A Fistful of Carpenter
Film feature by: Witney Seibold
In January of 1995, when I was 16, I trekked down to The Broadway Theater in Santa Monica to see John Carpenter’s film “In the Mouth of Madness.” When I left the theater and stepped into the light of day, I was changed. I had seen not only one of the most frightening films of my life, but also one of the smartest and best. And while other films that I adored when I was 16 have lost their luster and faded into mere nostalgia, “In the Mouth of Madness” has remained one of my favorites, and is usually on my top ten lists. Naturally, my adolescent fervor for this film led me to the other films of John Carpenter. I charged through “Halloween,” “The Thing,” “Big Trouble in Little China,” and just ate them up. I even liked his bad films, like “Prince of Darkness” and “Christine.” But when I went to rent a copy of his 1981 sci-fi actioner “Escape from New York,” I learned something rather unsettling. There was an interview on the tape before the film, and in it, Carpenter himself stated that most of his films are from the storytelling mould of his own favorite genre: Westerns.
I was taken aback. I had never liked Westerns, and surely this man, who was now declaring that “In the Mouth of Madness” was a Western, was incorrect. But then I started examining, and, by Kubrick’s ghost, the man was right. Here now, are my findings on the Western influence on one of my favorite, and, argulably one of the best American indie directors.
The first clear Western influence on Carpenter’s films was in his second film proper, “Assault on Precinct 13” (1976). The story involves almost nothing but a 90-minute attack on a police precinct in a bad L.A. neighborhood. An angry gang tries to break in from the outside, and a few frightened police must hold their own from within the building. If that sounds familiar, then you have seen Howard Hawks 1959 Western “Rio Bravo.” Indeed, Carpenter idolizes Hawks, and wanted to pay homage to the man with this film. He even gave himself an editing credit as John T. Chance: the name of John Wayne’s character from “Rio Bravo.” It has all of the taut suspense and implied camaraderie of any Western. Only better because there’s lest sand to be tracked in.
The Old West in the Future East: In “Escape from New York” (1981), Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) avoids a prison sentence in 1997 (the future, you see), by being airdropped into the world’s largest and rowdiest prison, formerly known as New York City. While the elements of the film are clearly from science fiction, he character of Snake Plissken is obviously an element of the Old West. Both Russell and Carpenter have admitted that Snake is not just a reflection, but a direct imitation of Clint Eastwood’s character from Sergio Leone’s famous Man-With-No-Name trilogy. He’s brash, full of attitude, and cares only for himself. He grunts and speaks with gravel in his throat. He is unshaven. And he’s on a mission.
And then, 15 years later, in 1996, in Carpenter’s remake/sequel, “Escape from L.A.,” not only is Snake actually shipped west, but now is a gunfighter and sharpshooter. There is a scene in “Escape from L.A.” when Snake actually delivers the following speech: “What’s say we play a little Bangkok rules? Nobody draws until this [can] hits the ground.” The can goes into the air. He shoots them. It hits the ground. Snake: “Draw.” It’s over-the-top, yes, but it’s almost poetic, this sci-fi homage.
1982 brought what is considered by many to be Carpenter’s best film after 1978’s “Halloween,” “The Thing.” “The Thing” is a remake of another Howard Hawks film, and while it may take place in the arctic, and may have a villain of a shape-shifting alien, it’s following once again the “Rio Bravo” structure. Tough men in a small place defending themselves from an obviously evil outside force. They may have technology at their disposal, but they use dynamite and fire as their main weapons. It’s tough and gritty in certain ways. And, knowing Carpenter, most likely influenced by the cowboys.
In 1988, Carpenter made the infamous “They Live,” a story about a homeless drifter (wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, acting terribly) who finds a pair of sunglasses that allow him to see that a few human among us are really ugly aliens in disguise, and are trying to control us with subliminal advertising. A cleverer idea than it sounds like at first, and well-done for the most part (casting notwithstanding). Piper’s character lives in a duty commune of shacks and shanties, full of drifters and gypsies. It looks a lot like one of those old poor ghost towns from a Leone picture, doesn’t it? And he has a tendency to fly off the handle and get into brawls. A cowboy? The final scenes of the raid on the alien’s headquarters feels a lot like Clint Eastwood bursting into the corrupt rich man’s office in the richer burg, eh? Carpenter may be making yet another sci-fi film, but the Western influence is only becoming stronger. (N.B. I must quote the film’s best line of dialogue here: “I’ve come here to do two things. Chew bubblegum, and kick ass. And I’m all outta bubblegum.”)
In 1995, two Carpenter films were released. My favorite, “In the Mouth of Madness,” and the remake of the 1960 film, “Village of the Damned.” Even after having watched ItMoM many times, the only Western influence I can point out there is its Joseph Cambell-esque “hero’s journey.” Sam Neill plays John Trent, an insurance investigator who must find missing horror author Sutter Cane (Jürgen Prochnow). He finds the author in a fiction town that he wrote. Please see this film. The candidate for Western influence this year was the latter film “Village of the Damned,” a story of oddly identical children appearing to a small town’s mothers all at once. It’s soon clear that they have eerie manipulative powers. Nothing in this story suggests John Ford or Sam Peckinpah, but the setting is very much from a Western. It’s a small town in the desert. Isolated. Broad. Windy. Frightening. It has a town drunk and a town bad-girl. The eerie children story has yet to appear in a Western, but the western appeared in the eerie children story.
We have now arrived at John Carpenter’s first straight Western: “Vampires” (1998). This is no longer influence or homage. This film fits squarely in the Western genre. It takes place in New Mexico. Jack Crow (played with snarling glee by James Woods) is the lead of a group of bounty hunters hired by the Catholic Church to destroy sand-dwelling vampire clans. Before you give me grief about how this is a vampire film full of blood, gore, steakings, and sunlight vampire explosions let me point out a few things: if you replace the vampires with some other usual Western baddie, such as criminals, kidnappers, or The Man Who Killed My Son, and replace the Catholic Church with the local government, you would have a Howard Hawks film. James Woods plays Jack Crow as the penultimate badass, cursing, chomping cigars, and ramming a steak into a vampire’s chest, yelling “Die, bitch!” It’s well known to his fans that John Carpenter scores all of his films. The score for “Vampires” is loud rockabilly guitar twanging, full of deep menace, and the slowly whirling red sands of the Southwest American deserts. This may be heresy to Western fans, but I think this film is one of my favorite Westerns.
And finally, there’s “Ghosts of Mars” (2001). It may be in Mars. It may be the future. There may be ancient Martian ghosts possessing dead humans. But gosh darn it, we’re going to have the heroes break into a prison to transport a dangerous criminal (played by Ice Cube, of all people). We’re going to have stand-offs in long dusty alleyways between ramshackle buildings. And, best of all, we’re going to be making sticks of dynamite, and chucking them off of the back of a train (yes, a train) at marauding bad guys. Pam Grier is in this one, for goodness sake. If there is any actress who can stand as a post-Golden Era badass Western heroine, it’s Pam Grier.
He may be known as a horror/sci-fi man, and he may not get nearly enough credit for his accomplishments, but John Carpenter is clearly an American great. A man whose bold ideas and influences make him a better filmmaker, and a servant to an era when riding off into the sunset was a sweetly sorrowful moment. He has birthed the Slasher genre, reinvented modern science fiction, effected me deeply with his films, and, probably most important to him, kept the American Western alive in his own subtle way.