John Carpenter is pretty widely acknowledged as one of the living masters of horror. There are people out there who like John Carpenter and then there are people out there who worship John Carpenter… I’m in the former category. The guy has a very cool style and has made some really good movies but he’s hardly infallible. Still, I’m more than enough of a fan to have seen twelve of the eighteen theatrical films he’s directed. There are however six movies I still need to see before I can call myself a true Carpenter completist (and a couple of TV movies and some movies he only did the writing on, but we’ll be ignoring those for the time being). With this being October I thought now was a good time to finally watch those final films in this horror specialist’s career even if a couple of them are kinda sorta not actually horror movies.
Dark Star (1974)
John Carpenter’s debut film, Dark Star, began its life on the campus of the USC film school and is notable for being a collaboration between Carpenter and a guy named Dan O’Bannon. In fact this is often more heavily discussed in relation to O’Bannon than Carpenter because it more closely resembles one of O’Bannon’s future works, namely Alien for which O’Bannon served as a screenwriter. O’Bannon once described the film as (and I’m paraphrasing) “a student film that got overly ambitious and out of control and actually got released in theaters and in doing so went from being the most impressive student film ever to being the least impressive ‘real’ movie ever.” Frankly, I think that about sums it up. Like Alien this was set on a big slow moving spaceship and follows the ship mates as they need to deal with an alien that has found its way on board, but this is actually supposed to be a comedy (or at least that’s what the rather defensive disclaimer in front of the movie on the DVD I watched says), but I can’t say I found it remotely funny. The alien in question looks like a beach ball for some reason and the people on the ship look like early 70s college students who don’t have much of a future in acting. The characters mumble their way through much of the film and, likely because additional material was added to pad out the length, the story meanders for extended periods of time. This movie has its fans, in fact Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avery waxed rhapsodic about the movie on the debut episode of their new podcast but man, I’m not seeing it, at least not outside of being impressed at how much these twenty five year olds managed to pull off on a shoestring budget back when special effects could not just be conjured up on a laptop. Outside of that and it’s weird place in the careers of two respected genre filmmakers I can’t really recommend.
*1/2 out of Five
Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992)
The 1980s were really good for John Carpenter. Between 1978 and 1988 he made nine straight movies that are, pretty much without exception, considered to be at the very least cult successes today. I don’t personally like all of them and some of them were box office disappointments but generally speaking genre film fans would call it an unbroken win streak in terms of reputation. I think it’s fair to say that the movie that broke this streak was 1992’s Memoirs of an Invisible Man, which isn’t a terrible movie and which I’m sure has it’s defenders but which definitely isn’t considered “classic Carpenter” by very many people. In many ways it was probably a film that was destined to befuddle audiences as it’s a movie that’s almost impossible to market without raising the wrong expectations. That it was made by John Carpenter and its title invokes James Whale’s 1933 The Invisible Man makes people expect it to be a horror movies, but it isn’t really. And the fact that it stars Chevy Chase makes you think it’s going to maybe be a parody but it isn’t really. Instead it’s almost more like a “wrong man” adventure story of sorts, a lighthearted one but not one that’s looking to make you laugh. So, I guess you could say that the movie is disliked as much for what it isn’t than for what it is, but audience expectation kind of is part of the job of a director so I think it is still on Carpenter to some extent and even when taken for exactly what it is I think this movie is “kinda alright” at best. Invisible man movies kind of exist in order to show off camera tricks and effects and do clever things with the invisibility, and there are some neat tricks here but few of them blew me away. What’s more, it’s pretty obvious that the studio wasn’t willing to pay Chevy Chase to not be visible through most of the movie so they frequently just have him be visible to the audience even though he’s supposed to be invisible on screen and this is mostly to the movie’s detriment. All in all the movie passes the time I guess, and Carpenter has certainly made worse movies, but there’s a reason why this is considered a turning point in his career and not in a positive way.
**1/2 out of Five
Escape from L.A. (1996)
It’s been a while since I’ve seen it but the truth of the matter is I’ve never really been the world’s biggest fan of John Carpenter’s 1981 film Escape from New York. I’ve always thought Kurt Russell was cool in it but it never felt like it really lived up to its premise; it feels like it has the setup for the ultimate action movie but then it doesn’t really have the actual action scenes to back it up. Given that this belated sequel has a worse reputation and has kind of become infamous for its bad early CGI effects I was never too excited to check it out. Honestly I’m kind of surprised this even got made when it got made. The original film was a success but it wasn’t a blockbuster and is perhaps something more akin to a cult film and I don’t generally think of the late 90s as a time when Hollywood studios were in the habit of giving big budgets to belated rebootish sequels to cult movies. However, I think it’s probably good that they made this when they did because at forty five Kurt Russell was pretty much at just the right age to make this character work the best, perhaps even better than when he was making the first movie at thirty, cause he still looks very cool and the fact that he’s older give the characters some extra seasoning and mystique. I also think the movie’s satirical dystopia also kind of works better in a post-Reagan world than it did in 1981 (when they were only starting to learn about the decade to come) and there’s a certain camp to the movie that is not going to be for everyone but which I do think is intentional. And that subtle camp value is also what make the film’s truly atrocious CGI at least a little more forgivable than it might have been otherwise, that and the fact that it’s really only a problem in a couple of scenes. There are a couple other bits that don’t really work here (the less said about the trans woman character the better) but I think Carpenter hits an interesting tone here that you’re not likely to see at the budget level and in this era very often and that made the whole film a pretty pleasant surprise.
*** out of Five
Out of the six movies I’m looking at in this little John Carpenter marathon his 1998 film Vampires is probably the one I’d heard the least about one way or the other. The film is set in a world in which it’s known, at least by the Catholic Church, that there are vampires walking the earth and they employ these teams of mercenaries to hunt them down and take them out. The film takes something of deglamorized approach to vampirism, with the vampires kind of looking like methheads and the vampire hunters coming off like blue collar trucker types. That world-building is almost certainly the film’s strongest element and there’s fun to be had just in seeing the various methods Carpenter finds to make these vampire hunters go about their business. Less successful is the acting. Despite all the rather heinous things he’s been known to say on Twitter I do like James Woods as an actor, and I see why he was cast here in some ways, but I’m not sure he quite works as what is essentially an action movie lead. The part feels like it was written for Kurt Russell and I kind of wish they had gotten him. The rest of the cast also kind of feels like it’s populated by the cheaper alternatives to the people they should have cast. Daniel Baldwain sucks, dude looks like he showed up to set drunk, and the guy they get to play the main vampire villain also looks kind of wack. Carpenter’s basic filmmaking here is still decent though and his score here is pretty good. All in all I had fun with this, but it’s definitely flawed and I’d still probably rank it relatively low within Carpenter’s body of work.
*** out of Five
Ghosts of Mars (2001)
So far much of my late-period John Carpenter viewing has been something of a pleasant surprise. Escape from L.A. and Vampires certainly weren’t among John Carpenter’s best works, but they were fun flicks that I enjoyed watching. But now we come to Ghosts of Mars, the movie that seemingly derailed Carpenter’s career for the better part of a decade, I wanted to like this one too but unfortunately it really is kind of a train wreck. The film follows Natasha Henstridge and a very young Jason Statham on a terraformed Mars colony as they hunt down an escaped criminal played by Ice Cube but end up encountering a bunch of armed miners who dug too deep and unleashed a bunch of Martian spirits who possessed them are planning to revolt against the human invaders. This movie was made for $28 million dollars which isn’t exactly a “low” budget but it is not enough money to make an action movie with this level of science fiction world building and the movie just looks cheap and not very exciting and the bad guys in it look stupid. Also, no disrespect to Ice Cube but he’s wildly miscast here. There’s nothing inherently wrong with his acting but for a decade or so Hollywood vastly overestimated his potential as an action star as he doesn’t exactly look like the world’s most physically fit guy and his persona can be a bit one note. The whole movie was just a disaster, it never really builds its world out like it needs to, the action is bad, and it’s certainly not atmospherically suspenseful. It’s the movie that made John Carpenter swear off Hollywood and I don’t blame him.
*1/2 out of Five
The Ward (2010)
After the critical and commercial failure of Ghosts of Mars seemed to go into an unofficial retirements. In interviews he said that during this period he had “fallen out of love with cinematic storytelling,” but he didn’t completely go away. In the mid-2000s he directed two episodes of the short-lived Showtime anthology series “Masters of Horror” and apparently had a pretty good experience with that. Then he came across a screenplay written by Michael and Shawn Rasmussen called The Ward, which he thought could be a comeback vehicle. And… frankly I’m not really sure what it was in this screenplay that he saw because this doesn’t feel very Carpenter-esque or novel. Set at a mental institution, the film follows a woman who’s been placed there after she was involved in some kind of arson situation. While there it starts to seem that something suspicious is going on at this hospital, either on the part of its seemingly corrupt wardens or by what appears to be a ghost haunting the place. The insane asylum has long been a bit of a horror staple, some could say a cliché, and this movie just doesn’t do a whole lot new with it. In fact it specifically kind of lives in the shadow of Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, which is also set at an asylum and a much more atmospheric one and does some similar things narratively, but there are several other movies I could name that did most of what this did earlier. The film, while competent, doesn’t really have that visual slickness we’ve come to expect from Carpenter either and Carpenter does not even do the score to the film either. Had you told me someone else had made it I would have believed you and without the Carpenter name on it I doubt I would have ever heard of it. The movie had a very perfunctory theatrical release where it literally only made $7,760 domestically before essentially going direct to video.
** out of Five
That was going pretty good until it stopped going good. I didn’t have very high of expectations for most of these but there were some pleasant surprises in there. But yeah, things kind of went off a cliff in those last two movies. Objectively I think The Ward is a better movie than Ghosts of Mars but Ghosts of Mars at least feels more identifiably Carpenter-esque so I’m not really sure which is a less fitting conclusion to this filmmaker’s otherwise illustrious career. Hopefully that’s just academic though. In the twelve years since making The Ward Carpenter seemed to go back into retirement from filmmaking and instead put a lot of his attention into his musical endeavors as well as becoming something of an internet presence. But in recent years there have been rumblings of his coming back out of retirement again. Hopefully that happens and he can put out a film that caps things off a bit better than those last two movies.