If there is one filmmaker that can be called one of the masters of horror, John Carpenter certainly belongs in that list. While he’s only had a degree of modest success with his films, many of them aren’t just considered classics but also standards of a genre that is often not very popular with critics but rather to a niche audience. Yet, he’s also managed to step out of the genre at times to create films that are quite unique as well as tell stories about things out of the ordinary or dealing with some of the chaos of the conventional world. While some of his work had been remade by studios, none of them have attained that sense of independence and lack of seriousness that Carpenter is known for as he remains one of the most revered filmmakers in cinema.
Born on Carthage, New York on January 16, 1948, John Howard Carpenter was the Milton Jean and Howard Ralph Carpenter as the latter was a music professor who would teach his son how to play music as the young Carpenter would use his father’s teachings to create his own music. At the age of 5, he and his parents moved to Bowling Green, Kentucky where he came of age in his new surroundings that was filled with movie theatres. A mixture of classic westerns by filmmakers such as John Ford and Howard Hawks would impact the young Carpenter as does the new wave of low-budget B-movie sci-fi and horror films as he immediately knew what he wanted to do as a kid. Making a bunch of super 8mm films for much of his childhood and into his years at high school, Carpenter would attend Western Kentucky University where his father taught music at the school before transferring himself to the University of South Carolina’s School of Cinematic Arts at the age of 20.
Carpenter’s time in South Carolina was brief as he dropped out to start his filmmaking career where he attended the prestigious USC School of Cinematic Arts in Los Angeles, California. There, he would meet one of his early collaborators in Dan O’Bannon who shared Carpenter’s interest in horror and sci-fi. The two would work together on their respective projects as O’Bannon helped Carpenter create an eight-minute student short film called Captain Voyeur that Carpenter would write and direct. The short was about a computer worker who falls for a woman and follows her home as it would bear many elements Carpenter would do with his future work. In 1970, Carpenter took part in editing, scoring, and co-writing a short for director James Rokos called The Resurrection of Broncho Billy that would win an Oscar for Best Live-Action Short Film. The short’s success was surprising as it had a two-year theatrical run that would give Carpenter some money which he would need for his very first feature film as a director.
Part 1: (1974-1988)
Writing with Dan O’Bannon who would also do the film’s visual effects, editing, and art direction as well as co-star in the film, Carpenter would make his first feature into a sci-fi film. The film would be about a group of astronauts who embark on a 20-year journey to destroy unstable planets in the 22nd Century on a spaceship that is starting to fall apart. In the course of the film, the men deal with the day-to-day tasks as well as an alien they’ve captured and a dead crew member they’ve kept on ice. The film would play into Carpenter’s sensibility into some of the fallacies of space travel as well as what happens when four astronauts have to deal with an alien. With Carpenter also doing the film’s music while he and O’Bannon would bring in unknown actors into the project as Carpenter would eventually do dubbing for Dre Pahich’s character Talby. The production would have a very small budget of $60,000 which was considered impossible for a sci-fi film. The script had been six years in the making where one of the special effects O’Bannon created was a beach ball alien with feet as it was originally designed for chills and ended up being used as a comedic effect.
Carpenter, with the aid of cinematographer Douglas Knapp, would maintain an intimacy into the film as much of it was shot on soundstages at USC as well as hallway where it was used for a crucial scene set in an elevator hall. Some of the things that Carpenter and O’Bannon created included a computer board room as they had to use whatever they had including an eight-track player as a video recorder that astronauts would made. The film would also play into Carpenter’s approach to suspense where the astronauts also have to deal with some malfunctions including an artificially-intelligent bomb that is about to go off. Plans for the film to be seen in film festivals in 1973 were halted when producer Jack H. Harris saw a rough cut of the film and bought the theatrical rights as well as give Carpenter additional money to shoot more footage. At first, Carpenter and O’Bannon were excited but had creative issues with Harris over the film’s content where Carpenter secretly put an insulting message on Harris during a sequence in the computer room.
The film eventually made its premiere in April of 1974 through a new 35mm print with an 83-minute running time which was a very different version than the 68-minute version made in 16mm that Carpenter and O’Bannon preferred though the two made a different cut with better effects that would be seen in the coming years. The film did earn good reviews but didn’t do very well in the box office as it was given a limited release. Nevertheless, the film was seen by filmmakers and people in the industry who liked what Carpenter did while O’Bannon would be in demand for his visual effects work as he would with George Lucas for Star Wars as well as Alejandro Jodorowsky’s attempted production of Dune where O’Bannon’s ideas in the latter would seep into Ridley Scott’s 1979 film Alien which was co-written by O‘Bannon.
Assault on Precinct 13
With the clout he received for his first film, Carpenter was given the chance to make another film as he had two low-budget projects he wanted to do. One of them got the attention of up-and-coming producer Jon Peters who wanted to make the film that was supposed to star his then-wife in singer Barbra Streisand. The project that eventually became Eyes of Laura Mars which was released in 1978 that would star Faye Dunaway and Tommy Lee Jones as Carpenter was able to get another script he wrote to be financed. Inspired by the western genre, the film would be about a gang terrorizing a defunct police precinct where a police officer teams up with a convicted murderer to fight the gang. The project definitely had the tools to create something that stayed within the $100,000 budget that Carpenter was given as well as the chance to really showcase his knack for suspense.
The film would be shot in Los Angeles as Carpenter retained the services of cinematographer John Knapp while Carpenter chose to score and edit the film as he would take on a pseudonym for the latter. The cast would include an array of character actors and lesser-known actors such as Austin Stoker, Darwin Joston, Tony Burton, Laurie Zimmer, Kim Richards, Martin West, and Nancy Kyes as Kyes would become one of many regulars who would work with Carpenter frequently. Carpenter would shoot the film in November of 1975 in a 20-day shoot as he gained another frequent collaborator in art director Tommy Lee Wallace who would help build the precinct where the film was built. Carpenter also wanted to create something that was shocking that included an on-screen death of a young girl by a gang member as it would draw lots of controversy upon its release. With the suspense and violence, Carpenter would also create a very synthesizer-heavy score as it is considered one of the prototypes of the electronic-based score that would become prominent for the next decade.
The film was released in November of 1976 in a limited release as the infamous ice cream sequence almost gave the film the dreaded X rating from the MPAA. The film’s initial release in the U.S. wasn’t impressive as reviews were also mixed yet the film would gain some critical adulation in May of 1977 where it played at the Cannes Film Festival as it got excellent reviews. Notably from the British who would release the film later in December where it was a major hit in the country as it would spread around Europe. The film’s growing cult in Europe would emerge in America as it was re-evaluated and later considered to be one of Carpenter’s finest films.
With the praise he received for his sophomore feature, Carpenter was hired to helm a TV movie as he received word that film producer Irwin Yablans was interested in funding a feature for Carpenter based on an idea he had about someone who killed babysitters. Carpenter took Yalbans’ suggestion as he and producer/then-girlfriend Debra Hill, whom he met during the making of Assault on Precinct 13 and become one of his recurring collaborators, would write a script that would be about a psychotic madman who would stalk a babysitter and kill others on Halloween night. Yablans got in contact with film financier Moustapha Akkad who would give Carpenter and Hill $300,000 to make the film as it was still considered quite low in comparison to a lot of films that were being made but Carpenter felt that was all he needed. With Hill producing the film and Tommy Lee Wallace designing the sets as well as co-edit the film with Charles Bornstein. Time came for casting as Nancy Kyes was cast as a friend of the lead as did P.J. Soles while another collaborator of Carpenter in Charles Cyphers was cast as the town’s sheriff.
For the role of Dr. Sam Loomis, Carpenter wanted Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee for the role but neither accepted because of the low salary they received. Donald Pleasance took the part as he was intrigued by what Carpenter and Hill were doing. For the role of Laurie Strode, Carpenter wanted Anne Lockhart but she was unavailable as Hill found the actress to play the role in Jamie Lee Curtis who was the daughter of revered actors Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh. Though Curtis had only done television, Carpenter realized she was right for the part as she was cast though Curtis was aware that her casting was in part for the film’s publicity. For the role of the killer Michael Myers, an unknown in Nick Castle was cast as shooting began in the spring of 1978 for 20 days in South Pasadena, California as it would play the fictional town of Haddonfield, Illinois.
The filming would have Carpenter not only play with many of the conventions of suspense and horror but also wanting to emphasize more on mood rather than gore as his ideas would be considered to be the standards of horror convention. With the help of cinematographer Dean Cundey, wanted to help create some lighting and such to play into the horror as well in how some of the characters would be killed. Being the film’s music composer, Carpenter would create a score largely created by synthesizers and keyboards that would include its theme as it often considered one of the definitive music themes in the horror genre.
The film made its premiere in late October of 1978 via limited release due to the fact that it was an independently-made film. Yet, the word of mouth about the film would grow in major cities as it would make an astronomical box office take of making more than $47 million in the U.S. and eventually grossing $70 million worldwide. While the critical reception was mixed, the film was considered a landmark film for the horror genre as it helped create a franchise where Carpenter would be involved as a writer/producer as well as a string of many other kind of films in that vein that often came to be known as the slasher movies. While Carpenter, in his contract, would only get 10% of the film’s profits, the film did make Carpenter a major name as he would continuously reap the financial rewards of his breakthrough film.
Someone's Watching Me!
Before Carpenter was to make his breakthrough film, Carpenter was asked by NBC to make a TV movie as it would be in a suspense thriller. While Carpenter would retain some creative control, he was aware that he had to make something that was suitable. The film would be about a woman who moves to Los Angeles as she gets some unneeded attention from a stalker as she tries to find its identity with the aid of a co-worker and her new boyfriend. The project would star Lauren Hutton in the lead role while Carpenter regular Charles Cyphers was cast in a supporting role with David Birney as Hutton’s boyfriend. Another supporting part that was cast as Hutton’s co-worker went to Adrienne Barbeau whom Carpenter had fallen for as she would become another of his recurring collaborators.
Shot in studios in Los Angeles in 1977, Carpenter was able to get his ideas through while creating some unique compositions to play into the suspense. Notably a scene where Hutton’s character is in an airshaft on the floor as she looks up and tries to see who is there. Even though Carpenter wasn’t able to use his collaborators, with the exception of Cyphers and Barbeau, he was able to create some visual ideas that would become part of his trademark as a filmmaker while proving he can be relied on for different projects. The TV film made its premiere in late November of 1978 just a month after the release of Halloween. Though the film did modestly well on television, it became a bigger deal following the release of Halloween as it had become a minor hit of sorts.
Around the time Carpenter had completed Halloween, the filmmaker received an offer from Dick Clark about helming a made-for-TV movie on the life of Elvis Presley. Carpenter agreed to do the project as he sees it as a chance to stray from the horror/suspense genre and do something else. While Carpenter worked with the TV movie’s producer/writer Anthony Lawrence on what aspect of Presley’s life to tell as they also were consulted by Presley‘s widow Priscilla who would approve of Lawrence‘s script. With the exception of Charles Cyphers in the role of Sam Phillips, Carpenter would work with an entirely different crew while he did have approval for the cast as it included Shelley Winters as Presley’s mother Gladys, Pat Hingle as Presley’s manager Col. Tom Parker, Robert Gray as Presley’s longtime friend Red West, and early appearances from Dennis Christopher and Joe Mantegna.
For the role of Presley, Kurt Russell was cast while Russell’s father Bing was cast as Presley’s father Vernon. Carpenter saw something in Russell in the role as Russell had worked with Presley back in 1963 for the film It Happened at the World’s Fair where Russell used his own experience in meeting Presley to play the character. Russell’s then-girlfriend Season Hubley was cast as Priscilla as shooting began in late 1978 where it was very smooth and controlled. The production saw Russell and Carpenter become very friendly as it was clear that the two had something together where it marked the beginning of a very fruitful collaboration between the two. A collaboration that would help Russell break away from the Walt Disney films he had been known for since he was a kid while Carpenter would find a lead actor he would work with on an array of different projects.
The TV movie made its premiere on ABC on February 11, 1979 as it was a smash hit in the ratings as it definitely added more clout for John Carpenter as a filmmaker. For Kurt Russell, the movie was a breakthrough for the actor as he was nominated for a Golden Globe and a Best Actor nod at the Emmys while the film also received two other Primetime Emmy nominations. The film, in a truncated form, was a hit in Europe as it helped establish Carpenter as a viable force in cinema.
With Halloween having been a major success upon its wide release in 1979, it was clear that Carpenter was a hot name for the world of horror as he knew what he wanted to do but he didn’t want repeat himself entirely. Based on an experience he had with producer/then-girlfriend Debra Hill about a fog they encountered in Britain during a promotional tour for Assault on Precinct 13. Carpenter and Hill wrote a script that is also based on an actual event about a shipwreck in the 19th Century in Goleta, California. The film would be about a centennial event involving a mysterious fog where ghosts would haunt a town and the locals. The premise caught the eye of the executives at Embassy Pictures who would give Carpenter a two-film deal and a million dollars for the budget.
The cast would feature some of Carpenter’s group of regular actors in Jamie Lee Curtis, Adrienne Barbeau, Nancy Kyes, and Charles Cyphers while the cast would also feature Hal Holbrook, Tom Atkins, John Houseman, and Curtis’ mother Janet Leigh. Along with cinematographer Dean Cundey and production designer/co-editor Tommy Lee Wallace, the one-month shoot around coastal cities in California in April of 1979 proved to be a tough one. Notably as Carpenter struggled to create moments that is scary as he felt like he didn’t get what he wanted during the post-production process. While Carpenter would get the chance to do some re-shoots despite raising the budget to another $100,000, the re-shoots did give Carpenter the chance to shoot new scenes including a prologue with John Houseman as well as inserts that proved to be beneficial for the story. The little details that Carpenter would include for the film definitely helped matters despite some of the worry that the people Embassy Pictures had.
The film made its premiere in February of 1980 instead of its original December 1979 release slate where the film was a commercial success making more than $21 million in the North American box office. While its critical reception was mixed upon its initial release, the film was very popular with fans of the horror film genre as they see Carpenter as one of its premier filmmakers. Even as fans and critics of the genre would cite the film as one of Carpenter’s quintessential features as it marked the beginning of what was to be a very fruitful yet tumultuous decade for the filmmaker.
Escape from New York
Having achieved some success and with a sense of independence, Carpenter went ahead with his next project which was to be his biggest to date as it revolved around a dystopian New York City where the city has become a prison where a former soldier has 22 hours to save the U.S. President whose plane has crashed in the city and is captured by prisoners. The film was inspired by the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s as Carpenter wrote the project with actor Nick Castle as it would be set in 1997 in the future where America has been ravaged by chaos and corruption. While executives at Embassy wanted Charles Bronson or Tommy Lee Jones for the lead role of the anti-hero Snake Plissken, Carpenter wanted Kurt Russell as it was a role that a total extreme to the Disney films that Russell had been for much of his career. Carpenter won the decision as well as be given a $6 million budget which was small but still big compared to the films Carpenter had previously made.
With Jamie Lee Curtis providing some opening narration as the cast would also feature Carpenter regulars Adrienne Barbeau, Season Hubley, Charles Cyphers, Tom Atkins, and Donald Pleasance as the President along with Ernest Borgnine, Harry Dean Stanton, Lee Van Cleef, and Isaac Hayes in supporting roles. The film was shot in burned parts of St. Louis to save money as Carpenter would bring in his team for the four-month production that begin in August of 1980. The production was intense due to the fact that it was shot at night while Russell had to wear an eye patch for the film and would take it off between takes. Despite some of the troubles, the filming did produce a lot of results as it also maintained the rapport between Russell and Carpenter.
The film made its premiere in July of 1981 where it was well-received by critics while doing very well in the American box office making more than $25 million against its $6 million budget. The film’s success was something positive for Embassy which had focused on producing low-budget films including a sequel to Halloween which Carpenter co-wrote, produced, and co-scored with Alan Howarth. The film would become a hit with arrival of home video as it increased Carpenter’s cult following to the point that Hollywood came calling.
Having maintained a degree of success on his own terms and being proudly independent where he was able to get creative control and have financial stability. Carpenter’s clout in the film world got him to meet with studio executives in Hollywood who wanted to work with him on a bunch of projects. One project that intrigued Carpenter was a script for a modern-day remake of John W. Campbell Jr.’s novella Who Goes There? which was made into a film by Christian Nyby entitled The Thing From Another World which was a film Carpenter liked. Carpenter said yes to Bill Lancaster’s script as he was given not just some creative control to make the film and the cast but he would also be given a $15 million budget which was considered modest at the time. With Kurt Russell playing the lead role with Adrienne Barbeau only providing voice work, the rest of the cast would include Keith David, Wilford Brimley, T.K. Carter, Richard Masur, David Clennon, and Donald Moffatt.
With the exception of cinematographer Dean Cundey, Carpenter would work with an entirely different crew who were more professional than the people he worked with. While many of the interiors was shot in Los Angeles in late 1981, Carpenter shot many of the exteriors in British Columbia and parts near Alaska during harsh weather conditions. Some of which proved to be dangerous as the film’s cast would have to ride a bus to and back from the shooting location in awfully cold weather. After an intense three-month shoot that would be followed by a few re-shoots that included some special effects work from Rob Bottin and Stan Winston. Carpenter would get the chance to work with one of the great music composers in cinema in Ennio Morricone. Though Carpenter didn’t speak Italian and Morricone didn’t speak English, the two did have a nice time working together where Carpenter and collaborator Alan Howarth would create an electronic theme for the film’s opening sequence while they watched in awe into the music that Morricone would make.
The film made its premiere in June 25, 1982 to immense hype as it was Carpenter’s first studio feature. Yet, the film had the unfortunate timing of opening around the time another film from the same studio in Universal Studios had been released which was Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial which was becoming a massive box office hit as well as another sci-fi film in Ridley Scott‘s Blade Runner. While it only made more than $19 million in the box office, the film was considered a major commercial disappointment while its critical reaction was very negative over Carpenter’s interpretation of the novel. Though the film would get a critical re-evaluation as well as be a cult film among horror film fans and later lauded as one of Carpenter’s great films. The disappointing commercial reaction from the film would mark the beginning of a tumultuous love-hate relationship between Carpenter and Hollywood.
Despite the commercial failure of The Thing, Carpenter still had some clout in the industry where he was offered the chance to direct an adaptation of a new novel by Stephen King whose books had become very popular and lead to successful adaptations that included Brian de Palma’s Carrie and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. While Carpenter wasn’t enthused about making a film version about a teenager who buys a used 1958 Ford Plymouth where he fixes it up and becomes obsessed with it to the point that the car would come alive and haunt those that harm its owner. Carpenter knew he needed work as he said yes to the project while attaining some creative control and a $10 million budget. With the exception of Alan Howarth who would compose the music with Carpenter, Carpenter would work with an entirely different crew as well as a cast who had never worked with him.
The cast would include Keith Gordon, John Stockwell, Alexandra Paul, Kelly Preston, Robert Prosky, and Carpenter regular Harry Dean Stanton. The film would be set in 1978 as it was shot largely in Los Angeles where it began in April of 1983 as the production was more calm in comparison to Carpenter’s last film. Especially as he would use much of the post-production to create the effects of the car regenerating as a way to create something real without having to be pressured to create the effects during filming.
The film made its premiere in early December of 1983 where it was a hit in the box office grossing more than $21 million as well as receiving excellent reviews. The film’s success would get more popular on home video as it is often considered to be one of the finest adaptation of King’s work. Though it did put Carpenter back in the good graces with Hollywood, the relationship would still be testy as the filmmaker knew he had to deliver the goods if he wanted to keep working.
With the success of Christine, Carpenter was given another offer from Columbia who had produced the film about taking on a script that had been in development for years. It revolved around an alien who arrives to Earth where he meets a woman as he takes on the form of her late husband as they travel cross-country in the U.S. to find his ship so he can return home. Actor Michael Douglas was one of the producers who wanted the project to be made as several directors were offered to helm the project. Carpenter was eventually chosen as he saw the script as a chance to do something different from the world of horror as well as make a road movie. While he would retain the services of cinematographer Donald M. Morgan and editor Marion Rothman who had worked with him on Christine. Carpenter would also receive some creative control as the cast would include Jeff Bridges in the lead role along with supporting performances from Karen Allen, Charles Martin Smith, and Richard Jaeckel.
With a budget of $24 million as some of its budget was attributed to some of its visual effects that included some work from makeup effects artist Rick Baker, Carpenter kept things simple as he, the cast, and crew would spend a lot of time filming on the road. The filming was a distraction for Carpenter who was reeling from events in his personal life as he and Adrienne Barbeau called it quits after a five-year marriage just as she was to give birth to their only son John Cody Carpenter in May 7, 1984. Despite the turmoil in his personal life, Carpenter was able to be focused on the film as he was able to get it done. The film made its premiere in December of 1984 where it was well-received and did modestly well in the box office. The film would give Jeff Bridges an Oscar and Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor as the film was a major success for Carpenter who was once again in the good graces of the studios.
Big Trouble in Little China
Following a short break between films, Carpenter was offered a script from 20th Century Fox about helming a martial arts film filled with mysticism and adventure as a film that would compete with Paramount Pictures’ production of Michael Ritchie’s The Golden Child starring Eddie Murphy. The film would be about two friends who help each other save one of the men’s fiancee who had been kidnapped by a Chinese sorcerer as they’re aided by a magician and several others. Carpenter agreed to do the project as he thought it was an exciting story as he was able to get Kurt Russell to play the lead role of Jack Burton though the character wouldn’t be aware that he’s really a bumbling sidekick who does awful John Wayne impressions. With Dean Cundey back on board to shoot the film, Carpenter would gain a new collaborator in Edward A. Warschilka who would co-edit the film with Mark Warner and Steve Mirkovich.
The cast would also include Dennis Dun, Victor Wong, Kim Cattrall, and James Hong as it would be largely shot in soundstages as Carpenter spent ten weeks of pre-production to rehearse the many martial arts choreography in the film as Carpenter hired James Lew to do the choreography to make it as real as possible. Shooting began in October in the hopes that Carpenter would get the film done for its July of 1986 release yet Carpenter would incorporate things the studio didn’t expect as it deviated from the original script written by Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein in favor of the draft that W.D. Richter created as Carpenter felt Richter deserved more credit for his work. Among them was the element of humor as Carpenter wanted Dun’s character to be the real hero though the focus is more on Russell’s character as this bumbling fool.
Russell relished in playing the fool while Cattrall enjoyed the film as she saw her character of Gracie as something different from the usual damsels-in-distress as she describes her character as the brains to Russell’s brawny character. Carpenter also wanted to create some unique visual effects to play into the mystical elements as well as giving the martial arts choreography a sense of poetry and movement that is lacking in American films. The added realism as well as the fact that it also had a playful elements was something the executives at 20th Century Fox didn’t expect nor were they enthused in seeing Kurt Russell playing the comic relief. Nevertheless, Carpenter had final cut as 20th Century Fox would release the film on July 1, 1986.
The film’s release proved to be troubling as it received mixed reviews from critics who didn’t understand the film’s genre-bending tone while its box office take was disappointing as it only grossed $11million against its $20 million budget. Though the film, like many of Carpenter’s films, would have life later on through home video and cable as it became a cult classic while critical re-evaluation would later put the film in a more favorable light. Carpenter’s experience in dealing with studio executives took its toll as the disappointing numbers for the film forced him to return to his independent roots.
Prince of Darkness
After the disappointing reaction towards Big Trouble in Little China, Carpenter decided to return to making films on smaller and more careful budgets as it became fitting for his next film as it would be the second part of an unofficial trilogy dealing the apocalyptic themes that began with The Thing. Writing under the Martin Quartermass pseudonym, Carpenter’s new project would be about a priest who invites a college professor and his students to investigate a large canister at an abandoned church where he believes features some form of evil. The project was interesting as Carpenter discussed the project with rock music manager Shep Gordon who liked Carpenter’s script and agreed to help fund the film and another Carpenter project as the former that would include a cameo appearance from one of Gordon’s clients in shock rocker Alice Cooper.
With regulars Donald Pleasance, Victor Wong, and Dennis Dun starring in the project along with Lisa Blount and Jameson Parker while Carpenter gained a new recurring collaborator in cinematographer Gary B. Kibbe. The project was shot in Los Angeles for a thirty-day shoot in early 1987 as the $3 million production allowed Carpenter the chance to not deal with the headaches that involved big-budget productions. While the film would require visual effects that Carpenter would take care of for post-production, Carpenter wanted to explore the ideas of evil and to see if Satan existed while also wanting to bring some humor into the film courtesy of Dun who relished playing the comic relief after playing the badass in his previous collaboration with Carpenter.
With Universal Studios distributing the film as part of a deal made with Gordon’s Alive Films company, the film was released in late October of 1987 where it did modestly well at the box office making more than $14 million. The critical reception was not very good as some thought Carpenter was losing his touch yet there where those that defended the film as later critical re-evaluation saw the film as one of Carpenter’s more underrated features. The film’s financial success was a relief for Carpenter as he still proved he can deliver the goods.
Having read Ray Nelson’s short story Eight O’ Clock in the Morning back in the 1960s, Carpenter was becoming aware of what was happening in America as he had grown dissatisfied with the current administration run by Ronald Reagan as he sees elements in Nelson’s short story becoming true with what Reagan was bringing to the country. The short story and what he was seeing gave Carpenter a new idea that he would write, under another pseudonym in Frank Armitage, as it would revolve around a nameless drifter who makes a chilling discovery about the world he sees as he realizes that aliens had taken over and using subliminal messages to control the lives of humanity. With the help of Shep Gordon providing funding as it would be another $3 million low-budget film, Carpenter would go full steam ahead on the film.
For the lead role of the nameless drifter called Nada, Carpenter took a major risk in casting popular professional wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper whom he met in early 1987 at WrestleMania III. Piper said yes to playing the role as the cast would include Carpenter regulars Keith David as Nada’s friend Frank, Peter Jason as an underground organizer, and character actor George “Buck” Flowers as a homeless drifter while Meg Foster was cast as a TV programmer. The production began in March of 1988 for an eight-week shoot in Los Angeles as Carpenter would have the actors wear sunglasses so that their characters would make a chilling discovery of what is going on. One notable sequence in the film that would be considered legendary is a five-and-a-half minute fight scene between Nada and Frank as Carpenter wanted it to look and feel real.
The rehearsal process for the fight took three weeks as when it came time for the scene, Piper and David maintained that realism for the scene. When it came time for the design of the aliens, Francisco X. Perez was brought in to create a look for the aliens as it would be quite chilling as it also played to the many fallacies of what 1980s America was becoming. Carpenter also used a line that a Universal executive told him as it felt true to exactly what Carpenter was feeling in his views on Reagan and the reality of what America was becoming.
The film made its premiere in early November of 1988 as it had been pushed from its original October release so that it wouldn’t compete another sequel to Halloween which Carpenter had no involvement in. Though it made $13 million in the box office, the film was viewed by those in the industry as a commercial failure as it only had a small run in theaters while the critical reception was largely positive. Notably for its themes and the performance of Piper which has been lauded as one of the major highlights of the film. The film would later become a cult classic like many of Carpenter’s films as it would be the last film Carpenter would make in the 1980s which had been a fruitful but tumultuous period.
(End of Part 1) - Part 2
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