Nationality: American. Born: Carthage, New York, 16 January 1948. Education: Studied filmmaking at University of Southern California, graduated 1972. Family: Married 1) actress Adrienne Barbeau, 1979 (divorced 1984); 2) Sandy King, 1990. Career: Made first feature, Dark Star , 1974. Awards: Best Short Subject Academy Award, for The Resurrection of Bronco Billy , 1970.
The Resurrection of Bronco Billy (short) (+ ed, mus)
Dark Star (+ pr, co-sc)
Assault on Precinct 13 (+ sc, mus)
Someone's Watching Me! (+ sc); Halloween (+ co-sc)
Elvis (for TV)
The Fog (+ sc, mus)
Escape from New York (+ co-sc, co-pr)
Big Trouble in Little China
Prince of Darkness ; Armed and Dangerous
They Live (+ co-mus)
Memoirs of an Invisible Man
In the Mouth of Madness (+ co-sc); Village of the Damned (+ co-sc, role)
Escape from L.A. (+ co-sc, co-mus)
Vampires (+ mus)
Ghosts of Mars (+ co-sc)
(short films, as director): Revenge of the Colossal Beasts ; Gorgon versus Godzilla ; Terror from Space ; Sorcerer from Outer Space ; Warrior and the Demon ; Gorgon, the Space Monster
The Eyes of Laura Mars (Kershner) (sc)
Halloween II (Rosenthal) (pr, co-sc)
Halloween III: Season of the Witch (Wallace) (mus)
The Philadelphia Experiment (Raffill) (sc)
Black Moon Rising (Cokliss) (co-sc)
Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Meyers (Little) (mus)
Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Meyers (Othenin-Girard) (mus)
El Diablo (Markle—for TV) (co-sc)
Blood River (Damski—for TV) (co-sc)
Body Bags (role)
The Silence of the Hams (Greggio) (role)
After Sunset: The Life & Times of the Drive-in Theater (Bokenkamp) (as himself)
Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later (mus)
Silent Predators (Nosseck—for TV) (co-sc); Meltdown (de Jong—for TV) (story)
"The Man in the Cyrogenic Freezer," an interview with Tom Milne and Richard Combs, in Sight and Sound (London), Spring 1978.
"Trick and Treat," an interview with T. McCarthy, in Film Comment (New York), January/February 1980.
"New Fright Master: John Carpenter," an interview with J. Wells, in Films in Review (New York), April 1980.
Interview in Starburst (London), nos. 36 and 37, 1981.
Interview in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), September 1982.
Interview in Films (London), May 1985.
Interview in American Cinematographer (Los Angeles), September 1988.
"Cheap Thrills and Dark Glasses," an interview with Sheila Johnston, in The Independent (London), 22 June 1989.
Interview with Philippe Rouyer, in Positif (Paris), March 1995.
"Damned Again!" an interview with Robert Sokol and Sean Farrell, in Scarlet Street (Glen Rock), Fall 1995.
"Fires-floods-riots-earthquakes John Carpenter!" an interview with Ted Elrick, in DGA (Los Angeles), July-August 1996.
"Boom Towns," an interview with David Eimer, in Time Out (London), 11 September 1996.
Carpenter, John, "The Carpenter Debate III," in Written By (Los Angeles), November 1996.
Meyers, Richard, For One Week Only: The World of Exploitation Films , Piscataway, New Jersey, 1983.
McCarty, John, Splatter Movies: Breaking the Last Taboo of the Screen , New York, 1984.
Newman, Kim, Nightmare Movies: A Critical History of the Horror Movie from 1968 , London, 1988.
McCarty, John, Movie Psychos and Madmen , Secaucus, New Jersey, 1993.
McCarty, John, The Fearmakers , New York, 1994.
Muir, John Kenneth, The Films of John Carpenter , McFarland & Company, 2000.
Cumbow, Robert C., Order in the Universe: The Films of John Carpenter , Metuchen, New Jersey, 2000.
Appelbaum, R., "From Cult Homage to Creative Control," in Films and Filming (London), June 1979.
Scanlon, P., " The Fog : A Spook Ride on Film," in Rolling Stone (New York), 28 June 1979.
Stevenson, James, "Profiles: People Start Running," in New Yorker , 28 January 1980.
Ross, P., "John Carpenter: Les rhythmes de l'angoisse," in Revue du Cinéma (Paris), February 1984.
"John Carpenter," in Casablanca (Madrid), November 1984.
Nillson, T., and S. Biodrowski, "The Return of John Carpenter," in Cinefantastique (Forest Park), vol. 22, no. 3, 1991.
Biodrowski, S., "Memoirs of an Invisible Man," in Cinefantastique (Forest Park), vol. 22, no. 4, 1992.
Liberti, F., "John Carpenter," in Film Threat (Beverly Hills), February 1995.
Liberti, F., "John Carpenter," in Castoro Cinema (Milan), March/April 1997.
* * *
While his career has been neither as erratic as Wes Craven's nor as disaster-littered as that of Tobe Hooper, John Carpenter currently stands as an out-of-time B specialist. His later directorial output has not exactly failed to live up to the promise of his earliest films, but nor has it been able to match their perfect achievements.
Carpenter's first three movies are marvelously economical, deftly exciting, genuinely distinctive, and slyly amusing, and cover a wide range of generic bases. Dark Star , which he made as a student in collaboration with Dan O'Bannon, is one of the miracles of the 1970s, an intelligent and approachable science-fiction film made in the wake of 2001 but fresh and lively, with a satiric bite carried over from the written sf of the 1950s—its surfing punchline is an apt borrowing from Ray Bradbury—and a near-absurdist sense of humour. Its storyline concerns the crew of the spaceship Dark Star and its plunge into isolation-fueled insanity as their twenty-year mission to demolish useless planets with sentient bombs drags on and on. It is a film that repays many repeat viewings. Assault on Precinct 13 , an urban Western rooted in Rio Bravo and Night of the Living Dead , is at once a lean, generic, action machine (its plot centers around a nightmarish street gang as it besieges and lays waste to an isolated police station) and a witty transposition of the certainties of a Hawksian ensemble piece into the racially and sexually tense 1970s. In these films, Carpenter demonstrated that suspense and humour could be combined. He also showed that he was a skilled handler of unfamiliar actors, concentrating unusually on nuances of character in forms where spectacle and effects often take precedence. Finally, he established himself as a talented composer of driving, minimalist, synthesizer-oriented musical themes.
Halloween is every bit as good as the first few films, but seems less fresh because it has been so influential. Itself a psycho suspense horror movie in the vein of The Spiral Staircase or Black Christmas (and Carpenter's lady-stalking 1978 TV movie Someone's Watching Me ), Halloween single-handedly revived the drive-in horror movie in the late 1970s, inspiring such nasty pieces of work as Friday the 13th and literally hundreds of blatant imitations. It also inspired a series of sequels, including the intriguing Nigel Kneale-scripted box office failure Halloween III: Season of the Witch , the Carpenter-produced Halloween II , and a couple of Halloween films with which he was not involved in any capacity, except for their re-use of parts of his scores for the original film and its sequel, particularly the title theme.
The original Halloween , which featured Jamie Lee Curtis pursued by an unkillable, masked madman and Donald Pleasence as a hammy shrink on the killer's trail, establishes its own world of horror, as enclosed and unreal as the Transylvanian backlots of the Universal or Hammer series. Carpenter utilizes a mythic American small town teenage milieu, where Halloween is a magical evocation of terror and delight, and where babysitting, trick-or-treating, and blind-dating hold possibilities of joy and/or terror. With its absolute mastery of the hand-through-the-window shock moment, cunning use of the Panavision shape, and a shivery theme tune, Halloween is a slender but masterly confection, and it should not be blamed for the floodgates it opened when it became an unexpected box office bonanza (in fact, one of the most successful independent films in history). Before Halloween took off at the box office, however, Carpenter returned to TV to helm a biopic of Elvis Presley for Dick Clark productions. The telefilm marked the beginning of Carpenter's long association with Kurt Russell, a former Disney child star then trying to break away from his image and land more serious (read adult) roles. Russell was one of many actors who tested for the high profile part, but he got it, and turned in a bravura (at times even uncanny) performance as the legendary King of Rock 'n Roll in what many critics still consider to be Carpenter's best film away from the horror/SF genre.
Although there are pleasures to be found in most of his subsequent works, Carpenter has never quite recaptured the confidence and streamlined form of the early pictures. The Fog , a maritime ghost story, and Escape from New York , a science–fiction action picture, are enjoyable, entertaining movies that straggle through illogical plots, but nevertheless find performers—particularly Carpenter's then-wife Adrienne Barbeau, but also regulars Kurt Russell, Donald Pleasence, Tom Atkins, Nancy Loomis, and Chuck Cyphers—doing nice little things with characters, and individual suspense sequences in these films at times override the general messiness of the stories. The same feel can be found in films made by others from scripts he wrote in this period, such as Stewart Raffill's The Philadelphia Experiment and Harley Cokliss's Black Moon Rising , not to mention the 1990 TV Western El Diabolo. Stepping up into the studio big leagues, Carpenter was then given a chance to remake Hawks's and Nyby's The Thing from Another World (1950). He came through with The Thing , a controversially downbeat but genuinely effective movie in which an Arctic base is undermined by the presence of a shape-changing alien. The film is buoyed by the edgy, paranoid performances of a well-chosen cast of flabby, unreliable types and frequently punctuated by incredible bursts of special effects activity. The Thing handles its setpieces—severed heads sprouting spiderlegs, a stomach opening up into a toothy mouth, a dog exploding into tentacular gloopiness—remarkably well, but Carpenter is also in control of the funny, tense, questioning passages in between. Like so many of his later films, though, he seems unable to bring it to a satisfying conclusion.
It was the commercial failure of The Thing , which having arrived on Earth just as the box office was embracing E.T. , a film that rendered evil aliens temporarily unfashionable, appears to have sufficiently disconcerted Carpenter to force him into a succession of blighted big studio movies. Christine is the regulation Stephen King adaptation, loud and watchable but essentially empty and ordinary. Starman is an uncomfortable and impersonal hybrid of It Happened One Night and The Man Who Fell to Earth. Finally, Big Trouble in Little China is a wacky kung fu-monster-comedy-musical-action-adventure-horror-fantasy that features Kurt Russell's funniest Carpenter hero role and some weird and wayward sequences, but it never quite catches the magic of the Hong Kong films upon which it is obviously based.
Subsequently, Carpenter deserted the big studios and handled a pair of smaller projects in an attempt to get back to the basics of his best work. The first of these, Prince of Darkness , is a labyrinthine and diffuse horror movie with a nuclear physics subplot, while They Live is a funny and pointed update of Invasion of the Body Snatchers in which the aliens have invaded earth to exploit it economically. These two films display traces of Carpenter's old flair, even if they both open a great deal better than they close; They Live , in particular, is as interesting and offbeat a movie as The Fog or Escape from New York. But neither film arrested the general drift of Carpenter's career. By this time, while he had not yet settled into the rut that Tobe Hooper has dug for himself, he had also not achieved the generic apotheosis of a George Romero or a David Cronenberg, either.
In the early 1990s, Carpenter harkened back to another of his favorite films of yesteryear, James Whale's The Invisible Man. Carpenter's variation on the theme, Memoirs of an Invisible Man , was based on a novel by H. F. Saint. The film presented huge challenges for Carpenter and his FX team in terms of making star Chevy Chase's escapades in invisibility absolutely convincing. Fanciful, funny, and a technical knockout, Memoirs of an Invisible Man was nonetheless not the kind of film that his fans wanted to see from cinema's "titan of trick or treat."
Carpenter's fans wanted Carpenter to return to his traditional landscape of chills and thrills. He did so with a vengeance, creating what many of his fans consider to be the most terrifying film he'd made since the halcyon days of Halloween and The Thing : the Lovecraftian In the Mouth of Madness. Determined to stay the course in the cinema of fear and fright, Carpenter turned again to remaking another classic of his youth, Village of the Damned , originally a 1960 shocker about menacing, otherworldly children, but the results were disjointed and anemic. Escape from L.A. teamed him again with Kurt Russell in a splashier, bigger-budgeted sequel to and rehash of their successful Escape from New York, which did little for the reputations or coffers of either man. With Vampires , Carpenter's name appeared resoundingly above the title. Boasting a superb premise—the Vatican has created a Special Forces team (led by James Woods) to track down and destroy the King of the Vampires and his unholy minions — the film surrendered itself completely to the gore and sleaze that had become endemic to the horror genre by this point. And the opportunity to produce a genre classic was unfortunately missed.
John Carpenter once called his movie Halloween the film equivalent of a haunted house exhibit at an old country fair. The scares are carefully calculated, coming at you at just the right moments between lulls to ensure a thrilling ride. Without apology, he notes that the film sums up the escapist entertainment that his movies are all about. After all, he says, it is the kind of entertainment he enjoys most himself.
—Kim Newman, updated by John McCarty