‘Alpha and Omega’ is a recurring feature that examines a famous horror director’s best critically received film and their worst reviewed installment (according to Rotten Tomatoes). It will compare and contrast these two efforts, looking at the difference in the auteur’s work and seeing if any overlap exists as these two extremes of the director’s career are examined.
Debatably John Carpenter’s best and worst films, ‘Assault on Precinct 13’ and ‘Ghosts of Mars’, are collectively examined
“There are no heroes anymore, Bishop. Just men who follow orders.” – Assault on Precinct 13
“This is about one thing: dominion. It’s not their planet anymore.” – Ghosts of Mars
If you’re even remotely a horror fan, seeing the name John Carpenter should elicit some sort of reaction from out of you. For decades the filmmaker has earned the reputation of being one of the godfathers of the horror genre, with him responsible for such undeniable classics like The Fog, The Thing, and oh right, a little something called Halloween. That being said, when you’ve been working in the industry for as long as John Carpenter has, it’s understandable to have a collection of titles that are all over the map in terms of quality. While creating some deliriously fun, albeit terribly campy films like They Live, Christine, and Memoirs of an Invisible Man, he’s also put out some movies that are debatably bloated, maggot-filled corpses of cinema. “Alpha and Omega” will take two films from his career, Assault on Precinct 13 (which has 97% on Rotten Tomatoes) and Ghosts of Mars (which has 21% on Rotten Tomatoes), and pair them against each other.
It’s not hard to see why Assault on Precinct 13 nearly has a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, and a higher rating than even Halloween. Carpenter’s strong, burgeoning voice as a filmmaker is immediately apparent here. Even his inspirations signify a person with a deep love for the medium. Carpenter openly admits to his penchant for cribbing from Howard Hawks’ filmography, which is certainly felt in this movie. But there’s a heavy Night of Living Dead influence going on too, with the picture operating much like a well-orchestrated zombie film, and during a time when zombie films were relatively unknown. Carpenter uses the tense, paranoid structure of zombie cinema as an inspired way to say something about gang youth and troubled societies. Ghosts of Mars attempts to have some sort of discussion over the idea of how criminals and police really aren’t that different, but it feels clumsy and unearned without a similarly strong foundation to lean on.
Just like how Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez were trying to recreate the magic of drive-in pulp cinema with Grindhouse, Carpenter intentionally tries to make a B-movie here with Assault on Precinct 13. Ghosts of Mars on the other hand seems to be legitimately trying to be powerful—with it just falling flat on its face—rather than attempting to cultivate an atmosphere of campiness. Even though it takes place, y’know, on Mars and is ultimately about space ghosts possessing people. It’s frustrating to see that Ghosts easily could have turned into a refreshing space version of The Thing, but doesn’t even get close to realizing that potential. With some of the ideas that the film does hint at, it’s fascinating to imagine Carpenter heading a Dead Space feature film. This film, despite its many shortcomings, does indicate that he could probably nail the video game property.
Adversely, the differences between Assault and John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars are abundantly clear right from the start. Just as Assault…assaults you with how good a movie it is, Ghosts of Mars wears its shoddiness on its sleeve. This is a frustratingly bad movie that’s just flat-out bonkers at times. The Ward, the last feature that Carpenter has put out is a real mess of a picture, but this manages to somehow rank even lower than that. It’s fascinating that Assault was one of Carpenter’s first films, coming out in 1976, while Ghosts of Mars is one of his later pictures, seeing release in 2001. In that sense they’re enlightening bookends to his career, the likes of which only become stronger upon realizing that they share eerily similar set-ups. Interestingly, both of these films are “siege” movies so to speak, where one side must work with the enemy in order to overthrow a bigger threat, whether that’s street gangs or space ghosts. Ghosts of Mars’ entire inciting incident even revolves around the transport of a prisoner (James “Desolation” Williams…yeah…and played by Ice Cube, no less), just like in Assault.
But let’s be sure to not breeze over just how ridiculous Ghosts of Mars is because this film is truly a car crash of the highest order (you did catch that there’s a character named Desolation Williams in this, right?). Rather than the sleek, trusting introduction that ushers in Assault on Precinct 13, one of the most slap dashed, meandering narrations of all time kicks off Ghosts of Mars:
“For weeks, the rumors have spread across Mars. From outposts to settlements. From town to town. Something that’s been buried for centuries has just been uncovered. And as this mysterious force moves across the Second Valley, it leaves behind only silence and death.”
It almost plays like a parody of Carpenter’s Escape From New York introduction. Meanwhile text tells us: Mars 2176 A.D. Terraforming 84% Complete. Earth-Like Atmosphere. Population: 640, 000 Colonists. Society: Matriarchal. Earth Law Enforced By Mars Police Force. It’s all so ridiculous and screaming of derivative sci-fi jargon that doesn’t mean anything. “Earth Law Enforced By Mars Police Force?” Of course it’s “Earth Law.” It’s not like a barren planet would have an existing legal system before being colonized! This sort of faux-smart attitude is all over the script, which is penned by Carpenter along with the help of Larry Sulkis, who previously worked with Carpenter doing uncredited rewrites on his Village of the Damned script. The fact that Sulkis really hasn’t done much beyond these efforts might explain some of Mars’ clunky, problematic writing.
Another smart move on Carpenter’s part with Assault on Precinct 13 is how quickly he jumps into the film’s action. Violence is immediate due to it being a fundamental aspect of the story. The film doesn’t hold back or shy away in this regard, placing you right within the chaos. The film’s beginning establishes tension by having the camera follow gang members and staying amongst them until it’s all suddenly shattered by gunfire plying them and the audience.
I love how sleek the murders are in Precinct, and just how gratuitous of a body count quickly accumulates. Furthermore, once the danger is set in Assault on Precinct 13, it’s pretty firmly established that everyone needs to stay inside. Those are great, solid stakes, and a simple premise that Carpenter does a lot with. He really makes you feel dangers like the threat of being out of ammo and having little means of retaliation in this sort of situation. The jaw-dropping “I wanted vanilla twist” scene where Carpenter depicts a young girl getting shot at point blank range is shocking and emblematic of the hyperbolized tone that the film carries. It’s scenes like these that help give the film such a strong voice.
Ghosts of Mars however, has an overwhelming look where a lot of it is shot like a bad, shaky MTV program from the ‘90s. It’s pretty fucking embarrassing to be watching this badly choreographed free-for-all on Mars (80% of this battle is people getting hit in the face with the butts of guns) as messy, aggressive guitar riffs are played on top of it all. It sounds like babies crawling over instruments. It’s exactly the sort of thing that a man that’s as old as Carpenter is at this point would think is cool. I mean, the scene begins with Ice Cube shouting, “Come on, you mindless motherfuckers!” and then begins double-fisting machine guns. The director’s subtlety is gone at this point. It’s crazy to think that such a monotonous, laughable score (it at least keeps the dream of synth alive) comes courtesy of the same person responsible for Halloween and Escape From New York’s music.
Assault on the other hand has such a good score. It’s like crazily effective. It builds tension in a methodical way and gets increasingly volatile, just like the film. Besides Carpenter’s scores for Halloween and Halloween III: Season of the Witch, I’d say this is his best work. It doesn’t sound like a single baby had a hand in making any of these tracks.
Another asset of Assault on Precinct 13 is that it has characters that you actually care for right away. It’s gripping to watch these remaining gang members cut themselves, form a bond, and give each other a purpose, all while barely saying anything. The same resonance is felt with the prisoners, who are enigmatic as hell yet full of sparkling dialogue.
Nearly every character in Precinct is spouting quotable lines—albeit reductive ones at times—but they’re all full of unique wisdom, rather than gruff stereotypes and clichés. In Mars, characters are literally named things like Desolation. Assault on Precinct 13 gives its villains sophisticated titles like Napoleon that have understated meaning. The films couldn’t be more night and day in their execution. Assault even digs into the area of race, which might not be something that Carpenter continues to explore throughout his filmography, but the idea of an oppressed voice and clear binaries in conflict definitely are.
The random father that is suddenly thrown into all of this when his daughter gets killed and he suddenly gains a motivation is brilliant storytelling. It feels like It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World, but with everyone racing towards murder rather than money. Even though the film is only 90 minutes long, it spends about a third of that time on character building and setup so when the firefight is in motion you genuinely are worried. This odd collection of characters at the prison that need to work together is beautiful. Blurring the very clear lines that have been set also makes this all the better.
Unfortunately Ghost of Mars fails to offer up any interesting characters. It’s admittedly nice to see some early Jason Statham as Sergeant Jericho Butler, but that’s not enough. All of the members of Lieutenant Melanie Ballard’s (Natasha Henstridge) crew are pretty cliché space army archetypes. That’s not to say that reductive characters are the worst things in a silly horror film, but this crew really ends up feeling forgettable. It’s almost like the film is begging, “Please kill my cast so they can finally become interesting.”
Beyond establishing a strong ensemble, Assault’s plotting is another area in which the film excels. It’s comforting to see all of the pieces come together here, with the film taking its time on each step. Suspense is allowed to build as everyone slowly heads towards the prison, letting you bond with each person along the way, highlighting everyone within their particular element. The fact that the time is infrequently being presented on the screen (the entire film takes place in just under 24 hours) is a testament to how compact this chaos is. It’s a stunning example of Murphy’s Law where in so little time so much manages to go wrong.
It’s worth noting that there’s also a telling line in the picture with, “It could be sunspots. Pressure on the atmosphere.” The idea of some otherworldly force being an influence on chaos is a huge trigger for Carpenter later in his career. While there are still clear motivations for the gang’s attacks on the police, this alternate interpretation doesn’t hurt and is a nice stepping stone for Carpenter and his fascination. It shows how entrenched this idea has been in his work.
Ghosts of Mars’ perplexing structure is one of the film’s biggest misfires. It’s a move that reeks of last minute re-shoots, studio meddling, and final acts of desperation to create depth where there isn’t any. It’s an unnatural edit and you can feel the strain that it places on the film’s story. The film decides to begin at its end, with survivor Ballard recounting her tale of what happened, deflating any tension in the process. It’s especially jarring to have the film cutting back and forth between Ballard’s story and her telling it, needlessly complicating things. This happens several times when new characters are met as a means of filling in information, so you’re essentially getting flashbacks within flashbacks. It feels like you’re watching a clip show for some TV series.
While still in the infancy of Carpenter’s career, Assault on Precinct 13 still boasts an impressive display of camerawork and stylistic flair. Carpenter plays with a lot of swooping camera movements that show off the geography of new locations, taking the time to familiarize you with every necessary nook and cranny. The film’s in no danger of lacking any quirk or style, like the ice cream truck scene, or creative shots from the reticle of a gun or a binocular’s point of view, all of which add character and hint at a growing filmmaker in Carpenter. Ghosts of Mars is void of these touches, and its attempts at such feel desperate and gratuitous.
It’s crazy how much tension Carpenter can mine from simple wide shots of people walking towards their targets, as opposed to the overly loud, in-your-face danger of Ghosts of Mars. Carpenter shoots the gang scenes in the dark, pushing a shakier, more cinema vérité aesthetic, while law enforcement scenes use a bright, more stabilized look that reflects optimism and control. Carpenter illustrates the clear demarcation line between these two sides of the law in how he films them both. The gangs are practically treated like a supernatural force from any of Carpenter’s other films. They move so efficiently and in unison. They don’t even talk. They’re just an unstoppable killing force.
So it’s a considerable problem in the first half of Ghosts of Mars that the threat of these “ghosts” is never really felt. They’re the means of trapping Ballard’s team, but they feel more like an idea than a tangible danger. In this case it could really be anything isolating the team. Actually thinning the herd some and showing these ghosts in action would be a lot more effective. Inevitably, in the film’s second half teammates begin to get infected with ghosts. There are more opportunities here to do a bit of a riff on The Thing where those that are possessed could remain a secret and then cause danger from within the group. But nope. Everyone either dies, gets quarantined, or expels their demons pretty quickly.
That’s not to say that Ghosts of Mars isn’t without its charms because it still does manage to pull off that classic Carpenter flair at times. The moments are few and far between and they become muddled by everything else, but it’s still a baffling piece of cinema that deserves to be seen. Even if your takeaway is to scream to the heavens, Why???
One has to give the “Lead Ghost” design a little credit for just how distinct of a look it has, even if you can’t help but feel Carpenter is still just a little enamored with his use of Alice Cooper from In the Mouth of Madness. That being said, the character basically just yells into the sky for the extent of his role. The “ghosts” are basically like a Warriors/Mad Max sort of hybrid where everyone is insane—which speaks more to the Dead Space lore, even if it’s coincidental. I get that these ghosts are supposed to be like Mars’ security system, which isn’t the worst idea, but it’s all just so blasé. We see them disfiguring themselves (which includes a bra made out of hands), wearing other people’s faces, and basically maiming one another. It feels like really bad, hackneyed post-apocalypse fodder that’s all been done better elsewhere. Like seriously, just look at this nonsense.
There’s a quasi-interesting effect that’s Predator-like as the ghosts fly into people, but there’s not enough done with it and it just feels like yet another silly element in all of this. The most interesting part here is when Henstridge’s Ballard gets a ghost in her and she’s treated to demonic visions of Mars’ monsters. Carpenter almost creates some moving stuff here and the surreal sequence is certainly a highlight in the film. The fact that there’s no defense against ghosts makes them too simple and manipulative, too. Fleshing out the idea and having some set of rules could make them a whole lot more compelling to play with. When Ballard basically vomits up the ghost, it’s based on nothing and there’s no reason for her survival other than her importance to the film. It’s more so to just imbue her with knowledge and make her more powerful.
Ghosts of Mars’ final act revolves around the Earth team deciding to blow up a power plant to create a “small nuclear bomb” of sorts that will hopefully wipe out the ghosts. Let’s be clear that there is no basis or any reasoning as to why this should kill non-corporeal entities, but 75 minutes is approaching on the clock so it seems like a solid final plan. The end of this film is yet another insult to the audience. I literally said aloud, “Excuse me?” when the credits rolled. It is such a lazy non-ending that banks off of the chemistry and friendship of Ice Cube and Henstridge’s characters, which is not at all present.
Assault on Precinct 13 goes out on the note of its two unlikely allies, Bishop and Wilson, succeeding in their war and safely exiting their “prison” together. It’s an ending that’s not dissimilar from Ghosts of Mars’ conclusion where its two star-crossed heroes join forces. However their ending sees Desolation and Ballard going back into the fray with their war not having an ending. It’s a much more cynical take on a similar subject. Even if the final note in Ghosts of Mars is meant to be one of optimism, it’s still a future that sees them constantly in combat rather than being able to enjoy a smoke or a well-earned laugh like Bishop and Wilson.
While these two extremes of John Carpenter’s career surprisingly wind up in similar places, the two could not reflect more different sensibilities of the director. Assault on Precinct 13 marks the more methodical, trusting filmmaker that learned how to replicate the masters and add to the form, with Ghosts of Mars symbolizing a more impatient, bored director that’s trying to recapture his youth. For fans of the filmmaker, both movies are worth the watch, and if you squint real hard you can even see the same thumbprint on each picture.