“When you’ve been in the movie business for as long as I have your priorities change. The reasons I got into it in the beginning were very pure. I was driven by a creative urge to be a part of Hollywood and to make my mark in the movies. As I’ve gone through it practically — in real life — I’ve realized that ambition is immature. Luck and the randomness of fate play such a big part in whether I’m a success or a failure. After a while, I told myself, “The only thing I can do is the best I can do.” That’s what being a professional is all about. It’s how I conduct myself. I try to live with dignity and honor. But I can’t ever depend on reaching my goals, because there’s too much that I can’t control in my way. I’ve learned that I either have to be happy with who I am — or not.”
John Carpenter has worked as an actor, composer, producer, and most importantly to legions of fans, as a director. Born John Howard Carpenter on June 16, 1948 in Carthage, New York, his family moved to Bowling Green, Kentucky, where his father was employed as the head of the music department at Western Kentucky University – a school Carpenter would later attend as a student before moving on to USC film school in Los Angeles.
Carpenter started out making short 8mm films with his father’s camera in 1962 when he was fourteen years of age, and a mere eight years later, in 1970, his work on the twenty-three minute short subject film “The Resurrection of Broncho Billy” won the Academy Award for Best Live-Action Short Subject. After that success, he went on to direct two low budget, but critically acclaimed films, “Assault on Precinct 13” and “Dark Star” before returning the horror genre to box office prominence with the iconic, thrilling, and commercial mega hit, the 1978 film, “Halloween,” but, more on that shortly.
His first borderline commercial movie, 1976’s “Assault on Precinct 13,” was actually an action film. The gritty movie takes place in Los Angeles. The story centers on a gang of heavily armed street thugs, who attack an undermanned police station. The film has often been called an homage to the 1959 Howard Hawk’s classic, “Rio Bravo,” which is one of Carpenter’s all time favorite movies.
Next, in 1978, Carpenter would forever cement his name in the annals of horror cinema history with “Halloween.” Made for a reported budget of three hundred thousand, the movie went on to earn approximately seventy-five million dollars during its initial theatrical run. The premise of a psychopath, who has escaped from a mental institution in which he has been imprisoned for fifteen years because he killed his older sister for no apparent reason, returning to his home town to continue his bloodlust is simple, but incredibly effective. A number of factors went into making the movie the success that it became. For starters, the casting of Jamie Lee Curtis (A Fish Called Wanda) was brilliant. She not only nails her role in terms of projecting vulnerability, but has the right look. She reminds you of the girl next door; a smart one at that, who you could picture being as resourceful as Curtis’s character is while she is protecting the children she is babysitting. It also represents a passing of the torch moment, considering her mother Janet Leigh played Marion Crane in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” The film contains one of the most captivating musical scores ever, voyeuristic tracking shots, the excellent use of the autumn setting, and the feeling that the movie could be taking place in any suburban town in America, in this blogger’s opinion, gives many viewers a sense of shared and scared kinship. In addition, there is the gripping suspense and, of course, the introduction to one of the most recognized faces, no pun intended, in all of horror, the silent predator Michael Myers; he is as evil as they come, and, when in pursuit of a victim, a relentless killing machine.
Furthermore, the movie can be credited in a large number of ways as being a cinematic blueprint for what elements are needed in a slasher film. The heroine is always a virgin female among an ensemble cast of teenagers, who systematically fall prey to the killer. She alone is normally the lone survivor; the only one who was able to match wits with the killer. The killers in movies of this genre usually don a mask, refrain from speaking, don’t carry a gun – chainsaws, knives, axes, and pitchforks are more these murderers’ weapons of choice, and, for unexplained reasons, some of them have super human strength. These slasher-type films usually open with a murder and never really come to a complete end. There is normally the possibility that the entity will live to kill another day, and as evidenced from the numerous sequels that a successful first outing of one of these films produces, they usually do.
Although Carpenter declined to direct it, he did write the screenplay for the sequel, “Halloween II,” which was released in 1981. He opted instead to write and direct the 1980 film, “The Fog,” an old-fashioned and atmospheric ghost story. It opens with a campfire story that is recited by John Houseman (Three Days of the Condor) who lends the perfect voice for the narration. As he spins the tale, we learn that the founders of a small coastal town, where the story takes place, intentionally led a vessel carrying a colony of lepers into rocks, which killed everyone on the ship. Now, the vengeful spirits have returned seeking payback. Carpenter’s wife, at the time, Adrienne Barbeau (Maude) stars in the film alongside Jamie Lee Curtis. As an aside, Carpenter was married to Barbeau between the years 1979 and 1984; they have one child together, a son, Cody. In 1990, he married his current wife Sandy King.
While rejected critically, and a box office disappointment when it came out, the 1982 film “The Thing,” has evolved over the years into not only one of Carpenter’s most popular movies, but also a movie that is viewed in a favorable critical light. Adapted from a science-fiction novella called “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell, “The Thing” is actually a loose remake of director Howard Hawk’s 1951 movie, “The Thing from Another World.” After the discovery of a frozen spaceship in Antarctica, the story concerns itself with an alien that has the ability to consume and imitate perfectly any animal or human it comes in contact with. In regard to its human victims, it retains not only the person’s behavioral traits, but also their memories.
The team of researchers, led by Kurt Russell’s character R.J. MacReady, has to rely on each other to find and destroy the alien. The team’s isolated location at National Science Institution Station 4 becomes a place where wide spread paranoia takes hold; that, combined with the claustrophobia caused by such close quarters, and the chilling fear of not knowing which one of the team members is the alien, makes for spot on horror. The implications that are raised in the movie affect not only the researchers, but their winning or losing the battle against the ever lurking parasite might just decide the fate of mankind. If the alien leaves Antarctica, it will be a matter of about 27,000 hours, according to computer calculations made by Wilford Brimley’s (The Firm) character of Dr. Blair, before the entire population of earth has been assimilated. In fact, the only way to tell whether someone has been infected or not is through a blood test. Like Carpenter’s character of Michael Myers in “Halloween,” the alien is seemingly an unstoppable killing machine, but with the aforementioned consequences of the killing spreading worldwide as opposed to being confined to one town.
Trivia buffs take note: Carpenter has composed and played the musical score for many of his movies’ soundtracks using digital instruments. In all of Carpenter’s work, his name appears before the movie or television show begins. Carpenter loves western movies and makes frequent references to classic westerns in his movies. For such a large body of work in the horror genre of film, Carpenter’s films are for the most part devoid of gore. Carpenter goes by the name of Rip Haight when appearing in his own movies. He turned down the chance to direct both “Top Gun” (1986) and “Fatal Attraction” (1987). The following is the reason he gave for why he turned down “Fatal Attraction”:
“There wasn’t a grain of originality in it – it was “Play Misty for Me (1971) with Michael Douglas filling in for Clint Eastwood. Also, the original version, the script I read, had Glenn Close winning in the end by killing herself and thereby getting the moral upper hand. I knew the audience was never going to buy that. The audience was always gonna want to see the wife shoot the bitch. Sure enough, they shot the original script, previewed it, got booed off screen and went back and shot the ending you see today. That was a journey I couldn’t be bothered to go on.”
The purpose of this blog was to provide an introduction to John Carpenter for those of you who are not familiar with the horror film icon, but certainly not any sort of complete picture of the man and his large body of work. In addition, I have only touched briefly on several of his films that I enjoy, any one of which I could have written an entire blog on. For those familiar with his movies, hopefully I have written something that you did not know and found informative or interesting.
I was supposed to post this particular blog yesterday, but thanks to a computer virus I was unable to do so. As an aside, if any of you out there receive a message that reads: ‘your computer is being locked by the F.B.I. and you need to pay $200 in order to have it unlocked,’ don’t do it…it is a scam. I didn’t pay these criminals the money they were looking for, but it took hours on the phone with tech support in order to get the virus removed.