Notebook Primer: John Carpenter

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From horror to comedies to Westerns, an overview of the career of one of Hollywood's great genre filmmakers.

By Dana Reinoos

“I always try to partially copy movies and partially copy reality.”

—John Carpenter to Gilles Boulanger, late 1990s

John Carpenter began his filmmaking career on the Oscar-winning crew of 1970’s Best Live-Action Short Subject, The Resurrection of Broncho Billy, and from there went on to revitalize the horror and sci-fi genres, particularly in his prolific and visionary films of the late 70s and early 80s. Those films—including Halloween (1978), The Thing (1982) and Escape from New York (1981)—are landmarks of American genre film, but Carpenter is first and foremost a master stylist who studied under Arthur Knight at USC, getting his cinematic education from lecturers like Orson Welles (“such a storyteller”) and his biggest influence, Howard Hawks (“you could see he was a tough guy”). As the man himself said in 2014, “I was always a child of Hollywood… I never lost my film school training and my love of old films.” Carpenter is one of the quintessential American filmmakers, whose work spans categories, each film tracing its lineage back to a classic genres—horror, Western, comedy—and populated with outcasts, vagabonds, and near-mythical heroes.

THE HORROR FILMS

Carpenter is primarily known as a horror director, and for good reason; his third feature film, Halloween, changed horror film forever, creating the mainstream slasher genre and, inadvertently, the advent of the character-driven horror franchise. Michael Myers—or The Shape, as he’s credited in the film—is Carpenter’s first mythical hero, more idea than character, and more terrifying for it. Carpenter wrote the film with his producer Debra Hill in early 1978, shot the film in 20 days in May 1978, and finished the film—including composing the iconic score, as he would do to great effect in many of his films—in time for it to be in theaters by Halloween, of course. The whisper-thin plot allows Michael Myers to become what Carpenter described as a “force of nature,” bearing down with vengeance on the teens of boring, cookie-cutter Haddonville. Myers is more than a man, while less than human; psychiatrist Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance) describes what’s living behind Myers’ eyes as “purely and simply evil.” Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie, the archetypical Final Girl, is triumphant in the end, but it doesn’t feel good, and there’s no catharsis for Laurie or the audience, especially as The Shape is revealed to have disappeared in the first of Carpenter’s signature unceremonious ending—no feel-good coda here.

1981’s The Fog, based on another Carpenter-Hill script, is a horror comic-like tale about a mysterious fog that pours into Antonio Bay, a California town celebrating its 100th anniversary. Like any city in America, Antonio Bay has its secrets, and soon red-eyed ghost pirates are emerging from the fog to have their revenge on the original settlers’ ancestors. Carpenter’s least-favorite among his films, The Fog was mostly created in the editing room after a disastrous first cut, a frustrating, disappointing process that stayed with Carpenter throughout his career. But The Fog is effectively eerie, features Jamie Lee Curtis and her mother Janet Leigh on screen together for the first time, and has an evergreen message (much like the previous year’s The Shining): the past never stays buried.

Carpenter returned to the horror genre throughout his career: 1983’s Christine, an adaptation of the Stephen King novel, a nightmare of emasculation lit harshly by headlights and garage lamps with a creepy proto-incel performance by Keith Gordon; Carpenter’s 1995 remake Village of the Damned, a relatively big-budget affair that updated the original with a sinister new-age vibe; and Carpenter’s last film to date, 2010’s The Ward. Carpenter’s most overtly feminist film (as he has said, “I have been pretty apolitical all my life and yet I make political movies. It’s hard to explain”), The Ward is an unnerving piece of atmospheric horror, drawing on the familiar cinematic trope of the haunted mental asylum to draw out fears of female vulnerability and institutional trauma.

Carpenter’s monumental run of three apocalypse-themed films started in 1982 with his masterpiece, The Thing, based on the same novella as 1951’s The Thing from Another World (written and produced by his hero Howard Hawks). The Thing paired Carpenter and Kurt Russell for the third triumphant time in four years, this time with Russell playing MacReady, a helicopter pilot among scientists on an Antarctic research base. The base soon finds itself under siege from an alien lifeform with the ability to perfectly mimic other life, leading to some all-time great goopy creature effects from Rob Bottin, including the iconic “Dog-Thing,” an eight-legged, skinless, tentacled dog-like monstrosity. The Thing is one of Carpenter’s most pessimistic films; it ends with MacReady and the only other survivor, Childs (Keith David), near death and still unsure of the other’s humanity as they watch the base burn to the ground, the end of the world surely not far behind.

The other two films with similar themes—Prince of Darkness (1987) and In the Mouth of Madness (1994)—pick up the existential terror and spread it to the rest of the world. Prince of Darkness’s story concerns a vial of sentient liquid that turns out to contain Satan’s essence, and the priest (Donald Pleasance again) and physics scholars who team up to destroy it and save the world. Like in The Thing, scientific knowledge butts up against its limits when dealing with the Anti-God contained in a tube, the confines of human understanding putting humanity at risk. “Do you read Sutter Cane?” a zombie-like figure asks Trent (Sam Neill) about the best-selling horror novels at the center of In the Mouth of Madness before he swings an axe at Neill’s head. The film is at once a stomach-churning Lovecraftian horror about the nature of reality itself and a self-referential commentary on fiction, authorship, and audience expectations: has Sutter Cane created the violent chaos engulfing the world, or were his fans infected by his ideas? By the time the end of the world finally comes in the film’s last moments, Trent is in a movie theater, alone, straight-jacketed, laughing his head off watching his own story. We should all die so happily.

THE COMEDIES 

Believe it or not, John Carpenter is funny! He learned well from classical Hollywood from the start. While audiences were expecting a sci-fi thriller, co-writer Dan O’Bannon’s introduction to Carpenter’s debut film, 1974’s Dark Star, begs audiences to understand “This movie is a comedy.” They didn’t at the time, but it’s gained cult status since its release, and watching this goofball stoner riff on 2001: A Space Odyssey in the context of Carpenter’s filmography is enriching. The film rides the fine line between ridiculous and hilarious, unsettling and scary; an extended scene where a rogue alien chases Lt. Pinback (O’Bannon) through the space station and eventually forces him into a functioning elevator shaft would be terrifying… if the alien wasn’t made of a spray-painted beach ball with legs and O’Bannon wasn’t chasing it around with a broom. To his credit, O’Bannon recognized the story might work better if played straightforwardly, and rewrote it as Alien.

It would be years before Carpenter returned to the lighter side, and when he did, it was equally surprising. Starman (1984) is about a widow (Karen Allen, absolutely luminous) whose grief for her husband is so strong that she calls an alien being to her backyard. Answering the signal from the real-life Voyager 2, the alien takes on the shape of Jenny’s dead husband Scott (Jeff Bridges, an impressive physical performance). Two years after a similar plot in The Thing, audiences couldn’t be blamed for thinking the premise would be full of gore and carnage; instead, it’s a gently romantic, at times screwball comedy about recovering from loss. If Starman wanted to kill everyone to get his way, he could in a second, but he spends his time on Earth getting to know humankind, both good (Dutch apple pies) and bad (almost everything else). It’s an optimistic film from a pessimistic filmmaker, and a beautiful love letter to the American landscape (the Western vistas across which Jenny and Scott escape are striking).

Carpenter knew how to tap into the natural charisma of his frequent contributor Kurt Russell, and used that leading-man charm to fuel 1986’s Big Trouble in Little China and 1996’s Escape from L.A. Big Trouble stars Russell as Jack Burton, flipping his recalcitrant Snake Plissken character from Escape from New York into monologuing bombast as a truck driver who helps his friend Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) rescue his fiance. And speaking of Snake, he came back in Escape from L.A., the rare sequel that achieves a total 180 from its predecessor. Of course in California, Snake Plissken surfs his way out of trouble! A sly commentary on California hypocrisy, Escape from L.A. has a vocal champion in its director: Carpenter has said more than once that it’s a better movie than Escape from New York. 1992’s Memoirs of an Invisible Man is a mostly-forgotten (and not without reason) entry in Carpenter’s filmography, but is notable for both its status as a legendarily troubled production (so bad that Carpenter would later say “I really wanted to quit the business at the end of that movie”) and its first pairing of Carpenter with Sam Neill, who would go on to maniacial heights together in In the Mouth of Madness.

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