With his film “The Ward” recently coming out, legendary horror director John Carpenter has re-appeared in theatres after a ten year hiatus. Unfortunately, reaction to his return effort has not been kind. As has been the case with the career of George Lucas – both men were at the USC film school at roughly the same time – people have wondered where the ‘real’ John Carpenter has been throughout the past twenty years.
I read a recent New York Times interview with Mr. Carpenter where he referred to “The Ward” as ‘an assignment’ and that is never a good sign. He spun the same story that he’s spun in the past about being burned out from writing/directing/scoring most of his films in the 1970s and1980s. During that period, he would have been in his 20s and 30s. I can’t blame him for wanting to ‘take time off’ but a decade is a long hiatus and it left him producing essentially nothing throughout his 50s. Now at age 63, it’s pretty obvious that his career is long-since over, by choice or not. It is hard to imagine him suddenly making a substantial comeback if his heart is so clearly not in the films anymore.
For most of his 1970s and 1980s ‘Glory Days’ films, Mr. Carpenter has recorded very high-quality commentary tracks with the leads in each film. His 1990s and early-2000s decline period films are notable for mostly not having any commentary tracks on their DVDs. “Vampire$” was an exception, as was his “Ghosts of Mars” (2001). “Ghosts of Mars” was his only film prior to “The Ward” – I refuse to count his Showtime work on “Masters of Horror” – and it performed notably bad both critically and at the box office. Out of curiosity, I watched its DVD commentary a few years ago and was disheartened to find that John Carpenter had fallen into the “Kevin Smith Pot Trap.”
What is the “Kevin Smith Pot Trap” you might ask?
I’m not naive enough to argue against Mr. Carpenter most-likely being a lifelong pot smoker. As a 1970s USC film school hippie, he’s surely done his fair share of pot throughout this life. Truth be told, he was probably doing it during most of his ‘Glory Day’ films, but one has to assume that he had it under control while actually filming.
In contract, I’ve previously observed with Kevin Smith that when a creator begins to brag publicly about how he and the entire cast/crew were totally baked during the making of a film, then that filmmaker’s career is in total disarray. Mr. Smith started making such proclamations during promotion for “Zack and Miri Make a Porno” in 2008 and that film marked a change in his filmography from ‘confused and declining’ to ‘wow, this is a bad film.’ As Mr. Smith has continued to make similar statements over the past couple of years regarding the films that followed, one could see how his career has continued to go in negative directions.
Mr. Carpenter made similar Kevin Smith-like proclamations on the “Ghosts of Mars” commentary track, along with his key cast members. After hearing that, suddenly the film’s missteps made a lot more sense. The last decade of his career has also started to make a lot of sense as well too. One can only hope that Mr. Carpenter can somehow pull together a late-career resurgence, but such renaissance periods are rare and require the creative person to view their work as more than simply ‘an assignment.’