Yes, dear reader, the words you read above are correct. This is no clickbait lie of an article, I’m not drawing you in only for you to discover that I made it two or three movies in before closing up shop. This is a dispatch from the pit of despair, the kind of which we only find ourselves in after watching 30+ hours of cinema in one sitting.
First. An old friend came to visit. The kind of friend that most of us have in our younger days, with whom one discovers all sorts of cult classics and classic tripe. At sleepovers and on rainy Sundays we would watch Dawn of the Dead, Sam Raimi’s Crimewave, Memento, various versions of King Kong, and of course, the work of Horror/Science Fiction maestro John Carpenter. More than just about anyone, Carpenter represented the sweet spot where our cinematic tastes collided; my pal’s love of violent psychological horror, empathetic lead heroes and practical effects balancing my inclinations towards slower paced and formally driven films. So when we met up for the first time in over 18 months, our mission was clear. We needed to watch every theatrical release in the Carpenter canon, and so live a nostalgia trip and, I suppose, work out just what it was that makes that director such an important figure in the lives of so many film fans.
[I’m grading these films as a way of viewing Carpenter’s career progression on a curve, so these are not meant to be definitive marks, and who scores movies anyway?]
DARK STAR (1974)- Friday, 00.00
Carpenter’s debut is an underseen little movie, a madcap Sci-Fi full of non-sequiter sequences and easy going humour. Written by and starring Dan O’Bannon, who would go on to define the genre of Spaceship set films with Alien, Dark Star follows the crew of the ‘Dark Star’ who, twenty years into their mission, begin to crack from the isolation as their mission runs into trouble. Barely more than a collection of sketches strung together, it takes the spirit of Easy Rider and places it within a post-2001 setting, combining two of the prevalent trends of the day. Carpenter makes excellent use of space as claustrophobic scenes of the crew are frequently cut with shots of the vast emptiness of space. Dark Star is rough, clearly the work of a novice, although it has an easy going charm and enough good natured soul to make it worth the time.
ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (1976) – Friday, 01.30
With some of the most quotable lines in the Carpenter canon, Assault has always been among my favourite action movies. But this time through, the film seemed a little less perfect, still like a director finding his feet. The violence is brutal when it comes (the ice cream truck!) but the characterisation is cartoonish and dates the film significantly. It does however continue Carpenter’s use of confined spaces to progress his storylines and heighten tension. The highlight of Assault though must be the soundtrack, which is the best that Carpenter would ever compose, taking the style of Giorgio Morodor to create his own expansive, hauntingly catchy theme tune.
It was after this film that we realised that we simply would not make it through the marathon without a sleep first, and so we considered these first films a prelude and broke here until morning.
HALLOWEEN (1978) – Friday, 11.00
Not only one of the best horror films of the 70s but perhaps the most influential film of the genre ever, certainly one of the most ripped off, revisiting Halloween is always a joy. The wide photography and electronic score recall to me A Clockwork Orange. The moody lighting and glowing reflective surfaces throughout are transfixing. The opening sequence, in which a pre-teen Michael Myers stalks and kills his first victim, is still terrifying in it’s first person complicity, a peeping tom moment to challenge even Brian De Palma (Who would directly reference the scene to comic effect a few years later in the opening sequence of Blow Out). My friend remarked that Halloween seems cliched, but it truly is the originator of half of these tropes. From the dispatching of sexually active characters to the presentation of Michael Myers’ cold and remorseless masked killer, to the strong streak of macabre humour, Halloween remains the benchmark for the slasher genre. It represents Carpenter really finding his style, and with the long, detailed murder sequences and gleeful sexuality, showing his bodily obsessions for the first time.
THE FOG (1980) – Friday, 12.45
By this point Carpenter is really hitting his stride, and is already in the midst of a great run of genuine cult classics. As such, The Fog doesn’t quite stand out when held up to the entire Carpenter ouvre, but it remains a very solidly drawn horror with a lot to write home about, namely Zombie Pirates. Arriving in a thick fog, these creatures invade Antonio Bay, the place where they were killed in a shipwreck a hundred years earlier. A shipwreck caused by the founders of the town who plundered their gold and used it to build the town and its church. What comes from this is a way for Carpenter to explore generational guilt and politics, and with its vast cast he paints a much broader canvas than his previous works. The Fog is an interesting balance between A and B picture, although it’s thematic ambitions are often brushed aside by the crazed action. Janet Leigh brings a touch of class to the proceedings appearing aside her daughter Jamie Lee Curtis, and her presence also highlights the more Hitchcockian elements of this slow burning supernatural horror.
ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981) – Friday, 14.49
If someone was to ask which film most clearly represented everything ‘Carpenter’, there is little doubt that it would be Escape From New York, a futuristic action/sci-fi hybrid that drops Kurt Russell’s iconic, laconic, one-eyed Snake Plissken in the burnt out New York of ‘1997’, a citywide prison built to house the 3 million survivors of an anti-police war, and has him searching for the President. It’s a simple premise and one which ensures a fast paced and visually told story. The bodily obsession is there in Snake’s infection, which sees him racing the clock in the promise that he will be given an antidote to a deadly poison with which he has been infected. And in the production design, which features toppled cars and eroding buildings in that woozy atmosphere that only 80s Science Fiction can provide, Carpenter creates his most unique world yet, one that highlights the class warfare on display here. New York is more Russia, 1917. The suited president (Donald Pleasence, in perhaps the finest of his turns for Carpenter) lands in New York and, seeing the reality around him, goes mad. You will too.
THE THING (1982) – Friday, 16.32
This is where the paranoia kicks in, and the Body Horror really takes over. The creature effects, created by Rob Bottin with additional help from Stan Winston, are some of the most macabre designs ever put to film, with an extraordinary alien/dog that is the stuff of nightmares and corpses complete with melted faces that recall a Francis Bacon portrait. So Kurt Russell, Keith David et al are stuck in the Antarctic, where their research is interrupted by the discovery of an alien ‘Thing’ which is assimilating with people one at a time. It’s another enclosed space juxtaposed with an external void, one in which the men quickly turn on each other. It is an incredibly brutal and paranoid film, one that recalls Key Largo and Roger Corman in equal measure.
Visually Carpenter is all fire and ice, elemental themes which lend the film a grand, epic feel. It is also the first part of the Apocalypse Trilogy, a thematic cycle that discusses the imminent downfall of humanity and the various possibilities that might bring it about. The Thing is about external invasion, though as the Trilogy continues its focus would become ever more introspective, providing the most cynical films in Carpenter’s oeuvre.
The Thing is as damn close to a perfect film as one gets, and closes out the first phase of Carpenter’s career in stellar style. Our marathon had found few hiccoughs. But there were still 12 movies to get through, and we had little idea how steep the decline would be…
Christine (1983) – Friday, 18.26
Coming at the height of Stephen King’s popularity, and put into production before the book upon which it was based had even been published, Christine feels like a different kind of Carpenter movie stuck in the body of the kind of films he made before. Carpenter has admitted that this is the only film he made for the money rather than as a personal project and it shows. He seems rather bored with the material here, more interested in evoking the feeling of teenhood and americana than in the scares. But the actors are so poor as to make the drama unengaging and the action sequences, when they do come, are unfussed and not frightening. Carpenter spends as little time on these action sequences as possible.
There is a thematic metaphor going on here, using the staple of the American teen getting their first car to talk about puberty and change, and what sort of people we want to become. But the idea of the teen twisted by metal is never pushed far enough, coming a little too late after Two Lane Blacktop or Stone to make his own statement. The cinematography is evocative of Kingian americana, but frankly any ‘teens in suburbia and they drive cars’ film is visually living in the shadow of George Lucas’ American Graffitti, and Carpenter doesn’t quite manage to distinguish himself here, doing little more than replicate iconography. Although the ending nod to Carrie is hilarious and shows a flash of the film this could have been.
STARMAN (1984) – Friday, 20.59
With the longest running time of the entire collection and coming off the back of Christine, the undercooked Starman presented a significant challenge to sit through. Jeff Bridges plays an alien who has crashed on earth and replicated the husband of a newly widowed Karen Allen. He finds her, and despite her initial fear they begin to form a bond, and embark on a road trip to try escaping the authorities. It’s a little bit E.T., a little bit Rain Man, and it really doesn’t work. Carpenter is clearly more interested in the love story than the genre elements here but he doesn’t manage to stick the landing, as he feels compelled to bring the governmental plotline full circle even though it is the part of the film in which the audience are least invested. Bridges’ performance is another drawback too, he is unrestrained in his portrayal of a newcomer to earth, completely stifling Karen Allen’s naturalism. This is the ‘biggest’ film of Carpenter’s career thus far, and it has some visually lavish moments, especially the reflective spaceship at the end which looks magnificent, and Bridges’ first appearance on earth which has shades of The Thing in its metamorphosis, but this dragged and really had us despairing for the 15 odd hours we had to go.
Big Trouble in Little China (1986) – Friday, 22.52
And we’re back in business. The tale of trucker Jack Burton, who gets wrapped up in a mess in the sewers of San Francisco’s Chinatown after his best friend’s girl is kidnapped, this is a complete return to form that feels like Carpenter having fun again. The editing is frenetic, the script is full of great jokes that place this as very much a post-Indiana Jones movie, but one with the urban setting to give it its own space. This is the Carpenter Effect used to make a family film. Kurt Russell is absolutely on fire as Jack Burton, for my money giving the most exciting performance of his career as the hapless American who has to be rescued at every turn by Dennis Dun’s Wang Chi, the real hero of the picture. There are, expectedly, some racial elements of the film that leave a bitter taste in the mouth: a general stereotyping in the names and the costumes and look of the piece. But I would argue that by making Wang such a positive character, who fights for what is right and is justly rewarded for it, Big Trouble in Little China comes off more as dated than outwardly offensive.
Prince of Darkness (1987) – Saturday, 00.27
If Big Trouble in Little China indulged in the Carpenter approach to a fault, Prince of Darkness is his most restrained film so far, at least until its third act. The second installment of his Apocalypse Trilogy, this time the focus is on faith and the devil. Once again we are reduced to a single location for the bulk of the run time, this time it’s a church, where Donald Pleasance, appearing for the final time in our marathon, summons a Professor played by Big Trouble’s Victor Wong and his students to examine a canister of what can only be described as ‘liquid devil’. When the devil is released, it possesses those present one at a time, in a sequence that harkens back to The Thing, although the similar this is a vastly different film in aesthetic terms
The cinematography is exquisite, with expressive mood lighting and heightened use of shadows, where the close up: of a face, of hands, of a swarm of insects, are the more powerful than action. It’s genuinely the closest Carpenter ever got to making a Bergman film. This is not as formally accomplished a piece as The Thing, and its pleasures are perhaps smaller, its battle of faith and science somewhat low key making this one recede into the background when viewed next to the other films on display here.
They Live (1988) – Saturday, 02.06
This may be my favourite John Carpenter flick. And it may be his best. It is certainly his most socially conscious film, a satire of consumer yuppie culture and the media on par with Network and Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho. Roddy Piper takes the lead in the Russell mode as the strong, wisecracking loner who strides into town and stumbles upon the truth about modern society: that the world is controlled by aliens who use subliminal messages in the media to subjugate humanity. They Live’s messages are always clear and as such never muddle the tone of the film, which is full of great action sequences, the centrepiece of which being a breathtaking ten minute long fight scene between Piper and Keith David, in which the latter does anything he can not to have his eyes opened to the truth that surrounds him.
It is also one of Carpenter’s best shot, with gorgeous colourful natural light, expansive photography of Los Angeles and effects which seamlessly blend into the frame and the story itself. This is a film of such frightening prescience that ‘OBEY’, one of the slogans used by the aliens, has become a popular fashion brand, with thousands of unaware teens sporting a reference to a film about rejecting consumerism. A masterpiece.
All right I admit it, I was nodding off a little at the end of They Live, so we put the thing on hold for a few hours so that we could properly appreciate the latter stage of Carpenter: his 90s and 00s work. And it’s a good thing we did, because there was a lot to digest…
Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992) – Saturday, 12.30
Carpenter entered the 90s with a Sci-Fi Romantic Comedy for the ages, a studio feature over which he clearly had little creative control, a failure in just about every respect. Here we have Chevy Chase, as repugnant a star as there ever was, playing an obnoxious businessman ‘who happily walked through life without being noticed’. Nevermind that he flirts and shouts his way through every early scene (and this isn’t played for irony, the film wears its heart on its sleeve throughout). Through one sequence of events of another, he finds himself turned invisible in a science experiment gone wrong, and on the run from the government. Much like Starman, Memoirs is far less intrigued by this plot line than the love story that develops between Chase and Daryl Hannah, and this is actually a thread with a lot of possibilities. A woman falling for an invisible man: how do they communicate? Go out for dinner? Make love? But Memoirs falls on too many lazy punchlines and obvious set pieces for it to come together. There are a few classic flashes of Carpenter’s playfulness in the building which turns half invisible, in a great vomit sequence, and a scene where Chase smokes, and all we see is the hovering cigarette and smoke going in and out of invisible lungs. But by the time Chase is sporting brownface to escape his assailants, I was ready to check out. There are those who adore Chase’s brand of comedy, but for my money his only palatable appearance is in Dan Harmon’s series Community, as an arrogant, washed up failure who believes himself to be above all others. It’s the most truthful performance of his career.
In The Mouth of Madness (1994) – Saturday, 14.23
Here was a film I had not even heard of before we began planning the marathon, and it turns out to be a complete summation of Carpenter’s career and ideology, the moment at which he examines the very role that he plays as storyteller in the cosmos and in shaping our reality. Sutter Cane is the most popular writer on the planet. His books have sold more than Stephen King, been translated into more languages than the bible, and they give the reader paranoid delusions. When he goes missing during the writing of his latest masterwork, and his agent, the only person to have read it, goes on an axe wielding rampage through Manhattan, insurance broker John Trent (a never better, or crazier Sam Neill) is sent by the publishers to track him down in Hobb’s End, Cane’s home town and the setting for many of his books.
What follows is a descent into Lovecraftian horror in a way which utilises Carpenter’s prediliction for special creature effects in the best way since The Thing. These creatures take on elements of the story, representing characters, locations, and even events that have occurred in the story. But the reality of these creatures, and really any of the plot, are ambiguous, which is what makes this such a perfect capper to the Apocalypse Trilogy. It is a sequence of films about paranoia, in which heroes fight against an invisible enemy. Here, the enemy is reality, and Carpenter openly acknowledges and wrestles with his power to influence, and the dark ends that can take us to. It is a journey full of surrealist moments of repetition and non-sequiturs, which cannot help but recall David Lynch (especially in the long shots of roads lit only by headlights- although this film did come three years before Lost Highway). Despite this, it feels more like the inside of Carpenter’s head than ever before or since, and in its hilarious, rousing finale, is the clearest mission statement of his career.
Village of the Damned (1995) – Saturday, 18.02
And so it goes that every Carpenter masterpiece must be followed by a dud. Here we have an uninspired Christopher Reeve starring remake of the old 60s movie about a town which is bewitched by aliens, impregnating the women with villainous spawn. It’s the classic pedophobia movie, but with a twist: none of it is actually scary. Yes, we still have the body horror theme, what with the aliens coming from within the townfolk themselves, but without convincing child actors the whole thing falls apart and actually comes across more like a parody of bad science-fiction than an interesting movie in its own right. Carpenter’s evocation of small town America places him back in Christine territory, but with little to say about America and the scares few and far between, this is the least memorable film in Carpenter’s collection.
Escape From L.A. (1996) – Saturday, 19.36
With L.A we have truly entered the dregs of the marathon. A fifteen year too late sequel/reboot of a cult classic may be commonplace today, but in 1996 it was a rarer thing. And even so, we are entreated to this retread of the original so shameless that in the post-22 Jump Street era it almost passes for parody. So Snake is once again called upon to find MacGuffin, but this time we’re in L.A., and the believable practical effects that gave New York such texture are tossed aside in favour of CGI so dated it makes Space Jam look like Blade Runner. Steve Buscemi turns up at one point and it hurts. Formally, we’re in Batman & Robin territory here, with green and red hues and sets that look ready to fall down. However Joel Schumacher’s superhero movie had a great sense of humour to it, of trying to thrill the audience with its audacious stupidity at the very least. Carpenter offers us no such gratification here. The only sense of knowing this exudes is smug and self-satisfied, as though merely turning up is good enough. It isn’t.
Vampires (1998) – Saturday, 21.14
Here is a funny thing: Vampires is almost a good movie. It features stellar fight scenes which still look brutal, it has in James Woods a charismatic and eminently watchable lead, and some of Carpenter’s best cinematography to deal with a monster that should be right in his wheelhouse. But after an exciting opening 20 minutes the pace falls apart completely, and with a set of unlikable, uninterested characters at its centre it is difficult to keep up enthusiasm throughout the 108 minute run.
Aesthetically, in its heavy leather and desert setting, it cannot help but live in the shadow of Katheryn Bigelow’s masterful Near Dark, a film which managed to turn the sunlight into the enemy and became all the more atmospheric for it. Near Dark uses the vampire theme as a way to tackle addiction, co-dependancy, and the AIDS crisis. Here the biggest theme is that of sex, with Daniel Baldwin’s leering Montoya stripping Sheryl Lee’s freshly bitten Katrina naked and keeping her so through most of the film’s run time to strengthen her telepathic link to the big bad. Yeah right. With upskirt shots galore before this turn even comes around, the film shamefully objectifies Lee, who was so great in Twin Peaks and deserves better than this. The fact that she inevitably falls for Montoya is just further indication of Vampires gleefully indulging the fantasies of its male target audience.
Ghosts of Mars (2001) – Saturday, 22.58
We had nearly made it. 16 films down, of various quality, and we had but two more hurdles to make. But neither of us realised that Ghosts of Mars would be significantly the worst film of Carpenter’s career, a film that made him go into retirement, that is so muddled in tone and tries to throw so many ideas in the pot without any of them having a single flavour. Originally concieved as ‘Escape from Mars’ until the studio pushed for an Ice Cube starring vehicle, Ghosts follows… I’m not sure it matters. Some cool looking humans. Fighting some nasty martians who vaguely resemble Mad Max villains. And there’s a ghost possessing people one by one. It’s like a weird remix album of Carpenter’s entire career, but the script is so unfocused, with a forgettable trial based framing device (many of these films are structured around someone telling a story, only for the flashback to catch up, revealing that there is still some of the story left to be told- this is easily the weakest iteration of the trope), that it more closely resembles the cinema of Bret Ratner or McG, workhorse directors influenced by Carpenter but without the cinematic invention to pull off what he could manage so well in his glory days. Did I mention Ice Cube is in it? This is a film taken over by the studio and turned into something impossible to follow, that isn’t even entertaining in a Battlefield Earth kind of way. It offers a harsh warning as to the direction of blockbuster cinema in the years that followed.
The Ward (2010) – Sunday, 00.34
And so we complete our quest, with a small psychological thriller removed from the usual Carpenter style. In fact, there is little here to distinguish The Ward as a Carpenter movie at all, although perhaps this is purposeful on his part. Here Amber Heard, who is a likable and under-used screen presence, is put in a mental asylum after burning down a barn, and begins to be haunted by the ghost of an ex-inmate. It’s not an original setup, and the delivery does little with the premise that we haven’t seen before in a thousand pretenders to the Shock Corridor throne. The film is perfectly watchable, and the third act twist, which you’ll probably see coming, does manage to introduce an appropriate fear of the body theme to at least give this film some Carpenter flavour. But in terms of formal elegance and delivery of scares, this is Carpenter operating at a much lower level than his best. Serviceable, but just so. One hopes that The Ward is merely him exercising, and that he will return with another classic in the coming years. For this wildly inconsistent director, that would be of little surprise.
Suddenly, we were free. This marathon had pushed us to the very limits of sanity, with an especially dark final stretch, that had made us look beyond the films to assess why we were even bothering. What were we looking for? After it was over, it was a few days before I could watch a film again, and longer still until I could properly enjoy a narrative without watching it in terms of the Carpenter tropes. I started seeing it in my day to day life. A chipped nail meant my whole body was failing. A sideways glance from someone at the corner store probably meant they were an alien. I even started to think I was Kurt Russell.
But it was worth it. I adored deconstructing a director of high quality schlock who shows us lights shining from within people, who examines the way that not just our friends, but our own bodies and minds can turn against us at a moment’s notice. Carpenter has made some exhilarating cinema full of moments of beauty and moments of beautiful violence that, combined, create the ‘Carpenter-esque’ style that is so prevalent in modern cinema that we barely even notice it. He is one of the key figures in genre film and, when he’s on form, a director who can juggle many ideas at once with such grace and power that it makes the duds more interesting, and worth the pain too.
Though after 30 hours on the trot, it might be a while before I revisit the guy.