The Carpenter (1987)
While the Republic Pictures box art suggests an entry in the Slumber Party Massacre series, The Carpenter is of a unique knit. Owing nothing to slash cinema or Cronenberg (Canada’s genre overlord in the 80s), this film brings to mind the slow menace of Skinner or Parents. Shot in Montreal, The Carpenter features Lynn Adams as Alice Jarett, Pierre Lenior as her unfaithful husband Martin, and Wings Hauser as “The Carpenter.”
The Carpenter begins with a slow-motion shot of a board running through a table-saw, releasing torrents of suspended-in-air sawdust particles. In fact, the entire film seems to run in slo-mo; this is a slow, slow film. After the titles we meet Alice, introduced in the first of many silent montages: first Alice is seen doing simple household chores, then lying around depressed, and finally leaned over a bed, cutting up her husband’s suits. Nearly every cut in the film is a dissolve or a fade. Combined with frequent disorienting montage, The Carpenter creates a kind of narcotic, out-of-time diegesis.
These three tasks outline Alice: she stays at home while her professor husband works days and has an affair with a female student; she is severely depressed and suffering from other mental-health conditions; she despises Martin, and desires to in some way hurt him. After this there is yet another montage, of Alice being treated in a psychiatric hospital, the consequence of destroying Martin’s suits. Here she is plagued with psychotic visions and night terrors, imagining her doctor a cruel sadist. While Martin is a rather unlikable character, he isn’t a villain. Martin is presented as simply a flawed person. Since he does still in some ways care for his wife, he’s decided to move to an old country home, and hires a crew to renovate the aging farmhouse.
While Martin is at work, Alice is harassed by the laborers, who are all misogynist creeps. Late one night (Martin out with his student), Alice hears someone working in the basement. Roused from sleep, she finds a mysterious man working alone. Wings and Adams have a good chemistry throughout, which is as it should be; the film wouldn’t work if their relationship wasn’t believable. To escape the menacing workers during the day, Alice finds work at a paint-store near the estate. This plan doesn’t work however, as the men begin to show up at Alice’s home at night, with her husband still away. Wings begins gruesomely killing the imposing workers, beginning with one who tries to rape Alice. The question at the center of the film becomes is he real, or is he simply a figment of Alice’s imagination? Or (long shot), is The Carpenter some sort of externalized thought-Golem, a guardian spirit?
Barring some clichéd final reveal, the audience assumes The Carpenter is real in some capacity, as the crew’s diplomatic yet ineffectual foreman Farnsworth (Bob Pot) begins to notice that not only is his crew disappearing, but that someone is indeed working through the night. Yet there is still something unreal about The Carpenter’s presence. Alice usually encounters him after waking, so these scenes potentially could be a sort of subjective dream-like interpretation. When Wings casually saws off the rapist’s arms without breaking a sweat, it seems reality has become quite unstable.
The Carpenter is an intelligent film, yet it presents a contrived plot with clichéd characters, especially the mulleted workers. Their one-dimensional personalities may be a fantasy of Alice’s as well, or at least a subjective view, as I have suggested. If The Carpenter is not a fantasy, he at least plays to Alice’s desires. This appealing vagueness is reined in as a lecture from Martin is used as a device to spell out the film’s themes. This is a film trope of course, and the horror genre is rife with examples. Martin lectures on the archetype of Paul Bunyan, describing also The Carpenter, a man whose qualities embody everything Martin is not: strong, honest, attentive, loyal, protective. When we learn Alice has gone off her medication, this scenario seems even more plausible. The Carpenter could have done without this obvious piece of convenient explanation.
While the film raises many questions about its narrative, the answers are not always forthcoming. Most are only inferred. Also it must be said that for a thriller, The Carpenter has almost no tension (by design). There are no scares, and each kill is methodical and measured, and an inevitability seen from a mile away. In The Carpenter, events simply play out. Somehow the murders become mundane. This is strange considering The Carpenter’s weapons: power sander, nail gun, power saw, stapler, battery drill. If there’s one guy who can pull off nonchalantly slaying someone with a power-tool, its Wings.
When a police cruiser pulls up to The Jarett home, we assume the Sheriff is investigating the disappearances. However, the creep sheriff has only appeared to give Alice (and the audience) a bit of crucial information: it seems a murderous carpenter named Ed once lived in the house, until he was put to death. Now there is a third possibility: Wings is Ed the ghost. The Sheriff’s arch over-acting is so out of place that his reality is suspect as well.
In turn, Martin discovers a shocking bit of information himself: his student-plaything is pregnant. This sets off a chain of events which will lead to the film’s denouement; a series of events, in which the events are primarily murders. Around this point in the film Ed the ghost’s motives become as suspect as Martin’s: Alice wakes from a dream (?) in which Ed, in a white suit, unzips his fly and says (with a hideous grin) “There’s always this” to the sound of a power-saw.
This saw, like most of the film’s foley track, is practically inaudible. The sound mix is so low that most of the film is totally silent. The visual integrity of the film is of the same muted tone: specific lighting gives The Carpenter an oil-pastel look, everything has a dull golden glow. Natural light is often used as well, and nearly every surface is white. The slowly panning camera seems stuck in a glacial drift. Complimenting this hazy look is the aforementioned use of dissolves and fades. Although most of the film is empty of music, the score is rather ambient, as low in the mix as the dialog or foley track.
I won’t discuss the film’s conclusion here, but I will say it is somewhat unsatisfying. It is a pronounced, conclusive end, but rather hard to swallow. Yet another promising genre film stumbles at the goal. Despite the wonky ending, The Carpenter is nevertheless a subtly compelling and intelligent psychological study disguised as a thriller.