Week 33: “The Horror Films of John Carpenter”
John Carpenter is a name synonymous with horror. There is not a horror fan out there that doesn’t know this name and the importance that he has had on the genre and on generations that have grown up watching his films. It has been a while since Carpenter has released a new film (2010’s The Ward) so what better time to look back at the horrors he has concocted than Halloween where I’m sure many people sit down to enjoy one of his finest films which is the original Halloween (1978).
Growing up Halloween was one of my favorite and most influential horror films. I was not only a Halloween fan but a Michael Myers fan as well. This film is the reason why I love slasher films so much. Myers is the iconic slasher whose life has gone through some amazing changes due to the talented hands that have crafted the stories and films throughout the years. Carpenter was the first to impress audiences upon his idea of what the Boogeyman was and for many it endures to this day. Michael Myers is the “real” Boogeyman and that is because Carpenter made him so.
In 1980 he would unleash his next major horror film which is The Fog. Now, this is one of Carpenter’s creepiest films because it’s all about mood and atmosphere and what you don’t see rather than what you do see since everything is shrouded in the mist and fog. This was also more terrifying for me because I identified with the young child being chased by the fog (since I was so young when I first saw the film). This film is suspenseful and terrifying from beginning to end as audiences are placed in the tropes of a ghost story that the characters are trapped in. I still love this movie today but for different reasons as I now know all the actors by name and love watching them crew the scenery as only they can in a Carpenter film. Who doesn’t love watching Jamie Lee Curtis, Adrienne Barbeau, Janet Leigh, Tom Atkins, Charles Cyphers, John Houseman, and Hal Holbrook, to name a few. This is one of the best movies of the ‘80s.
As much as I love the previous two films Carpenter’s most realized and affecting film is ‘82’s The Thing. This is a dark and unforgiving film that is claustrophobic yet provides one of the best ensemble casts of any of Carpenter’s films. There is not a flaw in this film unless you think the film is too violent and too depressing which it is but that is the beauty of the film. It is bleak and a socially conscious powder keg of a film where no one can trust their friends not themselves. This is my favorite Carpenter film. He was never at the top of his game as much as when he crafted this film. With the exception of the musical score, this is pure Carpenter. If there is one film that I tell people to see above all other Carpenter films this is it.
In ’83 Carpenter would put his own spin on a Stephen King novel with his adaptation on Christine. This is a fun and entertaining film but was never one of my favorites. Until I was able to fully appreciate Carpenter’s entire career, this was the film (growing up) that I always forgot he directed. The style and execution of this film is pure Carpenter but I always thought that this film was one that could’ve been directed by anyone and it still would have been effective. The most important aspect of this film for me is the soundtrack with the excellent choice of music (which I believe has more to do with inspirations from King’s novel but since I haven’t read this novel yet I can’t be 100 percent). I actually haven’t seen this film in quite some time because when I’m in a Carpenter mood, this is never the film that I pull out but in terms of films based on King’s novels this is one of my favorites.
1987 saw the release of another one of my all-time favorite Carpenter films which is Prince of Darkness. By the time ’87 came around I knew the name “John Carpenter” because his name was always above the title of the film. This film about the resurrection of Satan by way science is one of the smartest horror films ever crafted which is both moody and atmospheric as well as suspenseful and terrifying. Carpenter is working on all cylinders here as he captures the tone and mood of dread of his original Halloween while also capturing the comedy of Big Trouble in Little China and the science and dread of The Thing while continuing to be technically above many of his contemporaries. The cinematography in this film is magic as is musical score. This is not nearly as disturbing as The Thing which has turned people away but not simply seen as a “simple” slasher film like Halloween either so this film inhabits a strange place on Carpenter’s resume.
In ’94 my “guilty pleasure” Carpenter film is released which is In The Mouth of Madness. I think with this film Carpenter is having a lot of fun and everything is on board with him. This film has the perfect mix of established and character actors with Sam Neill, Jurgen Prochnow, Julie Carmen, David Warner, John Glover, Bernie Casey, Frances Bay and Charlton Heston. This is a cast that shouldn’t work but does. Despite the controversy of the film’s monsters and violence being cut, the film actually works better for not showing the monsters in full glory (like those seen in The Thing). I think that showing the monsters would have destroyed the integrity of the story being told which is about a man going mad due to what he sees or what he thinks he sees. This also happened to be the very first Carpenter film I ever saw on the big screen so it holds a special place for me.
Vampires was released in ’98. This is a film I really had high hopes for because James Woods was the star (which I’ve always thought is one of the best actors of his generation). Unfortunately, after a really stellar first half of the film it soon falls apart the moment Wood’s team of vampire hunters are all massacred. It becomes a less interesting film from then on despite Woods doing his best to hold it all together. That and the fact that I’ve never been a big fan of vampire films put this on the bottom of my list of favorite Carpenter films. Surprisingly, I do believe that this is one of the few Carpenter films that I believe would work better as a television series where the story could be opened up (as long as all the violence is kept intact).
Carpenter’s most recent horror film The Ward is held less together by Carpenter’s talents and more by the performance of Amber Heard who holds the film together. It is a slow burning psychological film which is contrary to most of his previous films unless you look back at The Fog which it has a lot in common with in terms of mood and atmosphere. I enjoy this film and recognize that it’s not one of his strongest horror films but it is effective for the story it is trying to tell.
Carpenter has had a long and illustrious career and has provided generations with countless nightmares and for this his films and his name will endure. I grew up watching (and re-watching) his films and will continue to do so as I pass off my love of his films to new audiences.