For movie geeks of a certain vintage, no filmmaker’s legacy looms larger than that of John Carpenter. His movies—especially those made between the years 1978 and 1988—are hallowed classics. In the 1980s, his game was so strong that it’s tempting to reflect on projects that the director almost made during that time period, and to wonder: What would JC have done?
Most fans are aware that Carpenter developed a film adaptation of Stephen King’s FIRESTARTER, and some also know that he was briefly attached to STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE (declined because he didn’t feel particularly invested in the series mythology), THE GOLDEN CHILD with Eddie Murphy (passed up in favor of BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA), ARMED & DANGEROUS (derailed by “creative differences” with intended-star Dan Ackroyd), TOP GUN and FATAL ATTRACTION (“pieces of shit” according to Carpenter, who immediately turned down both projects). Here are a few of the other titles:
THE EYES OF LAURA MARS
After DARK STAR but before HALLOWEEN, John Carpenter made his living as a Hollywood screenwriter. In 1975 he wrote an original screenplay called EYES, about an ordinary woman who suddenly begins seeing through the eyes of an unidentified psychopath. The script made its way to Columbia producer Jon Peters, who hired Carpenter to rewrite it and potentially direct it as a star vehicle for Barbara Streisand. Unfortunately, according to Carpenter, the producer wanted to change the “style” of the story and Carpenter couldn’t or wouldn’t change. The script then went through a series of rewrites by other screenwriters and eventually became THE EYES OF LAURA MARS (1978), directed by Irvin Kershner and starring Faye Dunaway. Carpenter disowned the film, arguing that the revelation of the killer’s identity robs the story of its power. Interestingly, he later suggested that THEY LIVE represents “what I originally wanted to do with my script EYES.”
THE PROMETHEUS CRISIS
In the late 1970s, Carpenter wrote an adaptation of Thomas Scortia and Frank Robinson’s novel THE PROMETHEUS CRISIS, about the catastrophic meltdown of a fictional California nuclear power plant. The project was set up at a small production company but, according to Carpenter, the producers “flubbed up on the financial end,” and the idea subsequently melted down after the release of THE CHINA SYNDROME (1979) and the Three Mile Island crisis. In a 1980 Cinefantastique interview, Carpenter reflected that “it would have been a cheap shot, making a horror movie about something that awful.” Nevertheless, he mourned the lost opportunity to do something “surprising” and add his own spin to the disaster-movie formula—maybe “make a musical out of it.” The mind boggles.
TOTAL RECALL traveled a long way from Philip K. Dick’s 1966 short story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” to Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 action movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Somewhere in the middle of that journey, the project fell into the laps of USC chums Dan O’Bannon and John Carpenter. In 1980 Carpenter expressed enthusiasm about the possibility of directing what he called one of O’Bannon’s “most human” scripts, describing TOTAL RECALL as “a detective story set in the future, sort of like James Bond.” At the time, however, he wasn’t optimistic about the film getting made (too expensive, he said). And since the careers of both men were going gangbusters after the release of HALLOWEEN and ALIEN, Carpenter didn’t dwell on it.
THE PHILADELPHIA EXPERIMENT
This is the movie that Carpenter was supposed to make for Avco-Embassy after he completed THE FOG, but he couldn’t figure out how to make the third act of the story work. His screenplay was based on a book by Charles Berlitz and William L. Moore, about a secret World War II experiment to make a Navy destroyer literally disappear. Carpenter ultimately dismissed it as a “shaggy dog story”—a long-winded anecdote puffed up with smaller anecdotes and a forced climax—and he opted to make ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK instead. A few years later, New World Pictures produced THE PHILADELPHIA EXPERIMENT and JC got an executive producer credit. Although the film was a commercial success, it has more or less disappeared in later years.
BLACK MOON RISING
Here’s another New World picture “from the mind of John Carpenter,” about a laconic car thief and a futuristic car. The finished film sort of works as a poor man’s John Carpenter movie, with cowboy Tommy Lee Jones in anti-hero mode and Linda Hamilton as a Hawksian heroine, but BLACK MOON RISING got swamped by comparisons to the hit TV series KNIGHT RIDER and hasn’t had much of a shelf life. As for Carpenter himself, he told Fangoria a few years ago that he never bothered to watch the finished film.
This was supposed to be John Carpenter’s epic western, and he originally intended to make it after completing ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK. Co-writer Tommy Lee Wallace described EL DIABLO as “the STAR WARS of westerns,” with “nasty good guys, exotic bandito-pirates, a Tortuga-like Spanish castle hideout in a remote Mexican cavern.” Unfortunately, the projected budget of $20 million scared away investors. For a while there was talk that Dino DeLaurentiis might produce it with Kurt Russell in the lead, but the screenplay ended up collecting dust until HBO bought it in the early 90s. “They changed it a great deal,” Carpenter says, noting that his JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH ending had to be scrapped for financial reasons. As for the film itself: “It was okay.”
After HALLOWEEN 3, Carpenter re-teamed with Tommy Lee Wallace to adapt Eric Van Lustbader’s novel about a super-assassin for 20th Century-Fox. Not much is known about Carpenter’s take on this project, but it was in development during a time when the filmmaker was way into kung-fu and samurai movies. Carpenter eventually channeled his love for films like FISTS OF FURY, SHOGUN ASSASSIN and ZU: WARRIORS FROM THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN into the cult favorite BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA.
THE STARS, MY DESTINATION
Since the 70s, Carpenter has cited this as his dream project: a film adaptation of Alfred Bester’s classic sci-fi novel about a rogue psychic seeking revenge in a future world where teleportation has changed everything. In 1985, that dream almost became a reality—but Carpenter cautiously backed away from a screenplay by Lorenzo Semple (FLASH GORDON, NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN), commissioned by producer Jack Schwartzman (BEING THERE, NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN). Bester’s story still has all the makings of a great John Carpenter movie—most notably, a gritty anti-hero with a Maori tattoo on his face. One wonders if Carpenter might have been thinking of this property when he conceived the “ghosts” in GHOSTS OF MARS.
In a recent interview, Carpenter told Fangoria that he was approached in the late 80s to direct an adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s novel LEGION, a.k.a. EXORCIST III. The director apparently asked the same question that everyone else was asking: “Where’s the exorcism?” That may have been one reason why he turned down the project, but it wasn’t the only reason. According to Carpenter, “It became clear that what [Blatty] really wanted to do was direct” the movie himself. When Carpenter backed away, that’s just what happened. (And when test audiences balked at the fact that there was no exorcism in the EXORCIST sequel, Blatty added one.)
After making THEY LIVE, John Carpenter spent several years in development hell at Universal Pictures. Among the films he hoped to make there were two modern-day revivals of classic movie monsters: THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (from a script by Nigel Kneale, with effects by Rick Baker) and MEMOIRS OF AN INVISIBLE MAN. The former never saw the light of day; the latter eventually disappeared at the box office. But the most interesting project in development during this time was an original script called SHADOW COMPANY, about a Vietnam vet who is pitted against six resurrected soldiers from his past. The ambitious film would have given John Carpenter a chance to work with fellow genre-movie icons Walter Hill (as producer), Shane Black (writer) and Fred Dekker (writer). Unfortunately, Universal refused to cough up with the budget. If you want to consider what might have been, Black & Dekker’s SHADOW COMPANY script is readily available online.
Carpenter had just as many near-misses in the early 1990s. In his book The Films of John Carpenter, author John Kenneth Muir mentions a sci-fi adventure for Cher (PIN CUSHION), a traditional vampire movie (DRACULA IN EUROPE), a Larry Cohen script (SO HELP ME GOD), and even a sequel to THEY LIVE (HYPNOWAR)… More stories for another day.