Digital Polyphony

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A Tribute to John Carpenter Pt. 1

Posted on October 29, 2013 at 4:35 PM

A Tribute to John Carpenter Pt 1

Every year, I try to do something a bit special for Halloween. In 2009, I did nothing but review horror movies for a month. 2010, I cut that down a bit but also threw in a couple of blogs. 2011 and 2012, I pretty much did a couple of blogs and some "Appreciation" articles on horror directors (James Whale in 2011, Terence Fischer in 2012). Back then I did a few of those Tributes, but then I hit Ingmar Bergman and probably bit off more than I could chew and didn't return to it (or finish it).

But this year, I'm at least going to do one for October and who better to do a Tribute on than my favorite horror-movie director. I had a lot in contention, George Romero probably the other one I was considering (and who knows…October isn't over with yet), but I figured why not just make this a little easier on myself and go with a personal favorite filmmaker.


I think for most people, especially if you're my age and grew up when there was only a handful of channels to watch, the movie that probably introduced you to Carpenter was Halloween. Because every Halloween was on television, and when cable hit it was often on more than one at the same time even. Usually AMC. Halloween is pretty much the It's a Wonderful Life of horror movies: everyone has seen it, everyone knows it, it plays a million times during the month and at the end the hero shoots the bad guy in the face.


Or something like that, I haven't seen It's a Wonderful Life in a long time.

Both are life-affirming in their own way, I suppose.

Even stranger, though, is it was my parents that kind of introduced me to it. They're from the generation that likely saw the thing in theaters in their 20s and remember vividly how it was unique and new. They also probably knew that it's pretty tame by comparison to other horror movies, especially the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street films that were still going strong at the time.

I wish I could recall exactly when I saw it, but I only know I remember the impression it made and that unforgettable music that I associated with the Halloween holiday ever since. The opening scene, all in first person, is probably my earliest memory of seeing any horror movie. I mean actually sitting down and watching it, not just clips of Frankenstein or some late-night 1950s giant-insect flick. I remember thinking "wow...the killer was a kid." Then I remember thinking "wait...I'm a kid...what exactly are my parents tyring to tell me by showing me this?" Other scenes I have a distinct memory of as well, such as Laurie Strode walking down the street alone and feeling eyes on her, or the bedsheet covering Michael Myers or the frightening simplistic "just looking out the window...uh oh" moment.

Years later, I would really find my own love of horror. Years later I would know who John Carpenter was. I think I'm better for it.

Two behind the scenes shots of Carpenter on set of the original Halloween. On the left he's showing Michael Myers (Tony Morgan) how to look over a banister and on the right showing him how to stab and look curiously at a dead body.


Assault on Moviemaking

Did you know Carpenter just happened to win an Oscar before he even shot a movie?

Yeah. He actually won one straight out of USC Film School called The Resurrection of Broncho Billy, a short about..

Wait, why tell you? It's a short, and it's free to see. Here you go:


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Before he dipped in to all-out horror, John Carpenter dabbled in action thrillers. After his student films at USC and the strange and bizarre Dark Star, a well-intended but probably too low-budget for its own good space movie and, going by a recent interview, he's none too fond of himself. Still, you can see that there was something at work there, even though it's kind of unclear exactly what. It's very much 1970s experimental filmmaking meets goofy science fiction. If you're a completionist, it's a must-watch to at least see the early workings of the guy that would eventually shape the genre film scene for the next couple of decades.

Here we have rare set photo from the film.

But what really got John Carpenter notice, well other than that Oscar obviously, was the film Assault on Precinct 13 in 1976. He did everything on this film, something Carpenter would be known for: writer, director, producer, editor and composer. What's interesting is that even when he was working with bigger budgets, he still often did all this himself. Assault on Precinct 13 is a lean action thriller that still holds up well today. Hell, even the remake kept a lot of the elements that made the original great, though it also added more than is necessary on other aspects. It's that fundamentally sound of a picture.


Assault is a raw, visceral thriller/action movie that exempllifies grindhouse cinema in the 1970s. With Carpenter's visual touch, though, it rises above its own material.

I adore Assault on Precinct 13, especially its underrated soundtrack. It's one of those movies that just gets straight to the point and doesn't BS. It's essentially a straightforward genre film that takes element of horror movies (good guys trapped in a building and being attacked) and moves along at a terrific pace to a satisfactory end. That's something that Carpenter just did well as a writer and director and it showed even more in his follow-up, Halloween: staying true to genre roots and just telling a good story is what makes a film last and become timeless.

Sure, he also wrote the Eyes of Laura Mars before Halloween, which was critically acclaimed and probably put him more in line to start doing movies he wanted to with its success, but nobody really considers it a "John Carpenter film." It's an Irvin Kershner movie. Halloween came at a perfect time because he not only showed he could do a film on his own (Assault on Precinct 13) but had a bit of credibility with a non B-movie flick (Eyes of Larua Mars which starred Faye Dunaway off of his spec script).

But then came his stardom with Halloween… well Hell what more is there to say? It set the standard for what all the slasher movie films were to be, even though Carpenter admits he was just as influenced by other films (notably Psycho) before launching in to it. The thing is, though, it's a great education piece on how to direct a thriller. At its heart, like Assault, it's a fundamentally sound film from beginning to end, which is the part that a lot of slasher movies in the late 70s and 80s, the height of the slasher genre, seemed to completely ignore. They just saw it as "guy, knife, teens, let's kill them" and call it day. But when you see it, the way Carpenter structures a scene and uses the camera to tell the story is why this film, made in 1978, still holds up extremely well.

A simple POV shot of a figure small in the frame, a cut away to a reaction of Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis), then back...only now he's gone. Simple, effective and as a result Halloween remains timeless thanks to its fundamentals. Carpenter does this numerous times in Halloween. Toying with what you see or don't see in place of the character is classic Carpenter but also fundamental cinematic storytelling.

But the most notable on top of all the solid filmmaking and high influence that I probably don't need to really go in to?

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Only the most recognizable horror-theme in history.

Ah, but not all was great, because he followed up Halloween with the pretty middling The Fog in 1980.

Oh wait, actually there's a bigger thing to be had before we reach the 80s. Technically, Carpenter's next film was a made for TV movie special about Elvis.

Yep, Elvis.

And do you know who played Elvis?



Yeah, we'll get to more Kurt Russel in just a bit.

So while it's not really your typical "John Carpenter" movie, it's an important entry because its here where he met Kurt Russell and Kurt Russell just happened to be in the best of John Carpenter movies. Plus, it was probably a bigger hit than Halloween, certainly more mainstream, leading to Emmy nominations, big ratings and gave Carpenter the credibility to show he can direct outside genre films, though he really never would again.


Not that it mattered, because right after that he went on to do The Fog which, as mentioned, is pretty mediocre. Those aren't my words, those are John Carpenter who noted that "It was terrible. I had a movie that didn't work, and I knew it in my heart."  He knew on the rough cut he had a bad movie and tried to salvage it, which is why there's various cuts of the film and he added in an opening scene (if you want the definitive cut, this was just released on DVD by Shout Factory). But the thing is, even a bad Carpenter movie is often still a pretty dang good movie (we'll get to Prince of Darkness in a bit), and there's so much creativity, enthusiasm and originality happening in The Fog, not to mention one awesome Tom Atkins, that it's hard to not at least enjoy it to some degree. It's about undead pirates. Eat your heart out Disney.


I can't say for certain if Carpenter learned any lessons on The Fog. It didn't matter too much because it still made money and got decent reviews, which pretty much set up Carpenter to own the 1980s genre scene and pretty much do whatever the hell he wanted. It may lack the sharpness of Halloween or the creative burst he would have in the coming decade, but it's far from a bad movie. 

On the left, Carpenter poses with the three lovely ladies from The Fog (no Tom Atkins, unfortuantly): Adrienee Barbeau, Jamie Lee Curtis and Janet Leigh, and on the right Carpenter sits down at a keyboard to compose one of his memorable film themes.

 Escape From the 70s

Escape From New York was the first feature collaboration with Carpenter and Kurt Russel after the Elivs television film and all for the better. Russell was kind of stuck in a rut with family films and Carpenter, already friends with him, decided he would cast him as lead despite him not being a "name" or having an "edge."


I know, right? Kurt Russell, at one point, wasn't considered "edgy" or "gritty" enough. Some people just don't understand it's all acting when it comes down to it. Most actors can play most roles, it's kind of their job.


And in this one, it was Kurt Russell's job to do one thing: be a bad ass. With his performance and Carpenters solid directing skill, and a pretty decent budget to play around with, we ended up with one of the quintessential flicks of the 1980s. It made a nice bit of money, growing about 25 million which is pretty damn good considering it only cost about one million to make, received good reviews and even managed to get one unknown James Cameron his first big-movie gig, here as a matte painter and effects artist.


It's amazing to go back and see how many big stars are actually in the movie. Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, Donald Pleasance, the ever-reliable character actor Harry Dean Stanton and one gorgeous Adrienne Barbeau, who Carpenter cast in The Fog previously.


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Like Halloween, this one is all about the music. Again done by Carpenter himself.


Escape From New York is a time-capsule of a movie. It says more about the time it was made in than trying to predict the future: violence and gangs were on the rise, poverty high, Vietnam was still in the social conciousness, New York written-off by a lot of people by that time as just a cesspool. In a way, it's a commentary more than anything. No better example of this than the scene where Lee Van Cleef's character, Haulk, takes Snake Plisskin in to his office and Snake, after being told the "deal" answers with "I don't give a fuck about your war... or your president."

For an early 80s genre picture, with a limited budget but with a ton of talented people on board, Escape From New York had a good amount of positive feedback coming its way, not to mention being a hit at the summer Box Office and influencing many writers and filmmakers for the decade to come - something that Carpenter's work does a lot.

A young James Cameron paints a matte painting of New York on the left, and on the right Carpenter goes over a scene with Lee Van Cleef.

After this one, and some hullaballoo regarding Halloween II which he wanted nothing to do with, Carpenter went on to make what is arguably the best horror movie of the 1980s: The Thing.


I find the history of The Thing even as interesting and entertaining as the film itself. Firstly, it was a remake, and if you ever doubt remakes then just look at The Thing and how to do it right. Secondly, Carpenter seemed to foreshadow his own career by putting the original playing on a television in his own Halloween, as far as I can tell a complete coincidence. Thirdly, the script was written by Burt Lancaster's son, Bill. I just find that interesting.


Fourthly, it was shot in British Columbia in sub-freezing conditions and when not shooting there they were shooting for months on sound stages that were also refrigerated to be sub-freezing conditions. Today, all that coldness, shaking and chilled-breathes would be done with computers.

The cast, including Kurt Russell and Keith David whom Carpenter will both work with again in the future, shot a nice chunk on location, pretty much any of the exterior daylight stuff. Here they are in the snow.


The Thing is a testament to practicality and in-camera effects. From the atmosphere generated by those cold sets and location to the genius animatronic and puppetry effects, it has not aged a day since it came out in 1982. That's something I feel Carpenter films do better than most: age extremely well. It all goes back to the sensible and solid cinematic language that Carpenter gives the audience.


The saddest thing about The Thing, and this is something people seem to forget, is that it bombed. It bombed hard. It was out against ET The Extra Terrestrial, the biggest film of the 1980s arguably and well in to its dominating run at the top of the Box Office, and just didn't have a chance. It also opened against Blade Runner and was battling Poltergeist for the horror tickets so that didn't help. 1982 was a good year for genre films, wasn't it?

"Home video played a powerful force in my career, bringing back some of my old movies to be appreciated by a new audience." - John Carpenter


The Thing's success came later. After not doing well critically or commercially, the years went on and more and more people began to see and appreciate it. The atmosphere. The sense of paranoia and not knowing who to trust played on basic human fears and it manipulates you in a way few films can. The more people later came to watch it, the more they came to appreciate it and that seems to be the case with a lot of Carpenter's work.

The 1980s were huge for horror and I'd say that as the years went on, home video became a presence in households, that The Thing was rediscovered and beloved in the same way people later came to love other 80s horror classics like Evil Dead and An American Werewolf in London which were far more acclaimed and financially successful in the early 80s.

On the left, one of many outrageous practical effects for The Thing, effects done by Rob Bottin (sans one animatronic dog by Stan Winston) who also did makeup on The Fog. On the right, Bottin and Carpenter stand in front of an in-the-making effect.


Oh, and of course….the music is still as much a character as anything. This time, though, it was composed by the legendary Ennio Morricone, though it has a distinct Carpenter touch at times. A funny fact, it's pretty loved now, but it was nominated for a Razzie back when released, showing that nobody really knows anything.

But The Thing's popularity grew and grew, right alongside Carpenter's own fame. Much of the appreciation of him, like The Thing, came later as more people re-watched films and started to take more notice of the man's work, especially when it came to more cult-favorites such as They Live, the commonly overlooked Starman or In the Mouth of Madness. Better late than never.

As the decade went on, Carpenter dabbled in a few more things that seemed to be in his wheelhouse but push him as an auteur. In the next years he will do an adaptation, a sci-fi romance movie and the craziest action flick he'd muster.


And you can read that in Part Two Here.



He'll be waiting...

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