More noise than signal

Carpenter For Completionists

Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

Our last episode covered most of what we’d call the prime cuts of Carpenter, but there’s a lot more to talk about, including revisiting his most influential work, and also his only film that had a cup of coffee with the Oscars. Join us as we examine the varied pleasures and pains offered by Dark Star, Halloween, Christine, Starman, Memoirs of an Invisible Man, In the Mouth of Madness, Village of the Damned, Escape from L.A., Vampires, Ghosts of Mars, and The Ward.

Dark Star

Dark Star was a further development of Carpenter’s student film, and while it looks better than a $60,000 budget would imply, it’s understandably not rivalling Lucasfilm in the effects stakes. Particularly the escaped pet alien of the deep space exploration and planet detonation ship, which looks a great deal like a beachball with Halloween-surplus store rubber feet glued to it. Still, co-writer Dan O’Bannon did rework the hunt for said inflatable into the script for Alien, so if nothing else Dark Star warrants viewing from a sci-fi nerd historian perspective. For the rest of it, well, O’Bannon regrets having to pad the original short concept out to feature length, and he’s probably right, but it’s still not long enough to outstay its welcome. It has a low-fidelity charm that quite, um, charming, with just enough gentle jabs at the Star Trek/2001 sci-fi formulas to maintain an appeal to genre fans to this day, if perhaps much less to wider audiences, and remains a salient warning of the dangers of attaching AI to weaponry.


As, Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence) prognosticates, death comes to the little town of Haddonfield, as escaped, hulking psycho Michael Meyers returns to stalk and kill babysitters including Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode. Boiled down, not much else happens in this ur-slasher, but that’s a real disservice to the hour of tension built up in what’s surely Carpenter’s most influential film (and score, for that matter). It set the template that so many films followed to this day, surviving even its post-modern breakdown in the likes of Scream. Indeed, perhaps the only knock on this film is that if, somehow, you’ve not seen this film, the myriad of clones will make the beats of this familiar, but there’s still a great deal to be said for revisiting the prime variant.


Set in the late seventies, textbook geek Arnie Cunningham (Keith Gordon) finds himself inexplicably drawn to a beaten up old 50’s Plymouth Fury, and to the surprise and consternation of his family and friends buys the rustbucket and devotes himself to fixing up a car that, spoilers, is haunted. Or, at least, has a mind of its own, like a psychotic Herbie. As Arnie grows increasingly obsessed with the car, his manner and demeanour changes entirely, like a psychotic Fonz, while the car, Christine, spends the off-hours murdering anyone who had slighted Arnie previously. Based on Steven King’s frankly silly book, this is, frankly, similarly silly, and even bearing in mind that we’re a little less car-obsessed as a culture in the U.K., expecting “haunted car” to scare anyone beggars belief. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, I kinda like Christine – the practical effects work is great, and the hammy, cheesy performances from, well, just about everyone, is cartoony enough to make this fun, as long as you in no way attempt to take any of this seriously. It’s not Essential Carpenter material for sure, but then I did enjoy it more than, say, Big Trouble in Little China, so make of that what you will.


“There’s a starman waiting in the sky, he’d like to come and meet us, but he thinks he’d blow our minds”, warned prophet David Bowie, but recently widowed Jenny Hayden (Karen Allen) paid no need, and verily, had her mind blown. That might be more to do with the fact that said alien, played by Jeff Bridges, has assumed the form of her departed husband, after being shot down by the reliably militant armed forces. Still learning the ropes of humanity, he must travel to a crater in Arizona to catch a ride home, or die, prompting a high stakes road trip, chased by the military who are keen on dissecting him, but really mostly focused on the relationship between Bridges and Allen. Bridges picked up an Oscar nomination for his performance, which I can’t say I was to my taste, but overall the film is an enjoyable trip that’s still worth watching today, although I must admit, I’d hoped for a little more.

Memoirs of an Invisible Man

In this Chevy Chase vehicle (wait, no, come back!), he plays Nick Halloway, an ungrounded businessman who’s life gets flipped, turned upside down, when a freak accident at the labs he’s visiting sees him, along with half of the lab, turned invisible. This puts him on the radar of Sam Neill’s David Jenkins, a ruthless CIA spook who wants to control Nick, seeing obvious uses for an invisible man in the spy game. Nick goes on the run, helped by initially freaked out love interest Alice Monroe (Daryl Hannah), who must of course be used as leverage by the CIA at some point because there’s not really an original plot beat in this movie. I wouldn’t say I disliked it, but it’s an odd film for both Carpenter and Chase – a more serious script and performance than you’d expect from Chase in particular, but at the same time quite difficult to take seriously, because, well, it’s Chevy Chase, zany alleged funnyman. It’s perhaps the least Carpenter-y Carpenter, and I suspect he was brought on board purely as someone who could wrangle the special effects side of thing, which are mostly competently done even by today’s standards. Sam Neill, Michael McKean and Stephen Tobolowsky in the supporting roles are decent value for money, but the central arc is little more than fine and I expect you’ll find your attention wandering should you choose to watch it, which isn’t something I’d necessarily recommend that you do.

In the Mouth of Madness

Sam Neill’s insurance investigator John Trent is sent to find and recover missing horror writer Sutter Cane (Jürgen Prochnow), by his publishers, believing he’s absconded with the final draft of his latest novel that’s sure to sell millions. Alongside Sutter’s editor, Linda Styles (Julie Carmen), they head off, mysteriously finding themselves in a small town where things get increasingly strange, as it appears Sutter is authoring the reality of the world itself, backed by Lovecraftian elder gods bent on domination. As a byproduct of that, this is less of a narrative than an attempt at creating a waking nightmare – you know that scene in near enough ever horror where the character seemingly wakes up from a scary dream, only to be in another scary dream? This film is like that, for an entire film. Carpenter shoots for a more Lynchian vibe than normal, and doesn’t quite nail it down, and the central premise is so daft that it’s tough to take entirely seriously. I can understand why it’s divisive, some loving, but most hating it, but I’m kind of on the fence. If nothing else, it’s Carpenter’s most experimental film, and I was entertained throughout. Whether it’s for the right reason or not, I suppose, in the end, doesn’t matter.

Village of the Damned

In what took me an embarrassingly long time for me to realise was an adaptation of The Midwich Cuckoos, Christopher Reeves’ smalltown doctor Alan Chaffee and epidemiologist Dr. Susan Verner (Kirstie Alley) struggle with revelation after a mysterious event that saw the whole town population blackout simultaneously. Ten women become pregnant during this event, giving birth to eerily similar, platinum haired kiddywinks that, over the years, we discover have psychic powers, and a hive mind of sorts, and are, surprise surprise, somehow alien in origin and character. After understandable tensions, the kids exile themselves to a barn while the villagers make ready to kill them, which goes about as well as you’d expect when going up against people that can control your mind. It’s left to Chaffee to resolve this situation, and also decide what to do with the sole child that shows some humanity. Reeves’ last role before the accident that paralysed him, he tries very hard, along with most of the cast, to find something new in a script that’s barely distinguishable from the British film some 35 years prior to this. Remaking films was as bad an idea then as it is now. I don’t hate it, as the contemporary critical reception or the commercial bellyflop would suggest I should, but it’s not interesting in the slightest and so quite hard to recommend. So I won’t. Read the book or see the 1960 film.

Escape from L.A.

A sequel to Escape from New York, of course, Kurt Russell’s Snake Plissken again finds himself arrested by the facist police state of 2013’s America, and offered another deal. He must enter the post-Big One island of Los Angeles, now a prison colony of criminals and “undesirables”, to extract the president’s daughter, who’s absconded with the trigger for the EMP satellites and wants to hand it over to a leftist terrorist/freedom fighter. Cue more or less the same arc as happened in NY, but without quite as much of the charm, even with a supporting cast that includes Steve Buscemi, Bruce Campbell and Pam Grier. It’s played much more like a cartoon than a film, and viewed through that lens there’s some fun to be had, but even then it’s hard not to be distracted by the dreadful CGI that’s a too-frequent occurrence. I expected worse, to be fair, but it’s still a very distant second to the original.


Did you like From Dusk Till Dawn? Would you like to see more of it? Then, watch it again, and don’t bother with this shitpile. Vampires sees James Woods, of all people, play vampire hunter Jack Crow, out for revenge against a powerful vampire master, Thomas Ian Griffith’s Jan Valek, what done killed most of his team and that, apart from his bestie Tony Montoya, played by noted non-latino Daniel Baldwin. What a dream team. The vampire lord is after some McGuffin that will make him more immortal, somehow, and our heroes must stop that coming to pass via automatic weaponry, wooden stakes and sunlight, so often the best detergent. James Woods resolutely fails in pulling off the character, looking too way too flimsy for the tough-guy character he’s vocalising, making the whole film a bit laughable. He’s neither old and grizzled enough, nor young and arrogant enough to fit with the way it’s written, and he’s borderline unwatchable. I did like the snarling, feral vampires, since stolen by many better films, but the action’s not all that compelling and all of the supporting characters are barely noticeable. Worse than Ghosts of Mars. Somehow. I’m as surprised as you are.

Ghosts of Mars

On a terraformed Mars, a police squad is sent to a remote mining outpost to bring back Ice Cube’s dangerous prisoner Desolation Williams to stand trial, but on getting there discover the place mostly deserted. Investigating, they find him and a few others still in jail, safe from the rest of the town who have been possessed by… something? and are busy mutilating themselves and killing anyone untouched by the alien spirits or whatever it is. Cue a desperate battle to survive and escape, that’s of surprisingly little interest to anyone. With a cast that ought to excel in this action-oriented environment, everything is exceedingly flat, with one of the few unlikable turns from the usually charismatic Jason Statham. Pam Grier is again wildly underused, and Ice Cube doesn’t muster the kind of performance he’s capable of, given the right conditions. Like a script that’s not abysmal. It’s like Assault on Precinct 13, but with space zombies, but awful. A skid mark on all involved’s record.

The Ward

I don’t know if this will be the last film that Carpenter directs, but I hope that it isn’t, because this would be quite the bum note to go out on. Set in the 60’s, Amber Heard’s Kristen is admitted to the titular psychiatric ward after burning down a house, only to discover that things are not what they seem. Death stalks the halls in the most cookie-cutter slasher way imaginable, with the loud orchestral stab backed jump scares being so predictable that even someone who has never heard of this film has already seen it. A great time saver, as this certainly isn’t worth watching, particularly given a “twist” that’s signposted a mile away and is surely completely obvious to anyone who’s seen any post 1990’s horror. I’d allowed a small amount of hope for this as I like Jared Harris, here seen playing a psychiatric doctor, but he’s not given very much to do at all, in common with most of the cast, who to be fair are doing as well as anyone could with this level of script, but sadly, that’s not very much at all. Eminently avoidable.