John Carpenter is a revised, expanded and updated version of the book of the same title originally published in 2001 in the Pocket Essentials range of film guides. In fact this survey of the work of the writer-director-composer of Halloween, The Fog, The Thing and other modern science fiction and fantasy classics is so up-to-date, publication was delayed for months to enable the authors to cover The Ward, Carpenter’s first film since Ghosts of Mars a decade ago. The previous book just missed covering that title and had to settle for the literary equivalent of a coming soon trailer. No such omission here.
At 157 pages this still isn’t an expansive book, but contains twice the word count of the earlier edition, is much more nicely produced and even boasts eight pages of colour stills and promotional art rendered with pin sharp clarity on high gloss paper. Often the downfall of such books, wherein the photos are so badly reproduced one wonders what the point of including them is.
While concise, this exploration of the work of John Carpenter is comprehensive. After an introductory chapter which argues for Carpenter as an ‘American Auteur’ (and demonstrates Le Blanc and Odell can talk the film theory talk, which they later drop in favour of an informed, friendly fanish enthusiasm) the survey covers all of Carpenter’s films from Dark Star onwards, includes his television work – titles as diverse as Someone’s Watching Me!, Elvis and Cigarette Burns – and even ventures into the world of video games.
The authors rightly praise In The Mouth of Madness as an underrated entry in the Carpenter catalogue (why has this remarkable film never been released on DVD in the UK?), note that ‘Starman is like ET but better and without those awful kids’ and nail Black Moon Rising (for which Carpenter penned the much rewritten script) with the sardonic appraisal ‘as exciting as golf’. Clearly kindred spirits with Mark Twain.
Even if you think you know Carpenter well Le Blanc and Odell have something to offer. From Carpenter’s involvement with the Oscar-winning short The Resurrection of Bronco Billy to the influence of Philip K. Dick’s 1969 novel Ubik on Dark Star. They don’t just concentrate on Carpenter the director, but give due credit to his writing and composing skills. Carpenter is one of the very few directors to regularly score his own work. He is certainly the only director to craft a theme as iconic as that which graces Halloween. One might disagree with regards to observations that the CGI effects in Escape from L.A. now look badly dated – they looked surprisingly shoddy when the film was made 15 years ago. Not because they were CGI, but because they were cheap CGI. Carpenter has rarely commanded a Spielberg or Cameron sized budget.
Of course the authors do justice to Carpenter’s greatest work, Halloween, the film which though it didn’t invent a genre certainly was the making of one, and above all The Thing (not so much a remake of the 1951 The Thing From Another World! as the first faithful screen adaptation of the source story, John W. Campbell’s 1938 novella ‘Who Goes There?’). If Ridley Scott’s Alien is Halloween in a spaceship, The Thing is the mother of all monster movies, and a genuine uncompromising SF masterpiece. It exemplifies above all, as the authors repeatedly emphasise, that Carpenter is a great storyteller.
Whatever you think of the assessments in this book, the best of it is the sheer enthusiasm and joy of cinema with which it is written. Even if you didn’t think it before, the authors will convince you – at least for as long as you read – that Carpenter is an important filmmaker, a true artist, even a great one. Yes, it’s hard to fathom John Carpenter’s Vampires, but they find the best in even his weakest works, and at his best Carpenter could eat two Best Picture winners for breakfast. John Carpenter will make you want to go and discover his films for the first time, or watch them all over again. It reminded me why I loved them in the first place and offered plenty of new reasons to fall in love with them all over again. What more could you want from 157 pages?