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The WD True Hollywod Story: John Carpenter

posted by Mike on 8/05/02

This weekend I took my wife to see Signs, the new M. Night Shymalan film. After leaving the theater, I was amazed at how M. Night has been recently praised in the media as the new Spielberg (see this month’s Newsweek.) It seems that the movie-going public at large has overlooked a rather glaring fact: each of his last three hits (Signs, Unbreakable, and The Sixth Sense) are all essentially character studies built around a “shock” or “twist” ending that is revealed in the last ten minutes of the film. Despite the raving reviews for Signs, and it’s 70 million dollar opening weekend, one wonders how long Shymalan can continue to use this plot device to bring the audience back for more.

Watching Signs, I found myself not so much enjoying the film for its own merits, as much as I was studying it, watching for the not-so-subtle hints to the inevitable twist to come (much like the other two, I had it more-or-less guessed about halfway through the film… far sooner for The Sixth Sense, when I received a bag of popcorn and numerous angry grunts after shouting “Oh hell! Willis is DEAD!” twenty minutes into the movie.)

He is Hollywood’s golden boy right now, but seems to be a one-trick pony. He can only go back to the well so many times before it runs dry, and at that point he’ll either have to figure out a new gimmick, or face the possibility of becoming a sad example of someone coming a few inches shy of greatness. If anyone has doubts as to the possibility of this happening, one need only look to the man who practically invented the modern horror genre, John Carpenter.

John provides the proof for his claim that the Shroud Of Tourin was his idea

John was born in Carthage New York, and raised in Bowling Green, Kentucky, where men were men, and women were livestock. Like many kids of his era, he spent his Saturdays at the local Bijou, catching all the latest b-movie schlock and absorbing it like a Downey Quick N’ Picker Upper. His garbage of choice was low budget westerns, where men with no names killed men with no names and slept with women with no teeth.
The son of a college music professor, Carpenter initially enrolled at Western Kentucky University in their music program, only to drop out and nickel and dime his way to California, where he enrolled in The University of Southern California’s School of Cinema. After all, Californy is the place a Kentuckian oughta be...

Like M. Night, he made waves early, winning an Academy Award in 1970 for his short film The Resurrection Of Bronco Billy, which he filmed while still a film student at USC. From there, it seemed he could only go up. In 1978, he single handedly changed the face of modern horror with the release of Halloween, a slasher film upon which all future slasher films would be measured against. Filmed on a budget of $300,000.00, the film’s original theatrical run netted a then astounding $75 million dollars, and remains the world record holder for the most profitable film per dollar spent. Perhaps best known for its minimalist (and mentally disturbing) soundtrack, Halloween is a timeless classic, proving that horror is as much about what you hear as what you see. He wrote and performed the soundtrack himself, most likely as a cost-cutting measure, and has since written the soundtracks for no less than 17 of his 20 total films.

Into the early 80’s, Carpenter cranked out hit after hit, crossing over into the sci-fi genre with his stellar remake of The Thing, and covering the action genre with his practically flawless Escape From New York. As each film grossed more and more money, Carpenter’s name began to seem as synonymous with great movies as those of Lucas, Spielberg, and Hitchcock. In 1984, following the success of his Stephen King adaptation Christine, Carpenter released Starman, a phenomenal film about the relationship between a woman and a recently arrived visitor from another world. The movie was embraced by the movie-going public, still hungry for friendly aliens after the box office behemoth that was E.T., and even garnered an Oscar nomination for its star Jeff Bridges (it was later adapted as a weekly television drama that starred Robert Hayes from the Airplane spoofs as the alien with the magic balls of steel, to less-than successful results… more on it at a later date.)

But then, quite mysteriously, everything began to go wrong. Short of 1986’s Big Trouble In Little China (one of the best action/comedies ever made), 1988’s They Live (the only movie starring Rowdy Roddy Piper that’s worth a shit, and was part of the inspiration for the Duke Nukem 3D series) 1996’s Escape From L.A. (a flawed but still highly watchable sequel) and 1998’s Vampires (which holds the record for the highest grossing Halloween weekend film ever) his subsequent movies have failed to find an audience, either due to his choice of subject matter, or due to the fact that they just plain sucked. It is a sad thing to watch, the decline of such a promising career, and despite what some critics are saying, is something that could easily happen to M. Night Shymalan. As evidence, I submit for your perusal the five most laughable John Carpenter films ever made. Read on at your own risk.

Dark Star: Co-starring Dave Machia as “The Guy With The Beard”

Dark Star was released in 1974, and was Carpenter’s first theatrical film. Shot on a budget that would make the Blair Witch blush, the film attempted to parody Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi opus 2001: A Space Odyssey by mixing some of it’s more infamous elements with that of 1958’s It! The Terror From Beyond Space. Deep into the outer reaches of space flies the crew of the Dark Star, a ship whose sole purpose is to destroy planets deemed a potential hazard to the up-and-coming planetary colonization industry.

The crew is a group of loser neurotics who waste the hours away droning on about the bleakness of life in space and waxing nostalgic for their bygone easy-going surfer lifestyles. Their captain, long since dead, is kept frozen in the ship’s cargo bay, his brain kept alive by the computer for his sage advice. One of the crew has a rather annoying pet, a bouncing, scruffy creature that looks strikingly like an inflatable beach ball with claws glued to the seams.

Disaster strikes when the ship’s computer goes haywire, and activates one of the ship’s “artificially intelligent” bombs. Frantic for a solution, they turn to the brain of their captain, who attempts to reason with the bomb by teaching it the concept of what he calls “phenomenology.” After absorbing all this, the bomb comes to the final conclusion that it is indeed God, exclaims “Let there be light!” and detonates itself, obliterating the ship and all of those aboard… even the beach ball.

As terrible and corny as this film is, it obviously got under the skin of more than a few screenwriters. Several of its plot points were later rehashed for 1979’s sci-fi horror hit Alien, and one crewmember’s game of seeing how many times he could stab at his fingers without getting one sliced off was later ripped clean for 1986’s Aliens. It also shares more than a few plot similarities with the British sci-fi comedy megahit Red Dwarf (which I will one day get around to giving the five star W-D treatment.) It is available on DVD and video for those with masochistic leanings, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Some films are just better off being left forgotten.

Coming Soon: Walker, Texas Ranger - The Mob Years

Carpenter’s follow-up to Dark Star was Assault on Precinct 13, a typical 70’s exploitation film that was, in some ways, a precursor to films such as Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Boondock Saints (and owed much of its inspiration to the films of Sam Peckinpah, and more noticeably, Howard Hawks, a personal hero of Carpenter’s.) The film (the poster of which has martial arts star Chuck Norris in 70’s bell bottoms eblazoned across the front, despite him not being within a hundred miles of this film) takes place within the claustrophobic walls of Precinct 13, a run down police station that is about to shut its doors. On its last night of operation, the precinct, manned only by a single cop and two secretaries, is bombarded by bloodthirsty hoodlums. The reason for the baddies’ choice of target is never explained, nor is it explained why so many criminals would still be locked up in a jail that’s closing its doors in less than 24 hours rather than being transferred to a more stable facility. I can only assume that the reason is simply to provide more targets for the thugs to shoot at, and thus add the tension of unwilling allies to the cop’s meager defenses.

Tripod McGee gaped as his last request of a blowjob from Julia Roberts came true

The film quickly slips into the tried and true formula of bullets flying, bras busting, and the hero’s regime slowly being whittled down one by one, ultimately leading to the movie’s inevitably bleak conclusion. If you replace the thugs with undead brain eaters, you have another film from that era, George Romero’s infinitely superior Night Of The Living Dead. Sadly, lead pipe and gun-wielding bikers are not nearly as compelling as reanimated corpses with a taste for man flesh, so I’d personally recommend the latter. Come to think of it, if you mix the two films, you have pipe wielding bikers with a taste for man flesh, so if you’re a fan of the Village People or Showtime’s Queer As Folk, these films might be right up your…erm… alley.

Dr. Loomis and Egg Shen debate the usefulness of psychology VS a Six Demon Bag

Prince Of Darkness fails to reach its lofty goal, that of mixing the horror of The Exorcist with the sci-fi furnishings of The Thing. Released in 1987 and based on Carpenter’s original screenplay (written under the pseudonym of Martin Quartermass (no doubt a tribute to the British horror series concerning one Martin Quatermass’s brushes with the paranormal) Prince of Darkness slings out a plot almost too laughable to ingest: Donald Pleasance plays Father Loomis (an homage to his Halloween character) a Catholic priest who discovers a barrel of green ooze hidden beneath his church. It seems that Satan really did exist. But he wasn’t a fallen angel. You see, Satan was an ALIEN who came to earth and was defeated, but not before spawning a son, who is the barrel of green goop that Father Loomis finds under his church.

Confused yet? Wait, it gets better. It seems this evil He-Man Slime Of Doom was hidden there centuries ago by a group of monks calling themselves “The Brotherhood Of Sleep,” seeking to protect the world from Satan’s vile spooge. Unfortunately, it seems that Lucifer Jr has the ability to wreak havoc whenever he so chooses, and begins to systematically possess the men who are now trapped in the catacombs beneath Loomis’ parish, slowly killing one another off. Hmmm… Blue collar men trapped in a claustrophobic space being offed one at a time by an unstoppable enemy… methinks I see a pattern forming… Much like Precinct 13, this film has an extremely unhappy ending, including a man whose head is literally eaten from the inside out by demon-possessed beetles. One of its small but nonetheless featured villains is the leader of a group of bums living beneath the church, the performance of which is phoned in by rather creepy Alice Cooper. The film came and went in the box office in a record setting short amount of time, and is barely remembered, even by die-hard Carpenter fans. It’s still worth a rental though, simply to see Cooper portray a character outside of a Wayne’s World film.

Decades of Amish inbreeding bears bitter fruit

1995’s Village Of The Damned was a less-than-stellar remake of 1960’s Village Of The Damned, a profoundly superior film skillfully directed by Wolf Rilla, who also directed 1963’s Cairo and 1959’s Witness In The Dark. Here, Carpenter takes it upon himself to modernize it, with resoundingly Godzillaish results. Based on the classic sci-fi horror novel The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham, the films story takes place in a town that one night experiences a strange blackout. Seemingly overnight, a group of women from the town all become pregnant, and all give birth to blonde-haired blue-eyed children on the same day. As the children grow older, it’s soon clear that they have powers beyond those of mortal men, much like George Reeves from the old Superman TV show. How ironic is it then that (starring in his last role before losing an argument with a horse) Christopher Reeves of the Superman movies plays Dr. Sanders, the local doctor who is trying to discover a way to block the childrens’ ability to control minds.

Look, Ma! No motor control skills!!!

It’s also ironic that Reeves portrays the befuddled doctor as a stiff, wooden bore, and then shortly thereafter became a quadroplegic, thus ensuring that he would always be a stiff, wooden bore. Also in on the fun is Kirstie Alley of Cheers and Look Who’s Talking fame, playing a rather shrewish woman who knows more about what is going on than she initially lets on. As bad a development for the film as this is, it pales in comparison to Carpenter’s choice to play the town priest who slowly slips into insanity: Mark Hammill, the eternal Jedi Knight who has spent the last twenty years of his career light sabering every film he touches, and performing his Jedi mind tricks on direct-to-video script writers at a manic pace all across Hollywood.

I’ll never join you, Reeves. I’m a gun crazy Catholic, like my father before me!

It’s a sad, tiresome film that would bore the potato chip fragments off Roger Ebert’s belly, and should never have been made in the first place. It is one of three remakes that Carpenter has done, the others being The Thing and the barely passable Memoires Of An Invisible Man (yes, THAT movie, the one where Chevy Chase spends most of the film trying to fuck Darryl Hannah and find his invisible penis at the same time.) I wouldn’t even threaten your sanity by mentioning it, thus laying a subconscious egg in your brain that may coerce you into renting the film, but I couldn’t in good conscience make a list of Carpenter’s most glaring errors without mentioning it, which of course leads us to my number one pic:

Ghosts Of Mars, AKA Friday 4: Assault On The Viewer’s Senses

Honestly, I don’t see how this film avoided the direct-to-video shelf. In its plot structure, it’s a direct rip-off of Carpenter’s own film Assault On Precinct 13, but set on a sci-fi landscape. Natasha Hyndstridge (the nymphomaniac xenomorph from the Species series) plays a veteran cop from the Martian police force, who is escorting the planet’s most wanted criminal “Desolation” Williams (played by a clueless Ice Cube) to jail. What she doesn’t know is that the spirits of a lost ancient Martian race have been released by archaeologists, and are possessing the local townsfolk. Thus trapped in the yet gain claustrophobic jail with her rapidly dying fellow officers, she’s forced to rely on The Cube and his nack for busting a cap to save her.

Ice Cube responds to Hillary Clinton’s attack on the Gangsta Rap Industry

As if it wasn’t bad enough that we have to endure another low budget Carpenter genre pic (which is confounding considering the success of 1998’s Vampires) we have to endure a low budget Carpenter flick starring Ice Cube, a man who hasn’t put out a convincing performance since Boyz In The Hood, and that was only because he really is a boy from the hood. Adding insult to injury is the fact that not only did Carpenter rip off Precinct 13, he also ripped off Prince Of Darkness and its spiritual possession angle, even going so far as to write in the part of the lead “ghost” as a cameo that I strongly believe was written for Marilyn Manson as an homage to Alice Cooper’s character. I can’t back this up, of course, since the role was ultimately landed by an unknown, but I have no doubts that this was the case, and (mostly likely after reading the script) Manson wisely chose to decline. I offer as proof a picture of the lead villain:

No Bibles were harmed in the making of this motion picture

…I rest my case.

So there you have it. Concrete proof of how a promising film career can careen down the U-bend pipe of the toilet that is Hollywood when the director tries to bank on what he knows rather than trying new things. But hey, what do I know? I’m just an everyday joe who writes for a website. My opinion isn’t as valid as all these highly paid film critics (*coughEbertcough*.) I’m just a web writer. How could my views possibly have merit? (*sneezeHarryKnowlessneeze*) I could be wrong. Next year, Shamalamadingdong may very well film a rebirth of the American movie, hedging his bets on the strength of his script and the talent of his actors rather than trying to one-up the audience with false scares and literary parlor tricks. But after this weekend, I feel I have seen the Signs, and so far, they all read Dead End.

Next week, more Larson goodness, and a look at The Country Bears (Jesus, did I really type that?)


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