Wednesday, June 03, 2009

John Carpenter: The Later Years

When I interviewed John Carpenter last year, he made a simple statement that has colored my perception of his work ever since: “People love the films they saw when they were young…” We love the movies from our childhood because our experience of those often highly-flawed gems was heavily influenced by a child’s gullibility and impressionability. As children, we unknowingly overlook the bad, suspend our disbelief and see only the magic of the movies. Some people even go on to make films inspired by their childhood favorites...

I was the right age to be thoroughly influenced by Carpenter’s earliest films – ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (1976), HALLOWEEN (1978), THE FOG (1980), ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981), THE THING (1982), CHRISTINE (1983), STARMAN (1984), BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986), PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1987), and THEY LIVE (1988). I do not mean to suggest that these films don’t hold up to repeat viewing as an adult, only that I can’t separate them from those early screenings. That said, I firmly believe that all of these films reveal a master filmmaker (and a genuine movie-lover) at work. Throughout the 1980s, Carpenter consistently used the tricks of the trade with skill and flair to manipulate audience emotions, without ever becoming too flashy or pretentious for his own good.

Enter the 1990s. In some circles, the popular consensus is that Carpenter hasn’t made a good film since THEY LIVE. In my opinion, that’s not because Carpenter has changed as a storyteller but because we have changed as an audience. Sci-fi and horror movies simply were not as popular in the 90s as they were in the 80s. The fantasy-friendly Reagan era was over and Hollywood made a general shift toward more realistic, naturalistic films. Carpenter kept doing what he did best – making wild-eyed fantasies: MEMOIRS OF THE INVISIBLE MAN (1992), IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS (1994), VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (1995), ESCAPE FROM L.A. (1996), VAMPIRES (1998), and GHOSTS OF MARS (2001). None of these films performed well at the box office and the critics ate him up, suddenly claiming that he had never been a good filmmaker. Today, Carpenter’s reputation seems a bit more secure – but it’s based almost entirely on the films he made in the 1980s. Not much has been said about the films of the 1990s.

MEMOIRS OF THE INVISIBLE MAN was a noble effort to re-capture the dramatic elements of the H.G. Wells source story and the James Whale film adaptation. The problem, as I see it, was the casting Chevy Chase against type in the lead role. It was simply impossible for those of us who grew up with Ty Webb and Fletch and Clark W. Griswald Jr. (and we comprised a large chunk of the target audience) not to interpret Chase’s every facial tic as an attempt at wry humor. Under those conditions, the movie becomes a farce. In all fairness, I’m deeply curious to hear the response of someone who saw this movie before they were familiar with Chevy Chase as comedian.

Carpenter rebounded with a small but effective horror movie: IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS. For my money, this is one of the director’s best films – it expertly captures the same sense of dread that buoyed THE THING and PRINCE OF DARKNESS, and it’s arguably more intelligent than either of those films. Unfortunately, moviegoers stayed away and Carpenter himself hasn’t said much about it in the years since. Perhaps he feels that this wasn’t a true auteur effort – the story belonging as much to New Line writer/developer Michael DeLuca as to Carpenter. Whatever the case, the director was apparently eager to get back to the kind of movies he knew and loved from his childhood.

VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED accomplished that goal… but did nothing to bolster the filmmaker’s sagging career. Strangely, this film was shot in the same sleepy California community where Carpenter staged THE FOG, but it has none of the carefully-crafted atmosphere of that earlier film. Even the musical score rings hollow. This film relies heavily (I think too heavily) on the audience to bring their own fears of the unknown inside a child’s mind. As a teenager, oblivious to the fears of a new parent, I hated this movie when I saw it in the theater. Re-watching it now, I feel a bit more forgiving but I still think this is a big disappointment as a John Carpenter movie. The two things I’ve come to expect from him in abundance are visual style and imagination, both of which are lacking here. VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED simply lacks frisson.

At mid-decade, the director once again turned to a story he knew and loved. For the first time, he re-imagined one of his own creations. If you loved Snake Plissken the first time around, it was a thrill to see him in action again in ESCAPE FROM L.A. But, as one character notes at the beginning of the film, Snake has become an anachronism. In 1996, the film seemed like simple-minded nostalgia. It plays better today – partly because Carpenter made some astute predictions about American culture in the 2000s – but still runs out of creative energy long before the end credits and the supporting characters – Map to the Stars Eddie, Hershey, Utopia and Cuervo Jones – can’t hold a candle to Cabbie, Brain, Maggie and The Duke.

I am more interested in VAMPIRES and GHOSTS OF MARS, Carpenter’s most recent features to date. Both of these films are westerns thinly disguised as horror movies. Each is well-crafted, and features the kind of straight-ahead genre story and uncompromising characters that classic Hollywood thrived on. The problem is that these simple plots and characterizations, like the western genre itself, are not as popular today. What redeems the films, in my opinion, is Carpenter’s personal spin on the familiar. Since John Muir has recently made a case for GHOSTS OF MARS on his blog, I thought I’d take a look at VAMPIRES.

The film is based on a novel by Texas native John Steakley about a Vatican-sponsored gang of professional vampire hunters, but Carpenter re-tooled much of the plot after the budget was slashed during pre-production. At that point, VAMPIRES became more of a Manichean construct – with good and evil represented as direct inversions of each other: vampire hunter Jack Crow vs. master vampire Valek; a faithful priest named Guiteau (always bearing a crucifix) vs. a corrupt Cardinal (represented by a mysterious black cross); corruption of the innocent vs. sanctification of the damned (via “reverse exorcism”). This story is as black-and-white as any western.

The characters are modeled directly on one particular western classic. Just as RIO BRAVO inspired the three main characters in GHOSTS OF MARS, the Howard Hawks film RED RIVER (1948) inspired VAMPIRES. RED RIVER is essentially the story of a father and son. John Wayne’s character Thomas Dunson is a ruthless cattle-driver and gunslinger who takes Montgomery Clift’s Matt Garth under his wing when Matt is just a boy. Dunson teaches him how to think like a man and, more importantly, how to fight like a man. But Matt never quite inherits his father’s cutthroat nature. On a long cattle-drive, Dunson kills several men who attempt to desert the campaign (his cowboy rhetoric is simple: You’re either with me or you’re against me) and Matt turns against him. Dunson accuses him of being “soft,” and subsequently promises to kill him. The eventual showdown is stopped only by the intervention of a typically strong Hawksian heroine named Tess Millay (played by Joanne Dru), who reminds the thick-skulled father and son that they really do love each other.

Carpenter says that the VAMPIRES characters Jack Crow (James Woods) and Anthony Montoya (Daniel Baldwin) were inspired by the onscreen chemistry between Wayne and Clift in RED RIVER. It’s not the first time that Carpenter has paid homage to Wayne. Kurt Russell did a lighthearted impersonation of the silver screen’s loveable curmudgeon as Jack Burton in BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA. James Woods, on the other hand, channels Wayne at his most vile – as cold-blooded Dunson in RED RIVER and vengeful racist Ethan Edwards in THE SEARCHERS (1956). In both of those films, Wayne carefully guarded his soft side… but his humanity always shined through in the end, when it mattered most. Woods’s character is a bit more hardened, because he lives in a more complicated world – where even the “good guys” (the Catholic Church) are dirty. As a result, Crow and Montoya’s relationship is limited to the mutual respect of fellow warriors – a far cry from the father/son relationship in RED RIVER. Crow’s relationship with Father Guiteau is even more strained, smacking of homophobia – hardly comparable to Thomas Dunson’s relationship with his loyal friend Groot (played by Walter Brennan).

Whereas RED RIVER was (according to Hawks) a “love story between men,” VAMPIRES does not allow for such affection because Carpenter’s world is not the Old West of Howard Hawks. Rather, VAMPIRES seems to take place in the cynical universe of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah’s cold-blooded revisionist westerns. Carpenter has previously acknowledged his debt to Leone through Snake Plissken’s mimicry of The Man with No Name in A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964). In the DVD commentary on VAMPIRES, he also notes that the first appearance of Jack Crow is shot as an homage to Leone’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1968) – one of Carpenter’s favorite films. Vlad’s first appearance, in a sequence that pits him against Jack’s team, is described as “THE WILD BUNCH meets Vlad the Impaler.” Thus I say that if ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 and GHOSTS OF MARS are Carpenter’s classic westerns, then VAMPIRES is his spaghetti western. It’s all flashy bravado -- sound and fury signifying existential angst.

Made at the end of a decade in which political correctness was a national obsession, VAMPIRES is a bold variation on those vaguely misogynistic myths of the American frontier. Accordingly, the only major female character in the film is a pawn. Sheryl Lee plays a hooker-turned-vampire who suffers maximum abuse. Montoya blatantly objectifies her, tying her naked to a bed and watching her squirm. Crow treats her even worse – like a diseased piece of meat. In his defense, Jack says that he is not a misogynist, but a misanthrope. For her part, Sheryl Lee’s character displays none of the strength and wit of the typical Hawksian heroine. At best, she merely understands and embraces the power of her sexuality, like the female bloodsuckers in Hammer’s BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960) - she doesn't add any real humanity to the story. The only “soft side” to this film lies in the respect among the male warriors. Take it or leave it, that’s the nature of VAMPIRES: it’s a “hidden western” in the cynical, hyper-masculine vein of Leone and Peckinpah.

I’m not complaining, because – misanthropy or no – I happen to like visiting the savage worlds created by those two directors… and I like watching James Woods beat the hell out of undead monsters. In my opinion, VAMPIRES proves once again that John Carpenter is a master of style and suspense, firmly rooted in a particular storytelling tradition.

The re-evaluation of John Carpenter's latter-day films continues with an in-depth look at MEMOIRS OF THE INVISIBLE MAN on Jim Blanton's Fantasmo blog....


  1. Great analysis, Joe. You have done a spectacular and thorough job of excavating Carpenter's influences in Vampires. I'm linking to this on my blog...

    John Kenneth Muir

  2. This is a fantastic post and it is great to see someone championing JC's output from the 1990s regardless of his spotty track record during this decade.

    The problem I have with ESCAPE FROM LA is that it was compromised from the get-go. The studio didn't want them to do a straight-on sequel because it might alienate newbies and so the film turns out to be a remake/sequel and never really settles one way or the other. Sometimes, like with EVIL DEAD II or DESPERADO, you can pull it off. I also think that the film suffers from a very weak villain. Cuervo Jones is certainly no Duke of NY and Georges Corraface is just not as memorable as Isaac Hayes (of course, who could be?).

    I think that IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS has enjoyed something of a re-appraisal over the years and is generally considered the best film JC did in the 1990s. I agree with you that it is also one of his best films period. I love the INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS framing devices and the self-reflexive nature is very well done. And it completes JC's informal trilogy of apocalypse films starting with THE THING and continuing with PRINCE OF DARKNESS (another vastly underrated JC film).

    I quite enjoyed your analysis of VAMPIRES, a film that is something of a guilty pleasure but the more times I see it, the more I enjoy it. And it is such a shame that budget cutbacks forced JC to simplify the film's story. I've read the original book and it is quite scary and a very intense read - very little of its content survived into the film which is a shame.

  3. I'm just floored by this. I feel so lucky to have found it just randomly surfing this lazy Sunday. . .easily one of the best pieces I have EVER read about JC's latter-day works. Not a huge fan of Memoirs or Village (although I wouldn't call them horrible, simply mediocre), but I find enjoyment in every other flick mentioned here. Madness is one of his finest pieces, IMO, and Vampires and Mars are simply. . .fun. Just a great time. L.A. does suffer from requel-itis but I still love it. Truly, sir, it's nice to see such an appreciation of the master's underrated movies. Now, let the anticipation for The Ward continue!