The Complete Carpenter: Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

Saturday, February 10th, 2018 | Posted by Ryan Harvey

big-trouble-little-china-poster-dru-struzanJohn Carpenter has seen plenty of his films underperform when first released, only to turn into cult icons years later. But Big Trouble in Little China, Carpenter’s ninth feature film, didn’t just underperform. It was the biggest flop of his career up to that point, pulling in $1.1 million against a budget of $25 million. This ended Carpenter’s phase with the big studios and sent him back to the indie world.

Big Trouble in Little China started on the page as a Western set in 1899. It was rewritten for a modern-day setting by script-doctor (and Buckaroo Banzai director) W. D. Richter before Carpenter arrived. Carpenter sparkled up the screenplay with his love of screwball comedy characters and dialogue and took inspiration from Chinese martial arts fantasy movies like Tsui Hark’s Zu Warriors of the Magic Mountain. Out of this stew, Carpenter created what he called “an action adventure comedy Kung-Fu ghost story monster movie.” Something for everybody. Kurt Russell promised audiences in a promotional featurette that they’d definitely get their five-bucks’ worth.

But the final product baffled the executives at 20th Century Fox. The studio dumped the promotional marketing into the sewer, contributing to the movie’s massive box-office crash. But, according to the Law of John Carpenter Cult Movies, Big Trouble in Little China gained a second life on cable and video. By the mid-‘90s, when the Hong Kong martial arts fantasy/comedy genre blew up in North America, this ode to Kung Fu, movie serials, Chuck Jones, and clueless macho heroes had become a classic.

The Story

Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) is the tough-talking, hoagie-munching truck driver of the Pork Chop Express. He arrives in San Francisco and meets his buddy Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) for beer and pai gow. Jack drives Wang to the airport to pick up his friend’s fiancée, Miao Yin (Suzee Pai), who’s arriving from Beijing. But at the airport, a Chinatown street gang kidnaps Miao Yin to sell to a brothel. When Jack and Wang pull into Chinatown to search for her, they land in the middle of a war between the ancient societies the Chang Sing and Wing Kong — as well as an eruption of strange magic that leaves Jack Burton confused for … well, pretty much the rest of the movie.

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The Complete Carpenter: Starman (1984)

Saturday, December 2nd, 2017 | Posted by Ryan Harvey

starman-original-posterIt’s taken me exactly a year to go from Dark Star to Starman in my survey of John Carpenter’s career. At this rate, I’ll be at Escape From L.A. by this time in 2018. The timing works out on this one, however. There’s no “winter holiday” Carpenter movie — no, The Thing doesn’t count, that’s a “winter” movie — but Starman is as cheerful and uplifting a science-fiction tale as Carpenter has ever turned out, so it feels right for December.

Starman has quite the long history behind it. The script was in development at Columbia back in 1980 and went through a round-robin of writers. Columbia had the opportunity to do the Spielberg project that would eventually turn into E.T., but turned it down in favor of Starman — a decision the studio would come to regret when E.T. became the highest-grossing movie in history during the Summer of 1982 (when it squashed a certain other alien visitor movie).

The mega success of E.T. caused director John Badham to abandon Starman because he thought it was too similar to Spielberg’s movie. (Badham went on to direct WarGames, so that worked out.) Many other directors were on the film at one time or another — Adrian Lynne, Mark Rydell, Tony Scott, Peter Hyams — but John Carpenter had the pitch that stood out: film it as a love story/road movie in the classic Hollywood vein. Like It Happened One Night, but with an alien. Carpenter wanted to show he had the directing chops to tackle a different type of material. He was also still wounded over the poor reception of The Thing and wanted to deliver a hit for a big studio.

And thus we have a John Carpenter film for the whole family! Which is odd enough on its own.

The Story

Advanced extraterrestrials discover space probe Voyager II and choose to answer humanity’s invitation to “come and see us sometime,” as inscribed on the probe’s audio-visual disc. An alien observation ship heads to Earth, but the U.S. Air Force knocks it from its planned course so it crashes in rural Wisconsin. The disembodied alien aboard takes on the human shape of Scott Hayden (Jeff Bridges), the recently deceased husband of lonely Jenny Hayden (Karen Allen), by using DNA from a lock of Scott’s hair.

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The Complete Carpenter: Christine (1983)

Saturday, September 16th, 2017 | Posted by Ryan Harvey

Christine-original-posterIt’s a Stephen King September, thanks to the monstrous success last week of It: highest grossing September opening ever, highest grossing horror movie opening ever, and only a Deadpool away from highest grossing R-rated opening ever. (Our own Sue Granquist’s take.) A perfect time to fast-track the next movie in my John Carpenter career retrospective, also a Stephen King adaptation.

And in some unfortunate tragic timing, Harry Dean Stanton died the day before I posted this. Stanton was one of the great character actors of the last sixty years, a continual presence in movies from the moment I first started watching them, and appeared memorably in two John Carpenter films, Escape from New York and today’s subject, Christine. Stanton lived a long, full life (he was 91) but will still be immensely missed. Few people could steal a scene like he could.

*Sniffle* Anyway, back to our regular program.

In the wake of the financial failure of The Thing, John Carpenter needed a studio project to keep busy, and took up producer Richard Kobritz’s offer to direct Christine, based on a Stephen King novel that was still in galleys. (The book was published in April and the movie premiered in December.) Carpenter originally intended to direct another King adaptation, Firestarter, which Universal offered to him. But after the box-office crash of The Thing, Universal cut the budget for Firestarter in half, and Carpenter opted out. When he ended up at Columbia with Christine, the screenwriter of the early drafts of Firestarter, Bill Phillips, went with him to handle the scripting chores.

The film was a mild success, grossing twice its $10 million budget. Like most of Carpenter’s movies from this period, Christine has maintained a steady profile ever since. Along with Carrie, The Shining, and The Dead Zone, it’s part of a group of early Stephen King movies from major directors.

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The Complete Carpenter: The Thing (1982)

Saturday, August 26th, 2017 | Posted by Ryan Harvey

drew-struzan-the-thing-1982-posterIf you’re a fan of the career of director John Carpenter, you probably have an idiosyncratic favorite among his pictures. The one that has special meaning for you, possibly because of nostalgia, a particular theme, or sheer rewatchability. I’ll telegraph ahead in this series and mention that In the Mouth of Madness is one of those special Carpenter films for me. Looking backward, Assault on Precinct 13 is the Carpenter movie I’m mostly likely to rewatch, and it rises in my estimation each time I return to it. One of my close friends is deeply in love with Big Trouble in Little China, and his wife roots hard for Christine. Carpenter’s catalog has a range of minor-league wonders, and I can’t feel upset for anyone picking offbeat choices. I’ve even heard stimulating defenses of The Ward, which (spoilers for future reviews) I think is Carpenter’s worst film.

However, general consensus says 1982’s The Thing — a remake of the 1951 SF classic The Thing from Another World by way of its source material, John W. Campbell’s 1938 novella “Who Goes There?” — is John Carpenter’s masterpiece. And general consensus is right.

The Story

It’s the first week of the winter-over at US National Science Institute Station 4 (aka Outpost #31) in the Antarctic interior. It doesn’t start well. A helicopter from a Swedish Norwegian base makes an explosive landing at the outpost while trying to gun down a runaway sled dog. The men at the outpost take in the dog and try to figure out what happened, although failed radio communications make it difficult. They investigate the Norwegian base and discover it devoid of life with signs of a horrific violent event. It seems the Swedes Norwegians dug up and thawed out an alien lifeform from a spaceship trapped under the ice pack for thousands of years, and that didn’t turn out that swell for them.

Oops, too late … That adorable sled dog allowed into the US station is actually the alien, which can alter its shape and assimilate other organics while perfectly imitating them on the outside — and it’s started in on the men at Outpost #31. Paranoia and alien transformation freakiness break out. If it takes them over, then it has no more enemies, nobody left to kill it. And then it’s won. World assimilation in 27,000 hours after first contact with civilized areas.

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The Complete Carpenter: Escape From New York (1981)

Saturday, May 20th, 2017 | Posted by Ryan Harvey


There are no guards in this article. Only the author and the words he has typed. The rules are simple: once you go in, you do not come out … unless you click on a link or a bookmark or close the browser tab or …

Jumping out of The Fog and back into the fire as I move into the most intense period of John Carpenter’s career: the one-two knockout punch of Escape From New York and The Thing.

Escape From New York was the second movie Carpenter made under a deal with Avco Embassy. The production budget was $6 million, the largest amount of money Carpenter had yet worked with, but still tight for an ambitious SF picture. By comparison, 1981’s James Bond movie, For Your Eyes Only, had a budget of $28 million, and that was a cost-cutting move for the series after Moonraker. And the small drama On Golden Pond cost $15 million. Escape From New York ended up a hit, grossing more than four times its budget, making it one of the most successful films in Carpenter’s career — and, unfortunately, one of his few hits of his most productive decade.

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The Complete Carpenter: The Fog (1980)

Saturday, March 25th, 2017 | Posted by Ryan Harvey

the-fog-blu-ray-coverIn my John Carpenter career retrospective, I’ve now crossed the Rubicon: moving past the director’s most famous and successful film and entering the 1980s, a decade his movies helped define and often looked far beyond … frequently to their initial box office detriment.

The decade opens with Mr. Carpenter in a slight quandary: when you just made the most profitable independent movie of all time (a record unbeaten until The Blair Witch Project more than twenty years later), there’s going to be a bit of pressure for the follow-up. Carpenter stuck with the horror genre for his next film, although a much different type than the realistic slasher of Halloween. Taking inspiration from classic ghost stories, the vengeful corpses of EC Comics, and a trip to Stonehenge, Carpenter and producer Debra Hill came up one of the best low-budget horror elevator pitches: magical fog brings pirate leper ghosts to unleash their wrath on a small seaside town. Yep, pirate leper ghosts.

The Story

Antonio Bay, a sleepy coastal Northern California town where nothing happens, is preparing to celebrate its hundredth anniversary of being a sleepy coastal town where nothing happens. Then everything starts to happen at once when the ghosts aboard the Elizabeth Dane, a leper colony ship that sank near Spivey Point a century ago (timing!), slosh ashore in a shroud of thick, luminescent fog. It turns out Antonio Bay was founded on a double-cross that tricked the leper colony out of their gold and lured their ship with false beacons into wrecking on the shoals. The murderous specters and their pointy fishing tools make a mess out of the lives of folks in Antonio Bay, including lighthouse keeper and radio DJ Stevie Wayne (Adrienne Barbeau), the anniversary event organizer Mrs. Williams (Janet Leigh), a hitchhiking artist (Jamie Lee Curtis), and a priest who’s discovered the dreadful truth about the town’s history (Hal Holbrook).

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The Complete Carpenter: Halloween (1978)

Saturday, February 4th, 2017 | Posted by Ryan Harvey

halloween-1978-posterUhm, Happy Early Valentine’s Day?

In my analysis of John Carpenter’s career, I’ve now reached his third movie, the low-budget horror smash Halloween. It’s Carpenter’s most financially successful film. It’s his most influential film. And, starting with a famous November 1978 Village Voice article by Tom Allen that helped turn the director into a recognized auteur, his most critically analyzed film. So here I tread, timorously, to add to the massive cultural heap of Halloween.

At least tackling the movie outside of October provides a feeling of freshness. February can’t always be dedicated to marathons of Groundhog Day. (Not that I’m opposed to that either.)

The Story

Do I really need to bother with this part? Okay, here ya’ go:

A psychotic killer (referred to as “The Shape” in the credits) who knifed his sister to death when he was six years old breaks free from a mental institute the day before Halloween. He returns to his hometown of Haddonfield, IL, puts on a white distorted Captain Kirk mask, and stalks and kills babysitters. His psychiatrist (Donald Pleasence) pursues him. One babysitter (Jamie Lee Curtis) survives the night. Every low-budget horror film then repeats this process over and over again until the last syllable of recorded time. Tales, told by mediocre filmmakers, full of breasts and blood, signifying nothing — except how great the original is.

The Positives

Psst … can I talk to you behind the scenes for a moment?

So, about a year ago I achieved my goal of owning all of John Carpenter’s oeuvre on Blu-ray (or widescreen DVD if there wasn’t yet a Blu-ray, which at this point means only Memoirs of an Invisible Man). Looking at all of them spread out in a mandala on the carpet of my bedroom, with my cat sprawled across Christine, I knew I had to write a movie-by-movie series of articles covering Carpenter’s career. It didn’t seem too ambitious or much of a burden: “Oh no, I have to watch all the movies of one of my favorite directors!”

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The Complete Carpenter: Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

Saturday, January 7th, 2017 | Posted by Ryan Harvey

Assault on Precinct 13 Mondo PosterWelcome back to this eighteen-part series examining the theatrical movies of one John Carpenter, master genre auteur and gift to movie lovers everywhere. Today we bear witness to the director’s first foray into professional filmmaking, shooting on a schedule and a budget. It’s called Assault on Precinct 13, and I don’t mean to spoil this up front for you, but it is a-ma-zing.

The Story

Precinct 9 (not actually 13) in the fictional South Central L.A. neighborhood of Anderson is due to shut down as its operations relocate. Newly promoted Lt. Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker) receives the assignment of babysitting the meager staff staying overnight in the building for the final bits of housekeeping.

What should be a quiet evening detail goes bloodily wrong when the precinct turns into an epicenter of urban warfare. Heavily-armed multicultural gang Street Thunder targets civilians for death, but after they splatter-kill a little girl (Kim Richards), her enraged father Lawson (Martin West) shoots one of the gang warlords in retaliation. Fleeing Street Thunder’s fury, Lawson takes shelter in the precinct — unaware there isn’t much help available there. The gang descends on the building with the intent to massacre everyone inside. As Street Thunder’s legions crash in waves against the precinct, Lt. Bishop joins forces with two criminals in the holding cells, Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston) and Wells (Tony Burton), and station secretary Leigh (Laurie Zimmer) to attempt to survive the night until relief arrives.

The Positives

John Carpenter has a handful of cinematic masterpieces to his credit, and on only his second outing — his first professional production — he bags one. Although Dark Star has charm and shows an emerging talent, nothing in it prepares for the assurance and mastery on display in Assault on Precinct 13. John Carpenter directed the hell out of this movie, taking a laughable budget of $100,000 and a few weeks of shooting to create something glorious and perennial. It’s one of the finest movies of the director’s long career, and as smashing an action-thriller as anybody could make. Each time watching it is a jolt of how effective the art of cinema can be.

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The Complete Carpenter: Dark Star (1974)

Saturday, December 3rd, 2016 | Posted by Ryan Harvey

Dark-Star-Original-PosterJohn Carpenter, after a few years of relative silence, is back in current movie news thanks to a recent concert tour and the report that he’s once again associated with the Halloween franchise for the first time since producing Halloween III: Season of the Witch in 1983. Although we don’t know if Carpenter plans to get back in the director’s chair at some point, all this is still a reason to celebrate the career of a Titan of Genre, a global treasure and gift to science-fiction, horror, suspense, and action-movie lovers everywhere.

Today I’m inaugurating a feature-by-feature look at Carpenter’s eighteen theatrical feature films. We begin at the beginning: Carpenter’s USC student film that billowed into an accidental theatrical release — Dark Star, the Spaced-Out Spaceship.

The Story

The spacecraft Dark Star drifts through the twentieth year of its apparently infinite mission. The four crew members — accompanied by the cryogenically frozen body of the captain — use intelligent bombs to blow up unstable planets to clear the way for eventual colonization. And, hoo boy, has the crew gotten bored.

Talby (Dre Phaich, voiced by Carpenter) retreats to contemplating the stars through the ship’s dome; Pinback (Dan O’Bannon) tries to rally the crew by pestering them; Boiler (Karl Kuniholm) is into trimming his mustache and punching Pinback in the arm when nobody’s looking; and acting commander Doolittle (Brian Narelle) jams on homemade musical instruments and ponders the waves he left behind at Malibu. Pinback lets an alien captive loose on the ship and screws around with it. A bomb in the cargo bay refuses to disarm itself, Doolittle tries to stop it with a philosophical argument based on Edmund Husserl, Talby flies out the airlock, Boiler almost shoots Pinback in the head, and everyone dies when the bomb develops a god complex and detonates in the cargo bay anyway. John Carpenter went on to make eighteen more films, so apparently all this worked like a charm.

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The Early John Wyndham: Sleepers of Mars and Wanderers of Time

Friday, July 5th, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

Sleepers of Mars-small Sleepers of Mars-back-small

Sleepers of Mars, Coronet 1973, cover by Chris Foss

Last month I wrote a Vintage Treasure piece about John Wyndham’s 1953 novel Out of the Deeps, and while I was researching it I was reminded that Wyndham — one of the 20th Century’s most successful science fiction writers — got his start in the American pulp magazine Wonder Stories, edited by Hugo Gernsback, and Walter H. Gillings’ British pulp Tales of Wonder. Someone with authentic pulp roots like that deserves a lot more attention than he’s received here at Black Gate over the years.

Much of Wyndham’s early pulp fiction was collected by Coronet in two slender paperback anthologies in 1973, Sleepers of Mars and Wanderers of Time, and they look like a great place to start. Neither were reprinted in the US, so I was unaware of them until recently (like, two weeks ago). But thanks to the wonders of eBay, I was able to locate the copy of Sleepers above for a reasonable price ($11.33). That’s more than I like to pay for a vintage paperback…. but it was almost as old as me, and definitely in better shape, so I made an exception.

Both books had introductions by Gillings. Though it’s short (2 pages), I found his intro to Sleepers of Mars entertaining and informative, especially since it shows how the first story in the collection relates to Stowaway to Mars, one of Wyndham’s pulp-era novels (and perhaps not coincidentally, also re-released in paperback by Coronet in 1972). Here’s the relevant snippet.

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