Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Shapes of Fear: John Carpenter

From '76 thru '88, John Carpenter was on a creative roll few (if any) genre directors have matched. He is an A filmmaker that specializes in B content. While he was more of a 'director for hire' on Christine & Starman, the latter's weaknesses were somewhat counterbalanced by admirable qualities. The former being the only minor weak spot in that run. Beyond that, it's been hit & miss from 1992up until 1998, with the one true hit being In the Mouth of Madness. Curiously enough, the final film in his Apocalypse trilogy. But it wasn't until Vampires that he lost it. And if there were any doubts in people's minds as to whether or not he still had it in him -- Ghosts of Mars was the film that sealed it.

The spirit moves John Carpenter again
By Mark Olsen

John Carpenter needed a break. It was 2001, and his latest film, the outer space thriller "Ghosts of Mars," had just flopped — at the box office and with critics. Creatively stymied and just plain exhausted by Hollywood and the moviemaking process, the director decided it was time to step away from the camera.

"I'd always sworn to myself when it stopped being fun I'd stop, and it stopped," Carpenter said over a recent lunch of pasta and Winstons in Beverly Hills. "I was really burned out. And it doesn't help when your movie tanks."

Now, nearly 10 years on, Carpenter is back with a very different kind of ghost story. The 1960s set "The Ward," which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival as part of the Midnight Madness section Monday night, tells the story of Kristen ( Amber Heard), a young woman who is confined to a remote mental hospital where she and a small group of fellow patients are stalked by a dark spirit.

The project is one that is likely to be described as a "return to form," and Carpenter believes it might have something to do with his self-imposed respite from Hollywood. "It was needed time," he said. "I needed it badly."

Living under the long shadow of your own reputation can be a troubling proposition for any
filmmaker, and you might say Carpenter has spent large portions of his career haunted by his past. Though his resume is peppered with science fiction, action adventure and satiric titles, his reputation in the broader cultural consciousness has been that of a horror director, stemming back to his landmark 1978 effort " Halloween."

"I never got in this business, in cinema, to make horror movies," said Carpenter, whose filmography includes "Escape From New York," "The Thing," "Big Trouble in Little China," "Starman" and "They Live." "They arrived on my doorstep and I got typecast. Which was fine, I enjoy it, but I got into this business to make westerns. And the kind of westerns I used to see, they died. So that didn't work out."

He hadn't initially intended to direct "The Ward" either. In the middle years of this decade, Carpenter had begun to reemerge working in television, helming two episodes of the Showtime anthology series "Masters of Horror," an experience he said reminded him of the importance of having a good hotel on location and how much his feet hurt after long days on set. Although he'd turned down the movie, he nevertheless worked on developing the script with writers Michael Rasmussen and Shawn Rasmussen, fine-tuning the project that would mark his return to features.

"We realized John wanted to be very careful about what he did next," said Doug Mankoff, president of Echo Lake Entertainment, who produced the film along with Peter Block's company A Bigger Boat. "This is a man who has painted on some very large canvases, and I think he wanted to really own this opportunity to paint on a slightly smaller canvas, to really focus on the story and the characters."

"I thought, maybe I'll try a little movie, not a big one, but a little film," said Carpenter of what appealed to him about the project. " 'The Ward' was perfect, in the sense it was a contained film. It's basically a story about isolation anyway, with a small cast, and that was perfect for me. And it was a different kind of movie than I had done, which was fun. I didn't have to go back to the same ground again."

The film, which features a distinctive cast of such young actresses as Lyndsy Fonseca, Danielle Panabaker, Mamie Gummer, Laura-Leigh and Mika Boorem, shot last year in Spokane, Wash., on a relatively modest budget of around $9.5 million. Working on that smaller scale didn't restrict Carpenter's signature artistic choices, however — nobody shoots a young woman running down a hallway quite the way he does.

"Wide lenses, that's the secret," he said with a knowing laugh.

Much is riding on festival reaction to the film, which is still looking for distribution. Carpenter, who was due to be in Toronto for the movie's premiere but was required to stay in Southern California for jury duty, says he's happy either way. He's not spending too much time thinking about the future or what project he might work on next. Simply making "The Ward" turned out to be fulfilling enough, all on its own.

"I needed to be away from the movie business and rediscover what it was about cinema that I loved," the 62-year-old said. "And I found it."


The two films Carpenter fans usually have at the top of their lists are either Halloween & The Thing. While I love Halloween, the tension and mood are both one upped in The Thing along with a startling sense of viciousness. Of all the scenes in this director's career, the one that is probably the most effective in terms of pure suspense would have to be the blood test scene. By this point of the movie, we have already seen the alien creature take on a variety of shapes and forms -- courtesy of then 22 year old FX maestro Rob Bottin. The camera set up in the blood test scene itself is very economical and spare in approach. Lensed by Dean Cundey, it allows the boiling pot of paranoia to pour over. There was already a rampant sense of paranoia running throughout the film to begin with. Trying to figure out who is infected at what point in the film makes for incredible replay value. An ingredient this film delivers in spades: setup & payoff. And the payoff in the blood test is about as gruesome & nihilistic as it gets in Carpenter's ouevre.

Another key ingredient to this film's effectiveness: the unknowable. While the character of Michael Myers would be exploited through a franchise of films, the shapes that the Thing forms still invoke mystery upon the mind. The only thing we know (and is also the string that ties it to the 1951 original) is that a Norweigan research team found it in a block of ice. Along with the spaceship from whence it came. With the forthcoming prequel on its way, I have a strong feeling that, even as a prequel, the dialogue will be peppered with exposition. I had always wondered how exactly the chaos played out for the unfortunate team of Norweigans. All Carpenter shows us is aftermath. Maybe it's just best to leave it that way.

I have yet to see The Ward and am in no hurry to. As a Carpenter fan, it pains me to say that. The reviews I have seen for it don't sound too promising. The last decade hasn't treated his films well either, with remakes of Assault On Precinct 13, The Fog & Halloween. I do have a sliver of hope that he finds great new material to mine. Maybe even have the revival that another 80's director, John Hughes, never had. But as time goes on, and directors from that time period get older (Landis & Dante included) I'm afraid his legacy will remain in the late 70's & 80's.

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