Cult director John Carpenter’s career began promisingly in the
mid-1970s with films such as the 2001 satire Dark Star and the original
Star, a 2001 satire, was a short film he made
as a student which was expanded into a full-length feature. It didn’t do
particularly well financially, but everything changed for Carpenter when
the original Halloween became one of the most profitable films ever
made. It was the biggest independently made box office hit until The
Blair Witch Project came along two decades or so later!
Carpenter went on to direct two more cult genre
classics, namely Escape from New York (in 1981)
and The Thing (1982). The Thing is
probably his masterpiece, a fact which he acknowledges in interviews.
Dark, cynical and powerful, The Thing was a cinematic experience
Quite gruesome and gory even by today’s standards; the
film was actually banned here in South Africa for a while. (The apartheid
government not only banned political movies, but also anything they
thought would be morally repulsive. Thus violent films such
A Clockwork Orange and Texas Chain Saw
Massacre were actually banned for decades. Naturally apartheid South
Africa’s puritan sensibilities towards onscreen violence didn’t extend to
any of the real violence perpetrated against opponents of their ideology.
Sex was also a no-no too, of course.)
very few people ultimately saw The Thing. Reaganism was at its
height and Americans wanted to feel good about themselves and the world in
general. A dark and disturbing film such as The Thing didn’t go
down particularly well.
Also, its timing was off. Released only a few months
after the feel-good E.T. – the Extra-Terrestrial, it
was a throwback to the Alien (1979) era of alien
monsters. (The movie's tag line of "The ultimate in alien terror" also
reinforced notions of the movie being a mere Alien rip-off.
Carpenter tried to get the studio's publicity department to change this,
but it was in vain.)
The backlash was vehement. Not merely did the (rather
expensive) movie perform poorly at the box office, but according to
Carpenter some people equated the film morally with pornography. People
hated it and Carpenter had difficulties finding directing jobs afterwards.
Not merely that, in retrospect The Thing proved
to be an artistic turning point for Carpenter. None of his later films
would match its brilliance and his directing output grew patchier as the
years passed by. Despite some moments of excellence in which Carpenter
seemed to return to form, some of his films were downright terrible.
Carpenter became the auteur version of Bob Dylan and
like Dylanphiles Carpenter cultists would eagerly await each successive
project only to be disappointed. (Dylan fans always complain that he did
his best and most brilliant work in the 1960s with albums such as
Blonde on Blonde and Highway 61 Revisited. LPs made subsequent
to a motorcycle accident proved disappointing in comparison.)
While his most recent efforts such as the
Village of the Damned remake, Vampires
and Ghosts of Mars may have their fans,
detractors are right in pointing out that these films compare poorly with
Carpenter’s earlier output.
Has the man lost it?
Next: "You didn’t
have to be an adolescent anarchist to notice the appealing
antiauthoritarian tendencies in Carpenter’s films."
The Prince of Darkness
by Gilles Boulenger
296 pages, 6x9, B&W photos, plus 24-page color section
(distributed by SCB Distributors)
Pub. date August 2003