John Carpenter is a legend—and he’s exactly the sort likely to scoff when you tell him that fact to his face. (In his role as a co-composer on David Gordon Green’s continuations of his beloved Halloween, Carpenter is apt to refer to himself and his collaborators as “carpet men,” brought in to install a background element, rather than claiming any more obvious creative role.) A long-time outsider from the Hollywood system, Carpenter is well-known for an irascible, self-deprecating wit and a natural blunt honesty—both of which were on fine display in our recent conversation with him about scoring Green’s upcoming Halloween Ends.
Our conversation naturally drifted, though, to one of Carpenter’s other big passions: Video games, discussions of which often make up a healthy chunk of the director’s online conversations in recent years. And so it went here, as Carpenter readily dove in to talking about all his favorite games in 2022, what game franchise he’d adapt for the screen if he had his way, and what he thinks about Metal Gear creator Hideo Kojima—whose signature creation, Solid Snake, bears a slight resemblance to Carpenter’s own reptilian-named cinematic badass, Snake Plissken, from Escape From New York.
The A.V. Club: When you watch someone else’s Halloween movie to score it, is it hard to stay in composer mode?
John Carpenter: Well, occasionally I’ll have an opinion. Sometimes I’ll share it with David, and sometimes I’ll just shut up. I’m a composer now. I’m supposed to make him happy. Forget me.
AVC: Is that hard to do?
JC: Hell no. Hell no!
AVC: With the soundtrack itself, how do you balance giving people those familiar Halloween sounds alongside doing something new?
JC: Well, it depends. Everything just comes out of the story and the characters. So if we have a new character, like we do with Halloween Ends, we developed a theme for them. And we utilize that, but sometimes we use the old stuff. All of this is a matter of judgment and instinct. That’s all it’s about. I know that’s not very sexy to say, but judgment and instinct is the whole deal.
AVC: Do you like the movie?
JC: Yes, I do. It’s a very, very interesting movie.
AVC: Shifting gears slightly: Are you familiar with the phrase “elevated horror?”
JC: I don’t know what that means. I mean, I can guess what it means, but I don’t really know.
JC: I have no idea what you’re talking about.
AVC: Fair enough!
JC: But I hear you, I hear you. There’s metaphorical horror. But all movies have … they don’t have messages. They have themes. Thematic material, and some horror films have thematic material. The good ones do.
AVC: What’s the balance that needs to be struck there, between the themes, and just scaring the shit out of people?
JC: When a scary scene comes along, we should be scary. It all depends on what we’re looking at on the screen. That balance is done by the director. [Referring to himself and his composing team] We’re just carpet. We’re just carpet men here. Your hardwood floors need a carpet? We provide it.
AVC: Do you keep up with new horror films at this point?
JC: Some of them. Not all of them, but some of them I do, sure.
JC: Yeah, I really liked that movie. That was really interesting. And it covered some new ground, which I’m always pleased about.
AVC: One of the reasons that I wanted to talk to you is because you talk a lot about video games online, and I’m the games editor for the site—
JC: Oh, what a good man you are!
AVC: Thank you! First of all: What have you been playing lately?
JC: Oh, I got hooked on this Fallout 76 game. Been hooked for a good long time on it. You know, I know it had bugs coming out, and a lot of it was put down, but I thought it was great. It’s really fun to play. And I keep up with Borderlands and Horizon: Forbidden West. I love that game. Fantastic. What a design! Mind-blowing.
AVC: It seems like you’re drawn to games that are more open-world kind of exploration games. What about those games appeals to you?
JC: Well, it’s fun. Your freedom to roam around and do it your way. And that’s what I love about Fallout. There is a template to follow, there are missions, but you can do it differently. And they keep coming up with new missions every once in a while, and new ideas. It’s good. It’s really interesting. But I have time for a Crash Bandicoot and Ratchet And Clank, and stuff like that, too.
AVC: Did you play the new Ratchet And Clank? The PlayStation 5 one?
JC: I did. I loved it.
AVC: Have you tried Elden Ring?
JC: No. It sounds like a role-playing game. Is that what it is?
AVC: It’s from the people who did Dark Souls. It’s roleplaying action. But kind of open-world, also.
JC: Do you recommend it?
AVC: Yeah! It’s on the more difficult side. But if you like going through a big, interesting-looking countryside, it’s pretty great.
JC: Maybe I’ll try that.
AVC: Have you ever considered writing a soundtrack for a game?
JC: If somebody asked me, I sure would. But no one’s asked!
AVC: Maybe we can change that. Plenty of your albums would work great with games.
JC: Well, thank you. I would love it. It would be fun, huh? Fun for me.
AVC: The only game that’s ever been licensed from your work is The Thing from 2002, right?
JC: Oh, yeah. That’s fabulous. *chuckles* I like that game.
AVC: Are you familiar with the name Hideo Kojima?
AVC: Have you met him? He has a character named Solid Snake…
JC: I do know about Solid Snake. I know about that. No, he wrote me. I think he wrote me in lieu of the company paying me any money whatsoever.
JC: He just said, “Hey, how you doing?” But I know who he is, sure.
AVC: Have you played those games?
JC: Oh, no. My son did. I looked at them, but I didn’t play them.
AVC: You’ve talked a lot about the Assassin’s Creed games online. Do you have a favorite from that series?
JC: I did like Valhalla, that was pretty damn good. I like the early ones a lot, where you had to climb up the towers and synchronize. I love that. And there was Assassin’s Creed: Origins, I wasn’t as fond of that game, because it just … It seemed repetitive. Anyway, I don’t know. I don’t want to criticize.
AVC: Are you playing these games for the story mostly? Or is it about the play for you?
JC: It’s all about the gameplay. It’s all about that. Nothing else matters. I mean, I’ll play a badly designed, but great, game.
AVC: What falls under that? Badly designed, but great?
JC: I can’t tell you one right off hand. But old games are generally not as well designed as the newer ones. They’re not as smooth. The graphics are not as good and sophisticated. But still, they’re fun to play sometimes, you know?
AVC: You started playing games with Sonic The Hedgehog. Are there any other old games you revisit very often?
JC: Sure. Jak And Daxter. You recall that game? I love that game. Well, the first one especially.
AVC: It’s interesting, because that studio has gone on to do The Last Of Us games. Have you played those?
JC: I have. I got stuck on The Last Of Us 2. I couldn’t get the generator started. Got frustrated.
AVC: Fair enough.
JC: Well, it isn’t fair! I wanted to keep going! But they didn’t let me.
AVC: Do you have any interest in ever adapting a game? The Last Of Us TV show is in the works right now ...
JC: The Last Of Us TV show?
AVC: Yeah, HBO is making it.
JC: Are you kidding me? That’s unbelievable. Unbelievable.
AVC: It’s Craig Mazin, who did Chernobyl.
JC: Oh, wow. Chernobyl was great.
AVC: Have you ever thought about adapting a game?
JC: The only one I can think of, and I’ve mentioned it before, is Dead Space. That would make a real great movie. I could do that.
AVC: Do you have a favorite out of that series?
JC: Well, any of them were really good. I even like the last one, the action one that nobody else liked.
AVC: Do you get scared while playing games?
JC: Well, I don’t like things jumping out at me and threatening my character, no! Don’t threaten my character, I want to survive. A lot of games, they penalize you for dying. It’s one of the things I like about Fallout, they don’t penalize you. You die over and over again on a hard mission. I like that.
AVC: That’s a multiplayer game, too. Do you interact with people at all on that one?
JC: I don’t. I don’t want to be shamed by some young punk. You know, that’s what’s going to happen, they’re going to shame me. They’re all better than I am. I’m just trying to get by. I’m not that good.
AVC: How many hours would you say you’ve logged with Fallout 76?
JC: I don’t know. It’s sick. Whatever it is, is really sick. I’m addicted to it. It’s too many hours, okay? That’s what it is.
AVC: How does gaming fit into your regular routine?
JC: It’s a big part of my life. I enjoy it. It’s a lot more fun than directing movies. That’s hard work. That’s stressful. This is relaxing. I’ll play any time I can.
AVC: Do you have anything you wish was different in modern games, anything you’d like to see changed?
JC: Oh, hell no. Keep going. Keep making great ones. That’s what I say, because they’re all good. I don’t have any criticism of them. I don’t want them to do something they’re not doing. What they’re doing is very good. I started in 1992, Sonic The Hedgehog. Trying to figure out how the fuck to play that game. Oh, god. It was tough for me. I mean, nobody else, I’m sure.
AVC: Those are rougher games than people maybe remember.
JC: Oh, god, horrifyingly bad. Tough. The early games, you know, they were merciless. They make them easier sometimes, now.
AVC: Do you get a sense of accomplishment when you finish a hard mission in a game?
JC: Yes! Oh, yeah. I feel proud of myself. And celebrate by, I don’t know, smoking a joint.