John Carpenter is one of the select few movie directors whose name exudes horror. He's a pioneer and a maverick who started outside the Hollywood system and worked his way in, shaping the standards of horror within the mainstream cinema. Through several decades of filmmaking, he's shown his versatility by directing not only horror, but also action, drama, comedy and science fiction -- often melding multiple genres within the same movie. On most of his films, he serves as a cinematic "triple threat," writing, directing and even composing the musical scores, making him the quintessential horror Renaissance man.
Even as a teenager making home videos in the 1960s, Carpenter was obsessed with monsters and science fiction, as short film titles such as Revenge of the Colossal Beasts, Terror from Space and Warrior and the Demon attest. It's no surprise, then, that his feature-length debut would be a science fiction movie, the black comedy Dark Star, a film that grew out of a student project began while Carpenter attended the University of Southern California. It garnered enough attention that funding was raised to expanded it into a full-length film, and Carpenter used it to move on to bigger and better movies.
Of course, "bigger" is a relative term, as evidenced by Assault on Precinct 13
's meager budget. Still, Carpenter managed to imbue the 1976 tale of an understaffed police station defending itself against an onslaught of vicious gang members with atmosphere to spare. The sense of dread in particular foreshadowed the terror he would instill in audiences with Halloween
. His next project, the TV movie Somebody's Watching Me!
(1978), did likewise, its plot of a stalker lurking in the shadows would tying in directly to Carpenter's next master work.
(1978) is unquestionably one of the most influential horror movies of all time. The simple story, initially conceived as stalker menacing babysitters, involves a psychopath who, after killing his older sister as a child returns home 15 years later to resume his murder spree. It has become much more than that, however. The movie was a phenomenon, becoming the most successful independent production to date and spurring a landslide of "slasher"
movies in the early '80s.
With Halloween, Carpenter (who also wrote the script) established many of the standards that would become the hallmark of slashers for decades to come: the masked, mute killer with almost superhuman tenacity, the virginal "good girl" heroine, the rowdy teenaged victims, the trademark weapon, the childhood trauma, even the opening-scene murder and open-ended closing.
All of this, however, would've gone for naught if it weren't for Carpenter's masterful direction, which steadily builds tension throughout the film as the killer -- the now-iconic Michael Myers -- stalks heroine Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) from the shadows. Carpenter fed brilliantly on childhood fears by creating a real-life boogeyman who strikes when parents are out of the house. As the icing on the creepy cake, the director wrote an ominous musical theme that would become one of the most recognizable of the era.
Although Halloween began a "slasher boom," Carpenter chose not to box himself into that line of filmmaking, declining to helm the sequel in 1981. (He still served as producer.) Instead, he utilized his newfound stardom to attack more ambitious productions, starting with 1980's The Fog, an old-fashioned campfire ghost story about spirits seeking revenge on a town for a century-old crime.
After segueing into the action film Escape From New York in 1981, Carpenter returned to horror the following year with his biggest production yet, the shape-shifting alien flick The Thing. Although it didn't perform as well as expected at the box office, Carpenter was asked to direct the latest Stephen King movie, Christine, at the height of the author's popularity. After Christine's success, the director again stepped outside of the horror box for the big-budget alien drama Starman, a film that earned Carpenter the best mainstream reviews of his career and led to an Oscar nomination for its star, Jeff Bridges.
Riding high, Carpenter pulled out all of the stops for Big Trouble in Little China, blending horror, comedy, action, science fiction and martial arts in an unrivaled spectacle. Unfortunately, audiences didn't know what to make of the campy production, and if tanked commercially, cutting down the director's budgetary options for his next projects, the religious horror of Prince of Darkness (1987) and the alien invasion of They Live (1988). Thanks to their limited costs, both films proved profitable and earned Carpenter enough good faith that he was again entrusted with more sizable budgets.
Sadly, the '90s proved to be a series of box office flops for the director. The biggest failures were, perhaps not coincidentally, those that ventured outside his horror comfort zone: the ill-conceived Chevy Chase action/comedy Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992) and the overdue sequel to Escape from New York, Escape from L.A. (1996). Both films sported budgets in the $40 million dollar-plus range and struggled to make even half of that at the box office.
Carpenter's horror fare in the '90s fared better, although he failed to produce a bona fide hit. He teamed up with fellow horror veteran Tobe Hooper for the TV anthology Body Bags in 1993, then moved on to the H.P. Lovecraft-inspired surrealism of In the Mouth of Madness, a remake of the classic evil kid flick Village of the Damned and the western-inspired vampire film Vampires. In 2001, he kicked off the new century by revisiting his Assault on Precinct 13 scenario with a supernatural and interplanetary twist in Ghosts of Mars. It wasn't received any better than his '90s work.
Upon Further Review:
However, the 21st century has witnessed a resurgence in interest in Carpenter's films. Both Assault on Precinct 13 and The Fog were remade with sizeable budgets (and limited involvement from the director) in 2005. Also, by then, while nothing he'd done had approached the cultural impact or financial success of Halloween, many of Carpenter's other directorial efforts had begun to receive critical acclaim and cult followings after their release on video and DVD. In the Mouth of Madness, Prince of Darkness, They Live and The Thing all consistently rank high on horror fans' lists of his body of work.
Select Horror Filmography:
- The Ward (2011)
- Masters of Horror: "Pro-Life" (2006) TV episode
- Masters of Horror: "Cigarette Burns" (2005) TV episode
- The Fog (2005) [Producer]
- Vampires: Los Muertos (2002) [Executive Producer]
- Ghosts of Mars (2001)
- Silent Predators (1999) [Writer]
- John Carpenter's Vampires (1998)
- Village of the Damned (1995)
- In the Mouth of Madness (1995)
- Body Bags (1993)
- They Live (1988)
- Prince of Darkness (1987)
- Christine (1983)
- Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) [Producer]
- The Thing (1982)
- Halloween II (1981) [Producer]
- The Fog (1980)
- Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) [Writer]
- Halloween (1978)
- Somebody's Watching Me! (1978)