January 16, 2010
Few cultural scraps are as redolent of lo-fi VHS genre pleasures than a movie trailer with JOHN CARPENTER’s (born 1948) name above the title and his own analog synth score. Carpenter’s breakthrough was Dark Star (1974), a wiseass repudiation of 2001: A Space Odyssey’s intergalactic awe. Bits of the movie’s code can be discerned in the DNA of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (chirpy talking bombs and planet-destroying contractors); the SF:UK comedy series Red Dwarf (opening credits featuring a Country & Western number playing over a shot of a sauntering space ship); and — via Dan O’Bannon, who co-wrote both — Ridley Scott’s Alien. James Cameron shot the special effects for Carpenter’s Escape from New York (1981), a sardonic, sweaty film exploring such tropes as social collapse, countercultural paranoia, and unreconstructed masculinity; its cast (Lee Van Cleef and Ernest Borgnine, Harry Dean Stanton, Isaac Hayes) rotating around Kurt Russell’s Snake Plissken reflects the director’s B-movie meets counterculture style. The hobo paranoia of They Live (1988) recasts corporate America as a gnostic sleep-state that our hero — a dispossessed blue-collar worker hopelessly wedded to an American Dream founded on hard work and honesty — can only see through once he’s donned a pair of freak-tinted shades. But The Thing (1982), a remake of Hawks’ and Nyby’s The Thing From Outer Space, is Carpenter’s masterpiece. As the inhabitants of a remote Arctic base, terrorized by an inchoate, decentered monster, turn on one another, Russell delivers the emblematic Carpenter line: “Nobody trusts anybody now.”
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PS: We’ve taken the unusual step of assigning two HiLo Hero items today: Carpenter and Susan Sontag. How could we possibly decide between them?
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