Monday, October 04, 2010

John Carpenter Week is Here!

I'll be contributing my new review of Escape from New York (1981) later in the week (as I'm still toiling on a book deadline at the moment..), but in the meantime, let me draw your attention to some of my archived reviews of John Carpenter's films, from my study of the director on the blog last year. 

First, let's begin with Carpenter's last feature film, from nearly a decade ago.

In August of 2001, his last theatrical release, John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars, was met with almost universal critical scorn, and -- even more alarmingly -- an almost casual sense of dismissal.

But very few, if any, of Ghosts of Mars’ myriad detractors paused for even a minute to seriously gaze at the artistic choices underlining the film’s storytelling approach, particularly Carpenter's Godard-esque fracturing of time with the device of the flashback.

Instead, callow reviewers categorized the film as "shoddy,” “lazy” and even one created on “auto-pilot.”

Although Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper both awarded John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars two thumbs-up, they were among the few critics -- and in my eyes -- the proud ones, who recognized this unusual and intriguing film for what it was. Instead of reflexively disdaining it for what it simply was not. They reviewed the film; not their own expectations or misperceptions.

So what is it about John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars that irritated so many critics so deeply? And why were contemporary audiences so grievously out of step with Carpenter’s 2001 horror-thriller?

...One important way to judge the caliber of an artist and his body of work is to study how he brings “himself” and his personal set of interests and aesthetics from one cinematic project to the next. If you gaze at all those projects together, you should then be able to ascertain the points of a career ethos, an umbrella of consistency that helps you better understand individual productions.

In Carpenter’s case, one might point to his visual legerdemain: that trademark, slow-moving and elegant camera work which forges a kind of “trance” state that leaves lulled audiences susceptible to foreground jolts and soundtrack stingers.

Alternately, you could point to his self-styled, martial sounding, hard-driving musical cues on the soundtrack.

In terms of theme, Carpenter's narratives often feature a heightened sense of “male bonding” or camaraderie among ethnically-diverse characters, not to mention a distinct distaste or unease for authority, the status quo, or "The establishment."

These brush strokes help students view Carpenter as a consistent artist with a wide variety of films stretching over four decades.

In his case, we also have at least one other possible guide post: the important quote at the top of this very piece. It reminds us that Carpenter deeply admires the Western genre and knowingly brings many elements of that form to each of his films.

Again, a love of old Hollywood Westerns (and also old Hollywood films in general) is neither a surprise nor a revelation, especially considering that Carpenter grew up – not unlike his movie brat brethren (Spielberg, Lucas, Landis, Dante) -- watching the big screen efforts of Howard Hawks, John Ford and John Huston.

But specifically, Carpenter’s much-acknowledged favorite film is 1959’s Rio Bravo, a Western starring John Wayne. Over Carpenter's long career, that Hawks film has served as the specific template or blueprint for no less than three Carpenter films: Assault on Precinct 13, Prince of Darkness (1987), and, yes, Ghosts of Mars.

Written by Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett, Rio Bravo is an early siege-style film in which a group of heroic characters must work together to repel the equivalent of a hostile invading force. In Rio Bravo, audiences meet the unlikely “heroic” triumvirate of a “sheriff, a barfly” and a cripple.” In order, they are: Sheriff John T. Chance (John Wayne), Dude (Dean Martin) – an alcoholic – and an old man, named Stumpy (Walter Brennan).

The face of evil is represented by wealthy Nathan Burdette, whose brother Joe is being incarcerated by the honorable Chance inside the local jail. Burdette proceeds to close down the town so that Chance and his men can’t leave, and -- importantly -- so that no additional law enforcement can get in. Then Burdette sends in hired killers to “prod” Chance into releasing his brother from behind bars. Our three heroes (at least two of them quite untraditional...) work together to combat this siege and defeat Burdette. In the process, they come to understand, admire and depend on one another. Their bond is unbreakable.

Carpenter recreated the central premise of Rio Bravo in Assault on Precinct 13. In that film, it was Lt. Bishop (Austin Stoker) assuming the John Wayne role of honorable law enforcement official. He was assisted not by a drunk, however, but by a notorious criminal named Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston), and a Hawksian woman, a police secretary named Leigh (Laurie Zimmer). In this case, they were protecting an imperiled citizen from a local (and extremely violent...) gang, Street Thunder.

Going into specifics, one can pinpoint how cleverly Carpenter updated the Rio Bravo template from the Old West to the urban, inncer city blight of the 1970s exploitation era. The so-called"cut-throat song" of Hawks’ film is transformed into the gang banner or cholo in Assault on Precinct 13. The wagon filled with dynamite that initiates Burdette’s ultimate defeat in Rio Bravo becomes a cast-off acetylene canister in the Carpenter’s film, and so on.

Assault on Precinct 13 even repeats the trademark action moment in Rio Bravo in which Colorado (Ricky Nelson) throws Chance his shotgun as hit men close in for the kill, but only here the quick action is shared by Bishop and Wilson in the under-siege police station.

In Ghosts of Mars, Carpenter creates another heroic troika of equally unlikely origins, and -- once again -- changes the setting, the terrain for the battle. The Old West/Inner City location becomes instead a frontier town on Mars (also replete with a jail building). The heroic Ballard, like Dude before her, must overcome a devastating personal vice (drug addiction, rather than alcoholism), and Desolation Williams is but a future variation of noble crook, Napoleon Wilson (you can even detect the similarity in names there…Williams/Wilson).

Howard Hawks (unofficially) re-made Rio Bravo as El Dorado in 1967 and as Rio Lobo in 1970 and he is championed as an auteur for, among many fine qualities, his sense of consistency. Now Carpenter has also vetted the same Western archetype three times, but modern audiences are so distant from the original Rio Bravo (or original Assault on Precinct 13, for that matter...), that his method, his "homage" is not recognized, let alone championed for the clever alterations and updates he has injected into the longstanding formula.

Rio Bravo and Assault on Precinct 13 aren’t the only important antecedents to 2001's Ghosts of Mars. The film also serves as a futuristic, sci-fi version of the 1964 British classic Zulu, which was also a “transplanted” version of the American Western genre (and particularly the sub-genre of the siege.)

Zulu recounted the (true) story of a landmark 1879 battle at "Rorke's Drift" in Africa. Miraculously, 150 British soldiers held out (and survived) a siege by 4,000 Zulu warriors at a small supply depot and hospital. The Zulu attackers in the film were deliberately modeled after the Western genre's (mostly innaccurate) stereotype of Indians as frightening, aggressive savages, ones with vastly different rules of warfare than those of the “civilized” West. Zulu's director, Cy Endfield even had his Zulu extras watch Western films to get down the behavior of Indian marauders in preparation for their attack scenes.

The Martian warriors of Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars clearly perform the same function, and -- like their Zulu or Indian predecessors in film history -- are visually differentiated from the force of the establishment/civilization. The Martians are the savage "uncivilized" attackers, and with their strange body piercings, sharpened teeth and battle paints, they represent an “alien” or unfamiliar aesthetic. More than that, the Martian ghosts represent the indigenous population resisting an Imperialist occupation.

Following Ghosts of Mars' release, Peter Jackson's The Two Towers (2002) similarly utilized some of the impressive compositions and ideas of Zulu (as well as the seemingly impossible battle/siege scenario) as the foundation for the Helm's Deep sequence of that fantasy.

Fans of Zulu may find other corollaries between that film's presentation of scoundrel Henry Hook and Ghosts of Mars’ thief, Desolation Williams. Both are rebellious characters (or anti-heroes) who fight successfully against the Establishment...and the enemy.

Also, Zulu opens with the narration of a communique detailing the shocking defeat of a British Outpost in Africa (at Isandhlwana) by the Zulu forces. Melanie Ballard in Ghosts of Mars fulfills the same function in Carpenter's 2001 narrative; her voice-over narration representing the “early” warning of a coming storm on Mars...

In much more general terms, Carpenter has also crafted Ghosts of Mars as a clever homage to the Western format. overall. His film features a primitive frontier town (not the Tech-Noir metropolis of Blade Runner, for example), employs trains and balloons as conveyances, rather than spaceships or hover-crafts, and he arms his police with rifles and pistols…not lasers or light sabers.

Basically, Carpenter has “terra-formed” the conventions of one genre to make them fit another, transforming his Martian movie into a pitched battle between futuristic cowboys and extra-terrestrial Indians.

Again, if consistency of purpose and mode of operation represent the trademarks of a talented and committed artist, consider how often Carpenter has appropriated the concepts associated with the Western and nudged them into new (and currently popular) genres. It happened not merely with Assault on Precinct 13 and the form of the 70s exploitation film, but with Vampires (1998) as well, a horror film which opened with a sunlit siege on an abandoned Western farmhouse.

That film also gave us another Neo-Rio Bravo group of bantering heroic characters: Jack Crow, Father Guiteau, and the afflicted (by vampirism, not alcoholism…) Montoya. There is also -- no doubt intentionally -- a set-piece set in a jail in Vampires, again recalling Rio Bravo. Even the general settings of Vampires -- brutal deserts and “ghost towns” -- is far more simpatico with Western film tradition than the established conventions of the vampire movie.

On at least one memorable occasion, Carpenter even noted that his Lovecraft-inspired, cerebral horror film, In The Mouth of Madness (1994) was really...a Western. He has spent his career, then, re-purposing the tenets of an old, out-of-fashion form for new, fresh consumption. Any reasonable review of Ghosts of Mars, it seems, would -- by necessity -- judge Carpenter on how well he accomplishes this feat; and on how the film fits into his career tradition.

Finally, in addition to his well-documented love of Westerns (and even transplanted Westerns like Zulu), Carpenter has long been a genre fan, with a particular affection for the British Quatermass film of the 1950s and 1960s (The Creeping Unknown, Enemy from Space and Five Million Years to Earth). In particular, Five Million Years to Earth (1968) dealt with the concept of a Martian psychic force sweeping through London (after a buried rocket was excavated by workers toiling on a new underground subway line.)

These Martians had changed our human evolution (and were responsible for aspects of human mythology...), and they also exerted a strange, malevolent mental power. Of course, that last bit represents the set-up and Nature of the Martian Enemy in Ghosts of Mars as well. Incorporeal spirits of deadly and evil desires, and ones fully capable of possessing the living.

So, what we really have here in Ghosts of Mars is two-fold: it’s a deliberate tribute to the admired films of Carpenter’s youth (most importantly Rio Bravo, Zulu and Five Million Years to Earth), and a consistent continuation of Carpenter’s obsession with Westerns, and with transplanting Western conventions to new genres and new locations....

...One frequent point of contention about Ghosts of Mars involves the film’s stylized dialogue, which has been described by some critics as hackneyed, hopeless or corny. But once again, it appears that a little context is necessary for an understanding of the film's modus operandi.

The characters in Ghosts of Mars do indeed boast a special brand of verbal sparring and linguistics, and it is explicitly the macho, virtually "mock-tough" dialogue of Howard Hawks Rio Bravo. In our gritty age of movie naturalism, this approach seems artificial and theatrical to many viewers who are unfamiliar with it. To people who grew up with Westerns in the 1950s, it just seems...natural (and actually, right.)

Melanie Ballard isn’t a slasher movie's “Final Girl” as such, but rather, perhaps, the ultimate evolution of the so-called Hawksian Woman (think Angie Dickinson), a character who “trusts completely her own spontaneous impulses of attraction and repulsion,” (as witnessed in her passionate, unexpected kiss with Jericho and her earlier turn-down of Braddock.)

Ballard also boasts a “sense of identity beyond her alliances (with high society) and she is committed only to those personal ties she wishes to acknowledge.” (Tim Bywater, Thomas Sobchack, Introduction to Film Criticism: Major Critical Approaches to Narrative Film, Longman, 1989, page 72).

In other words, Ballard’s is nobody’s unquestioning fool: she just doesn’t take orders; she doesn’t obediently side with higher-ups. Instead, she boasts her own (cowboy?) “code,” and she’s not a joiner unless she chooses to be one. As she states to the avaricious Helena, she's as "straight as they come," a line laced with double meaning. She's a rebel (a heterosexual in a predominantly homosexual society), and she's a law enforcement official for her own purposes, not the purposes of her higher ups. She keeps her personal reasons for being a cop close to the vest, a sign of the "personal ties" she apparently has no wish to share.

Many of Carpenter’s films feature the tough, macho-talk associated with Old Hollywood's male-bonding, Western epics. This manner of expression is especially notable in Vampires -- but with updated 90s vulgarity -- between Crow and Guiteau, and in Assault on Precinct 13, where Wilson is given to such grandiose comments as that he was "born out of time!" Here, the same theatrical, slightly-overdramatic style is extended to include -- for the first time in Carpenter lore -- a woman in essentially the John Wayne role.

In the film’s last scene, Desolation notes with admiration that Ballard would make a great criminal, and Ballard responds in kind, saying he’d make a great cop. Then they look at each other and say "Nah!" Again, it’s a kind of duet: two “opposites” circle one another with admiration, having learned to respect each other despite their obvious differences.
This style of wordplay also means that Ballard and Desolation share a tough-talking bond that borders on the flirtatious. “I never give my word,” Desolation says. “I never make deals with crooks,” Ballard shoots back. And on and on. It's banter. It's one-up-manship. It's...deliberate.

It’s the same dance step that Bishop and Wilson shared in Assault on Precinct 13, although in that case, the line crossed was not sex-based (male/female) but race-based (black/white).

When confronted with certain death and total apocalypse, Ballard and Desolation intensify their dance, revealing aspects of their personal codes of conduct. Ballard wonders what makes Desolation tick. He answers that if she sticks around, he’ll tell her some day. She wonders when that will be, and Desolation answer “when the tide is high, and the water’s rising…” To some folks, this sort of dialogue may seem cliched, but it's more accurately just old-fashioned, and a reflection of the kind of film Ghosts of Mars seeks to be: a deliberate evocation of the 1950s Hollywood Western. People seemed to like this approach to dialogue just fine in Assault on Precinct 13, but deride it in Ghosts of Mars.

Note too that the characters in Ghosts of Mars are prone to long, extensive monologues about their backgrounds and histories; about the places they came from, and the lessons they learned. “I don’t give a damn about this planet,” says Desolation, “It’s been trying to kill me since the day I was born.” This too is Western-speak. To complain about it or call it corny would be like decrying the Iambic Pentameter of Shakespeare as archaic, or calling the gutter vocabulary of Quentin Tarantino films unnecessary. When in a space talk as though you are in a space western.


  1. Great look at this unjustly criticized film, John. The western references and motifs are there (bless J.C., byway of Howard Hawks, for this). I swear I wondered if the critics actually saw this film when it came out (or, were just pre-disposed to hate it because Carpenter didn't deliver what they expected). I say, kudos for J.C. for doing this with GoM! At the time, placing a western in a sci-fi environment had a past with Star Trek:TOS, and a future (Joss Whedon's Firefly). Hopefully soon, others will see Ghosts of Mars for what it is, and finally enjoy it! Thanks for this, JKM.

  2. This is excellent. I will add a link to this review to my master list of JC links. I am eagerly anticipating your thoughts EFNY!! And many thanks for the plug and your continued support, my friend. I appreciate it so very much.

  3. Once again, utilizing history and the influences upon Carpenter, you deliver another insightful take on the the many wonders of Carpenter.

    It's like a mathematical equation with Carpenter.

    Critics rip Carpenter + Time= Carpenter Classic.

    I can't wait to watch this one. Soon I hope. Cheers and best wishes on the new book. G

  4. Hello my friends,

    Sorry I have been slow posting comments here! Still gettin' through that deadline!

    But I agree with everything you all said. J.D. -- thank you for doing this blogathon, it's amazing!

    Le0pard13: We totally agree on Ghosts of Mars, and I have no idea why critics resisted it, except they -- by and large -- try to resist Carpenter.

    And Sci-Fi Fanatic, oh my goodness, that equation is perfect (and I plan to steal it at my earliest opportunity). Critics rip Carpenter + time = Carpenter Classic.

    What else needs to be said but that? Love it!

    best to all,