Director Profile | The 5 Seminal Films of Horror Master John Carpenter

Tobe Hooper. Wes Craven. Sean S. Cunningham. Dario Argento. Horror cinema has many famous directors, auteurs if you want to be posh about it, but few are considered as varied and frightening as John Carpenter. Carpenter has directed twenty-two films. He also wrote, produced, edited, and composed the music for a lot of them. He popularised the slasher genre with Halloween in 1978. He plumbed the depths of our science-fiction nightmares with The Thing, Children of the Damned and Dark Star. He gave action cinema a new edge with the likes of Escape from New York, Assault on Precinct 13, and the criminally underrated Big Trouble in Little China. Nothing was too out there for John Carpenter from possessed cars in Christine to ghostly mariners in The Fog to Martian spirits in Ghosts of Mars. Carpenter has set his legacy in stone; a stone that when looked upon for too long places dark images in the mind: figures in the mist, masked men, and twisted monsters…

The blackest eyes. The Devil’s eyes…

Halloween was made on a budget of $300,000 and grossed $70 million overall making it one of the most successful indie films ever made. Despite its age and occasional woodenness the film never fails to scare. The masked villain, Michael Myers, referred to only as The Shape in the script is an unstoppable killing machine and became the most basic template for the slasher killer from Scream to Hush. Carpenter reimagines the places where we are safest, such as the home and a street in broad daylight, as killing grounds.

Myers appears often in the first half of the film. Partially hidden in shadow, behind a bush and by deliberate framing Carpenter ratchets up the tension making Myers’ violent killings even more horrifying in their swiftness. Further bolstering the iconic villain is Carpenter’s equally iconic score. A simple piano melody that chills the blood, the main theme of Halloween has become as recognisable as Mike Oldfield’s’ ‘Tubular Bells’ from The Exorcist. At nearly 40 years old and with a remake, starring original heroine Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) and produced by Carpenter, due in 2018 Halloween is set to continue producing bone-deep terror for a long time.

There’s something in the fog!

The Fog was Carpenter’s second feature after Halloween and the one that gave him the most trouble. Set back by rewrites and reshoots The Fog was one of Carpenter’s first films to not be reviled by critics. Set in the California coastal town of Antonio Bay, it told a tale of drowned lepers seeking revenge on their murderers’ descendants 100 years on. The Fog is apocalyptic on a small scale. All around the town the ghostly presence of the fog shatters windows, shuts down electronics and heralds the arrival of phantom sailors. Only by banding together can the townsfolk survive.

This story would be echoed on a larger and far grimmer scale in Frank Darabont’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Mist. The Fog is relatively gore free however though it does share an otherworldly eeriness with Darabont’s film. The Fog is one of Carpenter’s starker and sharper films and comes with some significant star power in the form of early scream queens Janet Leigh (Psycho) and daughter Jamie Lee Curtis. Compared with the likes of Carpenter’s more nihilistic works such as The Thing or Prince of Darkness this film has some hope to it in terms of its ending. Even so, the ghosts remain watching and waiting.

You going to kill me Snake? Not now, I’m too tired. Maybe later.

After years of playing precocious kids and Disney comedians Kurt Russell was looking to move on. Enter Snake Plissken, probably John Carpenter’s most iconic creation after Michael Myers. Written as a response to the Watergate Scandal of the 1970s Escape From New York has ex-soldier Snake go into Manhattan Maximum Security Prison in 1997 to rescue the US President (Donald Pleasence). Carpenter’s political motivations aside Escape From New York defined the anti-hero of 80s action cinema and made Russell a bonafide superstar.

Combining the trademark mix of action, sci-fi, comedy and horror, Carpenter would become known for Escape From New York and did more for pop-culture than a great many other films of this era. Without it Hideo Kojima would not have created his paradigmatic and ludicrous game series Metal Gear Solid. Films like Charles Bronson’s Death Wish represented an old way of doing action; a neo-fascist vigilantism that had no place in that world just as it has no place in ours. Escape From New York gave us resistance which is something Carpenter has always presented as a positive in his films.

How will we make it? Maybe we shouldn’t…

When talking about John Carpenter The Thing is always worth mentioning. It should be at the top of anyone’s list in regards the director himself and horror films in general. In typical horror fashion The Thing was panned by critics upon its release but went on to become a classic. Set on an isolated base in Antarctica it tells the story of a group of American scientists that attempt to quarantine a shapeshifting alien that can imitate them. The Thing is a triumph. The special effects by Rob Bottin and his team glisten and pulse giving the body-horror of the film a frighteningly realistic feel. Ennio Morricone’s chillingly glacial score is suited to both the setting and the alien intelligence of the all-consuming monster.

But it is the ending that defines the film. Exhausted and paranoid pilot MacReady (Kurt Russell) and mechanic Childs (Keith David) come face to face after being separated in their hunt for the creature. Unsure of whether one or both have been assimilated the two men sit down in the burning remains of the base and share whiskey. The quarantine, their comrades’ deaths and their own personal struggles were all for nothing in the face of the lethal Antarctic cold and the presence of that dreadful thing. An ending this bold and draining is rare but it remains a perfect snapshot of what happens when the will to survive just burns out.

I’ve come here to kick ass and chew bubble-gum. And I’m all out of bubble-gum.

Throughout the 1980s Reaganomics had devastated the United States. People were dying in their thousands due to poverty, drugs and the AIDS Crisis. John Carpenter’s answer to all this was They Live. Focussed on a working-class revolt lead by pro-wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper and character actor Keith David the film presented the rich as predatory aliens that sought only to consume until nothing remained.

The film spawned not only one of the greatest catchphrases of all time but also the slogan ‘OBEY’. Popular among young people a few years ago the white on red lettering was bold, brash and definitely not what Carpenter intended. At the heart of the film is an alley fight between Piper and David that is the closest any Western director has come to emulating a Jackie Chan directed fight scene in all its madcap and brutal glory. They Live is razor-sharp in its satire, subtle in its horror and nuanced in its storytelling.

John Carpenter’s Twitter handle is @TheHorrorMaster. He shows no humility because he doesn’t need to. Over a forty-year career Carpenter has carved out a unique space in several genres. Some will ask why I didn’t include his later work such as the Lovecraftian In the Mouth of Madness or his brief foray into TV on the anthology series Masters of Horror? The answer is simple: You can’t beat the classics. John Carpenter will be remembered for popularising the slasher genre, making us fear our own bodies as well as making some truly radical (in both senses of the word) action films. Carpenter’s early horror movies defined our nightmares as much as his early action films defined our hopes.


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