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John Carpenter (1948 - )
Date of Birth: 16 January 1948
Despite a distressing decline in his fortunes in recent years, John Carpenter remains one of the most interesting and influential genre directors of his generation, responsible for some of the greatest horror and science fiction films of the 1970s and 80s.
Born 16 January 1948 in Carthage, NY, Carpenter and his family relocated to the more gentile environs of Bowling Green, Kentucky when he was very young – to this day, Carpenter still regards Bowling Green as his home town. As a child he was an avid fan of science fiction and lapped up all the 50s classics that came his way, chief sources of inspiration being It Came From Outer Space (1953), Forbidden Planet (1953), Creature From The Black Lagoon (1954) and Howard Hawk's The Thing From Another World (1951) which he would remake in 1982. This love for cinema inevitably translated into a passion for making 8mm films, all of which allegedly survive but none of which will ever see the light of day if Carpenter ever gets his way!
On graduating high school, Carpenter attended Western Kentucky University where his father, Howard, taught music. Music was to play an important part in Carpenter's life, almost as important as film in fact, and Carpenter, a talented musician and composer in his own right, would eventually write the scores for most of his films.
Carpenter later headed west and enrolled on the film course at the University of Southern California where he wrote his first "proper" film, the short The Resurrection of Bronco Billy (1970), which was awarded the Oscar for best short film.
But despite the accolades, it wasn't a happy experience for Carpenter – he was unhappy to learn that the rights to the film were to be retained by the college and he determined not to let that happen again. To this day, Carpenter retains an enviable amount of control over his work (making it difficult for him in later years to excuse the increasingly unsatisfactory quality of his films) and is unique in that the title cards of all his films bear the possessive title "John Carpenter's..."
On graduation, he hooked up with classmate Dan O'Bannon to develop and complete a science fiction film they'd been working on, Dark Star (1974). On completion, Carpenter and O'Bannon (who would later expand some of the ideas in Dark Star for his original script for Alien (1979)) managed to get funding enough to boost the film to feature length and enjoyed their first theatrical release.
Carpenter had high hopes for Dark Star – he was a great lover of westerns (strangely the only genre he hasn't really tackled properly yet) and had the notion that the success of Dark Star would allow him access to the Hollywood majors who, in turn, would let him loose on a string of westerns. That didn't happen and instead Carpenter was forced to fall back on his writing skills to help make ends meet. Two of his scripts were bought and made, the Faye-Dunaway-as-a-psychic-photographer thriller The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) and the TV movie Zuma Beach (1978). Other scripts were sold but not made into films until much later - Black Moon Rising (1986) and the westerns El Diablo (1990) and Blood River (1991) for example.
Eventually, Carpenter was able to secure funding for a second feature, the brilliant Assault on Precinct 13 (1976). Some of us still maintain that this is Carpenter's best work, a tough, uncompromising urban thriller with shades of George Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968) thrown in for good measure. It's a more-or-less straight reworking of Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo (1959), one of his favourite movies, the western setting of the original transposed to the mean streets of urban 70s Los Angeles.
Although not particularly popular in the States, Assault on Precinct 13 enjoyed considerable success in Europe, particularly in Britain where it was a huge hit at the London Film Festival before gaining a cult following on its general release. Carpenter was back in the States working in the TV thriller Someone's Watching Me! (1978) (starring Lauren Hutton and his future wife Adrienne Barbeau who he married in 1979) when the UK success of Assault came to the attention of producer Moustapha Akkad.
Akkad had cooked up the script for what seemed to be a standard horror film, The Babysitter Murders, and was looking for someone to direct it for him. Seeing what Carpenter could do on a meagre budget, Akkad pitched him the idea. Although Carpenter liked the basic idea – a babysitter is menaced by a serial killer on Halloween night – he felt that the script needed some work. Together with his partner Debra Hill, he gave the script a polish and retitled it. Halloween (1978) became the most successful independent film ever made and made Carpenter virtually a household name. It's success was so great that Someone's Watching Me! was given a theatrical release in Europe in its wake but even now it remains virtually impossible to see, having had no video or DVD release.
Critics were unkind to Halloween, but word of mouth was tremendous – those who braved the critical onslaught were blown away by the ruthless efficiency of the film and soon the buzz around the film was impossible to ignore. Carpenter barely had time to notice however, having already moved on to the TV biopic Elvis (1979), starring Kurt Russell in the title role. It was very much a labour of love for Carpenter who was rewarded with massive ratings. To round off an already stellar year for Carpenter, he was given the prestigious New Generation Award by The Los Angeles Film Critics for his work on Dark Star, Assault on Precinct 13 and Halloween.
The success of Halloween sparked of the "stalk and slash" phenomena of the late 70s and early 80s, a series of almost identikit films in which dim-witted teens are slaughtered by increasingly brutal killers. It was a controversial development in horror, one not entirely welcomed by critics, fans and general moviegoers alike, but which proved highly successful and enduring – it survived well into the 90s thanks to classier variations like The Silence of the Lambs (1991) until it was effectively killed off by parodies like Scream (1996) and I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997). Thanks to the low budget nature of such films it seems that we'll never see the back of them entirely – they're simply to easy and cheap to make and there always seems to be an audience for them.
Carpenter himself jumped on the stalk and slash bandwagon early with the first sequel to Halloween, the unimaginatively titled Halloween II (1981), which Carpenter wrote and produced, leaving the directorial chores to Rick Rosenthal. Noticeably more violent – possibly as a response to the increasingly visceral films that had followed in the original film's wake, particularly the rival Friday the 13th films – Halloween II was another box office success and paved the way for the apparently never ending Halloween franchise.
Carpenter bailed out after the poor showing of Tommy Lee Wallace's Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) which bravely tried to ring the changes and dispensed with killer-hero Michael Myers (named after the boss of the distribution company that released Assault on Precinct 13 to such great success in the UK). The result, the first of a planned series exploring various aspects of the Halloween legend, was a flop and remains unpopular among fans despite the originality of Carpenter's script. Carpenter washed his hands of the series after that but it went on without him, becoming increasingly mundane and retaining only the haunting theme tune as Carpenter's sole contribution.
As the stalk and slash movies took off, Carpenter went on to explore other forms of screen horror - The Fog (1980) was a more traditional ghost story that was given a wholly unnecessary remake in 2005. Again it was a big hit and cemented Carpenter's reputation as Hollywood's foremost horror director.
But just as he was being hailed as horror's next big thing, Carpenter took a detour and made the influential science fiction film Escape From New York (1981), the movie that launched a dozen or more Italian look-alikes. Written in the early 70s, it has a wonderful tongue-in-cheek feel, with Kurt Russell – a Carpenter regular during this period – having a high old time as eyepatched anti-hero Snake Plissken rescuing the US President (Donald Pleasance of all people) from a Manhattan Island transformed into the ultimate high security prison.
With Cinecitta mercilessly riffing on Escape's audacious silliness, Carpenter moved on to create one of his most popular films, the one that comes closest to challenging Assault on Precinct 13 as the greatest of his prodigious output. Misunderstood on its first release, Carpenter's stunning reinterpretation of Howard Hawk's The Thing From Another World, now simply titled The Thing, is one of the finest horror / SF hybrids ever. Rob Bottin's astonishing effects still impress today and Carpenter was at the height of his powers here – the blood test scene is one of the most excruciating suspense sequences ever.
The critical drubbing the film received at the time prevented The Thing from repeating the financial successes of Carpenter's previous work but it has, over the years, become regarded as the pinnacle of his career and some much overdue praise has finally been sent its way.
Carpenter needed a hit to bounce back from the disappointing box office of The Thing – Christine, an adaptation of the novel by Stephen King, wasn't it. King adaptations have always been tricky beasts and Carpenter seemed as unsure of the material as most previous directors had been when taking on the King of Horror.
In retrospect, it's not a terrible film by any means, simply a bland one and King was right when he criticised it for seeming a little lifeless. It's almost as if Carpenter's heart simply wasn't in it – he later lamented that the Christine the killer car was simply too nice to be effectively scary! It also didn't help that Carpenter took the job as a hired gun, simply grateful to get some work from a major studio - in this case Columbia Pictures – after the disappointment of The Thing.
Carpenter's fortunes were restored somewhat by the commercial success of Starman (1984), a romantic science fiction film that teamed Jeff Bridges as stranded alien with Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) co-star Karen Allen as the human widow who falls for him. It's easy to dismiss Starman as just a piece of romantic slush but there's actually far more to it than that and, although it rarely figures too highly in any Carpenter fan's top 10 list, it remains one of his most completely satisfying post-Thing works. Personally, these were less happy times for Carpenter - he and Adrienne Barbeau divorced in 1984.
Still trying to take the sting out of the whole The Thing debacle, Carpenter continued on his genre-hopping ways with the eccentric Big Trouble In Little China (1986), a film which tanked at the box office but which introduced many Western fans to the joys of Chinese action cinema for the first time. Kurt Russell was back in the Carpenter fold for the first time since The Thing in this ambitious, flawed but still immensely enjoyable lightweight romp. The critics hated it and the public stayed at home but in the years since it has, like many of Carpenter's films, picked up an appreciative and loyal following.
Big Trouble In Little China marked the end of Carpenter's dalliance with big budgets, it's failure at the box office driving him back to the lower rent end of the spectrum where his imagination could really cut loose. In 1987, he made the excellent and under-rated Prince of Darkness (1987), an ambitious attempt to revive the flagging fortunes of the devil movie by injection of quantum physics. Audiences were largely baffled but it was his best film for years, making excellent use of the siege format that had worked so well in Assault on Precinct 13 and The Thing.
Prince of Darkness was the first in a three picture deal that Carpenter signed with Universal and Carolco, the second being the oddball science fiction film They Live (1988), in which ex-wrestler Roddy Piper discovers that the world we thought we knew was a sham and that we've been brainwashed by ugly aliens who have been running the planet for years!
Both Prince of Darkness and They Live were rather more intelligent than the run of the mill genre films that were on offer at the time and seemed to completely mystify the few audiences that bothered to turn up for them. Consequently, the third film that Carpenter was planning to make with Universal and Carolco never materialised.
Instead, Carpenter went off at an exact opposite tangent, making the witless comedy Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992) with Chevy Chase on uninspired form as a reluctant invisible man being pursued by the CIA. Chase was still a big enough draw to ensure the film's success but most fans agree that this was a very long way from Carpenter at his best.
Cable television beckoned next as Carpenter decided to stick to what he knew best and contributed two segments of Body Bags (1993), a trilogy of short horror tales with Tobe Hooper contributing the third story. Carpenter also showed off his acting chops in the key role of a morgue attendant in the wraparound story. It was never going to set the world alight but Body Bags was a creditable enough effort.
It was certainly a lot better than what came next. Village of the Damned (1995) was a wholly unnecessary and uninspired remake of one of Carpenter's favourite films. He certainly didn't do it justice. Dull and insipid, it had nothing new to add to the original and its sequel, Children of the Damned, and just seemed like a complete waste of everyone's time.
Before the rot really set in, Carpenter had one last gem in him. In The Mouth of Madness (1995) saw Carpenter wandering into Lovecraft territory and the result was amazing - tense, disturbing and wildly imaginative, it was actually made before Village of the Damnedbut inexplicably sat on the shelf until the dismal remake had done much to sully his good name.
In retrospect, Madness seemed to be the last gasp of a once great talent. Escape From LA (1996) followed and was a disaster in almost every respect - everything that had made Escape From New York such great fun was missing here. It's unfunny, lacking in tension and the pace is just all off. Carpenter was meant to move onto another science fiction epic, Mutant Chronicles, but he fell out with his producers and instead he adapted John Steakley novel Vampire$ as the more simply titled Vampires. Though a long, long way from the likes of Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween or The Thing, it gave some hope that Carpenter might be finding his way back - the sickly photography is off-putting and the vampires are a tediously clichéd lot but it has excellent performances from James Woods and Sheryl Lee and a suitably odd premise.
Carpenter's most recent theatrical offering was the truly dire Ghosts of Mars, a terrible remake of Assault on Precinct 13 set on Mars with the street gangs of the original replaced by a bunch of howling Marilyn Manson clones in crap fetish gear. After everyone turned their noses up at Ghosts of Mars, Carpenter lay low for a while, turning up in more documentaries than you can shake a stick at and contributing some excellent commentaries to DVD releases of his films. Most recently, he was one of the Masters of Horror contributing to the Showtime anthology series of the same name.
It's a sad sign of the times that the classic Carpenters are already being remade - at the time of writing (late 2005) we've already had Assault on Precinct 13 (2004) and The Fog (2005) and there are rumours that Halloween is on its way.
Despite losing his way somewhat in recent years, Carpenter can lay
claim to having never made a movie that lost money for his producers
and there are very few who can say that. His latter day work may be
a disappointment but those early films are among the very best that
the genre has to offer. One can only hope that he manages to recapture
his old form and show a whole new generation of horror fans exactly
what he's capable of. Come on John, we all know you've got it in you!
* = television
Gorgon, the Space Monster (director)
Sorceror from Outer Space (director)
Warrior and the Demon (director (as Johnny Carpenter))
(producer (uncredited), script, director, music, performer (voice of
boyfriend on phone - uncredited))
Watching Me! (script, director) *
(script, director, music, performer (Bennett (uncredited)))
(director, performer (Norwegian in video footage (uncredited)))
Halloween (music) +
Moon Rising (executive producer, script, story)
Who Could Fly (performer (The Coupe De Villes))
(script (as Frank Armitage), director, music)
Masters of Illusion: The Wizards of Special Effects (performer (himself)) *
silenzio dei prosciutti (performer (trench coat man / the
L.A. (script, characters, director, music)
Movie Magic: Action Effects: Ultimate Action (performer (himself)) *
The Reality Trip (performer (himself))
Sentinel Returns (music) +
The Thing: Terror Takes Shape (performer (himself))
Unmasking the Horror (performer (himself))
Halloween Unmasked 2000 (music, performer (himself))
Predators (script) *
Dario Argento: An Eye for Horror (performer (himself)) *
Faces of Evil (performer (himself)) *
Mario Bava: Maestro of the Macabre (performer (himself)) *
Mars (script, director, music, musician, orchestrator)
Ghosts of Mars: Special Effects Deconstruction (performer (himself), music)
Hidden Values: The Movies of the Fifties (performer (himself - uncredited)) *
Red Desert Nights: Making Ghosts of Mars (music, performer (himself))
Scoring Ghosts of Mars (music, performer (himself))
Scream: The E! True Hollywood Story (performer (himself)) *
Halloween: Resurrected (Halloween theme - uncredited)
(characters, Halloween theme)
of Horror (performer (himself)) *
Scoring Resident Evil (special thanks, performer (himself in archive footage))
Tales From the Mist: Inside The Fog (music, performer (himself))
The Thing (special thanks) +
Thriller (music (from Halloween (1978)))
Los Muertos (executive producer)
Durch die Nacht mit...: Franka Potente und John Carpenter (3 October 2003) (performer (himself)) *
Halloween: A Cut Above the Rest (stills, music, performer (himself)) *
Return to Escape from New York (performer (himself))
The 76th Annual Academy Awards (music (from Halloween (1978))) *
Christine: Fast & Furious (performer (himself))
Christine: Finish Line (performer (himself))
Christine: Ignition (performer (himself))
Super Secret Movie Rules: Slashers (performer (himself)) *
Tales from the Crypt: From Comic Books to Television (performer (himself))
Celluloid Apocalypse: An Interview with John Carpenter (performer (himself))
Film 2006: 20 February 2006 (performer (himself)) *
(producer, original script)
Halloween: 25 Years of Terror (performer (himself in archive footage)) *
Hollywood's Greatest Villains (performer (himself)) *
The Perfect Scary Movie (performer (himself)) *
Snake Plissken: Man of Honor (performer (himself))
Masters of Horror: Pro-Life (director) *
My Name Is Earl: Boogeyman (music (Halloween Theme)) *
The Secret Life of Superfans (performer)
Elvis (director) *
Bassie en Adriaan en de huilende professor (music (from Halloween (1978))) *
The Taming of Rebecca (music (from Halloween
(1978) - uncredited))
Bassie en Adriaan en de reis vol verrassingen (music
(theme from Halloween (1978)))
An Opera of Violence (performer (himself))
Something to Do with Death (performer (himself))
The Wages of Sin (performer (himself))
Last Updated: 1 January, 2009
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