Dir: John Carpenter
I have often asked 'What happened to John Carpenter?'
I remember with great fondness the early films, some of which we have seen throughout January.
But for me, his later films seemed somehow stale and uninspired.
Yet, watching again the early films, I think I have come closer to an answer.
One forgets how much the grammar of film-making has changed in the last thirty years.
For one thing, the pacing of films has sped up incredibly over the years.
'Wired' magazine analyzed film trailers and discovered that through the 1950s, the average rate of cuts in a trailer was 12 per minute. Since the 90s that increased to 38.
Films have got faster, with more edits and more action.
Has film editing been influenced by music video editing?
Is it a symptom of audience's shorter attention spans?
Has it been facilitated by computerized non-linear editing systems and digital intermediate technology, which mean that you don't lose a frame on every edit, as you did with traditional negative editing?
Is it part of a trend towards films that provide a sensory experience much like a fairground ride?
The answer is probably yes to all of the above.
Of course, it's not necessarily a good thing. There can be no doubt that commercial hit films nowadays spend much less time on character development, and that exposition and geography within a scene have been sacrificed.
Nowadays in a fight scene, battle sequence, or chase, directors often try to represent what it would actually be like if one was in that situation, and certainly one gets more of the 'feel' of speed, excitement, and chaos. But the result is that sometimes one really has no idea what's going on.
For an audience used to this accelerated version of reality, John Carpenter's films might seem positively slow.
Another director, whose work suffers with modern audiences because of the pacing, is Hitchcock. I know it is a sort of film blasphemy to criticize Hitchcock, but the sad truth is that films like 'The Birds' and 'Psycho' which apparently terrified audiences when they were first released, run the risk of boring today's audiences. Hitchcock is often referred to as the 'master of suspense'. Well, of course 'suspense' is the lull before the action, the expectation of action before it actually occurs. This has largely now been discarded in favour of just packing in more action.
The other change that has occurred in the last thirty years is that barriers of gore, torture, and depravity have been removed.
When 'The Thing' was released, it shocked many with its visual effects. Roger Ebert referred to it as a 'great barf-bag movie'. 'Newsweek' says 'in sacrificing everything at the altar of gore, Carpenter sabotages the drama.'
Nowadays, 'torture-porn' is produced and distributed by major studios and censors barely bat an eyelid.
Consider a film like 'The Human Centipede', where a mad doctor kidnaps victims and sews them together in a line, each of their mouths attached to the anus of another, so that food passes along the chain. I think Carpenter (and Hitchcock) would have not even considered something so repulsive as entertainment.
Perhaps Carpenter's style is now old-fashioned, and his time has past.
But 'The Thing' remains perhaps his crowning achievement.
It suffered the misfortune of being released at the same time as 'E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial', and audiences apparently preferred their alien to be cute and loving rather than revolting and deadly. It was not a box office success.
John Carpenter was bitterly disappointed,
"I take every failure hard. The one I took the hardest was The Thing. My career would have been different if that had been a big hit...The movie was hated. Even by science-fiction fans. They thought that I had betrayed some kind of trust, and the piling on was insane."
However, it has become a cult classic. The Boston Globe named it the scariest movie ever, and it now constantly appears in lists of top horror and science fiction films.