John Carpenter was the low-budget directorial phenom of the '70s -- the pauper's Hitchcock whose Halloween, independently produced at a cost of $300,000, went on to gross $60 million worldwide. But he was also a one-shot wonder. Carpenter's influence derived solely from that unexpected blockbuster and his popularization of what Carol J. Clover (in her provocative Men, Women, and Chain Saws) calls "the most widely imitated -- and widely parodied -- cliche of modern horror": the exploitation of a subjective camera to replicate a murderer's gaze. In Clover's words, "We adopt the vision of an entity that stalks a house, peers in windows, enters and goes to the kitchen for a carving knife, then proceeds upstairs, opens a door, and stabs a young woman to death -- all without knowing who 'we' are, and all without direct reference to the mediation of a camera. There is a camera, of course, and presumably in the interests of realism it is in Carpenter's use unmounted, yielding an image that wavers and trembles much the way a mad killer might."
At the time, this technique didn't seem like a stroke of pop genius on Carpenter's part: It was more like a second helping of Spielberg's shark's-eye views from Jaws, which also wavered and trembled, much the way a voracious, ever-prowling sea monster might. Nonetheless, Carpenter's generic plotting, freshmanic humor, and division of teen victims into "good" girls and "bad" girls, combined with his relentless camera, spawned a deluge of cheap chop-'em-ups that held sway until the '90s, when the Halloween, Friday the 13th, and Nightmare on Elm Street series sputtered out simultaneously.
The rest of Carpenter's career has been a footnote to his first and only huge success. Whether he did a glossy horror fable like The Fog, a Stephen King revenge thriller like Christine, or an E.T.-esque heartwarmer like Starman, nothing clicked like Halloween; even when he hit on a great notion, like having aliens dominate consumer culture through subliminal advertising in the anti-yuppie hatefest They Live, his crudeness frittered it away. (They Live featured a fistfight so overextended that it gave you time to visit the restroom and the refreshment counter and read the free giveaways in the lobby without missing anything important.) Lately, Carpenter has dated his own decline to the critical and commercial failure of one of his personal favorites, 1982's The Thing, an experiment in sci-fi terror about a shape-shifting alien loose on an antarctic research base (from the same source material as Howard Hawks' classic The Thing [From Another World]). Carpenter's movie worked on one emotion and one emotion alone (squeamish anticipation), and after all the gaudy metamorphoses, gruesome murders, and autopsies, you began to feel like you were an observer in a MASH unit, except no good deeds were being done.
But with the onslaught of home video, one more Carpenter creation took root in video gremlins' consciousness and grew to a heady cult status. It was his 1981 nightmare of the future, Escape From New York -- a dumb-cluck Clockwork Orange that Carpenter characterized as "an extremely black comedy, reflecting my very dim, cynical view of life." In authentic hack fashion, Carpenter has come around to updating it by switching coasts and calling it Escape From L.A.
For those who've seen the "Snake Is Back" ad campaign but haven't yet gotten bit, Carpenter's Escape movies portray the turn-of-the-century United States as a police state with one two-fisted free spirit left: decorated war veteran and gunfighter Snake Plissken. Back in '81, Carpenter said that this oddly named anti-hero "is a real person. A friend of mine from high school, kind of a hoodlum." Indeed, Plissken could be summarized in a yearbook caption: "He's a rebel -- loves those weights." In Plissken, the image of the high school delinquent and the righteous strong-arm tough guy come together. He's all sneer and glare. As Snake, Kurt Russell looks like Jeff Bridges gone rancid, with pirate-length hair and a Moshe Dayan eye patch. He sounds, however, like Clint Eastwood -- he has the same toneless, desert-dry inflections. He moves like a stockier Eastwood, with a surly languor, and he behaves like the Eastwood of the spaghetti westerns -- when it comes to taking down opponents and saving his own skin, he has a predictable unpredictability. In Raiders of the Lost Ark a virtuoso swordsman challenges Indiana Jones to come at him with a whip, but Indy coolly draws his gun and shoots the bastard -- and it's a kick because Jones is an honorable guy. In Escape From L.A., Plissken sets the rules for a duel and breaks them before a tossed can hits the ground. But you don't revel in his cleverness: You wonder how his opponents could be so stupid.
In Escape I, set in 1997, New York City was a maximum-security penal colony. The fascist police left nuts, junkies, and slimeballs to roam the rotting Big Apple and stew in their own rank juices, while the cops themselves stayed outside, quartered on, yes, Liberty Island. The police enlisted Plissken to infiltrate in order to rescue the president, who had ejected from a hijacked Air Force One and crash-landed in a special pod while carrying plans for a nuclear fusion bomb. To ensure Plissken's speedy return, the cops injected him with microscopic time bombs. In Escape II (now, pay attention), set in 2013, Los Angeles Island -- which broke off from the rest of the continent in the year 2000, after a 9.6 earthquake -- is a maximum-security penal colony. The fascist police leave nuts, junkies, and slimeballs -- and freethinkers, atheists, and Muslims -- to roam the rotting Big Orange and stew in their own rank juices, while the cops themselves stay outside, manning (and womanning) the new coastline from Malibu to Orange County. They enlist Plissken to infiltrate and find the president's daughter, Utopia (A.J. Langer), who absconded with a doomsday device she put into the hands of her lover, a Shining Path leader named Cuervo Jones (George Corraface). To ensure Plissken's speedy return with the ultimate weapon in hand (he's supposed to kill pretty young Utopia), the cops inject him with a toxic virus that they say will kill him in 10 hours unless they provide him with the antidote.