“I’m not an intellectual filmmaker, so yeah, give me a bucket of blood and I’ll just dump it on you,” John Carpenter explains — and while that accurately describes the visceral thrills of his features, it doesn’t quite tell the full story behind his impact. The writer/director isn’t simply known by name, but also by the notes he has played. As well as dousing his movies in eye-catching imagery, he has spent his career dumping a wave of creepy sounds upon audiences.
From the first use of synthesizers on the score for his 1974 debut, Dark Star, Carpenter’s dark theme tunes have left as much of an imprint as his fondness for exploring dark tales on screen — established by his iconic breakthrough, Halloween, and cemented through the rest of his output, from The Fog and Christine to Big Trouble in Little China and In the Mouth of Madness. Indeed, his film scores have been just as integral in placing him at the forefront of not only the horror genre he’s most commonly associated with, but science fiction and action, too.
Carpenter is the subject of this week's VICE Guide To Film [Tuesday's late night on SBS VICELAND]:
The Carpenter essentials
He’s responsible for the best slasher film ever made in Halloween and the best slasher film score thanks to its immediately recognisable piano refrain, but how does a boy who grew up watching Westerns become one of the pioneers of modern horror and science fiction cinema? For Carpenter, it was as easy as following in his idol’s footsteps. An avid fan of Howard Hawks, his affection for the filmmaker saw him gravitate towards tales of strong heroes fighting back, such as Jamie Lee Curtis’s Laurie Strode, Escape from New York’s Snake Plissken and They Live’s sunglasses-wearing drifter.
Carpenter’s love of Hawks also saw him remake 1951’s The Thing From Another World, retracing his path in a literal sense. A paranoid thriller that sets the inhabitants of an Antarctic research station against a parasitic alien, The Thing wasn’t a huge success upon release, suffering from coming out too soon after Steven Spielberg’s cuter, cuddlier alien effort, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. A few instant hits aside, failing to ignite the box office would become as much of a pattern for Carpenter as his distinctive scores — but so would firmly igniting the hearts and minds of a legion of horror and sci-fi fans through his blend of movies and music. Whether the likes of Halloween was scaring up more than 200 times its budget and thrusting the director to fame or Big Trouble in Little China’s comedic action was suffering from the impending release of James Cameron’s Aliens, Carpenter’s works struck a chord with audiences looking for stylish, satisfying genre fare.
Indeed, across Carpenter’s nearly half a century in cinema, his career is littered with films any director would love to have to their name — the alien romance of Starman and the unhinged horror of Prince of Darkness included. There’s a reason many of his movies have spawned remakes and follow-ups, including the sparse tension of Assault on Precinct 13, the moody unease of The Fog and a new Jamie Lee Curtis-starring Halloween feature he’s executive producing. As a composer, in addition to providing the soundtrack to four decades’ worth of unsettling efforts, Carpenter has released three albums in the past three years, all trading on the trademark sound that has haunted his screen outings.
Three things you mightn’t know
- Carpenter’s first significant filmmaking credit came courtesy of the Oscar-winning short Western The Resurrection of Broncho Billy, which he edited, composed and co-wrote.
- His first collaboration with Kurt Russell came in 1979, directing his future star of Escape from New York, The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China and Escape from LA in the TV biopic Elvis.
- He’s currently a fan of the sci-fi first-person shooter video game Destiny 2, telling The Guardian he has “dedicated my life to learning how to play it”.
Five films you really need to see
Halloween: As well as changing the horror genre, Carpenter’s influential third feature ranked as the most financially successful independent movie ever made for two decades, until the release of The Blair Witch Project.
Escape from New York: The action film every '80s action film wanted to be, demonstrating Carpenter’s mastery of another genre and Kurt Russell’s star credentials.
The Thing: A survivalist thriller, a portrait of humanity’s engrained paranoia and an immersive alien horror flick, The Thing also offers proof that remakes can surpass their inspiration.
Prince of Darkness: Carpenter dives into the surreal, complete with masterful imagery, in this low-budget supernatural effort.
They Live: Featuring a memorable six-minute fight scene, making an actor out of wrestler Roddy Piper and influencing street art for decades, the prophetic perspective of They Live was ahead of its time upon release and remains all-too-relevant today.
Who’s sharing the Carpenter love?
Eli Roth: Taking inspiration from Carpenter’s work, the Hostel director describes his feature debut, Cabin Fever, as a remake of The Thing.
Jovanka Vuckovic: The writer and filmmaker helmed a segment of female-directed anthology effort XX, and is currently in preproduction on an adaptation of Clive Barker’s horror story Jacqueline Ess.
Rob Zombie: Given the musician-turned-director advises that Carpenter was the first filmmaker he was conscious of by name, it’s unsurprising Zombie would remake Halloween — and make a sequel.
Nika Danilova: Also known as Zola Jesus, Danilova contributed a track to the remix version of Carpenter’s 2015 album, Lost Themes.
Keith David: A feature of Carpenter’s films in the '80s, David starred in both The Thing and They Live.
What should I watch next?
Revisit the seminal horror movie The Thing, it airs on SBS VICELAND Wednesday 21 October at 8:30PM.