B-Movie Pioneers – John Carpenter

For this B-Movie Pioneers we will be focusing on the great John Carpenter.  John Carpenter is  one of the most successful and influential horror and sci-fi filmmakers of all time.  Throughout the 70’s and 80’s he would release a slew of low budget cult classics that are still today regarded as some of the best in their respective genres.

John Carpenter, was born in Carthage New York way back in 1948.  His father, Howard Ralph Carpenter, was a music professor.  In 1953 Howard decided to movie the family to Bowling Green Kentucky.  Not long after, at an early age, John would fall in love with cinema.  It was the early 50’s and as a boy he was captivated by westerns which were popular at the time, he would then fall in love with the genres that his name would become synonymous with.

He would soon become captivated with movies such as Forbidden Planet, one of my all time favorites, and The Thing From Another World.  It wouldn’t be long before Carpenter started experimenting himself, filming with an old 8mm camera.  He would eventually go onto to study film at Western Kentucky University and then he would move to California to go to the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts.  It would be here in 1969 that he would write and direct his first short film, a film that would finally resurface in 2011 and show how it had laid the ground work for Halloween, that films title is Captain Voyeur.

Shortly after Capatain Voyeur, and after a few more short student film projects, one in conjunction with John Longenecker, which would become the winner of an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film, The Resurrection of Broncho Billy he would start directing his first major film. Dark Star.

Dark Star was co-written with Dan O’Bannon.  The name Dan O’Bannon may sound familiar to some of you, if it does its for good reason, he would later on write Alien, a movie which he used many of the themes and ideas from Dark Star, with one glaring difference, Dark Star was a dark comedy, Alien is most definitely not.  The film was created for a mere 60,000 dollars.  The two were able to complete the film by focusing on multiple tasks, O’Bannon starred in the film and did most of the special effects, the latter would eventually lead to him working on the special effects on Star Wars.  Carpenter focused on the writing, producing, directing and also composing the musical score.  The two would turn out a rather well done low budget movie that would get them noticed by many in Hollywood.

The next film Carpenter would work on would be Assault on Precinct 13.  Once again, he would not only write the movie but he would also direct and score it.  Carpenter would soon become known not only for his writing and his directing, but also for his scoring ability.

Assault on Precinct 13 also show cases Carpenters early love of westerns, the movie is really a 70’s version of Rio Bravo, well, Carpenter said it was influenced by it, but to me it was a well crafted update of the original.  It was also another film that he wrote, directed and scored.  It would later come out that he, not John T Chance, was the editor.  Using the name John T Chance was another way to pay homage to the classic westerns, since in reality John T Chance was the name of John Waynes character in Rio Bravo.

To keep the budget low and in control, Carpenter recruited an extremely experienced cast of actors.  These actors, which included Austin Stoker and Darwin Joston.  Stoker was a staple in sci-fi and disaster films of the time.  Joston, was a hard working television actor.  While not considered a critically acclaimed film at the time, in modern times the movie has been considered a classic and amongst the best exploitation films of the time.  Not only is it considered a cult classic, its the movie that solidified Carpenters place in Hollywood.  But for all the praise the movie garnered in later years, it was nothing compared to his next major film, a film which would create a genre….1978’s Halloween.

Where to begin?  Halloween put John Carpenter firmly in the hall of horror greats.  Based on an idea that Carpenter heard from Irwin Yablans, about babysitters being stalked and murdered, Carpenter would take the basic idea and shift it to Halloween.  He would then co write it with Debra Hill, direct it and score it.  The movie would star former James Bond villain Donald Pleasance and would kick start the career of Jamie Lee Curtis.  It would also single handily start the slashed genre as we know it now and give us a haunting theme that even people who didn’t see the movie would recognize, composed by Carpenter himself.  It was also the first of Carpenters films to be both a critical success and a commercial success.  Filmed with a budget of 320.ooo dollars it would go on to gross 65 million dollars and also become one of the most successful indie films of all time.  Oddly, his next film, a made for TV biopic, which was neither horror or sci fi, would lead to a long and profitable working relationship with Kurt Russel, Elvis The Movie.

Elvis, well, not really much to say here is there? Kurt Russel stars as Elvis and John Carpenter directed.  The story was one of the few not written or co written by Carpenter, Anthony Lawrence handled that.  It also starred Shelley Winters and Russels father, Bing.  The movie holds a rather decent rating on IMDB, a 6.4.  Luckily for us, he would return to the sci fi and horror genres soon enough, with the The Fog.

The Fog, might not have been the comeback we were hoping for, in fact it was one of the few movies that Carpenter had problems with.  After filming was almost completed he watched a rough cut, and for the first time in his career, he saw a film that he wasn’t happy with.  He wasn’t sure what to do, so he buckled down and decided that the story would need to be more cohesive, and much freighting.  After weeks of recuts and reshoots he was somewhat satisfied with the film.  The film was a box office success, made with 1,000,000 dollars it would gross 21,000,000 domestically.  Even without being a critical success it has also become a cult classic. It would be after The Fog, that he would craft what many call his greatest films, starting with the 1981 cult classic, Escape from New York.

Ah, Escape From New York, many of us have fond memories of this one.  The basic story is that in a dystopian 1997, the US has converted the island of Manhatten into a maximum security prison.  Air Force one is flying over, for some odd reason, and is shot down trapping the President in the “prison”.  Former Soldier Snale Plissken is given 24 hours to get her out.  The film would bring John Carpenter back together with Kurt Russel, who’s stock had begin to rise, as Snake and Donald Pleasance as the President.  The movie also starred Harry dean Stockwell and some big names such as Ernest Borgnine, Isaac Hayes and Lee Van Cleef.  Once again, Carpenter would co-write the film, direct the film and score parts of it.  The film hit the theaters and became both a box office and a critical success.  To this day its a classic that carries an 85% on rotten tomatoes.  The movie was influential and William Gibson even said that it was part of the inspiration for one of my favorite books, Neuromancer.  Carpenter would then go on to make another one of my favorites, The Thing.

The Thing is another of my all time favorites, based on the novel Who Goes There? written by John W Campbell Jr it would become what Carpenter considered part of his apocalypse trilogy, which included The Thing, Prince of Darkness and In the Mouth of Madness.  There was also an earlier movie made, The Thing From Another World, which was from 1951, but Carpenter insisted on following the book closer.  Personally I like them both, but the Carpenter version is superior.  unfortunately not many would agree with me.  It also didn’t help that everyone’s friendly alien ET hit the big screens the same year, in fact two weeks earlier then the shapeshifting alien wanting to assimilate mankind and take over the Earth, the other major release on the same day as the thing? Bladerunner.  To be fair while being a commercial disappointment, it was in the top ten for three or four weeks.  Which isn’t really bad.

He would find mainstream success one more time with Starman in 1984, not a favorite of mine at all, but after Starman, he would bring us Big Trouble in Little China.

Why the hell this movie wasn’t a success no one knows for sure.  It’s F***ing great.  I don’t know if it was lack of marketing by Fox, which lets be honest is completely plausible, or just not the right time for a fantasy martial arts film, it also didn’t help that they released it 16 days before Aliens, which was not only highly anticipated but also massively hyped by Fox.  The movie was released to mixed reviews, but currently it holds an 82% on rotten tomatoes.  Plot wise, well, think of it as a modern day western, set in Chinatown,  with magic.  It also stars Kim Cattral, James Hong and a slew of other martial arts actors.  Sadly the poor box office made Carpenter re think Hollywood and he decided to go back to low budget films again.  The funny thing, is that for us fans, this wasn’t a bad thing, he would then make Prince of Darkness, followed by another cult classic, They Live.

They live is such a cult classic that even South Park recognized it, in the movie, the two stars, Roddy Piper and Keith David have a long exaggerated drag out knock down brawl, South Park recreated this using Timmy and Jimmy.  It’s actually considered one of the best fight scenes of all times. The movie is based on a short story, Eight O’ Clock in the Morning” by Ray Nelson.  Basically its am alien invasion film, where the aliens are disguised as humans, only Piper knows how to see them for who they are and eventually helps expose them to the world for what they are.  The move is pretty great and did actually hit number one at the box office, it was there for maybe a week but still.  Its another great film that here, 25 odd years later, is well received with an 83% on rotten tomatoes.  This film would be followed up with another of my favorites, John Carpenters Vampires.

What do you get when you take a foul mouthed James Woods, a lesser Baldwin, the southwest and some Vampires?  My favorite Vampire movie ever, Vampires.  Released in 1998 it was a getting back to basics low budget movie for Carpenter and to me showed that he still had it.  Again, another movie by Carpenter that would open number 1, but drop to number 10 the next week, between domestic and worldwide numbers it did in fact make more than was spent and its a movie that even Gene Siskel liked saying, “a high-action homage to westerns and classic horror that actually has a good story” and “a film that should put John Carpenter back on the map as a horror director and a film director in general,” he would actually give the movie 4 out of 4 stars and placed the movie as his 10th favorite film of 1998.  It would even win 3 Saturn Awards.   Sadly after Vampires, he directed and wrote what would be the film that sent him into semi retirement, only producing movies.  Ghosts of Mars.

What do you get when you take up and coming stars like Jason Statham and Ice Cube and mix them in with established actors Pam Grier and Natasha Henstridge? Sadly a disaster.  I love most Carpenter films, but this, wow.  It was a box office disaster and a critical disaster, hell it even has a lowly 21% on rotten tomatoes.  Maybe in 20 years we’ll all look back and go, “Wow a classic” but I doubt it.  shortly after he would just produce films until 2005 when he directed two episodes of Masters of Horror then The Ward and in 2016 two video shorts John Carpenter: Distant Dream and Escape from New York.

Carpenter is one of my favorite film makers and while he hasn’t really been making movies lately he has been involved in the creation of comics based off of some of his properties.  In fact the Big Trouble in Little China comic series picks up right at the end of the movie and is fantastic.  he has involvement in it and it shows.  He also is focusing more on his music releasing the album Lost Themes and Lost Themes II.  He has performed them live as well and recently has been announced as executive producer on the new Halloween film slated for release in 2017.  I’m glad to see he’s still active, I only wish he was involved in the announced Big Trouble in Little China remake.

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