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John Carpenter

John Carpenter

It wouldn't be much of an exaggeration to call writer, director, and composer John Carpenter one of the most influential filmmakers of his time. From his early low-budget genre explorations–the science-fiction parody Dark Star, the Rio Bravo homage Assault On Precinct 13, the horror classic Halloween—to acclaimed movies like Starman, his remake of The Thing, and cult favorites Escape From L.A., They Live!, and Big Trouble In Little China, Carpenter has proven himself consistently inventive, intelligent, and fun. Though he began his career with the intent to make Westerns, a recent issue of Entertainment Weekly listed an astounding five Carpenter films in its compendium of the 100 best science-fiction works ever made. Carpenter, for his part, is still the modest Bowling Green, Kentucky-raised outsider he's always been, and he has continually threatened to retire from the filmmaking business altogether. The Onion recently spoke to Carpenter in advance of his new film, John Carpenter's Vampires.

The Onion: Is it odd to see characters you created for Halloween spinning off in directions you might never had imagined?

John Carpenter: It's flattering. It's very sweet. I just don't think there's any more story. I didn't think there was any more story after the first one. That story was over with. And with the second one, man, I got stuck trying to write a screenplay. It was horrible! I was saying to myself, "What am I doing this for? There's no story here!" So I made up this crap about [Jamie Lee Curtis] being [Michael Myers'] sister. I don't know where that came from, the middle of the night or something, where I just sat back and prayed—you know, "Help me God! Help me with an idea!" But they've managed to keep [the Halloween franchise] going for... however many they've made.

O: In the years since you made Halloween, how do you think Hollywood's reaction to the portrayal of violence on the screen has changed?

JC: It's a complicated, interesting issue. Mainstream Hollywood movies appropriated horror techniques, so you saw techniques that were usually reserved for the horror film in big action movies. You see it in Die Hard: throats slit, creeping in the dark. You saw all this stuff that we used to do in horror films put up in these mainstream action pics. So people got used to this pumped-up level. Then [Hollywood] appropriated the Asian action movie, which is just wall-to-wall violence, if you watch those films. All these forms are ripped off by the Hollywood mainstream, so there are no more tough, violent small films. It's all been done over and over again in big films. So the audience has come to expect everything at this point, yet they are so cynical about Hollywood that they want to be reminded... The audience wants to feel better than all of us in Hollywood, because they think they are better than all of us. We're all sell-outs, show-offs, and bullshit artists. They've seen all the movies, and they think we're ripping off all these old films. They know the hero's always going to win. This makes them very cynical, so all they care about is the ride. Give 'em a good ride, wink at their post-modernism; you know, "You guys are really cool for watching this stuff." It's all terribly cynical.

O: I was thinking more in terms of the ratings board. For instance, when The Wild Bunch was restored and re-released [in 1995], it was first given an NC-17, even though it was essentially the same film as the [1969] original. The rating was ultimately lowered to an R, but the violence in Vampires is far more extreme than in The Wild Bunch. Is that something you had to tread lightly with?

JC: Sure. I mean, with the ratings board, everybody's more conservative these days, no matter what you might think. This is a time of unbelievable Puritanism and conservatism. But it was very sensitive back then. Midnight Cowboy was breaking some new ground, and it got an X. You could show that movie today and people would go, "What are they talking about? Why is this an X?" You know what I'm saying? Look, I had to go through the ratings board, and here's what they told me: "This violence [in Vampires] is too intense because it's unexpected. Audiences will accept violence if you put it in a formula. They know the car chase, and they expect violence then. But the minute it comes out of nowhere at them, it becomes too upsetting for them." Basically, they said that because you're being too original, it's bothersome to the audience.

O: What do you hope people will get when they see your name above the title of a movie?

JC: Look, I'm just glad to be here. I'm glad to have movies that are mine. Really, that's the reason my name is above the title. Whether you like 'em or not, these movies are pretty much the way I wanted to see them made. A lot of them have my music on them; I've written a number of them. I've even shot portions of some of them. I mean, they're mine. And I'm a real lucky person to be from where I'm from, to be a movie director, to be a movie director that people know. To have my name over the title is an almost impossible dream. I've kind of lived out my own American dream.