Carpenter Offers Another 'Escape' For Sci-Fi Fans (The Star Ledger/Aug 08/1996/US) By Allen Barra


Director John Carpenter doesn't GET New York, and he has no desire to escape from L.A.

"Great, great city," he says about his home. He gazes out the window. "You can see the horizon there. You can't see the horizon here." Carpenter admits that when he made his 1981 cult classic Escape From New York, "I didn't know much about New York. I still don't. I couldn't tell you where we are right now." (We're at the Regency Hotel.)

He likes his new film, Escape From L.A., much better: "It's much more rooted in L.A. than the first one was in New York. It's richer, I think, and funnier. If you like L.A. or hate it, there's lots of material here for you to feed on."

Like the movie or don't, but don't call it a sequel. "We waited 15 years to do this movie because we wanted to do the right story," says Carpenter. "It had to be plausible, at least in sci-fi-fantasy terms. The earthquakes and riots gave us our impetus. After that, we didn't have to INVENT, we just had to EXAGGERATE."

John Carpenter has been inventing and exaggerating since he made his first feature film, Dark Star, 22 years ago. He grew up in Bowling Green, Ky., "dumbstruck with the beauty of B-movies and exploitation films. I mean, I loved good stuff like the African Queen and Rio Bravo, but it was the stuff on, shall we say, a lower artistic plain that touched my soul. Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Creeping Unknown, B-westerns, things like that. I never confused what I was seeing with real life. I could never forget I was watching movies while I watched those, and that's what I loved."

Carpenter attended the famous U. of Southern California film school, but he always regarded himself as IN that "film school' generation, but not OF it. I never wanted to remake Citizen Kane. I'd have settled for Curse of the Cat People."

Actually, he's turned out much better than that. Dark Star is beloved by sci-fi fans who think Star Wars is too top-heavy with technology. Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) is one of the great low-budget suspense-action movies of all time and a huge "midnight movie" circuit favorite before the advent of video. Halloween (1980) was so far above the rung of its myriad imitators that Carpenter has understandably come off as an Orson Welles to a subsequent generation of young filmmakers. Even some of Carpenter's financial failures like The Thing (1982) have grown in stature over the years. "That movie had no chance when it came out," he says. "None. It was the year of E.T. you know, 'Happy Happy Joy Joy' from another planet. Who wanted to see a movie about an alien presence that could overcome its enemies through fear and paranoia?" Carpenter's The Thing was much more than a remake of Howard Hawks' 1950 classic. "We rethought the whole concept," he says. "The idea wasn't to have a WW II-type bomber crew of guys from different backgrounds all pitching in to fight a common foe. The idea was to show in the "80s how a similar group of guys could be torn apart by a similar situation. I think it holds up very well. I'd match it for suspense with anything that came out in that era, Alien included."

He made comedies, too, including Big Trouble in Little China with Kurt Russell as a bumbling American hero. Carpenter calls it "the best send-up of John Wayne-type heroes anyone's ever done. Kurt is hilarious. We got a lot of criticism at the time for 'perpetrating Oriental stereotypes.' What nonsense! Watch that movie now and you'll see that we were trashing WESTERN stereotypes!" Carpenter met Russell in 1979 when the two combined talents for the surprisingly watchable Elvis TV movie. They've made four movies since then. Carpenter calls him "the most underrated actor in American films. Did you see his Wyatt Earp in Tombstone? He chased the memory of every other actor to play Earp right off the screen, especially Kevin Costner's. Kurt is the gutsiest and the most versatile leading guy out there right now. Who else could play in a romantic comedy and also a sleaze-bag action hero like Snake Plissken (in Escape From New York and Escape From L.A.)?"

It is noted that Escape From L.A. is Carpenter's fifth effort with Russell one more and they'll tie Martin Scorsese-Robert De Niro. "Yeah, that's us," he says with a laugh. "The Scorsese and De Niro of Sleaze. "Seriously, though, I'm not in that class. Kurt is, but not me. I'm a good B-movie director." He pauses. "Okay, maybe B-plus."