John Carpenter is a master filmmaker, one of the most influential genre directors to emerge from the cloudburst of creativity of the 1970s. You’d be hard-pressed to find a science-fiction or horror fan who doesn’t have one of Carpenter’s movies in his or her list of Top [Fill in Number] Films list.
But Carpenter’s popularity has created the illusion that his films achieved greater financial success when first released than they did. The unfortunate truth is Carpenter has had only a few outright hits: Escape from New York, Assault on Precinct 13, and Halloween are the most notable. Halloween throws off the curve: Carpenter’s third feature, it grossed $65 million during its initial domestic run against a budget of $325,000 — and it continues to generate revenue to this day. Halloween also influenced genre movies immediately, igniting the massive “slasher boom.”
But many of Carpenter’s finest and most beloved movies did middling-to-flop business when they premiered. The Thing, rightfully considered his masterpiece, was a financial disappointment for Universal in the summer of 1982. Big Trouble in Little China was an outright box-office disaster. And through the ‘90s, Carpenter could not catch a break with anything. After 2001’s Ghosts of Mars did a spectacular belly flop (a worldwide — yes, worldwide — gross of $14 million against a $28 million budget), Carpenter went into semi-retirement to play video games and watch the Lakers. He has only returned to directing for two episodes of Masters of Horror on Showtime and the barely released and very uninteresting feature The Ward in 2011.
However, the march of appreciation for his movies in their post-premiere years continues. I believe we can now safely deposit one of his 1990s movies in the vault of John Carpenter Classics: In the Mouth of Madness, which debuted on Blu-ray last week. [Update 2018: Now we have a special edition Blu-ray from Shout! Factory.] Carpenter fans have often dubbed it the director’s last great movie, and although I hope that’s incorrect and he still has a surprise waiting for us, the title seems apt. I certainly haven’t seen anything Carpenter has done since that remotely approaches it in quality.