John Carpenter is undoubtedly The Horror Master, although his body of work showcases his ability to turn his hand to any genre. Despite having many big-hitters in his arsenal, Carpenter’s impact on cinema has largely (and frustratingly) gone unnoted. While other film-makers’ influence and style are widely recognised, Carpenter’s are rarely acknowledged, despite his movies being distinctly his and continually imitated. Shot with a bare-bones attitude, atmospheric to the core and set to his signature self-composed synthy scores, Carpenter is a director who leaves an imprint of his personality on each film. In this career retrospective, I’m delving into Carpenter’s highlights, misfires and legacy.
In 1974, Carpenter made his debut with sci-fi comedy Dark Star. Starting life as a short student film which was later padded out to a feature length after its rights were picked up. Co-writer Dan O’Bannon described the end result as “We had what would have been the world’s most impressive student film and it became the world’s least impressive professional film.” However, O’Bannon would later go on to write 1979’s Alien and credited a scene with Dark Star’s extraterrestrial as the blueprint for his script. Albeit swapping a clumsy beach ball with claws (it’s as fantastic as it sounds) for the stalking, terrifying predator that is the Xenomorph.
Audiences were unaware Dark Star was a comedy, lovingly poking fun at the likes of Stanley Kubrick’s epic 2001: A Space Odyssey released six years prior. Dark Star riffed on its heavy themes and imposing AI system HAL, by focussing on the monotonous aspect of space travel and featuring slightly pompous self-aware bombs that frequently have to be coaxed out of self-destructing. O’Bannon concludes “My second film Alien was basically Dark Star made scary. I figured, ‘If I can’t make them laugh, maybe I can make them scream.’ The rest is history.”
Dark Star is an irresistibly silly, slapstick genre send-up, however, its impact isn’t to be underestimated. Alien wasn’t the only sci-fi behemoth inspired by it. O’Bannon was also behind many of the special effects and Dark Star was the first film to depict a ship going into hyperspace, a feat made all the more impressive with its shoestring budget. It’s no surprise then that O’Bannon would later work on Star Wars as a computer animator three years later. This humble film’s influences don’t stop there. From inspiring the creation of beloved sci-fi TV series Red Dwarf, to the antagonist Pinbacker in Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, which is a reference to Dark Star’s Sergeant Pinback.
Carpenter’s next film was 1976’s unflinching Assault on Precinct 13. A modernised western inspired by Rio Bravo with a hint of Night of the Living Dead. After members of the local street gang Street Thunder are mowed down by the LAPD, the remaining comrades declare war on the police and citizens alike. The bloodshed comes to a head as the gang ambush a soon to be closed precinct, where the lines are blurred between criminals and authority and survival knows no race, class or gender.
This abrasive tale of urban decay unravels at its own pace, it’s in no hurry to arrive at its infamous and genuinely shocking “ice cream scene”. In the grimy heat, the film pulses to Carpenter’s cruising score as he exhibits his knack of truly getting under the skin of a location.
One of my earliest and fondest impressions of horror was courtesy of Halloween. Its iconic theme (achieved by Carpenter using an irregular 5/4 time signature) eerily building as a carved pumpkin flickers, is burned into my memory and to me epitomizes October viewing. One of the most profitable independent films of its time, this is yet another trademark of Carpenter’s, squeezing a low-budget for all it’s worth.
An unparalleled thrill ride, masked maniac Michael Myers taps into a simple but highly effective, deep-rooted fear of the unknown. Carpenter along with co-writer Debra Hill (a trailblazer who formed a formidable team with Carpenter throughout his filmography) ensured Myers had no motive and was unstoppable, bordering on supernatural. With his distressed William Shatner mask and frequent collaborator Dean Cundey’s cinematography that drifts between deaths. Myers is able to retain his mystique and live up to his enigmatic moniker “The Shape”.
It’s a formula that was once lean and highly effective but waned with each sequel. Rob Zombie’s reboots, in particular, took the sting out of the tail by providing Myers with an unnecessary, generic backstory. Sometimes evil is just evil and our inability to relate to, reason with or analyse is exactly what strikes fear into us.
Jamie Lee Curtis made her film debut as Laurie Strode in Halloween, leading to further roles in other 80s slasher movies and Carpenter’s old-school ghost story The Fog along with the captivating Adrienne Barbeau. The film also starred the always mesmerising Donald Pleasence as Dr Loomis, his hypnotic ramblings about Myers added yet another layer to the killer’s mystery. Pleasence would also go on to work with Carpenter again in Escape from New York (as would Barbeau), a film that showcases one of my favourite recurring director-actor collaborations of all time.
Kurt Russell returned to work with Carpenter after starring in his well-cast TV movie Elvis. As Snake Plissken in Escape From New York, Russell carved out an action antihero that easily belongs amongst the genre’s greats in my mind. With his memorable name (inspired by a real person), distinctive eye-patch (Russell’s idea) and razor-sharp tongue. Snake’s badass attitude is barely contained within the film, with Russell even startling some shady locals while on set.
Released in 1981 but written by Carpenter in the mid-1970s (and later finely tuned with Halloween’s Nick Castle), the film was born out of political mistrust and Carpenter’s urge to “belittle authority” at any given opportunity. With a plane used as a suicide weapon and a fifty-foot wall erected, the film resonates with scarily stark parallels to real-world events and Snake’s cutting remarks ring out with an intense anger that’s felt tenfold today.
“I don’t give a fuck about your war… or your president.”
Again boasting remarkable visual effects (some courtesy of a young James Cameron) for the time and its budget, Escape From New York was actually shot in St Louis, Missouri as a fire left much of downtown barren and dilapidated, catering for Carpenter’s vision of a lawless wasteland. For my money, it’s the most lived-in world Carpenter has conjured with its desolate, crumbling remains and wonderfully weird characters that occupy the seedy city’s ruins.
Outside of Halloween’s iconic theme, Escape From New York’s is also a firm favourite of mine. Beginning with the throbbing grit of Assault on Precinct 13’s score and likewise capturing the personality of a rotting city. Climbing steadily and surging with a futuristic streak that’s fitting of the sci-fi action caper.
Escape From New York spawned an inferior sequel with 1996’s Escape From LA, which more or less rehashed the original’s plot but with worse (somehow) visual effects. While sequels more often than not prove to be a letdown, they may simply not be Carpenter’s forte. The always forthright director has previously discussed the tricky balance of being a creative and business person and refreshingly admits he penned Halloween II while drunk.
However, there’s still plenty to enjoy within Escape From LA. From a Hollywood sign that’s up in flames, ridiculing plastic surgery and a trashed Disneyland theme park. Carpenter’s rebellious streak still remains firmly intact and you certainly won’t find me turning my nose up at a Bruce Campbell cameo.
Russell and Carpenter joined forces again a year after Escape From New York. Universally panned upon release, The Thing is now considered (and rightly so) a sci-fi horror classic. Based on John W Campbell’s novella Who Goes There? and a reimagining of 1951’s The Thing From Another World, Carpenter’s take is also a benchmark for movie remakes.
From the ominous opening to its ambiguous ending, The Thing is a tightly wound masterclass in which every claustrophobic frame ruptures with unabating paranoia. A marvel in practical effects (paired with beautiful matte paintings) that’s yet to be eclipsed. The Thing is also one of the few films Carpenter didn’t score himself, instead bringing in legendary composer Ennio Morricone to do the honours. Surprised at Carpenter’s request, Morricone questioned him and revealed he was surprised to hear Carpenter reply “I got married to your music. This is why I’ve called you.” While slightly grander in tone, Morricone skillfully wrote a score that remained in keeping with Carpenter’s trademark synthy sound.
Similarly to David Cronenberg and his masterful remake The Fly. Carpenter is a director that has a distinctive flavour and an unwavering identity. Traits that can add layers to a source material, or even transform it entirely. Nowadays remakes or reboots exist to cash in on a property, not to express a vision. The Thing sits firmly at the top of Carpenter’s filmography for me, as his grisly masterpiece that eventually received the praise it deserved.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, contrasting renegade Snake’s unrivalled cool in Escape From New York and The Thing’s stern reluctant leader MacReady. Russell plays lovable oaf Jack Burton in Big Trouble in Little China. A bumbling sidekick to the film’s actual hero Wang Chi (the naturally likeable Dennis Dun), Burton’s a loud mouth with more talk than actual skill, with the exception of one fleeting display of competence.
Drifting by with a constant look of surprise slapped on his face as they do battle with James Hong’s devilishly good villain Lo Pan. Burton’s more at home when he’s cruising and rambling on in his beloved Pork Chop Express truck. Russell’s spot-on comedic timing and engaging chemistry with co-star Kim Cattrall, fused with Carpenter’s fantastical imagination that simply pours out on screen. Ensured Big Trouble in Little China was destined to be a cult favourite in spite of its commercial failure.
Like many of Carpenter’s films, critics and audiences alike were late to the party. However, for the most part, Carpenter took umbrage with the studio (Fox) who guaranteed but didn’t deliver a substantial or suitable marketing campaign. Carpenter said of the production “The experience [of Big Trouble] was the reason I stopped making movies for the Hollywood studios. I won’t work for them again. I think Big Trouble is a wonderful film, and I’m very proud of it. But the reception it received, and the reasons for that reception, were too much for me to deal with. I’m too old for that sort of bullshit.”
Big Trouble in Little China would be the last collaboration between Carpenter and Russell. The pair first met before filming began on 1979’s Elvis, in which Russell had already been promised the role before Carpenter came onboard to direct. Upon watching Russell’s audition tape, Carpenter amusingly recalls vaguely recognising him from his days at Disney and asking himself “who is this bum?”. Carpenter soon applauded Russell for being an “instinctual actor” and concludes “that was the beginning of our association as friends and as collaborators.”
The combination of Russell’s ability to effortlessly adapt to any role and Carpenter’s unique vision as a director, of which Russell declares (on the Big Trouble in Little China commentary) he can watch “twenty seconds of a movie” and know “it’s a John Carpenter movie”. Creates the perfect storm and films that stand the test of time.
Over the years, their superb movie commentaries have provided many humorous tales and fascinating insights. On the Escape From New York track, Carpenter sums up the duo’s dynamic and rapport. “I would like to say to the audience, rather than being pretentious, this is really the way a director and an actor talk. It’s really not a whole lot of laying on of themes and pretension. It’s really straight-forward. That’s the way we love to make films, and I think that’s the way we should.”
Based on Stephen King’s novel of the same name, Christine is a horror movie that’s very much of-its-time. Despite its slightly ridiculous plot, Carpenter’s memorable visuals and a committed performance from Keith Gordon, who utters the hilariously no-nonsense line “shit wipes off”, make it a not-so-guilty pleasure. An underappreciated film of Carpenter’s is Prince of Darkness, following The Thing, it’s the second instalment in Carpenter’s thematic “Apocalypse Trilogy”. A movie that showcases his ability to cement a story in sheer tone and sinister imagery. The loosely connected trilogy concluded with the underrated, reality-bending In the Mouth of Madness.
Starman is the only Carpenter film to receive an Oscar nod (I can’t imagine this keeps him up at night and nor should it) for Jeff Bridges’ endearingly charming performance as an alien who falls to earth and assumes the identity of a widow’s (an equally amazing Karen Allen) late husband. The film’s a rare opportunity to witness a softer side to Carpenter, who gracefully balances a wondrous story which had the potential to wander into Spielbergian saccharine-sweet territory.
Despite unloading his constitutional grievances in Escape From New York, Carpenter wasn’t done with his political dismantlement yet. Based on Ray Nelson’s short story Eight O’Clock in the Morning, Carpenter described They Live as “a primal scream against Reaganism of the ’80s”. Equally as relevant now as it was upon release, in 2015 he added “It’s a documentary. It’s not science fiction.”
A pair of sunglasses awakens an unnamed drifter (credited as “Nada”) played by the late, great “Rowdy” Roddy Piper to a stark reality. Media and advertising conceal subliminal messages of “OBEY” and “CONSUME”, with a wad of bills masking “THIS IS YOUR GOD”. While the suited elite that surround Nada are revealed to be hideous aliens. It’s a strikingly powerful piece of cinema that bolstered by Piper’s rugged, everyman charisma. The pro-wrestler helped choreograph one of film’s most renowned and unrelenting fights with Carpenter regular Keith David and years of blistering trash-talking led to Piper ad-libbing that unforgettable line.
“I have come here to chew bubble gum and kick ass… and I’m all out of bubble gum.”
A handful of Carpenter’s flawed later entries may not live up to the dizzying heights of his previous efforts, but I find there’s always a redeeming morsel to be found. Whether it’s a well-cast role such as James Woods in generic blood-sucker flick Vampires or the premise of what is essentially a poor man’s Mad Max in space with Ghosts of Mars. They certainly pale in comparison to Carpenter’s classics but his misses are far more entertaining than many others’ hits.
More recently Carpenter has toured the world with his Lost Themes and Anthology: Movie Themes 1974–1998 albums (and narrated the opening to Gunship’s insanely catchy Tech Noir). This year, Carpenter returned to where it all began, scoring 2018’s Halloween alongside his son Cody Carpenter and godson Daniel Davies. While David Gordon Green’s instalment does efficiently return to the horror staple’s roots by ignoring other sequels and reinforcing Myers’ chilling mystique. The film’s score stole the show for me. Halloween’s iconic theme receives a menacing, ramped-up makeover and entirely new entries erupt with the same intense urgency.
Aside from Carpenter’s unquestionable impact on slasher movies in the wake of Halloween. His legacy is often overlooked but ranges from independent film-makers paying homage while carving their own path. It Follows, The Guest, Green Room, Midnight Special and Annihilation all have Carpenteresque qualities. To well-established names such as Quentin Tarantino, who borrowed heavily from The Thing for The Hateful Eight, composer Morricone even included some unused music from the former in the latter. While Luc Besson borrowed a little too excessively from Escape From New York when writing Lockout and paid a hefty price for doing so. Even small screen giant Stranger Things got in on the act with its synthesized theme and numerous references to The Thing.
Fellow genre film-maker Guillermo del Toro took to Twitter to affectionately analyse the majority of Carpenter’s filmography and outline his unsung legacy (better than I ever could). His endless outpouring of tweets lovingly described Carpenter as “lightning in a bottle” as well as the accurate observation that he “doesn’t give a fuck whether we like his films or not”. Del Toro wraps up with this glorious anecdote and fitting conclusion.
Anecdote 1/2: One night, over dinner, I told John Carpenter, how much all generations love The Thing. How amazing it was that it had...—
Guillermo del Toro (@RealGDT) May 22, 2016
Anecdote 2/2: ...over time, "found its audience" and was now revered. "What fucking good does that do to me" he said. We ordered dessert.—
Guillermo del Toro (@RealGDT) May 22, 2016
Final thought for the day: Carpenter creates masterpiece after masterpiece and they are often ignored. Now, go to bluray church and pray.—
Guillermo del Toro (@RealGDT) May 22, 2016
Despite Carpenter’s label of a cult director, that hasn’t stopped Hollywood from remaking, reimagining (with considerably less imagination that is) or expanding his movies. The Thing received an ineffective prequel and Halloween generated countless forgettable sequels. While Assault on Precinct 13 and The Fog were remade with dismal results.
More recently, news emerged that Escape From New York is to be remade with Robert Rodriguez possibly at the helm. Although he’s underestimating his part, I wholeheartedly agree with Kurt Russell, “The problem is not Snake, you can find a good Snake, you gotta get John Carpenter. Escape From New York is just weird because of the way he sees the world, man. He sees it slightly off. It’s his world, it’s a night world. This is his thing.”
There have also been murmurs of remaking Big Trouble in Little China starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson for some time. While Carpenter’s casting of grappler Roddy Piper in They Live was a masterstroke, fans were understandably baffled at the odd decision to cast Johnson as Jack Burton. Producer Hiram Garcia recently clarified the film is not a remake, insisting “You can’t remake a classic like that”, confirming the plan is to “continue the universe of Big Trouble in Little China.” He concluded that Johnson would not be playing Burton as “there’s only one person that could ever play Jack Burton, so Dwayne would never try and play that character.”
While Garcia’s evaluation of the original is accurate. The concept of expanding the 1986 cult oddity in the hope it carries some name value and to spark yet another cinematic universe is frustrating (but what’s new?). When recently asked about the project, Carpenter frankly replied “They want a movie with Dwayne Johnson. That’s what they want. So they just picked that title. They don’t give a shit about me and my movie. That movie wasn’t a success.”
Carpenter has long dealt with his work being recycled and has served as a producer on a handful of Halloween sequels, The Fog remake and will join the upcoming retelling of Escape From New York in the same capacity. Explaining that he takes a step back creatively while producing, Carpenter said of his role “I read the scripts and I make comments and suggestions like every other idiot who reads scripts. But I don’t go on the set and tell the director what to do. It’s somebody else’s movie, not mine—let them worry about it.”
While I doubt the reworking of his films will end any time soon, Carpenter remains unphased yet reliably candid about the remake trend of Hollywood. Having sussed it out quite some time ago, he added “It’s a brand new world out there in terms of trying to get advertising. There’s so much going on that if you come up with a movie that people have never heard of they don’t pay attention to it—no matter how good it is. So it becomes, ‘Let’s remake something that maybe rings a bell and that you’ve heard of before.’ That way, you’re already ahead. I’m flattered, but I understand what’s going on. They’re picking everything to remake. I think they’ve just run down the list of other titles and have finally got to mine.”
Hollywood nonsense aside, there’s a reason for Carpenter fans to rejoice. Studiocanal recently released four brand new 4k restorations of The Fog, Escape From New York, Prince of Darkness and They Live both theatrically and on home video. Restored using the original camera negatives, with colour grading approved by the films’ cinematographers Gary B Kibbe and Dean Cundey.
The titles also received updated artwork from the immensely talented Matt Ferguson. Clearly an avid fan of The Horror Master, Ferguson’s revamped posters do the four rereleases justice. Although he does think Snake is missing something…
The only thing I think would make it cooler would be if Snake was smoking a cigarette... but that doesn't fly nowadays lol.—
Matt Ferguson (@Cakes_Comics) September 06, 2018
John Carpenter was the first film-maker I gravitated towards, shaping my love for the horror genre and movies that encapsulate individuality. While some may consider his lack of commercial success a fault, his filmography reaps the benefits of a truly unique director being creatively free. Besides, just under the radar seems to sit well with the man himself.