Our editor-in-chief Nate Yapp is proud to have contributed to the new book Hidden Horror: A Celebration of 101 Underrated and Overlooked Fright Flicks, edited by Aaron Christensen. Another contributors include Anthony Timpone, B.J. Colangelo, Dave Alexander, Classic-Horror.com's own Robert C. Ring and John W. Bowen. Pick up a copy today from Amazon.com!
The Carpenter (1989)
One abundant well that can provide objects of horror is the bond of trust that we often adopt towards others - often without much justification. The receivers of this trust range from strangers we pass on the street to workers of various jobs that require them to come into close contact with us- doctors, repair persons, etc. The Carpenter hinges on one such bond - that of giving construction workers access to our homes in a way that borders on an invasion of privacy.
Unfortunately, The Carpenter doesn't do this completely successfully, although it has its moments. The story focuses on Alice Jarett, the wife of a philandering college professor. As the film opens, she is calmly cutting up one of his suits. No reason is ever given for this, but she ends up in a mental hospital. That no reason is given suggests later on, once the main players are more firmly established, that she may have not been too out of line in her behavior and that her institutionalization was a snow job. This uncertainty also has important implications later on. The professor sells their home in favor of a more isolated country "dream house" - one that is in need of many renovations, which is where the Carpenter enters the picture.
The construction workers are a motley crue, and begin the chain of comic book characterizations that are actually one of The Carpenter's highlights - as long as you're willing to sacrifice more realistic characterizations. I am. There are also wonderfully wacky characters in the form of a paint store owner and a sheriff's deputy, but sadly, they are underused and the plot elements that they bring to the film are left dangling. For instance, some care is taken to show Alice get a job at the paint store and to establish just how odd her boss is. But about 2/3 of the way into the film, this element is simply forgotten. Also, the deputy heads out to the Jarett's house to greet the new residents - somewhat of an oddity in itself - where he unwittingly identifies the Carpenter for Alice, then he drops out of the picture. There are also a few details that I wanted to know in the Carpenter's backstory as told by the deputy that were never explained, but there may be other reasons for that.
Those missing details may have been related to the scriptwriter's motivation for making Alice mentally unstable. The film tries to suggest that she may just be hallucinating the Carpenter while undergoing a schizophrenic break. But plausibly instituting such a suggestion is not the easiest thing to accomplish, and too often the balance shifts to suggest that the Carpenter is real and that she can't be experiencing a schizophrenic break.
There are also small problems with the editing. For instance, at the end of one scene, the soundtrack for the next scene begins to overlap - a common enough device to make a smoother transition from scene to scene. However, rather than a smooth transition, everything goes to black, the sound dies, and then the next scene starts along with a repetition of the soundtrack we just heard.
The Carpenter does have other positive attributes, though. The story is intriguing enough (although it might be a bit slow for some). The character development is convincing (and the "cartoon" characterizations are very entertaining). Wings Hauser's portrayal of the Carpenter is wonderfully twisted. The deaths are unique. Also, Alice's relationship with the Carpenter does not exactly go where you expect it to, which makes it refreshing. The good points outweigh the bad enough to cause me to recommend The Carpenter for serious horror fans.