Thursday, September 5, 2013

Obscured in the Fog: Brandon Engel on John Carpenter's Lesser-Known Works

Director John Carpenter, seen here wielding two deadly weapons; an ax and an inscrutable countenance.

Note to readers: I don't solicit or desire outside material for this blog, but a reader named Brandon Engel e-mailed me recently with an idea for an article about the films of director John Carpenter, so I said sure. He seemed harmless enough, and it's occasionally nice to have new content at D2R during those times when I don't have anything ready to publish here yet. Whether you enjoy this article or not, keep in mind that the following is Mr. Engel's work, not mine. - J.B.
Horror movies have been around since the dawn of filmmaking itself. Consider the Frankenstein adaptation produced by Thomas Edison’s studios, or Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Horror movies have changed considerably since the early 20th century, and one filmmaker who has played a tremendous role in shaping contemporary horror films is John Carpenter. Drawing from the influence of Howard Hawks thrillers and horror comic books from the fifties, Carpenter became one of the most commercially successful independent film producers of his time when Halloween was released. Although John Carpenter is well-known today, he experienced a number of financing issues when working to complete films such as Escape from L.A. and Memoirs of an Invisible Man. After a series of disappointing releases in the '90s, it was beginning to look pretty dismal for Carpenter. Although he achieved success with films such as Halloween and The Thing, he also has produced several other works which are lesser known.

From solidifying the conventions of the modern slasher film to producing memorable, pulpy eighties science-fiction vehicles, Carpenter has had an impressive career in spite of his hardships. He’s influenced contemporary horror experts from Eli Roth to Robert Rodriguez, the latter of whom recently interviewed Carpenter on El Rey. Even though a slew of commercial and critical failures has hindered him professionally in recent years, his influence is still resonant, and his lesser known gems deserve more attention than they typically get. To that end, here is a look at five criminally underrated John Carpenter films.

1. Prince of Darkness (1987)

This largely forgotten sci-fi horror flick that is sure to get your skin crawling, especially for those who are interested in demons and other worldly mysteries. Prince of Darkness centers around a priest who is searching for another priest who has gone missing himself. Upon searching for the missing priest, a vat of unknown green goo is discovered. A team of physics graduate students are called upon to help resolve the mystery, only to soon find themselves in an even darker mystery than they could have ever imagined. The film features a memorable performance from shock-rock icon Alice Cooper, and it also features Donald Pleasance (Dr. Sam Loomis from Halloween).

2. They Live (1986)

Memorable for many reasons. For one thing, it marked the feature film debut of professional wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper. It’s also memorable as a sort of loose interpretation of David Icke’s bizarre philosophies about how the global ruling class are actually all reptilian humanoids. They Live is a classic science fiction horror by Carpenter that still receives rave reviews and has a cult-like following today. They Live is based around a totalitarian government made up of aliens attempting to subdue and create consumer slaves out of human beings on planet Earth. Nada, played by Piper, finds himself a new pair of sunglasses while on the street one day, only to realize that they enable him to identify the aliens among us. Carpenter made the questionable decision to let Piper ad-lib. The results?

3. In The Mouth of Madness (1994)

Yet another classic of John Carpenter's that went highly unnoticed in the mainstream movie industry. This film was Carpenter’s tribute to legendary horror author, H.P. Lovecraft. In The Mouth of Madness follows an investigative journalist, John Trent, who is searching for answers about a well-known horror novelist who has gone missing. During his search, Trent (played by Sam Neil), discovers there is more to the story than he has prepared for on his journey into the unknown. The writer’s fictional world has become manifest unto itself. It’s Carpenters tribute to the writings of H.P. Lovecraft, particularly At the Mountains of Madness.

4. Dark Star (1974)

Dark Star (1974), was created by John Carpenter with a measly $60,000 budget, while he was still a film student at the University of Southern California, and it features writing and performances from a young Dan O’Bannon. However, Dark Star still receives rave reviews and appeals to its intended audience and demographic. Dark Star centers around a group of astronauts sent to space to help destroy planets in their way to colonizing. When things begin going awry, the astronauts are left to fight off aliens and other dark out-of-this-world objects.

5. Starman (1984)

Starman is one of Carpenter's only romance science fiction movies, based around an alien life form that takes the shape of a woman's deceased husband, only to trigger confusion in the husband's widow Jenny (Karen Allen). Jeff Bridges stars as the shape-shifting alien, who must travel to the Winslow crater to rendezvous with his mothership. He’s also got to reach the crater before government agents can capture him to conduct experiments upon him. The film pays tribute to classic romance films like It Happened One Night, and also classic science-fiction films like The Day the Earth Stood Still. A cable television show was also released with the name Starman, centering around the same plot, but ultimately was short-lived.

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