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Depth of Field: John Carpenter - From Halloween to Has Been?

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Wednesday, Oct 11, 2006


As part of a month long celebration of all things scary, SE&L will use its regular Monday/Thursday commentary pieces as a platform to discuss a few of horror’s most influential and important filmmakers. This time around, the considerable career drop off of one-time horror maestro John Carpenter.


While he’s not the most historically important horror meister to fall from genre grace in recent years (that title belongs to Tobe Hooper) John Carpenter is still considered by many cinematic scholars as the best example of hit or miss moviemaking that macabre has to offer. After a sensational start with Dark Star and Assault on Precinct 13, his homage to Hitchcock, a sensational slice and dicer entitled Halloween, put him at the forefront of the fright flick community. So successful was his reinvention of the slasher film (which would later go on to dominate the latter part of the ‘70s and most of the ‘80s) that his next films were anticipated as heavily as a rock star’s next album. But when those titles finally arrived, they appeared to betray Carpenter’s considered creative start.


The Fog (1980) was the first indication that something was wrong with the newly named Post-Modern Master of Suspense. After a TV thriller entitled Someone’s Watching Me! (a starring vehicle for the director’s then significant other, actress Adrienne Barbeau) and the equally evocative Elvis biopic (featuring the filmmaker’s first collaboration with Kurt Russell) a New England ghost story that tried to mix folklore, atmosphere and gory killings just didn’t come together as a solid cinematic whole. While certain moments shined, other aspects felt silly and superficial. This concept of incompleteness continued with the director’s next two films – the action epic Escape from New York and the October 31st revist Halloween II. Though only a producer and writer on the Michael Myers misstep, it was an example of the sort of sequel that almost destroys the source material from which it was derived. With New York, the ideas were more engaging than the execution, with some of Carpenter’s more novel inventions lost inside some sloppy speculative fictionalizing.


With 1982’s The Thing, Carpenter seemed reinvigorated and ready to pile on the blood bathing. This seminal scare fest, complete with some of the ‘80s best geek show effects, proved that the fear facets of the director’s dynamic were still in place. Even after a string of genre-defying efforts – the killer car coming of age flick Christine, the intergalactic romance of Starman, the chop suey surrealism of Big Trouble in Little China – it appeared the faltering of a few years back was mostly over with. Unfortunately, the studios didn’t see it that way. Looking at the basic box office returns for his last few films (and not their noticeable artistic merits) Carpenter was set adrift. He would have to get independent financing to film his last legitimate masterpiece, 1987’s Prince of Darkness off the ground, before then slipping into a kind of befuddled b-movie bog.


Like The Fog before, They Live (1988) marked the second, and sadly, final fall from grace for the filmmaker. As a political commentary, Carpenter struck a chord that was wickedly witty and scathingly satiric. Unfortunately, he saw fit to place the perfectly pedestrian wrestler turned actor Rowdy Roddy Piper in the lead. Instead of finding a legitimate actor to imbue his alien invasion narrative with the proper combination of brains and brawn, he let the acting amateur attempt to carry the entire film on his matt flattened shoulders. It didn’t work. Soon, Carpenter was slipping further. While the effects were sensational, Memoirs of an Invisible Man was another incredible stumble. Another failed performer – in this case, a no longer ready for ANY time Chevy Chase – destroyed the quasi-clever take on the classic unseen fiend film.


It was definitely all downhill from there. Aside from the made for cable TV macabre of Body Bags, Carpenter helmed no less than five full blown failures over the last 15 years. In the Mouth of Madness was an attempt to recapture some of his Prince of Darkness pride, but it ended up being so confusing that it turned off audiences. His remake of the seminal ‘60s British horror film Village of the Damned also had its moments, but never really came together in any of the ways the original did. Escape from L.A., Vampires, and Ghosts of Mars were all good ideas (Snake Plissken returns, James Woods as a cynical beast buster, and spectral possession on an interplanetary level, respectively) but none made a major splash with fright fans. With the exception of two installments of Showtime’s weak Masters of Horror series, Carpenter hasn’t been behind the lens of a major motion picture in the last five years. 


With such a rollercoaster ride in popularity, as well as with his lax presence within the horror realm, one has to ask why Carpenter has fallen victim to such a seemingly fickle fear fanbase. Granted, his newest movies are much more anticipated than those of Tobe Hooper, or even someone still viable like Wes Craven. In addition, his resume reads rather well, with the now considered classics The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China and Prince of Darkness vying for space between cult favorites like Escape from New York. But there must be more to the lack of respect his recent efforts have received, as well as his continuing creative downward spiral than Internet arrogance and the rabid reconsideration of his canon.


Truth be told, Carpenter’s problems begin internally. He is one of the few horror directors who must also be completely hands-on in most of his movie’s production aspects. He usually composes the scores, and always takes part in the screenplay. This may be his artistic Achilles Heel. Worrying over the musical backing for a particular scene or how a character or situation will develop over the course of a film may end up spreading his aesthetic too thin, especially when you consider he must then direct the material he’s been busy overseeing. Even his heralded predecessor Hitchcock only handled one aspect of a movie’s making – the mise-en-scene. No one is complaining about his hyphenated happenstance in efforts like Halloween or Prince of Darkness. But it seems strange that grand concepts like They Live can come across so limp onscreen.


Another possible problem stems from something called the Entertainment Extremes. Carpenter’s good movies are so good, and his bad films are so horrible, that his status becomes a clear case of what the aficionados remember best. Such a lasting impression can definitely stain an overall reputation, and when viewed in this light, Carpenter’s successes are seen as several decades old. His latest run of films have all underperformed both creatively and commercially, so that when someone does consider the director, they tend to view his better days as far behind him. As the horror history books continue to be rewritten, Carpenter becomes more and more of a founding father and less of a current component of modern macabre.


It doesn’t look like things will be getting better anytime soon. The 58 year old is next scheduled to take on a project called Psychopath, which is supposedly based on a video game (strike one) and purports to be another in a long line of lame serial killer/FBI profiler films (strike two). With the messageboards already a buzz that this is a bad move for a favored filmmaker, and a Rob Zombie helmed revisit of Halloween in the works (an indirect strike three) we may be looking at the last vestiges of a once vital movie magician. No one is writing Carpenter off completely – his oeuvre is too overpacked with potential to toss it aside forever – but it does look like a once prominent personality is falling further and further down the horror hierarchy. Here’s hoping he recovers before reaching rock bottom. After all, Tobe Hooper has the utter has-been angle covered quite well.

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