“Science fiction’s a mirror,” says genre master John Carpenter explaining how he researched tribal cultures for his latest film, Ghosts of Mars. “It’s not really about the future — it’s about us, our past.”
Actually, this film’s full title is John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars, a distinction he considers so vital it’s in his contract with the studio. Carpenter considers it a matter of “pure and simple self-preservation.” It’s just one way the 53-year-old has survived in a mercurial industry for more than 25 years, by evolving into a brand name, an A-list B-movie director whose moderately budgeted films rarely stray from the science fiction and horror genres.
“Look, people get typecast in these sorts of things,” he says with typical frankness, “and I got typecast after Halloween, which is fine with me. ‘That’s what he does.’ When I was a younger director, it used to bug me. But then I kind of gave in.
“I love the genre that I work in,” he continues, “and within it, I get to play around with certain themes and characters that I enjoy. I generally get to do movies that nobody else makes. My movies don’t look like any others. That’s good or bad, whatever. They’re mine.”
Ghosts of Mars incorporates science fiction, supernatural and horror elements in a futuristic tale which, like his police siege thriller, Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), is John Carpenter’s imaginative reinterpretation of Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959). Hawks is a major influence on Carpenter (he taught a master class at the British Film Institute on the filmmaker behind Bringing Up Baby, The Big Sleep and Red River), and the two share a straightforward, stripped-down approach to filmmaking, along with an undying love for that distinctively populist (but no longer popular) American genre, the western.
“Westerns used to be a staple of big-budget, serious films,” Carpenter explains, “and low-budget movies. They used to be all over the place. Television killed it. ‘Gunsmoke,’ familiarity, lack of curiosity about the frontier. Kids don’t care about costumes and horses, and science fiction (appropriated) all that stuff. Star Wars stole all the western archetypes, all of them. Part of Star Wars is The Searchers.”
So Carpenter opts to incorporate western themes and story lines into films such as Ghosts of Mars, where a frontier mining town on Mars is the setting for what he calls the “trapped movie, where people are enclosed and evil is all around them.” Only in this case, the hostile army is made up of zombies possessed by a vengeful spirit of the angry red planet and driven to a state of primitive brutality. It’s packed with disturbing imagery of human mutilation which Carpenter (reacting to the “soft-core violence” of the nonstop decapitations in Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow) wanted to make as visceral as possible.
“Times evolve — most of the things that bother us don’t,” he states, “but there are a few things that will always be bothersome, that will always be challenging. It’s always two things: sex and violence. Those are the two things that upset humans to watch.”
Carpenter got to examine those issues from a different perspective when he taught a course on sexuality and violence in the movies at the University of California at Santa Barbara two years ago. He structured the class as a history of American cinema along with the history of censorship because, he believes, the two go hand in hand.
“You can’t make a movie about that stuff,” he says, “I mean the issues of sex and violence in our culture. But I’m fascinated by it, that’s why I taught that course. I wanted to find out what these kids think. They watch Pulp Fiction and laugh at the little pop-culture jokes, but you show them something with some guts and they say, ‘You can’t show that.’
“It was eye-opening for me,” he continues. “I showed a lot of controversial films, but what bothered the students were two films from the 1970s, Straw Dogs and In the Realm of the Senses, and they were shook.”
What unnerved his class most, Carpenter found, wasn’t sex or violence per se, but genuine ambiguity. The students, he says, wanted actions and consequences “to be clear-cut. It’s the moralizing instinct in our culture: Violence is bad — unrestrained sexuality is bad.
“It’s Puritan America,” he continues. “I have a 17-year-old kid, and he grew up watching all of these films, and he knows they’re fake. It doesn’t bother him. I made sure to show him as much as I could as early as he was ready for it. This is my take on it.”
Carpenter doesn’t believe in hiding our collective demons, but in unleashing them and even letting them overstay their welcome to make a point. His films — including Escape from New York, The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China, Starman, In the Mouth of Madness and Christine — often deal with exposing the horror hidden in everyday life.
At this point in his career, Carpenter says, he finds himself comfortably settled into his own particular genre ghetto.
“I’m harmless now,” he says with a hearty laugh. “They’ve taken all my danger away.”
Don’t bet on it.Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected]