“In France, I’m an auteur, in Germany a filmmaker, in England a genre film director, in the USA a bum!” It was European audiences who first embraced Carpenter’s films of the 70s, and pushed his filmography into the very top bracket of cult status.
Carpenter’s Point of View
Off the back of early success with short films, John Carpenter’s first feature was the ultra-low budget Dark Star (1974). It was there Carpenter first harnessed his ambitions of multitasking right across the creative processes; writing, directing and producing, as well as composing the music. His writing partner Dan O’Bannon also did the special effects and acted in the film. Prominently featuring in the ‘alien mascot’ sequence, this would later inspire O’Bannon to write the screenplay for Alien (1979).
Carpenter then began to make a name for himself with his economical style and stretching modest studio budgets to their full potential. The massive commercial success of Halloween (1978) gave birth to the slasher genre, and Carpenter’s tense musical score became iconic. After being pressured into writing Halloween II (1981), Carpenter then distanced himself from the sequels, on record as having no desire to be making the same film over and over again. He produced Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) which saw a stark shift in storyline, not featuring Michael Myers. Although it’s since gained a cult fanbase as a standalone film, initial audience apathy mirrored box office failure, and saw the franchise return to following Michael, but with less hands-on involvement from Carpenter.
Although his career has been riddled with box office failures, cult popularity has always followed. The brilliant-but-bleak The Thing (1982) was released in the same summer as E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), with audiences clearly more drawn towards the more heartwarming tale of alien visitation.
With a respected directing catalogue matching that of his musical scores, John Carpenter has influenced top-level industry figures such as Quentin Tarantino and Hans Zimmer. Tarantino has openly discussed the direct influence The Thing had on Reservoir Dogs (1992) and The Hateful Eight (2015). The latter starring The Thing’s Kurt Russell, who has become a frequent collaborator of Carpenter.
John Carpenter’s signature is distinct, being so efficient at packing intense thrills, fun action set pieces and humour. The Western genre runs through the bones of sci-fi/comedy Dark Star and police thriller Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) especially, with Howard Hawks being a huge direct influence. Western-style drifters dominate the make-up of Carpenter’s unlikely, everyman heroes. Escape from New York (1981) and Escape from L.A.’s (1996) Snake Plissken is a throwback to Clint Eastwood’s legendarily brash Western characters. Notably occupying Carpenter’s narratives are heroes trapped and not in control rising to face something evil or extraordinary.
The paranoia of an enclosed space and a mysterious outside force in The Thing produced masterful narrative economy from John Carpenter. Assault on Precinct 13 and Dark Star also work to these atmospheric confines on a differing scale.
Arguably most directly responsible for the now cliched ‘cheap scare’ of modern horror movies, is Halloween. Michael Myers quickly popping into the frame, and intensified by musical cue, has been replicated and parodied hundreds of times. An interesting prophetic motif from Halloween has Laurie watching Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another World (1951) on TV, later to be reinterpreted by Carpenter as The Thing.
Halloween’s Dr. Sam Loomis is also a direct reference to the character in Psycho (1960) of the same name. Psycho being a huge influence on the intensity of action and musical composition.
Dark Star is very genre referential due to its tone, with space debris labelled ‘THX 1138 Toilet Tank’ a homage to George Lucas’ THX 1138 (1970). Carpenter even goes as far as to reference himself and the cultural impact of his work in They Live (1988), with a television critic proclaiming “Filmmakers like George Romero and John Carpenter should show some restraint” while he attacks gratuitous sex and violence in Film. In typically rebellious fashion, this scene is quickly followed by nudity.
‘The Master of Horror’ made his name with the success and legacy of Halloween, and cemented his place in the great pantheon of horror directors with The Fog (1980), The Thing, Christine (1983), and more. Science fiction is also well-trodden by John Carpenter, with Starman (1984), Escape from New York, They Live, and Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992) all tackling sci-fi sensibilities in various tones and levels of commercial and critical success.
They Live showcased Carpenter’s ability to weave a message into a one-liner driven action/sci-fi setting. The familiar Carpenter trope of a drifter fighting an extraordinary force bubbles under the surface of a satire on consumerism and the nature of advertising. The rich and upper class are in-fact aliens in control of the world. He does well to sew wry humour into the fabric of his futuristic worlds. Dark Star sees the artificial intelligence of the ship trying to convince the AI of the bomb that its launch command is a mistake.
John Carpenter’s direction is often fairly minimalist, a low budget feeling often elevated by his own atmospheric theme music. This is perhaps best illustrated in the opening sequence to Halloween: the long, tense POV tracking shot becoming voyeuristic and disturbing when accompanied by Carpenter’s masterful musical composition, and the final reveal that the violence was perpetrated by a little boy.
Even the vast, chaotic (and expensive) worlds of Big Trouble in Little China (1986) or Escape from New York have distinctly Carpenter-esque low budget B-movies trying to burst free from their big budget shackles.
With a cult following and generations of filmmakers and composers inspired, John Carpenter’s legacy as The Master of Horror is matched by his deft, multitasking approach to filmmaking, an economical narrative, and an affection for the atmosphere, heroes and themes of Westerns at the heart of his stories.