John Carpenter: A Discourse


Kent Conrad: The Thing (1982)

John Carpenter wants to be Howard Hawks.

Let me unpack that. Looking for strategies, motifs, and repeated tendencies is the norm when trying to talk about a director in the auteur sense, but that’s window dressing. It’s boring. Since it tries to be objective, it may be intellectually safe – but who the hell wants to be objective? It’s clear that Howard Hawks looms over J.C. more than any other director. He is to Carpenter as Hitchcock is to Brian De Palma, but I think J.C. was quicker to find his style from under the influence.

The obvious stuff first: John remade 1.5 Howard Hawks movies – Rio Bravo as Assault On Precinct 13, and The Thing (which is credited to Christian Nyby, although Hawks was responsible for most of the film). Hawks loved professionals. His best movies (His Girl Friday, Red River, and Only Angels Have Wings) are about men and women (who are also men) doing their jobs. They are men who come together to do their jobs, binding themselves into a cohesive unit where individual achievement betters the group.

Carpenter also likes to use professionals as the subject of his films, people who engage in whatever they do because it is their job or assignment. (The irony is that the worst Carpenter films are the ones that appear to be HIS assignments – bill-payers like Memoirs Of An Invisible Man and Village Of The Damned.) In the course of the film or back-story it may have been personal, but the initial impetus of action is professional. This goes for Dr. Loomis (Halloween), John Trent (In The Mouth Of Madness), Snake Plissken (Escape From New York), and, most importantly, everyone in The Thing.

The Thing might be Carpenter’s best movie – it is certainly the most gory and grotesque. Critically, it was reviled (for mistaken reasons, I think). Ebert said it was the sort of movie you dare your friends to watch; Pauline Kael said it falls apart after the opening scene (the dog chase). The usual complaints are that it is too gross and no real characters exist. I’ll refrain from my own complaint that critics’ imaginations are limited largely to matters sexual, and that they find French people and their sex lives inherently more interesting than The Thing‘s premise: an alien life-form is found frozen in the ice that’s 100,000 years old, and when the ice melts the thing is still alive.

The alien changes its shape to try and mimic other species it comes into contact with – and in one of the most graphic, disgusting, and incredible special effects sequences ever conceived, we see it do just that. Of course, I mean the dog pen sequence, a perfect example of WHY The Thing has to be gross, or the movie is without a point. This is a biological entity rearranging itself, draining all the fluids it has created to pretend it’s one dog, and assimilating other dogs around it. Like all biological processes, this is gross, full of fluids and dripping ruptures. Like the nudity in Hiroshima Mon Amour and the shower scene in Psycho, the dog being torn apart from within is absolutely integral to the integrity of the scene and the material. David Cronenberg said that his films are graphic and gross because, while an audience can imagine with very little prompting what it looks like when somebody is stabbed or shot, James Woods growing a vagina in his stomach isn’t something that belongs in the collective unconscious. It cannot be suggested; it must be seen.

The assimilative activities of the Thing are much the same. To object to the gore is like saying “This story should not be told,” since it could not be told any other way and maintain its integrity. More than any other Carpenter film, The Thing is about biological rebellion – the body rebelling against itself. To do this with shadows and smoke would be to not do it at all.

But this has nothing to do with Howard Hawks; what does is the problem of characterization. On the surface, this complaint feels strange to me, because it would imply that there is a remedy of greater characterization – going one step further, in that the motivation of actions was insufficient or the degree of sympathy created in the audience was lacking. This makes me believe that critics are not going to watch The Thing on its own terms, or take the characters on their own terms: as professionals. These men are brought together not from friendship or mutual interest, but because it is their job. It is to the movie’s credit that it does not aim for the cheap emotionalism you might find in a war movie, another situation where men are thrown together for professional reasons.

Dynamic or deep these characters are not. What interactions they have are subtle – see the way they look at each other once the Thing is discovered, the barely disguised distrust that starts to boil over. Is this the situation for any of these individuals to “open up” in, when the man next to you could be an alien replicon from beyond the moon? What the critics are saying is: “I would like to watch a different movie.”

Anyway, the important thing here is the professionalism of Howard Hawks, which is inverted (as it is in many of Carpenter’s films). Rather than a group coming together to fight adversity, they are torn apart by distrust – the thin connection of professional interest can’t overcome personal anxiety. A similar thing happens in Halloween with Dr. Loomis, whose job is to cure the mad and keep one confined. Or Snake Plissken, who “wins” by not doing his job right, by undermining his task and under-performing. John Carpenter clearly likes the tough-minded machismo and the professional acuity celebrated in Hawks’ films. But he makes it his own by at once romanticizing his characters and giving them feet of clay. His movies, by and large, are about men who aren’t good at their jobs – and when they are, they are worse off.

That’s an idiosyncratic look at an entire body of film, so I’m going to stop gabbing and ask some questions. I’d like to know, Jack, if you think all of this is hogwash, or if there is a stronger theme running through the mass of Carpenter’s work?

And, to go even further a-field, what does he really contribute to the horror genre that we haven’t seen before, or that no one else does now – or when his best work was being done? And hey, if you’re up to it, where the hell does Starman fit in?

Jack Cormack: The Thing (1982) * Halloween (1978) * Christine (1983) * Starman (1984) * Dark Star (1974)

John Carpenter is a simple director. That is why he is revered, and why some people write him off. His films don’t apologize for themselves, and they don’t fall back on weak-ass metaphor. They are what they are, and that is enough.

Looking at the man’s career, you see a shift from the concise to the explicit. The Thing, though, is not just a gross-out. It is arguably the benchmark of modern horror cinema. The special effects are nauseating but they do not undermine the film. Rather, they grow out of the story, one that is shaded by subtlety and a palpable sense of dread.

Not everything is spelt out. Playing on the theme of seen-and-unseen, the film stokes atmosphere long before the “Thing” starts spewing. When the dog roams the hall, there is a character there, and you realize that the FX add a dimension of feeling, not a substitute for the assumed lack of imagination.

Carpenter is a pro. To say The Thing is reviled only shows he is misunderstood. What with the care and personal authorship his films have, and the non-imposing sense of humor (movie in-jokes, for example), he is quite cinematic. And, by sticking close to the trends in horror that he helped pioneer, he runs the risk of being tagged with the crap that rips him off.

To most critics who are basic reactionaries (i.e., pea-brained pontificators), the fact that horror is a genre of emotion, not intellect, marks Carpenter as something less than a director. In their eyes, genre limits the occurrence of art — it is “rote.” They fail to see its canvas as a launching pad for the muse. Thus a surfeit of special-FX horror films clouds the issue, and the greatness, of The Thing. Like The Exorcist and Alien before it, the movie plays on the universal fear of icky stuff — jellied mess. It projects the ultimate fear of (non-)conformity; how this fear prompts humans to punish each other in ways that are horribly violent. In short, The Thing is more than a gob of goo. Special FX do not a good movie make, but critics were off to dismiss Carpenter’s film, anyway.

The gore for The Thing is so disgusting that it one-upped the teen-slasher phenom Carpenter made: Halloween. Yet that film was The Thing in disguise — it was always going to lead to it. The Thing is a tricky synthesis, but Carpenter did it, mixing the bloodless style of terror in Halloween with the graphic kind given to the Halloween takeoffs (e.g., Prom Night, Terror Train, and Friday The 13th). For better or worse, Carpenter did not turn back. He hasn’t made a great film since.


When a film shakes us, bugging our deepest fears and desires, some of us cannot be made to defend it. We feel violated; we weren’t ready. From about 1976-1982, John Carpenter was ingenious. His paucity of budget and time forced him to find new ways to get viewers on the edge of their seats. If The Thing was a peak, ingredients came out of films he had made previous, Halloween in particular. It’s a stunning movie, and scary as heck.

Halloween is great because it is simple. Made in twenty days for $300K, the movie has one purpose: to scare. Compared to the spawn of imitators, it works because it is committed to the economy of craft. Carpenter had drive and imagination; the rip-offs don’t. Trying in vain to repeat the success of Halloween, they show a lack of respect for (and knowledge of) fear. Over-dependence on the Halloween patent is a disregard for genre, and for film in general.

Because it seems as if everything is on the surface, the film may appear one-dimensional when in fact it is streamlined. It visualizes the mental. Just as Carpenter’s work is a bunch of riffs on the same theme(s), Halloween is a round of jolts. The sequencing is the trick. Certain parts may drag, but only because they don’t have the shock of the new. The movie is short, but it takes time to build suspense.

Part of why the movie works is due to the mundane setting (Haddonfield, a suburb), and the brevity of character (it verges on the archetypal, but avoids cliche as it captures the way teenagers interact). Also, the movie is set mostly at night. That, and the fact that Haddonfield is semi-deserted, makes you feel enclosed and isolated — along with Laurie the babysitter (Jamie Lee Curtis). (Every kid in America knows what a babysitter is.) We also see and hear The Thing (1951) and Forbidden Planet on TV. In small degrees, this makes what we’re watching — Halloween — seem more real and less like a movie.

We like Laurie because she wants to be good. She’s not completely noble, but she doesn’t want to get in trouble. She’s awkward and busty, goofy but shy. The way Curtis plays her, Laurie is afraid of her sex.

When Michael Myers attacks, it is the most destructive rage, but machine-like. He doesn’t talk — he just breathes. He might be “The Shape” of Laurie’s dark side run amok, but it’s hard to make out who he is — what he signifies, why he does what he does. He is scary, though. He’s scary because he defies reason. Nonstop and bigger-than-life, Michael is an outsized child. Stylish turns of the death toll hang on that disconnect between strength and mental imbalance. Why does this man, this impenetrable force of evil, go after Laurie, a protector of children? Did the grown-ups in his life do something to him, something bad?

Other Halloween films provide motive. (Pathetically, Halloween Resurrection wants to update the formula with the look and feel of The Blair Witch Project, which [if any film did] made the former obsolete.) Carpenter explains nothing. In Halloween scams like Friday The 13th and Valentine, the killer’s mask is a gimmick. For Michael, the mask and the knife are more than just random props. They tie him to the past; they convey a sense of guilt; they depersonalize him. KC said it best: “Look at the scene where Laurie tears the mask off. Instead of trying to kill her, Michael takes the time to put it back on. He’s frightening because he has purposely become an animal. He doesn’t just kill; he has destroyed the thing in himself that has the potential to be human.”

The real villain of the film is evil — or, to be more precise, the Panaglide. With the score’s aid, the cam stalks, surprises, and kills the people onscreen. (J.C.’s camera is close — strategically close. It’s almost unbearably tight. In Christine, a whole character [the car] is defined by mise en scene.) It forces identification; it makes you complicit. That is the coup of Carpenter’s technique. Directors like Bava, Hitchcock, Powell, and Argento (let us not forget De Palma) play with POV, but Carpenter brought the voyeurism and the subjectivity to the fore. He made it the lynchpin of the movie. Some people thought he was too kinetic in the way he set out to shock, too single-minded. But he got the effect he wanted, and that’s all that matters.

Remember: in terms of Carpenter’s career, Halloween has precedent. Most J.C. films depict a siege by tangible ghosts. Starman deals with a young widow who has been kidnapped by an alien, one that has taken on the image and likeness of her dead husband. (The sweet-Jesus liberalism is goopy and smooth.) Dark Star is equally hippie, but the stoner antidote to Starman. It shows a crew of astronauts besieged with boredom, one made manifest by the deep space they plumb. (Carpenter called it “one big optical Waiting For Godot.”)

Both The Fog and Assault On Precinct 13 carry the trend. Later, I’ll explain how each one is an old-fashioned B-movie in modern dress, and why John Carpenter should be hailed for the genre “mixer.”

So my question to you, KC, is: how does Carpenter’s Thing compare with the Howard Hawks version? Do you agree with the things I’ve said? Is Snake Plisskin an inversion of Clint Eastwood the way Jack Burton is an inversion of John Wayne?

Also, where do Carpenter’s soundtracks fit into all of this? Obviously, he’s a good musician, but do they hit at a certain (I don’t know) world-view? Are they just the quirk of an “auteur,” the way he likes to put Kurt Russell in a lot of his films? Why are they so effective?

KC: Halloween (1978) * Big Trouble In Little China (1986) * the Escape movies (1981, 1996) * The Thing (1982) * They Live (1988) * Prince Of Darkness (1987) * In The Mouth Of Madness (1995) * Vampires (1998) * Village Of The Damned (1995)

Most critics have no idea why they like something, or what they like about it. They say John Carpenter is a “director of special effects movies,” a director of visuals at the expense of other elements (as if there WERE other elements to film). But Jack and I look at character: the psychological void of Michael Myers, the ennui of the Dark Star astronauts, the loss of professional respect for the scientists and military men in The Thing. J.C. does not ruminate on character. It is fuel for a story, a means rather than an end. To be blunt, those who say his movies (again: some of the ’90s work is hard to defend) are devoid of character came for masturbation and were affronted when the films offered intercourse.

Character is important to Carpenter, but it is often misinterpreted. Jack uncovered the tenet of Laurie’s character (she is afraid of her sex) that has been conflated by Halloween‘s critics and mimics: Not only was Laurie afraid of her sex, so was John Carpenter. Laurie’s virginity saves her not because of the purity it implies, but for a more practical reason: she wasn’t distracted, and she noticed the knife-wielding nut coming her way. Michael Myers is an anti-social force, not a social one. The audience fears him; they don’t root for him. To try and force Laurie into the mold of social more shows a lack of seriousness in the critic.

Jack Burton (Kurt Russell in Big Trouble In Little China) is misunderstood. Ebert describes him as a “truck driving adventurer in the Indiana Jones” mold who channels both John Wayne and Harrison Ford. In truth, Burton is an inversion of John Wayne – bluster and incompetence where the Duke was laconic. Wayne could talk, but he didn’t overdo it. Burton does nothing but spout, brag and cajole. He can’t perform a single task with efficacy and intelligence. He is not the hero, his partner Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) is. The main character (the big white guy) is the sidekick, the comic relief to the serious, competent and informed Asian folk. Throughout, Burton is in over his head and never once comes up for air.

Kurt Russell is J.C.’s main vehicle for comment in his body of film, the instrument by which he tries to examine the assumptions of the American movie hero. In Big Trouble, Russell has the American can-do attitude without any of the actual can-do. In the Escape films, Snake Plisskin is the opposite: taciturn to the point of mute, individualistic to the degree that he sells out his nation in order to exact personal revenge. He is not the inversion of Clint Eastwood, but the apotheosis: monosyllabic, usurious, unemotional.

But let me jump from the Escape films (which have never been my favorite. J.C.’s simple aesthetic clashes with the complex elaboration required by the action genre, making them look a little cheap in execution) to The Thing and themes. When we look past the gore of the 1982 film, the major difference between Hawks and Carpenter is J.C.’s dourness. The Hawks film ends with the ominous warning to “keep watching the skies,” but the message is a net positive. Lives were lost, earth was threatened – but still, the good guys are victorious AND vigilant. Carpenter’s film is more apocalyptic. Kurt Russell and Keith David face each other, doubtful even of their mutual humanity. Russell closes the scene (and the film) with this line: “Let’s just wait and see what happens.”

No confidence, no battle plan, just acquiescence to fate. This ties in with the advice Kurt gives to Blair (Wilford Brimley) when Blair says that he can’t trust anyone. “Trust in the Lord,” Kurt says. Despite the extinction of his base, his compatriots and any chance he has of surviving, Russell can’t say for sure he’s accomplished anything. (To make up for time lost excising copious amounts of gore, the extra footage in the TV version has an even grimmer coda. Rather than end with two men sharing a drink before death, we see a dog make its way across the snow.)

This inevitableness – the thought that fate has moved things into motion that no human hand can change – this apocalyptic touch, has been the hallmark of every good film he’s made since Big Trouble. They Live, Prince Of Darkness, and In The Mouth Of Madness all get varying degrees of power and frisson from their elevated scope. In these films, it is not one person or town or country that is threatened. It is the whole world.

They Live, however, is not completely apocalyptic – the end is optimistic. And though it has ideas and moments that are chilling (including a finish that has not diminished in power), Prince Of Darkness has a bad narrative that relies on goopy-looking zombies doing mean things to graduate students. Only in Mouth Of Madness do theme and narrative work hand in hand.

ITMOM is a complex story that develops from a simple idea. Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow), a horror novelist, is so popular that the reality he writes about is supplanting that which came before. But the things he writes about did not come from him. They come from ancient powers that have been using him as a conduit. The film is told matter-of-factly. At first, the effects are subtle: Sam Neill draws crosses on his skin, he peels a poster to see something we cannot, etc. The film then turns into an all-out hell-stravaganza, where monsters roam the streets, tentacles pulse everywhere, and objectivity ceases to be. I have yet to see a film, before or since (except for the far less apocalyptic Dagon), that embraces wholeheartedly the nonsense at the heart of horror: that there are real-life monsters made of slime and tentacles.

To its credit, the film doesn’t cop to the nothing that these monsters exist in the purview of human logic and thus, like werewolves and vampires, have to live by human rules. ITMOM is about these rules being torn up. (As indeed, by film’s end all of humanity is torn up.) Re: Carpenter’s films, none are so bleak in their end as ITMOM, which contains two details that are as subtle as they are perfect: First, after he leaves the sanitarium, Neill wipes the crosses off his skin. He knows they are useless. Second, like Dawn Of The Dead, we hear intermittent broadcasts from “experts” on the Sutter Cane phenomenon. The last of these, a warning to try and find other real humans, is cut off with a monstrous electronic squeal. In The Mouth Of Madness is a movie about the end which gives us just that – no cop-outs and no hope. Just apocalypse.

It could have been the start of a new phase, where he embarked on a new, untrodden path: the horrors of yesterday are dead. Just as Michael Myers (and Norman Bates) jammed a knife up the nightdress of horror, making Frankenstein and Dracula irrelevant, Sutter Cane and ITMOM should have been the beginning of the end for the teen slasher pic. That did not happen. With Vampires and Village Of The Damned, Carpenter went back to playing the same tired cards that ITMOM made you think he’d discarded for a new deck.

Do you agree, Jack, that ITMOM proves he can still make a decent horror film? More directly, what sort of magic did he have that the recent stuff does not?

Should we even bother to mention Memoirs Of An Invisible Man, or would that be cruel?

JC: Ghosts Of Mars (2001)

Q: What made the early films so good?

A: Broadly speaking, three things.

1. They came at a time when the age of the director, the 60s and 70s, gave way to the blockbuster mindset of today. They were caught between two Hollywoods — the arthouse and the megaplex — without falling prey to the excesses of either. They drew from and appealed to both crowds.

2. J.C. was best when the smallness of his budgets complemented the smallness of his films. It forced him to be resourceful; he was more inventive. So, because they were cheap, his films had to be suggestive. That’s why some of the earlier movies hold up.

3. His films were collaborative in the best sense of the word. The crew was hungry. Everyone pushed each other. They had nothing to lose and everything to gain.

The first generation of film school students — J.C., Lucas, Coppola, De Palma — loved foreign films and they had an abiding love of the serial. For the most part, J.C. has remained true to his roots.

However, bigger budgets mar his simple aesthetic. Take Ghosts Of Mars, which is a retread of Assault On Precinct 13 and Prince Of Darkness. The old joy and wit is gone. Long on synthesized heavy metal, the soundtrack sports too many frills. Carpenter’s soundtracks used to be a few notes and a simple motif. Now he’s fattened a minimalist formula. More and more, he labors the point….

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