Monday, 24 August 2009
It's been a long, bumpy ride but we've at last come to the end of the John Carpenter crazy watch. And what a trip!
Things started off pretty tame with the decidedly uncrazy Assault on Precinct 13. Halloween was only a little bit nuts, but Carpenter bottomed out again with The Fog. Escape From New York broke the mold and earn the highest crazy rating yet, but as Carpenter gained ever more experience as a filmmaker, the craziness steadily declined, hitting rock bottom with Starman. Both Prince of Darkness and They Live were equally bonkers but the completely sane Memoirs of an Invisible Man forced a halt in craziosity. In the Mouth of Madness bypassed all previous outings and rated a 4.5 on the caze-o-meter. A sharp decline was noted in Village of the Damned but Carpetner's final three films, Escape From LA, Vampires, and Ghosts of Mars delivered more insanity.
It would appear that Carpenter's craziest film, In The Mouth of Mandess is the turning, or perhaps, breaking point. I argue instead that Starman is in fact what drove the man over the edge, and that Madness tracks only Carpenter's growing, uh, madness. Carpenter's films can be divided into two groups, pre- and post-Starman, and the films on either side of that line represent different kinds of insanity.
Beginning with Precinct 13, the film is completely sane not because of its premise--which is revisited in the unquestionably crazy Ghosts of Mars--but because of its execution. In spite of a few pacing issues, the film slowly builds suspense and its claustrophobic atmosphere suggest that Carpenter may well be a gifted filmmaker. Halloween is a lot crazier than Precinct 13, based mostly on a combination of story and execution. The film's psychology is slightly more complex, and the audience is treated to both the killer his victims' points of view. The Fog is deemed uncrazy because in it Carpenter has resolved the pacing issues that hindered his previous films, and the story follows in a logical and natural order.
The group of films that follow The Fog, which include Escape From New York, The Thing, Big Trouble in Litte China, and Christine are all half a point saner than the one before it, starting with New York. Here again, Carpenter is displaying his skill as a filmmaker, but the films in this group are all over the map story-wise. New York is crazy mostly because it's total departure for Carpenter. The Thing brilliantly muses on paranoia and isolation while delivering outstanding monster effects. BTLC is a campy Chinese fantasy-type story, and Christine is a straight horror story about an evil car. In each of these films, Carpenter's competence more than anything else is what keeps the insanity to a minimum.
Starman is, again, a departure for Carpenter. He's dealt with aliens before as well as people-out-of-their-element, but Starman is not even remotely close to being genre. Unlike The Thing or BTLC, Starman is a straight work-for-hire gig and the film could have been made by anyone. The lack of crazy is due not to Carpenter's skill but to the distinct lack of anything remotely Carpentery in the movie; Starman could have been made by anyone.
Post-Starman, Carpenter returns to the horror genre with the Lovecraftian Prince of Darkness. The film is undeniably crazy. It's very creepy and has one of the greatest endings ever. Prince of Darkness is followed by the equally insane but tonally different They Live. It would appear that the lull in Carpenter's personal and professional development brought on by Starman forced a growth spurt of sorts. Though Prince of Darkness is extremely well made, this factor alone cannot mitigate the creeping insanity that has pervaded most of Carpenter's films up to this point.
The unfortunate Memoirs of an Invisible Man puts an abrupt stop to the insanity, but Carpenter again bounces back with is craziest film yet, In The Mouth of Madness. To watch Madness is to watch a man go insane, because that is the actual plot. But Madness is crazier than is is strictly necessary and though it too is Lovecraft-inspired, it lacks the polish of Prince of Darkness. Carpenter was not going crazy when he made this movie--he was already there. Village of the Damned could have been another Memoirs, but the combined powers of Carpenter's credentials and craziness prevent the film from being a complete write-off. With the exception of Escape From LA, the final films in the catalogue are very different from Carpenter's equally crazy but earlier films. The boredom or fatigue that seems apparent in Vampires and Ghosts of Mars, might be side effects of a lifetime of Carpenter trying to keep his growing insanity under control.
Disregarding the first three films in his career, in which Carpenter was fitting himself into the genre, examination of the data thus far shows a cycling pattern of mounting insanity, then a bottoming out, followed by a peak of craziness. The point at which he went insane appears to be Starman and not In the Mouth of Madness, though it is his craziest film. The pre-Starman films are all insane, but the insanity is balanced by Carpenter's increasing maturity as a filmmaker. Post-Starman, Carpenter has established himself as director and, with the exception of Memoirs and Village of the Damned, the craziness is expertly and overtly distributed throughout his films. The uneven distribution of insanity across the post-Memoirs group is attributed to Carpenter actually being totally insane.
What more proof do you need? Just look at him!