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John Carpenter: The life of a pioneering horror filmmaker

In England, I’m a horror movie director. In Germany, I’m a filmmaker. In the US, I’m a bum.
– John Carpenter

American filmmaker John Carpenter is undoubtedly one of the most influential artistic voices to have ever graced the horror genre. Over the years, Carpenter has produced brilliant cult-classics like the 1978 slasher Halloween and his 1982 magnum opus The Thing. His contribution to his chosen art form is immeasurable, and it was rightly recognised in 2019 when the French Directors’ Guild awarded Carpenter with the Golden Coach Award at the Cannes Film Festival. On his 73rd birthday, we reflect on John Carpenter’s illustrious legacy as a pioneer of horror as a tribute to the talented director.

Born in 1948 in Carthage, New York, Carpenter displayed a keen interest in films and filmmaking from a very early age. As a child, he was mesmerised by the magical westerns of John Ford and Howard Hawks as well as low-budget sci-fi horror films like 1951 effort The Thing From Another World. He felt drawn towards the possibilities of cinema and began making short horror films on 8mm even before starting high school. The son of an accomplished music professor who was the head of the music department of Western Kentucky University, Carpenter initially enrolled at his father’s university but eventually transferred to the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts in order to fulfil his dreams of learning more about the world of cinema. It was at USC that he gained recognition for his talent, winning an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film for his work as the editor, composer and writer of The Resurrection of Broncho Billy (1970). During his time at USC, he also made a fascinating short film about a bored computer worker who becomes obsessed with a woman and begins stalking her. Titled Captain Voyeur, the eight-minute short was only rediscovered in 2011 and proved to be of immense interest to scholars because it had many precursors to Carpenter’s artistic sensibilities.

Carpenter’s first major film as a director came four years after The Resurrection of Broncho Bill when he collaborated with Dan O’Bannon on a sci-fi comedy called Dark Star. An interesting and enjoyable visualisation of space colonisation, Dark Star became a cult-classic which influenced many other works in the same genre. When O’Bannon realised that some of the comedic parts felt flat in the film, he reworked them into Ridley Scott’s 1979 magnum opus Alien and turned them into moments of spine-chilling horror. However, Carpenter considers his 1976 work Assault on Precinct 13 to be his first real film because he worked on a proper schedule while making it. Inspired by Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959) and George A. Romero’s horror classic Night of the Living Dead (1968), the film was made on a budget of under $100,000 and earned Carpenter praise for his ability to be a masterful storyteller even while working with limited financial resources. He would use this valuable skill to its full extent in 1978 when he made his most popular film Halloween on a budget of around $300,000. Halloween would go on to earn $70 million at the box office, making it one of the most successful independent films of all time. Initially dismissed by some critics, Halloween is the gold standard for contemporary horror films now and its omnipresent influence can hardly be overstated. While speaking about the film, Carpenter said:

“I decided to make a film I would love to have seen as a kid, full of cheap tricks like a haunted house at a fair where you walk down the corridor and things jump out at you.”

Halloween showed just how good Carpenter was at translating the horror of the narrative to the cinematic medium, utilising effective camerawork as well as an iconic score that was inspired by Suspiria (1977) and The Exorcist (1973). Halloween is often seen as the definitive slasher film which had a formative influence on the genre, and although many have claimed that the idea was “copied” from Bob Clark’s 1974 film Black Christmas, Clark himself clarified that Halloween was its own entity. During this time, Carpenter also made televisions films like Someone’s Watching Me! (1978) and Elvis (1979), starring Kurt Russell. He also wrote the script for the 1978 thriller Eyes of Laura Mars, featuring Faye Dunaway and Tommy Lee Jones, which would become his first major studio film. The Halloween franchise remains the most successful project in Carpenter’s career to this date, spawning sequels, remakes, novelisations and even a video game. Even though it wasn’t the best work in Carpenter’s impressive filmography, Halloween was the film that caught the public’s attention and immortalised Carpenter as a master of horror in the mainstream consciousness.

The filmmaker followed up Halloween with an especially difficult project in 1980 when he made the supernatural horror film The Fog. Drawing inspiration from Tales from the Crypt and The Crawling Eye (1958), Carpenter was extremely dissatisfied with the rough cut of the film and tried to salvage it by including new scenes and editing around the mess. It resulted in further disintegration of his artistic statement and led to an unfavourable critic reception, despite making $21 million in the US. The next couple of years would see Carpenter churning out two amazing films while he worked on getting his career back on track, starting with the 1981 sci-fi adventure film Escape From New York which starred the likes of Kurt Russell and Harry Dean Stanton. He further cemented his filmmaking legacy with the best work of his career, the 1982 sci-fi horror film The Thing. Set in the hostile landscape of Antarctica, Carpenter based his vision on the foundation laid out by the 1951 classic The Thing From Another World and the John W. Campbell, Jr. novella Who Goes There? which was the source material for both the films. It was released in the same year as Spielberg’s phenomenally successful film E.T. and turned out to be the first financial disappointment of Carpenter’s career. However, time has been kind to The Thing and it is now considered to be one of the best films in the sci-fi horror sub-genre. In a 2001 interview, Carpenter reflected, “Had it worked, my career would have been very different. Very different.” 

John Carpenter remembers working with Ennio Morricone on ‘The Thing’
(Credit: Nathan Hartley Maas)

He tried to move on from the disappointing reception of The Thing by directing a film adaptation of a work by one of the most successful horror novelists of all time, Stephen King. Carpenter’s 1983 rendition of Christine was well received, but the filmmaker maintained that he only took this project on because nothing else was being offered to him at the time. The very next year, he directed a sci-fi romance film called Starman which earned its star Jeff Bridges his first Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for his portrayal of an alien who finds love when he comes to Earth. A period of decline shortly followed, with big projects slipping through Carpenter’s fingers. He was offered the chance to direct Santa Claus: The Movie and The Exorcist: III but none of it ever materialised, forcing Carpenter to go back to directing low budget films such as Prince of Darkness (1987) and They Live (1988) which would later go on to became cult classics but failed to replicate the commercial successes of his earlier works. The 1990s was a difficult period for Carpenter because he produced multiple critical and commercial failures like Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992), Village of the Damned (1995), and Escape from L.A. (1996). He also planned on returning to the Halloween franchise as a director for Halloween H20: 20 Years Later but the producer Moustapha Akkad wasn’t willing to pay Carpenter’s desired starting fee of $10 million.

Very few directorial gigs came Carpenter’s way after this which made him redirect his energies on producing remakes of his films, but his involvement was minimal. “I come in and say hello to everybody. Go home,” Carpenter dejectedly recalled. He returned as a director in 2005 when he made an episode for Showtime’s Masters of Horror and followed up with another episode for the 2006 season. Parallel to his film career, He also expanded his expertise by focusing on his love for video games while designing soundtracks for games like Sentinel Returns and worked as a narrator/consultant for the video game F.E.A.R. 3. Carpenter returned to the big screen in 2010 with The Ward, not having directed any feature film since the 2001 sci-fi thriller Ghosts of Mars. The supernatural psychological horror film was yet another critical and commercial failure, signalling the underwhelming end of Carpenter’s filmmaking legacy. 

Despite this, Carpenter remains an important artist who has influenced countless others with his work, including the likes of Danny Boyle, Quentin Tarantino, Edgar Wright and Guillermo del Toro among others. His films have also inspired video games like Dead Space 3, a franchise that Carpenter is especially enthusiastic about adapting for the big screen. When asked about it, he said, “I’d love to do that one. But no one’s even near asking me to do that, so I don’t have to worry about it.” There have been a lot of regrets in Carpenter’s career, especially when you notice the sheer amount of unrealised projects that the filmmaker could not work on. There are so many that there is a separate Wikipedia page for it.

John Carpenter is continuing his legacy by moving in a different direction now. He recently signed a deal for co-producing horror stories with the podcast service Serial Box and is actively looking for a “new way to strike fear into the hearts of our audience.” In an interview conducted a few days ago, Carpenter was asked about how he felt about the future of the world. He responded:

I want humanity to survive, as deadly as we are. I think part of us is real good. Art and music are reasons to live and distinguish ourselves above other creatures. So I hope for the future.

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