John T Chance, Frank Armitage, Rip Haight, Martin Quatermass. The director better known as John Carpenter has hidden behind more than a few monikers over the years.
It’s his birth name that’s most suited to his skill behind the camera, though. Carpenter by name and carpenter by nature, his filmmaking style is one of hard graft and subtle craft. Back when Quentin Tarantino was munching Cap’n Crunch cereal in his mom’s kitchen, JC was making grindhouse-friendly B-movies that looked back to the past.
Carpenter is upfront about his plagiarism. Assault On Precinct 13 is “basically an exploitation action picture modelled after Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo, my favourite western,” he confesses in the first of many measured chat-tracks.
“It’s men trapped in a jail by forces of evil outside. I took the basic premise and reworked it for modern-day Los Angeles…”
But it’s a sin to be too modest. In Assault’s tightly coiled tension and snippy banter you can see a filmmaker with a knack for giving the audience what they want. “The primary reasons I’m making movies,” he explains in an archive interview clip included here, “is to get a response from the audience, whether it’s to make ’em laugh or thrill ’em or make ’em jump.”
All Good Things
Halloween definitely delivered on that promise, with Carpenter’s use of prowling Steadicam and Hitchcockian suspense pushing the audience’s buttons and turning a throwaway slice’n’dice pic into a milestone in horror cinema.
Thirty years on, Michael Myers stills haunts Carpenter’s CV through endless sequels and remakes. The title’s likely to end up on his gravestone.
If there’s space, someone should chisel The Thing next to it. Another Hawks throwback – this time to paranoid Cold War classic The Thing From Another World – it brews claustrophobia by trapping its characters in the Antarctic with a shape-shifter from outer space.
But whereas Hawks was all about the can-do optimism of these men fighting off a pissed ET, Carpenter’s more interested in the paranoia with a set-up that’s weirdly prescient of a different kind of invader.
“It was at the beginning of AIDS,” remembers Kurt Russell. “It was really spooky because they didn’t know what was causing it, who had it or how they got it...”
It leads to one of the most downbeat endings in cinema history as sole survivors MacCready (Russell) and Childs (Keith David) sit shivering in the snow, cut off from civilisation and uncertain whether the other’s a monster or not.
As depressing endings go, The Thing’s fadeout is matched by Carpenter’s own career slide from brilliance to borderline tosh. It’s been decades since he’s made a truly decent movie, something that this collection – which ends with They Live (1988) – can’t disguise.
Packaging together seven films with extras culled from previous DVD outings, it covers the main movies with a few omissions (we can live without Big Trouble In Little China, but what about Starman, the early Dark Star or the underrated In The Mouth Of Madness?).
The Peter Pan Of Pulp
Carpenter’s best work is undoubtedly behind him, although there’s no shame when that best work includes a masterpiece like Halloween.
Today, his brand of well-crafted exploitation has been replaced with the cheap shocks of torture porn or Tarantino/Rodriguez’s tongue in cheap pastiche of grindhouse convention.
Perhaps his creative downturn is due to the fact that times have changed. Then again, maybe it’s because Carpenter can’t. Rewatching his films, the suspicion remains that the director is always destined to be the little boy who refuses to grow up. He’s a carpenter who enjoys playing with the wood shavings just as much as making cabinets.
He likes hokum. He can be silly – sometime eye-rollingly so (see the zombie buccaneers emerging from the dry ice of The Fog); sometimes entertainingly so (the hi-jinks of Escape From New York or the apocalyptic nonsense of Prince Of Darkness); and sometimes deceptively so.
They Live falls in the last category. At first glance it looks as knuckleheaded as its WWF star Roddy Piper but its big idea – aliens controlling the Earth through subliminal messages in adverts – chews on a bubblegum anti-capitalist allegory.
“All the things that everybody strives for in America – buying cars, having pools and condos – are created by this race of inhuman creatures that really just want to exploit us like the Third World,” explains the director in the Making Of featurette. Pretty radical for a movie released at the tail end of the Reagan administration.
But that’s Carpenter all over – a leftfield sensibility smuggled in under the cover of monster movies, exploitation flicks and knock-off sci-fi. Much like his craftsmanship, his purpose hasn’t always been appreciated.
“In England, I’m a horror movie director. In Germany, I’m a filmmaker. In the US, I’m a bum,” he once complained. This much-needed boxset should solve all that.