Dark Star (1974). As film school sci-fi goes, THX 1138 (’71!) remains the reigning champion, but cross-splicing Strangelove (’64), 2001 (’68), and The Prisoner (’67) is inspired. Space as job. Hard not to see that as O’Bannon’s DNA, particularly given the modest debts the first two Alien films owe this one. Carpenter’s might seem harder to detect, until Lt. Doolittle decides it’s time for some EVA to talk epistemology with the sentient bomb half out of the cargo bay that’s insisting on detonating. The bomb is arguably overly credulous; it doesn’t take long for Doolittle to convince it that it has no real grasp on reality beyond its ‘senses.’ The suspicion of appearances, the sense that our senses are failing us, that they don’t convey the fundamental reality with which we’re confronted, that’s something Carpenter will work with for the next three decades. Then again: the men piling into cramped quarters, turning on each other; Doolittle surfing into some rock’s exosphere; the chromosomal traces are everywhere. “Let there be light,” the bomb declares. Destruction as creation, a solipsistic God as annihilating force. Start again.
Assault on Precinct 13 (1976). Mythic. Elemental in its construction, from its cinematography to its characters. Carpenter doesn’t bother running them through the sorta pop-psychoanalysis that’s now standard (see the remake, which granted pulls that off better than most); we know them all already. Again the discrepancy between appearances and reality, if in a lesser key, a besieged precinct made to look like it’s just another night. The primitive resurfacing in the present: a gang avenging its own, blood for blood; a stranger given shelter, despite blow after blow. “The stranger that sojourneth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself.” “Welcome the coming, speed the parting guest.” The old laws overturn the new ones; the line between cops and criminals crumbles. Carpenter takes an unusually clear-sighted look at the era: he doesn’t romanticize the gangs or the cops, even if in the end the law has to be laid back down. We’re left with the ashes of time, a siege composed of nothing more than perforated objects and the sound of gunshots.
Escape from New York (1981). Ford said ‘Drop dead,’ the Bronx burned; this time it’s not just the precinct that’s surrounded but the entire city. None of those things quite happened, to varying degrees; the imagined city isn’t always so easy to distinguish from the real. We’d cast a B-movie cowboy as president after all, and by the time the escape is made his stand-in stands out as slightly unhinged and murderous. For his part Snake could cross paths with Swan or Paul Hackett; none of ’em would seem outta place on each other’s turf. All these white boys stranded in hostile territory, driven through the streets, on the run, dying for a way out. White flight was only one of several trends that produced Escape from New York‘s urban hellscape, but redlining would arguably make for overly complicated allegory. A spiritual sequel to Assault on Precinct 13; they won the battle but lost the war, retreated and surrendered the city to the barbarians. “Goddam redskins!” Harry Dean Stanton yells in a gunfight on top of the World Trade Center, a propos of not much more than a half-century of cowboy movies. This time the moral order isn’t worth restoring; civilization can rot like the city it abandoned. At moments Carpenter’s end-of-days NYC feels as real as any other: if After Hours conjures the desperation, Escape captures the sheer devastation. A film of deep shadows and light flaring across the lenses, of fires flickering amid the ruins.
The Thing (1982). Those two bass notes on the synthesizer, a malevolent heartbeat. “If I was an imitation, a perfect imitation, how would you know it was really me?” The question goes without an answer until the last reel. “The echo is always evil.” Next time you wanna complain Hollywood doesn’t have any original ideas, watch this, an imitation of an imitation of a short story about alien imitation. Third time’s the charm. The Thing is the thing, the foundation of Carpenter’s work (its first spray of infectious bile gets regurgitated in Prince of Darkness (no relation?), which the justly-forgotten Kidman/Craig Invasion remake (no relation, and how did they fuck that up again?) lifts in turn), masterfully crafted, a work of exceptional conceptual purity and rigor. No backstory, no subplots, no shirking, no straying, no overreach. Pared down to the bone. Just a dozen men fighting each other for survival in the frozen wastes, to be the last man standing at the end of the earth. (The recent fourth iteration’s feminist critique is more pointed than it might seem at first glance.) Way back in ’99, Kent Jones argued Carpenter was the last genre filmmaker, directing these “lonely, gorgeously solipsistic enterprises.” It’s an elegant description of his best work, though given Carpenter’s consistent engagement with the conventions of genre, it’s not so much that the films are solipsistic as they evoke solipsism, the moment you realize you’re inescapably alone, and death is so much closer than you thought. (I may be splitting Jones’ hairs, or his sentence may’ve broken the wrong way.) All Carpenter’s best invoke the sense of being trapped, stranded, caged, besieged. The film unspools as a slow descent from helicopter shots to the final confrontation beneath the surface, Russell flying solo and facing off against something to which he mighta already succumbed, which might just be him. Jones nails what’s important: “In Carpenter, there is a unique mixture of dread and awe, followed by the time taken to sort out the two and muster up self-preservation.” What counts is reaction time. Both Carpenter’s Thing and Heijningen’s Thing have a moment when the protagonist yells at someone else “Burn it!” They’ve stared down that Lovecraftian terror, flipped the switch, know what needs to be done. That’s what sets them apart. (Russell has a head start, he’s seen the charred remains of the Norwegian camp, he hits the fire alarm at the first sign hell’s breaking loose — an understanding communicated to the audience without a word of exposition, like you’d live it.) Back to Jones:
The many forms evil can take, the many places in which it can appear, the infinite ways in which it can announce itself, the ease with which it can blend into the rhythms and atmosphere of everyday life — this is Carpenter’s focus, and the moral clarity he brings to that focus is what makes him a great director.
Foregoing a critique of evil, I think he’s right about Carpenter’s focus but I’m less sure about the moral clarity. Jones dismisses the banal take on ‘the banality of evil’ — “the idea that it exists within all of us” — but I’m not convinced Carpenter does. However clear the distinction between his protagonists and what they’re up against, almost all his most compelling leads are seductively nasty, and few of them believe in anything more than staying alive. “Tell you what,” Russell tells none other than one of the Latter-Day Saints, “why don’t you just trust in the lord.” We all know how well that shakes out.
Christine (1983). A small detail, easy to miss, a sign on the desk of the owner of the garage where Arnie parks the Hot Rod from Hell: “In God We Trust Everyone Else Pays Cash”. Which tells you a lotta what you need to know. Christine claims two victims before she even rolls off the production line. A study of commodity fetishism & alienation: products appear fully-formed, we ignore the dead labor that goes into their production; give them names, identities; and the more personality Arnie invests in his car, the less interested he is in the actual living, breathing, heaving girl in the front seat, who, after all, sometimes says no. “There is nothing finer than being behind the wheel of your own car.” All that frustrated sexual energy (gay panic?) channeled into consumption. And of course it’s insatiable, the commodity form requires further blood sacrifices, dissolves all social relations. The inanimate becomes animate. Those animal spirits incarnate (maybe not quite in the way that defunct scribbler was thinking). Never thought of Carpenter and Cronenberg as fellow travelers before and then I saw this and Prince of Darkness (those L.A. exteriors, glass skyscrapers and empty streets); now it’s hard not to. Leigh: “God I hate rock & roll.” Carpenter says he loves Elvis, but don’t buy it.*
Starman (1984). “I guess the question is who’s the missionary and who are the cannibals?” If there was ever any doubt — there was not — it’s dispelled in the next scene, when Jeff Bridges’ alien visitor (the reincarnation of Karen Allen’s dead husband) resurrects a stag. Carpenter’s answer to E.T. made the encounter with the divine far more explicit; this time he flips his usual script and tries to find the sense of wonder (instead of terror) in the encounter with an entity beyond our understanding (the camera itself, a being of pure light made flesh). He almost pulls it off: Bridges plays God as an autistic newborn with an avian posture, as convincingly alien as it gets and enthralled by discovery. When he and Allen finally get down to making babies, his sense of surprise and delight nearly gets across the sheer undiluted joy of your first fuck… but is mostly just hysterical. Carpenter even gives them hay to roll around in, a modern-day manger. “I gave you a baby tonight,” Bridges (hilariously) tells Allen. “He will be a teacher.” (Even more hilarious.) (Bid for wonder aside, the inimitable Alexis Sotille pointed out afterwards that “I gave you a baby tonight” is the most terrifying thing a man can say to a woman after sex.) This is one of the few occasions in all of Carpenter’s films in which sex is even seen, and I think the single one in which it’s presented positively: married and procreative, a divine act. Sex as sacred, sure, but intentionally or not that reverence almost instantly summons up shame. After the giving of the baby, as they near the end of their road, Bridges rattles off what he’ll miss about earth, and then he and Allen make eye contact and break it just as quickly, embarrassed, and this alien who until now has unselfconsciously and without hesitation asked her to “Define: Shit” and whether people eat people, can only stammer: “And the other things.”
Big Trouble in Little China (1986). A glorious mess. After going portentous in Starman — itself said to’ve been an “act of atonement” for The Thing — it musta been a relief. The film never even circles back to its nominal framing device (which makes that play like “fuck you,” since it was only added at the studio’s insistence). This time it’s an entire city that isn’t what it seems, and for that matter the protagonist as well (hell, the whole damn film) — Kurt Russell enthusiastically mocking the hard man he played in The Thing and Escape. No genre convention escapes being defied, which somehow means they’re often the only thing holding the plot together (why does Dennis Dun keep this guy around again?) So of course Russell never actually lays a hand on Kim Catrall. Carpenter doubles down on the damsels in distress, two women chosen by an ancient evil as brides, which maybe puts our heroes in the position of defending chastity. Then again Dennis Dun gets the girl, but Kurt knows that way lies madness. Better to climb in your rig and hit the road, get on the CB and tell whoever might be listening, maybe just yourself, to haul straight into the storm. If anyone ever lets me program the Trucking retro I have in mind, this probably has to be in there, even though the film doesn’t have nearly enough to say about trucking. We await Big Mishegas in Little Hongkou. Shoot me an email, Netflix, we can make this happen.
Prince of Darkness (1987). Gets a lot done with very little. Very little. The script is the barest of bare bones once you get past the initial set-up, and that’s (impressively) communicated with a minimum of exposition. You couldn’t even call the characters underdeveloped – they’re barely there. The whole film flirts with reaction: all those menacing vagrants, and the black guy gets it, and not a single woman makes it out alive (They Live comes off as a mea culpa). Before it’s all over the blonde becomes a Thing. Long live the new flesh? Water drips upwards and spreads across the ceiling. Bodies, the material world, uncontrollably mutating, utterly mutable: this is the step between The Thing and Madness. The score really takes pride of place here, never lets up, driving events forward, imbuing them with tension and suspense. Watch the first nine minutes or so on mute and it could almost be a whole other film, about a kinda sad student whose long-lost relative died and left him a church. Hijinks ensue. Then there’s that last shot: Our Hero reaching toward the camera, pressing against the mirror, the world of the audience as the anti-matter counterpart to the world of the screen. He thinks there’s something on the other side, dislocated in time and space, and he’s right.
They Live (1988). Synthesis. It all comes together. It kicks off with his best credit sequence — the title off-center and off-kilter, breaking with the font he relies on to announce his presence, the background fading in; the first shot of Rowdy in the background, readysteady, the passing train delaying gratification and pumping up anticipation — and never stops kicking. For those of you who somehow don’t know, Rowdy Roddy Piper gets his hands on the x-ray specs that let him see the aliens among us. Damn near a pure pop masterpiece and no doubt a quintessential work of 80s cinema, They Live is an indictment of Reagan’s America: you see images from it here that don’t appear in any other movie. It reveals what Carpenter has been after all along: animism, idolatry, unfettered consumption and carnality, an evil that predates the monotheistic tradition: a resurgent paganism in which we’re already immersed. All the more appropriate then that six years after The Thing Keith David is finally back for more; this time he gives Rowdy a dose of class consciousness before their roles quickly reverse. That’s as far as most people get, but the film contains its own critique: Rowdy’s the archetypal paranoid schizophrenic, the sorta disgruntled down-on-his-luck white guy who’d give meaning to “going postal,” who’d show up at school shooting. The specs don’t just let him see the Reaganites in our midst, they transform the world into black and white, giving him (and us) a literally Manichean worldview. Come for the class war, stay for one of the greatest fights ever, as Rowdy and Keith sublimate their sexual energy as down and dirty as it’ll go into a no-holds-barred brawl when Rowdy tries to get him to see things his way. “Life’s a bitch… and she’s back in heat” Rowdy tells him when they finally stop pounding each other. The next line of dialogue, after they get a hotel room together? “Ain’t love grand.” (Of course Meg Foster sells them both out, and of course the last shot is of a fuck gone pretty far wrong.) The only film I know of that holds out the homoerotic union of the white and black working class as our last best hope for liberation. THEY LIVE WE SLEEP.
In the Mouth of Madness (1994). “Reality is not what it used to be.” The sense of ruin: “I remember New York during the Depression, People think they have it bad now – you should have seen the Bowery back then.” “We fucked up the air, the water; we fucked up each other. Why don’t we finish the job by just flushing our brains down the toilet.” We already know Sam Neill is stomping on the lever. He gets a little help from Julie Carmen: Linda Styles lives up to her surname, though she only has two, changing effortlessly from castrating career woman to lamiatic virgin sacrifice (and ultimately assuming that familiar position). Mirror images? Potentially productive to see the former as a reincarnation of the latter. Characters don’t act in any rational way; events seem to occur almost at random; the premise lets Carpenter get away with it. Neill is the insurance fraud investigator trying to track down the Stephen King substitute whose new novel may drive the world insane. “It’s about people turning into things.” Monsters but also objects, commodities that can be bought and sold and used at will. Neill makes his own living by revealing others’ abuse of commodities, which is to say, he commodifies their own commodification of others (not for nothing does Carmen ask him: “You ever bust anyone you know?” for him to blithely answer: “Yeah, sure I did.”). This is Carpenter’s real exercise in solipsism, a subtle self critique. He’s a prisoner of genre. We know from the start Our Hero’s efforts are doomed; we watch the horror slowly sinking its teeth into Neill as he flails desperately. By the time he picks up the axe it’s way too late; violence can’t defeat a world sold on violence, and he’s just another murderer. Unlike the end of Prince of Darkness, before it’s all over he can’t tell which side of the mirror he’s on, and it’s a genre flick that does the final work of unraveling what’s left of civilization.
Village of the Damned (1995). First sign that things may’ve gone awry is the credits, not a trace of Albertus, but those synths can even make moose ominous. A shadow on the waters. An exceptional boy named David. Carpenter’s deep discomfort with sex gestates into a film all about its consequences, a string of virgin births delivering the threat of enslavement and irrelevance. Reeve plays against his towering figure, all roiling sorrow and impotent misery; Carpenter plays off him too, placing him in the frame with these children he dwarfs and yet who render him (Superman, of all people, it’s almost stunt-casting) totally powerless, insignificant. So different from his usual protagonist, relying on emotion and the irrational to defend himself and confront the uber-rational little hellspawn he agrees to teach. Reeve fends off their psychic attack with a vision of the ocean, the oceanic concealing the ultimate irrational act, love, self-sacrifice. The sacrifice that’s unfathomable according to Western rules, to the utility-maximizing rational agent; the one inconceivable act which has come to define its constitutive other (instructive to see how easily it’s infused with love here). Kirstie Alley gets to play the no-nonsense professional woman, and is predictably punished. The Vulgar Cinema‘s Willow Maclay somewhat misinterprets her, I think: “She’s clearly the liberal voice of the picture with her pro-choice ideas.” Sure the government offers abortion (though no one takes the offer), but Alley can’t wait to see what’s been breeding; nor was it completely clear to me the infant Alley helps deliver was actually stillborn. Hamill is wasted, though for maybe half a minute he emits glimmers of the horrified mania of The Big Red One. “Life is cruelty. We all feed on each other. Exploit each other in some way to survive.” After They Live, (It Takes a) Village of the Damned goes all in on inter-species warfare: this is a struggle for survival, there’s only victory or extinction. Evil can only be eradicated. I watched most of these films at the aforementioned retro, and the crowds were usually awful: laughing as hard as they could to show they got the joke (it’s not that funny), or at moments that are clearly serious (no one would laugh if it was a black-and-white Hungarian film). Nobody in the audience snickered once the kids started slaughtering cops.
Escape from L.A. (1996). Genre repeats itself, first time as tragedy, second time as farce. If only it were funnier.
Vampires (1998). It’d be worth it for no other reason than that shot of Sheryl Lee sauntering down the road in slo-mo, drenched in blood. Iconic. The revenge of Laura Palmer.
Woods’ merry few, the rough men ready to do violence at night, taking a little too much pleasure in slaughtering their prey, thugs who don’t seem much better than the threat they oppose, redeemed only by its irredeemable evil. Partying & paying the price. That Puritan spirit. JC (he is not Jesus, but he has the same initials, and hell, he’s even a Carpenter) has an American Protestant (Evangelical?)’s revulsion toward the Catholic Church: once again it’s responsible for introducing profound evil into the world. Contrast the small-town (apparently Presbyterian) church of Village of the Damned, early to pronounce evil for what it is, or the African Methodist Episcopal church in They Live, outpost for the underground (think liberation theology and the Central American refugees fleeing Reagan’s foreign policy). Woods is gloriously profane.
Ghosts of Mars (2001). It’s not in the league of Carpenter’s early work, but I can’t exactly figure out why. It still tapped deep into the zeitgeist: barbarism, beheadings, a clash of civilizations. And what passes for genre these days is littered with its progeny: Crossed, Firefly, Doomsday, every Resident Evil (though In the Mouth of Madness also echoes). Maybe it just comes down to the fact that JC’s synths (“On keys: Jesus Christ!”) are buried under mediocre death-metal guitar, though Wikipedia suggests some casting issues also shook up the conception. A good example of how interference from the suits can occasionally (in this case accidentally) make work stronger. The ladies take the lead. Maclay points out that Village of the Damned marks a steady transition to films driven by female protagonists (really, the self-criticism of In the Mouth of Madness signals the turn). This time around we even have the new Martian matriarchy facing off against the primordial Martian patriarch (although that’s as far as that goes. JC’s embrace of Henstridge is still awkward. She gets cheated out of a duel with the Martian Splatterfamilias; she has to be convinced to cut a deal with Cube (contrast Lt. Bishop); she’s set apart by her recreational drug use, which helps her fight off the Martian infection, but even then it’s Statham who pops the pill into her mouth. (Apparently Statham was originally cast as Desolation Williams; in hindsight can’t help but seem ironic that the studio gave that to Cube because he was more bankable. Statham has as much fun as he’s ever had doing sleazy supporting work, which is more entertaining than the dour hard man he’s built his brand on.) While Henstridge is hallucinating of the glory days of Mars, Carpenter recycles a visual motif from Village of the Damned, the image of the ocean — except this time while the vast tumult of the unconscious still serves as a psychic defense, it’s shorn of agape and some of its banality. For a few frames, it’s nothing more than what it is: a reminder of water (paradoxically, of earth) amidst a desiccated waste.
Forget villages: JC’s upped the ante. This is Planet of the Damned. Again, evil is literally inhuman. “They won’t rest short of the destruction of any invading species. As far as they’re concerned, we are the invaders.” “This is about one thing: Dominion. It’s not their planet anymore.” Despite the reminders in the headlines every day, we like to think of time and progress as coterminous and linear: with the eruption of the disavowed past in the far-flung future, Carpenter dismisses that comforting illusion. Or maybe it’s less a matter of progress being an illusion and more that the barbarians are always at the gates, evil is always present, society must be defended. Even if the casting was only accidental, Carpenter’s preoccupations persist: watching Cube and Natasha Henstridge kill or be killed, it occurred to me that his black/white pairings go all the way back through They Live and The Thing to Assault on Precinct 13. This time even ends with our heroes taking the same walk to confront fate as the duo do at the end of the assault, except Bishop is turning Wilson in, and Cube is springing Henstridge. A quarter century later, for the first time, the two finally make a break for it together. It’d be a good note to go out on. Maybe we’ll be that lucky.