[This is a part of our ongoing Halloween series taking a look at the most influential horror directors from around the globe. Previously: David Cronenberg, Alfred Hitchcock.]
We toss the phrase “Master of Horror” around a bit too easily these days – after all, Showtime gave us two seasons of a show labeled with that very moniker, and I can assure you that not everyone involved was truly a “master” of the genre. That’s not designed as a slight to the filmmakers who worked hard to create episodes of the series – it’s more to point out that if we only allowed bonafide artists of the form to ply their trade on the show, it would have had far fewer episodes.
Mick Garris’ series did manage to snag some genuine legends of the spooky arts during its run – one of the most notable being the man we’re about to discuss today: John Carpenter. Carpenter has had a long and somewhat star-crossed career. Has there ever been a filmmaker whose had the misfortune of being more ahead of his time than Carpenter? The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China, In the Mouth of Madness – all were films largely ignored upon release, yet have gone on to find appreciative audiences long after they left theaters.
Despite this unfortunate timing, it’s impossible to deny that Carpenter is a master of his craft – and here are three examples that illustrate why.
Carpenter's vital role in shaping modern slasher cinema
When Carpenter’s Halloween debuted back in 1978, it wasn’t readily apparent just how influential his indie horror film would eventually become.
The tale of a group of babysitters menaced by an escaped mental patient named Michael Myers wasn’t the first slasher film, but it is arguably the most important one. Inspired by classics like Hitchcock’s Psycho and Bob Clark’s Black Christmas, Carpenter took elements of those two features and twisted them into something uniquely his own.
Halloween is arguably as close to a “perfect” horror film as has ever been made – a fright flick executed with precision by a young filmmaker coming into his own. Everything about Halloween works – from the minimalist score to the casting of the late Donald Pleasence as Dr. Sam Loomis (a nod to Hitchcock’s Psycho) to the holiday setting.
Yet, what really makes Halloween stand out is Myers. With this character, Carpenter essentially paved the way for Jason, Freddy and countless other supernatural slasher villains. Even more impressive is that he did it in such a fashion that audiences never felt cheated. Carpenter subtly sets up the fact that Myers is more than a man at several points in his narrative – so when Loomis looks off the balcony to find his corpse gone we don’t laugh derisively at the implausibility of it all – we instead start looking over our shoulder wondering if Michael is somehow now behind us.
For better or worse, the unkillable psycho would become a staple of classic slasher cinema in the ‘80s and beyond – but no one ever did it as convincingly as Carpenter in Halloween. Without Michael Myers, American slasher cinema might have looked a whole lot different.
Carpenter actually made a remake that improved upon the original
We all complain about remakes around here – and with good reason. If a film is great, then why bother remaking it? Shouldn’t the original be enough?
Back in 1982, remakes weren’t a big deal in the horror community – instead of railing against the latest updating of a beloved classic, fans were more venomous toward unnecessary sequels. As such, when it was revealed that John Carpenter was making a modern-day version of Christian Nyby and Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another Planet, most people weren’t too upset.
The remake of the film made sense on a number of levels – the most notable being Carpenter’s love of Hawks’ cinema. It also worked to Carpenter’s advantage that his take was more inspired by John W. Campbell’s story “Who Goes There?” than the film.
All that aside, Carpenter’s version of The Thing is a masterful exercise in claustrophobic horror with a level of paranoia that equals Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Kurt Russell and an all-male ensemble cast are trapped in an Antarctic research station with a malevolent alien presence that can become anyone or anything it comes into contact with. Tensions rise as each man begins to suspect the others of being the monster – all leading to one of the greatest horror film endings in the history of the genre.
Carpenter’s The Thing serves as a template for how all remakes should be approached – remain respectful to the original while also bringing something uniquely your own to the retelling. While I will always love the Nyby/Hawks film, Carpenter’s version actually manages to improve upon it in some very major ways – too bad Hollywood wasn’t taking notes (and too bad someone chose to open this film in the summer of E.T. – where The Thing was killed at the box office.)
Carpenter managed to do Lovecraft better than everyone but Lovecraft
Maybe the most underrated and unheralded achievement of John Carpenter’s career is my last example of why he’s so important to the genre – he managed to make what is arguably the greatest H.P. Lovecraft-inspired film that wasn’t actually based on Lovecraft.
For the uninitiated, Lovecraft was one of the greats of horror fiction and his Elder Gods mythos (which gave us monsters like Cthulhu) endures to this day. As such, filmmakers over the years have tried (and largely failed) to bring Lovecraft’s horrific visions to the screen.
Carpenter bucked that trend with 1995’s In the Mouth of Madness. The film centers on an insurance fraud investigator (Sam Neill) sent to a small town in search of a missing horror author. When he arrives, he discovers that the town is exactly like the one described in the author’s novels – and that there are very dark things afoot.
Like Lovecraft’s greatest tales, In the Mouth of Madness explores cosmic evil so incomprehensible that to even envision it is to court insanity. The problem most filmmakers have encountered when trying to adapt Lovecraft’s fiction is creating imagery that matches that level of terror described by the characters. Carpenter makes the wise choice to circumnavigate this issue – keeping the true terrors beyond time and space largely offscreen while showing us how twisted the town of Hobbs End is in more easily visualized chunks. The old woman with her husband chained to her leg, the dark cathedral, the creepy pictures – all evoke memories of Lovecraft’s work and create a sense of dread without having to show us the unseeable. Carpenter gets what made Lovecraft’s fiction work – but he’s also smart enough to see the potential pitfalls in brining that to the screen. He deftly avoids those problems and creates one of the better horror films of the ‘90s.
While not everything Carpenter has done has worked as well as these three films, there’s no denying that the man is a maverick filmmaker with his own unique aesthetic. Carpenter is one of the quintessential masters of the genre – a master artisan in the field of fear. Because of this each new film he releases immediately piques our interest.
If you’re a newcomer to Carpenter’s work – or just want to check out some of his greatest hits, start with the three films discussed above and then check out the following:
Prince of Darkness : Donald Pleasance plays a priest that must help a team of scientists prevent the coming of the Antichrist.
The Fog: Two generations of Scream Queens -- Jamie Lee Curtis and her mother, Janet Leigh -- star in this ghost story about a cursed seaside town.
Christine: A Stephen King story about a killer, jealous car? Only Carpenter could have pulled this one off.
Vampires: A rare Western horror film with James Woods starring as a vampire hunter.
Masters of Horror: John Carpenter’s Cigarette Burns: A rare-films dealer (Norman Reedus) is hired to find the last remaining print of a movie that sparked a homicidal riot 30 years earlier.