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Notebook Primer: John Carpenter

From horror to comedies to Westerns, an overview of the career of one of Hollywood's great genre filmmakers.
Dana Reinoos
The Notebook Primer introduces readers to some of the most important figures, films, genres, and movements in film history.
The Fog
I always try to partially copy movies and partially copy reality.
—John Carpenter to Gilles Boulanger, late 1990s
John Carpenter began his filmmaking career on the Oscar-winning crew of  1970’s Best Live-Action Short Subject, The Resurrection of Broncho Billy, and from there went on to revitalize the horror and sci-fi genres, particularly in his prolific and visionary films of the late 70s and early 80s. Those films—including Halloween (1978), The Thing (1982) and Escape from New York (1981)—are landmarks of American genre film, but Carpenter is first and foremost a master stylist who studied under Arthur Knight at USC, getting his cinematic education from lecturers like Orson Welles (“such a storyteller”) and his biggest influence, Howard Hawks (“you could see he was a tough guy”). As the man himself said in 2014, “I was always a child of Hollywood… I never lost my film school training and my love of old films.” Carpenter is one of the quintessential American filmmakers, whose work spans categories, each film tracing its lineage back to a classic genres—horror, Western, comedy—and populated with outcasts, vagabonds, and near-mythical heroes.
THE HORROR FILMS
In the Mouth of Madness
Carpenter is primarily known as a horror director, and for good reason; his third feature film, Halloween, changed horror film forever, creating the mainstream slasher genre and, inadvertently, the advent of the character-driven horror franchise. Michael Myers—or The Shape, as he’s credited in the film—is Carpenter’s first mythical hero, more idea than character, and more terrifying for it. Carpenter wrote the film with his producer Debra Hill in early 1978, shot the film in 20 days in May 1978, and finished the film—including composing the iconic score, as he would do to great effect in many of his films—in time for it to be in theaters by Halloween, of course. The whisper-thin plot allows Michael Myers to become what Carpenter described as a “force of nature,” bearing down with vengeance on the teens of boring, cookie-cutter Haddonville. Myers is more than a man, while less than human; psychiatrist Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance) describes what’s living behind Myers’ eyes as “purely and simply evil.” Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie, the archetypical Final Girl, is triumphant in the end, but it doesn’t feel good, and there’s no catharsis for Laurie or the audience, especially as The Shape is revealed to have disappeared in the first of Carpenter’s signature unceremonious ending—no feel-good coda here.
1981’s The Fog, based on another Carpenter-Hill script, is a horror comic-like tale about a mysterious fog that pours into Antonio Bay, a California town celebrating its 100th anniversary. Like any city in America, Antonio Bay has its secrets, and soon red-eyed ghost pirates are emerging from the fog to have their revenge on the original settlers’ ancestors. Carpenter’s least-favorite among his films, The Fog was mostly created in the editing room after a disastrous first cut, a frustrating, disappointing process that stayed with Carpenter throughout his career. But The Fog is effectively eerie, features Jamie Lee Curtis and her mother Janet Leigh on screen together for the first time, and has an evergreen message (much like the previous year’s The Shining): the past never stays buried.
Carpenter returned to the horror genre throughout his career: 1983’s Christine, an adaptation of the Stephen King novel, a nightmare of emasculation lit harshly by headlights and garage lamps with a creepy proto-incel performance by Keith Gordon; Carpenter’s 1995 remake Village of the Damned, a relatively big-budget affair that updated the original with a sinister new-age vibe; and Carpenter’s last film to date, 2010’s The Ward. Carpenter’s most overtly feminist film (as he has said, “I have been pretty apolitical all my life and yet I make political movies. It’s hard to explain”), The Ward is an unnerving piece of atmospheric horror, drawing on the familiar cinematic trope of the haunted mental asylum to draw out fears of female vulnerability and institutional trauma.
Carpenter’s monumental run of three apocalypse-themed films started in 1982 with his masterpiece, The Thing, based on the same novella as 1951’s The Thing from Another World (written and produced by his hero Howard Hawks). The Thing paired Carpenter and Kurt Russell for the third triumphant time in four years, this time with Russell playing MacReady, a helicopter pilot among scientists on an Antarctic research base. The base soon finds itself under siege from an alien lifeform with the ability to perfectly mimic other life, leading to some all-time great goopy creature effects from Rob Bottin, including the iconic “Dog-Thing,” an eight-legged, skinless, tentacled dog-like monstrosity. The Thing is one of Carpenter’s most pessimistic films; it ends with MacReady and the only other survivor, Childs (Keith David), near death and still unsure of the other’s humanity as they watch the base burn to the ground, the end of the world surely not far behind.
The other two films with similar themes—Prince of Darkness (1987) and In the Mouth of Madness (1994)—pick up the existential terror and spread it to the rest of the world. Prince of Darkness’s story concerns a vial of sentient liquid that turns out to contain Satan’s essence, and the priest (Donald Pleasance again) and physics scholars who team up to destroy it and save the world. Like in The Thing, scientific knowledge butts up against its limits when dealing with the Anti-God contained in a tube, the confines of human understanding putting humanity at risk. “Do you read Sutter Cane?” a zombie-like figure asks Trent (Sam Neill) about the best-selling horror novels at the center of In the Mouth of Madness before he swings an axe at Neill’s head. The film is at once a stomach-churning Lovecraftian horror about the nature of reality itself and a self-referential commentary on fiction, authorship, and audience expectations: has Sutter Cane created the violent chaos engulfing the world, or were his fans infected by his ideas? By the time the end of the world finally comes in the film’s last moments, Trent is in a movie theater, alone, straight-jacketed, laughing his head off watching his own story. We should all die so happily.
THE COMEDIES 
Starman
Believe it or not, John Carpenter is funny! He learned well from classical Hollywood from the start. While audiences were expecting a sci-fi thriller, co-writer Dan O’Bannon’s introduction to Carpenter’s debut film, 1974’s Dark Star, begs audiences to understand “This movie is a comedy.” They didn’t at the time, but it’s gained cult status since its release, and watching this goofball stoner riff on 2001: A Space Odyssey in the context of Carpenter’s filmography is enriching. The film rides the fine line between ridiculous and hilarious, unsettling and scary; an extended scene where a rogue alien chases Lt. Pinback (O’Bannon) through the space station and eventually forces him into a functioning elevator shaft would be terrifying… if the alien wasn’t made of a spray-painted beach ball with legs and O’Bannon wasn’t chasing it around with a broom. To his credit, O’Bannon recognized the story might work better if played straightforwardly, and rewrote it as Alien.
It would be years before Carpenter returned to the lighter side, and when he did, it was equally surprising. Starman (1984) is about a widow (Karen Allen, absolutely luminous) whose grief for her husband is so strong that she calls an alien being to her backyard. Answering the signal from the real-life Voyager 2, the alien takes on the shape of Jenny’s dead husband Scott (Jeff Bridges, an impressive physical performance). Two years after a similar plot in The Thing, audiences couldn’t be blamed for thinking the premise would be full of gore and carnage; instead, it’s a gently romantic, at times screwball comedy about recovering from loss. If Starman wanted to kill everyone to get his way, he could in a second, but he spends his time on Earth getting to know humankind, both good (Dutch apple pies) and bad (almost everything else). It’s an optimistic film from a pessimistic filmmaker, and a beautiful love letter to the American landscape (the Western vistas across which Jenny and Scott escape are striking).
Carpenter knew how to tap into the natural charisma of his frequent contributor Kurt Russell, and used that leading-man charm to fuel 1986’s Big Trouble in Little China and 1996’s Escape from L.A. Big Trouble stars Russell as Jack Burton, flipping his recalcitrant Snake Plissken character from Escape from New York into monologuing bombast as a truck driver who helps his friend Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) rescue his fiance. And speaking of Snake, he came back in Escape from L.A., the rare sequel that achieves a total 180 from its predecessor. Of course in California, Snake Plissken surfs his way out of trouble! A sly commentary on California hypocrisy, Escape from L.A. has a vocal champion in its director: Carpenter has said more than once that it’s a better movie than Escape from New York. 1992’s Memoirs of an Invisible Man is a mostly-forgotten (and not without reason) entry in Carpenter’s filmography, but is notable for both its status as a legendarily troubled production (so bad that Carpenter would later say “I really wanted to quit the business at the end of that movie”) and its first pairing of Carpenter with Sam Neill, who would go on to maniacial heights together in In the Mouth of Madness.
AN ASIDE: THE HAWKSIAN WOMAN IN PERIL
Assault on Precinct 13
The figure of the Hawksian woman looms large in the work of John Carpenter: as a formative figure in Carpenter’s young cinephilia, Hawks’ tough, take-no-shit heroines, portrayed by Katherine Hepburn and Barbara Stanwyck among others, must have stayed on his mind. Laurie Zimmer as resilient secretary Leigh in Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), who grabs a gun and defends her turf; Adrienne Barbeau as Maggie in Escape from New York, who loves two men but lets neither get in her way; Natasha Henstridge as commanding officer Melanie Ballard in Ghosts of Mars (2001), who must put up with transporting an interplanetary criminal while fighting off demon spirits and a drug habit. Carpenter’s films feature the Hawksian woman dropped into a nightmare. Sure, Laurie is the hero of Halloween, but Carpenter’s heart is with Nancy Kyes and P.J. Soles as Laurie’s fun-loving, boyfriend-obsessed friends Annie and Lynda. Accused of misogyny because the sexually active characters are the ones who are brutally murdered, Carpenter explains:
...A lot of the girls I went in high school with were just like that. They talked the same way and they were interested in the same things… the girls I was interested in were the ones who seemed happy and were in love with life.
There should be no surprise that the Hawskian woman in 1978 Haddonville is a site of violence: parents are nowhere to be seen, and neighbors keep their doors locked when Laurie screams for help. In Carpenter’s films, suburbia is one of many societal structures—along with the family, religion, politics, media, even science—that offer only nominal protections, especially when you step outside of their boundaries.
THE WESTERNS 
They Live
As Kendall R. Phillips notes in Dark Directions, “Carpenter’s films are filled with forbidden places and secluded locations, populated by drifters and outlaws and malevolent forces.” The Western is the genre that best describes these films, in which an unlikely hero—or heroes—must save the day because established law and order cannot. Assault on Precinct 13 was originally titled The Anderson Alamo, a title that vividly represents the film’s neo-Western plot: a group of police officers, office staff and convicts are trapped in an abandoned precinct building while a murderous gang attacks in revenge for a fallen member. Assault is notorious for the scene where a child (Kim Richards, recently of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills) is shot point-blank in the face by a gang member—a brutal, effective moment that illustrates just how little this gang cares for any life that gets in their way. However, Carpenter problematizes even this: the film begins with the gang completely ambushed by police, who kill a member, while the news the next day describes it as a “shootout.”
Escape from New York features Carpenter’s most iconic outlaw: Snake Plissken (according to Carpenter, it was actually “the name of a guy I heard about”), eye-patched super-felon played with restraint yet relish by Kurt Russell. Escape is a straightforward hero’s journey for a guy who isn’t your typical hero: the president (a slobbering, delightfully pathetic Donald Pleasance, who delivered almost all his best performances with Carpenter) has been kidnapped by prisoners in the open-air jail that is the island of Manhattan. If Snake can get the president out in 24 hours, he is free to go. And while Snake is no fan of authority, he knows a deal he can’t pass up. Snake spends his day journeying through the detritus of NYC, meeting Cabbie (Ernest Borgnine), The Brain (Harry Dean Stanton), and Maggie (Adrienne Barbeau), eventually facing off with The Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes) and saving the day. Of course, Snake can’t let a happy ending stand, and his final act of rebellion is one of the finest kiss-offs in film. The pounding synth score skillfully underlines the deadly action like the best spaghetti Westerns, Snake Plissken emerging from the film as much of a cinematic icon as Leone’s Man With No Name. Carpenter’s play with genre are visible on the screen as well. His visual trademark—dramatic, ultra wide shots like those in Escape that survey the ruins of Manhattan—is an interpretation of the breathtaking vistas of the American West in the movies of his childhood.
Two late Carpenter efforts, Vampires (1998) and Ghosts of Mars (2001) also transpose Western tropes to nightmarish settings—a vampire-infested Southwest and a colonized Mars, respectively. Ghosts of Mars is notable for its female cast, which includes Pam Grier and Clea Duvall alongside Henstridge’s conflicted captain, while Ice Cube plays Desolation Williams, another delightfully-named Carpenter iconoclast. But it’s They Live (1988) that epitomizes that old Western idea: the stranger who finds his way to a lawless town and takes on the bad guys. “Rowdy” Roddy Piper plays an unnamed drifter looking for work in Reagan’s Los Angeles. Nada, as he’s credited, finds his way to a communal homeless camp in an L.A. park, where people share resources and protect each other from the police, who eventually violently tear the camp down anyway, beating up a priest while they’re at it. Soon after, Nada becomes embroiled in a conspiracy where he sees the country’s elite for what they are: ghoulish aliens on Earth to brainwash the public into mindless consumption and obedience. They Live straddles all the genre lines: it’s funny (Piper’s extended fight scene with Keith David is lowbrow-fight-choreography-cum-physical-comedy par excellence), it’s horrifying, and one could imagine John Wayne from Rio Bravo sauntering onto the scene. Carpenter’s signatures are all here in one tight package: a mythic, unnamed hero, an alien invasion that only a few can see, instantly quotable lines, and a devastating ending that signals the end of humankind.
***
There’s even more to Carpenter’s career than his theatrical releases - he has directed TV movies, written screenplays including The Eyes of Laura Mars, collaborated with George A. Romero on Body Bags, produced films (including several Halloween sequels, though he never returned to direct the series), and has a recording and touring career with his son Cody. While contemporary film is sorely missing a stylist like Carpenter who understands the immense power of brevity and suggestion, the man seems happy to enjoy his directorial retirement: “​​I’m enormously lucky. I got to be John Carpenter. Hell man, there’s nothing wrong with that!”

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