I’m not sure if John Carpenter ever actually said the oft-attributed words: “In France, I’m an auteur; in Germany, I’m a filmmaker; in England, I’m a genre director; in the U.S., I’m a bum.” But as an Old West newspaperman once advised a certain U.S. senator, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Besides, those words sound like something Carpenter would say — or, if not him, one of his swaggering, mullet-haired, tough-guy alter egos. It’s certainly true that Hollywood never quite knew what to make of this tall, lanky Kentuckian with his healthy distrust of corporate America and his colorful, trucker-bar repertory company; the studios kept him around only so long as his brand of subversive B-movie mastery continued to generate healthy returns on investment.
It’s been nearly a decade since Carpenter last directed a proper feature (2001’s fine, underrated Ghosts of Mars), but if the IMDb is to be trusted, he is stirring again, and to whet our appetite the American Cinematheque rounds out its annual Festival of Fantasy, Horror and Science-Fiction with two of the director’s best: The Thing (1982) and They Live (1988). Like his USC film-school classmate George Lucas, Carpenter first showed ingenuity during his student years, when he began piecing together his 1974 debut feature, Dark Star, a Dada proto–Star Wars still fondly remembered for its beach-ball alien and Descartes-quoting nuclear bomb. By the time of his first professional production, Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Carpenter was already in possession of a fully developed Hawksian/Marxist worldview in which men were men, women could more than hold their own, and The Man or Big Brother was doing his best to keep the underclass under.
The Thing (1982) is Hawks again, even if Carpenter’s version owes more to his own abiding interest in the duality of man than to the 1951 movie of the same name. A flop upon its release (by Universal, two weeks after Spielberg’s E.T.), this spatial masterpiece of desolate Arctic vistas at odds with close-quarters claustrophobia has since been reclaimed as a high totem of modern horror-making. There remains something deeply unnerving about Carpenter’s ambiguity as to whether the movie’s shape-shifting alien is distorting its hosts’ personalities or merely revealing something of their primal selves.
In the devious Reaganomics send-up They Live (1988), the present is so scary, you’ve got to wear shades — literally, for those Ray-Bans are the only way to tell the real people from the bug-eyed alien invaders walking around in human skin, getting rich off the sweat of the working class. (There are also billboards, magazines and television programs encoded with subliminal messages like “Buy,” “Conform” and “Watch This.”) A philosophical treatise dressed down as a lowbrow action quickie, They Live proffers two ways of seeing — accepting surface appearances (“taking the blue pill,” as the Wachowskis would call it two decades later) or daring to look at what lies beneath. Likewise, there are two ways of seeing Carpenter: as a proficient genre director or as a kind of blue-collar shaman, waking us up to the all-too-real horrors of the modern world and its many threats to individuality and consciousness. He is what the late Manny Farber deemed a termite artist, nibbling away at the borders with his seemingly innocuous, low-budget quickies, unnoticed by most — which is, after all, the best way to stage a revolution. (American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theatre; Sat., Aug. 29, 7:30 p.m. americancinematheque.com)