Prince of Darkness

Director John Carpenter's production office is a low ranch-style house in residential Van Nuys. Set back from the street by a wide yard, the home is surrounded by tree-lined drives that insulate it from the Valley's major arteries and bear an eerie similarity, in the late-summer stillness, to the shady Pasadena streets he once passed off as suburban Illinois in his 1978 horror classic Halloween. Says Carpenter of the location, “It's a great place to hide.”

Encircled by movie books and memorabilia in the rear annex where he has written all of his scripts since They Live (1988), Carpenter is unwinding from the three-day Los Angeles press junket for his latest science-fiction thriller, Ghosts of Mars, about interstellar cops and outlaws besieged by an army of Martian zombies. “Every third question was, 'What are you afraid of?'” says Carpenter with resigned incredulity. “Do you know how many years I've been asked that? I don't even mind any longer.” More recently, he has picked up on another question, this one muttered among those critics and fans who feel that the genre hero behind the hard action and invasive paranoia of such films as Assault on Precinct 13, The Fog, Escape From New York, The Thing, The Prince of Darkness and They Live has been in a creative slump since the late 1980s. “'What's happened to him?' 'When is he going to do something worthwhile again?' is all I ever hear,” he says, a touch amused. “They all think I'm a bum.”

The 53-year-old writer/director/composer has been around long enough to be circumspect. Dressed in sweats, reaching for an occasional smoke during the interview, the Kentucky-raised filmmaker appears the epitome of SoCal '70s laid-back. At any rate, the question of what ever happened to John Carpenter seems misdirected. In a canonizing 1999 article for Film Comment, critic Kent Jones wrote that Carpenter is “an analog man in a digital world.” It's an assessment that acknowledges the misfires of the '90s (Memoirs of an Invisible Man, Village of the Damned, Escape From LA), even as it recognizes that his output has remained consistently, stubbornly attuned to generic traditions that have been blown away by the gusting winds of movie fashion. Though they might be blowing his way again given 1998's box-office and home-video success of Vampires.

“I've heard the old-director-out-of-time business,” says Carpenter. “A lot of modern films I couldn't do. I wouldn't be interested. I like watching them, but personally I couldn't do them. My movies are rooted back in the 1950s, the cinema I grew up on, and you're not going to see anybody else make movies like this. If you don't like it, that's cool. If you do, I love it. But you have to make movies for the long term.”

Carpenter still makes movies like a fan, drawing from an eclectic mix of “A” and “B” movies to craft his distinctive, cross-pollinated genre staples. “Back then, you had Westerns and romances and horror films and giant-mutating-bug movies, and it's really fun now to take all the elements of that,” he says. In Ghosts of Mars, Carpenter also throws a heavy dose of rock & roll rebellion into a headbanging blend of Rio Bravo, Night of the Living Dead and Zulu set on Mars. Of course, this year alone we've also had musicals, dramas, a robot boy and a planet ruled by seething simians. But where Steven Spielberg, with A.I. Artificial Intelligence, tries to shape sci-fi dystopia into a palliative, and Tim Burton loses the kitsch hysteria of the original Planet of the Apes amid blockbuster bloat, Carpenter has always aimed to serve up his visions as did his primary influence, Howard Hawks, without pretense or slack. Ghosts comes straight, no chaser.

Carpenter remains one of the last of the pure genre filmmakers. His willingness to play down self-consciousness amid unadorned spectacle (much like his minimalist scores) and his use of old-school fright gimmickry (“I love cheap tricks,” he has said) are the strongest signs of his faith in the influences he recasts. Ghosts of Mars is a $33 million production that looks like less than $33 million onscreen, perfect for the grunge aesthetic that gives its Martian outpost its seedy life. It looks and plays like a John Carpenter movie, and he says the film's distributor, Sony subsidiary Screen Gems, gave him the room to make it do just that. “I had total creative freedom. We didn't even test it,” he says. “We had to be very responsible with our budget, but creatively, amazingly, I never had a problem.”

If Carpenter's stripped-down, straightforward approach, his refusal to reduce his storytelling to impersonal virtuosity, is tantamount to a sin against movie capital, he stands beyond prevailing Hollywood and audience tastes for other reasons as well—specifically regarding the current ironic self-awareness of the genre he's most closely associated with, horror. “I think the modern attitude about movies these days goes back to the horror craze of the '80s,” he says. “With the Friday the 13th series, for better or worse, they intentionally wanted the audience to feel superior to the movie, but now that kind of contemptuous look at films is everywhere. The audience today feels truly superior to everything that's going on. I think you have to take every character in a movie seriously. It would be hard for me to make a movie with pop-culture references in it. That just completely takes you out of the film. And I hate that.”

Carpenter may have been flattered by Scream, but would never have made it. “I can't do anything else but me.”

Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars opens Aug. 24.

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