Escape From Typecasting
Resentment (The Herald-Palladium/Aug 25/1996/US) By Douglas J. Rowe
John Carpenter no longer feels
the need to escape typecasting as a horrormeister.
He found it really frustrating when he was younger, he says, "but I've come to
really enjoy who I am and the work I've done. And I'm really proud of my work.
That's just maturity."
Some credit (others blame) the 48-year-old director of Escape From New York
and its newly released sequel Escape From L.A., for the slasher movies
that lasted for years with sequel upon sequel. His success with Halloween
in 1978 inspired the inevitable imitations - and the movie itself begat four
follow-ups. (Friday the 13th had as many as NINE!) Made for
grossed $60 million to $75 million, according to varying accounts.
Carpenter declines to accept either plaudits or indictments.
"I think the slasher movie in its modern form began back in 1960 with a movie
called Psycho," he said during a recent interview. "The shower scene is
one of the most famous scenes in movie history. It's a SLASHING scene, with a
knife. And it's very much in-your-face, and shocking at the time. Halloween
was a movie much more about evil. ...There's no blood in Halloween.
There's nothing on the screen. It's all of-screen; it's what's implied."
So Carpenter offers no apologies.
"I don't have a problem with slasher movies. I stopped watching them after
awhile because it was kind of the same thing over and over again. They got
repetitive and boring. The characters were so undifferentiated I didn't care
whether anybody survived or not."
Carpenter whose work also includes 1980's The Fog, 1983's Christine,
1987's Prince of Darkness, and 1994's In The Mouth of Madness,
maintains that another problem with horror movies is that some moviegoers see
them "as being just a little better than pornography."
Carpenter's admirers point out that pigeonholing him is unfair, too, given that
he's directed action films such as Assault on Precinct 13, a homage to
the Western Rio Bravo by his favorite director, Howard Hawks); the sweet,
science-fiction romance Starman starring Jeff Bridges; and the TV movie
Elvis. He also wrote the screenplay for the suspense thriller The Eyes
of Laura Mars.
And now, 15 years later, his fans are excited that he'd made a follow-up to
Escape From New York, again starring Kurt Russell as the grizzled, one-eyed
gunslinger Snake Plissken.
So what took so long?
"Kurt and I had talked about making the sequel back in 1985, but we could never
come up with the L.A. we wanted to escape from," Carpenter says.
Back in 1981, it was almost too easy to think of the Big Apple as a futuristic
penal colony, he says, but Los Angeles typically brought to mind "palm trees and
avocados and sunshine."
Then came the recent years' mudslides, wildfires, earthquakes and riots, so they
started developing a story with the thinking: "Why do we still live here? Why
don't we run away in terror?
Carpenter and his collaborators came up with a Los Angeles separated from the
mainland United States by The Big One and turned into an island prison where
"all the morally guilty people" are sent.
Made for $50 million (Escape From New York cost $7), Escape From L.A.
has much spiffier special effects, and more action than the original.
And the film manages to aim zingers along various parts of the political
spectrum, particularly the religious right.
"But we're broad scope," Carpenter demurs. "We get in our digs against the
people who don't want you to smoke, or eat red meat. It's the politically
correct of both sides. Kurt said, 'I don't want to just bash the right; let's
bash the left, too. Let's bash them all - all people who wish to take away our
freedom and our choices.' So that's what we did."
Plissken finally lighting up a cigarette - with the not-so-subtle brand name
American Spirit - amounts to a transcendent moment in the film.
Carpenter says he's tried to give a couple of his pictures an undercurrent of
what he likes to call "thematic relevance."
And that's not to be confused with a "message." Anyone with a message should go
hold up a sign, he says. "Movies don't have messages. But what they have is
themes that you can work in that resonate with the audience."
Carpenter, who won an Academy Award for best live action short with The
Resurrection of Bronco Billy (1970), sees his trademark of composing the
score for his films as a need growing out of two things his formative years.
He grew up with music all around him in Bowling Green, Ky., since his father was
a music professor. And he learned at the University of Southern California film
school that whatever you might be working on, "make it your own, make it your
personal movie." And composing his music is a way to do that.
His biggest creative disappointment was The Thing, a remake of another
film by idol Hawks. He though he made a good, scary movie, and it flopped.
"And that bothered me a lot," he said. "It took me a little bit to get over it.
But again when you're younger, things bother you more. You get older, you don't
worry about them too much. It's just a movie. What the hell! It's not like we're
operating on people and saving lives."