John Carpenter has produced an impressive body of work as a composer, director, producer, editor, and occasionally as a scriptwriter. He was a lifelong fan of science fiction novels, horror comic books, and classic westerns, he has managed to integrate thematic elements of all of these things into his work. Even though he’s experienced financial setbacks over the years, two generations of Hollywood and independent film makers have drawn inspiration from Carpenter’s work.
It was during his time at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, Carpenter debuted his theatrical release: Dark Star (1974). A black comedy interlaced with postmodernist science fiction, the movie features a team of astronauts on a special mission: to destroy unstable worlds to pave the way for space colonization. Unfortunately, nuclear Bomb # 20 (a large inflatable ball) develops a personality, and the astronauts have to convince it not to explode inside the ship. Produced on a meager $60,000, Carpenter and classmate Dan O’Bannon (who would go on to write the script for Alien ), the film became a local cult classic for its deadpan comedy and shrewd special effects.
In his first professional production post-film school, Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Carpenter dived headfirst into his signature elements: dark lighting, stylized bloody violence, and widescreen shooting. Originating as a Western, the film’s modest $100,000 budget forced Carpenter to accept a modern setting with minimal costuming. The script was written in eight days; the film shot in 20. Most importantly, Carpenter composed the musical score for Assault on Precinct 13, something he would later do for most of his independent films.
Then came Halloween (1978), and John Carpenter’s career would never be the same. It took the sort of template that had been set by Ed Gein inspired films like Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), and cemented the slasher film formula as it still exists today. Working with an unknown cast on a budget of $325,000, Carpenter based the movie on a simple premise: an insatiable serial killer stalks a teenage babysitter for his next victim. The 1978 exploitation movie featured steadicam and first-person filming, two trademarks of tap-on-the-shoulder suspense. Carpenter composed the soundtrack on his piano, even though he admitted, “I can’t read or write a note.”
In some ways, The Fog (1980) rode on the coattails of Halloween at the box-office. The film focuses on Antonio Bay, a small coastal community in California that is gearing up for its centennial celebration. Unfortunately for the denizens of Antonio Bay, there is a gang of leprous pirate ghosts looming in the titular fog, vengeful about having been sent to drown a hundred years ago by the town’s founders. Although it was well-attended in the theaters, the film was met with a lukewarm response from critics. A common criticism of the film was that the villains weren’t that believable or engaging, and some found the narrative confusing. Regardless, the film is still heralded as a cult classic by Carpenter’s fans, and the film is shown regularly at midnight screenings and on niche television networks (more details here).
When Carpenter released The Thing (1982), a science fiction horror film starring former Kurt Russell, he finally shook hands with disappointment. The movie, which chronicled the paranoia of Antarctic researchers infiltrated by a parasitic alien that assimilated and duplicated its victims, lingered at the box office for only three weeks. Due to its graphic violence and simple, linear plotline, critics shot it down, calling it a “wretched excess” of carnage and a “moron movie.” But history has been kinder to The Thing. Now a cult classic, the film is considered one of the scariest horror films from the 1980s, praised for its unrelenting tension and remarkable special effects.
For the next 10 years, Carpenter experimented again with independent filmmaking, releasing a handful of cult classics like Prince of Darkness (1987), They Live (1988), and In The Mouth of Madness (1994). In 2005, at the request of the first season of “Masters of Horror,” Carpenter submitted a 60-minute parade of shocking homicides: Cigarette Burns. Carpenter fans loved it. In 2010, Carpenter unveiled The Ward as his comeback feature, but his threadbare tropes of insanity, paranoia and gruesome murders fell flat with critics and moviegoers alike, leading movie buffs to wonder: Has Carpenter’s well gone dry? That remains to be seen. What is clear, however, is that Carpenter’s legacy continues to inspire contemporary filmmakers.