Spotlight On: John Carpenter
In the 1970’s the shift in horror films being more director driven had become fully entrenched in the genre. Directors like; George A. Romero, Tobe Hooper, and Roman Polanski had taken the genre into new scary grounds and more filmmakers were looking build on the movement. One of the most visionary minds from this field of auteurs was John Carpenter. With each of the films he directed throughout his career, the filmmaker was involved in every aspect of the moviemaking process. He wrote, directed, edited, and even scored the flicks, which is why he so often put his name prominently on his works as a way of taking ownership of them. John Carpenter became the top name in horror during the 1980’s and his career has become synonymous with the genre. Since it his the Halloween season, it is fitting we shine a spotlight on John Carpenter.
Assault on Precinct 13: The film that brought John Carpenter to everyone’s attention was a gritty action thriller. Taking inspiration from Night of the Living Dead and Rio Bravo, he created a flick about a police officer under siege, forced to make an alliance with a renowned criminal. Originally the film was titled Anderson’s Alamo, but the powers that be changed the name to Assault on Precinct 13, even though it is referenced as Precinct 9 in the movie. Critics initially frowned on the movie and wrote it off as another but a mere low budget action thriller. Things changed when Assault on Precinct 13 opened at Cannes and drew the praise from attendees as well as Carpenter’s colleagues.
Halloween: The night he came home, also led to the movie which put Carpenter on the map. Along with Debra Hill he took on a project dubbed the Babysitter Murders and changed it into something completely his own. One of Carpenter’s requests for this movie was that it be credited as John Carpenter’s Halloween, this tradition of putting his name on the movie would continue for the rest of his career. Rather than an ego issue, the director saw this as a way of taking ownership of the project. He took the torch that was lit by movies like Psycho and Peeping Tom, and taking in to the next level with this masterpiece. Michael Myers has been locked away, ever since he murdered his sister as a child, but one Halloween night he escapes and heads to his childhood home. Young Laurie Strode and her friends are celebrating the holiday at various babysitting jobs in Michael’s old neighborhood and inevitably end up being stalked by this silent madman. Halloween was nothing short of a game changer which inspired countless imitators. Carpenter’s techniques may look deceptively simple, but everything thing in this movie is perfectly timed and executed as only a genius can do.
The Fog: With the Fog, John Carpenter brought his talent for scaring people to an old fashioned ghost story, and it works so very well. In the small town of Antonio Bay, everyone is excitedly celebrating the town’s centennial, when an eerie fog rolls in. This fog brings with it the remains of the crew of the Elizabeth Dane, a ship hat had its gold stolen in order to build the town of Antonio Bay. This is an incredibly spooky and atmospheric flick, about the sins of the pasts haunting the present, literally in this case. In assembling the cast for this film, John Carpenter brought in some very impressive performers, many through personal ties. Jamie Lee Curtis, Adrienne Barbeau, Hal Holbrook, Janet Leigh, and others fill out an incredibly talented ensemble. Knowing that there was the potential that this could fall in with any number of the horror flicks of the time and be ignored, John Carpenter took steps to make it stand out. He filmed using a bolder and bigger anamorphic format, so the Fog would look far more expensive to make than it actually was. After the rough cut, he fought to get the funds to reshoot different scenes to truly ramp up the scares.
The Thing: In 1982 John Carpenter was given the opportunity to remake one of his personal favorite movies, the Howard Hawkes classic the Thing From Another World. The director was not particularly fond of simply rehashing the original, and went back to the short story it was based on for inspiration. Rather than a monster movie, his version of the Thing was a terrifying and atmospheric feature set in the dark and isolated arctic. Kurt Russell leads a team to a research outpost which has seemingly been abandoned by the team which was there. They learn the horrifying truth that a shapeshifting alien creature slaughter everyone after creating an atmosphere or chaos and paranoia. Now that a new team is there, the Thing is about to repeat the cycle. Make-up artist Rob Bottin does what is easily the best work of his storied career in creating a creature which changes and mutates to suit its cause. When the Thing was released it was sadly a flop critically and commercially. Yet as time has passed the movie was finally seen for the horror/science fiction masterpiece that it is.
Big Trouble in Little China: Occasionally a movie comes along which is so different from anything which came before it, such is the case with Big Trouble in Little China. Knowing the studios would want a big American star as the lead, John Carpenter hyped up Kurt Russell in the flick despite the fact his character is actually the idiot sidekick. An evil sorcerer in Chinatown has kidnapped Miao Yin, as part of a spell to regain his powers. Hot on her trail is Yin’s fiancée, Wang Chi and his egotistical buddy Jack Burton. Setting a martial arts epic in a modern setting is no easy feat, but John Carpenter finds a way to do it perfectly. With humor, horror, fantasy, action, and romance Big Trouble in Little China is a movie which is nothing short of cool, and has something for everyone.
They Live: The 80’s was the height of consumer culture as Reaganomics made the rich and powerful even more rich and powerful. Carpenter called They Live his “primal scream” against the economic situation of the era. Starring wrestling superstar and pop culture icon “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, plays a trash talking drifter who discovers a horrible secret when he finds a pair of sunglasses. With these glasses he is able to learn the truth, that those with wealth and power are actually aliens using mass media to manipulate humanity. Knowing the truth, he sees no other option than to gear up and try to takedown the establishment. Knowing that Piper naturally had a sharp tongue and knew how to get physical, Carpenter wisely allowed him to improvise much of his own dialogue (including the famous “I came here to kick ass and chew bubblegum…and I am all out of bubblegum!”)as well as coordinate his own stunts.
Escape from New York: Another collaboration with Kurt Russell, which is nothing short of fantastic. This time Carpenter introduces the world to fan favorite antihero, Snake Plissken. In the dystopian future of 1997, the president is captured and held for ransom in the maximum security prison which was once Manhattan. Against his will, Plissken is sent to this wasteland where he puts together a posse with the always charming Ernest Borgnine and 80’s icon Adrienne Barbeau as Maggie. Carpenter put together arguably his best cast for Escape From New York with an ensemble cast filled with veteran talents. While the movie earned a sequel years later with Escape from LA it did not have the same gritty punch as this flick.
Prince of Darkness: When John Carpenter took his talents to a major studio to make a trippy Lovecraft-inspired film loaded with religious imagery and advanced physics he kept his indie style with him. The director brought back many of his previous collaborators, chief among them Donald Pleasance as a priest who discovers an eerie cylinder in the basement of an old church. A team of physicists are brought in to apply a rational scientific point of view to what this may be, when it is in fact spiritual in nature. Over the course of the movie the physicists are infected by the liquid in the cylinder which is powered by the devil himself. They are at the mercy of the supernatural evil as Alice Cooper leads a team of transients who keep them trapped in the old church. The director plays with different elements of faith and science and even dreams with this ambitious film.