Writing on John Carpenter’s cinema usually adheres to a few safe subjects: his pulsating synth scores, his ingenious use of negative space, his signature 2.35:1 frame, (specious) comparisons to Howard Hawks, etc. Ideally, his oeuvre is ripe for analysis, so formally and tonally consistent is his cinema, so rigorous the progression of his favorite themes and subjects. Phases begin and end, roughly. Experiments can be recognized, one-offs noted, dozens of through lines traced. And yet Carpenter, among the most coherent of filmmakers in a variety of contexts, is seldom subject to thoughtful criticism, and if so, is largely marginalized to a handful of admittedly excellent but overly-canonized and under-representative works.
If clung to for bruising, relentless films like Halloween (1978), The Thing (1982), Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Prince of Darkness, and They Live (1988), Carpenter comes off rather severe, even despairing. One cannot deny this element in his work, a powerful vein of pessimism and cosmic uncertainty; surely no film articulates the terrifyingly inarticulate fears quite so efficiently and directly as 1987’s Prince of Darkness. But, as is always the case with the long form appreciation of a filmmaker, canonization of key works has led to a misunderstanding, or at least only partial-understanding, of his work. Carpenter’s more hermetic, severe films belie none of the formal inquiry or playfulness of something so delightfully minor as 1992’s Memoirs of an Invisible Man, or, more importantly, the profound love and feeling found in his 1984 masterpiece, Starman. Cult enthusiasts in love with Big Trouble in Little China (1986) know the man can cut loose, but few know the deep well of sadness, and the moving beauty of hope and healing, that Starman presents, how radically it complicates the understanding of his work. A seemingly shallow apology for The Thing, the film instead is so richly felt, so serenely and personally directed, one cannot help but feel its fissures throughout his filmography.
Caution, of course. One movement too far in either direction, and the image becomes indistinct. The canonized works, and the subsequent disregard for more obscure Carpenter, particularly his criminally underrated 1990s phase, hides not only contradictory gems, but also further, frequently more idiosyncratic explorations of some of his earlier themes. The 1990s saw, among others, Village of the Damned (1995), Escape from L.A. (1996), and Vampires (1998), each a significant Carpenter film in their own right, each growing off his 1980s work, finding new paths both formally and thematically, while 2001’s bizarre magnum opus, Ghosts of Mars, brings viewers almost full circle (a few degrees past, in fact) to Assault on Precinct 13. But what’s been learned since? How does the John Carpenter of 1976 stack up to the John Carpenter of 2001? BAM’s John Carpenter: Master of Fear full-career film retrospective in Brooklyn offers an invaluable chance to evaluate these questions, and really dig into Carpenter’s work. Viewers will have the chance to stack the classics against the marginalized, watching his widescreen take shape and find its expressions over the course of the remarkable five-decade career this most lovably cranky of genre auteurs carved for himself. So, by all means, take in Halloween and The Thing! But take this rare chance to see Starman, Memoirs of an Invisible Man, Village of the Damned (1995), and Ghosts of Mars (2001) on the big screen, and discover just how rich and diverse this seemingly modest collection of films can be.
In the spirit of discovery and re-appraisal, below are some capsules on a handful of the films playing, each selected for either its maligned status, or for generally being ignored when painting a larger portrait of John Carpenter’s work.
As mentioned above, Starman is commonly viewed as an apology or atonement for 1982’s The Thing. As such, the film does stand rather opposed to the majority of Carpenter’s work; where most of his films are menacing and bleak, Starman is loving and wistful. Something of both ghost story and science fiction (a peaceful shape-shifting alien, Jeff Bridges, takes on the form of Karen Allen’s dead husband), it also settles into an American road picture, and a beautifully realized one at that. Carpenter’s 2.35 :1 frames, so often plagued by anxiety and looming danger, instead find themselves in thrall to the landscape and people. The parallel narrative, that of the government’s inevitable chase, builds upon the director’s world view we’re accustomed to, rejecting organizations at large, while also subverting his more despairing pictures with an element of hope and humanity, embodied not only by the central couple, but also the understanding and inquisitive scientist (Charles Martin Smith). The real miracle of Starman, however, is in its relation to the film’s true protagonist, Karen Allen. Carpenter’s camera maintains utter fidelity to her emotions, whether heartbreakingly rendering her loneliness and loss at the film’s outset, or chronicling her journey with Bridges’ mysterious, benevolent being. The effect is beautiful and totally reliant on Allen’s performance, surely among the strongest in the director’s filmography, as she conveys pain, depression, love, and, most movingly, healing. We arrive then at the film’s key images: Allen, gaze fixed inwards, towards the past, into a screen of memories, and then again, critically, outwards, upwards, into the sky.
Memoirs of an Invisible Man(1992)
Perhaps the airiest of all of the director's films, Memoirs of an Invisible Man is his only outright comedy since 1986’s Big Trouble in Little China, and, to double-down on its oddball nature, stars Chevy Chase as perhaps the least Carpenter-appropriate Carpenter hero there’s yet been (although, in his own mugging way, he maintains the spirit of disrespect and callousness endemic to many of the director’s “protagonists”). This makes for much awkwardness; bad jokes, tonal misjudgments, and a truly lamentable first-person narration from Chase. Despite these factors, this isn’t a throwaway, and is rather, in fact, a goofily endearing, frequently stunning formalist gem. The 1990s saw Carpenter take the signatures of his 1980s achievements in mise en scène to new lengths, allowing for wilder expressions of color, more abstracted uses of space and technique (watch, for example, the gradual increase in dissolves, eventually reach blow-out proportions in Ghosts of Mars), and Memoirs of an Invisible Man, at least formally, is no exception. The central conceit of the “invisible man” allows for a dizzying array of tricks, not only special-effects (a partially-invisible building is a high point), but also in crafting a mise en scène of presence where presence is absence. The film becomes something of a companion piece with 1996’s Escape from L.A., a self-reflexive piece that doubles back and reflects on cinema, and the image, itself. Chase’s invisibility, his lack, is subject: rack focuses impose presence, practical tricks, enlivened by Carpenter’s rapturous space, allow us to visualize a cinema without humanity, and cinema gazing at itself. A phone, suspended on appropriately invisible wires, turns to contemplate itself in the mirror. While the film isn’t an outright failure in human terms (the, again, anti-government chase plot manages to accrue the director’s usual under-siege pathos), Memoirs of an Invisible Man is largely fascinating as a minor, albeit ingenious, experiment in form.
Village of the Damned (1995)
One of the director’s most maligned works, perhaps due in part to its status as a remake, Village of the Damned is, in a way, the 1990s Carpenter film most in line, formally and tonally, with his 1980s work. In terms of location and multi-protagonist networking, the film is something of a retread of 1980’s The Fog, but radically different in theme. While The Fog situates its fear and horror in history (the vengeful ghosts of massacred lepers), Village of the Damned returns to The Thing’s idea of biological invasion, branching the idea out into motherhood, as the alien invaders infiltrate the wombs of their women hosts. Thus it becomes a more complex matter, and one of the director’s most thematically loaded works; motherhood and the morality of the child produced, the moral decision of a child (the lone child capable of humanity) when faced with group pressure, and the moral decision of the townspeople in response to the invasive children. Carpenter’s camera takes on an otherworldy gaze, literally invading via helicopter shots during the opening credits, capturing the outstanding vistas of the Northern Californian coast. The economical tracing of the mothers’ ordeal is a masterclass in exposition, and finds Carpenter at his most compassionate, strongly adhering to the viewpoint and pain of the female characters. If it ultimately, disappointingly, has to come down to a “male saves the day” scenario (in this case the male being Christopher Reeve), one still feels the moral through line, carried by the lone dissident child, of the mothers’ tale.
Ghosts of Mars (2001)
Ghosts of Mars contains so many classic elements of John Carpenter, thematically, formally, musically, narratively, that it’s difficult not to see it as a summative work, or if you prefer, an eccentric postscript to his 20th century films. As in many Carpenter films, social observation hangs as mood rather than explicit commentary, here envisioning a post-Earth future dominated by women, but still prey to the plagues of institution. The film’s brazen artificiality, dressed in deep reds and rust hues, furthers its already hermetic quality, a world built and contained. This limited world, all the construction of courtroom testimony flashback, becomes the director’s most wild and uninhibited formal playground: dissolves repeatedly collapse time, and just as frequently reopen new time and new space, as flashbacks, and flashbacks within flashbacks, diffuse the viewer across multiple perspectives. The film’s modest and therefore exceptional depiction of drug use, and the accompanying alteration of perspective, initially appears a minor pleasure, before ultimately becoming entwined thematically with the titular Martian ghosts, themselves capable of altering (permanently, violently) the mind. One feels The Fog’s horrors of the past, perspectives of history that can derange and irrevocably conquer the psyche (the past can invade as quickly and devastatingly as the Thing). It’s also as B as Carpenter’s ever been, boasting an axiomatic cast of assorted toughs (Ice Cube, Natasha Henstridge, Pam Grier, Jason Statham) firing off deliciously cheesy lines with aplomb, yet always maintaining their fidelity to the film’s genre world. The at-times seemingly disparate elements work in harmony, expanding what is committedly minor into a film studded with grace notes and moments of strange beauty, concluding emblematically, righteously, with the only words left to be said: “Let’s just kick some ass.”