of the time but the actual crime that landed him on death row is intriguingly never mentioned and shows a much deeper and darker side to the character; He may be the typical Western protagonist in a sense but he is slightly more layered than that. It adds a greater depth to the characters that avoid them being mere homage’s of typical character types.
In terms of the visual aspect one scene that sticks in my mind is the opening scene where a police squad mercilessly execute six gang members in a dark alleyway; it is completely lifted from a Howard Hawks film noir. Six gangsters are manoeuvring through a dark alleyway with automatic weapons, the low key but sinister score echoes in the background. The police catch the gangsters by surprise and mercilessly gun them down. As you can see in the screenshots the flashlights highlighting the police weapons in contrast with dark alleyway is very reminiscent of the original Scarface (1932). Other scenes during the gunfights in the station are similar to a lot of classic westerns but with a much faster and brutal look to them like the shot below.
The way Carpenter uses aspects of these genres enables him to explore new ways of presenting old ideas and to expertly weave an urban fairytale about hard-boiled and courageous heroes fighting evil villains to protect a noble cause. I reckon this is where Carpenter’s original success lies. He tells classic stories but has brought them bang up-to-date and added an extra kick. It is the natural order of things; classic tales are always re-hashed and told in slightly different ways. It is how cinema, art and literature evolve. Carpenter was at the forefront of this change and I believe he has been horrendously unappreciated in this sense.
Invasion of the Bodysnatchers! – The Thing (1982)
Although Carpenter made great action films he was by far more comfortable with making horror and science-fiction films. Although it took him some years until he finally had a dream chance to rework Howard Hawks’ classic The Thing from Another World (1951). He had tackled SF before in his first film Dark Star (1974) was a moderately successful film that engaged a lot of SF themes but was also a very tongue-in-cheek comedy written by Dan O’ Bannon and he didn’t get to fully flex his directorial muscles. When Carpenter had a chance to work with screenwriter Bill Lancaster on The Thing (1982) though, it was his first real chance to attempt a horror SF film; which he did superbly. This stands out as probably his best film in my opinion. Although Hawks’ 1951 film was the inspiration behind it Carpenter and Lancaster also wanted to get as close to the original novella, John Campbell Jr’s Who Goes There?, as possible. The original story is about a spaceship that crashes in Antarctica that contains a creature which is able to absorb and mimic organic life. The creature begins mimicking people and slowly consumes the members of a nearby, remote outpost. Howard Hawks’ film had the same idea but was a blatant, anti-communist piece of propaganda; it was however a very good representation the paranoia rife in America society at the height of the Cold War. Carpenter’s The Thing is a terrifying adaption of Hawks’ film and, in my opinion, the best version. Carpenter focuses just as much on the psychological aspect as the alien itself. The action of the film feeds off the fear and paranoia of the characters as they try to discover which of them is actually the thing. The film was scorned on its release, with most critics claiming it to be boring and disgusting. The New York Times went as far as calling it ‘instant junk’. The special effects were also another area that split critics right down the middle. It was also released at the same time as Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra Terrestrial and generally film audiences were much happier with a more upbeat, family tale. During this period there was a great deal of snobbery towards B-movie horrors made by people like Carpenter and Cronenberg; though I doubt you can put Carpenter in the same league when it comes to gore and visceral violence. More recently however, it is beginning to regain a cult following more recognition from critics who now believe it to be one of the greatest ever SF films. There is even talk of a sequel in the pipeline that connects with the dramatic and rather ambiguous ending of The Thing. Carpenter’s unique vision of terror and SF is intriguing, terrifying and deep; I think The Thing is his finest example of this.
The Thing bears some similarities to Carpenter’s other early films like The Fog (1979) and Assault on Precinct 13 that instantly establish it as an effective horror film. It is that they are essentially sieges of a powerful external force on a small group of people that seem inexplicable and unstoppable. This is a major theme in many of his horrors like Halloween (1978)and The Fog –as pictured below- and one that he is still keen to use, and at this point I regret that I have to cite Ghosts of Mars as an example.
Unlike Hawks, who focuses on the ability of the team to unite and eventually fight off the Thing, Carpenter focuses on how the creature individuates, thus picks off the men one by one, and the futility of a team effort to destroy the beast. Most films in the horror genre, modern ones in particular, focus on a group of people sticking together and combating the force/creature pursuing them. This can be a good tool, but Carpenter’s film has so much more effect because in The Thing anyone could be an imitation and this means teamwork is really not an option. Everyone is looking out for themselves, particularly Russell’s character MacReady, and distance themselves from the group; for all they know everyone else could be the Thing. The creature itself mimics everything it touches and is able to break all of the men psychologically and influence how each of them acts. This is a slow torture that each character endures until the creature shepherds the men to their inevitable assimilation. There are some horrific scenes and intense moments in the film that involve the team trying to discover who is an imitation. One scene in particular is when MacCready has the four remaining men tied up on a couch and he takes samples of their blood to determine once and for all who the Thing has taken. This is easily one of the most intense moments in horror cinema and is reason enough to watch the film. The Thing was definitely a new step for Carpenter as previously he was credited in Halloween for leaving a lot to the viewer’s imagination and showing little gore and blood. This time however Carpenter has kept that aspect but brought on the gore in a big way and the combination is quite fitting. Its heavily nihilistic nature and grim story are a far cry from the urban fairytales of Escape from New York and Assault on Precinct 13 and a shining example of why Carpenter’s own brand of horror is more terrifying than most you’ll ever see.
The creature itself was the source of much debate when the film was released. Many criticised it for looking both needlessly disgusting and wholly fake. There is some weight to this as Carpenter himself always admitted the flaws and limitations behind stop-motion animation. The creature looks rather poorly made compared to the CGI monsters that crowd today’s horror film franchises. The final incarnation of the beast is only seen briefly and the action scenes are probably the least frightening bits of the film. It cost a fair bit to make but it had nowhere near the mammoth budget of Spielberg’s E.T. and had to make do with the best they had. Carpenter was also very ambitious with the kind of action he wanted from the monster and stop-motion has its limits; he obviously hoped for much more. However I believe the monster itself is still a masterpiece of the time and a fine example of the fine art that is stop-motion cinema. You have to appreciate the effort that has gone into this creation as it looks genuinely horrific.
To make something this complex look this good on screen is an achievement in itself. As you can see, at this stage the Thing has snuck into the dog kennel and absorbed the poor hounds inside; it looks truly gruesome. The man behind this design was Rob Bottin who was greatly inspired by the work done in An American Werewolf in London (1981) but again money and development did not allow them to manage that level of detail. Despite this it is said Bottin worked day and night, non-stop for over a year and he made himself ill in the process. Another scene here shows how the Thing assimilates the men of the base.
However, it is not just the detail and the techniques behind stop-motion animation that are the main factor for me. I feel that many modern films use too much CGI in their films, yes it is a more professional alternative but it sucks the life out of the film quite a lot of the time.CGI is obviously better but it has taken away the art of giving a landscape or creature any real presence, which is something that the Thing definitely has. Doug once said that he felt some of the old effects like in American Werewolf and The Thing may look bad now but the fact that the monster is actually there is actually scarier. I have to completely agree with that sentiment, creatures like the Thing have so much more presence and dread about them because they exist physically on the set and you know it’s real, whereas too much CGI can suck the life out of a film; I cite the recent Star Wars trilogy and the new Indiana Jones as prime examples of films made lifeless because they are drowned in CGI, as well as other things. This creature’s presence is the reason why I still jump out of my seat at the blood test part and aghast in the operation scene. I will not give much away in case you haven’t seen it but those are two of the hairiest moments in cinema and a massive credit to Carpenter as a director.
So there you have it, that’s The Thing and Assault on Precinct 13, two amazing films and further proof of the fine qualities that Carpenter’s early films possessed. Both accentuate his best qualities as a filmmaker as well as being bold, terrifying and exciting pieces of cinema. The idea behind this was to show his earlier work and hope it encourages you to go and discover them and his other films if you haven’t already. Those who have seen his films can feel free to comment on them as well. Other films I would suggest you watch are Escape from New York, Halloween and The Fog as they are also great films but I feel I’d rant forever if I included them. I hope this has been some help to you and possibly even swayed a few others to watch these early and very influential classics and not the shoddy remakes. It is interesting to take a step back and see where Carpenter stands in the world of cinema and how his films have changed over the years. Although the debate on whether he can repeat his early performances is still ongoing; only time will tell.