Evil in The Mirror: John Carpenter's Revealing 'Prince of Darkness' by Joshua Rothkopf

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[Last year, Musings paid homage to Produced and Abandoned: The Best Films You’ve Never Seen, a review anthology from the National Society of Film Critics that championed studio orphans from the ‘70s and ‘80s. In the days before the Internet, young cinephiles like myself relied on reference books and anthologies to lead us to films we might not have discovered otherwise. Released in 1990, Produced and Abandoned was a foundational piece of work, introducing me to such wonders as Cutter’s Way, Lost in America, High Tide, Choose Me, Housekeeping, and Fat City. (You can find the full list of entries here.) Our first round of Produced and Abandoned essays included Angelica Jade Bastién on By the Sea, Mike D’Angelo on The Counselor, Judy Berman on Velvet Goldmine, and Keith Phipps on O.C. and Stiggs. Over the next four weeks, Musings will continue with another round of essays about tarnished gems, in the hope they’ll get a second look. Or, more likely, a first. —Scott Tobias, editor.]

It’s generally accepted that John Carpenter wasn’t a personal filmmaker—not personal in the way that Martin Scorsese, only five years his senior and Italianamerican from the start, was. Carpenter grew up movie-crazy in the ’50s and ’60s. He wanted to make Westerns exactly at the moment when that became an unrealistic career goal. His heroes were Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles and, above all, Howard Hawks. It’s been nourishing to listen to Amy Nicholson’s wonderful eight-part podcast Halloween Unmasked, still in progress, and to hear Carpenter—usually oblique in interviews—open up about his boyhood in the Jim Crow–era South. He mentions visiting an insane asylum during a college psych trip and locking eyes with a prisoner who spooked him. That may be the basis for killer Michael Myers but, by and large, this was a guy who wrote what he dreamed up, not what he knew.

That’s not to suggest Carpenter didn’t develop his own signature style. When he arrived in Los Angeles in 1968 to attend film school at USC, he reinvented himself, transforming from a Max Fischer–like creative wunderkind (he was a rock guitarist and high-school class president) into a laconic, bell-bottomed cowboy who listened more than he spoke. He was too cool for nerdy Dan O’Bannon, who worked with him on Dark Star. He was too cool for Hollywood itself, even after he’d succeeded there, rarely mingling socially and turning down projects like Top Gun and Fatal Attraction.

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