Published on October 6th, 2014 | by gareth0
Revisiting The Work of John Carpenter
By Brandon Engel
Film maker John Carpenter has long since been regarded as a “master of horror.” To his credit, he has tried his hardest to defy critical expectations and resist labels. Although many of his best known films are horror films, he also integrates elements of westerns, science-fiction novels, — even romantic road movies. Even though he’s had a few misfires in recent years such as The Ward (2011), and Ghosts of Mars (2001), there’s no undermining his influence on cult filmmaking.
Carpenter completed his first feature, Dark Star (1974), while still in film school. Dark Star was directed, co-written (alongside Dan O’Bannon) and produced by Carpenter, for the minimal budget of $60,000. The film follows the story of a 22nd century scout ship and their 20 year mission to destroy “unstable” planets to ensure successful colonization of other worlds. It enjoyed a moderate amount of attention based on several successful showings at film festivals. Although rough around the edges, the film showed that Carpenter could accomplish much, even if he was forced to work with very little.
The film that truly established Carpenter as a gargantuan success was another low budget movie, Halloween (1978). The film, produced for a mere $325,000 met with critical acclaim, grossing $47 million at the box office in the United States and $70 million worldwide. The film about the killing spree of “Michael Myers” was filmed in 20 days, primarily in an abandoned house with a cast of relative unknowns and volunteers from the community. Carpenter however, managed to make this movie a success by borrowing techniques from film legend Alfred Hitchcock. Carpenter borrowed cinematic tricks that Hitchcock used in Psycho (1960), allowing the tension to build among the audience more because of what they didn’t see. It’s because of this eeriness, and sparseness — this ability to use the viewers’ own imaginations to instill fear — that has caused Halloween to be considered one of the most successful horror movies of all time.
After Halloween, Carpenter had a few other successes such as The Fog (1980) and Escape From New York (1981), but his career began to suffer with the release of what is, ironically, one of his most distinguished films: The Thing (1982). This film tells the story of a parasitic extraterrestrial lifeform that assimilates other organisms in order to imitate them. The film, with a bigger budget, better sets and more well known actors, should have done well at the box office. However, despite its number 8 opening slot, the film only made $3.1 million, not even cutting the $15,000,000 production budget. Those involved with the film blamed its failure to the competition with Blade Runner and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.
Carpenter concluded the 1980s with films like Big Trouble in Little China (1986) and Prince of Darkness (1987). The latter film was part of what Carpenter refereed to as his “Apocalypse Trilogy” and involved a secret group of priest who protected a cylinder of a mysterious substance. When the last of those priests dies, the substance is allowed to wreak havoc on those who are trying to study it. The former film deals with a supernatural battle between good and evil between a truck driver, his friend and an immortal sorcerer named Lo Pan and his invisible henchmen. Neither film did well at the box office and critics disliked almost everything about both films, from the story lines to the chemistry between the actors, initially causing both films to be considered flops. Posterity has been kinder to both films however, with Prince of Darkness developing something of a cult following and Big Trouble in Little China has becoming a popular streaming option on Netflix and other sites (more details here), and it’s also been ranked 430th on Empire magazine’s “500 Greatest Movies of All Time” list.
More recently, Carpenter has been featured on the Masters of Horror series with his episode Cigarette Burns in which a man searches for a film that made its only audience homicidal. In 2010, Carpenter released The Ward, about a young institutionalized woman haunted by a zombie-like ghost. Both of these latter works received mixed reviews, positive from Carpenter and horror fans and poor from many critics, but both have proven that after 30 years in film making, Carpenter truly is a force to be reckoned with, and his legacy continues to inspire filmmakers.