The Good, The Bad and the Badass: John Carpenter
Last week, we took a look at the career of master director Ridley Scott. This week's subject is another iconic director, and one that's been consistently underrated by critics, both in his heyday and now.
John Carpenter is often categorized as a horror director. Truth be told, he's only made a few real all-out horror movies, but the ones he's made so are so iconic that he can't help but be associated with the genre. Granted, Carpenter knows horror. After making a small film (DARK STAR) and a superb modern-day western with the Howard Hawks-ian ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13, he burst onto the scene in a big way with HALLOWEEN, which set the pace for all slasher movies to follow. Without Carpenter's Michael Myers, there would be no Freddy Krueger or Jason Vorhees, that's for damn sure.
While he could have easily made a career out of nothing but horror films, Carpenter often shook things up by doing what was least expected. He followed HALLOWEEN with ELVIS, a TV biopic that paired him for the first time with Kurt Russell (who would become his favorite leading man). He followed that with another horror film- THE FOG- before returning to PRECINCT 13-style gritty action with ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK. Throughout the eighties, Carpenter's filmography was jam-packed with classics, from his remake of THE THING, to the high-brow STARMAN, to the fun-filled BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA. Since about the mid-nineties, Carpenter's output has grown more inconsistent, but as my friend Chris Papps (you're welcome for the shout-out) is fond of telling me “it doesn't matter if he does a ton of bad movies. The man directed HALLOWEEN and THE THING.” Indeed.
As far as Carpenter's best goes, while many fans would choose HALLOWEEN, for me his remake of THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD takes the cake. A notorious flop in it's day (it had the misfortune of coming out the same summer as E.T), THE THING has gone on to become a classic, to the point that it got a big-budget prequel a few years ago that pretty much lacked everything that made Carpenter's film so special. A deeply unsettling horror movie, THE THING is a masterpiece of the genre. The transformation effects are grotesque, but brilliant, while Carpenter's direction ratchets up the terror for maximum effect even when people aren't getting picked off (such as the scene where each survivor's blood is tested). Carpenter, paired with a subtle electronic score by Ennio Morricone (done very much in the style of Carpenter's own scores), and a great cast of character actors (including his favorites Kurt Russell and Keith David), makes THE THING a masterpiece.
That said, I think I love his latter film, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA even more. Another flop, this one is a fun-filled Hong Kong-style action comedy that satirizes the then-trendy Indiana Jones-style high adventure genre, positioning Kurt Russell (doing a hilarious imitation of John Wayne's drawl) as the most clueless action hero of all time. I adore everything about this film, from the martial arts choreography, to Russell, Kim Catrall, Victor Wong, Dennis Dun, James Hong and the rest of the cast, to Carpenter's best-ever musical score. If you somehow haven't seen this one, I can't recommend it highly enough.
While JC has made some pretty bad movies (GHOST OF MARS being the worst), ESCAPE FROM L.A is one that's always bothered me. Doing a sequel to ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK on a larger scale, with Kurt Russell coming back as Snake Plissken should have been a slam dunk. Instead it's a deliberately (I think?) campy B-movie, with CGI effects that were so bad it's amazing the studio financing the film (Paramount) never bothered to change them. It has it's bright spots (Steve Buscemi as “Map to the Stars” Eddie, but the movie as a whole is awful.
I'd wager that most of Carpenter's films are underrated. However, even more than something like IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS and VAMPIRES, PRINCE OF DARKNESS is an overlooked gem. While star Jameson Parker isn't quite Kurt Russell, this is a truly frightening piece of work, where a group of graduate students are pitted against the “anti-God” which threatens to cross over into our world, and wreak havoc. From the possessed student who peels off her skin, to Alice Cooper, to the deeply unsettling ending, this one is a gem.
As far as Carpenter's best scene goes, this is a no-brainer. The alley-fight between Roddy Piper and Keith David in THEY LIVE is arguably one of the best fights ever filmed. For five minutes plus, Piper and David beat the crap out of each other, and apparently the whole thing was improvised. Watch and be amazed.
Carpenter's been laying low since THE WARD came out a few years ago, but hopefully his absence from the big-screen won't be permanent. He's been attached to a bunch of films, but I have my fingers crossed that him and Kurt Russell will find the time to do one last flick together.