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Published on June 19th, 2015 | by Michael

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In Appreciation of John Carpenter

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New York native John Carpenter is one of the greatest figures in the history of cult cinema. Oh sure, today, his name is synonymous with a certain sort of schlocky horror these days, due in no small part to his insistence of adding his name to the titles of his film, a trend that coincided with his output becoming increasingly patchy. However many of his older titles have undergone critical revaluation since their original release and some (such as Halloween and The Thing) were instant classics. Indeed, from the 70s to early 90s Carpenter released a slew of great films in the action and horror genres. An all-rounder, Carpenter wrote, directed and edited as well as providing the score for his films with his minimalist synth soundtracks for Halloween and Assault on Precinct 13 rightly receiving great acclaim. However Carpenter couldn’t do it all alone and for much of his career he worked in fruitful partnership with producer and screenwriter Debra Hill, as well as several superb collaborations with the likes of Kurt Russell and Keith David. In this piece, I’m going to look back at some of my personal favourites from Carpenter’s back catalogue, most of which happen to be classics of cult cinema – largely because they failed to find an audience at the time!

HILL CARPENTER

The brain trust, Debra Hill and John Carpenter

Dark Star

This project started life as a student film, a collaboration between Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon, who co-wrote and starred. Both men would go on to do great things in Hollywood which goes some way to explaining why this superb low budget Sci-Fi has been preserved for posterity (it has even had a Blu Ray Steelbook release). Another reason is that Hollywood producer Jack H Harris was sufficiently impressed with what he saw that he purchased the distribution rights and paid for an extra 15 minutes to be filmed to bring it up to feature length. Carpenter disapproved of this, feeling it turned the picture from “a great looking student film” to a “terrible looking feature film”. In one scene, a computer screen reads FUCK YOU HARRIS, a none-too-subtle jibe from Carpenter. In all honesty at this distance the production values scarcely matter as it would look dated no matter what, and it’s collection of cheap and cheerful effects only add to its charm.

The film is a darkly comic, nihilistic homage or parody of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Aboard a space ship sent to blow up unstable planets which may threaten future colonisation, four men must battle boredom, insanity and their rapidly disintegrating means of transport on their twenty year mission. If that sounds familiar, it’s probably because the seminal British Sci-Fi series Red Dwarf follows a very similar pattern. That wasn’t the only classic of Science Fiction that Dark Star spawned though. The crew of the Dark Star has adopted an alien (essentially a beach ball) and there’s a humorous sequence in which one of the hapless crew most coral the alien through the corridors and the vents. Years later, Dan O’Bannon would retool these scenes as a horror and thus was born Alien, one of the most iconic franchises of all time. And as luck would have it, one of the key figures of the Alien franchise was the subject of my last ‘In appreciation of’, Walter Hill!

Another set piece from the film that has rightly gone down in film lore is one in which the crew much try and persuade a bomb, which has achieved sentience, to disarm. Unfortunately the bomb has somehow learned Cartesian Doubt and decides it cannot trust external sources of information. It explodes, therefore it is. The recent web series Red Vs Blue which I have previously covered took this idea and ran with it with the recurring character Andy.

John Carpenter Dark Star

Surf’s up!

It’s easy to dismiss Dark Star as just the project on which Carpenter and O’Bannon cut their teeth but having only seen it for the first time in recent years I find that it really does stand up well. The tone is pleasingly odd, the humour funny and the ideas within both original and influential. It’s also nothing like Carpenter’s future work, being more or less a straight comedy, albeit a bleak, nihilistic one. Though future Carpenter films would have plenty of humour (although, some had practically none), Dark Star is really the only one that qualifies for this description. Indeed, the following film is anything but a barrel of laughs.

Assault on Precinct 13

A less original, though no less effective, offering from Carpenter here, who did what he has done a few more times in his career and essentially remade Rio Bravo , re-imagined here into a contemporary setting. Indeed, Carpenter had actually wanted to make a straight western but budgetary constraints forced him to change his plans. As well as the typical western set-up, further homages are paid by the borrowing of dialogue from spaghetti westerns and the nom de plume Carpenter chose when writing the script, John T Chance, John Wayne’s character in Rio Bravo.

The film begins with a gang leader shockingly and graphically shooting a little girl. This sequence still stands out now; it’s hard to imagine the impact it must have had at the time. The girl’s father kills the gangster in revenge and seeks solace in the local police station. Unfortunately for him and everyone inside, the station is in the process of closing down, with only a skeleton crew and a bus full of prisoners on hand. Also unfortunately, said Precinct is not actually precinct 13, it’s precinct 7, the film’s title being a misnomer chosen by a producer because it was considered to sound ominous (which to be fair, it does).

The enraged gang members descend on the police station, moving with an eerie silence which recalls the classic Night of The Living Dead. In fact, most of the extras were USC students who apparently had a whale of a time with the elaborate deaths and fake blood. Standing between them and the father is policeman Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker, in a rare heroic action role at the time for an African American outside of a Blaxploitation picture) who must marshal the meagre resources at his disposal. To this end he enlists the aid of a pair of convicts, Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston) and Wells (Tony Burton, a former boxer best known as the corner man in the Rocky films). Joston was a neighbour of Carpenter’s, and the sarcastic but ultimately heroic Wilson was written with him in mind. Though considered an action film, the endless hordes of unearthly gang members descending on the beleaguered heroes makes it seem as much a horror as anything – Carpenter has always been able to blend the two genres effectively. This film is probably where Carpenter really starts to come in to his own – many of his future efforts recall this picture. He also scored the film, recording the whole thing in three days. Like the film itself, the score has become iconic and the minimalist, ominous synth sound has become synonymous with Carpenter’s films. Perhaps only the Halloween theme is more widely known than this one. Again, the influence is felt far and wide – the famous Terminator theme owes more than a little to Assault On Precinct 13.

John Carpenter Assault

Funnily enough, the film took off in Britain (and subsequently Europe) far more than it had in the US. Carpenter perhaps perceptively has said that it’s because the British audiences could better appreciate that the film was a take-off of the western genre- Americans, being much closer to the westerns in their pure form, didn’t immediately realise what the film was trying to do. It didn’t take long for the film to undergo a critical reassessment though and is now rightly regarded as a classic. That’s a pattern we’ll see repeated throughout Carpenter’s career.

Another pattern is the tendency to remake Carpenter’s films and Assault on Precinct 13 was the first to get that treatment with an effective enough but largely unnecessary update in 2005. In that film, the role of the policeman went to Ethan Hawke and the criminal who stands with his to Lawrence Fishbourne, which is actually less progressive casting than the film made three decades earlier, but then Carpenter has always been ahead of the curve. Unfortunately, that means he usually has to wait for audiences to catch up!

Among the credits for this film the name Debra Hill can be spotted. Having entered the film business in 1975, Hill was merely listed as assistant editor and script supervisor. She would go on to be Carpenter’s right hand woman, co-writing scripts and acting as producer on many of his films, as well as works for other directors, such as Terry Gilliam’s marvellous The Fisher King. Female producers are a relative rarity now, so it really was unusual to see a woman as a producer in the 1970s. Hill’s partnership with Carpenter would go on to be particularly fruitful, if not as profitable as it ought to have been.


Halloween

John Carpenter may not have invented the slasher genre (that honour belongs to Psycho. Possibly. Maybe) but he did usher in its golden age with his 1978 horror movie Halloween. On the face of it, the film is absurdly simple. Michael Myers, boyhood killer, escapes from a mental hospital and begins killing teenagers willy-nilly. Indeed, it is fairly simple – Myers is not even given any motivation for his crimes, though he would get one in the sequel, a move Carpenter regrets. Even so, Halloween is a classic of the horror genre whose influence cannot be overstated. As well as the seven (count ‘em) sequels, plus the two additional films in the Rod Zombie reboot series, the film spawned other long running franchises such as Friday The 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street. Beyond that, Halloween also gave the world enduring horror tropes such as sex=death, as parodied in the Scream series and the idea of the ‘lone girl’, IE the last person standing is the female protagonist, often virginal and ‘decent’ when compared with the many slain boys and girls who were probably quite promiscuous.

John Carpenter Jamie Lee Curtis

In Halloween this role is taken by the bookish Laurie, played by Jamie Lee Curtis. Curtis of course came from acting royalty and her genetic talent for the craft is evident in this, her debut role. IT’s very fitting that she won the part as her mother, Janet Leigh, was the star (nominally at least) of Psycho. Experience comes in the form of English actor Donald Pleasence, who plays Myers’ doctor Sam Loomis, actually named for the character in Psycho .  The late Christopher Lee was offered the role but turned it down – he would later call it one of the biggest regrets of his career. Pleasence himself said he took the role because his daughter, Angela, was a huge fan of Assault on Precinct 13.

The biggest ‘star’ of the film though is neither of those, but rather William Shatner. Or, at least, William Shatner’s face. It’s one of those film stories that you hear so often that you think it must be fake, but Michael Myer’s iconic mask was indeed a Captain Kirk mask, painted white. The effect is hugely unsettling. Typically, Shatner knew nothing about this for years afterwards, but said he felt honoured by the tribute. Halloween was a huge success, raking in around $70M dollars on a $300K budget and it continues to be a holiday staple around the world. Of the sequels, Halloween II was a particular success, being the second highest grossing horror film of 1981, behind American Werewolf In London. That film was co-written by Carpenter and Hill but their involvement ended there. The standalone third instalment, unconnected to the previous films, was generally considered a huge disappointment. The slasher may have been horror’s mode of choice for decades to come as a result of Halloween, but Carpenter had moved on.


Escape From New York

Last year I attended a midnight showing at the Sheffield Showroom of Escape From New York. The cinema hadn’t even sourced a reel of the film – the audience were treated to a quick peek of a DVD menu up on the silver screen before the ‘projectionist’ could hit Play. Nobody minded. John Carpenter is the sort of man who could churn out these cult classics in his sleep during his heyday and Escape From New York is probably the most cultish of them all.

It may not seem like it, but the film’s genesis comes from real life events such as the Watergate scandal as well as the Death Wish series of films. Carpenter did not agree with the politics of Death Wish (a violent vigilante fantasy) but was intrigued by the concept of New York City as a dangerous jungle. Escape From New York takes the concept further – the city has been converted into a sprawling prison for lifers in a dystopian near future. This of course would make in the worse place for Air Force One to crash and yet that is precisely what happens, leaving the President (Donald Pleasence, not bad for a Sheffield lad) in all sorts of bother.

Fully aware that violent gangs run the City (hello, The Warriors!) the Secret Service hatch a plan that makes up for what it lacks in common sense with audacity and spectacle. They want to send in a single man, who can sneak in silently, scoop up the President and escape without incident. Luckily, a man who might just be able to pull it off has just been arrested for a variety of crimes – Snake Plissken. Michael Myers might be famous in horror circles but in reality he was just a ‘Shape’, as he’s called in the Halloween credits. Snake Plissken is Carpenter’s first truly iconic character. A terse, growling anti-hero, The Man With No Name plucked out of westerns and dropped into a futuristic New York and forced to rely on his wits to survive. The studio wanted Death Wish’s Charles Bronson, or Tommy Lee Jones, to play the role. Instead John Carpenter turned to former child star Kurt Russell, fresh from a series of Disney comedies. The fruitful partnership between the pair had begun two years earlier with the TV movie Elvis but this was their first feature film together. In some ways it seems an odd match. Carpenter was one of the very few directors of action films in the 80s who leaned left, Russell was famed throughout Hollywood for his libertarian politics. Nevertheless, Russell always brings it when cast, and his turn as Plissken is no exception. Not a particularly likable hero, he shows a remarkable ability to take everything this harsh world throws at him and to keep his head among the craziness that surrounds him.

John Carpenter Snake Plissken

I’ve got my eye on you

And what craziness it is. Escape From New York is the film where Carpenter becomes a real visionary, having previously made hugely effective genre films. His New York is a beautifully realised pit of despair, like the world of Blade Runner if it had been abandoned to a managed decline. The film also gives us a keener insight into Carpenter’s mind – the film seems inspired by the Big Brother policies of the US government of the time and unlike contemporary action films, the key message is not ‘give the police all the guns they want and let them slaughter criminals’. And Donald Pleasence’s President must be the most unpleasant Commander-In-Chief in screen history. A cowardly, snivelling, vicious toad, there’s no danger of rescuer and rescuee bonding in this film.

After the success of Halloween, Carpenter had much more sway and was able to assemble a more prestigious cast than he was used to. Immortal character actor Harry Dean Stanton plays the Brain, a former ally of Snake’s. Adrienne Barbeau, Carpenter’s wife at the time, is Brain’s girlfriend Maggie, Ernest Borgine appears as a friendly taxi driver and the villain is soul icon Isaac Hayes. Additionally the man who sends Plissken on his mission, Bob Hauk, is played by Lee Van Cleef, cementing the western connection. The film also features some superb set pieces, the most memorable being a Hardcore Wrestling Match where Plissken must fight a giant with a spiked baseball bat.

In Assault on Precinct 13 and Halloween, Carpenter made superb films by following the tracks laid down by others. Here, he goes off on his own and creates something new, something distinctly Carpenter. Alas, he would spoil some of this by making Escape From LA which is as much a remake as it is a sequel. It just too similar to its predecessor and doesn’t stand up on its own. Made 15 years later in 1996, the only remarkable thing about it is that Kurt Russell could still fit into his original costume.

The Thing

Much better was the next collaboration between Carpenter and Russell, 1982’s horror classic The Thing. The film was an adaptation of John W Campbell’s novella Who Goes There? previously made as The Thing From Another World, the film the characters are seen watching in Halloween.

The Thing is surely one of the best horror films ever made. I can think of no other that manages to combine gore, tension and old fashioned jump scares so successfully. The premise is simple, a shape-shifting alien has infiltrated an Antarctic base and can impersonate anyone it touches. It can also transform itself into a deadly killing machine, so watch out for that. The base is run by a hardy crew of rugged blokes, among them Kurt Russell, Keith David and Wilfrid Brimley. The decision was taken to fill the cast largely with character actors, so audiences couldn’t second guess the order in which they would be slaughtered. Indeed, to this day Carpenter and Russell are not entirely clear in when and in which order certain characters are replaced by the alien!

John Carpenter The Thing 2

Kill it with fire!

Halloween was scary, certainly, but I’ve always felt the film was as much a thriller as it is a horror. And while Michael Myers was ultimately shown to be more or less unstoppable, he was recognisable human. The alien in this film though is terrifyingly unknowable – he could be your best mate, and what’s more he might grow gigantic jaws in his chest, just for larks. The film never really gives the sense that the scientists of the base might survive the encounter – they seem terrifically overmatched, both by the alien and the harsh, bleak environment that surrounds them. The film has a very nihilistic tone which is only matched by its ending (although the possibility of a happy ending is still present at the last). Unfortunately it didn’t catch on with audiences the way it should have, only just making its budget back. This is because audiences are idiots. More specifically, it is because they’d rather watch a saccharine version of first contact, as seen in E.T which had been released a few weeks prior. The Thing is in good company though – it was released on the same day as another initially overlooked classic of the genre, Blade Runner.

The film was a more collaborative affair than was typical of Carpenter. Bill Lancaster wrote the adapted screenplay and the legendary Ennio Morricone wrote the score, though Carpenter did contribute a few bits himself. The real star of the show is Rob Bottin, who together with his crew created the practical effects for which the film is justly famous. Another legend of cinema, Stan Winston, helped create the sequence with the dog but asked to be uncredited in appreciation of Bottin’s own work. Winston was merely thanked in the credits, instead.

During the film, the scientists calculate that there would be a roughly 100% chance of the human race being wiped out should the alien make it to civilisation. Thus The Thing became the first in a thematically related Apocalypse Trilogy of Carpenter’s, each film featuring a different doomsday scenario. In 1987 came The Prince of Darkness, about Satan or possibly the Anti-God. It was released to lukewarm critical reception but did good business, earning $14M on a budget of $3M. Then in 1995 came the Sam Neill starring In The Mouth of Madness, a film stuck between being an homage to HP Lovecraft and an attack on Stephen King. It was again critically a disappointment and it only just made its money back at the box office. My colleague Greg Payne has contributed a summary of this film for us.


Starman

Starman was a huge departure for John Carpenter, a perhaps a way of repairing the damage he’d done to human/alien relations with The Thing. In this sweet tale, written by Bruce A Evans and Raynold Gideon, aliens have intercepted one of the Voyager probes inviting aliens to visit Earth. Alas as is always the case, the left hand doesn’t know what the right is doing so when an alien does visit, he is immediately shot down.

The alien emerges from the wreckage as a ball of energy and makes first contact with Karen Allen, which I think sets expectations of humanity higher than we can possibly live up to. Allen plays Jenny Hayden, a young widow. The ball of energy clones himself a human body from Jenny’s dead husband, which is probably not the wisest first impression but there we go.

John Carpenter Karen Allen

How are the rest of us supposed to measure up?

From there, Starman and Jenny must journey across America, dodging feds and learning that we’re not so different after all as they go. In the end, they must part, but not before Starman has given Jenny a gift in the form on a son – the whole thing is basically Star Lord’s origin story. The form star man took is Jeff Bridges, perhaps a more prestigious star than Carpenter was used to working with. Bridges spent a lot of time preparing for the role, studying the movement of birds to give Starman an inhuman quality. He was rewarded with an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, unsurprisingly the only Academy Award nomination ever bestowed on a Carpenter film.

I love Starman as I love much of Carpenter’s work but it really is hard to see that the film is one of his. It has a markedly different feel to his other work, even when those works range wildly from Dark Star to The Thing to Big Trouble in Little China. It didn’t do great business, which is typically Carpenter but it was very well received, powered by the talent and appeal of its two leads.


Big Trouble In Little China

As with Starman this film represented a break from the norm for Carpenter, not least because he made it without Debra Hill. It is perhaps, to those who watch it with the right mindset, the most outright enjoyable of Carpenter’s films. The film’s opening scene is probably its worst as it was obviously tacked on later by an interfering studio, and though it is set after the events of the film the story never explains how this scene was arrived at. After that though we get the usual font assuring us that this is a Carpenter picture and we’re introduced to our loud-mouthed hero Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) who announces himself using the radio in his truck, talking about himself in the third person as if the vest and trucker’s hat weren’t enough to tip us of as to his character.

John Carpenter Jack Burton

Jack is boorish. Jack is dumb, Jack is brave, certainly, but he’s also fairly terrible in a fight. He’s cocky, a chancer, a blowhard. He is also, and this is a point people often miss, the sidekick. Oh sure, he spends the most time on screen, he’s front and centre on the posters and has all the best lines. But story structure wise, he’s very much Han Solo to Wang’s (Dennis Dun) Luke Skywalker. Wang is the one with the heroic quest (rescue his fiancé, defeat Lo Pan) as well as the fighting skills and the knowledge of the evil they face. Burton is in it for the money Wang owes him, although like Solo he only pretends this is his motivation. This was probably the intention for the Burton character (nearly as iconic these days as that other Carpenter/Russell creation, Snake Plissken), a quick-witted, heroic yet hapless every man who bumbles into situations whilst on the road and teams up with more capable heroes. Perhaps future films would have seem him take on aliens, or a cult of vampires. Alas, despite strong test screenings Big Trouble In Little China flopped at the box office and so ended the adventures of Jack Burton. At least until talk of a remake starring Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson surfaced…

Carpenter and Russell think that the reason the film flopped is that the studio, 20th Century Fox, did not know how to market it. To be fair to the suits, it’s not hard to see why. The script, which began life as a western before being updated to modern day San Francisco, takes in Chinese magic, homages and parodies of Kung Fu, screwball comedy and deconstructionism. It was also Carpenter’s last real tilt at a Blockbuster so it’s a crying shame it took a few years to find an audience. It has one now though, which is perhaps why Dwayne Johnson in keen to remake it. He even wants Carpenter on board, although he hasn’t made a film for several years. While not wishing to dismiss a remake out of hand, it’s hard to see the man they used to call The Rock agreeing to lose practically every fight his is in, the way Kurt Russell’s Burton did. It would be a shame to make Burton 2.0 the invincible fighting machine we get in 90% of Hollywood action movies.


They Live!

It might be damning with faint praise, but They Live! Is without doubt the finest film with a wrestler in the main role. The WWF’s greatest ever heel Rowdy Roddy Piper stars here as John Nada, a drifter who discovers the terrible truth about society. A pair of sunglasses reveals to him that television, adverts and magazines are designed to subjugate humanity, promoting obedience and acceptance of the status quo. The rich and powerful have teamed up with aliens in order to exploit humanity and strip the Earth of her resources. This is to my mind Carpenter’s masterpiece and certainly his most overtly political film. Slavoj  Zizek in his film The Pervert’s Guide To Ideology  call in ‘a forgotten masterpiece of the Hollywood Left’. It’s one of those rare films that Paul Verhoeven used to specialise in, the gung-ho left wing action film. Carpenter had hinted in this direction before of course with Escape From New York but that film was set in a dystopian future – ‘look what could happen to us if we’re not careful’. They Live! is a damning indictment of where we are now.

Piper, who is solid to pretty good as Nada, teams up with character actor Keith David to take on the aliens (although Nada’s original plan, run into a bank and shoot everyone who looks weird, lacks a little finesse). Both men get swept up with the doomed resistance movement, made up mostly of the poor and the homeless. There’s a real guilt free joy in watching the pair mow down the aliens and the human collaborators which means there not uneasiness in re-watching it, as is there is with so many others 80s action films (remember how the mujahedeen used to be the heroes?) . The film’s most famous set piece though is an epic fistfight between the two protagonists that lasts nearly six minutes. Being hit and selling it was obviously Piper’s bread and butter but the pair nevertheless trained for weeks for the fight and faked only the shots to the head and groin. Carpenter was so impressed with their dedication that he left the fight in the picture in full, rather than editing it down. This scene was later homaged beautifully in South Park’s ‘Cripple Fight’, with that scene lasting every bit as long.

They Live

‘I came here to chew bubblegum and execute plagiarists!’

They Live! has a very dreamlike quality, you have to allow yourself to be swept away by its internal logic. Indeed, the plot follows a very familiar dream pattern (familiar to me, anyway). The protagonist realises something is very  off with the world, has a rising sense of dread, decides to fight back, kicks a barely credible amount of arse and finally…well without spoiling the ending let’s just say dreams often end the same way.

Like so many of Carpenter’s films, They Live!  has lent itself to iconography. Shepard Fairey combined slogans from the film with images of Piper’s fellow wrestler Andre The Giant to create his famous ‘Obey’ range. Hopefully the irony of so many folk wandering around with ‘Obey’ on their T-Shirts and caps is no lost on John Carpenter. Those pilfering bastards at 3D realms also stole one of Nada’s famous lines from the film, because those twats don’t know the difference between an homage/parody and merely referencing that something exists. 3D Realms are the Jason Friedman and Aaron Seltzer of computer game studio. In the event, ‘I’m here to chew bubblegum and kick ass…and I’m all out of bubblegum’ was Piper’s own line, one a several lines he’d written intending to use in wrestling promos. If he had a dime for every time that line has been parodied or plain ripped-off, he probably wouldn’t have to return to the squared circle every year to be beaten up by men 25 years his junior.

In The Mouth of Madness – Greg Payne

The very epitome of the genre auteur (genus Americanus, at any rate), Carpenter has followed his muse throughout the years with a feverish intensity, seemingly with a desire to try some of everything and put his stamp on it in the process. While in the 1980s this approach mostly paid off with enduring classics, particularly his Kurt Russell triptych, the ‘90s found Carpenter floundering, his hit-to-miss ratio sinking fast. Memoirs of an Invisible Man was a solid showcase for T2-level SPFX but failed to work as a comedy. Then his remake of the classic 60s chiller Village of the Damned came off as both limp and totally unnecessary, despite everyone in it acting to the rafters. And Escape From L.A. turned a gritty, nightmarish franchise into a dayglo romp of bad wardrobe choice and worse CGI. In the middle of all this artistic flailing though, released quietly just a couple of months before Village, was a genuinely creepy little gem of a film, In the Mouth of Madness.

ITMOM starts off with an update of a classic noir trope, that of the insurance investigator (a wobbly-accented Sam Neill) looking into a high-profile disappearance, in this case superstar horror author Sutter Cane, played by Jürgen Prochnow with Neil Gaiman’s haircut. The name is no coincidence: it’s a play on Stephen King, who’s namechecked early on as having been left behind on the best sellers list by Cane, and whose 80s/90s trademarked front cover typeface is handily appropriated for Cane’s paperbacks almost a decade before Garth Marenghi did the same.  The King-isms are a bit of a red herring, actually: Cane is ultimately a modern day H.P. Lovecraft, all Old Ones and Hidden Dimensions, whose works inspire madness in his readers and who is ultimately found ruling over the impossibly real small New England town of Hobb’s End, in which his fiction unfolds (kaff…Castle Rock…kaff…). By about the halfway point the film becomes a cinematic ourobouros, as Sutter Cane’s unpublished new novel becomes reality, and our hero finds himself in a world gone magically mad with the city ablaze outside the doors of the movie theatre in which he watches this very film unfold.

John Carpenter Mouth of Madness

Working from a script by Michael DeLuca, a writer who toiled in genre work for New Line for a few years before becoming an Oscar-nominated producer of films spanning the spectrum of respectability (everything from the Ghost Rider flicks and The Love Guru to Moneyball and The Social Network) Carpenter is at his most restrained in this movie, unspooling subtle creepiness—the painting whose subjects move between and sometimes during shots is especially effective—with  a doom-filled sense of dream logic, and very little of the bombast that plagues much of his later work.  ITMOM shares with Videodrome the possibility that after a certain point in the narrative, everything is hallucination and madness from our protagonist’s perspective. As Neill’s agency slips away from him, and Cane’s final work is etched upon the canvas of a world, In the Mouth of Madness becomes an unusually smart and stylish side road for Carpenter acolytes to travel and savour.

Lost Themes

As I mentioned before, Carpenter hasn’t made any films for a while, indeed he hasn’t directed since 2011’s The Ward. That’s not to say he has been idle though, oh no. Instead he’s turned to his other passion, music. Along with his son Cody and composer Daniel Davies, Carpenter released an album of original music, Lost Themes, in February this year. As the title would suggest, the music is similar to his scores but without actual films to put them to. The album is brilliant and hypnotic, full of superb electronic tracks with names like ‘Vortex’ and ‘Abyss’.

After They Live!, Carpenter when into a bit of a protracted decline with films like Ghosts of Mars, Vampires and Escape From LA failing to capture the old magic. It’s easy to look back on the late 1970s and 1980s as a time in which Carpenter was imperious, churning out classic after classic. And today that’s how those films are viewed. However, precious few of his films were actually hits, commercially or critically, at the time. Time and again, Carpenter would have to work his way back up after his latest flop, scrapping plans for sequels, moving back to smaller films, and so on. It’s great then to see him create something like Lost Themes on his own terms. If the world of cinema doesn’t want him, someone will. And his films have never gone away, as the continuing remakes and the Obey phenomenon show.

I hope that John Carpenter has another flourish in him, that some farsighted studio exec will give him what he needs to make another masterpiece before he calls it a day for good. If not, I hope he can go on doing what he enjoys, maybe the rest of us will get a chance to enjoy it too.

Michael

Michael comes from the middle ground between light and shadow, between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge. He will write on comics, TV and film, plus anything else that might occur to him.

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