I spent much of last week working my way through the filmography of John Carpenter for an article that’ll be running on this site tomorrow. This wasn’t a chore. In the ’70s and ’80s, Carpenter directed some of the most entertaining, craftily made movies around, and even his less successful ’90s films tend to be failures of ambition, in which Carpenter reaches beyond what his resources would allow. It’s only in the last decade that the director’s work has become a drag. Even Carpenter’s well-regarded-by-some contributions to Showtime’s Masters Of Horror series a few years back squeak by largely because they have clever premises, not because Carpenter brought anything remarkable to them. There’s little trace of the man who made Halloween and The Thing in those episodes, or in 2001’s Ghosts Of Mars, or this year’s The Ward.
And this isn’t just the case with Carpenter. Two weeks ago I watched Wes Craven’s My Soul To Take for our Commentary Tracks Of The Damned column. I’d heard the movie was bad, but I wasn’t prepared for how completely rote and uninspired it is. While working on my Gateways To Geekery column about “giallo,” I caught up with some of the more recent Dario Argento thrillers, none of which are even remotely in the same league as the films he made in the ’70s and ’80s. Two years ago at the Toronto International Film Festival, I watched Joe Dante’s still-unreleased 3D horror film The Hole, which was enjoyable, but hardly peak Dante. And George Romero’s recent return to zombieland has largely been a disappointment.
To be fair, it’s not like any of these directors has completely lost it. As recently as 2005, Craven directed Red Eye—not horror, but a nifty little thriller. Though neither Diary Of The Dead nor Survival Of The Dead work as well as they should, they’re not bland; Romero does take a swing at something ambitious in both. (And I’m a staunch defender of Romero’s 2005 effort Land Of The Dead, which I think falls just short of greatness.) Carpenter’s Masters Of Horror episodes are limp, but Argento’s adaptation of Bruce Jones and Berni Wrightson’s Creepy comic story “Jenifer” for that series is genuinely disturbing. And I know a lot of people are gung-ho for Dante’s two contributions to Masters Of Horror, “Homecoming” and “The Screwfly Solution,” though on further reflection, both to me are more significant for what they express than for how they express it.
I can’t discount that these directors don’t always have total control over their films. There are budgets to consider, investors with certain demands, and new technologies that aren’t always easy to master. Craven mentions in the My Soul To Take commentary that he used digital gore for the first time, which is also true of Romero in his recent Dead films. But just replacing squibs with animated blood doesn’t carry the same impact, and presuming that the old tricks will work just as well with the new tools is a mistake that a lot of veteran horror directors seem to be making. Generally speaking, there’s no reason why a John Carpenter or a Joe Dante couldn’t make a horror movie every bit as good as their classics. Their older movies are still scary as hell, and the rudiments of horror’s visual grammar haven’t changed all that much. It’s just that shock-cuts and jack-in-the-box scares and slow pans and zooms work best when they’re accompanied by crisp pacing and a strong sense of atmosphere. At their peak, the horror legends mentioned above worked these familiar notes into cinematic symphonies. Lately, it’s more like they’re writing jingles.
Quentin Tarantino has often said that he plans to retire from filmmaking before he turns 60, because he doesn’t think directors get better as they age. To GQ’s Alex Pappademas two years ago, Tarantino said:
If you’re a rock ’n’ roll artist, and then at some point you start singing big-band tunes—you can do it, and you can be really happy, but there’s a difference in your career. People change. There’s the rock ’n’ roll time and there’s the big-band time. I don’t want that. Where I’m coming from, I’m thinking about when I’m dead and gone, and some kid—who’s maybe not even born yet—sees one of my movies and digs it. And he says, “This guy’s fucking got it going on. I want to see something else by this guy.” But he doesn’t know who the fuck I am, so he doesn’t know to go to Pulp Fiction or Reservoir Dogs. He’s just gonna pick the easiest one he can get his hands on. And if that’s one of the ones I make during my old-man years—well, I’ve lost him right then and there.
Me, I disagree with this. I see Tarantino’s point, especially when he adds that a lot of directors live beyond their means and start making movies to subsidize their lifestyles, which is something I don’t doubt. But I tend to like the movies made by old-timers. They’re often slower in tempo, and more attuned to values of performance and place than films by younger filmmakers. Some of my favorite Robert Altman movies came in his last decade of life, when he all but ditched plot and just enjoyed gathering talented people and watching them work. Just this year I’ve really enjoyed Raoul Ruiz’s Mysteries Of Lisbon and Bertrand Tavernier’s The Princess Of Montpensier, both made when the directors were in their late 60s. Prior to the stumble of Indiana Jones And The Crystal Skull, Steven Spielberg was having an astonishingly creative run, and I expect good things from his War Horse and The Adventures Of Tintin, both coming out later in 2011. Martin Scorsese too has made some powerful, inventive films over the past several years, and early word on his new one, Hugo, is strong.
So no, it’s not that directors lose their faculties when they make it past some arbitrary birthday. Or at least mainstream Hollywood and arthouse directors don’t. Is there something different about horror directors?
Maybe so. On the commentary track of Assault On Precinct 13, Carpenter talks about the scene in the film where Disney-approved child star Kim Richards gets shot, and says that now that he’s older and has become a father, he can’t imagine he’d still include that moment—which is one of the most memorable in the entire movie. Spielberg has said something similar about Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, that becoming a family man alienated him from the choice made by Richard Dreyfuss’ character to leave Earth—and his kids—behind. Neither of these films are horror movies of course, but they’re examples of how directors look back and doubt some of the more brutal creative choices of their youth.
Effective horror directors rarely pull back in this way, or sweeten, or soften. It takes fearlessness to frighten people—a willingness to rip away an audience’s sense of security. Contrary to Tarantino, I don’t think that older directors make tamer films because they have mortgages to pay. Just check the box office for the movies Carpenter, Romero, and Craven made in their 30s and 40s versus what they’ve made lately. If it was all about the money, these guys would do whatever it took to sharpen back up. No, I think they’ve become more protective of what they have, not just of material goods, but of relationships. When they think about their children and their standing in society overall, maybe that pushes them away from fully contemplating the cruelty of this world. Or maybe it makes it so that they can’t even conceive of it anymore.