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Thursday, October 30, 2008

John Carpenter’s American Vision

By John W. Whitehead

“I’m disgusted by what we’ve become in America. I truly believe there is brain death in this country. Everything we see is designed to sell us something. The only thing they want to do is take our money.”—John Carpenter

There are only a handful of directors whose films can be identified as “theirs.” John Carpenter is one of those.

In style, in composition, in technique, in sound and even in mood and texture, Carpenter rarely strays from his personal ethnos. Known primarily for their horror themes, Carpenter’s films inevitably feature pulse-pounding soundtracks, slow-moving camera work and hair-raising jolts to the nervous system as evil pops into the foreground with unexpected intensity.

Often missed by those seeking a good scare, Carpenter’s films are infused with a strong anti-authoritarian, laconic bent. Carpenter, as author John Muir writes in The Films of John Carpenter, sees the government working against its own citizens. Carpenter is a skeptic and critic. But “a close view of Carpenter’s work reveals a romantic streak beneath the skepticism,” writes Muir, “a belief down deep—far below the anti-establishment hatred—that a single committed and idealistic person can make a difference, even if society does not recognize that person as valuable or good.”

In fact, Carpenter’s central characters are always out of step with their times. Underneath their machismo, they “still believe in America” and the ideals of liberty and equal opportunity. Their beliefs place them in constant opposition with the law and the establishment, but they are nonetheless true patriots. When, for example, John Nada destroys the alien hyno-transmitter in They Live, he restores hope by delivering America a wake-up call for freedom.

This is the theme that runs throughout Carpenter’s films—the belief in American ideals and in people. “He believes that man can do better,” writes Muir, “and his heroes consistently prove that worthy goals (such as saving the Earth from malevolent shape-shifters) can be accomplished, but only through individuality.”

The following are ten of my favorite Carpenter films.

1. Assault on Precinct 13 (1976): This is a remake of Howard Hawks’ 1959 classic western Rio Bravo—much beloved by Carpenter. A street gang and assorted criminals surround and assault a police station. Paranoia abounds as the police are attacked from all sides and can see no way out.

2. Halloween (1978): This low-budget horror masterpiece launched Carpenter’s career. Acclaimed as the most successful independent motion picture of all time, the story centers on a deranged youth who returns to his hometown to conduct a murderous rampage after fifteen years in an asylum. This film is the beginning of the modern slasher film and has been remade many times, but none come close to the original.

3. The Fog (1980): This is a disturbing ghost story made in the mode of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963). Here the menace besieging a small town is not a pack of winged pests but rather a deadly fog bank that cloaks vengeful, faceless, evil spirits.

4. Escape from New York (1981): This is the ultimate urban nightmare. A ruined Manhattan of the future is an anarchic prison for America’s worst criminals. When the U.S. president is captured as a hostage, the government sends a disgraced, rebellious war hero into Manhattan in what seems to be an impossible rescue mission.

5. The Thing (1982): Considered by many as Carpenter’s best film, this is a remake of the 1951 sci-fi classic of the same name. A team of scientists in a remote Antarctic outpost discover a buried spaceship with a ravenous, mutating alien that eventually creates a claustrophic, paranoid environment within their compound. The social commentary is obvious as the horrible creature literally erupts and bursts out of human flesh throughout the film. Are we all aliens?

6. Christine (1983): This film adaptation of Stephen King’s novel finds a young man with a classic automobile that is demonically possessed. The car, representing technology with a will of its own, goes on a murderous rampage.

7. Starman (1984): An alien from an advanced civilization takes on the guise of a young widow’s recently deceased husband. The couple then takes off on a long drive to rendezvous with the alien spacecraft so he can return home. A beautiful science fiction romance that earned Jeff Bridges an Academy Award nomination for best actor.

8. Big Trouble in Little China (1986): A trucker, who walks and talks like John Wayne, finds himself in an underworld battle in San Francisco’s Chinatown with an army of spirits. This is Carpenter’s parody of the action film and one of his favorite genres, the kung fu movie.

9. They Live (1988): A drifter discovers that an alien conspiracy has taken over America. This film suggests that the Reagan Revolution and yuppie movement of the 1980s were actually the result of an invasion by greedy, skeletal aliens. A great commentary on the use of subliminal advertising to control the populace.

10. In the Mouth of Madness (1995): A successful horror novelist’s fans become so engrossed in his stories that they slip into dementia and carry out the grisly acts depicted in his books. When this film was being conceived, conservative politicians were criticizing horror movies for promoting violence. This film parodied that argument. As Carpenter said, “This ludicrous argument that television/video violence is the cause of society’s ills. When I was growing up it was horror comics that said, ‘Religion seeks discipline through fear.’ That’s what this current moral crusade is all about. Government under God, and you only have to look at Iran to see where this avenue of thought ends up.”

Thus, in Carpenter’s view, the real enemies of freedom—the real aliens—are us. As one of Carpenter’s characters concludes in They Live: “Maybe they’ve always been with us…those things out there. Maybe they love seeing us hate each other; watching us kill each other off; feeding on our own cold…hearts.”

Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. He can be contacted at johnw@rutherford.org. Information about The Rutherford Institute is available at www.rutherford.org.


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