By Anthony C Ferrante
With VAMPIRES hitting cinemas just in time for Halloween, its safe to say John Carpenter is returning to his horror roots even though he is still telling modern-day Westerns with a horror veneer. Anthony C Ferrante reports
When most people bring up the name John Carpenter, hes almost automatically clumped into that dreadfully generalized "horror director" category. Yet anyone who has faithfully followed his career from the seventies to the present knows Carpenter is about so much more.
Sure, hes a master of the suspense game, crafting seamless, memorable excursions into unrelenting terror starting with his action opus ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13, followed by HALLOWEEN and THE FOG, growing with his now classic remake of THE THING. However hes also dabbled in romantic fantasy (STARMAN), supernatural martial arts (BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA), action (ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK) and full-blown mainstream film making (MEMOIRS OF AN INVISIBLE MAN) with fine results.
"If you have a long time in the editing room, you can really do amazing things," he explains. "If you have enough time working on that baby, you can hone it down and get it to play its best. I'm ruthless in the editing room. Its got to work on the screen and it has to cook. And we did on VAMPIRES we really got to play with that lady. I had several months to fool around with it and explore. I could do the entire score and then go back and edit some more. And it didnt have a release date looking ahead of you. That's when it gets nuts. Part of making a movie is living with it. You see it and you see it again. I take it home with me."
VAMPIRES finally became a Carpenter project shortly after he finished work on ESCAPE FROM L.A.. "I was actually toying around with getting out of the business for a while and I couldnt decide if I should. It stopped being fun," he says ruefully. "Then along came Largo Entertainment who had a project called VAMPIRES. Vampire$ was basically an action, mercenary novel with vampires being the evil threat. Two screenplays were written one by Don Jakoby, the other by Dan Mazur. So I took all the stuff home with me to read, and both screenplays were pretty good. The novel had something interesting about it. It had a new take on vampires. The Vatican and Catholic Church created them in the 1300s inadvertently and by mistake. So now they hire slayer squads all over the world. Teams of slayers run around trying to eradicate nests of vampires in countries all over the world. The original Master has now reemerged and is trying to find a legendary black cross that will allow vampires to walk in the daylight.
"I found all of this interesting so I took the two screenplays and the book and said, I could do something with this. I went in my office and thought, Its going to be set in the American Southwest and its a Western Howard Hawks, and I wrote it. I combined the two screenplays together utilizing elements from this one and that one, a little bit of the book and a bunch of me, and out it came from there. It worked out pretty well."
VAMPIRES is probably the closest that Carpenter has yet come to making a Western a genre for which he has frequently expressed his affection. "Its a little more like THE WILD BUNCH than Hawks in its style, but the feelings and the whole ending scene is a kind of replay on RED RIVER," he claims. "You cant kill John Wayne. I cant kill him. You have to let him go, which I think will bother some of the younger filmgoers who are unfamiliar with American classics. Some people have said to me, Why didnt Crow kill Montoya and the girl? And I say, Because hes loyal. No matter what, the two men love each other. He is breaking the rule Rule #1 but hes breaking it and hes giving him a chance. Get out of town, Im giving you 24 hours and then Im going to come and kill you."
Carpenter struck lucky with his cast. James Woods, who plays Jack Crow, wanted to be involved with VAMPIRES, since it gave him a chance to expand his repertoire. "Woods wanted to make the picture," Carpenter says. "He read it and said, Oh, this is an interesting take, and he gets to play an action hero. Woods is always the bad guy or the evil congressman like in CONTACT and in a hundred movies like that. Now he gets to play William Holden in THE WILD BUNCH. And he wanted to make it his own.
"Jimmy is pretty easy for me. For a lot of people, he is not easy. He is a very powerful, temperamental man. Thats okay. Hes a really brilliant actor. He said Look, I have to make it me, I cant play anybody else. So we had a deal. He would give me one take as its written and I would let him improvise. It was really good, because when I needed him to kick ass, many of his improvisations were brilliant. When I needed him to be more focused and disciplined, I had the take from the script that was straighter."
"Daniel Baldwin read for me. Im not a TV watcher and I had never seen his work. I really loved his whole nature and personality. He is a great guy and we became close friends. Sheryl Lee the same way. I knew Sheryl because I had seen TWIN PEAKS, but I hadnt seen too much else. She had a really unique quality about her. I like people who are not exactly on the nose theyre just a little tweaked. And Thomas Ian Griffith is this great vampire. Hes an action guy. He did a couple of features, one called EXCESSIVE FORCE. Hes a real sweet man, but hes also good at action, martial arts and all that stuff."
Carpenter feels that there is a new style in movies nowadays. "Its in every movie now, and the horror movie has it now with SCREAM," he says. "Its a post modern style, where the film maker is acknowledging to you that youre watching a horror film and things are borrowed from everywhere. You refer to things and wink at the audience. This is playing to perceived cynicism in the audience out there today. Its in action movies. Its in everything."
"Its bizarre to me. I know Im watching a movie, but its like Im watching another movie. They all blend in and become the same. With VAMPIRES we tried to do the opposite. What youre seeing is taking place right in front of you. I dont know how to make any other kind of movie. Im not very good at it."
Carpenter has grown out of his original annoyance at being pigeonholed as a genre director. "I got in this business to make Westerns," he recalls. "I didnt get in to make horror movies. Once I got over that I was okay. Its like John Wayne. I wrote a script for him back in the seventies. He always wanted to play heavies. He didnt want to play that guy over and over again. He wanted to play other roles. Well, they like me that way, so why not?"
Does he think its true that no one really knows how to do suspense films anymore except for some of the veteran directors out there like Wes Craven, Brian De Palma and himself? "We all have bad days," Carpenter admits. "Wes has made some movies where he didnt have a clue. Same for me, same for Brian De Palma. We can all pontificate about what it takes and sometimes you get stuck and screw up."
So how does he create suspense on his "good days"? "Its really all in your story," he says flatly. "If you have the right kind of story that lends itself to suspense then you have it made. When the story is something else, youre kidding yourself. You can play all the tried and true techniques but they wont work."
Would he like to do something independent in the horror realm? "Sure. Im going cautiously. Im like a good whore, I go where Im pushed. I know what Im good at. I know how to raise money based on my name."
That would mean he would also get final cut on the movie without any unnecessary headaches something that kept him away from his planned involvement with THE MUTANT CHRONICLES, and was one of the reasons he didnt join HALLOWEEN H2O. "It should be a rule for every serious director to get as much control as you can because you know thats going to be your movie. You need to get it as close as you can get it. It doesnt always mean the movie is going to be great. It means the movie will be yours and wont be a committee movie. Barring that, you just try to make it the best deal you can and try to make the right choices. I suppose for me my issue is about rekindling the love affair with cinema again."
"I turned 50 in January. I know this is a cliché and people dont understand this, when youre an older man, adrenaline and coffee dont do it any more. Thats what young kids get by on or drugs. You cant do that over and over again. A director has no lifestyle. Your personal life suffers terribly and the stress is terrible on you. Thats part of the gig. If youre going to be a soldier, its not going to be fun. If youre going to go out and do that, beat yourself up emotionally and physically, you better be doing it for a cause, and I want to see the flag again in your heart. I need to see that American flag again so I will charge up the hill. I got a little tired of, What am I doing this for again? Remind me again why Im doing this. I know: the money, I know. I know."
How does he describe his career? "Im the luckiest director I know of. I got to actually be John Carpenter and be associated with something and have my name recognized by a certain amount of people. Its hard to do. The chances of a skinny kid growing up in Bowling Green Kentucky, going to movies when he was a kid and falling in love with cinema, ever becoming a film director Ive had the luckiest damn life. I was in the right place at the right time and Im just happy it happened to me. A lot of great directors never had that chance. Thats pretty cool. You couldnt ask for more than that."