To be a John Carpenter fan is to submit oneself to perpetual disappointment.
Every few years a new movie will come out, aficionados of Carpenter’s early work will convince themselves, in defiance of both good sense and experience, that this is it; The One; the film that will reverse his artistic decline and restore ‘The Maestro’ (as we still call him) to former glory. Every single time – Every. Single. Time. – our false hopes are dashed. It’s another dud, another flop, another Big Trouble in Little China.
Carpenter hasn’t made a good movie since Prince of Darkness and he hasn’t made a great one since Escape from New York. The cause of this decline is a puzzle that’s never quite fit together for his fans. This is Carpenter, the man who gave us (and they really were gifts) Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, and The Fog. Even his student thesis film, Dark Star, is a work of art – a cynical essay on the human condition’s essential impenetrability to reason. How could early potential, rooted in talent and proved by accomplishment, decline to the point not merely of mediocrity but of embarrassment?
These thoughts arose, unbidden, when I was channel-surfing a few nights ago and stopped on a cable network airing Ghosts of Mars, Carpenter’s 2001 science fiction thriller pitching futuristic space cops against a spectral alien tribe – essentially an other-planetary reimagining of both Assault on Precinct 13 and Escape from New York. It’s a terrible movie. Not in the sense that it’s poorly plotted or the performances are substandard; those are two areas where the film is mildly respectable. Rather, it’s flat, sterile, almost a dead movie. It doesn’t connect. It doesn’t feel.
Why is this? An important factor is money. Carpenter was at his best as a low-budget film-maker. When he was working with $60,000 for Dark Star, $100,000 for Assault on Precinct 13, and $325,000 for Halloween – nickels and dimes in Hollywood terms – he excelled by using ‘poor man’s process’, those low-budget tricks that lend authenticity to even the most outlandish plots and scenarios. Fast forward to Big Trouble in Little China (budget: $25,000,000), Ghosts of Mars ($28,000,000), and Escape from LA ($50,000,000) and Carpenter is working with vastly larger sums of money but turning in vastly inferior movies. Necessity is the mother of invention and, although there might be a little misty-eyed romanticism to this, in movie production penury often inspires originality.
Psychology might have something to do with it too. If the past is a foreign country, the 1970s is Jupiter. Francis Wheen has written evocatively about the paranoid style of the decade and Adam Simon’s The American Nightmare documents how horror cinema reflected the fear, suspicion, and simmering hysteria of the time. Vietnam, Cambodia, Watergate, and political and social upheaval inspired a convulsive paranoia that, for a time, seemed to take hold as the national mood in the US, Britain, and much of the Western world. As Simon shows, this atmosphere proved ripe for horror movies. Carpenter, like Romero, Hooper, and Craven, reflected this in movies about the underlying violence of American society. It’s America that is under siege, not just a police station (one that’s shutting down, metaphor-hunters), in Assault on Precinct 13 and only through violence can the established order be upheld. The little boy down the street who stabs his sister to death in Halloween is the return of the repressed, the mundane evil that might very well lie behind any white picket fence in suburban America. And don’t be fooled by the atmospheric mist and ghostly mariners; The Fog is about the sins of colonialism and the foundational myths of pioneer societies. Carpenter, an essayist of subterranean America, worked in an aesthetic of despondency that matched his time.
But isn’t that our time too? You want despondency? The decline of the West and the ascendency of China (and the emerging economies of Latin America). Global economic turmoil. An asymmetrical conflict with Islamist terrorism. Tumult in the Arab autocracies. Things are falling apart; the centre isn’t holding. Carpenter should be thriving artistically in these circumstances. Yet his most recent offering The Ward, a sub-TV movie effort about a disturbed woman tormented by a ghost that stalks the halls of a mental asylum, is culturally insular to the point of insipidity. Surveying this world of material, Carpenter has nothing to offer. In fairness, contemporary American horror cinema as a whole would appear to have nothing to offer, except remakes, retreads, and reimaginings. The hyper-stylised torture porn, ‘found footage’, and Paranormal Activity subgenres – best understood as horror movies for people who don’t like horror movies – are the only game in town, a low-investment, high-return, quality-be-damned game.
We tell ourselves: If anyone can lead a renaissance in the art of horror, surely it is Carpenter. The Maestro will rise again. One day soon. When the right script comes along. And the money’s there. And the stars align. And… and…
This is this masochism of self-delusion. It’s over. Carpenter’s best days are behind him. His fans continue to watch his movies not because they expect a masterpiece but because the man has served his dues to those fans and the movie industry. He once was great and should be accorded the quiet respect once-great men deserve, for his talent, his films, and for turning on millions of moviegoers around the world to the pleasures of paranoia.