It’s no secret that horror icon John Carpenter is a big fan of westerns. He’s said for years that he got into the film business to make westerns… and, to an extent, he has succeeded. ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 is essentially a siege western, owing a huge debt to Carpenter’s all-time favorite film RIO BRAVO. Carpenter has also said that his inspiration for Michael Myers was Yul Brynner’s gunslinger robot in WESTWORLD. And I personally like to think of THE THING as an apocalyptic version of BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK, which was itself a “hidden western.” (The main characters in both films are named Macreedy…. Coincidence?)
The filmmaker has managed to dig even deeper into western mythology with these other projects:
THE RESURRECTION OF BRONCHO BILLY
Carpenter’s Oscar-winning short film was made at USC, where the student filmmaker attended guest lectures given by his idols Howard Hawks and John Ford. The short is a poignant day-in-the-life of a city kid who imagines himself as a displaced cowboy, and it expresses Carpenter’s angst about coming-of-age as a filmmaker during a time when his favorite genre was disappearing. He told interviewer Gilles Boulenger, “I think that the kind of westerns I loved and that the crew all loved was already dead by then.”
Thankfully, for those of us who grew up on science fiction and horror in the 80s, Carpenter proved to be a worthy successor to legends like Ford and Hawks.
As a western fan, Carpenter was naturally a big fan of John Wayne. When he made ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13, he envisioned the grand old Duke as the hero Ethan, but he was smart enough to realize that this wasn’t Wayne’s kind of movie. In a 2010 appearance at The Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, Carpenter reflected, “I don’t believe he would have liked it. It was too violent.” But, he added, “I did write a western for him.”
Wayne’s production company Batjac optioned Carpenter’s early screenplay BLOOD RIVER, about a young farmer who avenges the murder of his parents, then gets pursued by a posse of bounty hunters. He survives thanks to the help of an eccentric trapper with a secret agenda. Carpenter imagined Elvis Presley in the role of the younger man, but Wayne reportedly wanted to re-team with Ron Howard, his co-star in THE SHOOTIST.
Unfortunately, THE SHOOTIST turned out to be Wayne’s last film, and BLOOD RIVER remained unproduced until the early 1990s, when it was made as a forgettable TV movie starring Wilford Brimley and Ricky Schroeder (and Carpenter’s ex-wife Adrienne Barbeau, in a supporting role).
ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK
The legacy of John Wayne also provided some inspiration for Snake Plissken. The iconic character was partly based on Clint Eastwood’s cynical Man with No Name…. and partly on Duke Wayne’s characters in TRUE GRIT (the eye patch) and BIG JAKE (“I heard you were dead”).
Carpenter remembers that he wrote the first draft of ESCAPE in 1974, as a response to another hidden western—the Charles Bronson vehicle DEATH WISH. At that time, nobody was interested. The script sat around until 1981, when Carpenter was developing THE PHILADELPHIA EXPERIMENT for Avco-Embassy. He couldn’t get the story right, so he pitched ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK as a replacement. The rest is history.
Ironically the film nearly got made with Charles Bronson in the lead role, but Carpenter opted for Kurt Russell instead. Clint Eastwood’s nemesis Lee Van Cleef took the role of Snake’s nemesis Bob Hauck, and veteran westerner Warren Oates read for the part of Brain. The latter role eventually went to Harry Dean Stanton… on the basis of his performance in the TV version of A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS!
While preparing to shoot ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK in 1980, Carpenter told at least one journalist that his next film would be a western called EL DIABLO, starring Kurt Russell. Although there was some interest at EMI, the project never came to light… perhaps due to the spectacular commercial failure of Michael Cimino’s epic western HEAVEN’S GATE.
When YOUNG GUNS renewed Hollywood’s enthusiasm in the western genre, EL DIABLO resurfaced as an HBO movie starring Anthony Edwards and Louis Gossett Jr., with Peter Markle in the director’s chair. Edwards played a tender-footed schoolteacher who straps on a pair of guns (even though he can’t shoot) and jumps on a horse (even though he can’t ride) to pursue a notorious outlaw who has abducted one of his students.
The script by Carpenter and his frequent collaborators Tommy Lee Wallace (HALLOWEEN III) and Bill Phillips (CHRISTINE) pays homage to several classic westerns, including THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE, THE WILD BUNCH and ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. It’s too bad Carpenter didn’t get a chance to direct the this one himself, because it’s actually pretty fun once it gets going.
BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA
This film was originally conceived as a period western, about a cowboy who encounters an underworld of supernatural characters in 1880s San Francisco Chinatown. Surprisingly, it was John Carpenter who steered the story away from those western origins—by adding elements from his favorite Hong Kong action movies: FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH, ZU: WARRIORS FROM THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN, and SHOGUN ASSASSIN. What the filmmaker retained from the original concept was the stereotypical cowboy at the center of the tale—a blow-hard John Wayne who becomes the film’s punchline as well as its hero.
Carpenter continued to skim the edges of the western genre— turning Roddy Piper into a laconic Man with No Name in THEY LIVE, and almost directing the epic western TOMBSTONE with his friend Kurt Russell. In the late 90s, the filmmaker returned to the mythic West in a pair of underrated horror film hybrids.
At a time when most horror filmmakers were imitating the self-reflexive tendencies of SCREAM, Carpenter imagined his latest film as a supernatural revenge western. VAMPIRES plays like it could have been written by Borden Chase and directed by Sam Peckinpah—which is to say it’s earnestly gritty, a little bit misogynistic (hell, a little bit misanthropic) and unflinchingly brutal. The relationship between vampire hunters James Woods and Daniel Baldwin is reminiscent of the rapport between John Wayne and Montgomery Clift in RED RIVER, while the story and the action sequences are straight out of Peckinpah’s THE WILD BUNCH.
This film, perhaps more than any other, shows how Carpenter has continually tried to reinvent the horror genre by drawing on the strengths of another genre. Even Quentin Tarantino, who attempted something similar with FROM DUSK TILL DAWN, couldn’t do it better.
GHOSTS OF MARS
Although mostly ignored by audiences when it was released, this is in many ways the culmination of John Carpenter’s work. The director wears his cinematic soul on his sleeve, recycling elements from his earlier films (especially ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13) and importing them into one of his bleakest frontier landscapes. Anyone who doubts the impact of this underrated film should compare it to Joss Whedon’s space western SERENITY, and recognize the inspiration for The Reavers.
Sadly, GHOSTS OF MARS was a troubled shoot and a commercial failure, and it all but drove Carpenter into exile—leaving dubious imitators to carry on his cinematic legacy, with films like PITCH BLACK and LOCKOUT. Fans can only hope that we have not seen the last of John Carpenter’s wild west.