Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Auteurs #60: John Carpenter (Part 2)

Part 2 (1989-2016)

Memoirs of an Invisible Man

After a series of films in the 1970s and 1980s that were commercial hits as well as some financial disappointments as they would later be lauded as classics. John Carpenter ended the 1980s on a disappointing note when a chance to helm the third film of The Exorcist franchise fell apart as he and the book’s creator William Peter Blatty clashed over its content as Carpenter realized that Blatty wanted to direct the film himself as Carpenter left the project. In 1990, Carpenter’s personal life was in an upswing when he married Sandy King who would become one of his producers as he spent much of 1990 taking a break. It was around that time that Carpenter was offered a project to direct in a loose adaptation of H.F. Saint’s Memoirs of an Invisible Man which is to star comedy actor Chevy Chase in a more dramatic role.

The project had been languishing in development hell before Carpenter was approached as it was originally supposed to be helmed by Ivan Reitman with a script written by William Goldman. Reitman left the project due to disagreements with Chase over the concept of the film as new writers came on board with Carpenter given the chance to take on the project for money as well as to work with Chase who would play the lead role. The casting would include Daryl Hannah as the love interest and Sam Neill as the film’s antagonist as the ensemble would also include Michael McKean, Patricia Heaton, and Stephen Tobolowsky. Though the $40 million budgeted film was Carpenter’s biggest film to date as it largely based on visual effects that Carpenter felt wasn’t exactly perfect. They were considered groundbreaking as Carpenter wanted to try and create something funny with elements of science fiction.

The film made its premiere in February of 1992 as it was poorly received as well as being a major commercial disappointment making more than $14 million in the box office. The film would mark the beginning of a whirlwind period for Carpenter who would work with studios just to make money but also go into a period of creative decline as the film was him doing a work-for-hire in a vanity project for Chase who was experiencing his own career decline.

Body Bags

Wanting to step away from making feature films and deal with studios, Carpenter was offered a project from the pay-cable channel Showtime about creating a TV horror series that would rival HBO’s own popular horror series Tales from the Crypt. Carpenter agreed as he was aided by wife Sandy King as they read the ideas from writers Dan Angel and Billy Brown. Though Carpenter would play the role of a coroner to open each episode, he knew that he couldn’t do the project by himself as he went to another famed horror filmmaker was going through some hard times in his career in Tobe Hooper. Hooper agreed to do an episode about a baseball player who gets an eye transplant where he sees strange things with his new eye. Carpenter would direct the first to episodes as the first was about a woman’s eventful first night working as a gas station attendant and the second story is about a hair transplant surgery gone wrong due to strange alien parasites.

Carpenter would lend Hooper his collaborators for the project while both directors brought in an array of people to appear in the series such as Robert Carradine, Stacy Keach, Mark Hamill, David Warner, Debbie Harry, Sheena Easton, Twiggy, John Agar, and horror filmmakers Wes Craven and Sam Raimi for cameo appearances. The project was something that Carpenter and Hooper enjoyed yet plans to make it into a TV series was halted by Showtime as they decided not to turn the project into a series but instead as an anthology film which premiered in August of 1993 to good reviews. Despite the fact that it didn’t become a TV series, the project did at least give Carpenter something to do as well as have some fun at a time when Hollywood wanted little to do with him.

In the Mouth of Madness

In the late 80s, Carpenter was offered a script written by film producer Michael de Luca that shared Carpenter’s love of H.P. Lovecraft about an insurance investigator who travels to find a mysterious writer to see if he’s disappeared as well as recover the writer’s manuscript. Carpenter at first declined to do the film as it went into a series of development before Carpenter finally decided to do the film in late 1992 with the backing of New Line Cinema to fund the film. Carpenter and de Luca worked to polish the script as it contained a lot of elements that Carpenter loved as the film would become the third and final part of Carpenter’s trilogy based on apocalyptic themes that began with The Thing and was followed by Prince of Darkness. For the lead role of John Trent, Carpenter brought in Sam Neill whom he had enjoyed working with on Memoirs of an Invisible Man.

The cast would then include Julie Carmen, Jurgen Prochnow, David Warner, John Glover, Bernie Casey, Frances Bay, and Charlton Heston as production begin in August of 1993 in Toronto and areas near the city for a two-month shoot as it would be a film that didn’t play by the conventional aspects of horror nor suspense. Carpenter wanted to blur the lines of fiction and reality as it relates to the work of the character Sutter Cane that is played by Prochnow. Notably as the character of Trent and Julie Carmen’s character would go to this small town as if they’re a part of the world that Cane has created. Especially as Carpenter would go to great lengths to create something that has elements of Lovecraft such as an appearance from Cthulhu-like creature as well as an ending that play into that blur of reality and fiction.

The film would make its premiere in December of 1994 in Italy as it was then released in the U.S. two months later to mixed reviews with some bashing the film for being way out there with some praising it as the French film magazine Cahiers du Cinema put the film in its year-end top-ten list for 1995. While it would barely recoup its $8 million budget, the film was considered a commercial disappointment as it continued to play into Carpenter’s already tumultuous relationship with Hollywood.

Village of the Damned

In need to continue working just to make money, Carpenter was offered the chance to do a remake of the 1960 horror film Village of the Damned which was based on John Wyndham’s novel The Midwich Cuckoos. Carpenter said yes to the project as he brought in his collaborators while updating the film to be set in Northern California where he was living at the time so he wouldn’t be far away from home. The cast would include Christopher Reeve, Kirstie Alley, Linda Kozlowski, Mark Hamill, Meredith Salenger, Michael Pare, and several others including child actors who would play the children that would haunt and take control of the small Northern California town.

With a large $22 million budget, Carpenter struggled to create something scary as well as accessible to a wide audience. Especially as wanting to be faithful to Wyndham’s novel and update it but also wanted to create something that was frightening to a horror audience. The result was something that Carpenter didn’t enjoy despite enjoying the chance to work with Christopher Reeve just a year before Reeve’s horse-riding accident that would left him paralyzed. The film was released in late April of 1995 as it was a box office bomb making only $9.4 million against its $22 million budget while the critical reaction was negative as some thought it was a major disappointment. Yet, the film did fulfill Carpenter’s contractual issues with Universal following the disappointing commercial reaction towards The Thing thirteen years earlier.

Escape from L.A.

Desperate to get his career back on track, Carpenter decided to revive a long-dormant project he thought about making as it was to be a sequel of Escape from New York but the script languished over the years as Carpenter, Debra Hill, and Kurt Russell struggled to find the right tone. Inspired by some of the chaotic elements that had occurred in Los Angeles in the early 1990s such as the 1992 riots and the 1994 earthquake. Carpenter, Hill, and Russell did re-writes to create something that is set in an apocalyptic Los Angeles where the city had been cut off from the country until the President’s daughter stole a remote control that control all weapons as she gives it to a guerilla leader prompting the President and the government to get Snake Plissken to retrieve the weapon. Russell was eager to reprise the role of Plissken as well as work with Carpenter for the first time in a decade.

The cast would include a diverse array of actors such as Cliff Robertson as the President as well as George Corraface, A.J. Langer, Valeria Golino, Stacy Keach, Peter Fonda, Robert Carradine, Steve Buscemi, Michelle Forbes, Pam Grier, and Bruce Campbell. The film was given a $50 million budget as it was the biggest budget Carpenter would work with as much of it was due to the set design and visual effects as well as get permission to use some landmarks of the city. With Paramount Pictures distributing the film, there was pressure for the film to be successful as some believed this was to be Carpenter’s chance to get back in the good graces but Carpenter still had to deal with executives over the content and what the film would be.

The film made its release in August of 1996 where despite Kurt Russell’s winning performance as Plissken, the film only made more than half of its budget while the critical reception was mixed. While Carpenter was proud of the film and getting the chance to work with Russell again, the film’s commercial disappointment only furthered his growing disdain toward Hollywood. Especially as he was offered the chance to make a 20th anniversary sequel to Halloween which was to reunite him with Jamie Lee Curtis. While asking for a $10 million salary to do the film as a way to get some of the money he never got for the original film which was something he and the film’s original financier Moustapha Akkad had issues with. When Akkad refused to give Carpenter some of the money that Carpenter never got for the original and the other films in the franchise, Carpenter walked away from the project as it added to growing disdain towards the industry.


Following the disappointing commercial reaction towards Escape from L.A. and losing the chance to helm Halloween H20: 20 Years Later, Carpenter contemplated ending his film career until the production company Largo offered Carpenter an idea for a film to make based on John Steakley’s novel. Leaning towards Carpenter’s fondness for westerns, the project that was about vampire hunters trying to kill vampires in the American West was something Carpenter liked as he took Dan Jakoby’s script and a $20 million budget for the film to be made with Columbia Pictures distributing the film. For the lead role of Jack Crow, James Woods was cast as the rest of the ensemble would include Daniel Baldwin, Sheryl Lee, Thomas Ian Griffith, and Maximillian Schell.

The film was shot all around the American Southwest as Carpenter relished in making something that had elements of the western as well as working with James Woods. The production was fun as Carpenter got to create some practical stunt work as well as have the time to honing some of the visual effects during the post-production. Once the film was completed, Carpenter and producer/wife Sandy King still had to deal with the MPAA who found the film’s over-the-top violence to be graphic as it nearly got a NC-17 rating. Cuts were eventually made to tone down the gore so that the film would get a R rating for its late October 1998 release where the film did modestly well in the box office making more than $20 million. While its critical reception wasn’t great, the film did get a high praise from Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune who thought it was one of Carpenter’s best films as well as praising James Woods who he felt should get a nomination for Best Actor at the Oscars. Despite its modest commercial success and Siskel’s review, the film overlooked though it would win three Saturn awards including Best Actor for Woods, Best Make-up, and Best Score for Carpenter.

Ghosts of Mars

After a rough decade that saw a lot of failures and battles with the studios, Carpenter entered the 21st Century hoping for a new start as he revived a script he wrote that was intended to be the third film involving the Snake Plissken character that was to be set on Mars. Yet, the commercial failure of Escape from L.A. halted the film as Carpenter re-wrote the script with Larry Sulkin as it would revolve around an intergalactic police force who find themselves battling Martians as they’re aided by a criminal they were supposed to transport to prison as he had been accused of murder. For the lead role of James “Desolation” Williams, Carpenter wanted British actor Jason Statham who was on the rise through the films of British filmmaker Guy Ritchie. The film’s distributor in Screen Gems wanted a bigger name as they suggested rapper/actor Ice Cube to play Williams as Carpenter reluctantly agreed while giving Statham a strong supporting role.

For the female lead of Lt. Melanie Ballard, Carpenter cast alternative rock vocalist Courtney Love for the role but she was forced to drop out due to personal issues. With shooting to begin in the summer/fall of 2000 in New Mexico and most of the cast that included Pam Grier, Joanna Cassidy, Robert Carradine, Clea DuVall, and Liam Waite as part of the ensemble. The female lead wasn’t filled until Waite brought in his then-girlfriend in Natasha Henstridge who came in at the last minute. The filming was rough as Henstridge, who had just finished another film, became exhausted and ill forcing the production to be suspended for a week. Carpenter also felt constrained by the demands of the studio who were giving Carpenter $28 million for its budget as the experience became a low point for the director.

The film made its premiere in late August of 2001 where it only made half of its budget making it another commercial disappointment while the critical reception was poor as some felt Carpenter was ripping himself off and was running out of idea. The film’s poor critical and commercial reaction was enough for Carpenter who had become burned out by nearly a period of trying to fight for his vision and dealing with executives who were more concerned about money rather than making a good film. Carpenter decided to go into semi-retirement and leave the world of Hollywood for good.

Masters of Horror-Cigarette Burns/Pro-Life

With the mid-2000s seeing remakes of some of Carpenter’s lauded films such as Assault on Precinct 13 and The Fog with Carpenter serving as an executive producer for the latter while horror filmmaker Rob Zombie did a remake of Halloween in 2007. Carpenter spent much of the 2000s staying away from the world of film devoting himself to family and career retrospectives. It was around the time that filmmaker Mick Garris pitched Carpenter and several other horror filmmakers such as Guillermo del Toro, Larry Cohen, Tobe Hooper, John Landis, Joe Dante, Stuart Gordon, and several others about making a TV series where horror filmmakers can helm an episode for the series. Many said yes to the series as some of the filmmakers were in need to get some support as some, like Carpenter, had their own terrible experiences with Hollywood. For Carpenter, he would eventually helm two episodes for its two seasons. The first of which entitled Cigarette Burns came from a script by Drew McWeeny and Scott Swan about a man who tries to find a print of a rare film for a film collector that drove its audience into chaos once they view it.

The episode starred Norman Reedus and Udo Kier as it played into the ideas of obsession as the film-within-a-film is considered forbidden as it features an array of macabre and eerie images. The episode premiered in December of 2005 as it was well-received with critics who felt it was a return-of-form for Carpenter. A year later for its second and last season, Carpenter helmed one more episode in Pro-Life starring Ron Perlman, Caitlin Wachs, Mark Feurerstein, Derek Mears, and Emmanuelle Vaugier about a young woman who is pregnant with a child that could possibly be a demon seed as her very religious father tries to get in the building with his sons to stop the abortion from happening. The episode plays into the argument of pro-life vs. pro-choice as the episode echoed elements of Carpenter’s earlier work as well as delve into some of the conventions of modern horror. The episode premiered in late November of 2006 where it received mix reviews yet it did give Carpenter some renewed confidence just as a lot of filmmakers were praising his body of work.

The Ward

After a long period away from films, Carpenter spent some years trying to find the right script that played into his sensibilities as a filmmaker. It was through a script by brothers Michael and Shawn Rasmussen about a young woman who enters a mental institution following an arson where she becomes haunted by a dead inmate of the institution. The story is set in 1966 as Carpenter was intrigued by the story as he would work closely with Rasmussen brothers on the project as Carpenter was able to get independent funding as he knew the film wouldn’t get a wide release. Nevertheless, Carpenter would get the chance to make his first film in nearly a decade and it would be in his own control. With the exception of the famed makeup artist Greg Nicotero, Carpenter would work with an entirely different crew as the film would be shot in Spokane, Washington as a 1960s version of a rural small town in Oregon.

The cast would include young starlets who were either newcomers or had been in horror films such as Amber Heard, Danielle Panabaker, Lyndsy Fonesca, Mamie Gummer, Laura-Leigh, and Mika Boorem while British actor Jared Harris would play a key supporting role. Much of the film was shot in late 2009/early 2010 where Carpenter thrived on shooting the film entirely at a real mental hospital in Medical Lake, Washington. Especially as it added some realism that reminded him of his early years as a filmmaker while allowing his actress to relish in playing into the situation of horror.

The film made its premiere in September of 2010 at the Toronto Film Festival where it got a decent reception as audiences welcomed Carpenter back to the world of film. Following a UK release in January of 2011 and a very limited U.S. release later that July where the film only grossed $1.2 million worldwide while reviews weren’t great though there were a few good reviews who were glad to see Carpenter back. The film was considered a success by Carpenter who was happy to return as he would receive a lifetime achievement award from the Freak Show Horror Film Festival in October of 2010.

While it’s been six years since his last film as he’s recently devoted time to making music and performing his film scores for a devoted audience. John Carpenter remains a viable figure in cinema not just among horror filmmakers but also other filmmakers in different genres whether it’s in the works of filmmakers like Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino, and Eli Roth to art-house filmmakers like Jeff Nichols. Carpenter’s legacy is an enduring one as many can try to remake some of his work but it can never duplicated as he is also someone that knew how to scare people but also tell stories that are thrilling and engaging with characters to care about. John Carpenter doesn’t just earn his place as a master of horror but he is someone that deserves a lot more than that as he is one of cinema’s masters who, like Alfred Hitchcock before him, is more about scaring the audience and have fun with them.

Part 1

© thevoid99 2016


Dell said...

Yeah, I really need to hunker down on my Carpenter. These two posts make me realize how much of his work I've missed. Thanks for doing this.

keith71_98 said...

Such a great spotlight. Carpenter has created so many wild concoctions that I have enjoyed over the years. Some may miss the mark a tad but I almost always find him interesting.

thevoid99 said...

@Wendell-He leaves a body of work that any filmmaker wishes they could have. I think he's up there with the Hitchcocks, Kubricks, and Cronenbergs. He is a true master.

@keith71_98-Even his worst films always have something interesting as he's one of those guys who can make movies that are awful but are more interesting than a lot of other people's films.