Cult director John Carpenter’s career began promisingly in the mid-1970s with films such as the 2001 satire Dark Star and the original Halloween.

Dark Star, a 2001 satire, was a short film he made as a student which was expanded into a full-length feature. It didn’t do particularly well financially, but everything changed for Carpenter when the original Halloween became one of the most profitable films ever made. It was the biggest independently made box office hit until The Blair Witch Project came along two decades or so later!

Carpenter went on to direct two more cult genre classics, namely Escape from New York (in 1981) and The Thing (1982). The Thing is probably his masterpiece, a fact which he acknowledges in interviews. Dark, cynical and powerful, The Thing was a cinematic experience few forgot.

Quite gruesome and gory even by today’s standards; the film was actually banned here in South Africa for a while. (The apartheid government not only banned political movies, but also anything they thought would be morally repulsive. Thus violent films such A Clockwork Orange and Texas Chain Saw Massacre were actually banned for decades. Naturally apartheid South Africa’s puritan sensibilities towards onscreen violence didn’t extend to any of the real violence perpetrated against opponents of their ideology. Sex was also a no-no too, of course.)

Unfortunately very few people ultimately saw The Thing. Reaganism was at its height and Americans wanted to feel good about themselves and the world in general. A dark and disturbing film such as The Thing didn’t go down particularly well.

Also, its timing was off. Released only a few months after the feel-good E.T. – the Extra-Terrestrial, it was a throwback to the Alien (1979) era of alien monsters. (The movie's tag line of "The ultimate in alien terror" also reinforced notions of the movie being a mere Alien rip-off. Carpenter tried to get the studio's publicity department to change this, but it was in vain.)

The backlash was vehement. Not merely did the (rather expensive) movie perform poorly at the box office, but according to Carpenter some people equated the film morally with pornography. People hated it and Carpenter had difficulties finding directing jobs afterwards.

Not merely that, in retrospect The Thing proved to be an artistic turning point for Carpenter. None of his later films would match its brilliance and his directing output grew patchier as the years passed by. Despite some moments of excellence in which Carpenter seemed to return to form, some of his films were downright terrible.

Carpenter became the auteur version of Bob Dylan and like Dylanphiles Carpenter cultists would eagerly await each successive project only to be disappointed. (Dylan fans always complain that he did his best and most brilliant work in the 1960s with albums such as Blonde on Blonde and Highway 61 Revisited. LPs made subsequent to a motorcycle accident proved disappointing in comparison.)

While his most recent efforts such as the Village of the Damned remake, Vampires and Ghosts of Mars may have their fans, detractors are right in pointing out that these films compare poorly with Carpenter’s earlier output.

Has the man lost it?

Next: "You didn’t have to be an adolescent anarchist to notice the appealing antiauthoritarian tendencies in Carpenter’s films."

John Carpenter: The Prince of Darkness
by Gilles Boulenger
$19.95 paper  
296 pages, 6x9, B&W photos, plus 24-page color section
ISBN: 1-879505-67-3

Silman-James Press
(distributed by SCB Distributors)
Pub. date August 2003




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