A LOOK back at the career of JOHN CARPENTER
With word that JOHN CARPENTER is in pre-production on his first film in 7 years (a prison thriller titled RIOT, starring Nicolas Cage), I thought I would take a look back at one of the more interesting voices in movies. Carpenter’s main claim to fame is a guy with the ability to create some very memorable films on very low budgets. With a career that now spans over thirty years, Carpenter has had some big ups and downs but his overall body of work is certainly admired by his legions of fans, including myself. Early on Carpenter had the Midas touch as an independent filmmaker. After getting the attention of Hollywood, including George Lucas with the barely released DARK STAR – a very low budget sci-fi film produced for $60,000 in 1976, John went on to direct ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13. Working with a budget of just $100,000, and using the inspiration of Howard Hawks classic western Rio Bravo, John crafted a really good film that was both exciting and suspenseful. Not only did he direct the film, he also wrote and performed the musical score. While reviews were somewhat split at the time, the film is now regarded by many as a minor classic in its genre. I agree, as it’s a terrific movie.
After directing the television suspense thriller, SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME, starring Lauren Hutton in 1978, Carpenter would move on to perhaps his biggest claim to fame, HALLOWEEN. Working on a budget of just $320,000, John would create one of the most influential horror films ever produced and help spearhead a franchise that is still cranking out films to this day. While he only directed the original, Carpenter did have involvement in HALLOWEEN 2 as a producer and, reportedly, did re-shoots himself. He was asked to helm Halloween H20 in 1998 but declined. Carpenter’s score for Halloween is easily one of the most recognizable in the history of motion pictures and greatly added to that film’s status as a classic.
After producing and directing the critically acclaimed ELVIS, for ABC; his first collaboration with actor Kurt Russell, Carpenter would go back to the horror genre with THE FOG in 1980. While the film opened to mixed reviews it was very profitable grossing 21,000,000 on a budget of just $1,000,000. I’m a big fan of The Fog. The film stars Jamie Lee Curtis and Tom Atkins and has great atmosphere and enough really good moments to make it a solid film. Carpenter has said many times he’s quite proud of it.
Carpenter would team up with Kurt Russell for a second time in ESCAPE FROM NY in 1981. At the time it was an interesting casting choice because Russell, known for Disney films like The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, was really being cast against type. It’s safe to say that Russell’s casting as anti-hero, Snake Plissken, changed the course of his long career as he was never looked at the same way again. Escape would go on to gross $50,000,000 worldwide on a budget of $7,000,000 and remains a huge cult classic to this day. With Escape, Carpenter showed his knack for creating really cool sets under the restraints of relatively low budgets. Much of the film was shot in St. Louis, Missouri. Carpenter and Russell would return for a sequel in 1996 entitled ESCAPE FROM LA which was really a quasi-remake. While fairly entertaining, the film bombed at the box-office.
In 1982, Carpenter’s sci-fi horror film THE THING (his third pairing with Kurt Russell) was released the same weekend as Steven Spielberg’s E.T. and did a quick fade from theaters. Over the years, the movie has been rediscovered on VHS, Laser Disc and now DVD and many, including myself, regard it as a classic in its genre. The film’s use of stop motion effects, created by the late Stan Winston, are highly inventive.
After directing the solid feature film adaptation of Stephen King’s, CHRISTINE, in 1983 which produced moderate box-office results, John received his greatest critical acclaim with the big studio film, STARMAN in 1984, although it too only performed moderately at the box-office. The film’s star, Jeff Bridges, was nominated for an Oscar. Carpenter would go the studio route once again with the way ahead of its time BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, pairing him up with Kurt Russell for the fourth time. The film, which mixed many different genres, confused audiences and critics alike and bombed at the box-office (grossing $11,000,000 on a budget of $25,000,000), altering Carpenter’s career for years to come. Only many years later would fans come to appreciate its inventiveness.
After the failure of this film, Carpenter would go back to his low budget roots with PRINCE OF DARKNESS in 1987 and THEY LIVE in 1988 for Alive films. I thought Prince of Darkness was an interesting movie despite its incoherent storyline. As for They Live, I love it. The film, shot on a budget of just $3,000,000., was sort of a re-working of Invasion of the Body Snatchers but it also took a hard shot at America’s culture of greed. Considering the fact that I was a huge fan of Wrestler RODDY PIPER, I was thrilled with his casting as the film’s lead, His character is never mentioned by name in the story, only in the credits as JOHN NADA. They Live has built a very strong cult following over the years and many regard it as one of Carpenter’s most thought provoking movies.
As for the 90’s, Carpenter’s career was mostly forgettable with big budget studio films, MEMOIRS OF THE INVISIBLE MAN starring CHEVY CHASE (solid first half, weak second), IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS (interesting but not totally successful), the awful VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED, ESCAPE FROM LA (quite watchable) and VAMPIRES (a film I didn’t like at all). In 2001 Carpenter returned for the ho-hum GHOST OF MARS and hasn’t done much since. Let’s hope that John has a few more tricks up his sleeve and delivers something memorable with his next film RIOT. With a 30 year body of work under his belt, and a lot of memorable moments in cinema, I will put JOHN CARPENTER into the Entertainment Today and Beyond HALL OF FAME. LINK John Carpenter talks Halloween
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