The Master of Horror: John Carpenter, Director
Even before I was old enough to watch them, I knew the movies of John Carpenter were something special. Every Saturday night my parents rented from our local video den, which had only one copy of each film. That meant the box came complete with the slightly dog-eared cover art, which I’d spent ages studying.
The imagery of Carpenter’s movies stood out to me. You had the iconic knife slashes making up a jack o’ lantern on Halloween; Lady Liberty’s head laying in the street on Escape from New York; or the headlights of Christine burning menacingly through the night. They looked so nocturnal, like the kind of movies people would watch when everyone else is asleep.
I’d get sent to bed before they started the movie, and I’d lay awake straining my ears trying to figure out what was going on. There were screams, gunshots, and explosions, but what stood out most was the music, composed by Carpenter himself; simple, unsettling synch rhythms that were enough to send chills through you on their own.
Carpenter’s directorial career has spanned over 35 years, but when I think about his movies I’m thinking about that remarkable period starting with Assault on Precinct 13 to They Live twelve years later. In between, you had Halloween, The Fog, Escape from New York, The Thing, Christine, Starman, Big Trouble in Little China, and Prince of Darkness. What a run of movies that is!
Carpenter had the last laugh over his harshest contemporary critics. The Thing died at the box office but is now regarded as one of the greatest sci-fi horrors ever made, while a whole new generation of filmmakers name Carpenter as one auteur who had a massive influence on their careers. Not bad for a director who never had any pretensions beyond making great genre pictures, deeply accessible while retaining a strong outsider attitude.
Carpenter has often cited the western classics of John Ford and Howard Hawks as big inspirations for his filmmaking, notably Rio Bravo (a touchstone for Assault on Precinct 13) and The Thing From Another World, which he would remake with initially disastrous results.
Another key aspect that affected him as a kid and would later reflect in his films was his family moving from New York state to Bowling Green, Kentucky, then in the Jim Crow south. He has said in interviews that this environment made him feel like an outsider surrounded by malignant forces that he didn’t understand.
He started out making films early, with his father’s 8mm movie camera at the age of eight. He moved on to study film at USC, where he was lucky enough to attend guest lectures from the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, and one of his idols, Howard Hawks. He didn’t graduate, but during his time there he co-wrote, composed, and edited The Resurrection of Broncho Billy, which won an Academy Award live-action for short feature.
Next up, he dropped out to direct the film that truly set him on the path to cult stardom, the deadpan sci-fi comedy Dark Star. Initially written as a student project with Dan O’Bannon (Star Wars, Alien), who starred in the film and created the homespun special effects, it showed enough potential to pad it out into a full feature. It looks very tatty compared to his later pristine widescreen efforts, yet it still showed Carpenter’s early mastery of suspense, notably in an extended sequence where a crew member pursues a beach ball-shaped alien through the bowels of the titular spacecraft.
After that was Assault on Precinct 13, the film Carpenter regards as his first professional feature film, riffing on Hawks’ Rio Bravo and Night of the Living Dead as a small group desperately defend a police station from a gang of marauding thugs. Notably, it was Carpenter’s first attempt at scoring his own movie, which he self-deprecatingly dismisses as “because I was fast and cheap.”
Then came Halloween. Working on spec under the condition that he would receive full creative control, Carpenter took his cue from earlier proto-slashers like Black Christmas to create a streamlined exercise in suspense and terror that kickstarted the ‘80s horror boom. Working with then-girlfriend and producer Debra Hill, they expanded on an earlier story called The Babysitter Murders to introduce one of cinema’s greatest bogeymen, the half-supernatural maniac unfortunately named Michael Myers.
Starring Jamie Lee-Curtis and a cut-rate Donald Pleasance, Halloween was an instant hit, making over $60 million from a thrifty $300,000 budget. It looks a little barebones compared to the gory excesses of many slasher films since, but what still stands out are three key Carpenter components: his nerve-tingling score that paid homage to The Exorcist; his devotion to anamorphic widescreen, which made his interiors seem unnervingly claustrophobic; and regular collaborator Dean Cundey’s cinematography, whose lighting leaves us scanning the frame fearing where Myers will pop up next.
Another wise choice from Carpenter was putting his name in the title. It wasn’t just Halloween, it was John Carpenter’s Halloween. It might seem like an ostentatious touch for such a down-to-earth director, but that decision sowed the seed for his later re-evaluation as a true auteur. Hit or miss, these movies were his movies.
Between the game-changing success of Halloween and his next theatrical feature, The Fog, there were two solid made-for-TV efforts, Someone’s Watching Me and Elvis. Carpenter didn’t cast Kurt Russell in the role of The King, but the actor did a great job and would become another of the director’s key collaborators. Russell only made three films with Carpenter (or four if you count Escape to LA, which I choose not to), but the partnership was as symbiotic as Robert DeNiro’s work with Scorsese, or Bill Murray’s with Wes Anderson.
Carpenter stayed with horror for his next big-screen outing, The Fog. Jamie Lee-Curtis played a key role again, but the true star of this tale of murderous ghosts taking their revenge on an isolated coastal town was Adrienne Barbeau, Carpenter’s first wife. With her smoky voice, she was perfectly cast as the late-night DJ who warns the town of the encroaching supernatural threat from her eyrie studio set atop a remote lighthouse.
Once again, Carpenter combined with Cundey to create an ethereal night-owl vibe that went a long way to disguising the thinness of the story. It’s pure atmosphere and Carpenter was unhappy with the first cut, reshooting several key sequences to get the effect he desired.
The Fog was a minor success at the box office, and for his next film he took a break from horror with the dystopian sci-fi thriller, Escape From New York. Set in a futuristic 1997, Kurt Russell gave his first of three huge performances for Carpenter as Snake Plissken, the one-eyed ex-Special Forces badass roped into rescuing the President from Manhattan, which has been turned into a maximum security prison. Russell was joined in the excellent cast by a few actors who had previously worked on Carpenter films - Pleasance, Barbeau - plus the likes of Isaac Hayes, Ernest Borgnine, and Lee van Cleef.
Escape was an exercise in pure minimalist suspense as Plissken gets injected with an implant that will blow his head off in 24 hours unless he returns with the President, a classic ticking-bomb device that had me dangling from the edge of my seat when I first saw the movie. Russell’s charisma makes Plissken an anti-hero worth rooting for, culminating in another of Carpenter’s trademark ambiguous endings as he tears up a cassette tape that might potentially avert World War III.
After that treble-whammy of hits, Carpenter was given the biggest budget of his career to date for The Thing, a remake of the ‘50s classic he loved as a kid. Following the grisly fate of a group of men under siege from a shape-shifting alien at an Antarctic research station, it’s probably Carpenter’s most assured performance as a director.
Working from an excellent script from Bill Lancaster, he ditched the Hawksian camaraderie of the original for pure paranoia and introduced a mind-boggling creature that was previously unimagined on screen. For all the viscera, it’s the taut suspense and characterisation that gets the viewer on the hook before Carpenter goes nuts with a wild explosion of surreal body horror.
Returning to the source material, John W. Campbell’s novella, Who Goes There? Carpenter’s version of the story etched out neat performances from its all-male cast - with little or no backstory, we instantly know who these guys are. Working again with Cundey, Carpenter’s camera prowls the corridors of the station implying threat at every turn, before Rob Bottin’s incredible special effects finally burst onto the screen.
Legendary composer Ennio Morricone stepped in for the score, although Carpenter instructed the maestro to make the music more like his own stark previous scores. The whole thing wraps up with one of the most magnificently bleak endings as Russell’s hero sits waiting to die with another survivor, each wondering if the other might be the creature.
It sounds grim on paper, but one of the joys of The Thing is how funny it is. There aren’t any outright jokes, but there are plenty of laughs generated by how the characters react to their predicament. These aren’t the roll-necked sweater eggheads and square-jawed military types of the original film; these are blue-collar dudes left behind at the station to keep the lights on as the brutal Antarctic winter sets in. As such, they respond to the escalating horror in much the same way as regular people might, typified by one character’s immortal reaction to the legendary spider-head: “You gotta be fucking kidding.”
It all went down like a cup of cold sick with critics and audiences, which perhaps is understandable. Released just a few weeks after E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial gave us a heart-warming tale of a dewy-eyed alien, I guess people just weren’t ready for a balls-out horror where its characters suffer sickening Dali-esque perversions of the human form. It must have been a bummer to many, and that was reflected by its initial reception before the film crawled away into the shadows and found its true audience on home rental.
The next two Carpenter films were a sheepish course correction, although still very good movies in their own right. Christine, the story of a creepy teen and his fatal infatuation with a possessed car, was a workmanlike adaptation of Stephen King’s novel that transcended its inherently silly premise, while Starman earned Jeff Bridges a deserved Best Actor Oscar nomination for his role as a benign alien taking the form of Karen Allen’s deceased husband. Remarkably, it was the only Carpenter film to receive an Academy Award nod.
Both films were minor successes, resulting in Carpenter receiving another sizable budget for Big Trouble in Little China. Initially written as a fantasy adventure set in the Old West, W.D. Richter (The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai) was brought in to update the screenplay to modern-day San Francisco.
Kurt Russell vividly essayed the third and greatest character of his Carpenter collaborations: the swaggering, big-talking truck driver Jack Burton, drawn into a supernatural turf war taking place deep beneath the streets of San Francisco’s Chinatown. A wild tale with elements of kung-fu, horror, supernatural, buddy comedy, and action movie, the masterstroke was casting Russell as a big-hearted buffoon who thinks he’s the hero, where in actual fact he’s the useless sidekick. Sadly, the action hero tropes the film so cleverly deconstructed were only just becoming established and the satire was largely lost on audiences, resulting in another big flop for Carpenter.
The failure of Big Trouble led the director to return to his low-budget roots for Prince of Darkness, the middle instalment of his “Apocalypse Trilogy” between The Thing and In the Mouth of Madness. It’s easily the weakest film of Carpenter’s golden period, but still benefits from another spine-tingling score from the director and a late doom-laden performance from a visibly ageing Donald Pleasance.
Then came They Live, the last great John Carpenter movie. While his previous films often had an anti-authoritarian streak, it was the only film in his oeuvre that felt political, with a drifter who acquires a pair of magic sunglasses that allows him to see the capitalist alien conspiracy lurking behind everyday society. Glimpses of advertisements reveal their true messages of “Obey” and “Conform,” and it’s easy to draw comparisons to how social media ruthlessly manipulates us muggy consumers today.
Of course, being John Carpenter, he offset the political message of the film with some of the cheesiest visuals in his filmography, a six-minute alleyway slobberknocker, and casting wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper in the lead.
After that, well, I’m not going to get into it. In the Mouth of Madness has its devotees, with Sam Neill going completely bonkers as an insurance investigator drawn into a Lovecraftian plot, but the rest is dross. Carpenter’s golden period was so strong that his disappointing later work does almost nothing to diminish his status as one of the greatest cult filmmakers of all time, although he claims ignorance over that term.
Perhaps that’s understandable, because just calling him a cult director is a little reductive. Sometimes when we talk about cult filmmakers - Ed Wood, John Waters, Kevin Smith, Tommy Wissau, for example - we might think of movies that look low-rent and rough around the edges. From Halloween onwards, there was absolutely nothing shoddy about Carpenter’s filmmaking. Here was a guy completely in control over what he wanted to achieve, and those classic period movies all look like they cost far more than their comparatively modest budgets.
This is reflected in his status today as one of America’s most influential directors. Dozens of modern filmmakers cite his films as key influences on their own work. Quentin Tarantino has been effusive and made a three-hour homage to Carpenter in The Hateful Eight. You can also see his fingerprints all over the low-budget Carpenter-fest The Void, or Dan Stevens as a Mike Myers-like psycho without a mask in The Guest. Ti West borrowed heavily from the Halloween playbook in the vastly underrated House of the Devil, while Midnight Special captured Carpenter’s distinct dark-of-the-small-hours vibe. And let’s not even get into Stranger Things…
I like listening to Carpenter in interviews. He’s always as terse and no-bullshit as his movies, and seems completely at ease with his contribution to cinema, which is significant. Who cares if he hasn’t made a decent film for almost thirty years? At his height, he was just a cool filmmaker who wanted to make cool genre flicks for people who would also find them cool; and if that’s cool enough for John Carpenter, it’s definitely cool enough for me.
So there you have it, a brief history of John Carpenter’s singular career. Which movies are your favourites? Do you feel like going to bat for any of his later movies? Let us know!
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