John Carpenter: Visionary

A look back at the career of my all time favorite movie director.
January 12, 2009
Steven Speilberg,Stanley Kubrick, Sam Raimi, Sergio Leone, James Cameron, Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith, Martin Scorsese, & Ridley Scott are only a few of my favorite directors. Usually when I see the names of these men attached to direct a movie I get instantly excited about it. Odds are it will be great, sure every now and they you get something that sucks but hey you usually get greatness. All of these men are great directors all bringing there own personal sense and style to the movies they work on. Weather it be The Evil Dead or Spider-Man you know when your watching a Sam Raimi movie just like you know when your watching a Kubrick movie, or a Scorsese movie, their signatures are all over it.

Aside from all being great directors all them have at least one more thing in common. Not one of them is my favorite director. No, that "honor" if you want to call it that, goes to the one and only John Carpenter. Right away people will pounce on that statement saying that Carpenter couldn't lace the shoes of the men I had mentioned above and that he hasn't done a movie that was any good since the 1980's. Everyone is entitled to there own opinions as much as I am to mine. I won't argue that his heyday was the late 1970s to late 1980s but whats wrong with the movies he did after that? As far as I'm concerned absolutely nothing. Unfortunately a lot of people think along the lines that a director is only as good as there last movie.

John Carpenter is many things in the world of film. On most of his movies he serves not only as director but as screenwriter, producer, and composer. Although he does all of these things I am going to try to focus more on the directing then anything else, though will of course make mention his other on the set jobs as to do otherwise would be a complete disservice to a man who's movies and soundtracks have given me countless hours of joy and entertainment.

John Carpenter was born on January 16th 1948 in Carthage, New York but movie to Kentucky in 1953. While growing up Carpenter became a film fanatic enjoying westerns and what would truly inspire his career to come more then anything else, low budget science fiction films. While still in high school Carpenter decided that film making could be the only career path for him and with a 8 mm film camera began shooting horror shorts. In 1968 he attended Western Kentucky University but quickly transferred to The University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts. In 1970 while still enrolled there one of his projects was as co-writer, film editor and composer to the short film "The Resurrection of Bronco Billy" and had won the Academy Award for best live action short film in 1970. The movie was blown up to 35mm, sixty prints were made of the film and it was theatrically released by Universal Studios and ran for two years in North America. In 1971 he finally graduated from University.

In 1974 John Carpenter saw the release of his first major film as director, a science fiction film titled Dark Star. Carpenter co-wrote the movie with Dan O'Bannon, The budget was low so both men had to multitask. Carpenter not only directed but also produced and composed the musical score while O'Bannon did the special effects. This movie also won a Saturn award for best special effects. This is one of the few Carpenter movies that I haven't seen but remain excited when thinking about this movie because I know that I will see it soon enough.

For his next film Carpenter would do an action/thriller movie in 1976's Assault On Precinct Thirteen. Once again along with directing Carpenter also wrote and composed the musical score. Assault On Precinct Thirteen was about a police precinct under attack from a street gang seeking vengeance for the death of some of there members preponderated by a man being protected by the Precinct. Upon its initial release in North America the film was met with mixed reviews but became a smash hit in Europe. After the overwhelming response It was re-released in North America and this time was meet with much more fan fare. In 2005 the movie got one of the best honors that a movie can achieve when it was remade. The remake, like most remakes, couldn't hold a candle to the original but was still better then a lot of other remakes out there. Assault On Precinct Thirteen was the first of so far three movies from John Carpenter that has been remade.

Despite the success that Assault On Precinct Thirteen had, it still wasn't enough for Carpenter to break through Hollywood's glass ceiling in 1978 however his next project would shatter it, becoming his most popular movie to date. Of course I'm talking about one of the movies that that set the standard for not only every slasher movie to follow but every horror movie as well, Halloween.

Although I will readily admit that I'm not a big fan of the Halloween series I loved part one. It should also be noted that the greatness of Halloween was made on a tiny budget even by the standards of 1978 of only $325,000, then when you take into account that Carpenter spent nearly HALF of that to film the movie in widescreen, so what you see on film is really only $162,500. Needless to say Carpenter once again decided to compose the movie himself to save on the budget. What came from that is one of the most iconic scores in movie history and a theme song that many piano teachers now use to teach there students how to play. Much like Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho before him Carpenter also decided that a less would be more approach in terms of blood and gore. After all was said and done Halloween became one of the highest grossing movies of the year and one of the most successful movies of all time in a pure money making perspective. As far as its standings in the horror genre it became one of the highest regarded films ever, topping many lists of the greatest horror movies and is not only required watching for any horror fan but is also required to be owned in in horror movie collection.

So how do you follow up Halloween? Really how could you follow up Halloween? His next movie, 1978's Someone's Watching Me wasn't the answer but its still a great movie that can easily get by on its own merits all the same. Someone's Watching Me was a made for TV movie and although Carpenter directed first it appeared after Halloween thus it wasn't his true follow up to it. The story is a classic a Women on her own is being stalked by someone who is making threatening phone calls to her. She calls the police who don't take her seriously and has to take actions in her own hands.

In his true follow up to Halloween Carpenter decided to do a complete 180 on it and directed 1979's made for TV movie "Elvis" This movie was notable for a couple of reasons after Halloween had become such a huge success it offered Carpenter to direct something away from the horror genre. The most notable thing from this movie however was it was the first movie that Carpenter worked with Kurt Russell who he would work with five times after this film. The movie is of course based on the life of Elvis Presley, though it doesn't deal with his death as the movie ends in 1970.

In 1980 it was time for Carpenter to follow up Halloween on the big screen and choose to do so with The Fog. Once again in addition to directing the film Carpenter also composed the film and wrote its screen play. Carpenter re teamed with Halloween star Jamie Lee Curtis who for the first time acted along side her mother Janet Leigh. Carpenter wasn't pleased with the original cut of the movie and added new scenes and re-shot other scenes that wasn't up to his standards. Although a commercial success it received mixed reviews and Carpenter has described it a minor horror classic. The Fog was remade as well, the remake was made in 2005 and is a piece of teen horror movie garbage which makes the original look that much better again.

In 1981 Carpenter re teamed with Kurt Russell and did the classic Escape from New York. This movie is set in the far off future of 1997, which was only 16 years after when the movie was made. Obviously in the world of Escape from New York things went to hell really fast. The story revolves around the anti-hero Snake Plissken and him being forced to go into New York, now just one giant prison, to save The President and a cassette tape that has important information on nuclear fusion. The movie was another one of Carpenters most popular and has gained a huge cult following which is mostly based around Kurt Russell's character of Snake.

1981 also saw the return of Halloween and Michael Myers. Although Carpenter mostly stepped aside as director of this movie handing the reigns over to Rick Rosenthal, Carpenter still did direct some additional scenes. Despite not taking directing duties however Carpenter still wrote the screenplay and did the score.

In 1982 Carpenter teamed up with Kurt Russell for a third time, to create The Thing. The story of The Thing revolves a shape shifting alien that is revived after being frozen in ice and infiltrates a scientific research station and attempts to take over everyone at the base. Upon its initial release The Thing performed very poorly opening at the 8th spot at the box office John Carpenter has stated that he believes it did so poorly due to it being released only 2 weeks after E.T. and that people would rather watch a movie about the more friendly alien visitor. It however has gone on to grow a massive cult following and has become one of Carpenters most popular movies even securing a comfortable spot on IMDBs top 250 movies list, which is the only Carpenter film to do so.

In 1983 Carpenter took on the work of another horror icon by adapting Stephen Kings Christine. King at this point was so popular that Carpenter's movie was even put into production before the book was even published as both came out in 1983. This one was about a lovable loser named Arnie who buys an old 1958 Plymouth Fury which was named Christine. As he restores Christine Arnie begins to change for the worse and of course since its a Stephen King book about a car you know that thing is possessed by an evil spirit out to kill anyone who would get between itself and Arnie.

In 1984 Carpenter teamed up with Jeff Bridges and Karen Allen to create Starman a science fiction fantasy film about an alien who has come to earth in response to the message found on the gold phonograph record installed on one of the voyager space probes. It was meet with warm reviews despite the fact that it was by this point in his career not was expected of the famous horror director. As opposed to most of his films Carpenter only directed this one and did not write nor provide music for it.

After no movies with his name over the title came out in 1985 people were once again hungry for a new Carpenter movie in 1986, and they got just what they wanted with he re teamed with Kurt Russell once again for Big Trouble in Little China. At test screenings the movie received some of the best reviews in the history of 20th Century Fox at test screenings. Despite this though the movie was mishandled by Fox who had no idea on how to promote it. Due to this the movie opened on only just over 1000 screens and grossed only 2.7 million, before reaching a total of 11.1 million of its 25 million dollar budget. The entire ordeal left John Carpenter disillusioned with Hollywood film making making him want to become a independent film maker yet again. After its release on home video Big Trouble In Little China found its audience with ease becoming one of the most successful movies on home video the year it was released in both sales and rentals. It has since become a huge cult favorite. For the DVD release John Carpenter and Kurt Russell teamed up yet again to provide a commentary for the movie which is regarded on many websites as one of the best commentaries to exist due to the in depth talks about Fox's poor marketing and Chinese history but is also blasted as one of the worse since the two old friends sometimes go off track talking about things that have nothing to do with the movie such as how Kurt Russell's sons is doing in hockey.

1987 saw Carpenter re team with Donald Pleasence and Victor Wong with what he calls part two in his Apocalypse trilogy with The Prince Of Darkness. After its release it was thought that Carpenter deviled another flop with the movie only grossing 14 million dollars, but is untrue the movie was actually quite successful since it only had a 3 million dollar budget in the first place. It received mixed reviews at first due to its over complicated plot but much like many of Carpenter's movies has since established a cult following. In addition to directing Carpenter also served once again as writer and composer.

In 1988 Carpenter teamed with wrestling superstar Rowdy Roddy Piper and re teamed with Keith David for They Live, another movie where he also served as writer and composer. In this movie Piper plays Jack Nada a man who finds a pair of sunglasses that allows him to see subliminal messages everywhere and that much of the population was actually aliens. The movie is famous for many reasons chief among them is perhaps the fight scene where Nada and Keith David's character Frank Armitage engage in a brutal fight for several minutes over Nada wanting Armitage to try on the glasses to see the world around him and Armitage simply declining to do so. Its also famous for Piper's line "I came here to kick ass and chew bubblegum. And I'm all out of bubblegum" which Piper ad-libbed. Although it made a profit it was at the time considered another disappointment by Carpenter who said that the movie didn't do so well because of the vast number of movie goers who don't want to be enlightened. Once again the film became a hit on home video and gained a large cult following. It is also one of Carpenter's most spoofed films with The Simpsons NES game Bart Vs. The Space Mutants paying homage to the idea of seeing the normal people around you that are aliens by wearing sunglasses. In more recent years South Park paid homage to the fight by doing a near scene for scene recreation of it in the episode Cripple Fight.

After They Live Carpenter took a four year hiatus from directing before his next film, 1992's Memoirs of an Invisible Man which features Chevy Chase Daryl Hannah and Sam Neil. The movie was a mixed bag of sorts being part comedy, part drama, part suspense and part science fiction. The movie did about as expected in the box office so couldn't be considered a disappointment but was still criticized by some reviews.

In 1993 Carpenter teamed up with director Tobe Hooper of Texas Chainsaw Massacre fame to co-direct a made for TV movie titled Body Bags. The movie was an anthology of three different unconnected stories. Carpenter did two of the stories The Gas Station and Hair, while Tobe Hooper did the story Eye. The movie was intended to be a pilot for TV Series on Showtime along the lines of HBO's popular Tales From The Crypt, but Showtime felt it wasn't in there best interests to pursue it.

After not having directed any movies that were released in 1994 Carpenter had two in 1995 both of which were released early in the year. First up was February's In The Mouth Of Madness, in which he re teamed with Sam Neil. This was the final part in Carpenter's Apocalypse trilogy, which I also have to note really have nothing to do with one another, and was also Carpenter's love letter to iconic horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. The movie deals many of the common themes in Lovecraft's stories including insanity, the majority of the movie is also told in flashback, another of Lovecraft's common writing techniques. Even the title The Mouth of Madness is an homage to the name of Lovecraft's more popular stories "At The Mountains Of Madness."

Up next in late April of 1995 came The Village Of The Damned, the movie was a remake of a 1960 movie of the same name and the second remake that Carpenter has directed thus far in his career. It was also noted for the fact that it was the final movie that starred Christopher Reeve before his paralysis. The movie also started Kirstie Alley and Mark Hamill. The movie children of a small town that are being run by a group of psychic children who the town people fear.

Finally in 1996 Carpenter returned to one of his most popular characters, Snake Plissken in Escape from L.A. This movie is also notable for a couple of other reasons, those being it was the first and so far only time that Carpenter has directed a sequel to one of his movies, despite his heavy involvement in Halloween 2 and 3. It was also the final time to date that Carpenter has worked with Kurt Russell. The movie was criticized for playing it safe and being to similar to the first. Some of the similarities include Snake being arrested near the start at the movie, a presidential craft being hijacked which the escape pod landing on a guarded island, Snake being injected with something that will kill him if he doesn't help them and that's just the beginning of the movie. Still despite this it was Carpenter's third highest grossing movie.

In 1998 Carpenter decided to take on one of the most popular monsters out there in Vampires. The movie starred James Woods as Jack Crow the leader of a team of vampire hunters sent by the Catholic Church trying to stop Valek a master vampire played by Thomas Ian Griffith from getting a centuries old cross. The movie although only moderately successful at the box office, much like many of Carpenters movies, enjoyed quite a bit of critical acclaim, much of which was directed to James Woods who won a Saturn Award for best actor for his troubles. Roger Ebert even went on to say that he believed that Woods should of received an Oscar nomination for the part, unfortunately that didn't happen. The movie also won a second Saturn award for best music which of course was a score composed by Carpenter. Vampires was followed by a sequel Vampires: Los Muertos in 2002 which Carpenter served as producer.

In 2001 Carpenter did what is up to now his last theatrical released movie, that being Ghosts Of Mars featuring Ice Cube in the lead role. Set 200 years in the future a Melanie Ballard an intergalactic cop played by Natasha Henstridge, and her team have an assignment of transferring criminal Desolation Williams, played by Ice Cube, to a prison in the outpost city of Chryse on Mars. But an adjacent mining team on Mars has unearthed an ancient Martian defense device that unleashes warrior ghosts of the planet's original inhabitants who in turn possess most of the workers. Upon arriving at the outpost, Ballard and her team, including Williams, must band together to survive the vengeful spirits bent on eradicating all human life on their planet. The movie was criticized by critics and fans alike calling it the worst movie that Carpenter has ever done and that it was just a cheap knock off of Assault on Precinct 13. Carpenter shrugged off all the bad reviews though hearing it all before with nearly every other movie he did, most of which are now considered cult classics and sell strongly whenever they are released on DVD.

In 2005 and 2006 Carpenter finally decided to do a few new TV movies for the Showtime series Masters Of Horror. For the first season he directed Cigarette Burns which was about a man who searches for the last surviving print of a rare film that allegedly drove the only audience that ever viewed it into a fit of homicidal frenzy. The episode was a critical hit and one of the highest rated shows of the season. It is also regarded by many Carpenter fans a a true return to form for Carpenter and is regarded by some as being on par with some of his earlier horror movies. A DVD for the episode was also one of the highest selling DVDs for the series.

With a great response from Cigarette Burns Carpenter decided to return to the Masters Of Horror series for Season 2 with his the episode Pro-Life. Which was about a young girl who is raped and impregnated by a demon her attempts to have an abortion however are stopped by her brothers and father. Once again the episode was very well received and was also one of the best selling DVDs for the series.

All is not over for Carpenter though as he plans to return to the big screen this year to direct a movie called Riot. The movie is set to star Nicolas Cage. From what I have found out so far, though only through IMDB, so take it for what you will, The plot will revolve around a the scared straight crime prevention program where a governor's delinquent son is sent to prison for what's to be a short period of time. While behind bars, however, the kid is taken hostage during a riot, forcing a lifer Karl Rix, played by Cage to come to his aid

After Riot Carpenter also has another two movies in the works all that is known about them now is the names which are The Prince, which is set for a 2010 release as of right now and L.A. Gothic which at the present time has no release date.

I'll be the first to admit that not every movie that John Carpenter did were five star classics but I can also honestly say that I have enjoyed each and every movie he directed immensely despite the critical or box office reactions. There are still a few I have yet to see and I'm excited to see them and when I do I'm sure I will enjoy those as well. What can I say though? I'm biased I can't help but love the guy, he created some of the finest movies to ever exist. If you are one of the people who have never seen a Carpenter flick then I highly suggest you go to your local video store and pick one up today, his best work is from the '80's of course but he has put his own unique stamp on each and every movie he has ever done, much like he has left his own undeniable stamp on Hollywood forever.

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