01 March 2009

Meet the Director - John Carpenter

It's not always possible to watch all the movies of some prolific director, especially if he is working and making movies for a long time. Frankly, in most cases not all the movies are very good anyway.

So I am starting new series of stories, in which I will recommend 5 movies by the same director, that watching them will be enough to require sufficient knowledge of that specific film maker, and to tell everyone with confidence that you have watched his best movies.

I'll start with the director that about to perform a comeback after almost 10 quiet years, in which he didn't direct any feature film - John Carpenter.

There is no big movies in his career, most of his work would be defined as independent and B graded, but he did manage to create some of the most familiar cult movies in the American cinema. Not all of them were successful in theaters, but with time people learned to like them, to quote them and to respect them, thus bringing Carpenter up to the cult status.

You can always tell whether the director, as an artist, as a true Auteur, has an impact in cinematic history. It's enough to check how many academic books or articles were written about his work, how many of his films, scenes or themes were thoroughly analyzed and reviewed. Carpenter is among such film makers, and although some people can question the content of his movies, there is no doubt that he is one of most imaginative directors out there. And maybe the size and the quality of his productions not always fit his ambition, and the script wasn't always polished and perfect (this is why it's called B-movie), but it was always clear that his ideas are new, and his vision is unique.

The proof for that is the amount of his films, that are recently being remade in Hollywood. "Assault on Precinct 13", "The Fog" and "Halloween" are done, "The Thing" and "Escape From New York" are coming. And it's probably not the end of it.

I'll start with the one that almost got into the list:

They Live, 1988

Long before The Matrix, John Carpenter wrote and directed this "what you see is not what's real" movie. And although this is just a B movie, nothing spectacular like The Matrix, somehow the political statement and the philosophical approach are sharper and more direct. The lead, Roddy Piper, is not very good actor and he is not as charismatic and eminent as Kurt Russel. He just doesn't bring the necessary depth to its character, but overall it suits the movie.
Great film because of the story and because it's not getting old and still fun to watch. Great ending too.

#5. Big Trouble in Little China, 1986

Chinese folklore and occult legends are pretty much solid and very real in Chinatown in San Francisco. The centuries long battle between good and evil is finally on the direct collision, the battle is expected to be grandiose, and it's only fun to see simple American truck driver being thrown right in the middle of it all.

Ghosts, supernatural powers, monsters and mysterious creatures are always fun, add to this a little martial arts, completely wild story, and one Kurt Russell with a knife and a gun, and you have a winner.
The action is non stop, the jokes are funny and Kurt Russell never been so silly and goofy, yet so likable.

Very enjoyable and entertaining movie.

# 4. Halloween, 1978

One of most famous movies of horror genre. Many will say that Halloween single-handedly started the whole "teen slasher" sub genre, which flooded the screens ever since.
Although many horror movies were made before, no other film had such big influence, and no other film defined the rules and the formula of slasher in such clear and compelling way. The movie also considered as one of most profitable ever, comparing the budget and the total gross.
When watching Halloween now, it can be received as a bit weak and boring, compared to current slashers. There is not much going on most of the film, and the gore is not as we use to see today. But the historic value is undeniable, and for that it's worth seeing.

# 3. Dark Star, 1974

The first feature film by Carpenter, a sci-fi comedy in space about small crew of spaceship that are slowly loosing their minds from boredom and from pointless existence. The movie really manages to capture the emotional and psychological state of the crew through the conversations and the events on the ship, showing their daily routine on the falling apart spaceship, where nothing works and no one cares. This is truly not a Star Trek ship, probably the complete opposite.

Dark Star is funny, sometimes sad, but mostly surreal and weird. Some philosophical themes appear through the film, about the meaning of human existence and about death, but not only. The movie is not too slow as it may seem, something alway happens. The visual effects and the production design are very low-tech, the acting is bad and exaggerated as you may expect from amateur actors, but all this so suitable for this psychedelic film, it is actually very charming.

The result is pure pleasure. The music (composed by Carpenter himself), the mood, the dialogs, but mostly the ending, which is one of the best movie endings ever, is what makes Dark Star extremely enjoyable and memorable.

# 2. Escape From New York, 1981

Another Carpenter's film that practically started its own sub genre with many imitations and copycats.
The movie is very well made, using real locations of the burned down city neighborhood, to create dystopian environment of the abandoned New York. Kurt Russel owns his career to Carpenter, as Russel's best roles are all directed by him. And in this movie he is one bad-ass motherfucker. Snake Plisskin is one of the first cinematic anti-heroes that people like so much. And to think that just before that Russel was doing comedies and Disney movies. But after Escape it was all gone.

Of course as many other Carpenter films, this one is too suffers from unfulfilled potential. It was completely impossible, with small budgets and very cold and cautious attitude he received from Hollywood, to make it exactly as he visioned it. But the result, as a little underperformed as it is, still very inspiring and even provocative.

Still watchable and relevant even today, the film is one of the icons in post-apocalyptic genre of sci-fi.

# 1. The Thing

Another collaboration between Carpenter and Russel ended up as one of most remarkable films in sci-fi genre. Carpenter masterfully plays here with the environment and the sense of space. Huge open vastness of the Antarctic never felt so claustrophobic and isolated, places that should feel safe and protected are filled with paranoia and danger.
Melancholy and desperation slowly overcome logic and moral norms, taking control over minds. I think this film is Carpenter's most skillful display of director's ability, and probably his only film that is not really B graded. Carpenter truly manages to make a statement, to show, with direct roughness and without compromises, extreme situation and people's reaction to it in most universal sense.
The result is gloomy and chilling movie with quite terrifying scenes. The horror is overwhelming because of its nature - its source maybe alien, but it has human embodiment, the manifestation of the enemy is your friend, or even yourself.
The Thing
is much more than body-horror, this movie has philosophical approach toward concepts like identity, self preservation an the price of survival. The movie explores how easy social hierarchy and moral concepts can collapse under the threat, or change into different structure, maybe indicating their true nature as artificial systems.
As for cinematic qualities, the film is very suspenseful almost without dead and static moments. The story is quite good, the acting is fine, the effects are impressive and the movie is very memorable. The best of Carpenter's films in my opinion.

John Carpenter directed many other films and most of them are highly recommended.

Next director I will cover will be my personal favorite - Paul Verhoeven.

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