For many, last weekend was a chance to wish their summer-stricken friends a Happy Christmas in July. However, some of us were celebrating Halloween instead, with a measure of cautious optimism. As of July 24, we are two months away from the release date set for John Carpenter’s new film The Ward, his first theatrical feature since 2001’s disastrous Ghosts of Mars. The story, apparently set in a haunted mental hospital, promises claustrophobic terror aplenty. Let’s hope the director can keep it together the way he used to.
Carpenter is well known for a long list of bizarre and hair-raising films, many of which he wrote, directed, edited and scored all by himself. Since the beginning of the 1990s, however, his work has suffered a sharp decline in popularity. Even fans who treasure his earlier works like Halloween, The Thing, and Assault on Precinct 13, have found very little praise in their hearts for latter-day misfires like Village of the Damned and In the Mouth of Madness. In addition, Carpenter has become notorious for producing and otherwise endorsing lame remakes of his work.
The big question is this: have we witnessed full burnout, or merely an extended slump? Is it worth getting excited after so many successive letdowns? Whether your cup of tea is Carpenter or Spielberg or Cronenberg or Scorsese, how to tell when the quality of a filmmaker’s catalog dips for good? At some point it becomes a matter of personal loyalty, although of these directors and many more, Carpenter has the worst track record. Let’s see what history tells us.
Carpenter is a keen visual storyteller. He has frequently cited Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks among his greatest influences. When he’s on his game, his eye for detail and mood recall even more strongly the work of Stanley Kubrick. Coincidentally or not, Kubrick was another very talented director who didn’t always choose the right material for his style. His failures are nearly as notorious as his triumphs. Unfortunately, Carpenter has gone a little too far down that road. His own biggest flops, coming all in a row as most of them have, overshadow the compelling work he did in the ’70s and ’80s.
The director’s work before 1990 was by no means consistently great. Escape from New York is a lot more boring than its cult reputation might suggest. Prince of Darkness, overwritten and underexecuted, manages to make battling the the devil for the fate of the universe a pretty tedious affair. In both cases, Carpenter seems to have written stories way outside his comfort zone. This tendency overtook his work all but completely by the end of the 1980s.
Carpenter is at his best when working on a small scale. Suspense is the name of his game, and when he wants to he can build it as expertly as his Hollywood heroes. But he needs a small cast and a small concept to pull it off successfully. Disparate as they were, movies like Precinct 13, Halloween, The Thing, The Fog, and Christine operated in very close confines. A small group of ordinary people find themselves battling a powerful and concentrated force of evil. Simple, spooky, and for the most part satisfying. And not just anyone could get away with a film like Christine – yes, the one about the kid who falls in love with his possessed car. That takes a peculiar talent.
There are no hard and fast rules for what a director can and cannot do successfully. One of Carpenter’s biggest hits was Big Trouble in Little China, a high-velocity action comedy completely out of step with anything he has done before or since. But there are patterns and trends in his work that suggest a strong knack for close-quarters horror and suspense. Perhaps The Ward will recall the good old (scary) days.
Interested parties should check out the film’s official website (also linked above) for a closer look at the upcoming film. A trailer has yet to surface, but France’s CANAL+ cinema blog features an interview with Carpenter about his return to the director’s chair.
Check it out here (Carpenter’s segment begins at about 5:30) and see what you think.
Okay readers, enough out of me. I happen to be a Carpenter fan, and I feel his virtues are worth defending. But it doesn’t pay to get pretentious or opinionated about a cult director, particularly one with a spotty record. Let me know how you feel. Do you think he’s still got it? Did he ever have it? If so, can he get it back? Let’s have fun with this.