Icon Of The Month: John Carpenter

That’s right, this month the amazing John Carpenter is my icon of the month. The man is best known for giving the Horror genre Michael Myers, but there is so much more he has done.

Carpenter was born in Carthage, New York in 1948. The son of Milton Jean and Howard Ralph Carpenter, a music professor. He and his family moved to Bowling Green, Kentucky in 1953. He was captivated by movies from an early age, particularly the westerns of Howard Hawks and John Ford, as well as 1950s low budget horror films, such as “The Thing from Another World” and high budget science fiction like “Forbidden Planet”.


Carpenter began filming horror shorts on 8 mm film even before entering high school. He attended Western Kentucky University where his father chaired the music department, then transferred to the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts in 1968, but later dropped out to make his first feature, “Dark Star”.

“Dark Star” was a science fiction black comedy that he cowrote with Dan O’Bannon (who later went on to write “Alien”, borrowing freely from much of “Dark Star”). The film reportedly cost only $60,000 and was difficult to make as both Carpenter and O’Bannon completed the film by multitasking, with Carpenter doing the musical score as well as the writing, producing and directing, while O’Bannon acted in the film and did the special effects (which caught the attention of George Lucas who hired him to do work on the special effects for Star Wars). Carpenter’s efforts did not go unnoticed as much of Hollywood marveled at his filmmaking abilities within the confines of a shoestring budget.


Carpenter’s next film was “Assault on Precinct 13” (1976), a low-budget thriller influenced by the films of Howard Hawks, particularly “Rio Bravo”. As with “Dark Star”, Carpenter was responsible for many aspects of the film’s creation. He not only wrote, directed and scored it, but also edited the film under the pseudonym “John T. Chance” (the name of John Wayne’s character in Rio Bravo). Carpenter has said that he considers “Assault on Precinct 13” to have been his first real film because it was the first movie that he shot on a schedule. The film was also significant because it marked the first time Carpenter worked with Debra Hill, who played prominently in the making of some of Carpenter’s most important films. Working within the limitations of a $100,000 budget, Carpenter assembled a main cast that consisted of experienced but relatively obscure actors. The two leads were Austin Stoker, who had appeared previously in science fiction, disaster and blaxploitation films, and Darwin Joston, who had worked primarily in television and had once been Carpenter’s next-door neighbor.

The film was originally released in the United States to mixed critical reviews and lackluster box-office earnings, but after it was screened at the 1977 London Film Festival, it became a critical and commercial success in Europe and is often credited with launching Carpenter’s career. The film subsequently received a critical reassessment in the United States, where it is now generally regarded as one of the best exploitation films of the 1970s. Carpenter carried on to both wrote and directed the Lauren Hutton thriller “Someone’s Watching Me!” (aka High Rise) in 1978. This TV movie is the tale of a single, working woman who, shortly after arriving in L.A., discovers that she is being stalked. Borrowing heavily from Alfred Hitchcock, Carpenter slowly builds the suspense and intrigue before the final confrontation.


Later in 1978 he made “Halloween”, which was a smash hit on release and helped give birth to the slasher film genre. Originally an idea suggested by producer Irwin Yablans (titled The Babysitter Murders), who envisioned a film about babysitters being menaced by a stalker, Carpenter took the idea and another suggestion from Yablans that it take place during Halloween and developed a story. Carpenter said of the basic concept: “Halloween night. It has never been the theme in a film. My idea was to do an old haunted house movie.” The film was written by Carpenter and Debra Hill with Carpenter admitting that the music, not the film, was inspired by both Dario Argento’s Suspiria and William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. Carpenter again worked with a relatively small budget, $320,000. The film grossed over $65 million initially, making it one of the most successful independent films of all time.

Carpenter relied upon taut suspense rather than the excessive gore that would define later slasher films in order to make the menacing nature of the main character, Michael Myers, more palpable. At times, Carpenter has described Halloween in terms that appeared to directly contradict the more thoughtful, nuanced approach to horror that he actually used, such as: “True crass exploitation. I decided to make a film I would love to have seen as a kid, full of cheap tricks like a haunted house at a fair where you walk down the corridor and things jump out at you.” The film has often been cited as an allegory on the virtue of sexual purity and the danger of casual sex, although Carpenter has explained that this was not his intent: “It has been suggested that I was making some kind of moral statement. Believe me, I’m not. In Halloween, I viewed the characters as simply normal teenagers.” Of the later slasher films that largely mimicked Carpenter’s work on Halloween, few have met with the same critical success. In addition to the film’s critical and commercial success, Carpenter’s self-composed “Halloween Theme” remains a recognizable film music theme to this day.

Carpenter followed up the success of Halloween with “The Fog” (1980), a ghostly revenge tale (co-written by Hill) inspired by horror comics such as Tales from the Crypt and the movie “The Crawling Eye”, a 1958 movie about monsters hiding in clouds. Completing “The Fog” was an unusually difficult process for Carpenter. After viewing a rough cut of the film, he was dissatisfied with the result. For the only time in his filmmaking career, he had to devise a way to salvage a nearly finished film that did not meet his standards. In order to make the movie more coherent and frightening, Carpenter shot additional footage that included a number of new scenes. Approximately one-third of the finished film is the newer footage.

Despite production problems and mostly negative critical reception, “The Fog” was another commercial success for Carpenter. The film was made on a budget of $1,000,000, but it grossed over $21,000,000 in the United States alone. Carpenter has said that “The Fog” is not his favorite film, although he considers it a “minor horror classic”. Carpenter immediately followed “The Fog” with the science-fiction adventure “Escape from New York” (1981), which quickly picked up large cult and mainstream audiences as well as critical acclaim.


His next film, “The Thing” (1982), is notable for its high production values, including innovative special effects by Rob Bottin, special visual effects by matte artist Albert Whitlock, a score by Ennio Morricone and a cast including rising star Kurt Russell and respected character actors such as Wilford Brimley, Richard Dysart, Charles Hallahan, Keith David, and Richard Masur. The Thing was made with a budget of $15,000,000, Carpenter’s largest up to that point, and distributed by Universal Pictures.

Carpenter’s film used the same source material as the 1951 Howard Hawks film, The Thing from Another World, Carpenter’s version is more faithful to the John W. Campbell, Jr. novella, Who Goes There?, upon which both films were based. Moreover, unlike the Hawks film, “The Thing” was part of what Carpenter later called his “Apocalypse Trilogy,” a trio of films (The Thing, In the Mouth of Madness, and Prince of Darkness) with bleak endings for the film’s characters, and being a graphic, sinister horror film, it did not appeal to audiences in the summer of 1982, especially when” E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial”, which would have illustrated a much more light-hearted picture of alien visitation, was released two weeks prior. In an interview, Carpenter stated that E.T.’s release could have been largely responsible for the film’s disappointment. As “The Thing” did not perform well on a commercial level, it was Carpenter’s first financial disappointment. Later, the movie found new life in the home video and cable markets, and it is now widely regarded as one of the best horror films ever made.


Shortly after completing post-production on “The Thing”, Universal offered him the chance to direct “Firestarter”, based on the novel by Stephen King. Carpenter hired Bill Lancaster to adapt the novel into a script, which was completed in mid-1982. Carpenter had ear-marked Burt Lancaster to star as “Rainbird” and 12-year-old Jennifer Connelly as “Charly” but when The Thing was a box-office disappointment, Universal replaced Carpenter with Mark L Lester. Ironically, Carpenter’s next film, “Christine”, was the 1983 adaptation of the Stephen King novel of the same name. The story revolves around a high-school nerd named Arnie Cunningham (Keith Gordon) who buys a junked 1958 Plymouth Fury which turns out to have supernatural powers. As Cunningham restores and rebuilds the car, he becomes unnaturally obsessed with it, with deadly consequences. Christine did respectable business upon its release and was received well by critics; however, Carpenter has been quoted as saying he directed the film because it was the only thing offered to him at the time.

One of the high points in Carpenter’s career came in 1984 with the release of “Starman”, a film that was critically praised but was only a moderate commercial success. Produced by Michael Douglas, the script was well received by Columbia Pictures, which chose it over the script for E.T. and prompted Steven Spielberg to go to Universal Pictures. Douglas chose Carpenter to be the director because of his reputation as an action director who could also convey strong emotion. “Starman” was favorably reviewed by the Los Angeles Times, New York Times and LA Weekly and described by Carpenter as a film he envisioned as a romantic comedy similar to” It Happened One Night” only with a space alien. The film received Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for Jeff Bridges’ portrayal of Starman and received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Musical Score for Jack Nitzsche.


After seeing footage of “Starman”, the executive producer of the “Superman” movie series, Ilya Salkind, offered Carpenter the chance to direct the latest Alexander–Ilya Salkind fantasy epic “Santa Claus: The Movie”. Salkind made the offer to Carpenter over lunch at The Ritz, and while he loved the idea of breaking from his normal traditions and directing a children’s fantasy movie, he requested 24 hours to think over the offer. The next day he had drawn up a list of requirements should he direct the movie; they were: 100 percent creative control, the right to take over scriptwriting duties, being able to co-compose the movie’s musical score, total editorial control, the casting of Brian Dennehey as Santa Claus and a $5 million signing-on fee (the same amount that the movie’s star Dudley Moore was receiving). Team Salkind were nonplussed by his demands and withdrew their offer for him to direct. Carpenter told Empire magazine ten years later that he wished he’d been less demanding and made the movie because he liked the idea so much and it would have changed critics’ views on his limitations as a director.

Following the box office failure of his big-budget action–comedy “Big Trouble in Little China” (1986), Carpenter struggled to get films financed. He returned to making lower budget films such as” Prince of Darkness” (1987), a film influenced by the BBC series “Quatermass”. Although some of the films from this time, such as “They Live” (1988) did pick up a considerable cult audience, he never again realized his mass-market potential. Carpenter was also offered “The Exorcist III” in 1989, and met with writer William Peter Blatty (who also authored the novel on which it was based, Legion) over the course of a week. However, the two film-makers clashed on the film’s climax and Carpenter passed on the project. Blatty directed the film himself a year later. Carpenter is quoted as saying that although they fought over the ending, they held a mutual respect for one another and talked endlessly about an interest they both shared: quantum physics.


In an interview with Empire, Carpenter stated that he was offered “Top Gun” and “Fatal Attraction”. He declined “Top Gun” because he did not like the dialogue and felt it was just a second unit directed film. With “Fatal Attraction” he disliked the script. His 1990s career is characterized by a number of notable misfires: “Memoirs of an Invisible Man” (1992), “Village of the Damned” (1995) and “Escape From L.A.” (1996) are examples of films that were critical and box office failures. Also notable from this decade are “In the Mouth of Madness” (1994), yet another Lovecraftian homage, which did not do well either at the box-office or with critics and “Vampires” (1998) starred James Woods as the leader of a band of vampire hunters in league with the Catholic Church.

2001 saw the release of “Ghosts of Mars”. 2005 saw remakes of “Assault on Precinct 13” and “The Fog”, the latter being produced by Carpenter himself, though in an interview he defined his involvement as, “I come in and say hello to everybody. Go home.” Carpenter returned to the director’s chair in 2005 for an episode of Showtime’s “Masters of Horror” series as one of the thirteen filmmakers involved in the first season. His episode, “Cigarette Burns”, aired to generally positive reviews, and positive reactions from Carpenter fans, many of whom regard it as on par with his earlier horror classics. He has since contributed another original episode for the show’s second season entitled “Pro-Life”, about a young girl who is raped and impregnated by a demon and wants to have an abortion, but whose efforts are halted by her religious fanatic, gun-toting father and her three brothers.

In February 2009, It was announced that Carpenter had planned for his newest project, called “The Ward”, starring Amber Heard. It was his first movie since 2001’s “Ghosts of Mars”, and it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 13, 2010. Carpenter narrated the video game F.E.A.R. 3. On 10 October 2010 Carpenter received the Lifetime Award from the Freak Show Horror Film Festival.

In 2011 at the Fright Night Film Festival Carpenter revealed that he is currently working on what he described as a “gothic western” movie and hopes to get it off the ground soon. He went on to say that he is unsure of the film’s fate as it is harder to sell westerns these days.


John Carpenter will always be loved by Horror fans, his name still holds high respect in the genre and we owe a-lot to him. He may have not been as critically successful recently but when asked about it he said: “Things haven’t been going great lately. For a while now people haven’t really been getting my movies. Certainly the box office hasn’t been up to speed. Sure, some of my recent stuff hasn’t been perfect, but neither has it been the shit that many have said. Critically, it’s all become a bit of a crapshoot. The critics thought I was a bum when I started out and they think I’m a bum now.”

At 64 it’s fair to say that Carpenters career maybe winding down but I personally feel he has atleast one last great Horror film in him. I hope so anyway.


I’d also like to point out that he’s also a HUGE draw on the Horror convention circuit and is also one of the most requested guests.

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