The Unappreciated Genius of John Carpenter

John Carpenter is one of the greatest American filmmakers. Ever. Period. The end.

There—I’ll just come out swinging. See, I toyed with several different ways of saying what I mean to say. Initially, I started this piece by talking about the names commonly associated with American filmmaking auteurs: Scorsese, Kubrick, and Paul Thomas Anderson to name a few. The point I was trying to make was how, when the idea of great American filmmakers is discussed, John Carpenter is generally left out of the conversation—and it’s a total injustice.

So, let’s take a spin down retrospective lane and look at the movies that make Carpenter one of the greats. Because I’ll tell you what: From 1976 until 1986, Carpenter crafted a streak of films that are arguably as good as any other ten-year period from even the most celebrated and acclaimed directors.

Let’s start in 1976, the year Carpenter released his first true film, Assault on Precinct 13 (and I say “true” because his previous release, Dark Star, was more of a student production). Now, I won’t contend that Assault on Precinct 13 is a great film. It’s close, but it’s far too long and it stumbles in some key moments. While the movie was met with harsh reviews when it was first released, it was eventually rediscovered and is now considered one of the great thrillers of the 1970s. What’s most interesting about Assault on Precinct 13 is the way Carpenter attempts to utilize the conventions of a genre (though an action thriller is a far shallower dive into the idea of genre, especially when considering Carpenter’s later films) to tell a story that is much deeper and more thoughtful than anyone would anticipate.

On the surface, Assault on Precinct 13  is meant to be a taut thriller about a cop who must hold down his precinct building against an onslaught of gang members, and his only ally is a dangerous criminal (talk about killer hooks, by the way). But while Carpenter utilizes the conventions of thrillers and even westerns, he also weaves into his tapestry a story about racism and urban decay. Neither thread dominates the film, but Carpenter’s eye to mining the anxieties and horrors of the world around him and using them to elevate his art is one of the most defining characteristics of his career.

And that characteristic was never displayed any better than it was in Assault on Precinct 13’s follow-up, the crown jewel of Carpenter’s career:

Halloween.

(As an aside, let me say that it’s not without much consideration that I call Halloween Carpenter’s masterpiece. Because he also made The Thing. And Escape from New York. And Starman.)

First, forget about every Halloween film that was made after the original, and forget about its countless knockoffs. Nothing compares to Carpenter’s original, a masterpiece not only of the horror genre, but a masterpiece of cinema. All of cinema.

There’s so much working in this movie that it’s difficult to know where to even begin. The technical achievements alone are awe-inspiring. It’s shot beautifully—the Midwestern town of Haddonfield, awash in brown and amber autumnal hues, is a portrait of both idyllic beauty but also dread. After all, autumn is the season of death—leaves fall from trees, grass withers with the winter chill. And Carpenter’s eye captures all of that. And as a bonus, he infuses this imagery with a score—arguably the most memorable of all time—that’s absolutely spine-tingling. Carpenter directs Jamie Lee Curtis and Donald Pleasence to tremendous heights; he paces every beat with a precision that’s unnerving. But, more than that, Carpenter made the most influential movie about evil of its time, one that continues to be as powerful today as it was almost 40 years ago.

The United States in the late 1970s and early 1980s was a time of personal, intimate horror. This is a bit of a tangential discussion, but for many reasons, fear felt very close. If you’ve seen IT—or have read the book—you know that this idea of intimate horror exists in King’s opus as well. Halloween is the progenitor of this trend of evil coming for you, specifically you, and it couldn’t be stopped. That was the genius of Michael Myers; he didn’t have a dead, emotionally abusive mother driving his psychosis like Norman Bates, nor did he exist in some already-frightening, unfamiliar backwoods like Leatherface. He existed in your small town, and he was evil just because that’s what he was. Michael Myers didn’t have any reason to be a killing machine, he had no motivation. He was the boogeyman, plain and simple. In early drafts of the script, he didn’t even have a name, instead being referred to simply as The Shape. Michael Myers is the evil—without reason or logic—that lurks in all of our lives and, like death itself, he will one day claim every single person he’s after.

Carpenter’s follow-up to Halloween was 1980’s The Fog, a fun, vintage horror yarn. Then he unleashed Escape from New York, a dystopian sci-fi movie that is, like Halloween, perfectly shot and scored, and it brought Carpenter back to his penchant for depicting urban decay. And while Escape is an absolute classic that introduces one of the most iconic film characters of all-time in Snake Plisken, it’s overshadowed by Carpenter’s subsequent release, which would prove to be his second masterpiece in just four years: The Thing.

The Thing is a perfect movie. From its beautifully shot widescreen opening moments to its pulse-pounding, ambiguous ending, it doesn’t waste a single second. A feast of Cold War paranoia where there’s no telling who to trust, the movie is expertly paced, wonderfully shot, and the atmosphere—a hallmark of Carpenter’s, creating pitch-perfect atmosphere—is so rich you can almost feel the bitter cold through the screen. And like other Carpenter gems, The Thing uses the conventions of horror to tremendous effect while transcending the genre at the same time. There are scares and chills—and some awesomely gory special effects—but at its heart The Thing is an examination of human nature laid bare, of what happens when the you-know-what hits the fan and all the rules of civilized society are thrown out the window. The Thing is a scary, smart, tremendous achievement that, like Halloween, should be regarded as one of the best movies ever made.

Carpenter followed The Thing with a string of films that range from good to great—Christine remains one of the best Stephen King adaptations to this day; Starman is a stunning achievement; Big Trouble in Little China needs no introduction; Prince of Darkness is weird but interesting; and They Live is so over the top and crazy that it actually works (and, of course, it has THAT fight scene). Granted, Carpenter’s career hit a decline once the 80s ended (though I’d argue Vampires is a ton of fun), but his run of greatness—where he displayed artistic talents of the highest order while plumbing the depths of the horror and sci-fi genres like few others have—makes him one of the absolute best, and most unique, filmmakers to grace us with his work. To this day, Carpenter remains an artist, an auteur, and an inspiration to countless storytellers, myself included.

Michael Moreci is a comics writer and novelist best known for his sci-fi trilogy Roche Limit. His debut novel, Black Star Renegades, is set to be released in January 2018. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelMoreci.

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