Friday, October 08, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Escape from New York (1981)


In preparation for Radiator Heaven's John Carpenter week, I purchased the Blu Ray edition of Escape from New York (1981) and then set about screening other films from roughly the same historical era that also involved urban blight in America; New York City "after the fall" so-to-speak.

Specifically, I watched Wolfen (1981), which saw The Bronx abandoned by human civilization, but turned into a hunting ground for nomadic werewolf creatures. 

I watched Fort Apache: The Bronx, a straight drama concerning put-upon policemen in "hostile territory," attempting to survive in a Bronx that was increasingly becoming a wasteland. 

And finally, I reviewed The Warriors (1979), a film which utilized Greek history and comic-book fantasy to depict a heroic poem about a gang under siege from other, hostile gangs in a future NYC.

Yet Escape from New York may just be the grimmest and most paranoid of this urban blight bunch, and that's saying something. 

In John Carpenter's landmark action film, the year 1988 sees a whopping 400 percent increase in America's crime rates.  A result is that, by 1997, Manhattan Island has become a maximum security prison...housing all of America's offenders. 

The city is one giant "dark zone."  The waters around the island are mined.  The bridges out of the city are blocked off, and Lady Liberty has become but a disembarkation point, a processing station for new prison inmate where they are (mercifully?) given the option of immediate termination rather than incarceration.

This last bit of detail involving the Statue of Liberty  is wonderful visual and contextual symbolism: the beautiful statue that once welcomed immigrants to America's shores now oversees a journey to perpetual exile and punishment.  The American dream, as Carpenter's They Live (1988) suggests, seems truly dead.

Some critics at the time of the film's release called Escape from New York "utterly cynical" and noted that it presented a "corrosive, pessimistic view of humanity," (Kevin Thomas, The Los Angeles Times). 

Others, like Joseph Gelmis noted that Carpenter's visuals were "provocative," and recognized  that the Carpenter film offered "an escape" from "ordinary entertainment into the hothouse  humidity" of viewer "paranoia" (Richard Corliss, Time Magazine). 

Another way to read that last sentence is this: As in the case of all good speculative writers and filmmakers, John Carpenter gazed at some troublesome signs in the world around him and imagined what the future might look like, given certain present-day trends.   All true works of art -- and this goes for horror movies, action movies, literature and theatre -- reflect their historical context to a large degree, and the same axiom is true of Escape from New York

So what exactly were those trends?  What was Carpenter seeing  around him, in the culture, in 1980 and 1981?
A computer diagram of Manhattan Island Prison.

Well, the crime rate in America had steadily been on the rise since the early 1970s, but was at all-time peak in the early 1980s (though it steeply declined starting in 1993). 

The most highly-concentrated areas of crime in America were inside modern cities, largely because of the population density and the pervasive economic disadvantages of many denizens. 

In 1980, America was also suffering an economic recession and locked in the Cold War with the Soviet Union.

At the same time that crime was skyrocketing in 1980, America boasted the highest-documented incarceration rate in the world

In other words, we not only had more crimes committed here, we had more people going to prison for them (especially drug crimes, which form a disproportionately large percentage of our inmate population, to this day). 

In 2010, still, we incarcerate more criminals than any nation in the globe.  One in American eighteen men is in jail at this point, or being monitored under house arrest.  So this trend, unlike the crime rate, did not abate after the 1980s.

Studying these trends from the standpoint of 1980, however, it must have been tantalizing to imagine what might occur in the future if the crime rate and prison rate continued to increase at such a blazing rate; if all things remained equal.  Were we destined to be a country of crime and violence, managed by heavily-armed, helmeted and uniformed policemen?

Instead of building prisons -- especially with deficits and economic recession to deal with -- would we pick a pre-existing, geographically isolated area like Manhattan Island -- and convert it into a giant, inescapable jail? 

It's a brawny, imaginative, and scary concept,  and John Carpenter was also reportedly influenced by the 1974 film Death Wish, which he didn't much like, but which nonetheless depicted the modern American city as a "jungle."  This was a vibe the director reportedly sought to emulate in Escape from New York.

He succeeded wildly, and though Escape from New York is not a horror film, it features passages of palpable terror and surprise jolts.  Most of the film occurs in impenetrable night (like Halloween [1978]), and dangerous, barely-human "Crazies" roam Manhattan's streets, bursting out of floor boards and chasing people down darkened alleys.  Courtesy of Carpenter's pulse-pounding soundtrack, the film is perpetually intense, and punctuated by great bursts of violence and rousing action.

If one purpose of film is to transport the audience to a new world, one unimagined and unreal (but nonetheless believable), then Escape from New York succeeds wildly, landing us in a future that might have been, but thankfully wasn't.  It's a great dark, dystopian fantasy.

"Get a New President"

Ronald Reagan + Margaret Thatcher = Donald Pleasence.
Escape from New York tells the story of a decorated veteran and criminal convict, Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), as he is transferred to Manhattan Island Penitentiary. 

Before Snake goes in, however, a national crisis occurs. 

Forces of organized labor (now deemed a terrorist organization by the police state....) hijack Air Force One, and fly it over restricted New York airspace while it is en route to the Hartford Summit and the President's meeting with international enemies, the Soviet Union and China.  The plane crashes, but not before the President (Donald Pleasence) lands safely inside the prison in an escape pod.

Unfortunately, forces of New York's tyrannical ruler, the Duke (Isaac Hayes), capture the President and use him to negotiate for the release of the entire prison population.  The President  happens to be carrying a critical cassette tape on the subject of a nuclear fusion breakthrough, one which could end the war, finally, and involves no less than "the survival of the species." Ao he can't simply be left in the City at the mercy of the Duke. 

Snake gets sent into the penitentiary by glider to retrieve the President and the crucial cassette tape.  The survivor has just 24-hours to do so before capsules in his neck (implanted by his captors...) explode and kill him.  Once inside Manhattan, Snake teams up with an old Cabbie (Ernest Borgnine) who "knows everyone in this town," a treacherous but brilliant old colleague, Brain (Harry Dean Stanton) and his his "squeeze," Maggie (Adrienne Barbeau), a devoted bodyguard and beautiful woman.

But getting the President out alive isn't going to be easy. 

"Only Prisoners and the Worlds They Have Made..."

Snake lands in enemy territory.
One of the most perpetually fascinating aspects of Escape from New York involves the Carpenter comparison of the world inside the prison to the world outside, in larger, future America. 

Specifically, America of 1997 -- as envisioned by Escape from New York -- has become a restrictive police state, and the country is locked in a perpetual, seemingly-never ending international war. 

The war, in fact, seems to be an excuse for some draconian law enforcement policies, and the refrain "we're still at war" (spoken by Hauk [Lee Van Cleef]) is used as a kind of blanket explanation, rationalizing away much.  

We get much of this information through visuals, and through brief snatches of dialogue.  The "terrorist" hijacker of Air Force One says this, for example: "Tell this to the workers when they ask where their leader went. We, the soldiers of The National Liberation Front of America, in the name of the workers and all the oppressed of this imperialist country, have struck a fatal blow to the fascist police state. What better revolutionary example than to let their president perish in the inhuman dungeon of his own imperialist prison."

That line suggests much political commentary about the country America has turned into.

But Carpenter artfully sets up a parallel between the film's two rulers, The Duke of New York, and the President of the United States.  Donald Pleasence's character -- whom the actor freely admitted was created as an amalgam of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher -- is strong with stagecraft and public speech, but cowardly when confronted with real personal jeopardy in New York.  Worse, when he is "tested" by Snake following his escape, the consummate politician evidences simply token regret for the fact that people died to save his life and free him from the Manhattan Penitentiary. 

All the Chief Executive can offer are a few hollow words about "the nation" appreciating their sacrifice.  The nation?  What about him, the man and president?  Rescued by people dismissed as criminals and thrown away by society at large?

Snake gives the President a fair chance to review his experiences in NY, and thus revise his law enforcement policies (throwing away whole cities worth of American citizens...) but the President does not rise to the occasion.   He's going to be on TV in a few minutes, after all, and he's really busy.

In Snake's eyes, this behavior ultimately makes the President no better than The Duke.  Both men  use harsh tactics, just on vastly different scales.  The Duke threatens people with a machine gun; the President with a breakthrough in nuclear fusion that could end the world. 

The Duke does not reciprocate the loyalty of his people, and when he sees a chance to escape from prison alone, he takes it.  Similarly, the President evidences no regret for the fact that Maggie, Cabbie and Brain died in the attempt to rescue him.  One man is a criminal on a personal scale (the Duke); the other is a criminal on an international scale.  One man rules a real prison, the other man rules a country, a metaphorical prison, perhaps.

The 1996 sequel, Escape from L.A. would go even further with this notion of comparing America to a prison; with a fundamentalist, religious-right president (from Lynchburg, just like the late Jerry Falwell...) banishing Muslims, atheists, smokers and meat-eaters (!) from Christian America proper to the breakaway island of Los Angeles. 

I Thought You Were Dead: Snake Plissken as Carpenter Anti-Hero

I heard you were dead.
When I wrote my monograph, The Films of John Carpenter, I expounded at great length about the John Carpenter Anti-Hero, and the numerous examples we see throughout the director's film canon. 

These anti-heroes are, in brief: Napoleon Wilson in Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Snake Plissken in Escape from New York and Escape from L.A., MacReady in The Thing (1982), John Nada in They Live (1988), Trent in In The Mouth of Madness (1994), Jack Crow in Vampires (1998),  and Desolation Williams in Ghosts of Mars (2001).

What can we say about these men?  Well, the Carpenter Anti-Hero is often a noble outsider and criminal  whose reputation precedes him. We see this explicitly with Snake.  Everywhere he goes, men admire him, know his reputation, and greet him with the comment "I heard you were dead."  He is a legend, then, in his own time.  Before he was a crook, Snake was a decorated war hero.  This is important, he once believed in America enough to serve in her military; but something change.  Something disappointed him and Snake left the system.  Hauk is downright fascinated by Snake and his outsider status, and by film's end, even offers Plissken a job.

Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston) in Assault on Precinct 13 is also the subject of intense curiosity to members of the establishment class, including his jailer, Starker (Charles Cyphers): "You're not a psychopath. You're not stupid," he says "why did you kill all those people?" This question allows us to understand that Wilson -- like Snake -- is not simply a run-of-the-mill thug.  Desolation Williams in Ghosts of Mars is very much the same character...in space: a noble criminal with an uncompromising set of ethics and a legend built up around him by society.  These are men who left society-at-large to make a statement.

Why create a film hero who is also a criminal?  Well, as I wrote in my book, Carpenter is a real maverick, but more than that, strongly anti-authoritarian in his bent.  I  suspect that he views people who are part of the current (corrupt?) system as being compromised and therefore not entirely fit for heroism.  Now, of course, Natasha Henstridge and Austin Stoker play noble police officers in their respective Carpenter features, but they emerge as real heroes largely through their association with the criminals and recognition that Wilson and Williams can be powerful allies fighting a common evil. 

Secondly, who is a "criminal" depends largely on who writes the laws, doesn't it?  This is, similarly, the difference between a freedom fighter and a terrorist.  Who's to say if Snake is a criminal, or actually a protester?

But to put a very fine point on it, Carpenter  requires an "outsider" in films such as They Live and Escape from New York, one to pass judgment on the current establishment.  You can't fulfill this role if you are a part of that establishment  You have to be disenfranchised...outside.   

As his point of view as "outsider" suggests, the Carpenter anti-hero is universally a man who sees things differently than those around him, and usually in power.  Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) sees the United States as corrupt and bereft of freedom and humanity in both Escape films.  Likewise, John Nada (Roddy Piper) discovers the alien conspiracy behind America's consumer, yuppie culture, in They Live. 

Importantly, the "vision" of these two  characters is hampered -- or perhaps augmented -- in a fashion that visually distinguishes them from the other dramatis personae in the films. Snake distinctively adorns an eye-patch. John Nada dons a pair of sunglasses so that he can see reality as it is; the very opposite of rose-colored glasses.   In other words, form echoes content in the films of J.C.  These men "see" differently, and their visual accouterments actually reflect the singularity of that "sight."

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, through the Anti-hero's actions, some aspect of "The Establishment" is changed in a typical John Carpenter film.   The Carpenter anti-hero is one who, through often his final act, changes the shape and order of things in his world.  He overturns the corruption.  In Escape from New York, Snake judges the President as a failure, and shreds the cassette tape that could save the world...judging that America -- at least in this iteration -- isn't worthy of survival.

In Escape from L.A., Snake Plissken activates the Sword of Damocles and plunges the world into perpetual darkness, so that America can literally start over, and liberty can be re-born.

In They Live, John Nada destroys the alien satellite dish sending hypnotic signals to all human beings, revealing the world as it truly is; not through the filter of reality the alien echo chamber has created. In The Thing, MacReady destroys the arctic base, and holds the Thing at bay in the icy winter, even though it means his eventual death.  In Vampires, Crow takes down the evil cardinal in the Vatican and the lead vampire simultaneously, destroying an unholy -- but apparently well-established -- conspiracy.

Snake and his anti-hero brethren are agents of change, but in films like Escape from New York, Carpenter suggests such change can only truly come from outside the system.  The agents of change, it should be noted, are almost all Western-styled heroes  (cowboys?) who ride in, almost always alone (though Crow has a team; Williams a gang...) and soon set things straight.


Chock Full of Nuts


And in this corner...Snake Plissken
Another reason that Escape from New York works so well, more than twenty-five years later,  is that it gently but humorously tweaks its own premise, that the Big Apple is now a maximum-security prison. 

For instance, The Great White Way is still, apparently putting on musicals...just with smaller budgets.  Snake walks in on Cabbie during a theatrical performance of the uncharacteristically-happy tune "Everyone's Coming to New York." This song pointedly ribs musical tradition and the Great American songbook, but more than that, literally states the truth.  In a country of harsh, draconian laws, where Manhattan is a prison, everyone is coming to New York. Sooner or later.

Later in the film -- during an action scene, no less -- characters passionately argue about street directions, as drivers in standstill New York traffic are wont to do in real life, every day.  In particular, Maggie and Brain argue about taking Broadway at that time of night.  Broadway, it turns out, is lined by armed miscreants and Crazies...

Another fine joke is entirely visual in nature.  Snake hides in a coffee shop on Broadway and 43rd street, called Chock Full of Nuts (established in 1921).  Well, Chock Full of Nuts sells itself as the "official coffee of the city that never sleeps," and given the presence of Crazies and crooks, the New York of this movie doesn't seem to sleep, either. 

Better yet, the store is overrun by Crazies (coming out of the floor boards) in a matter of moments, so it is, a place, literally, chock full of nuts. The shop's residents live up to the moniker.

Why mention the humorous aspects of the film?  Well, it's harder to view Escape from New York as "corrosive," "utterly cynical" and "pessimistic" once you recognize that it also features this mitigating presence of levity.  In other words, the movie's dark view of humanity (and the System) is leavened, largely, by the wicked in-jokes that run throughout the film's veins.  John Carpenter is first and foremost a popular filmmaker.  He may (and often does...) have a lot of substance to say in his films, but his movies are always going to entertain first.

In that sense, finally, Escape from New York must rank as one of the great urban blight pictures of the late 1970s and early 1980s.  It doesn't candy coat its dark speculations a whit, but its lead character, Snake, is an admirable anti-hero, and the movie boasts this subversive sense of humor about its very premise.    

These are just a few reasons why Snake Plissken is immortal, and cult movie fans have never made the mistake of believing that he is dead.

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 western...you talk as though you are in a space western.