Note - below photos courtesy of Charles de Lauzirika, used with permission.
There have been close to 300 installments of Collins' Crypt (né Terror Tuesday), and I'd bet at least a hundred of them are about or at least mention John Carpenter. To say he's my favorite filmmaker is an understatement, as I'm not even sure who I'd consider the runnerup - that's how far apart they would be. As the first filmmaker who I followed in any capacity, my appreciation has only deepened over the years; movies like They Live and In The Mouth of Madness certainly speak more to a matured mind than they did to the naive(r) lad who saw them when he was fifteen. And once I started diving into the filmographies of his peers, I also realized how singular he was to have such an incredible run - from his first real feature (Assault on Precinct 13) to They Live over a decade later, there isn't a single weak movie in the bunch, a streak even George Romero would never come close to matching. His output from the '90s til now may be spottier, but I truly believe he's never made an outright BAD movie; even The Ward is at least watchable, something you can't say about some of Wes Craven's films (Hills Have Eyes Part 2) or pretty much anything Tobe Hooper made in the '90s.
Needless to say, I was in attendance for his concert in Los Angeles the other night; I don't know if I've hammered the refresh button for anything besides Comic Con hotel rooms as many times as I did the day tickets were going on sale, and that was for a presale (a benefit for American Express cardholders - something I became for the first time specifically for this event). I ended up with really good seats (sixth row almost center!), but even if I was off to the side way up in the nosebleeds I would have been just as excited and happy to see the show. My filmmaking hero, the man behind the only movies I still own on VHS, and creative mind behind my all-time favorite movie was on stage, not for a Q&A or to receive an award, but to play the themes from so many of his great films, as well as some of his original compositions (from the two Lost Themes albums). He's well-known (and well-respected) for composing many of his own films, but this tour is the first time in forty years of composing that he actually played a live concert of any sort. This was not just a fun thing to do on a Saturday night, it was HISTORIC.
Equally historic: he was happy! Anyone who's ever been to a Q&A with Carpenter is familiar with his hilariously blunt replies to questions, which are always better answers than canned, politically correct replies you'll forget later. I fondly recall the host from Creation's Weekend of Horrors asking him about each movie in chronological order, and by the time he got to Big Trouble in Little China Carpenter interrupted him with something like "Look, can't we just sum up? The answer's always the same: we worked hard, we were proud of it, and then nobody saw it!" Nine times out of ten he'll do his appearance BEFORE the screening so he can hightail it out of there as quickly as possible (usually with some variation of "I have to go see my drug dealer"), and it's just part of the charm, as far I'm concerned. If anyone's earned the right to be a bit grumpy and wave off dumb questions (including some yours truly have asked - dig around on your Prince of Darkness Blu-ray menus for proof), it's the guy who gave us Michael Myers, Snake Plissken, RJ MacReady, Nada, Jack Burton, and Sutter Cane.
But that wasn't the man who took the stage at 9:30pm on Saturday night, with fans rushing in to take their seats once they finally escaped the endless merch line (no wait at all for a beer, but it took thirty minutes to get a shirt - something that can only happen with close to 2,000 horror fans). No, this guy was smiling, waving to people in the crowd he recognized, and, I shit you not, even DANCING at one point during a break from his keyboard duties (which he shared with his son Cody). This was a Carpenter I've never seen before, a total rock star version of the man who, when I first heard news of the tour, I half-expected to just hit a programmed button on his Casio and sit down for a smoke - and I'd probably be just as delighted to see that, to be honest. If you've ever listened to him do a commentary or watched an interview, you'd know he can't go more than five minutes without his nicotine fix, and it was literally the first thing I wondered about when dates were announced: would the venues allow him to smoke on stage? But as I discovered a short while later, he's actually smoke-free for over a year now, and I can't help but wonder if his extra energy is due to the lack of that horrible garbage destroying his system (that we were just hours away from Father's Day, for which I am unable to call my own dad due to his death from cigarette-related health issues, was never NOT on my mind).
Needless to say, the concert was everything I could have hoped for*, as he and his five-man band played through several of the movie themes (including Ennio Morricone's main title work for The Thing) and a number of selections from the two albums. Lighting effects had to suffice for the latter, but when he did a movie cut a selection of clips would play on the giant screen behind them (a fine way to keep any casual fan from having to wonder what movie a particular piece was from), and it was funny how many times I caught myself getting sucked into the movie (despite being all cut up like a trailer!) rather than watch the "other" magic unfolding in front of me. I don't care how many times I see these films, they'll always grab my attention in any form, so I had to keep reminding myself that I could watch them at home (in multiple formats for many of them) but might never get a chance to see Carpenter, for example, don shades as he played his They Live theme right there in front of me.
It was during one of these instances that I realized a couple things that never really occurred to me before. One was that Carpenter was unique among genre filmmakers who could actually DO this sort of thing and make it such an event, because of his rare status as a director who composes his own scores. He's not the only one, of course, but he's the only one I can think of that could sell out a giant theater like the Orpheum; I mean, with all due respect to Robert Rodriguez, would anyone really be excited about seeing him perform his Spy Kids theme in concert? Rob Zombie (ignore the irony) does not compose music for his feature films, so that wouldn't work either. And the scores are far more iconic than those of many of his peers regardless if they were composed by the director; when you think of Scream's music you think of "Red Right Hand" or whatever, not Marco Beltrami's scores. The only thing that comes close is Goblin for Argento's films (and they indeed toured in a manner similar to what Carpenter is doing now), but it lacked that connective tissue - Argento wasn't on stage jamming while his work played on the screen behind him.
And that brings us to the other realization I had - this might be why Carpenter has proven so difficult to remake. For the most part, Wes Craven's remakes have turned out pretty well, with Elm Street being the only exception, as Last House, Hills, and (if you count it) the Scream TV series are all worthy updates. Romero has also done fine in that department; I still think Savini's NOTLD remake has a superior ending than the original (I still prefer the 1968 version overall, of course), and the 2004 Dawn of the Dead remains Zack Snyder's best film in my opinion, though again it's not replacing the original for me (The Crazies might, though - if I wanted to watch that movie, I'm more likely to grab the remake than Romero's slightly stiff original). But when it comes to Carpenter? No one on Earth likes The Fog remake, Rob Zombie's Halloween still sends many people into a blind rage, and the less said about that Thing "prequel" (that was more like a remake with some bonus continuity - they didn't even change the title!), the better. Assault on Precinct 13 probably fared best, but it's hardly a movie to champion, and seems to have been forgotten by the masses anyway. Attempts to remake Escape From New York are met with near universal derision, and it's probably only the massive amount of goodwill Dwayne Johnson has earned over the years that have kept Fox from being picketed for working on a Big Trouble in Little China update.
So what's the difference? I think it's the music. I think the fact that he composed so many of these movies adds immensely to our connection to them, and to him in turn. There's too much "John Carpenter" in these movies for them to work when he's removed from the equation, unlike Craven or Romero who leave a little breathing room by steering clear of that department. It's worth noting that if you ask folks what their least favorite Carpenter film is, they're likely to name one that he didn't compose himself (The Ward and Memoirs of an Invisible Man are frequent options), but with the exception of The Thing, their entire top five will probably be ones he composed and directed (and even The Thing gets an asterisk, since he ended up composing a few pieces anyway). Think about it (and this is truer of horror films than pretty much every other genre), a film engages our ears just as much as our eyes, and when we're watching most Carpenter movies, he's the one responsible for both. So it's not unreasonable to think that the lack of that extra touch - along with his considerable skills as a filmmaker in general - is what makes the magic so difficult for others to recreate, or even come close. These movies are HIS movies through and through - which is probably why Assault seems to be the closest thing to an exception, as the 2005 film deviated the most from his original (it's set in a police station and the antihero is named Bishop but pretty much everything else is different) and thus it was easier to forget about everything Carpenter brought to the table. I mean, the guy even has his own signature font, for Christ's sake.
Long story short, there is no one else like John Carpenter. You probably won't ever see James Wan take the stage and start jamming, you'll never make a friend by showing up at a convention wearing the same Tobe Hooper tour shirt, and you'll almost certainly never worry about Ticketmaster fees for Neil Marshall (who was there, sporting the same giant grin as every other fan in the house). Eventually his entire filmography will be remade (OK, maybe not Ghosts of Mars), and we will have to put up with increasingly obnoxious homages in modern horror films (the font shows up as often as Trajan nowadays, and now his scores are routinely copied as well), but all that stuff does is reinforce how singularly great the real McCoy is, and how lucky us living horror fans are to be alive during his reign, the way our parents can boast about being there to see Vincent Price and Peter Cushing movies on their opening days. And for ninety minutes the other night, we were even luckier to see his preternatural ability to entertain unfold live right before our eyes. The tour is sadly not hitting every major city in the country (I weep for all my friends back in Massachusetts), but if they come within a few hours' drive of your front door, I can't possibly convey how much you need to go see it for yourself. It's a once in a lifetime opportunity for a one of a kind entertainer, and worth every cent you can afford to pay.
*OK, as I told everyone within earshot multiple times on Saturday, I don't care how you feel about the movie itself - if you don't like "March of the Children" from his Village of the Damned remake, you're friggin nuts. Also, it was co-composed with Dave Davies whose son Daniel is the lead guitarist for the band so it'd be a good option for the show. Demand it on his next tour!