As I am writing this, an ice cream truck has just pulled up outside. I am looking at my dog lying in the corner of the room, and I am feeling nervous.
Is it a little too dramatic to state that following his lacklustre efforts of Vampires (1999), Ghosts of Mars (2001) and most recently The Ward (2011), John Carpenter fans find themselves lamenting over what exactly happened to this iconic director of American horror and cult movies?
During the six years that spanned 1976-1982, Carpenter directed five of his classic films: Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Halloween (1978), The Fog (1980), Escape from New York (1981) and The Thing (1982). These films defined him as an important American director, an original and interesting filmmaker, as well as a commercial and cult phenomenon.
Assault on Precinct 13 and The Thing bookend this six year stretch, yet they do not serve to simply mark a start and an end point.
Carpenter’s original intention for his second feature Assault on Precinct 13, originally titled ‘The Anderson Alamo’ and ‘The Siege’, was to make a western in the vein of Howard Hawks, one of his directorial influences.
A meagre $100,000 dollar budget forced Carpenter to abandon these plans. Instead he remade Rio Bravo (1959), a film that was followed six years later by a science-fiction horror produced by Hawks, namely The Thing from Another World (1951). Carpenter’s The Thing would open with the same title design as that of the original, while both remakes possessed the unmistakeable Hawksian dialogue that is both playful and cinematic, full of humour and wit, and is meticulously constructed.
Howard Hawks’ influence on these two films is unmistakable and the word remake can ring with horror in many ears. One of the pitfalls facing any young and aspiring creative individual is discovering one’s own voice, rather than being seduced into imitation of peers and contemporaries.
The sound of Hawks’ dialogue echoes throughout Carpenter’s cinema, but it is a means by which Carpenter creates entertaining and cinematic narratives, the strong characterisation deriving from the meticulous dialogue that quickly bonds us his audience and his protagonists. Carpenter himself has admitted that the weak dialogue of Assault on Precinct 13 is deflected by certain notable performances, but Darwin Joston, playing convict Napoleon Wilson who is being transported to death row and ends up inconveniently holed up in the precinc,t is given some of the most memorable dialogue of the film. Full of sharp humour, it was the kind of meticulous cinematic speech that would be a feature of future Carpenter films. This is not a case of imitation. Rather it establishes Carpenter as a cineliterate director, who learnt his craft by watching films of the great directors, not dissimilar to the French New Wave directors who developed their skills in the Cinémathèque Française, under Henri Langlois.
What I have said thus far could make the case for Carpenter as an imitator, but what defined him as an original and interesting filmmaker in this period, both with the film that would launch his career, and the film that would conclude this period was his approach to remakes. Carpenter understood the need to create and not to simply imitate. He understood that any reinterpretation of the original source material, and the creative choices made by the director, writers and producers of the original would transform the remake into something distinct, providing a tangible reason for the purpose of undertaking the remake in the first place. So too did he understand the value in updating classic films for modern cinema. His remakes did not intend to undermine or better the originals, rather they sought to update them, and explore alternative creative choices, through which Carpenter as auteur emerges.
At the heart of Assault on Precinct 13 is the premise of Rio Bravo, and Napoleon Wilson’s dialogue and gags about smokes defines him as an archetypal western character. In transposing the setting of Hawks’ jailhouse to the police precinct in urban Los Angeles, Carpenter updates an American classic from the violent world of the American West, to the violence of the urban city, and in so doing he creates a distinct sense of feeling between his remake and the original.
The term “urban western” that has been used to describe Assault on Precinct 13 undermines the creativity of the film, which fuses together the western plot, archetypal western characters through the moral Lieutenant Bishop who takes the place of the western lawman, and convict Napoleon Wilson, with features of both an action and a horror film.
The ‘Street Thunder’ quickly descends into emotionless shapes, in what can now be seen as a pre-cursor to Halloween’s Michael Myers. Carpenter shoots them as if he were filming horror icons, at times eerily reminiscent of the living dead.
Carpenter has confirmed the influence of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) alongside Rio Bravo’s plot, and so the fusing together of these two genres should not be surprising. Despite the very specific influences, Carpenter through the low budget Assault on Precinct 13 introduced us to the distinct synthesised sound of his cinema, and at least one of his auteurial traits: simmering tension interspersed with action or horror that would become unavoidable in any discussion of Carpenter’s films.
Six years later, Carpenter and screenwriter Bill Lancaster’s diligent efforts to go beyond The Thing from Another World, and return to the novella ‘Who Goes There?’ by John W. Campbell provided them the opportunity to retell the story for a modern audience. Often attributed as the story that introduced into fiction the shape shifting premise, Carpenter would return the cinematic adaptation to its literary roots. Carpenter updated ‘The Thing’ itself for eighties cinema, creating a monster that was visceral and nauseating in its capacity to imitate life forms. This was in direct contrast to the Frankenstein style monster of the original, which perfectly suited American sci-fi of the fifties, but Alien had raised the bar in 1979, and Carpenter needed a memorable creature.
Effects maestros Rob Bottin (and Stan Winston in one sequence) embraced body horror, and the destruction of the body set pieces may be more excessive in tone than Ridley Scott’s Alien, but nevertheless fitted in well alongside director David Cronenberg’s body horror films of the time. Despite being critically dismissed, The Thing has been re-assessed as being one of the iconic science-fiction films.
What may have hurt The Thing was Spielberg’s sentimental E.T (1982) which had opened only weeks before, hypnotising people with nothing but affection for anything extra-terrestrial. Whereas E.T. reduced audiences to tears, The Thing in its body horror moments was best described as sickening.
Carpenter’s use of the shape shifting alien played into his auteurial hands of constructing an exercise in simmering tension, the use of a claustrophobic space and the inherent paranoia as to who of the protagonists is the ‘Thing?’ Tonally and narratively, Carpenter rebooted The Thing from Another World, creating an apocalyptic nightmare with simmering tension and intense body horror, as well as opposing the original’s happy-ever-after ending. The Thing ended on a cynical note; MacReady and Childs are the only two survivors, waiting it out together, the paranoia of just which of them was the Thing running well beyond the film credits.
These two films not only mark a start and an end point, but in ‘76 Assault on Precinct 13 affirmed and six years later The Thing reaffirmed that Carpenter was an original American director who created a claustrophobic cinematic world of isolation, a place of simmering tension. Austin Stoker in Assault was left bewildered as to how they could be so alone in a city. Assault on Precinct 13 created a sense of claustrophobia in the urban, whilst The Thing relocated this sense of feeling to the sparseness of Antarctica. The protagonists of these films are victims of Carpenter’s fascination with isolated characters in a claustrophobic hell, fighting for their survival either against emotionless human shapes, or a nauseating horror creature. It was a world that frayed the nerves, Carpenter refusing to let go, to release the tension until he was ready, after which, it would start all over again, as if he were winding up a clock… and how we loved him for it. Carpenter was a creator of worlds, using the cinema of his peers and contemporaries to create his own cinematic vision.
An alternative approach to these two films would have been to look more closely at Carpenter as auteur, but what strikes me about these two films was however coincidental that they bookend this six year stretch. Both were films that could have gotten lost in the shadow of inspiration and influence by a lesser filmmaker, but they remain significant for many reasons, particularly in highlighting Carpenter’s originality and skill as a filmmaker.