Mars bores

Film - Philip Kerr watches a once talented director feed off his own corpse

Twenty-five years ago, John Carpenter was one of the most original young talents in Hollywood. Before he was 30, he had directed a string of cult hits, such as Dark Star (1974), Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Halloween (1978) and The Fog (1979) - films for which he wrote not just the screenplays, but also the music scores. Carpenter wore his film references proudly. Assault is a clever remake of Howard Hawks's classic western Rio Bravo, while Halloween pays its own homage to Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho.

Not that his young audience cared about any of that cineaste stuff. What they enjoyed was Carpenter's laconic, pared-down style, his minimal use of story explication, his cool subversion of whatever genre he happened to be working within, and his near disdain of verisimilitude. He was, for example, the first director to introduce to the horror genre the concept of the visual oxymoron: the idea that you could kill someone without rendering him actually dead - such as in Halloween, when Jamie Lee Curtis finally nails the psycho Michael Myers, only for him to sit up a few seconds later.

Carpenter required his audience not just to suspend their disbelief, but to tie it up, gag it, and then leave it in the closet before they went to the movie theatre; yet his influence on the cinema and popular literature of the past 25 years cannot be overstated. It's doubtful that the hockey-masked, boiler-suited Hannibal Lecter could ever have existed without the similarly attired, and similarly disposed, Michael Myers. And Wes Craven's Scream movies are little more than reinventions, for a younger generation, of the Halloween genre - what else can you call it but a genre, given that Carpenter's original film spawned five sequels?

During the 1980s and 1990s, Carpenter made more films. Of these, however, only The Thing (1982) was any good, and since then the once talented film-maker has looked more like a zombie. His latest film, the modestly titled John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars (presumably this is just a precaution, in case Merchant Ivory decides to make a picture of the same name), is no exception to this decline, in that it finds the director now feeding off his own rotting corpse.

Jorge Luis Borges once claimed that the basic devices of all fantastic literature were only four in number; but Carpenter, for almost his entire film-making career, seems to have been working on the assumption that there is just one device. Borges would probably call Carpenter's one plot the Contamination of Reality. Carpenter himself probably calls it something rather more prosaic and self-referential, because his latest film is a cocktail of Assault on Precinct 13 and The Fog, with a dash of The Thing.

A couple of hundred years into the future, human beings have colonised Mars. We are also told that society is now matriarchal, if only to take our minds off the more pressing inquiry of how it is that human beings are able to walk around and breathe on a planet with a reduced gravity and no air. But maybe that's just me being picky.

A group of miners uncovers an underground mausoleum and, before you can say contamination of reality, a supernatural force consisting of the souls of a now extinct Martian civilisation has been released to attack the red planet's colonisers. This thing - not so much a yellow fog as a red one, for this is Mars, after all - causes the miners to mutilate themselves with body piercings, wear leather, sharpen their teeth and, apparently, listen to driving rock music. But for their alarming propensity to kill those humans who remain uninfected by the red fog, they could be a bunch of harmless Death Metal fans at an Ozzfest.

Into this rich mix of drivel arrives a bunch of men and women from the Mars Police Force who have been detailed to collect Desolation Williams, a very dangerous prisoner in the person of Ice Cube, the diminutive rapper and aspirant thespian, who looks about as sociopathic as my son's Action Man.

Carpenter's Stallone-tough, sneering dialogue is no less risible. "Don't you believe in anything?" Police Lieutenant Melanie Ballard asks Desolation Williams. "I believe in staying alive," Ice Cube snarls. But it is this line that takes the cake: "If you blow up the nuclear reactor, there'd be a huge explosion, right?" Now that's what I call smart.

Cops and convicts soon bury their differences, and their brains, as they set about combating the greater evil of the Martian menace. Which is pretty much where we came in, back in 1976, with the cops and convicts in LA Precinct 13, battling with invisible urban guerrillas.

Fans of Marilyn Manson and aspirant spree-killers will doubtless love this drop-tuned, three-chord paean to all things Gothic. I myself was sad to see a once inventive talent eating his own excrement.

John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars (15) is at cinemas

This article first appeared in the 10 December 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Special Report - The great Koran con trick