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John Carpenter’s Lesser Works Are Still Fantastic

John Carpenter’s Lesser Works Are Still Fantastic

We’re at a point now where newer filmmakers are just as likely to emulate John Carpenter as they are Spielberg or Scorsese. Carpenter had a string of hits in the ’70s and ’80s, and movies like Halloween, The Fog, and Escape from New York have come to be hailed as masterpieces of filmmaking. While his The Thing was a critically panned flop in 1982, it has since become the cornerstone of the director’s canon, roundly considered his best and most accomplished work.

All of this reappraisal of John Carpenter’s cinema is great for people like me who discovered him in college, and great for Shout! Factory and its horror imprint Scream Factory, who’ve been steadily releasing Carpenter’s filmography in special edition Blu-rays over the past few years. What’s even better is that we’re getting to the point now where they’re releasing the director’s lesser works. Upon watching several of them, even they are worthy of a look.

Going in chronological order, Scream has released Carpenter’s 1978 TV movie Someone’s Watching Me!, a movie I had never seen. After the modest success of 1976’s Assault on Precinct 13, Carpenter was working as a screenwriter and sold a script for a thriller and eventually negotiated to direct the movie as well, for Warner Bros. and NBC. Often called “the lost Carpenter film” for its scarcity on home video, it’s now got a fancy collector’s edition with loads of extras.

For a late ’70s movie of the week, Someone’s Watching Me! is surprisingly self-assured and has some legitimately innovative thrills, even if the interiors can’t help but look like a TV set. The story follows Leigh Michaels (Lauren Hutton), who moves from New York to Los Angeles to get a job directing live television. At her new station, she meets and becomes fast friends with production manager Sophie (Adrienne Barbeau). Leigh moves into a high rise apartment on Wilshire, part of a pair of tall apartment blocks, and quickly realizes someone is spying on her, and she receives a series of threatening phone calls and letters from a fake vacation sweepstakes called “Excursions Unlimited.”

The police are relatively helpless, nor can Leigh’s new boyfriend (David Birney) seem to do anything about it. Sophie thinks she oughta just leave, but eventually, Leigh takes matters into her own hands and decides to find the stalker and make him stop, one way or the other. The movie has a lovely sense of dread throughout and the stalker, though not in the slasher movie mold, remains an almost otherworldly enigma. There’s something of the giallo flavor about it, with the unseen figure wearing black gloves.

This movie was a surprise and a delight for me to finally get to see, and it proves not only Carpenter’s directorial chops, but that he was an ace screenwriter too. Each character on the movie’s small cast list feels real and important, and it even deals with relatively taboo topics for television at the time. Barbeau’s character is openly a lesbian, something which gets talked about not as an aberration but as a part of her life.

Someone’s Watching Me! was made just prior to Carpenter embarking on the production of Halloween, but didn’t end up airing until about a month after that movie’s runaway success, and the director’s string of hits (and a couple misses) was off and running. As such, it’s a fun time capsule of a pre-Halloween landscape.

This next movie, on the other hand, was never hailed as any sort of lost classic. It was one of the very last major studio productions Carpenter would work on, and by all rights it should have been a massive success. It just…wasn’t. Memoirs of an Invisible Man, released in 1992, was Carpenter’s follow-up to 1988’s They Live, and it’s a part of the corporate machine the earlier film railed against. Carpenter was a director for hire for it, and I will say, though it doesn’t exactly feel like a Carpenter movie, it does look like one.

Memoirs follows a stock analyst named Nick Halloway (Chevy Chase), who spends most of his time avoiding work but still succeeding (typical). He meets and falls for a TV producer named Alice (Daryl Hannah), but life gets, well, complicated when Nick takes a snooze while he’s supposed to be watching a lecture at a shareholders’ meeting for Magnascopic Laboratories, and gets stuck in the middle of an accident that causes some high tech equipment to go haywire, turning half the building—and Nick himself—fully invisible.

Being an invisible man is a lot of people’s dream, but Nick soon learns it’s a nightmare; he can’t sleep because he can see through his own eyelids. He can’t eat more than Jell-O because he can see the food digesting in his stomach, and he can’t even see where he’s going or feed himself properly because he can’t see where his hands or feet are. This would be bad enough, but he’s also being hunted by a group of government agents—led by the sadistic Jenkins (Sam Neill)—who want to exploit Nick’s invisibility for spying purposes…or kill him and everyone he comes in contact with should he refuse.

Memoirs of an Invisible Man is definitely not on the same level as a lot of Carpenter’s work, but I was fairly surprised by how moderately enjoyable it was. The special effects, by a pre-Jurassic Park ILM, were state-of-the-art, making Nick’s clothes seem like they were floating around rather seamlessly, and his make-up covered face seem two dimensional. The story is fine—one of the credited screenwriters is the legendary William Goldman, clearly slumming it—but I think the major drawback of the movie is Chase’s performance.

If the movie’s supposed to be a comedy, he’s playing it far too straight (one of the only moments that seems to be vying for outright “comedy” is a racist scene where Nick goes undercover as a cab driver, covering his face in very dark makeup, painting his invisible teeth with white-out, and wearing a turban) and if it’s supposed to be a serious sci-fi adventure, he’s not the right guy for it. Neill, on the other hand, is perfectly cast as the villain. This movie did not get the kind of extensive collector’s edition from Scream Factory the others in Carpenter’s catalog have—he himself doesn’t speak much of it. But the shame of it is that if someone more suitable to the task had been cast, it might have become a minor hit.

And finally, I want to mention a movie that was a financial disappointment upon its release, but has since garnered a major cult following, joining The Thing as the Carpenter movie that’s found its audience in ensuing years. 1994’s In the Mouth of Madness might have been too cerebral for the dwindling horror crowds of the ’90s, but it’s a masterful piece of cosmic and paranoid horror. I’ve written about the film extensively in the past (which you can read here) but it’s fantastic to have a collector’s edition now, with a brand new commentary by Carpenter and his producer/wife Sandy King and new interviews with cast and crew. It finally feels like In the Mouth of Madness has gotten the respect it deserves.

John Carpenter remains one of my personal favorite directors, and has only grown in my estimation upon countless rewatches. It’s a shame he wasn’t more respected during his latter career—though you can’t deny his films after They Live (Madness aside) don’t hold a candle to the ones before—but his influence on the current batch of genre filmmakers is firm and unshakable.

Images: Scream Factory

Kyle Anderson is the Associate Editor for Nerdist. You can find his film and TV reviews here. Follow him on Twitter!

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