|Name: John Carpenter
Born: January 16, 1948
Best Movie: The Thing
Perhaps the most flattering comment you can pay a director is to say that every one of his/her films is completely unique and original. From an artistic point of view, derivation is the most difficult thing to break free of yet John Carpenter seems completely untouched by it. Often writing and scoring his films too, every movie he’s made is defined by an almost skewed sense of reality as if we’ve entered a world entirely of his own creation. A world thick with atmosphere and dark ambiance. Where grizzled malcontents speak with ultra-cool dialogue and gravel dry wit and often against the hypnotic background of his unmistakable electronic scores. This is why his films are always (at least those he claims ownership of) preceded by the words “John Carpenter’s”. More than any other working director, his movies are *his*.
This rare ability to “own” his films and avoid treading someone else’s tracks is most likely down to his understanding of and sensitivity to film conventions, particularly those of his preferred genres: the horror and sci-fi genres. One must step outside of a genre’s conventions in order to comment on them and Carpenter along with Brian De Palma and Quentin Tarantino does that with ease. And, like them, he never does so in a way that isn’t a whole lot of fun for the audience. His much maligned but incredibly misunderstood Escape From L.A. is a testament to the audaciousness of his film commentary and along with its predecessor and Ghosts of Mars is as relevant to the medium as anything Tarantino has given us. His ability to cross genres is also largely unequalled with films like Ghosts of Mars and Prince of Darkness each representing a wildly original blending of horror, sci-fi, and even western conventions.
Unusual for a top director, Carpenter’s work is defined by an amazingly clear focus, unmuddied by lofty ambitions or stylistic concerns. He shows absolutely no signs of ego when directing or writing and always allows the story to take centre stage. For this reason, his qualities are often missed by younger generations of fans who have been conditioned to respond to the flashy cuts and hyper editing of more intrusive directors. Carpenter is a classical director from an era when directors were trained to set the shot up and let the film take form. Yes, he’s very much a “genre director” like his hero George A. Romero, but his strongest or at least most overt influences come from likes of Howard Hawks. Many of his movies such as Assault on Precinct 13 and The Thing share the good-evil dichotomy of Rio Bravo where the protagonists’ fear manifests itself externally as a besieging force. Or they examine the reverse by exploring the evil from within (Christine and They Live for example). Sometimes, like in The Fog, he examines both kinds of dread – and that’s as close to showing off as he gets!
Not surprisingly, given the path he has forged for himself as a film-maker, John Carpenter often builds his movies around a lone-hero. The Daddy of all lone-hero movies, Bad Day at Black Rock, can be seen to influence a number of his movies from the surname of Kurt Russell’s character in The Thing to that stunning opening sequence in Ghosts of Mars. Out of this has come perhaps the definitive anti-hero and one of cinema’s more iconic characters to boot. Helped in no small part by his frequent collaborator Russell, Snake Plissken seems to embody the rebellious, egoless, jaded warrior that Carpenter has been to the cinematic medium.
For all the good they do him, his forthright nature and boldness have probably cost him over the years. He should have garnered bigger budgets for his films but his tendency to call it as he sees it, not to mention a certain apathy towards target audience demands, have ensured that many of his big-budget projects have done poorly at the box-office. However, like the man himself, it seems that his work is often unappreciated in its own time, for most of these movies have gone on to become cult successes on the video market.
Though a lack of big studio backing has given him the freedom to make the movies he wants to make, it has undeniably had negative effects too. A recurrent feature of his movies is a low production value which, though often suiting the personality of the movie, have repelled many a mainstream movie fan. Movies like his Village of the Damned remake and Vampires might have benefited from just a little more polish and, as they are, can come across as nothing more than highly entertaining TV movies to all but his most dedicated fans.
His aversion to studio politics and methodologies has ultimately kept Carpenter out of the game for the last decade with the exception of 2010’s moody old school horror The Ward. And while a man, who often refers to himself as a “working director” who would rather stay home and watch basketball on TV, probably doesn’t miss the slog too much, he’s been sorely missed.
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Relevant MovieShrink Reviews:
- Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
- Village of the Damned (1995)
- Halloween (1978)
- Escape From L.A. (1996)
- The Fog (1980)
- Ghosts of Mars (2001)
- Vampires (1998)
- Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992)
- They Live (1988)
- Christine (1983)
- Prince of Darkness (1987)
- Escape From New York (1981)
- Someone's Watching Me (1978)
- Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
- The Thing (1982)