The Films of John Carpenter: The Thing (1982)

John Carpenter’s The Thing is one hell of a monster movie. Filled with fantastic special effects, it was a film that Carpenter himself was very proud of (“I love the movie a great deal. It’s my favorite film of my own”). Unfortunately, it also had the misfortune of opening two weeks after Steven Spielberg’s box-office juggernaut, E.T., a movie with a message that was essentially the polar opposite of The Thing’s. As a result, Carpenter and company failed to make a splash at the U.S. box office, a reality which would greatly impact the director’s career from that point forward. For the first time ever, studio chiefs began to equate John Carpenter with box office poison.

More a re-telling of John W. Campbell’s short story, “Who Goes There”, than a remake of the 1951 Howard Hawks-produced film, The Thing is set in the Antarctic, where twelve guys manning an American Research Station are preparing for the hard winter ahead. Their preparations are temporarily interrupted by the arrival of a stray dog, one that, as it turns out, is actually an alien creature in the “shape” of a dog. Helicopter pilot MacReady (Kurt Russell) destroys the alien with a flamethrower, but as the men soon realize, this isn’t the end of their problems. The creature, which is able to assume the appearance of any living being it comes in contact with, may have ‘infected’ members of the crew as well, meaning that some of the twelve may not be who they appear to be. With such a possibility hanging over their heads, tensions rise and suspicions mount. In order to survive the ordeal, however, these men have no choice but to band together to locate the traitor (or traitors) amongst them. Failure to do so will result not only in their destruction, but the possible end of mankind as well.

Yes, The Thing is a very tense film, and perhaps one of its most interesting aspects is that this tension seems to have existed well before the alien ever made its way to the camp. Carpenter gives shape to his characters right from the get-go, and we in the audience are given the distinct impression that we’re watching twelve guys ready to jump down each other’s throats at a moment’s notice. When we’re first introduced to MacReady, he’s playing a video chess game against the computer, a game he eventually loses. Far from taking his defeat gracefully, MacReady reacts by pouring his drink into the computer’s monitor. Discipline among the men has also broken down by the time the danger arrives; Nauls (T.K. Carter) plays his music way too loud, and Garry (Donald Moffat) smokes his pot right out in the open. The combination of harsh weather and isolation has already taken its toll on these men. Throwing an alien into the mix only intensifies the situation. Add the fact that any one of them could also be that alien, and you have a time bomb set to blow at any minute.

The alien creature itself, in all its manifestations, was superbly crafted, and is easily the film’s strongest point. In its first appearance as the dog, where it transforms into a bloody mess of goo right before our eyes, we’re given a taste of just how creepy this intruder can be. Yet it’s only the beginning. Once the alien starts assuming the shape of the crew, it becomes all the more terrifying. So ground-breaking were the make-up and special effects in The Thing that they received special mention in the book, Defining Moments in Movies (published in 2007 by Cassell Illustrated), which states ”Requiring the services of 34 special makeup effects staffers, among them luminaries like Rob Bottin and Stan Winston, The Thing towers above all other entries in the field of bubbling flesh”.

Yet despite the film’s innovative special effects, coupled with the fact they were presented within a story that effectively creeps the hell out of us, The Thing was ultimately a box-office failure. “I thought at the time”, Carpenter says, “and I still think now, that I had made a very powerful, very scary, very strong monster movie”. Unfortunately, as he would also come to realize, this wasn’t enough to guarantee success. “One of the things I learned when I got to be a professional”, he continues, “is that, no matter how much you put into it and no matter how great you think it is, you are going to be competing with the other movies that are released at exactly the same time. E.T. came out ahead of us and was this huge, sensational hit, and its message was the exact opposite of The Thing. As a result, Carpenter’s now-heralded Sci-Fi / Horror classic was received with indifference by the movie-going public of 1982.

Carpenter was deeply troubled by the failure of The Thing, yet feels he also took something away from the whole experience. “I don’t think I ever made a more savage film or as bleak a movie as The Thing since. And I think I probably won’t because I don’t think the audience, especially the audience out there now, wants to see that”. He became painfully aware of just how audiences react during a test screening of The Thing that he himself attended. While talking with the audience afterwards, Carpenter was questioned by a teenage girl, who was confused by the film’s ending. Carpenter replied that the climax was left purposefully ambiguous because he wanted the audience to use their imagination. “Oh God, I hate that”, was the girl’s reply.

It was at that moment, Carpenter said, that he knew he was doomed.

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The Films of John Carpenter: Escape from New York (1981)

Escape from New York was the first John Carpenter movie I ever saw. Released in 1981, I caught the film a year later, when it made its way to cable television. Needless to say, I became an instant fan, so this particular entry in the series may just be the most difficult for me to write. However, I promise that I’ll do everything in my power to fight the temptation of gushing like a fanboy, and present my views and opinions on Escape from New York as even-handedly as possible.

On second thought, screw that. Let the gushing begin!

From that first viewing 26 years ago, I’ve loved Escape from New York, and the affair continues to this day. I love the action, love the story, hell, I love pretty much everything about the movie…but I have to admit that I did have a slight problem with the casting way back when. As strange as it may sound today, Kurt Russell in an action film was not something most people were accustomed to seeing in the early 1980’s.

It’s 1997. New York’s Manhattan Island has been transformed into a heavily guarded maximum-security prison, where the worst criminals known to man are being kept in seclusion. The security around the island is air-tight, and nobody has ever escaped. But when Air Force One is hijacked and flown into the prison’s airspace, the police find they have a whole new problem on their hands. The President of the United States (Donald Pleasence), carrying nuclear secrets in a briefcase hand-cuffed to his wrist, escapes by way of a secret pod hidden within Air Force One. Unfortunately, the pod lands smack-dab in the middle of Manhattan, and the Would you like to know more…?

The Films of John Carpenter: The Fog (1980)

Director John Carpenter has referred to The Fog, his 1980 horror film, as a “learning experience”. “We shot the movie I wrote”, Carpenter explains, “finished it with the music and everything…and it didn’t work. I saw the completed movie and it was terrible. I had a movie that didn’t work, and I knew it in my heart.” At that point, Carpenter went back to Avco-Embassy, the production company financing the picture, and told them that he needed to re-shoot, re-cut and re-score a movie they were hoping to release in three months time. It was a bold move, yet Carpenter and his crew worked long and hard over the next three months, transforming The Fog into something the director felt was much more feasible. The result? A film that works…a film that scares the hell out of you…and a movie that I enjoyed immensely.

Antonio Bay, a California coastal town, is about to celebrate its 100th anniversary, but the planned festivities set to commemorate this centennial are threatened when the local priest, Father Malone (Hal Holbrook), uncovers his grandfather’s diary, detailing the true circumstances under which the town was founded. Exactly 100 years earlier, six conspirators caused the deaths of a ship full of lepers by luring them towards the shoreline with a campfire, where their vessel broke apart on the rocks, killing everyone aboard. It seems that one of the victims on this ship was the town’s leading citizen, a wealthy man with no descendants who had contracted leprosy, and whose money was then used to construct, among other things, the local church that still stands to this day. However, guilty consciences aren’t the only things that the townsfolk of Antonio Bay have to worry about, for a thick, threatening fog has also descended upon the community, one suggesting that the spirits of the lepers have risen from the sea, and are seeking their vengeance on the town’s current residents.

Before I go any further, I must confess that I’ve always been a sucker for sea-faring stories, especially ones that center on shipwrecks (as a kid, I would look in marvel at the Sindia, a 19th century merchant ship that ran aground on the beaches of Ocean City, New Jersey in 1901, and the remains of which were visible until finally sinking into the sand forever in the mid 1990’s). Then, throw a ghost story on top of it, like Carpenter does with The Fog, and you got me hook, line and sinker. So understand, right off the bat, that my opinions on The Fog may be a bit biased. That said, however, I had one hell of a good time with this movie.

Carpenter did such an expert job at constructing the final film that all traces of the problems with the original cut have been eliminated entirely. In fact, the thrills and frights of The Fog get under way pretty quickly, immediately dragging viewers to the edge of their seat and keeping them there for the duration. The Fog opens with Mr. Machen (John Houseman) telling the story of the shipwreck to a group of kids around a campfire (one of Carpenter’s ‘added’ scenes), explaining how, every year at that time, the crew rises from the depths, seeking the light that lured them to their doom. This is an effective pre-title sequence, yet is just the beginning. Once the clock strikes midnight, the entire town starts to go haywire. Car alarms sound for no reason, dogs bark uncontrollably, lights dim, and convenience store shelves rattle, all this occurring before the opening credits have even finished! These very first scenes are jarring, unexpected, and ultimately very effectual.

…And then the fog rolls in, releasing the fury of hell on Antonio Bay, the details of which I will leave for you to discover on your own. Do yourself a favor and follow this piece of advice: watch John Carpenter’s The Fog as soon as you can.

The next film in my stroll down Carpenter lane is one I’ve been anticipating since the beginning of this series: Escape from New York, starring Kurt Russell. Look for it on Row Three in two weeks time.

The Films of John Carpenter: Halloween (1978)

John Carpenter’s 1978 horror classic, Halloween, is a rare mix of old and new, a film that pays homage to the Italian Giallo movies of the 60’s and 70’s while at the same time being credited with launching an entirely new horror sub-genre, the slasher film, which would reach the zenith of its popularity in the 1980’s.

On Halloween night, 1963, nine-year-old Michael Myers (Will Sandin) of Haddonfield, Illinois, murdered his teenage sister for no apparent reason. Since that time, Michael has been living in an institution for the criminally insane. His psychiatrist, Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance), believes that Michael is evil incarnate, and hopes he will stay locked up forever, but the day before Halloween, 1978, Michael escapes. Dr. Loomis is convinced Michael will return home to Haddonfield to kill again, and plans to apprehend him before he has the chance to do so. Unfortunately, Michael is already in town, and has even selected his next target; teenage babysitter Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis).

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The Films of John Carpenter: Someone’s Watching Me! (1978)

John Carpenter’s initial intention when writing the script for Someone’s Watching Me (also titled High Rise) was that it would be given a full theatrical release. But it didn’t work out that way. Purchased by Warner Brothers, the project was transformed into a made-for-TV project for NBC. Yet, despite the constraints and regulations that a television environment would have naturally imposed upon his story, Carpenter still managed to build Someone’s Watching Me into an incredibly tense, nail-biting thriller.

Leigh Michaels (Lauren Hutton), a single woman with a new job at an L.A. television station, lives in a high-rise apartment building. Quite suddenly, her life is thrown into chaos when she starts receiving phone calls from a stalker, one who’s set up shop in the building across the way, allowing him to see every move Leigh makes. Pushed to the breaking point, Leigh calls the police, only to learn that there’s little they can do unless the stalker actually tries something. Unwilling to wait for her assailant to make the first move, Leigh takes matters into her own hands, and sets out to discover the identity of her mysterious caller so that she can bring his days of harassing her to a crashing end.

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The Films of John Carpenter: Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

Some have called it an homage to Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo, while others have cited the obvious influences of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Whatever its initial inspirations might have been, however, one thing is certain: John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 now stands on it’s own merits; a masterwork of action and a film with the power to shock and entertain that remains just as strong today as it was 30+ years ago.

Los Angeles’ Precinct 9, Division 13 is being phased out of existence, and a small crew of police and secretaries, under the command of new Chief Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker), have been left behind to hold down the fort. But Division 13 isn’t destined to go quietly into the night. To start with, the nearly abandoned Precinct finds itself serving as the unwitting host to ruthless murderer Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston), whose trip to Death Row has been temporarily diverted. Then, shortly after Wilson’s arrival, a man stumbles through the doors of the Precinct looking for refuge. The man is Lawson (Martin Wells), whose daughter Kathy (Kim Richards) has just been killed in a gang shooting. In a fit of rage, Lawson himself kills one of the gang members (Frank Doubleday), and as a result is chased into the poorly-defended Precinct. Having also vowed revenge against the police following an earlier shooting, the heavily armed gang, which goes by the name of Street Thunder, assembles just outside Division 13, hoping to settle all their debts in one fell swoop. Now, with no electricity, no phones, and very few weapons to defend themselves with, Ethan Bishop must join forces with some of the most hardened criminals ever to occupy Division 13’s cells if he’s to have any hope at all of surviving the night.
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The Films of John Carpenter: Eyes of Laura Mars (1978)

Technically, Eyes of Laura Mars is not a John Carpenter film (it was directed by Irvin Kershner), but one based on a screenplay he had written titled “Eyes”. Producer Jack H. Harris, who was involved with Carpenter’s first film, Dark Star, handed a treatment of “Eyes” to Jon Peters at Columbia Pictures, who liked the concept of a woman who psychopathically witnesses murders through the eyes of the killer. Unfortunately, the script would go through a number of transformations over time, leaving little resemblance between Carpenter’s original vision and the finished film.

Laura Mars (Faye Dunaway) is New York City’s hottest, and most controversial, fashion photographer. Her photos, consisting of scantily-clad women and set against ultra-violent backdrops, have simultaneously stirred the admiration and incited the fury of the New York elite. But the violence in Laura Mars’ creations runs much deeper than mere sensationalism. Laura possesses a unique psychic power, one that allows her to witness, in her mind’s eye, actual murders as they are occurring, seeing every terrifying detail through the eyes of the murderer himself. Recently, the killings that Laura has ‘seen’ are of people close to her, and police detective John Neville (Tommy Lee Jones) wants to know the connection. As the bodies pile up, Laura begins to suspect that the killer is someone very close to her, and that she may be the ultimate target of his murderous spree.

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The Films of John Carpenter: Dark Star (1974)

One of the better Holiday gifts I received this past season (ok, ok…I bought it myself with some of my Holiday money) was the book, “John Carpenter: The Prince of Darkness” by Gilles Boulenger. Essentially a series of interviews that the author conducted with the famed filmmaker, the book covers everything from earliest inspirations right up to Ghosts of Mars (which was Carpenter’s newest film at the time of publication). It was while reading Boulenger’s book that I was struck with the idea for this series. What I plan to do over the course of the next several months is watch every John Carpenter movie currently available on DVD (which is damn near all of them), in chronological order, and record my thoughts and opinions on each one. I see it as an excellent opportunity to explore the career of one of the cinema’s most entertaining directors, and I’m looking forward to it in a big way.

The first film in this series is Dark Star, which started life as a student project in the early 1970’s, when Carpenter was enrolled at USC. Directed by Carpenter, from a script he co-wrote with fellow classmate Dan O’Bannon (who would go on to compose the screenplay for Alien), Dark Star is an ultra low-budget sci-fi comedy, pieced together bit by bit over the course of several years. Eventually, producer Jack H. Harris would get involved, with the intention of giving the film a general release. At Harris’ insistence, additional scenes were shot, increasing the film’s running time from just over an hour to 90 minutes total. Both versions of the film are available on the special-edition DVD, but thus far I’ve only seen Carpenter’s original cut of 1 hour and 8 minutes. Unfortunately, even at this shorter length, Dark Star tends to wear out its welcome rather quickly.

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