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When good directors go bad: John Carpenter 10 July 2009

Posted by jordanfarley in Film.

One hit wonders are not uncommon in any art form: JD Salinger wrote nothing of note after Catcher in the Rye and who would have thought the Baha Men didn’t have any more hits in them after Who Let the Dogs Out? Less common is the artist who produces classic after classic in their field for years only to lose it, often without any obvious reason at the height of their fame, and never return to previous form.

This can certainly be said for horror maestro John Carpenter, and while watching his 1982 masterclass in paranoia The Thingon Blu-ray last night it got me thinking: when exactly did John Carpenter go off the rails?

In the 12 years between his ultra low-budget and brilliantly imaginative debut Dark Star in 1974 and action/comedy-fu mash up Big Trouble in Little China in 1986 Carpenter hardly put a foot wrong, directing at least five of the most highly revered and influential genre films of all time. Assault on Precinct 13, a thinly-veiled remake of Howard Hawks’ siege western Rio Bravo,bursts from its exploitation cinema shackles during Carpenter’s synth-scored opening title card. Edgy and tense, with a sizzling script and one of the best Carpenter double acts, Assault is Carpenter the director perfecting his craft and was to provide the blue print for many of his films over the next decade.

Halloweenis perhaps what he will be best remembered for. Far and away the best slasher film ever made, not just because it is the original but because of its winning mix of a truly memorable Carpenter score, one of the most iconic villains of all time in Michael Myers (who works better here than in any of the sequels as the enigma – the shape), a likeable lead and its wicked sense of morals. The Fog and Christine, while a step down from Carpenter’s best in my eyes are a cut above any of his output since the late-1980s. Escape From New York has dated perhaps more than any other Carpenter film on this list, but still holds up today as one of the best examples of an exploitation techno-thriller, with a central character just as iconic as Michale Myers in Snake Plissken (so much so that the entire Metal Gear Solid franchise is built around effectively the same character with a different name). Starman meanwhile is a bit of an anomaly in Carpenter’s CV an alien love story with not a drop of horror and very little suspense, but is still tremendous and proves Carpenter does have a heart.

“In 12 years Carpenter hardly put a foot wrong, directing at least five of the most highly revered and influential genre films of all time”

The problems start with Prince of Darkness. While Big Trouble in Little China didn’t exactly receive the best critical reception at the time it’s since gone on to be recognised as the very definition of a cult classic, with yet another iconic Kurt Russel lead and a quirky sense of style which Carpenter has never done better. Prince of Darknesscertainly isn’t unwatchable like most of Carpenter’s 1990s output and it does have a fanbase out there, but it’s frankly rubbish premise about a bunch of scientists, students and religious types trying to prove the existence of the devil is made worse by the scientific mumbo-jumbo dialogue and needlessly confusing conclusion. It succeeds in being somewhat unsettling but was the start of a slippery slope. They Live likewise has a fervent fanbase out there but wrestler ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper is no Kurt Russel, the aliens look awful (even for the 1980s) and the satirical humour is too heavy handed to deliver the laughs in the same way as Big Trouble in Little China. Having said that though it does contain some fantastic cheesy dialogue (“Brother, life’s a bitch… and she’s back in heat.”) and the 10-minute brawl has to be seen to be believed.

But from then Carpenter’s output can be described as nothing more than tragic. Memoirs of an Invisible Man, Village of the Damned, Escape from L.A. (why?), Vampires, Ghosts of Mars and both of his Masters of Horror episodes – all  just dire. Any sense of creativity seems to have truly disappeared from this list made up entirely of remakes, sequels and re-imaginings of the siege scenario that has run through many of his best works. He is a film-maker who has lost his edge, with the emphasis on the paycheck rather than his art. It seems unlikely Carpenter will ever return to previous form, but with two movies in pre-production (The Ward and Riot) and another two announced (L.A. Gothic and The Prince) we can always hope he has at least one classic left in him, however unrealistic that may be.



1. cress - 23 June 2013

I can’t believe no has responded to this. Excellent summation of Carpenter’s career. He was a brilliant filmmaker in his heyday, but went to pot for no good reason. It’s like he woke up one day and forgot how to judge the quality of scripts. Terrible choices and box office bombs have made him a pariah in the eyes of mainstream Hollywood now. Too bad. I would love to see him get another chance with a great script. Oh, and please don’t let him score anymore of his films. He’s become awful in that arena as well.

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