Wednesday, March 11, 2015


I'm not familiar with John Carpenter's later critically panned movies so I made it a point to only go and see stuff like Escape From LA, Memoirs Of An Invisible Man & Ghosts Of Mars at the John Carpenter retrospective that took place at BAM last month.
While there isn't much to say about Escape From LA (it's just as terrible and Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez-stenched as I remembered it) I felt Memoirs & Ghosts were worthy of some kind of analysis...


I’m always down to dissect/revisit the critical failures/potential misunderstood works of a masterful filmmaker, and Memoirs Of An Invisible Man definitely fits the bill. Anyone who follows this site regularly knows I’m a major defender of everyone from post-Collateral Michael Mann (read my recent review of Blackhat) to Andrea Arnold (I was actually able to find a few good things in her overall grueling Wuthering Heights adaptation), so I know what it’s like to love films & filmmakers that are underappreciated by the rest of the world. But at the same time, if I feel something is bad I’ll call it what it is. Liking bad things ironically has become a major problem within movie & music criticism (just read half the music reviews on pitchfork media that pertain to rap music if you want further examples of this). Cinephiles sometimes like to praise films they know damn well aren’t good just to be different. I’m guilty of it myself from time to time. We’re selfish folks who like to have certain movies all to ourselves so we make prolific statements about how (some) dumb movies are really misunderstood when they really aren't. Sometimes it gets out of hand. There’s a nice chunk of movies out there that hide behind the “cult movie” label when in fact they’re just bad.

This screening of Memoirs couldn’t have come at a better time. Pink Smoker Chris Funderberg has mentioned it on multiple occasions in his writings (specifically Sam Neil’s underrated performance), which made me wanna revisit it (the last time I saw Memoirs was in the early 90’s when my Dad videotaped it off of HBO). After seeing Memoirs again recently I can co-sign that Sam Neil’s role as the villainous David Jenkins is one of the film’s only saving graces. But there are a few other overlooked qualities. 
I don’t know if people realize how smart the casting of Chevy Chase was. From the beginning of his career he was known for his physical comedy (…or just falling down a lot). The character of Nick Halloway (the invisible protagonist) involves a lot of tripping, bumping in to people and falling over. Who better to cast for a role like that (at the time) than Chevy Chase?? Plus Halloway was kind of a jerk. Portraying a jerk should come easy to a guy like Chevy Chase given his reputation behind the scenes.
My only beef here is the pairing of Chevy Chase & Daryl Hannah. Hannah isn’t exactly my cup of tea in terms of beauty, but that doesn’t mean I think she’s unattractive. I get that she represent the standard statuesque blonde haired beauty that a lot of men appreciate. So what is she doing being paired with a dud like Chevy Chase? And while we’re at it, what was Daryl Hannah doing being paired with half of her (unworthy) on-screen love interests like Dudley Moore (Crazy People), Steve Martin (Roxanne) or Kevin O’Connor (Steel Magnolias)??
But that’s just superficial nitpicking on my part. The chemistry between Chase & Hannah was jut fine.

I’m not sure if John Carpenter was making a light parody of late 50’s/early 60’s-style campy noir films, or if he expected us to take this 100% seriously (outside of the genuinely comedic moments). And it’s not like the tone/ambiance of Memoirs Of An Invisible Man was new territory for Carpenter (like so many critics said it was). Between the special effects & the delivery of dialogue, Memoirs falls right in line with They Live, Prince Of Darkness and even Big Trouble In Little China. Memoirs is also just as much a body horror/science fiction adventure as They Live or The Thing. I guess some folks failed to realize that body horror branches off to things beyond just exploding body parts and scenes of gore (which are common elements in Carpenter’s cinema). The movie is about a guy whose body is literally altered after a freak accident (and for the rest of the film he tries to find a cure all while evading a secret government agency that wants to use him as a spy). Carpenter even goes so far as to show us Halloway’s internal organs every time he eats, drinks or smokes something. Sounds like it fits in with the rest of his filmography to me. This is like when David Cronenberg made M Butterfly. Sure, there aren’t any exploding heads (Scanners) or scenes of things coming out or going in to people’s stomachs (The Brood & Videodrome), but M Butterfly, a film about a person disguising himself as a woman, is just as much of a “body modification” film as anything else he’s done. Memoirs also reminded me of Raimi’s Darkman and Paul Verhoeven’s Hollow Man

Darkman / Memoirs Of An Invisible Man / Hollow Man

But still...NONE of this gives Memoirs Of An Invisible Man any kind of a free pass. This was an unsuccessful effort at the end of the day. The tone is incredibly confusing (like I already said, I'm not sure if this a true comedy or not). There's a whole middle section that takes place at a beach house that could have been edited down. The original director (Ivan Reitman) stepped away from the project after butting heads with Chevy Chase (something I’m not too surprised by). According to a few sources Chevy Chase was heavily involved behind the scenes because he wanted Memoirs to slowly transition him in to more serious roles. John Carpenter didn’t even put his name on the title like he usually does (he also didn’t score the film which is another staple of his). This was doomed right out off the gate (like the next film we'll be getting in to momentarily). The special effects are probably the only other good thing about this movie.

But this is the kind of unsuccessful movie that’s worthy of revisiting during something like a retrospective. It definitely doesn’t deserve a 20-something percent rating on rotten tomatoes. But at the same time, complaining about this film’s current ranking is like complaining about getting an F on a test when you felt you deserved a D+ because you showed all your work in the answer section. 


Ghosts Of Mars came out at a time when there were just way too many movies set on mars that it became difficult to differentiate one film from the next (Mission To Mars, The Red Planet, Ghosts Of Mars, Stranded, etc). It also came out during a time when Carpenter wasn't riding a major wave of success. 
This project never stood a chance. 
I’ll be the first to admit that even I dismissed Ghosts of Mars upon its initial release. But now that time has passed and my tastes have changed, I can honestly say that it’s not as bad as critics made it out to be. I think it was unfairly judged and compared to iconic movies like Alien when in fact it should have been put up against other movies in the John Carpenter universe. Not only was Ghost Of Mars originally supposed to be the third film in the Snake Plissken series (“Escape From Mars”) but it definitely takes place in the same universe as Escape From NY & Escape From L.A. 
In terms of plot, Ghosts Of Mars is like a mixture of The Thing with a pinch of Escape From NY/LA (Ice Cube’s “Desolation Williams” is just a slight revamp of Snake Plissken). The story involves a team of space police hired to retrieve & transfer a dangerous prisoner (Desolation Williams) currently being held in a cell on an isolated mining town on Mars. Once they arrive they soon come to find that a strange airborne virus has been let loose on the town turning the inhabitants in to possessed zombie-like demon vampires (???). This mysterious "virus", that transfers from one body to the next once the carrier dies, is similar to the virus in Carpenter’s The Thing (the outcome is obviously different but the idea of a shapeless thing/spirit taking over a human body is similar).
After some initial friction, the police, headed up by Natasha Henstridge & Jason Statham, work alongside Desolation Williams and his team of criminals to fight off the possessed space zombies in an effort to get outta dodge.

I guess the Alien comparison almost makes sense on some level. Both Alien & Ghosts Of Mars are science-fiction/horror hybrids with female protagonists that have to fight their way off of a dangerous planet (there’s even notable scenes in both movies where our female leads are shown in their underwear for no real reason). I actually never paid attention to how attractive Natasha Henstridge was/is until I watched Ghosts Of Mars on the big screen.

Beyond that, the comparison stops there. 

By 2001 I feel like critics should have known what to expect from John Carpenter. This wasn’t supposed to be some cinematic piece of art (even though there are some folks who think so). Ghost Of Mars has a strange reputation in that there are people who hate it, people who love it (in an un-ironic way), and people who find enjoyment from it in the same way a smart kid or a bully finds entertainment in laughing at a “slow kid” (which was definitely the audience I saw it with). Personally, I’m stuck between the last two groups. As you can see there are things I legitimately enjoy about this movie. I give it a solid 2.5 out of 5, but it’s not without its faults. The set design is a little cheesy & overly manufactured and Ice Cube's acting leaves a lot to be desired. The main antagonist/alpha-male zombie ghost (pictured at the top of this review) served no purpose other than to look cool (he was pretty stupid & non threatening). Clea Duvall was not a convincing cop and I can’t help but nitpick at how easily Cube, Henstridge & crew got away the first time (they drove a small rickety truck through a gauntlet of powerful blood thirsty zombies without being stopped or tipped over?)
But if you get too caught up in things like that you’ll never enjoy anything and Ghost Of Mars has more good qualities than bad qualities (barely). In my opinion, this was some of Carpenter’s best original music (along with the help of Anthrax & Buckethead). I don’t know if Ice Cube’s presence was a subconscious influence, but Carpenter’s use of a drum machine with 4 bar patterns & sequences (a standard in hip-hop music) was really great.

I try to keep my cynicism about this movie at a minimum because like I already said, liking things in an ironic way is a huge pet peeve of mine and Ghosts Of Mars is a prime example of how people can get caught up in that. I saw this at the Brooklyn Academy Of Music in a semi-crowded theater full of hipsters who would laugh or cheer at the screen in a way that made me question if they were genuinely enjoying the movie or if they were just laughing at it (I know that in 2015 the term hipster is one of the most overused & misconstrued labels, but irony mixed with cynicism mixed with sarcasm is an element of hipsterism and that was definitely the vibe I got from the BAM crowd I saw Ghosts with).

I also don’t know if folks were ready for an aggressive Black Male/Beautiful Blonde Femlae co-lead. I think we all know these are two prototypes that don’t usually survive in movies like Ghosts Of Mars yet to everyone’s surprise, they lived til the end!
But at the same time, I'd like to call bullshit on there being no sexual tension between the two leads (the sexual tension in the film is between Henstridge & co-star Statham). Had the male lead been portrayed by Kurt Russell (or just someone not Black) there would have probably been some immediate sexual tension between the two leads. But since we're dealing with Ice Cube, Carpenter made the two protagonists to be more like buddies. Even in 2015, folks like The Rock & Will Smith are two of the only dark skinned actors allowed to have sexual tension with attractive white women. Why was Vin Diesel (who is a person of color contrary to the characters he plays) given a sexy female co-star in xXx (Asia Argento), while Ice Cube got no one when he took over the sequel? What? Ice Cube can't pull attractive women? From his time in NWA alone you think he wasn't slaying groupies who looked just as good as (or better than) Natasha Henstridge? Let's be real.
So on one hand I commend John Carpenter for going against the grain by using unconventional leads, but I feel like he could have really gone against the grain even more by adding some romance. Of the four Carpenter films I watched at the BAM retrospective, Ice Cube was the only lead actor that had no sex or sexual tension with their female co-star. the end of the day I don’t think this is a masterpiece, but I had such a fun time watching it that I ordered the DVD off of Amazon, so that says something.


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