A Carpenter Winter Redux

Compared to some of his peers (say, David Cronenberg or John Waters), John Carpenter doesn’t have a very distinct point of view. You can usually spot at Cronenberg or a Waters film from a mile away, while Carpenter is less distinctive.

There are some technical things that Carpenter does have a hang-up on, though: He really likes the 2.35:1 (“anamorphic wide screen”) film ratio. The only movies he’s done that doesn’t adhere to that ratio is his very first one (where he didn’t have the money for it), and some of his TV work.

He’s also obsessed with a shallow depth of field, which means that usually only parts of what’s on screen is in focus. On his higher budgeted items, he’s apparently got better technicians so that there’s more things in focus, but in about half his films, you get the nose of the actor in focus, and then things get softer and softer and when you’re down to the chest, it’s all a blur.

He also likes a rich colour palette with stark blacks and punchy reds and blues.

All of these things make the movies look a lot more luxe and “like a real movie”, if you will. It’s like he looked at some high budget Howard Hawks films in his childhood and decided “I want all my films to look just like that”, and they kinda do, down to details like looong title sequences (that is, instead of dropping us into the action immediately, we get a languid list of the actors and production people, just like in the 50s).

Content-wise, though, it’s more difficult to see whether we’re looking at a Carpenter movie. Carpenter seems more driven by just the idea of making films instead of having anything in particular to tell. He’ll do, like, any movie given that he’s got enough freedom to do the movie his way.

But you can discern some of his interests and ideas from the films, anyway, after seeing enough of them. He’s got an essentially hippyish anti-authoritarian thing going, which is quite charming. He doesn’t seem to be very intellectually curious, and he’s got a trashy sensibility. This makes for a lot of movies where you can just imagine the 14-year-old boys watching going “DUDE! THAT”S SO COOL!” for all the wrong reasons. The protagonist of They Live is a moronic buffoon, but when you give him that many pithy sayings (“I’m all out of bubble gum” (apparently supplied by the actor himself)), you get a lot of fist pumping going, I think.

Carpenter has had a weird career. Some of his low-budget films were hugely successful, but almost all of his high budget movies (except Christine) crashed and burned, both at the box office and critically. With the advent of home movies, almost all of them have had an amazing after life, and I’m guessing that they may have made money for the studios anyway: Almost all of his films are available on bluray now, and that’s rather unique.

It seems like his (major studio) films were always slightly too early: Take, for instance, The Thing, which is a rather nihilist horror movie with kinda grisly effects. Nobody went to watch it in theatres, but they bought it on VHS (and Beta and DVD and bluray), and they watched it at home and were thrilled to be let in on something special; a movie just for 14-year-old boys (of any gender and age).

So, yes, he’s a cult director, but one that tried to be mainstream in a way that, say, John Waters never did, and was much less successful at it compared to, say, John Waters.

Are his movies good? Well. I did enjoy watching them, and a couple of them are quite good. But… he’s perhaps not the most vital director to have seen all movies from.

This post is part of the A Carpenter Winter series.

ACW2010: The Ward

John Carpenter. The Ward. 2010.

This is likely to be John Carpenter’s final movie: He’s said that he has no interest in doing any more of them because he’s retired.

It would be fun to say that he went out on a major success, but, as usual, it bombed at the box office.

It’s got a pretty modest budget ($10M), but, as usual, looks much more expensive than that. It’s filmed mostly in a single location (the titular ward), though, which probably helped keep the costs down.

The actors playing the inmates are pretty good, and it’s kinda spooky, but it’s not that horrifying, so apparently all the Carpenter fants were quite disappointed with his first proper movie after a ten year hiatus.

The imdb score is 5.6 which is rather harsh. Like Ghosts of Mars (another Carpenter film led by a female collective), there may be a sexist thing going on here…

It’s OK. It’s watcheable and kinda scary, but there’s too many jump scares and too many escape attempts.

And I did not see that ending coming.

This post is part of the A Carpenter Winter series.

ACW2006: Pro-Life

John Carpenter. Pro-Life. 2006.

This is the other Carpenter episode from the Masters of Horror Showtime TV series.

It’s a lot, er, more TV-ey than the Cigarette Burns episode, but it’s still way grislier than there’s any point in being. I had to skip past some of the scenes. But I’m a wimp.

The way people are reacting to the proceedings isn’t very sensible, but the some of the actors are pretty good here (especially Ron Perelman as the rabid pro-lifer and gun enthusiast).

The plot is a pre-cell phone plot, so at every point you’re kinda going “but why don’t they call the police?”

It’s still kinda exciting even if the low budget is really apparent here. The soundtrack (by Carpenter’s son?) is annoying.

I did like the ending, though.

This post is part of the A Carpenter Winter series.

ACW2005: Cigarette Burns

John Carpenter. Cigarette Burns. 2005.

This is an episode from the Showtime TV series “Masters of Horror”, which was an anthology horror series that received quite a lot of acclaim at the time.

This episode isn’t super-Carpenterish: A lot of faffing about in Europe (with European actors) (or is it Canada?). It’s about a film that’s so evil that it turns everybody who watches it mad.


It’s really grisly for a TV thing, but I guess that’s typical for the time.

*Really* grisly.

This post is part of the A Carpenter Winter series.

ACW2001: Ghosts of Mars

John Carpenter. Ghosts of Mars. 2001.

Somehow Carpenter got decent funding for yet another movie after so many of them not making any back (except perhaps 20 years after on DVD).

And this time it’s a sci-fi movie! Yay! And Carpenter managed to hire some pretty entertaining actors (Pam Grier, Natasha Henstridge, Clea DuVall, Joanna Cassidy) which helps a lot.

This film bombed at the box office, as usual, the critics hated it (21% fresh at Rotten Tomatoes), and people still hate it (4.9 at imdb).

But I think it’s a kinda exciting and fun movie, and it’s easily his best film since They Live.

Perhaps some of the hatred towards the film can be chalked up to sexism? Perhaps it’s the structure (everything is told through flashbacks (and there are flashbacks within the flashbaks))?

This post is part of the A Carpenter Winter series.

ACW1998: Vampires

“My vampires are savage creatures. There isn’t a second of brooding loneliness in their existence. They’re too busy ripping and tearing humans apart.”


John Carpenter. Vampires. 1998.

Ah! A vampire film where the vampires are the bad guys! It’s been a long time since I’ve seen one of those…

This is the goriest Carpenter film so far. I guess there’s been a general escalation all the way from Halloween, which was really kinda not gory at all.

It’s not a very good movie or much fun to watch. It’s just so… stupid, and has plenty of moronic fan service scenes.

It goes so hard for wise guy DUDE-ness that I had to gaffa tape my eyeballs to keep them from falling out from all the eye rolling. I think they’re kinda going for Snake Plisskin, but Woods overshoots and lands up somewhere past Charles Bronson.

The wittiest line is probably when a female vampire is killed (with a stake) and one of our heroes says “How do you like your steak… bitch!” Now, that’s snappy repartee.

But this was apparently this first Carpenter film in a decade that didn’t completely bomb at the box office, so it connected with some people, I guess.

This post is part of the A Carpenter Winter series.

ACW1996: Escape from LA

Debra Hill is back.

John Carpenter. Escape from LA. 1996.

Wow! Debra Hill is back as a producer!

John Carpenter is known as a genre director, but this is the only sequel he’s done. He didn’t even direct any of the Halloween sequels.

The highest-rated review on imdb says that it’s a misunderstood masterpieve but it’s also “near self-parody”, which is kinda confusing.

We’ve got Stacy Keach back from the hilarious Body Bags anthology film, and, of course, we’ve got Kurt Russell back from, well, all the other Carpenter films.

And watching this, the main thought I have is… why? But I guess the answer is on imdb: “Budget: $50,000,000 (estimated)” So this is more money than Carpenter ever had when making a film.

“The future is right now.”

Kurt Russel soldiers through, but there’s no fun here; no plot; not reason for this film to exist. It’s the first Carpenter film I’ve watched where I’ve thought “where did the budget go?”

It’s just so joyless.

I do appreciate the ending. It’s kinda apt today.

This post is part of the A Carpenter Winter series.