Last month, John Carpenter made his return to the big screen after an eight-year absence. Not as director, but as executive producer and (more importantly) composer for the new Halloween. It was great having him back, the film’s pretty darn good considering this franchise’s track record, and the score is fantastic.
Carpenter has experienced many financial disappointments with his movies, but none was more catastrophic than the reception for Ghosts of Mars in 2001. Costing $28 million to make at Sony’s Screen Gems division (the folks responsible for the Resident Evil and Underworld movies), John Carpenter’s semi-remake of Assault on Precinct 13 set on Mars only grossed $14 during its theatrical run. That’s not the domestic gross — that’s the worldwide gross. In the aftermath of this flop, Carpenter took a near decade-long hiatus from moviemaking and has only directed one film since. (“I was burned out. Absolutely wiped out. I had to stop,” he said in a 2011 interview.)
I’ve examined Ghosts of Mars before. At that time, it was my first viewing since the movie was in theaters. Now that I’ve gotten to grips with analyzing those initial reactions, how does the film hold up? Is it Carpenter’s worst movie, as many people have pegged it?
The year: 2176. The place: Mars, now colonized by 640,000 humans under a matriarchal organization, the Matronage. Lt. Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge), an officer in the Martian Police Force, is part of a team sent by train to pick up notorious outlaw James “Desolation” Williams (Ice Cube) from lock-up at the Shining Canyon mining camp. When the MFP arrives at Shining Canyon, they initially find the camp deserted except for a few prisoners locked in cells and numerous mutilated bodies. Soon, they find out what happened: Mars’s long-dormant native population has microscopically turned all the miners at the station into ravening brutes looking to wipe out the human invaders. The MFP teams up with Desolation Williams and the prisoners to survive the onslaught of the Martian host bodies and make it back to the train when it returns.
John Carpenter was planning to remake The Creature From the Black Lagoon after his contractual obligation with another remake, Village of the Damned. But he also had another project brewing: a sequel to his 1981 hit Escape From New York. The new adventures of a now bi-coastal Snake Plissken was in development for a decade, but might never have happened if not for Kurt Russell’s love for the character. Carpenter rejoined with producer Debra Hill, whom he hadn’t worked with since Escape From New York, and somehow managed to convince Paramount Pictures to give him $50 million — the heftiest budget of his career — so Kurt Russell could slip on the eyepatch, zipper vest, and simmering surliness for another go at dystopian action satire.
No other film could have closed out the John Carpenter Decade better than They Live. It’s not only the last movie he made in the ‘80s, it serves as a DO NOT QUESTION AUTHORITY curtain closer on the entirety of the decade.
Only four characters in the movie have names, so let’s get the actor attributions out of the way: Nada (Roddy Piper), Frank Armitage (David Keith), Holly Thompson (Meg WATCH TV Foster), and Gilbert (Peter Jason). “Frank Armitage” is also Carpenter’s screenwriter pseudonym, giving the impression that a fictional character in the movie also wrote it. That nicely predicts the meta-horror of In the Mouth of Madness by six years.
Nada is a drifter who’s come to L.A. searching for work. He meets another construction worker, Frank, who introduces him to the shanty town and homeless shelter of Justiceville. There’s something strange going on under the surface of Justiceville, however, and Nada discovers the shelter organizers using a nearby church to develop strange science equipment — and a bunch of sunglasses, for some reason. After a suspiciously timed police raid demolishes Justiceville, Nada escapes and finds himself in possession of the sunglasses. When he puts on a pair, he can see the disturbing truth of the world: ghoulish alien creatures disguised as the rich and powerful actually rule the planet. They’ve peppered all visual media with subliminal messages of submission to mindless consumerism to cow the human population.
But Nada is all out of bubblegum and he ain’t having this. He gets Frank to work with him — after they savagely beat each other in a back alley for five minutes — and then seeks out the underground resistance. However, they’re not only facing alien invaders, but also the human collaborators who have sold out for their slice of ‘80s yuppiedom.
It’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.
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.
If 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.
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.
John 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 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.
In the annals of early silent film, the name Thomas Edison stands out prominently. The American inventor racked up a series of firsts–building the first film studio in the U.S., registering the first copyright for a film in the U.S., making the first sound film in the U.S. (and arguably the world), and many other innovations.
Edison Studios was launched in 1894 and ran until 1918, when an antitrust lawsuit led Edison to sell the company. In that time, the studio’s host of directors made almost 1300 films. The vast majority were shorts, with the earliest efforts being “actualities” such as The Sneeze (1894) and the historically interesting Sioux Ghost Dance (1894). For the first few years of film, simply seeing people moving on screen was enough, but soon audiences wanted stories. Edison Studios churned out dozens of shorts a month, most of them rather forgettable comedies or dramas as well as a few Westerns such as the very first in the genre, The Great Train Robbery (1903).
Last week, I talked about the Spanish master of silent film, Segundo de Chomón. This week, I’d like to talk about another early genre filmmaker who has also been all but forgotten.
Walter R. Booth was an English stage magician who teamed up with film pioneer Robert W. Paul, who was making and screening films as early as 1896 at London’s Egyptian Hall, where Booth did his magic act. In 1899, Booth and Paul co-founded Paul’s Animatograph Works, a production house that specialized in trick films using Paul’s technical know-how and Booth’s skill at magic and illusion. These short films wowed audiences with special effects such as animation, split screen, jump cuts, superimposition, multiple exposures, and stop motion animation.
Fantasy, science fiction, and horror themes have been in the movies since almost the beginning. During the first few experimental years, movies consisted of simple scenes such as a man sneezing or a train pulling into the station, but soon that novelty wore off and audiences wanted stories. Since the medium itself seemed almost magical, directors began to experiment with the fantastic in order to tell gripping tales.
Most film buffs know of Georges Méliès and his 1902 Trip to the Moon, generally considered the first science fiction film. Méliès started out as a stage magician so it’s not surprising he added an element of the fantastic in his pioneering movies. Other early filmmakers such as Auguste and Louis Lumière and Thomas Edison tended to film realistic subjects or historical/adventure stories, although Edison did make a version of Frankenstein in 1910.
Lost amid these famous names is a man who did as much for the development of fantastic film as any of them. The Spanish director Segundo de Chomón pioneered many early special effects techniques and worked on some two hundred films. Having spent much of his career in France and Italy, he’s been claimed by no country and thus has fallen through the cracks of history.
I thought writing two John Carpenter articles in a row was sufficient. I had a strong enough excuse to go two-for-two with Carpenter because of the Blu-ray debuts of Prince of Darkness and In the Mouth of Madness, films that have developed a growing and appreciative fan base. The idea of doing a third article on a John Carpenter film, let alone one on the critically rejected Ghosts of Mars… no that never crossed my mind when I penciled in on my calendar, “Blu-rays for PoD and ItMoM! Write for Black Gate!”
However, enthusiastic comments on both Black Gateand Facebook made it imperative I complete a John Carpenter on Blu-ray trilogy of articles.
(Oh, wait: Assault on Precinct 13 arrives on Blu-ray today. Should I go for four in a row? Or instead do that examination of the Russian animated film The Snow Queen in time for the release of Frozen? I wish more of life’s dilemmas were of this type.)
Watching Ghosts of Mars on Blu-ray was my first time seeing the movie since August 2001, when it managed to hold onto multiplex screens for a week. The horrific opening weekend — coming in ninth place — meant Ghosts of Mars rapidly evaporated into the thin atmosphere, leaving a carbon blast mark people interpreted as the end of John Carpenter’s career. The $28 million science-fiction action/horror film managed a dismal $14 million global gross. Yes, global. Even in a career like Carpenter’s, filled with disappointing box-office returns, Ghost of Mars crashed epically. The critical and audience reaction was also murderous; it seemed unlikely the film would join some of Carpenter’s other financial disappointments like The Thing and Big Trouble in Little China in future fan appreciation.
Yet Carpenter has always had a reputation for being ahead of his time. Was it now time for Ghosts of Mars? Did the passage of twelve years give the film a better sheen, offer more to digest?