His face looks like he's double aged than he really is. But John Carpenter (Foto: Thomas Peter Schulz) in fact celebrates his 65th birthday today. Congratulations! The accalaimed director is maybe best-known for his movies "Halloween" and "Escape from New York" (German: Die Klapperschlange). Some fans - like me - think that all of his early movies are masterpieces. His debut "Dark Star" from 1974 is a Science-Fiction-Comedy that makes you laugh out loud. But did you know: the sort-of-parody of "2001: A Space Odyssey" is the first film, where an extraterrestrial lifeform is called "Alien" (in German the "monster" is called "Exot"). Carpenters Co-author Dan O'Bannon later wrote the screenplay to Ridley Scotts "Alien".
Carpenter then directed "Assault on Precinct 13" ("Assault -Anschlag bei Nacht" or "Das Ende"). The grim action-thriller contains two of his main subjects: urban horror and western influences. He then directed "Halloween", a blueprint for slasher movies. Whether it's "Friday the 13th", "Scream" or "A nightmare on Elm Street"... they all are heavily influenced by Carpenters work. Until "The Blair Witch Project" became a huge hit in 1999, "Halloween" was the most successful independent movie.
After two TV-movies (the very good thriller "Someone's watching me!"/"Das unsichtbare Auge" and the Biopic "Elvis") he returned to theatres with his atmospheric ghost story "The Fog" (Nebel des Grauens). He once said, this horror-thriller was saved and really brought to life in the cutting room. Nevertheless: "The Fog" is a very compelling and straightforward ghost movie. After that he directed the action-thriller "Escape from New York" (Die Klapperschlange). This work reunited him with Kurt Russell, with whom he worked before on "Elvis".
And then there was "The Thing".
Maybe nowadays it's his most well-regarded work. But in 1982, when "The Thing" (Das Ding aus einer anderen Welt) came out, it wasn't successful. Maybe it's because it started two weeks after "E.T." came out. Maybe no one wanted to see the huge amount of gore after they fell in love with Spielbergs Alien. Maybe the time just wasn't right. Nevermind, time went on and audiences - not just gore hounds - valued the dark atmosphere and the absolutely no sense of humour. It is said, that Carpenter never really recovered from that flop.
But if you take a closer look at his following movies, this is not really true. Okay, he directed the meager "Christine", based on a novel by Stephen King. But then he released his next Science-Fiction-Movie "Starman", which earned lead actor Jeff Bridges an Oscar-nomination. Some say "Starman" is his atonement for the gory "The Thing". But mainly it's a well-directed, compelling story about an alien that has to return to his planet. With a bit of a love story and warm-hearted humour. Carpenter then worked with a big budget. But "Big Trouble in little china" once again wasn't successful. The soundtrack contains the title track by Carpenters band The Coupe de Villes. It is regarded as one of the ugliest videos ever made:
Hardcore, isn't it?
Carpenter then decided to repower with two low-budget-movies. "They live!" (Sie leben!) is a dark satire that never really delivers the way it actually could. "The prince of darkness" (Die Fürsten der Dunkelheit) has a slow first hour, but then is incredibly well-paced and very thrilling. Although one should think Carpenter learned from his mistakes he then made another big studio-movie. "Memoirs of an invisible man" (Jagd auf einen Unsichtbaren) once again failed at the box office. Although it contains some really good special effects and the stars Chevy Chase, Daryl Hannah and Sam Neill.
In the mid to late 90's he direcetd four more horror movies. The okay remake "Village of the damned" (Das Dorf der Verdammten), the funny TV-movie "Body Bags", the humorous "Vampires" and "In the mouth of madness". While "Vampires" is said to be the only successful Carpenter-film of the 90's "In the mouth of madness" (Die Mächte des Wahnsinns) is probably his best of that decade. The psycho-thriller-horror-movie questions reality and stars Sam Neill and Jürgen Prochnow. It is heavily influenced by the works of author H.P. Lovecraft, who brought Cthulhu to the world.
In 1996 he once again tried to work with a bigger budget. But "Escape from L.A." (Flucht aus L.A.), the sequel to his hit "Escape from New York", once again bombed at the box office. Besides it contains some really bad special effects but a really cool ending. He reached his low point as a director in 2001, when he worked on "Ghosts of Mars". The Science-Fiction-Action-Horror-Thriller stars Rapper Ice Cube and Action-Star Jason Statham in an early role. Carpenter seemed to lost his pleasure in doing movies. "Ghosts of Mars" seems unenthusiastic and is quite boring. However, it works, if you watch it with some beers and a couple of friends.
Since that flop he only directed three more times. 2005/2006 Carpenter worked on a TV-series called "Masters of Horror". As you expect this series assembles some of the most influential horror-directors such as Dario Argento, Takashi Miike and Tobe Hooper. It only ran two seasons and Carpenters two entries belong to the best of their season. In 2010 Carpenter directed "The Ward", an ensemble horror-movie set in a mental hospital for women. Unfortunately star Amber Heard can't carry the film alone and the story itself is not really that new.
Let's hope that Carpenter directs one more great movie and shows one more time why he became a "Master of Horror" and the "Prince of darkness".