Category Archives: Directed by John Carpenter

Captain Voyeur (1969, John Carpenter)

Captain Voyeur starts better than it finishes, which is too bad since it gets better as it goes along. Writer and director Carpenter opens the short with a long tracking shot of some boring workplace. Excellent black and white photography from Joanne Willens (save two shots later on) makes the opening an observation on professional life.

The tracking shot is to get us to nerdy Jerry Cox, alone at a desk, doing his work and peeking on a female coworker. He’s a perv but a harmless enough one. Cox and Carpenter do well with the setup and the action moves to Cox’s apartment. Where he changes into a full mask, a cape, and his dress shoes. And some boxers. He’s Captain Voyeur. There are opening credits throughout the opening, with the final card just after the reveal. So it’s a comedy too.

It’s a comedy shot like a scary movie, because most of the shots are Cox running around outside peeking in windows. When it seems like Cox is just peeking to be peeking, the short has fun with the kinks he sees. Until after the second one and it seems like he doesn’t like what he’s seeing. The next two are jokes–the first a bad, cheap joke, the second a cheap, bad joke–before the finale, where Cox finally finds the window he wants.

Voyeur loses its narrative inventiveness after that second window. It’s still technically strong–Carpenter loves figuring out new establishing shots of windows at night in black and white–through Trace Johnston’s editing is never on par with the rest of it. And there are a couple times Johnston just makes the wrong cut and screws up a scene’s pacing.

It also goes out on a undercooked joke. Carpenter’s clearly got a sense of humor and he’s got the short’s sense of humor, he just doesn’t have the joke writing chops to pull it off. Unless he’s going for absurdist, in which case Voyeur’s terrible.

But it’s not terrible. It’s incredibly well-made and constantly inventive. Its jokes are just too broad and too cheap. Though the jokes being problematic covers the problem with Cox’s physical performance. He’s running around this apartment complex (or dorm), peeking in windows, but in between he’s supposed to have character development. But he doesn’t in the running shots. Because student filmmaking realities. So I guess the broadness of the humor covers that hole?

It’s disappointing. Especially given the excellent opening shot and the nimble changes in mood and tone. It’s like Carpenter gave up trying to show off in the second half and went for cheap witty. Well, except this one composite but it’s not enough to save the *Captain*.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Written and directed by John Carpenter; director of photography, Joanne Willens; edited by Trace Johnston; produced for the University of Southern California.

Starring Jerry Cox (The Captain).


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Ghosts of Mars (2001, John Carpenter)

Ghost of Mars has a lot of earnestness going for it. Director Carpenter needs quite a bit his cast and he supports them even when they’re clearly not able to succeed–especially lead Natasha Henstridge. He takes the project seriously, his cast takes it seriously. Sure, it doesn’t exactly work out, but it’s not from lack of effort.

Some of the problem is the editing. Carpenter and editor Paul C. Warschilka do these crossfades, which might be an attempt to obfuscate the low budget. And Carpenter pushes with the crossfades at the start. Then he drops them once the action gets going. They’re only for the lead-up to the action, when Ghosts is more horror than action. At least in terms of strange creatures lurking in the night and Carpenter trying to disturb the viewer instead of enthrall them. In a strange turn, instead of tasking cinematographer Gary B. Kibbe with hiding the low budget and instilling mood, Carpenter relies on Warschilka.

It actually might be for the best, given the acting.

So Henstridge. While she’s not good and she’s sometimes bad, she tries hard at playing her part. She’s a badass future cop on Mars who has to save the day, teaming up with Ice Cube’s outlaw. Cube’s all right. He maybe gives the best lead performance, but he doesn’t have much competition. Jason Statham isn’t any good, though he eventually becomes likable. Clea DuVall is in a similar situation. She’s not good–her part is even worse than Statham’s–but she’s immediately likable. Thanks to the editing. Joanna Cassidy’s probably the best performance and she’s very supporting. Pam Grier sort of troopers through it. She knows how to do the material, she knows how to direct attention.

But then there’s the narrative construction. Carpenter doesn’t waste time establishing the characters as sympathetic, instead he uses a framing device to interest the viewer in the story. Again, it’s somewhat effective just because it covers Henstridge’s acting failings. It also shakes up the narrative a bit. Carpenter’s not as interested in being interesting as encouraging interest. Not just in terms of the rising action, but in the ground situation. Ghosts of Mars goes out of its way to be unique, even when it doesn’t help the narrative or the character development. The setup for the Mars society is all unnecessary filler. It distracts and just gives the actors problems.

Overall, Ghosts of Mars isn’t a success, but it’s a decent enough diversion. Carpenter and the cast put enough into it to get over the many bumps in the production. It’s more of an accomplishment, given its constraints, than anything else.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by John Carpenter; written by Larry Sulkis and Carpenter; director of photography, Gary B. Kibbe; edited by Paul C. Warschilka; music by Carpenter; production designer, William A. Elliott; produced by Sandy King; released by Screen Gems.

Starring Natasha Henstridge (Lieutenant Melanie Ballard), Ice Cube (Desolation Williams), Jason Statham (Sgt. Jericho Butler), Pam Grier (Commander Helena Braddock), Clea DuVall (Bashira Kincaid), Liam Waite (Michael Descanso), Joanna Cassidy (Whitlock) and Rosemary Forsyth (Inquisitor).


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In the Mouth of Madness (1994, John Carpenter)

In the Mouth of Madness is a rarity. It’s a film with some terrible, terrible parts, yet it needs to be longer. There needs to be more terribleness for it to be better. And it can’t even be much better, because those terrible parts break it, but it would be somewhat better. It would definitely be a better viewing experience.

Here are the film’s problems, in no particular order. Gary B. Kibbe’s photography. Madness is Panavision aspect and Kibbe shoots everything spherically distorted. Well, not everything, but the most visually distinctive parts. One of the film’s more conceptual problems is what visually compels. Kibbe screws up the compelling visual narrative pacing. Maybe Carpenter told him to do it, in which case it’s Carpenter’s bad. But Kibbe’s photography is never great. With the sets, it sometimes looks like a shoddy attempt at a Shining rip-off and Madness isn’t that thing at all.

Next problem. Sam Neill. Fourth-rate Harrison Ford who everyone thought was just a second-rate Harrison Ford. He can’t hold his accent, which would be a hilarious bit for the film to acknowledge, but of course it doesn’t. Even though Madness eventually wants to be meta, it’s like Carpenter doesn’t really have any interest in it, which brings me to the next problem. The script. The script is awful.

Even though Carpenter goes for his traditional possessive titling on Madness, it’s not his vanity project. It’s writer and executive producer Michael De Luca’s vanity project. So while Carpenter can do a nod to this Quatermass here, that Corman there, this Lovecraft adaptation here, that whatever there, he’s still got this disastrous script. De Luca’s doing zeitgeist–Neill is hunting down Jürgen Prochnow’s Stephen King-esque author, not Prochnow’s Lovecraft-esque author. The script wants to be pop culture, the narrative needs literary musing, Carpenter’s doing this Lovecraft movie homage thing. Not to mention De Luca also models the structure after a film noir (Double Indemnity in particular) and Carpenter couldn’t, frankly, give less of a shit about that narrative structure. He goes out of his way not to acknowledge it.

And if you’re not going to acknowledge your femme fatale, maybe you shouldn’t have a femme fatale. Madness’s femme fatale is Julie Carmen. She’s Prochnow’s editor and Neill’s sidekick. Carmen and Neill have no chemistry, which isn’t really surprising since she’s awful. He’s awful too, but she’s awful in a different way. She doesn’t have a part. He’s just bad at his part. The film also breaks its narrative device to run off with her adventures; if the movie were a little better, it might be annoying but it’s not. The script’s already been inept at that point.

Prochnow’s bad, but it isn’t his fault. He’s just doing his schtick. It’s why he’s in the movie.

Stylistically, the front is stronger than the back. Once Neill and Carmen find Prochnow, Edward A. Warschilka’s editing starts to falter. It was one of the few excellent things about the beginning. By the end, Carpenter relies heavily on jump scares. They aren’t scary, they’re occasionally desperate, but at least he’s enthusiastic about them. There are some okay visual ideas but there’s no time for Madness to make them stick. It isn’t just the film needing another ten or fifteen minutes of visual presence to make an impression, it’s the order of the shots. Part of the film’s gimmick (Prochnow writing reality) means visual trickery. Carpenter, Kibbe and Warschilka just blaze through instead of making anything distinct.

Charlton Heston’s in a “guest starring” role and he gives one of the film’s better performances. If you’ve got a hackneyed Heston cameo and he gives the best performance, you know the film’s got problems. Bernie Casey’s good, Peter Jason’s got a nice scene. John Glover. He’s fine. Frances Bay should have a great small role and she doesn’t. Because the script’s crap and Carpenter never pushes against it.

Oh, and who thought giving Wilhelm von Homburg the film’s most important part would be a good idea? He’s awful, but of course he’s awful, he’s obviously awful and no one should’ve kept him in. You feel bad for him. But only him. Everyone else who’s awful, you blame them.

Just because it’s an apocalyptic downer doesn’t mean the entire thing should feel like a surrender, yet it does. Madness is a defeat.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by John Carpenter; written by Michael De Luca; director of photography, Gary B. Kibbe; edited by Edward A. Warschilka; music by Carpenter and Jim Lang; production designer, Jeff Ginn; produced by Sandy King; released by New Line Cinema.

Starring Sam Neill (John Trent), Julie Carmen (Linda Styles), Jürgen Prochnow (Sutter Cane), David Warner (Dr. Wrenn), John Glover (Saperstein), Bernie Casey (Robinson), Peter Jason (Mr. Paul), Wilhelm von Homburg (Simon), Frances Bay (Mrs. Pickman) and Charlton Heston (Jackson Harglow).


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They Live (1988, John Carpenter)

Maybe a third of They Live is amazing. The film has three distinct parts. The first, where Roddy Piper arrives in L.A.–Piper never gets a name and L.A. never gets identified, though director Carpenter obviously expects the viewer to recognize it and understand its use–is the best. It’s a Western, sort of. Piper’s the Man With No Name, only he’s not a bounty killer or a homesteader, he’s an unemployed construction worker. Carpenter’s screenplay quickly establishes him, establishes the ground situation; it’s a sensitive look at the working homeless with matter-of-fact presentation from Carpenter. Keith David quickly shows up as Piper’s sidekick. Carpenter has a good time with the bromance. Both Piper and David’s performances are the best in this part of the film.

The second part of the film is when They Live becomes a fifties sci-fi movie set in the eighties. Thirty minutes in, Piper discovers aliens out to subjugate the human race through the all mighty dollar. Carpenter goes big with the anti-commercialism sentiment and it works. There’s also just a strange vibe to the film during this part. Gary B. Kibbe’s flat but intricate photography–which works beautifully in the first third for juxtaposing paradise against squalor–does okay for Piper’s odyssey through the “real world” but doesn’t work when cut against the black and white “sci-fi world” shots. They Live’s budget is frequently a problem, particularly in the final third, but Carpenter never embraces the visuals of the fifties sci-fi paranoia.

Then Meg Foster shows up and there’s this shaky bridge to the final third of the film, which starts as hard sci-fi (well, as hard of sci-fi as a scene out of “V”) and descends quickly into lame action movie theatrics. Carpenter’s direction is weak during this part of the picture. He doesn’t have any of the interest he had in the beginning (or the middle).

Piper does okay for most of the film. He’s likable. He can’t handle the poorly written monologues but no one could. David’s better, but he too gets some weak lines. Foster’s mostly weak. The film takes place over a few days–it’s unclear–and her character’s sort of pointless. George ‘Buck’ Flower has an amusing small part.

They Live simultaneously has too much of a budget and not enough of one. Carpenter seems somewhat disinterested in what the film could do and busies himself with chunks of it, whether it’s the opening’s Reaganomics commentary or the middle’s L.A.-bound action thrills (and an awesome, exceptionally long fist fight between Piper and David). By the finish, there’s just nothing for Carpenter to do except end the movie. The postscript gags are better than anything else in the last thirty minutes, which is a big problem.

But there’s a lot of good stuff in They Live. Enough Carpenter should’ve taken it more seriously.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by John Carpenter; screenplay by Carpenter, based on a short story by Ray Nelson; director of photography, Gary B. Kibbe; edited by Frank E. Jimenez and Gib Jaffe; music by Carpenter and Alan Howarth; produced by Larry J. Franco; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Roddy Piper (Nada), Keith David (Frank), Meg Foster (Holly), George ‘Buck’ Flower (Drifter), Peter Jason (Gilbert) and Raymond St. Jacques (The Street Preacher).


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