Category Archives: Director Series: John Carpenter

Christine (1983)

Looking back now, it’s almost hard to believe that John Carpenter’s career was in such a rough state back in 1983 that he needed to take on a project like Christine just to keep it afloat.

Carpenter was coming off The Thing, which while rightfully regarded now as one of the best horror films ever made, was a massive critical and financial bomb upon release. He needed his next film to turn a profit and find a larger audience or else, and at the time, no one commanded more attention in the horror genre than Stephen King. His popularity was so immense that production on Christine began before the novel was even published. When the film finally hit theaters in December 1983 — less than eight months after the novel’s release — it was already the third Stephen King film adaptation of that year, following Cujo and The Dead Zone, respectively.

Christine was by no means a passion project for Carpenter, and in the years since, he’s referred to it as his worst film. Strictly speaking, it’s kind of clear why: the premise is gimmicky and by the numbers, a total retread of some of King’s already better known works. In many ways, Christine is like a spiritual sequel to Carrie (1976), but for tortured teen boys.

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The Thing (1982)

As stated in our review of The Fog, few directors have had their filmography subjected to as many pointless remakes as John Carpenter. The Thing might be the one that seems the most untouchable, the most sacred in its original form. Ironically, the 2011 Thing remake is probably the best Carpenter remake of them all. Still, the further one delves into the (re)making of the update, the more it just seems like doing Thing over again is a bad idea. Eric Newman, one of the producers on the 2011 film, had this to say about the development:

“I’d be the first to say no one should ever try to do Jaws again and I certainly wouldn’t want to see anyone remake The Exorcist…we really felt the same way about The Thing. It’s a great film. But once we realized there was a new story to tell, with the same characters and the same world, but from a very different point of view, we took it as a challenge.”

No, this isn’t going to be a rant about originality (or lack thereof) or a rant about practical effects (or lack thereof) in modern filmmaking — if you were to blindly click anywhere else on your screen right now you’d probably hit one of those. If anything, much as our rundown on Carpenter’s Escape from New York attempted to define “infodump”, what we’re really concerned with here is how far the term “remake” really stretches.

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Escape from New York (1981)

Welcome to A Review of John Carpenter’s Escape from New York, or: A History of the Cinematic Infodump.

As far as narrative exposition goes, the infodump is traditionally one of the more crass methods of conveying the ways in which the world of the film differs from the world of…the world. Here Is Everything You Need To Know, the infodump says before the film gets going. Preludes, prologues, epigraphs, whatever. Presumably, the more akin to “reality” a film pretends to be, the less exposition it should have — and, yeah, even though that’s definitely not always true, it’s science fiction and fantasy that demand large chunks of information be delivered as inconspicuously and efficiently as possible. That way we can get to enjoying the movie without wondering what the heck a Na’vi is, or a replicant, or why legions of Things That Aren’t Humans are fighting over this little gold ring, or why we should care about any of that at all.

Some films elect to disseminate the good stuff throughout the course of the film, like Inception or certain Star Wars installments (looking at you, midichlorians…I mean I’m not actually looking at you, because you’re so small, which I know because Qui-Gon told me mid-movie, but I’m looking in your direction). Escape from New York, the 1981 John Carpenter jaunt destined to become a cult classic and eventual ostensible subject of this very article, certainly has plenty of exposition peppered throughout the film in this fashion.

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The Fog (1980)

Hollywood has a thing for remaking anything with John Carpenter’s name on it, even the snoozier stuff like The Fog. It almost never ends well. Whether or not you enjoy early Carpenter fare like Assault on Precinct 13 or Halloween, there’s little doubt that the remakes amount to nothing but unorganized grabastic pieces of amphibian shit. They remade The Thing recently, too, which approaches sacrilege, and they even had the gall to structure the thing (ha!) as a prequel of sorts without bothering to dream up a different title (like Dawn of the Planet of the Thing: Origins). We weren’t fooled: it’s a remake. Just last week a proposed remake of Big Trouble in Little China hit the internet because why the hell not? It’s there, isn’t it? What else are we supposed to do with it? Sit on the couch with Dwayne Johnson right there and everything and just watch it?

The Fog, Carpenter’s first studio feature after the unexpected success of Halloween, might have been one that could have been improved by a remake. The original contains a great deal of evidence as to why Carpenter’s films seem so remakeable, regardless of whatever the reason is that no one can seem to pull it off. 2007’s Halloween completely missed massive aspects of the original that made it good in the first place, as have most other Carpenter re-dos, but with The Fog there wasn’t much to worry about in that arena. The premise is straightforward and the execution in the original leaves much to be desired, based on a few things we’ll touch on here. But lo and behold: they quite literally hired the dude who directed Blank Check to helm the Fog remake, and the update managed to be so many zillion times worse than the already-not-that-great original. Go figure.

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Halloween (1978)

Halloween might be the most imitated, riffed-upon, winked-at American horror film in history. To say nothing of multiple novels and comic book series starring the serial killer Michael Myers, the film franchise itself now stands at ten installments, of which — you guessed it! — nine are pretty much crap. Judging by the box office landscape of the next few years, it won’t be long before Halloween 11: We Can Out-Sequel Saw hits a theater near you. But outside of the canon there are hundreds of Halloweens, from subtle copies to straight-up rip-offs, especially with the original being the film that most credit as the start of the slasher genre (“what about Hitchcock?!”).

One case-in-point is It Follows, one of the most recent nods to John Carpenter’s first true horror flick (although we sought out the elements of horror in his feature debut Assault on Precinct 13). The similarities are numerous and unmistakable, from the suburban setting to the shot of the classroom to the sense that this thing is stalking only the protagonist with everyone else standing in as collateral damage. That Michael Myers is a thing or an it — certainly not a him — is made clear by his psychiatrist Sam Loomis, and the idea of the human form as a vessel for something more sinister is also at the heart of It Follows. The music by Disasterpeace, too, is just one more obvious piece of evidence of the influence of Halloween in movies like It Follows; go listen to “Playpen” and try not to picture a flickering jack-o’-lantern against a black backdrop.

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Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

There’s a building on a quiet alley in a rundown part of the city that’s almost abandoned, draped in shadow and disrepair. Inside the building is a collection of individuals from vastly different walks of life. There is a supervising lieutenant freshly assigned to the job. There is a grief-stricken father in the throes of shock after discovering his murdered daughter. There are two dainty secretaries wearing sweaters (one orange, one yellow). There are three hardened criminals, one of whom is sick with a possible virus. Each of the people inside the building is an individual with an individual story. Outside is different. Outside is a creeping evil, a legion of hunters that is nonetheless a single faceless and motiveless mass, no individual stories to be found. The hunt is all.

…sounds like a horror movie, right? Like the kind John Carpenter might make? Even beyond Carpenter, this is not at all an unfamiliar formula for fright-fests — strangers unite against mysterious evil — serving as the entire premise of movies like Cube and Saw. The idea that something lurking out there will inevitably attack each stranger regardless of their differences is an inherently scary notion. And even though Assault on Precinct 13 isn’t necessarily a horror movie, it’s at its most effective when it operates like one.

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