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John Carpenter

Why John Carpenter Is the Most Underrated Filmmaker Of Our Time

John Carpenter

About a decade ago while I was attending the Vancouver International Film Festival, I ended the screening day over beers with a small group of critics. By the end of the evening, we came around to proclaiming John Carpenter the most underrated American filmmaker of our time. Here’s a filmmaker who has made only one feature in the past decade, the low-budget The Ward, yet his legacy is getting more respect than ever — at least on home video. In 2013 alone, he’s had six films debut on Blu-ray and one remastered in a gorgeous new edition, reason enough to revisit his legacy.

Assault on Precinct 13 (Shout Factory, due November 19), Carpenter’s first feature out of film school, is a siege thriller inspired by Rio Bravo that plays out like Night of the Living Dead (which Carpenter readily acknowledges in the disc supplements). He’s very much the film aficionado sharing his love — he’s more at home referencing other movies than striking out into his own cinematic world — but he brings a sturdy professionalism to the budget-starved production and an impressive storytelling intelligence to the script and direction (where actions speak louder than quips). And for all the exposition of the attack motivation, he turns his marauding street gang into an almost inexplicable force of single-minded purpose.

All that potential blooms in Halloween (Anchor Bay).

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Blu-ray: John Carpenter’s ‘Prince of Darkness’ and ‘Halloween’

Two from John Carpenter arrive this week in newly remastered editions.

Prince of Darkness: Collector’s Edition (Shout Factory) gives the Blu-ray debut and deluxe treatment to what is perhaps the most underrated film in John Carpenter’s filmography. “While order does exist in the universe, it is not what we had in mind,” explains a professor in theoretical physics in the first act, as good an introduction as you can get to this metaphysical mix of quantum physics and Christian mythology. Carpenter wrote the film under the pseudonym Martin Quatermass, a tribute to writer Nigel Kneale, and this is very much in the Kneale tradition, bringing myth and science together into a metaphysical horror. The premise is basic — a group of people (in this case scientists and graduate students) in a confined space (a neglected Los Angeles church) hunted by a killer — but the stakes are cosmic. Carpenter, working in a small budget, returns to simple, practical special effects, which has the effect of grounding the horror, while the dialogue plays with the scope of the threat. It’s a film that, a few awkward performances aside, gets better with each viewing.

Blu-ray and DVD, with commentary by John Carpenter with actor Peter Jason, new interviews with John Carpenter (10 minutes), Alice Cooper, who is memorable in a wordless role as a possessed street person (9 minutes), effects supervisor and actor Robert Grasmere (12 minutes), and co-composer / arranger Alan Howarth (10 minutes), a “Horror’s Hallowed Ground” tour of the locations, and an alternated opening from the TV version.

Halloween: 35th Anniversary Edition (Anchor Bay) doesn’t need as much build-up. It is, after all, the film that put the director on the map. But while it was a massive hit movie that (for better and for worse) pushed the slasher movie into the American mainstream, it is also a beautifully-made made picture by a director who brings a visual intelligence to a genre so often reduced to hack directors and gimmicks in place of storytelling. Carpenter was a master of the Panavision frame and he brings an increasingly claustrophobic atmosphere to the film, hiding his boogeyman in the shadows and sometimes in plain sight, taunting the audience not with what they can’t see, but what they can’t control. Which is much scarier.

It gets a superb new high-definition transfer, supervised by cinematographer Dean Cundey, and a new commentary track with Carpenter and star Jamie Lee Curtis, reuniting for the first time in years (“Jamie and I haven’t seen each other in a long time,” remarks Carpenter during the credits) to compare memories and swap stories. The Blu-ray and DVD also features the new hour-long documentary “The Night She Came Home” with Jamie Lee Curtis at a rare convention appearance and the previously available featurette “On Location: 25 Years Later” from the “25th Anniversary Edition,” with P.J. Soles and Debra Hill back at the scene of the crime to revisit the original Michael Myers house, plus ten minutes of footage from the TV version.

 

Blu-ray / DVD: ‘The Fog’

The Fog (Shout Factory), John Carpenter’s follow-up to his breakthrough hit Halloween, isn’t among the director’s best films, but it is one of his most gorgeous.

Carpenter and his producer / co-writer Debra Hill wanted to make an old-fashioned ghost story, something spooky and eerie, rather than another slasher movie (not that “Halloween” is just a slasher movie, but that’s how the industry saw the film and the director). So they came up with a story about a hundred-year-old curse involving an island leper colony, a fortune in stolen gold, and an act of genocide covered over in a story that has become legend in this fiction California coastal town. Jamie Lee Curtis plays a hitchhiker who stops over on the 100th anniversary (that’s bad timing), her mother Janet Leigh plays the local civic leader, Tom Atkins is a fisherman who picks up Curtis (in every meaning the term), and Hal Holbrook is a boozy priest who uncovers the curse, but the hero of this one is actually Adrienne Barbeau, a single mom and evening deejay in a lighthouse booth who goes on the air to give fog reports like traffic updates.

You can see Carpenter reaching for a larger canvas, incorporating more characters and storylines, crosscutting and weaving story arcs. And you can see the appeal of an old-fashioned ghost story played without gimmicks, although he ultimately has to compromise his original concept. When he tested the finished film, where the fog itself was the monster and no murders appeared on screen, he found that his campfire tale was more soggy than scary. It simply didn’t work and he didn’t need studio prodding to bring back the cast and toss in ghost pirates and a series of murders. (Carpenter and Hill discuss this in a commentary track they recorded a decade ago, included on this release.) It still isn’t particularly scary or compelling, the performances are variable, and the dialogue seems to mark time between money shots.

Leper pirate ghosts arise!

But it is a beautifully shot film, with the fog coming alive and taking over the frame like a creature in its own right. Carpenter and Dean Cundy were the low-budget masters of composition and lighting of their time and this film is an exemplary case, creating compelling shots even when the drama itself is weak. As in Halloween, Carpenter and Cundy shoot in Panavision and fill the sides and backgrounds with shadows and empty spaces “where evil can inhabit,” as Cundy describes in an accompanying interview. The monsters don’t come from outside of the frame or hide behind objects. They arise from the darkness (or, in this case, the empty white of the fog) itself, materializing as if they have always been there. In its own way, The Fog a quintessential Carpenter horror.

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Blu-ray: ‘They Live’

What are you lookin’ at?

A year after Oliver Stone elevated the phrase “Greed is good” to a satirical double-edged mantra in “Wall Street,” John Carpenter put it more bluntly in a scruffy little genre movie with a subversive subtext. “Why do we worship greed?” asks They Live in the opening scenes, as images of homeless people fill depressed urban slums and crowd around TVs to see how the rest of the country lives. This backdrop of inequities and economic hardship is a vivid backdrop to what might otherwise be a simple B-movie about an alien invasion hiding in plain sight, indistinguishable from the humans beside them but for one thing: they are the 1%.

John Nada (Roddy Piper), a strapping blue-collar worker riding the rails to find an honest day’s work, hikes into this economically depressed vision of Los Angeles. He believes in the American Dream, that working hard and doing his job will get him ahead, and he has no interest in the rabble-rousing conspiracy of pirate broadcasts that break into TV reruns. At least not until he dons a pair of super secret x-ray specs, hidden in a bunker of an underground resistance group, and suddenly see a very different world through these glasses of truth: billboards and consumer products carry subliminal messages and the rich are actually ghastly, gray, skeletal creatures from another planet.

Professional wrestler Roddy Piper is not much of an actor — his broad, magic marker performance stands out next to pros like Keith David (as fellow construction worker Frank) and Meg Foster — but he has a brawny presence. He’s perfectly serviceable as a wary observer in the first half, watching the suspicious gatherings in his neighborhood and the armed response of a L.A. cops who sweep through his homeless camp like an advancing army, and he’s oddly winning as a meaty, muscular action hero who is instantly politicized, albeit in a manner more fitting a drive-in action film than your usual politically-charged drama. “I’m here to kick ass and chew bubblegum, and I’m fresh out of bubblegum,” shouts Nada in blue-collar guerilla mode when he stomps into a bank and starts blasting the skull-faced aliens. It’s a ridiculous line and all the more appealing for it: the strong, silent everyman American steps up to defend his world with a machine gun and a flippant phrase that has since become something of a pop culture slogan among a certain breed of genre geek.

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Blu-ray Election Day Special: ‘They Live’ all over again!

You can argue that They Live: Collector’s Edition (Shout! Factory) would have been a perfect Halloween week release. And you’d be right, of course. John Carpenter’s skewed invasion movie is witty and weird and has the most extreme knock-down, drag-out fistfight ever.

But I have to say, it’s weirdly even more perfect as an election-day release. Because really, who are these economic invaders from outer space but… Mitt Romney and the 1%.

Before I get inundated with hate-mail from conservative-leaning readers, let me make clear that, although Romney was nowhere in John Carpenter’s mind back in 1988 when the film was released, the politics were always pointed in his direction. The story is science fiction but Carpenter was driven by the inequities in society where the rich were getting richer, the middle class was disappearing, and the economic game was rigged by those with money and power. It was timely then and looks even more prescient now.

Roddy Piper’s working class hero John Nada, a man with no politics and a deep-seeded belief in the tenets of hard work and essential fairness, becomes a two-fisted activist when the veil is lifted (thanks to a pair of high-tech x-ray glasses). Piper is a brawny, broad presence, not much of an actor but spirited and likable, and Keith David is marvelous as his reluctant partner in rebellion, providing a moral grounding to Piper’s B-movie activism when the lie is revealed. Earth has become a third world colony for interstellar “free enterprisers” who preach the gospel of unregulated capitalism and the promise of advancement through hard work and perseverance while insidiously sabotaging all human efforts to get ahead. Their main took for control: subliminal messages, media control, and consumerist greed.

And two-fisted is the operative term here, as confirmed in the entertainingly interminable knock-down, drag-out alley brawl between Piper and Keith David. This is a classic example of genre filmmaking with a political punch, albeit in broad, sloganeering terms. “I’m here to kick ass and chew bubblegum, and I’m fresh out of bubblegum,” shouts Nada in blue-collar guerilla mode when he steps into a bank and starts blasting the skull-faced aliens. It’s a ridiculous line and, weirdly, has become something of a pop culture slogan among a certain breed of genre geek.

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Summer of ’86: Big Trouble in Little China

John Carpenter famously commented, “In France, I’m an auteur; in Germany, a filmmaker; in Britain, a genre director; and in the USA, a bum.” Or as another J.C. put it, a prophet is never without honor, save in his own country. Carpenter may have understated his following: He has under his belt one undisputed masterpiece, Halloween, and a handful of films that were initially received with scorn or indifference and are now certifiable cult classics—including Escape from New York, The Thing, and his Summer of ’86 film Big Trouble in Little China.

In 1986 I wrote that this tongue-in-cheek fantasy thriller with arch wit and giddy pace was the most underrated film of the year, and I’m pleased that the years seem to have borne me out in their kindness to Big Trouble in Little China. The film pits a seedy truck driver—a sort of urban, subterranean, blue-collar Indiana Jones—against a centuries-old malevolent warlord for possession of not one but two green-eyed ladies. A good old-fashioned big dumb adventure movie, so skillfully made as to eradicate the “dumb” part, and better than the Indiana Jones films in that its fast-paced high action absorbs you rather than simply wearing you out.

If Halloween showcases Carpenter’s mastery of frame composition and camera movement, Big Trouble in Little China does the same for his sense of montage. The film captures us from the beginning with its rhythm, its momentum, the kinesis of its exhilarating constant forward movement. It is a case of style perfectly matched to content, a narrative of dark cosmic disruption and the struggle to move, as one character says, from chaos into order.

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Review: Eyes of Laura Mars

[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]

Give Jon Peters full credit, he’s honest with his audience. At the beginning of A Star Is Born a voice called out advising “all you assholes out there” that the show wasn’t about to get under way until everyone quieted down, and Jon’n’Barbra proceeded to treat their public accordingly for the rest of the film (not that a goodly portion of the public seemed to mind: “Gee, Barbra called me an asshole!—I have arrived!”). Peters’ credit on Eyes of Laura Mars is preceded by a spacey model’s muttering “Guh-ross!” Yes, my dear, Eyesof LauraMarsis pretty gross and, in deference to memories of the good films director Irvin Kershner once made, I’d prefer to lay most of the blame at Peters’ door.

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Review: Halloween

[Originally published in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979]

A thing that bugs me about the vast majority of contemporary films is, they rarely give the feeling anyone cared much about framing them. The movement away from studio (i.e., factory) filmmaking has had a lot to do with this. Advancements in film speed, equipment mobility, and other such factors that ought to have been unqualifiedly liberating have had the counterproductive effect of encouraging slovenliness rather than responsible flexibility. A movie can get made anywhere now, one place is as good (i.e., workable) as another—and somehow that extends to frame-space as a “place” too. Throw in careless labwork (we waved byebye to real Technicolor several years ago) and you’ve got smeary colors and big, fuzzy grain to help reduce definition, and definitiveness of vision. It’s hard to maintain faith that a given movie had to look the way it does, because it could just as well have looked, well, a little different.

People won’t be talking about this as they leave their naborhood moviehouse, but one reason John Carpenter’s Halloween is so successful a marrow-freezer is that Carpenter appears to have set out to reinstate scrupulous, meaningful framing all by himself. In fact, except for its shamelessly (and irresistibly) zingy music score (by the director), Halloween achieves its considerable power almost entirely through visual means. There’s not a lot of scenario—make that screenplay—to deal with; indeed, the least satisfying thing about Halloween is its attempt to arrive at some scriptoral accounting for its ultraweird dispenser of mayhem, an Omen-era, cosmic-evil reading—”He” really can’t be stopped—that rings too familiar. At the same time, the nonending ending Halloweenreaches has a validity missing from more flagrantly copout conclusions where the filmmakers more or less simultaneously ran out of running time and ideas of what to do next. For Carpenter’s direction has undercut the idea of a world with any secure breathing-room, let alone a sanctum for salvation.

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