John Carpenter is one of horror’s greatest assets. He is a true icon. When you think of horror, Carpenter is at the the top of the list alongside the likes of Wes Craven, Alfred Hitchcock, and George Romero. While he rests comfortably at the top, he is wholly his own man. There is no one else in the business like John Carpenter, and while he may be a master of the genre, he’s been known to come off as a cranky curmudgeon. The harshness of Carpenter matches his films, and that’s what the fans expect.
To pin Carpenter down to only one aspect of his long and varied career would be a disservice to his other wonderful achievements. Yes, he has directed iconic films like Halloween and The Thing, but he’s also written, composed for and produced movies that have helped define the industry. He may have slowed down in recent years, but he has left us with a filmography that stands above most in Hollywood. That doesn’t mean he has stopped working however and he is currently producing and composing music for the upcoming Halloween. It’s hard for a man with that much talent to stick to one area of the story telling. If you see a movie with “John Carpenter’s” ahead of the title, know that you can expect quality.
At first it may seem like a joke that a writer/director would also compose the music to his films, especially when his instrument of choice is the synthesizer, but then you hear the score to films like Halloween and Assault on Precinct 13. Carpenter’s scores, in some cases, have exploded past the success of the movie. His music has reportedly been the major difference in a film’s success. Look at Halloween; when shown to a film critic without the iconic score, it was laughable. Shown to the same critic with the score included, it became one of the scariest movies she had seen. That feels like John Carpenter; not just being able to scare someone, but creating all the crucial parts to get that result. Of course he doesn’t use his music for only scares. In fact, that doesn’t seem to be the point at all.
If you listen to John Carpenter’s scores, you’ll notice that it’s there to create mood and atmosphere. You can say this about every good film composer, but the difference is that with the other greats the score often stays in the background, nudging the audience in which direction to go. Carpenter’s scores grab you and pull you where they want. This is the way it should be for a horror movie. The score needs to be jarring and make the audience uneasy. Like Carpenter himself, his music does what it wants.
That’s not a bad thing either, because music seems to be where Carpenter’s heart lies. Having grown up with a music professor father, the love of the music was instilled in him from a young age. After composing over a dozen scores for films, TV, and even video games, Carpenter recently turned his focus to his musical career. How many directors can you think of that have released several albums and gone on tour? Not many.
As with his writing and directing, Carpenter’s love of sci-fi really shows through in his compositions. You can pinpoint a John Carpenter score as easily, if not easier, than you can pick out a John Williams score. Both have a knack for creating instantly recognizable sounds, but there is something about Carpenter that screams to be recognized. We can look forward to another Carpenter score in 2018’s Halloween.
When you think of John Carpenter, you may first think of him as a director or composer, but one of his biggest talents comes through with his writing. His writing credits are about as impressive as the greatest writers in Hollywood. It’s true that Carpenter has a very specific genre of movies that he sticks to, but his mind is full of original ideas. While he may not have as many screenwriting credits under his belt, writing is where Carpenter really gets to express himself and let the audience see his fascinating and sometimes twisted mind.
Although the ideas are his own, you can clearly see his influences shine through. In fact, his love of 1950s sci-fi has touched almost every aspect of his career. It can be found in his choice to direct Starman and write They Live, but it never feels like Carpenter is ripping someone off. He always manages to create something unique even if he is using someone else’s material for his source, as is the case for The Thing. Although Howard Hawks’ 1951 The Thing from Another World has been cited by Carpenter as one of the films that got him interested in filmmaking, it was the John W. Campbell, Jr. novella Who Goes There that The Thing is based on. Of course it takes Carpenter’s mind to form the characters and create the atmosphere that has stayed with audiences for over 35 years.
While The Thing started with another source, the next film in Carpenter’s “Apocalypse Trilogy”, Prince of Darkness, is wholly his own and is also one of his strongest ideas. Blending religion and science, the films shows the devil spreading himself in the form of a liquid inside a church and picking off the trapped characters one by one. The finished film may not be as strong as some of his previous efforts, but it still shows an incredibly original idea. The main thing to take away from a Carpenter screenplay is an intense premise. The concept of a fog filled with murderous ghosts settling over a little town, or an unrelenting masked force killing anyone who gets in his way are ideas that audiences had not seen before. And because they came from Carpenter, you can bet that they will be filled with a relentlessly tense atmosphere that will most likely not have a happy ending.
As with most filmmakers given creative control, they will strive for more. This has lead to many directors and actors starting their own companies and providing a place of encouragement for novice filmmakers to take chances and grow into leading forces in the industry. John Carpenter is not one of those people. That isn’t to say that he isn’t collaborative and encouraging to other directors. He has had great collaborations with other writers, actors, and musicians, but he does not have his own film company. He doesn’t need it or seemingly want it. Why get into the business aspect of filmmaking when you can have more fun creating and bringing your vision to life?
Carpenter has produced a handful of films, some of them his own. This way he has creative control of his ideas. For some movies he did not produce, including Big Trouble in Little China, the studios interfered with his vision. Although that film turned into a cult classic, it is very clear why Carpenter has reservations about studio execs being involved. It makes sense then, that he does not produce a project unless he truly believes in it. He produced the first three Halloween movies, and despite Halloween III: Season of the Witch being a disappointment for fans at the time, he and the other filmmakers had an idea and took a risk. Over 35 years later, the movie is regarded by many as a classic. Carpenter also went on to produce a couple of TV movies as well as the 2005 remake of his 1980 film, The Fog. His next producing role is the highly anticipated Halloween sequel, and although he is not directing, I hope the filmmakers will utilize the expertise of the master who helped bring Michael Myers into the world.
John Carpenter is and always will be best known for his directing. His style is very distinct. It doesn’t matter the size of the budget or the scope of the story, each one of his films, including Halloween, The Thing, and The Prince of Darkness, have a minimalistic quality to them. The movies seem personal. What Carpenter creates for each frame may seem simple, but there is so much more going on. Every moment strives to build the tension and push the story further while also creating a feeling for the audience. The events of the film could be as grand as aliens manipulating the population, and the locations as expansive as New York or Los Angeles, but the way that Carpenter frames each scene leaves the audience with a feeling of dread and claustrophobia.
Now, he doesn’t accomplish this with every movie. Some movies or scenes don’t call for that and Carpenter knows when to restrain himself. There are many directors who think that in order to get a good scare, they need throw everything at the audience. This really never works and after a while the audience doesn’t care about the story because they’ve been tricked one too many times. What Carpenter does is use his talent and technical expertise to subtly accomplish that sense of dread. For a perfect example, we need look no further than his masterpiece Halloween. The opening scene is one long tracking shot, albeit broken up into a few takes, from the point of view of… well we don’t know yet. But we start in the yard, go around the back, and up through the kitchen. We see a hand pick up a knife, back into the darkness, and then head up the stairs to a girls bedroom. It’s revealed the girl knows the boy by name and he proceeds to stab her to death. We see the knife come down and we focus on it. It’s all very exciting and may seems very simple, but Carpenter and crew worked tirelessly to make sure it was as seamless as possible.
Shots like these weren’t seen at the time, and if anything came close it was at the hand of a seasoned director. In 1978, John Carpenter was not a seasoned director, but he showed a talent and a gift that helped change Hollywood forever. Not all of Carpenter’s movies have lived up to that potential, but the excitement comes from seeing a master filmmaker use what he’s learned over the years and bring to life an original idea in a satisfying way.
I’m sure that, because of who John Carpenter is a person, he would despise any sort of praise while also being one of the first to acknowledge that he deserves it. With a look of seriousness on his face, a cigarette in his hand, and his long hair and mustache, Carpenter has a distinct look and personality. Don’t waste his time, he has too much to do, even if he agreed to talk. There are many accounts of the iconic director being short with fans. In fact one fan who he disagreed with was reportedly told to “fuck off”. While that doesn’t sound like someone you’d really want to spend a lot of time with, I don’t think it’s because he hates people, especially his fans. I think he loves his fans, but doesn’t suffer fools or mince words.
John Carpenter is a man of the world who believes that you have to look after yourself. Look at his interactions with film studios. He has famously had issues with injustices that he believes were levied against him, such as his compensation for Halloween which led him to cut ties with Halloween H2O. Carpenter wants to do what he’s great at, create, and if someone or something gets in his way and people won’t listen to his opinion with an open mind, then “fuck off”. It’s hard to argue with that when he has had so much success being who he wants to be.
That’s the key problem, the thorn in Carpenter’s side; Hollywood. It’s full of unnecessary roadblocks. It’s a business and that isn’t what Carpenter cares about. He wants to create and get paid what he deserves, so we should all let the man create; he’s worth the money. He’s going to do it whether anyone likes it or not. It’s a beautiful thing really. He loves what he does but no one should take it too seriously, it’s only a movie. For over 40 years people have been able to look past his coldness and accept him. There are worse things than a grumpy genius. He’s earned the right to say “I don’t care, I’m John Carpenter”.