Primer is The A.V. Club’s ongoing series of beginners’ guides to pop culture’s most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you. This installment: the work of director John Carpenter
John Carpenter 101
Though it came after his wonderfully loopy Dan O’Bannon collaboration Dark Star, John Carpenter the auteur made a proper debut with 1976’s Assault On Precinct 13—a taut, gritty thriller that has the lurid feel of an urban exploitation movie, but is distinctly old-fashioned at its core. There’s a reason for that: Carpenter’s cinematic muse has always been Howard Hawks, a versatile master of American genre films and a silent partner in his work in much the same way Alfred Hitchcock was to Claude Chabrol or Brian De Palma. Assault On Precinct 13 is Carpenter’s feature-length homage to Hawks’ 1959 Western Rio Bravo, updating the simple premise of a lawman and a ragtag group of adversaries and roustabouts protecting a jailhouse under siege. Here, the action shifts to a near-abandoned precinct in South Central Los Angeles, where a local gang, armed with a cache of stolen rifles and pistols, seeks bloody revenge. Though Carpenter had not yet found his John Wayne—that would be Kurt Russell, who came on board a few years later with Escape From New York—other Hawksian elements carry over seamlessly, from the sardonic wit of the dialogue to the dynamics of a team in action, battling forces that leave it outmanned and outgunned. And for that extra contemporary kick, Carpenter establishes his pitiless bad guy through one of the most notorious scenes of the era: By showing him gun down a little blonde girl in pigtails before she can even get a few licks of her vanilla ice cream cone.
When Carpenter made Halloween in 1978, he fully intended to make the kind of movie that would shake people up: a horror classic that belonged in the same conversation as Psycho and The Exorcist. Whether he expected Halloween to shape the rest of his career is another matter. But Carpenter has no one to blame but himself. There had been slasher movies before—most notably Bob Clark’s Black Christmas and the scores of Italian thrillers classified as “giallo”—but Halloween was unusually relentless in its intensity, using the notion of an escaped lunatic terrorizing teenage girls in a placid Illinois small town as the impetus for one life-or-death scenario after another. And Carpenter nailed the atmospheric elements too: the eerie flicker of a candle inside a jack o’ lantern and the rustle of fallen leaves, framed by a minimalist synthesizer score and voyeuristic tracking shots. Carpenter used every square inch of the screen, leaving negative space that he could fill (or threaten to fill) with lunging danger. He also lucked into the ideal leading lady in Jamie Lee Curtis, who projects resourcefulness and vulnerability, with the former not fully compensating for the latter. There’s a powerful sense of dread that runs through every scene in Halloween, as well as melancholy whenever the psychotic, possessed Michael Myers gazes at Curtis, who reminds him of the sister he murdered. Carpenter conveys the villain’s compulsion, but doesn’t make him seem any less of the unstoppable boogeyman. Instead, he locks on to the recurring theme that would define so many of his films, horror and non-horror: how it feels to be dangerously alone.
Carpenter brought the same leanness and intensity to an entirely different genre with 1981’s Escape From New York. Set in a dystopian version of 1997, Escape From New York stars Kurt Russell as Snake Plissken, a dangerous man commanded by the U.S. government to rescue the president from the maximum-security prison that Manhattan has become. As with Assault On Precinct 13, Escape From New York has the fundamental form of a Western: Plissken is a classic wandering gunfighter type, drafted to infiltrate a fortress and spearhead a rescue. But the details of a crumbling future and the cynicism about authority is pure Carpenter, and Russell makes for a fine Carpenter lead: ultra-macho and just a little bit tongue-in-cheek about it. (Carpenter had found his John Wayne, though Russell put himself in quotation marks.) At only 99 minutes long, Escape From New York still feels epic, as the hero travels across the city with the help of chatty cabbie Ernest Borgnine, and encounters an eclectic group of characters, played by the likes of Adrienne Barbeau, Harry Dean Stanton, and Isaac Hayes. The movie has one of the best endings in Carpenter’s filmography too, which sees Plissken (don’t call him “Snake”) honoring the fundamentals of his agreement with the feds yet still sticking it to them.
Six years after reconfiguring Rio Bravo as a punchy urban action thriller, Carpenter again turned directly to Howard Hawks for The Thing, a loose remake of Hawks and Christian Nyby’s 1951 monster movie The Thing From Another World, about researchers in a remote frozen outpost combating an alien being. With Kurt Russell now firmly established as his grizzly, wiseass leading man, Carpenter strands him and a sprawling cast of other tough guys in an airless Antarctic research facility beset by an unseen, parasitic beast. Because “the thing” disappears into a human host before revealing itself as the gruesome, many-tendriled, unstoppable monster that it is—the special effects, by then-22-year-old Rob Bottin, are marvelously unhinged—the station takes on an atmosphere charged with extreme paranoia. Combine that with fear, machismo, and the claustrophobic setting, and The Thing has the relentlessness of great horror, casting the alien as an implacable killing machine not unlike Michael Myers, only with the potential to bring about apocalyptic destruction. It’s a terrifying movie in the Alien mode, and all the more terrifying for implying what might happen if the fight is lost.
While still a student at USC, Carpenter worked on the Academy Award-winning short film The Resurrection Of Broncho Billy, and also put together an early version of Dark Star with his classmate Dan O’Bannon. Ostensibly a shaggy parody of 2001, Dark Star follows a group of bearded, longhaired astronauts who’ve grown sick of the tedium of space-travel and sick of each other. (One astronaut, played by O’Bannon, complains that his colleagues “are uncouth and do not appreciate my finer qualities.”) In their frustration, they get sloppy, and soon are being chased around the ship by alien life-forms, getting blinded by malfunctioning lasers, and having philosophical conversations with a bomb to try and convince it not to blow up. Dark Star is as much O’Bannon’s film as it is Carpenter’s; a lot of the humor derives from the low-key way that the characters react to crazy situations, which doesn’t really match Carpenter’s approach to comedy in his other films. But Carpenter did provide the incongruous country song over the opening credits, and the smart-ass, inventively low-budget approach to high-toned sci-fi is very much Carpenter’s style.
For a more Carpenter-esque comedy, look to 1986’s Big Trouble In Little China, adapted by W.D. Richter from a Gary Goldman/David Z. Weinstein screenplay. Though Big Trouble found a bigger audience on home video than in theaters, the movie still exemplifies the boisterous, visually imaginative blockbusters-with-a-brain that helped convert American cineplexes into clever amusement parks during the mid-’80s. The episodic action setpieces and arbitrary genre pastiches are a delight, as is the anything-for-a-laugh affability of leading man Kurt Russell. Russell’s performance as a self-possessed, philosophical truck driver consciously apes John Wayne even more than he did in Escape From New York, albeit with more thudding wisecracks and half-baked schemes. (For example, our hero’s big idea for how to penetrate the villain’s lair is to bust through the front door with a phone in his hand and holler, “Phone company!”) Russell is joined by sexy lawyer Kim Cattrall, investigative journalist Kate Burton, and pal Dennis Dun, all working to penetrate the vice-ridden labyrinth of the Chinese-American criminal underworld. The joke of Big Trouble is that Russell is really the inept sidekick to Dun, who does most of the whip-crack flying-through-the-air kung fu, in exaggerated fight scenes that brought Hong Kong cinema chic to America about a decade ahead of schedule. And that joke is a funny one, especially given the way it’s supported by Richter’s purposefully convoluted expository dialogue and the hilariously squishy supernatural creatures of effects supervisor Richard Edlund. Carpenter brings his typical visual verve to the project too, steadily patrolling the story’s arcade-game-like multi-level lairs.
After scoring his first big hit with Halloween—he didn’t have many others, unfortunately—Carpenter’s follow-up, 1980’s The Fog, tries to reconcile an appealingly atmospheric ghost story with the slasher-movie craze that his previous film was responsible for spawning. It’s an awkward, lumpy mix, especially when the hooks come out and the gratuitous bludgeoning commences. The first third, however, is mostly masterful, beginning with a campfire story that tells of a 100-year-old curse placed on a seaside town after its founders deliberately led a ship carrying a leper colony into the rocks, killing everyone aboard. The notion of the town’s residents paying for its ancestors’ treachery is a potent one, and the early scenes have the quality of a mass haunting, with strange occurrences spreading to businesses and residences. Once “the fog” yields the more tangible threat of hook-wielding ghosts, the film loses much of its eerie allure, becoming too much like a bloody Carpenter knock-off instead of the real deal.
Given Stephen King’s love of Americana and his larger-than-life characters, his novels would seem to be a natural for John Carpenter, but Carpenter only tackled one King book: Christine, about a haunted car that develops a symbiotic relationship with a high-school nerd played by Keith Gordon. Carpenter’s Christine sputters down the stretch, once the “supernatural super-car” part overtakes the “teenage boys expressing their independence” part, but the first hour of the film is Carpenter at his best, as he uses his camera to map out the ways that small towns can be both cozy and confining. Carpenter and screenwriter Bill Phillips bring as much of Stephen King’s keen character detail and colorfully profane dialogue to the screen as they can fit, and it’s really only the goofiness inherent in the book’s plot that keeps Christine from being on a par with the likes of Halloween and The Thing. (Too bad Carpenter never got a crack at ’Salem’s Lot. He would’ve crushed that one.)
Let us get this out of the way: 1987’s Prince Of Darkness is a deeply silly horror movie. Anything that features a zombified Alice Cooper impaling someone with a bicycle would have to be, really. Yet it’s really like Big Trouble In Little China without all the goofing around (and without Kurt Russell), following another team of misfits (including lovable BTILC stars Dennis Dun and Victor Wong) who join forces to fight an ancient evil. Look closely, too, and there’s a clever nuclear allegory in the story of a leaky cylinder of swirling green liquid found in the bowels of an abandoned Los Angeles church. Unaware that the liquid is, in fact, the embodiment of the Antichrist himself, a group of academics descends on the church for testing, but between the rash of demonic infections inside and Cooper’s hordes of possessed Satan-worshipers outside, the few survivors are overmatched. Donald Pleasence plays a priest named, in a nod to his Halloween role, Father Loomis. He’s hammier than Christmas dinner, giving every line in a grave tone that wavers from quiet and foreboding to full-on hysterical, with few notes in between. But that’s part of the guilty fun of Prince Of Darkness, which builds into an all-out symphony of demonic activity, with possessions and gruesome transformations and bugs and worms and beetles and green liquid spewing like a plumbing disaster. In a decade that saw Carpenter bow to impersonal studio projects like Starman, this one at least had some auteur appeal.
Hope springs eternal that Carpenter will finally retain his old mastery—though his most recent attempt at a comeback, The Ward (see: Demerits), dimmed that hope significantly. 1988’s They Live was his last truly great film, a stinkbomb planted in the toilet of Reagan’s America. This eternally relevant sci-fi/action satire may seem silly and disposable, casting pro wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper as a mullet-headed drifter who settles in a shantytown on the fringes of Los Angeles and discovers an alien conspiracy aimed at recruiting the rich and powerful to enslave the common folk. And it does feature plenty of lowbrow badassery in the snarling one-liners (“I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass—and I’m all out of bubblegum.”) and an alleyway brawl that goes on for a small, astonishing, hilarious eternity. But like the George Romero zombie films, They Live also smuggles in some potent political commentary, using its alien plot to expose the disparities between rich and poor, the mind-numbing propaganda that passes for entertainment, and the feelings of apathy and complacency that have settled over the populace. Carpenter has always aligned himself strongly with the outcasts and the rebels, and with They Live, he made a bare-knuckled statement on behalf of the disenfranchised.
The reunion of Carpenter with Kurt Russell and co-writer/producer Debra Hill for Escape From L.A. in 1996 should’ve been a slam-dunk hit, but critics were befuddled by it, and audiences largely stayed away. That doesn’t make it a bad movie, though; while not in the same league as Escape From New York, the further adventures of Snake Plissken are still good, goofy fun. Tasked to rescue the president’s daughter this time, Snake—don’t call him “Plissken”—searches through a Los Angeles that’s been populated by America’s “social undesirables” in the wake of a national religious revival. The politics of Escape From L.A. aren’t as front-and-center or as penetrating as in They Live, and the movie’s special effects are frequently cheesy (though not in a way that’s too detrimental to what’s essentially an ’80s throwback). But the movie is populated by characters as colorful as in Escape From New York, including Steve Buscemi as a fast-talking hustler, Bruce Campbell as a lunatic plastic surgeon, and Peter Fonda as mellow-but-armed native. And this Escape includes a few memorably over-the-top scenes, such as Snake being forced to play basketball for his life in the middle of the Coliseum. Disjointed as it is, Escape From L.A. does have an appealing nothing-to-lose quality, both in its conception of the hero and in an ending that’s an even bigger “fuck everything” than the original.
Some Carpenter acolytes make an argument for In The Mouth Of Madness as late-period standout, but there’s too large a gap between its potential as a meta-commentary on Stephen King, H.P. Lovecraft, and the life of the horror novelist, and an execution that isn’t as clever or fully realized as it needs to be. Carpenter opens The Fog with a quote from the Edgar Allan Poe poem “A Dream Within A Dream,” but it applies much more to this thriller about an insurance investigator (Sam Neill) who literally enters into the seemingly fictional landscape of a best-selling horror author named Sutter Cane (an ideally cast Jürgen Prochnow). And like The Fog or Prince Of Darkness, the film is about a terrible, violent, demon-filled world infringing on ours and wreaking havoc, starting with the cheeky appearance of an entranced, psychopathic literary agent. In The Mouth Of Madness winds up unfolding like a second-tier King novel, teasing out an intriguing premise in the first two thirds and ending in a disappointing flurry of chaos that suggests the writer (in this case, moonlighting Hollywood executive Michael De Luca) had typed his way into a corner. It’s essential viewing for Carpenter fans—many of whom feel it’s been unfairly orphaned—but its flaws are more apparent than many of them might acknowledge.
In a more just universe, Carpenter’s 1998 action-horror film Vampires would have been six hours long and run as an HBO series, which would’ve given the sprawling story of betrayed and wrathful vampire slayers James Woods and Daniel Baldwin the room it needed to develop its large cast of characters, their tangled backstories, and the ascension of an undead Master. As it is, Vampires is more like a schematic for a fuller and more satisfying work, though even in sketchy form, the movie presents a refreshingly bullshit-light version of vampire-hunting mythology that’s more about warring guerrilla camps than gothic romance. And it’s hard to be too disappointed by any movie that features James Woods growling, “You are seriously misjudging the wrong motherfucker!” to a priest.
There’s nothing particularly bad about 1984’s Starman, a slightly more adult-oriented spin on the friendly-alien-wants-to-go-home premise that won E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial the hearts and minds and wallets of American moviegoers two years earlier. It’s sweet and funny, and gets a lot of mileage from the chemistry between Karen Allen as a grieving widow and Jeff Bridges as the gentle alien who takes the corporeal form of her late husband. But where’s John Carpenter in it? It’s the first of his films that feels strictly director-for-hire, and though Carpenter delivers the obligatory goods, it’s hard to divine the connection between Starman and most of his other work, other than his general attraction to science fiction. Seen today, it looks too affected by the finagling of the ’80s studio system, which worked hard to squelch the auteur-ruled Hollywood of the ’70s and gain some control over its product. Carpenter would go on to direct unfairly reviled films like Prince Of Darkness or They Live, but playing the respectable craftsman now looks worse for him in the long run.
Along the same impersonal lines, there’s also Memoirs Of An Invisible Man, a 1992 Chevy Chase comedy-thriller that Carpenter reportedly took over from Ivan Reitman when Reitman grew frustrated with Chase’s insistence on toning down the comedy. (Original screenwriter William Goldman left for the same reasons.) Carpenter’s work on the film is just fine—though he never quite licks how to handle the invisibility effects and keep his star on-screen—and there’s a kernel of a good idea in the story, which has Chase becoming invisible the day after he meets the love of his life. But the romance takes too much of a backseat to a dull espionage plot, and though Chase may have intended to be more serious, his performance comes out just as glib and muggy as always.
“Ill-advised” doesn’t begin to describe Carpenter’s 1995 remake Village Of The Damned, which was a dubious idea made worse by bad decisions all the way down the line. The creepily effective 1960 version, like the John Wyndham novel (The Midwich Cuckoos) from which it was adapted, takes place in remote England, where the citizens of an entire town all fall unconscious at once, and when they wake up, the women are all pregnant with offspring that grow up to be wicked. Carpenter moves the action from England to coastal California, shoots in color instead of the chillingly stark black and white, and miscasts the entire ensemble, from Christopher Reeve as the town doctor to an absurd Kirstie Alley as a tough-talking government scientist called in to solve this mysterious epidemic. Carpenter replicates most of the plot points, but in an oeuvre rife with thoughtful pillaging of cinema past, there’s no apparent reason his Village Of The Damned needs to exist.
The good news: With 2001’s Ghosts Of Mars, Carpenter was back making John Carpenter movies. The bad news: He was eating his own tail. Cobbled together from pieces of other Carpenter favorites, specifically Assault On Precinct 13 and The Thing, Ghosts Of Mars' setup involves an intergalactic cop (Natasha Henstridge) leading a prison transfer of a dangerous convict (Ice Cube) to a remote Mars outpost that’s besieged by… well, you know. Grier is appropriately fierce as one of the defenders of human kind, but the film feels both conspicuously cheap and conspicuously degenerated, a copy of a copy of a copy. It didn’t help that Pitch Black, a much sharper B-movie with a similar tack, was released the year before.
Earlier this year, Carpenter released his first movie in nearly a decade, The Ward, starring Amber Heard as an amnesiac who winds up in a mental institution, where she tries to get to the bottom of some mysterious disappearances. Screenwriters Michael and Shawn Rasmussen offer a twisted take on conformity, in which characters are marked as crazy if they acknowledge the monsters around them, and wind up dead if they pretend the monsters aren’t there. But there isn’t much to the movie beyond 90 minutes of women bickering and being chased down corridors by a lurching, ghoulish figure. Worse, nothing about The Ward’s direction has any snap. The scares are strictly of the “thing jumps loudly out of the shadows” variety, while the non-scary parts are merely functional. The Ward is competently made, but it’s the wrong kind of “haunting,” rendered pale by the memories of all those corny B-movie premises that Carpenter once invested with real style and passion.
A month after Halloween was released in theaters, John Carpenter had another feature-length thriller ready for public consumption—one that he actually made earlier that same year. The script for Someone’s Watching Me! was written by Carpenter on assignment from Warner Bros., but was kicked down from the theatrical division to television, which gave Carpenter the chance to get behind the camera for the first time since Assault On Precinct 13. Shot in just 10 days, Someone’s Watching Me! is ruthlessly efficient, following kooky career woman Lauren Hutton as she moves into a high-tech high-rise apartment, then discovers that there’s a maniac spying on her, crank-calling her, and messing with the computer controls in her building. Hutton’s an appealing character, who talks to herself and makes dry jokes, often with her lesbian pal Adrienne Barbeau as a foil, and Carpenter wrings maximum suspense out of the situation and the space. In one jarring sequence, the camera pivots slowly around Hutton as she calls the police to report a possible intruder, and right as the shot angles so that we can see the room behind Hutton, we see a dark shape zoom across the back of the frame. That’s classic Carpenter, using the camera to move us inevitably towards what we most fear.
Carpenter started shooting Halloween two weeks after wrapping Someone’s Watching Me!, utilizing some of the tips for shooting fast and cheap that he picked up while working in television. Then, almost as soon as Halloween was finished, Carpenter was back on a TV movie set, shooting the three-hour miniseries Elvis. The subject matter may not be of a piece with Carpenter’ work, but the style certainly is. The film has an autumnal glow, and Carpenter moves the camera gracefully around recording studios and concert stages, catching the way the restless energy and preening cool of Elvis Presley infects everyone in his immediate vicinity. And perhaps just as significant in terms of Carpenter’s career, the person playing Elvis was Kurt Russell, who’d go on to become his trusted friend and collaborator.
Carpenter is only credited as the co-producer and co-writer (with partner Debra Hill) on 1981’s Halloween II, though he reportedly came back to helm the reshoots, adding more gore to director Rick Rosenthal’s fairly flat cat-and-mouse movie. The story picks up immediately after the events of the first film, transferring much of the action to a hospital where Jamie Lee Curtis’ character has been taken for observation. Donald Pleasence, who played Michael Myers’ anxious, superstitious doctor in Halloween, returns to continue the search for the missing killer. The overall feel of Halloween II is more straightforward and less spooky than the original, and the expansion of the Myers mythology adds unneeded explanations for all the mayhem. But really, it’s not a bad little slasher; at the least, Halloween II looks better and is better-acted than 90 percent of the Halloween knock-offs that were flooding theaters at the time.
After multiple box-office failures in the ’90s—topped off by the embarrassment of Ghosts Of Mars in 2001—Carpenter went into semi-retirement, then was enticed back to the director’s chair by his buddy Mick Garris, who created the anthology series Masters Of Horror for Showtime. Carpenter contributed two episodes to Masters: 2005’s “Cigarette Burns,” about a notorious film that causes its viewers to fly into a homicidal rage; and “Pro Life,” about a young woman whose family tries to prevent her from aborting the demon-baby she’s carrying. Both have clever premises—especially “Cigarette Burns,” which smartly considers the obsessions of hardcore cinephiles—but they come off as disappointingly listless, with too many hushed conversations and not enough visual flair. At 55 minutes each, these mini-films feel twice as long as Carpenter’s classics.
There are so many reasons to like Carpenter’s era-defining horror classic: The score, the evocative autumnal atmosphere of its Midwestern Everytown, the agonizingly suspenseful setpieces, the relief of its fake-outs and offhand wit. Yet the real key to Halloween’s effectiveness may be its conception of Michael Myers as pure, relentless, pitiless evil, a suburban boogeyman who cannot be contained and cannot be killed. He’s the stuff of nightmares.
2. The Thing
Critically panned at the time of its release—and a disappointment at the box office to boot—The Thing now seems like even more of a perfect distillation of what John Carpenter is about than Halloween. From the disparate cast of memorable characters to the mashing up of genres and the creeping paranoia, The Thing expresses both Carpenter’s worldview and his ideas about what makes cinema such a powerful art form. (All this, plus it has Kurt Russell.)
3. Assault On Precinct 13
The first John Carpenter film that really feels like a John Carpenter film, this homage to Howard Hawks Westerns suggests a path that Carpenter’s career might’ve taken if Halloween hadn’t become such a hit. Carpenter’s made many different kinds of movies over the course of his long career, but he hasn’t gotten to return often enough to terse tales of gun-toting heroes and villains.
4. They Live
The satire ain’t subtle—the rich are alien overlords, brainwashing us to consume!—but Carpenter’s vision of a squalid Los Angeles is noteworthy for its realism, which is rare for a sci-fi/action film. And for an illustration of how nothing ever changes, it’s hard to top Keith David’s disgusted line, “We gave the steel company a break when they needed it. Know what they gave themselves? Raises.” That’s in 1988, folks.
5. Big Trouble In Little China
Leave it to Carpenter, a master of genre mash-ups, to bring East and West together in a martial-arts extravaganza that combines the best of Kurt Russell’s faux-John Wayne braggadocio with the mysticism and wire-fu of Hong Kong action cinema. It’s the silliest movie of Carpenter’s career, and the most purely entertaining.