Combustible Celluloid

Digital Watch

The Films of John Carpenter

by Jeffrey M. Anderson

In elite film circles John Carpenter's name usually elicits weary eye-rolls. Or, from the most devoted fans, "didn't he once do something good a couple of decades ago?"

But look closer and Carpenter is one of the few old-school filmmakers working today. Having studied the great directors of the studio system like Howard Hawks and John Ford, Carpenter has more or less based his entire career on their model. He has worked for all different studios, jumping from independent films to larger films. And yet he has always stayed true to his own singular vision. Each and every film Carpetner has made sports his signature style.

The new Escape from New York Special Edition (1981, MGM/UA) DVD helps prove this point.

This almost forgotten film reveals a near-visionary workmanship, a low-budget film heavy on atmosphere and playful of character. Its $6 million budget bought what looks like a $50 million film. "A lot of that goes to pay people. There wasn't much money on the screen," Carpenter told me during a recent phone conversation.

One of the people who worked on the film was none other than James Cameron, who went on to international success with "Titanic." Cameron painted "mattes" for the film, or glass backgrounds. At one point, Carpenter says, Cameron was finishing up just minutes before the scene was shot; the paint was still wet.

The film's futuristic hero, Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) is about as bad as can be. Caught during a robbery, he's given a certain number of hours to fly into New York City -- now a gang-run war zone -- and rescue the President of the United States (Donald Pleasance). Wherever he goes, his reputation precedes him: "I thought you were dead!" goes the refrain.

"I had worked with Kurt in 'Elvis.' He pulled off that role, and it was completely convincing," says Carpenter. "He told me he wanted to do another movie with me but just don't make him a nice guy."

Snake meets up with an oddball cast of characters and, as in Howard Hawks films, the bad guys team up against greater bad guys.

Carpenter uses Cinemascope framing to help establish physical relationships between characters, and always tells stories within a "genre" (sci-fi or horror) format to help get his point across with less soapbox grandstanding.

The new DVD comes with many special features already included in the mid-90s laserdisc release, specifically an excellent commentary track recorded by Carpenter and Russell, a deleted scene (the famous robbery scene) and many other extras.

In addition, several other Carpenter films have been recently released.

Halloween Divimax 25th Anniversary Edition (1978, Anchor Bay)
With several versions of "Halloween" already available, Anchor Bay knuckled down and brought out this definitive 2-disc edition for the film's anniversary. It's Carpenter's most successful and most beloved film, one of the most stripped-down and scariest horror films ever made. The movie's villain -- known at the time as "The Shape" -- is simply pure evil with no other motivation. Best of all is Carpenter's simplistic and spooky synthesizer score.

Prince of Darkness (1987, Universal)
Carpenter attempted another film about "pure evil," this time about the devil, set to arise again through a vial of green glowing goo. A group of scientists gather to try and decipher what's going on, and the schizophrenics of the city are somehow tuned in to what's going on. They gather around the building looking menacing (led by a ghouled-out Alice Cooper). Sometimes this doesn't make much sense, but it's pure Carpenter, a low-budget attempt that he controlled from conception to completion.

Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992, Warner Home Video)
Carpenter did the best he could with this invisible man story, but unfortunately, Chevy Chase was in charge; he was trying for a more "serious" image and his half-hearted attempt brings the film down from time to time. Still, Carpenter explores some interesting ideas and makes good use of San Francisco locations -- and Daryl Hannah makes a lovely romantic interest.

Vampires Superbit Edition (1998, Columbia/TriStar)
Like "Halloween," "Vampires" strips the genre down to its basics. A group of vampire hunters goes around hunting vampires, and that's about it. What this film has going for it is the stylish look, James Woods' frenetic performance, and the bluesy guitar score (by Carpenter).

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