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The blog of author Dennis Cooper

John Carpenter Day *

* Halloween countdown post #5

 

‘In the beginning, I was willing to accept the conventional wisdom about John Carpenter being a master of horror. That began to change several years ago when I picked up a copy of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West on DVD and was surprised to find that Carpenter had recorded an audio commentary for the disc. It was strange that an American director known for his gory, critically-panned slasher films was providing a commentary for an Italian-made Western that many critics consider one of the best films ever made, right? A few months later, I got another surprise when I found another John Carpenter audio commentary, this time on Rio Bravo, a 1959 John Wayne Western directed by Howard Hawks. It was then that I began to look at Carpenter’s overall body of work in a different light.

‘In film, much like music, great artists are often put into a box or category. While this has no ill effect on those artists who are happy to stick with one genre throughout their whole career, for others it becomes little more than an artistic prison sentence, especially for those whose most famous work had little to do with their overall career arc. Any serious horror fan knows the name John Carpenter. He’s often mentioned on the short list of the best directors in the history of that genre. In some respects, it makes perfect sense. He did, after all, write and direct Halloween, one of the most influential films in the genre’s history, and several other classic horror films. On that hand, it makes perfect since to list Mr. Carpenter alongside folks like Roger Corman, George A. Romero, Tobe Hooper, Wes Craven and others who have taken the genre to new heights both artistically and commercially. On the other hand, though, he simply doesn’t fit in with those guys, as his overall body of work clearly shows.

‘With the downfall of the Hollywood code in the late ’60s, directors were free to let realism run rampant. Thus Westerns, and later action films, were allowed to show as much violence and sexuality as the subject matter called for. It was in this universe of gritty realism that John Carpenter began working on Assault on Precinct 13. Like many other low-budget action movies of that era, it’s good name has been tarnished by a big-budget remake, but the original stands as one of the best films that ’70s action had to offer. While it fits perfectly alongside the films mentioned in the previous paragraph, it also serves as something of a forerunner to The Warriors and others that would take the action genre in a new direction in the ’80s.

‘The movie should have established Carpenter as a promising action director in the tradition of Siegel and Peckinpah, but it didn’t. Critics ignored it for the most part and audiences stayed away. But that didn’t stop Carpenter from starting work on his next film, which would become his most famous and most influential. Halloween spawned an army of imitators and became one of the most commercially successful independent films of all time, but the big question is this: is it really a horror film? I would argue that it is closer to J. Lee Thompson’s Cape Fear, Clint Eastwood’s Play Misty for Me, and any number of Hitchcock thrillers than it is to anything Wes Craven or George Romero ever directed.

‘So is John Carpenter really a horror director? Halloween was certainly influential on the genre and there’s no denying that The Fog, The Thing, and They Live are horror classics. But if you look at the big picture, you will find that Carpenter has undoubtedly been at his worst when trying to make a conventional scary movie. Take Vampires and Village of the Damned for instance, or, more importantly, Christine, which was based on a Stephen King novel and may be the single worst book-to-screen translation I have ever seen. Horror is where John Carpenter made his name, it’s the category he’s been placed in, and it’s what the fans expect from him. But I believe that his heart truly lies not in the traditional horror genre, but in the gritty action films of four decades ago. When you get to the heart of them, that is what all of his best movies have been. Regardless of their horror undertones or overtones, the execution has always been more Don Siegel than it has George Romero.

‘I’ve often heard horror fans (a group I proudly claim membership in) lament that John Carpenter simply doesn’t have it anymore. If that is indeed the case, we are the ones to blame because, as a community, we have never truly understood his work. Personally, I think that Carpenter still has a lot of gas left in the tank if he’d only use it. Or if the studios and fans would let him. He could undoubtedly show Hollywood how to make a great action film without the use of computers. He could probably make one hell of a Western and possibly revive that genre. Maybe he would even make a good old-fashioned scary movie. But if the latter is the only option that the fans and the studios give him, then we are not only limiting him but also depriving ourselves of seeing the full potential of a true American genius.’ — Adam Sheets

 

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Stills









































































 

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Media


Sound of Fear: John Carpenter talks with Simon Reynolds


John Carpenter Masters of Horror

 

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Further

The Official John Carpenter SiteJohn Carpenter @ Twitter
John Carpenter @ IMDbJohn Carpenter @ Senses of Cinema
John Carpenter @ mubi
‘Master Carpenter’
John Carpenter’s John Carpenter
The John Carpenter Appreciation Society
‘He Said, She Said: John Carpenter’ @ Exploring Feminisisms
Fuck Year John CarpenterJohn Carpenter Mixtape
’36 Things We Learned from John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’
Book ‘The Cinema of John Carpenter’
‘Photographing John Carpenter Campaign @ Kickstarter
John Carpenter @ The A.V. Club

 

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Composer

‘If John Carpenter’s legendary status as a film director is indisputable, he has in recent years become cited as a major inspiration as a composer, with the current synth and noise underground, from Wolf Eyes alumni Nate Young (notably in Demons) and Mike Connelly to the likes of Hive Mind, Sun Araw and Oneohtrix Point Never, often referring to his scores in their own sonic explorations. Dark atmospheres, haunted effects and subtle drone textures have long been a staple of Carpenter’s musical oeuvre, and the magpie-like tendency of many modern synth wielders, in particular, was always bound to turn to him as they looked to create their own sonic landscapes.’ — The Quietus

 

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Interview
from RA The Rugged Man

 

What did you think of the wave of the ’80s slasher films that came after the success of Halloween?

A lot of them just picked a date like, Friday the 13th, Valentine’s Day, to keep with the spirit of Halloween. It was a way to make money. That’s what it’s all about here in beautiful Hollywood.

Is Michael Myers a virgin?

Is he a virgin?

I mean, all he does is kill. Did he ever get laid?

I don’t think he was able to. He was fucked up, I think he got confused between fucking and killing.

What if he’s really just a repressed homosexual on a rampage?

I never thought about that. I just think he’s crazy. But what do I know, maybe he is.

Your illest scene is in Assault on Precinct 13 when they shoot the 8 year old girl.

That was pretty tough. You know, you can’t kill kids. I don’t know what I was thinking.

It’s great. She tells the ice cream man she wants Vanilla Swirl and she gets blasted.

That’s right. She goes back and gets nailed. We rigged her ice cream cone to blow out blood on her. She was scared at first, but everybody loves getting killed in movies. She had fun.

The movie Christine has the best dialogue, like the fat guy saying “Shut your piehole.” And the old man calling everyone, “Shitter.”

That was Stephen King for you- that really strange kind’a ’50s bee-bop dialogue. I’m not a big fan of the novel, but we did okay.

I heard they fired you from directing Firestarter after The Thing failed at the box office.

You got it. Back then The Thing was hated, especially by the science fiction and horror fans. They thought I pissed on a classic. So they built me up- you know they build everyone up and they tear them down. Thats the American way.

Rowdy Roddy Piper is the man. What was it like making They Live?

Roddy’s a close friend. I didnt want a Hollywood hero with ’80s hair like, Rambo or Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon. They Live was my fuck you to Ronald Reagan and everybody in the ’80s loving that old wrinkled piece of shit. He fucked up everything.

What are some of your favorite horror movies that really scared you?

In the ’50s, The Fly, when the wife pulls the hood off her husband and he has the head of a fly. I was 10 and that scared the shit out of me. House of Dracula, The Exorcist, Polanski’s Repulsion all have good scares. Documentaries really scare me. Real life is awful compared to horror movies.

 

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14 of John Carpenter’s 28 films

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Dark Star (1974)
Dark Star launched Carpenter’s career and became a touchstone for those who like their science fiction dystopian, subversive and funny. But it left behind it some broken hearts and broken friendships. It caused a fatal breach in the great friendship of Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon, the movie’s co-author, designer, producer, fixer and actor — he played Sgt Pinback. Dark Star was the funky, satirical twist on epic, visionary sci-fi, a film which absorbed Kubrick’s Strangelove as much as 2001. Carpenter and O’Bannon wanted the future to look scuzzy, boring and shitty. Their spacemen had the low-morale job of journeying through the cosmos, blowing up “unstable planets”. They were truck drivers in space. It chimed perfectly with the alienated mood of Nixon’s America in the early 70s, and the superb sequence in which the talking bombs have to be persuaded not to cause Armageddon was a brilliant satirical commentary on the proliferation of weaponry, supposedly under political and democratic control, but building its own unstoppable momentum, making ultimate use harder and harder to stop.’ — The Guardian


Trailer


Excerpt

 

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Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
‘John Carpenter’s neo-Western Assault on Precinct 13 (loosely based on Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo) is as formally compact and rigorously efficient as anything the genre filmmaker ever made. The story of a police station that, the night before its closing, is besieged by a mysterious gang known as Street Thunder, Carpenter’s early career triumph – his second film, following 1974’s Dark Star – is at once a grittily exhilarating action film and an intelligent, thinly coded allegory for 1970s racial tensions. From a discussion about coffee between just-transferred black cop Bishop (Austin Stoker) and ballsy white officer Julie (Nancy Keyes), to Bishop’s uneasy partnership with sardonic Caucasian criminal Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston), Carpenter posits a station under attack from both heavily armed assailants and shifting racial and gender attitudes. Not that such heady stuff interferes with the director’s combat-heavy set pieces, which feature their share of illogicalities – such as the gang members’ mindless attempts to infiltrate the station via broken windows, making them easy targets for Bishop and company’s bullets – but nonetheless exhibit an economical toughness epitomized by the infamous, delirious early scene involving gun-toting Street Thunder members, a little girl, and an ice cream truck.’ — Lessons of Darkness


Trailer


Excerpt

 

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Halloween (1978)
‘For how all other horror movies would be made, Halloween was a masterpiece of American cinema that was copied over and over again. Little did John Carpenter and Debra Hill know back in 1977 while making this movie, they were making the benchmark for all horror movies to come. Director’s like Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper would go on record as saying that Halloween was the standard that they tried to live up to. Even if your not a fan of horror movies, you will be mesmerized by young Carpenters cinematic genius. Carpenter made a true horror movie out of Halloween with virtually no blood and guts in these movies. Carpenter gave us a feel of the horror movies of the 50’s and 60’s where you got a good scare without a monster pulling off someone’s face in plain view. Among the best in horror!’ — thefleshfarm


the entire film


The ‘Halloween’ locations

 

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The Fog (1980)
The Fog was my fourth feature film (sixth if you count Someone’s Watching Me and Elvis, two made-for television movies) and was meant to be an homage of sorts to H.P. Lovecraft, M.R. James and other writers of great ghost tales and the supernatural. I shot The Fog in April and May and then took a ten day vacation to Tahiti. When I returned, I rushed into the editing rooms at Samuel Goldwyn Studios to consult with Tommy Lee Wallace as to how the picture was cutting together. It was a disaster. Quite simply, the picture didn’t work. Numb with a horrifying loss of objectivity, I finished the editing and went to work on a musical score that I hoped would somehow save the picture. We dubbed The Fog in September, and finally watched the finished product. The movie I had made was clunky, clumsy and awful. The music was heavy-handed and obvious. I wanted to pack up and leave town. This was the lowest point I had come to in my professional career. With a mighty Herculean effort, Debra Hill, Tommy lee Wallace and myself re-wrote, re-cut, re-shot and re-scored the picture. In one month.’ — John Carpenter


Trailer


Excerpt

 

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Escape from New York (1981)
‘Cyberpunk pioneer William Gibson credits the film as an influence on his novel Neuromancer. “I was intrigued by the exchange in one of the opening scenes where the Warden says to Snake ‘You flew the Gullfire over Leningrad, didn’t you?’ It turns out to be just a throwaway line, but for a moment it worked like the best SF where a casual reference can imply a lot.” Popular videogame director Hideo Kojima has referred to the movie frequently as an influence on his work, in particular the Metal Gear series. The character Solid Snake is strongly based on Snake Plissken. In Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty Snake actually uses the alias “Pliskin” to hide his real identity during the game. J.J. Abrams, producer of the 2008 film Cloverfield, mentioned that a scene in his film, which shows the head of the Statue of Liberty crashing into a New York street, was inspired by the poster for Escape from New York. Empire magazine ranked Snake Plissken #71 in their “The 100 Greatest Movie Characters” poll.’ — collaged


Trailer


Deleted scene

 

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The Thing (1982)
The Thing belongs to an unofficial trilogy in Carpenter’s head known as “The Apocalypse Trilogy.” (The other two films being Prince of Darkness and In the Mouth of Madness.) They all bare the markings of one of his biggest influences: author H.P. Lovecraft. “The Thing” especially plays with many of the same themes of the influential writer. The horror is cosmic in nature and unexplainable to human biology. And it’s not just the group of characters in the movie that are victims; all of humanity is at risk, and not for any overtly sinister motivations. Humanity is at risk simply because it’s weak enough to get in the way of a cold and uncaring universe. The Thing is not a villain; it is simply a predator of horrific, unimaginable proportions, and we are it’s prey. Removing all emotional understandings of “good” and “evil” from the threat, and raising it to the more abstract “survive or die” philosophy is not a comfortable talking point for popcorn audiences (which is probably why producers prefer to keep us distracted with campy trash about naked babysitters).’ — collaged


Trailer


Excerpt


The Making Of The Thing

 

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Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)
‘”I made everybody who put up money for [Halloween III] unhappy and that’s, of course, never very pleasant. I have no idea, my friend, I have no idea. I couldn’t figure it out when it happened to me on THE THING. I was befuddled. “Why do they hate this movie (Halloween 3) so much? Why do the fans hate it?” Fans. I could understand some of the critics. I got that, but why do the fans think I just raped Madonna; the Madonna off the cross. Why do they think I just defiled a classic? I didn’t get it and I still don’t understand it. Maybe it was because, very simply, I had had a success with HALLOWEEN, I was a young whippersnapper, and I had a success with THE FOG and ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and it was my time to be brought back down to earth. “Who do you think you are?” That’s my thought. That’s the only thing I can figure out.”‘ — John Carpenter


Trailer


Excerpt

 

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Christine (1983)
‘In its opening weekend Christine brought in $3,408,904 landing at #4. The film dropped 39.6% in its second weekend, grossing $2,058,517 slipping from fourth to eighth place. In its third weekend, it grossed $1,851,909 dropping to #9. The film remained at #9 its fourth weekend, grossing $2,736,782. In its fifth weekend, it returned to #8, grossing $2,015,922. Bringing in $1,316,835 it its sixth weekend, the film dropped out of the box office top ten to twelfth place. In its seventh and final weekend, the film brought in $819,972 landing at #14, bringing the total gross for Christine to $21,017,849.’ — Box Office Mojo


Trailer


Excerpt


Excerpt

 

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They Live (1988)
‘In many circles, They Live is perhaps best known as the crowning achievement in the acting career of professional wrestling legend “Rowdy” Roddy Piper. Frankly, this nugget of trivia doesn’t do the film justice. This isn’t the kind of dunderheaded fluff that has distinguished the careers of Hulk Hogan and The Rock (I’ve much love for Rocky III and Welcome To The Jungle, though). In Carpenter’s assured hands the story of Nada (Piper) and Frank’s (Keith David) fight against a hidden alien race becomes an allegorical tale that reflects the director’s opinion on the state of America in 1988. A declining economy, Reagan-era greed and the “keeping up with the Joneses” consumerist mentality are all targeted as Nada (through a snazzy pair of special sunglasses) discovers that the upper classes are actually aliens disguised as humans who are controlling society through subliminal messaging on their controlled TV network. Even at 22 years old, the message is still prescient. The aliens disguise their true identities and the meaning of billboard ads using TV signals. Seen through the aforementioned sunglasses, Nada can see their real grotesque visage and the billboards’ actual message: “Obey, Consume”.’ — denofgeek.com


Trailer


Excerpt

 

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In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
In the Mouth of Madness is the last great John Carpenter film and the final installment in his unofficial ‘Apocalypse Trilogy’ (beginning with The Thing and followed by Prince of Darkness). It’s a thinking person’s horror picture that dares to be as cerebral as it is visceral. Madness’ portrait of art’s ability to manifest itself in the hearts and minds of its consumers is never quite lucid or well-paced enough to truly chill. That task, however, is ably taken up by Carpenter’s imagery of the impossible, from a nocturnal run-in with a boy (or is it an elderly man?) on a bicycle that’s defined by its ill-fitting elements, to a hotel lobby painting that mutates in dreadful ways. Even as his story devolves into a muddle, his acutely unsettling widescreen compositions thrillingly pinpoint the terror of the bizarrely incongruous.’ — collaged


Trailer


Excerpt


John Carpenter discusses ‘ItMoM’

 

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Village of the Damned (1995)
‘There are many aspects of this particular Carpenter film that just don’t seem to work as well as they should; and these problems all stem from one particular creative decision: the apparent necessity of transplanting the events of the drama from an isolated, homogeneous English village in the 1960s to modern, diverse America in the 1990s. In other words, many of the problems exist at a script level; or at the level of intention. Village of the Damned fails because of the relentless accumulation of little things. By itself, not one of these issues is enough to scuttle the film. But taken in combination, the film seems slap-dash; careless. Writing in Magill’s Cinema Annual of 1996, Kirby Tepper noted that while Village of the Damned was well-intentioned, something was missing. He called the film “a bit shallow,” and noted that the “lack of depth in the film can be seen in its campy dialogue and its discrepancies.”‘ — John Kenneth Muir


Trailer


Excerpt

 

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Vampires (1998)
‘”I’ve always wanted to do a vampire movie,” states John Carpenter, director of John Carpenter’s Vampires. “This book, Vampire$, came along and it really did some things I’d never seen before. It’s set in the American Southwest and has certain western elements to it. I decided this would be the perfect chance to do something different.” Part of the theme is the dualistic irony of the good guys and the bad guys. It has all the classic ideas that you’ve seen in a vampire movie — the humans versus the vampires, the hidden sexuality, the idea of drinking blood. All that’s at work in this film, but in essence, I’ve always loved westerns and one of the reasons I’m doing this movie is that this is the closest I’ve come to being able to do a western.”‘ — Official John Carpenter Site


Trailer


Excerpt


Excerpt

 

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Ghosts of Mars (2001)
‘John Carpenter’s “Ghosts of Mars” is a brawny space opera, transplanting the conventions of Western, cop and martial arts films to the Red Planet. As waves of zombified killers attack the heroes, actions scenes become shooting galleries, and darned if in the year 2176 they aren’t still hurling sticks of dynamite from moving trains. All basic stuff, and yet Carpenter brings pacing and style to it, and Natasha Henstridge provides a cool-headed center.’ — Roger Ebert


Excerpt


Excerpt

 

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The Ward (2010)
‘John Carpenter’s current reputation as a spent force is undeserved, even if he’s not made much recently that knocked anyone’s socks off. This one is more a step in the right direction than a fully fledged return to form. Amber Heard plays a young amnesiac in a psychiatric institution trying to figure out why a ghostly apparition/zombie thing is brutally killing her fellow patients. Unfortunately, the audience is way ahead of her – we’ve seen this many times before. The denouement is visible from a distance; a shame if you recall how expertly Carpenter unleashed the powerful climaxes of The Thing et al. Still, it’s a well-made film, with some finely crafted shocks and a steady pace that almost seems stately in these days of fast-cut horror.’ — The Guardian


Trailer


Excerpt

 

 

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p.s. Hey. I’m away until Monday. Give it up for John Carpenter.

2 Comments

  1. Ah, I was just wondering if we’ll see this one revived! I love Carpenter’s work. Of the later films, I’m a big fan of Cigarette Burns, one of his two “Masters of Horror” entries. It’s probably my favorite after The Thing.

    I’m so excited Bosun is out! I’ll be checking my mailbox obsessively all week. My friend who borrowed my copies of Mountainhead and Stupid Baby will be excited too; I should probably get them returned before offering him the new book, haha.

    Hope the Germany trip is going well. I had a relatively mellow weekend, naps, repotting plants, saw “I am not a witch” (not bad). And grumbling about the new Tim Mohr book on East Berlin punks in the 80s.

    Bill

  2. One of my favourites.

    Of his later work ‘Vampires’ is my favourite.

    James Woods in peak-James Woods kicking ass and killing vampires with some Baldwin I never knew existed.

    Take care DC.

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