Talking Halloween With John Carpenter, The Grandaddy of Horror
He's the genius behind all your favourite horror movies.
With Halloween, the hotly-anticipated follow-up to his seminal 1978 slasher flick, er, Halloween, hitting Australian cinemas on October 25, we take a deep dive into the life and career of one John Carpenter: master of horror, noodler of keyboards, and on track to be the most-remade director of all time.
To hear John Carpenter tell it, he’s a failure. As the veteran genre director has previously lamented, “In England, I’m a horror movie director. In Germany, I’m a filmmaker. In the US, I’m a bum.”
But while big money eluded him for much of his career, the horror auteur is straight-up revered these days. He’s one of the most influential genre filmmakers of all time. Kicking off with his debut feature, 1974’s sci-fi stoner comedy Dark Star, Carpenter tore through a 20 year run of creative successes, even if the box office receipts and contemporary reviews didn’t reflect that.
Looking back at the 13 flicks he made in the first two decades of his career, there’s not a dud among them, and a stunning number of stone-cold classics. Halloween, Escape From New York, The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China, and They Live are all masterpieces, with the latter drawing props from no less a light than Martin “America’s Greatest Living Director” Scorsese, who lauded it as “…one of the best films of a fine American director.”
It’s Halloween that stands (masked) head and shoulders above the rest, if we’re being honest. Starring a young Jamie Lee Curtis as babysitter Laurie Strode, who has battle unstoppable murder machine Michael Myers (Nick Castle, who went on to direct children’s films, trivia fans) on the titular spooktacular holiday, Halloween set the benchmark and the mould for slasher flicks going forward, spawning nine sequels and a remake.
According to Carpenter what makes Michael Myers, with his blank white mask and ever-sharp kitchen knife, such a fascinating villain is his universality.
“You can project anything you want to onto him,” he muses. “He’s kind of the original killing machine, and he’s kind of unkillable.”
The Master of Horror
As a director, Carpenter is a consummate craftsman, and he brings a serious eye to the business of brutal murder. It’s not how many babysitters you slice up, after all, but the way you slice ‘em up.
Carpenter studied film at the University of Southern California starting in 1969, and he studied the classics, naming old-school studio director Howard Hawkes (Rio Bravo, His Girl Friday, The Thing From Another World), among others, as a major influence
“Oh yeah, I’m from the old days,” he says. “They each have a unique style of storytelling. When I was in film school I began to study it and just see what the differences in style and in storytelling are, and it’s fascinating. I think everybody’s been influenced by the classic directors. Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawkes, John Ford — they influenced all of ‘em, especially in those days.”
The John Carpenter Stock Players
Professionalism isn’t just something Carpenter embodies, it’s something he admires in others, which is perhaps why the same actors keep cropping up in his movies.
Over the years he’s built up a small company of repeat performers, including Jamie Lee Curtis (Halloween, The Fog), Keith David (The Thing, They Live), George Buck Flower (Starman, Village of the Damned, and many more), and Peter Jason (They Live, In the Mouth of Madness) — all of them more than eager to sign on for whatever genre weirdness cooked up this time around.
His main man, though, is Kurt Russell, pretty much the Bobby De Niro to Carpenter’s Scorsese.
Starting with Elvis, a 1979 TV movie starring Russell as the King (yes, really), the two paired up for five films in total: Escape From New York (1981), The Thing (1982), Big Trouble in Little China (1986), and finishing up with 1996’s better-than-you-may-remember Escape From L.A.
“Well, it’s just that he’s my kind of actor,” Carpenter says of his leading man. “By that I mean Kurt was trained in the Disney days where you have to know your line and you have to know your character from the moment you get on set — there’s no fooling around. And he’s just such an enormous talent. And It’s fun — we’re friends. So what’s not to like?”
A DVD commentary by Carpenter and Russell is a thing of rare beauty, by the way.
One of Carpenter’s key signatures isn’t visual, though — it’s musical.
He wrote the score to almost all his films (The Thing is a rare exception — they got the great Ennio Morricone in for that), and he’s back in the saddle to score Halloween 2018 with his regular sidemen, son Cody Carpenter and godson Daniel Davies (son of The Kinks’ Ray Davies).
Carpenter’s synth-heavy, minimalist sound is not only instantly recognisable, but it’s also influenced a whole swathe of electro and synthwave artists, including Carpenter Brut (no shock there), Kavinsky, and Perturbator. It’s also led to a second career: while he hasn’t made a feature since 2010’s The Ward, he’s released three albums and is touring regularly, playing film themes and new compositions.
“It just sort of happened by accident,” he explains “A great happy accident. I get to have a second act! They say American don’t have second acts in their lives, but I have one! I got to make albums, and I got to tour with my kids — I mean, it’s sensational!”
He’s not likely to be down our way any time soon, though. “It’s such a long plane flight down there. You gotta do something about that plane flight – you gotta make it shorter. I don’t know how, though.”
Everyone You Love Loves John Carpenter
While Carpenter studied the classics, modern genre filmmakers study John Carpenter.
Not only are his flourishes evident in the works of directors like Robert Rodriguez (Desperado, Sin City, the upcoming Alita: Battle Angel) and Adam Wyngard (You’re Next, The Guest), a whole heap of his movies have been or are in the process of being sequelised, prequelised, or remade.
The new Halloween from David Gordon Green and Danny McBride is only the latest in a long-running franchise. The thing got a prequel, also called The Thing, in 2011. Assault on Precinct 13 was remade in 2005 with Ethan Hawke and Laurence Fishburne. At the moment, a remake of Escape From New York (to be directed by Robert Rodriguez) and a sorta-sequel to Big Trouble in Little China (to star Dwayne Johnson) are in the works, and the assured success of the new Halloween all but guarantees a follow up.
For his part, Carpenter remains philosophical. “Well, I have two reactions. One is, if it’s my original idea then they have to pay me, and I like that. The other one is if the studio owns it then they don’t have to pay me, so I don’t like that so much.”
Travis Johnson is the angry guy in the cinema who glares at you in the cinema when you take out your phone. He writes about movies everywhere, and tweets at @CelluloidWhisky.