John Carpenter: analysing his style and growing influence

Feature Ryan Lambie
17 Feb 2016 - 07:03

Quentin Tarantino cites John Carpenter as an influence. So what is it about his style that’s so appealing? Ryan takes a closer look...

Martin Scorsese. Steven Spielberg. George Lucas. Some of the most influential, acclaimed and successful American filmmakers of their generation. But there’s one US director, whose career also began in the 1970s, who’s arguably influential as either of them.

John Carpenter was never part of the ‘movie brat’ crowd, which also included Brian De Palma and Francis Ford Coppola. Carpenter didn’t necessarily enjoy the Oscar success of Spielberg or, indeed, the multi-million dollar empire of Lucas. But John Carpenter’s unique body of genre work - particularly that created during his extraordinary run in the 70s and 80s - holds a particular fascination for a new generation of young filmmakers.

Such directors as Adam Wingard, James DeMonaco and David Robert Mitchell are either referencing Carpenter in their work, or openly citing the master of horror as an influence in interviews. Entertainment Weekly once hailed Carpenter as 2014's most influential director, and his reach was by no means an anomaly confined to that particular year: Jeremy Saulnier’s forthcoming film Green Room has a distinctly tough, Carpenter-esque edge, while James DeMonaco looks as though he’ll be channelling the spirit of Carpenter’s Assault On Precinct 13 and Escape From New York once again in his sci-fi sequel, Purge: Election Year.

So what’s going on? Is it simply nostalgia at work - a group of filmmakers fondly referencing the movies of their youth? Or is there, as I attempt to argue here, something more fundamentally important about Carpenter’s work?

What follows is a personal, but I hope useful, exploration of Carpenter’s filmmaking style, and why other directors have been impressed and influenced by it.

Establishing geography with long takes

The bravura opening shot of 1978’s Halloween perfectly established the prowling tone of Carpenter’s game-changing slasher film. In what recalls the controversial subjective moments of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960), the sequence takes us on a first-person tour of the Myers household; we become unwitting spectators as a young woman gets dressed and is then brutally knifed to death. It’s only a short while later that Carpenter reveals the truth: the killer is an innocent-looking boy - Michael, who will return as a full-grown masked maniac later in the film.

To a modern eye used to Steadicam sequences and unaware of Halloween’s history, this may not look all that impressive. But consider this: Halloween in its entirety was shot for a tiny $325,000. The opening Myers household sequence wasn’t shot until the last day of Halloween’s brisk production; by this point, Carpenter would probably have been wise to shoot the scene in a more conventional style. Instead, he had camera operator Ray Stella creep around the Myers house with a heavy Panaglide camera, through the kitchen, up the stairs, as the crew hurried around behind him, shifting lights and bits of equipment out of his way.

Far more than a gimmick, Halloween’s long opening take is an example of Carpenter’s interest in using the camera to establish the geography of a setting. Cinematographer Dean Cundey was key to this, and it could be argued that much of Carpenter’s work simply wouldn't have been the same without him. The ingenious use of lighting, framing and long tracking shots gave Halloween a sophistication that was sorely lacking in most cheap horror films both before and afterwards.

It’s worth noting that Halloween was commissioned as the kind of drive-in movie that would make a few dollars and swiftly disappear; Carpenter and co-writer Debra Hill wound up putting far more artistry and thought into the movie than its premise necessarily deserved - including that opening sequence, inspired by Orson Welles’ groundbreaking Touch Of Evil. What could have been a forgettable babysitters-in-peril flick became something with an almost supernatural power.

Carpenter did a similar thing in his first professional feature film Assault On Precinct 13, where the deliberately paced build-up introduces the police building of the title: we may not consciously notice what Carpenter’s doing, but he’s establishing the layout in the audience’s mind of a remote police precinct - a location that will soon become a battleground.

In The Thing, Carpenter again uses a Steadicam and long takes to establish the geography of his Antarctic outpost setting. We grow to understand the way narrow, sparse corridors connect up the kitchen, recreation room and living quarters. We can see that the base is large enough that people - and dogs - could, if they chose to, sneak around it without being seen. And like Halloween, the use of those long, low takes establishes the sense of foreboding and impending violence.

A use of framing to generate suspense

Carpenter’s constant withholding of blood and outright violence only adds to the suspense - Halloween isn’t about its bodycount, but the sensation that the killer could be almost anywhere, waiting.

This is exemplified in a magnificently simple shot where Jamie Lee Curtis stands terrorised in the foreground; behind her, the black rectangle of an open doorway. The composition tells us that something is missing, that a figure will soon fill the black gulf over Curtis’ shoulder. It happens, of course, but in the most brilliant way: Michael Myers appears mask first, his pale, expressionless mask illuminated by a spectral light.

The way Cundey achieved this was ingenious: he simply had a small light hidden out of shot, and at Carpenter’s command, gently faded the light up until Myers’ face looms up into view. The killer was standing there all the time - we just couldn’t quite see him.

Paranoia and electronic music

"The paranoia among the characters was so strong," Tarantino said of John Carpenter's The Thing, "trapped in that enclosure for so long, that it just bounced off all the walls until it had nowhere to go but out into the audience. That is what I was trying to achieve with The Hateful Eight."

Few American directors were adept at generating an air of paranoia as Carpenter. Indeed, what modern filmmakers seem to gravitate towards is Carpenter’s uncanny ability to create suspense through simple shots and chiming music. The two paired together create a brew that is unmistakeably Carpenter’s own. Carpenter has long maintained, quite modestly, that he wrote his own music for his early movies simply because it was economical. But the lean, simple rhythms of his unforgettable electronic scores.

Take a look at the opening credits of Assault On Precinct 13, where Carpenter’s bassy electronic soundtrack creates an air of menace before anything's even happened. That music is still ticking and murmuring in the background when the first scene unfolds: a bloody shoot-out in a benighted alleyway.

Together, the music and that opening image tells us everything we need to know about the grim, broken-down urban landscape Carpenter’s about to serve up. Assault is far from Carpenter’s best-known film, yet it still holds a certain allure among younger filmmakers. James Sable, the director of the musical horror Stage Fright (2014) once revealed in an interview that he was so keen to capture some of Assault’s low-budget menace that he copied the font used in that film’s title sequence, right down to its blood-red colour.

Carpenter-esque paranoia positively pours out of The Purge and its 2014 sequel, Purge: Anarchy. Writer-director James DeMonaco has certainly made no secret of his affection for Carpenter; he lists Escape From New York as one of his primary influences on Purge: Anarchy, and he even admitted to playing the theme tune from The Thing (written by Ennio Morricone in a decidedly Carpenter-like style) over and over again while writing its screenplay.

Carpenter’s most famous theme is undoubtedly the nightmarish five-four time piece he wrote for 1978‘s Halloween. It’s cycling, jingling piano is weirdly unsettling, its time signature leaving us uncertain where the melody will begin or end. It’s perfectly of a piece with Halloween’s killer-in-the-shadows premise and a common theme that lurks in almost all of Carpenter’s films: his movies leave their characters with nowhere to rest. Whether they're stuck in a police precinct beset by faceless criminals, stalked by a serial killer, chased by government agents (the underrated Starman) or stuck in a demonic town (1995's superb In The Mouth Of Madness), Carpenter heroes are in an almost constant state of fear and uncertainty.

While we're on the subject of Starman and In The Mouth Of Madness, take a look at the 2010 survival horror game Alan Wake, which has a premise uncannily like In The Mouth Of Madness. Then there's director Jeff Nichols' forthcoming sci-fi action thriller Midnight Special, which recently made its debut at the Berlin Film Festival. That film, Nichols says, came about because he "really wanted to make a 1980s John Carpenter film like Starman."

Then there are such movies as It Follows, The Guest and Cold In July - horror-thrillers that positively revel in their affection for Carpenter-esque electronica. The master of horror’s sonic landscape has now woven its way into the very fabric of modern filmmaking.

Cynicism, humour and blue-collar heroes

Along with the paranoia, claustrophobia and existential panic running through John Carpenter's movies, there's also a welcome thread of wry humour. In some instances, humour provides a release valve of tension after something horrifying's happened (see Palmer's line, "You gotta be fuckin' kidding" as a head sprouts eyes and legs in The Thing).

In films like Escape From New York and They Live, Carpenter brings all his cynicism to bear on such subjects as political corruption, Reaganomics and 80s greed. It’s worth noting that most of Carpenter’s films are toldfrom the perspective of very ordinary, often working class members of the society - and like the little kid in The Emperor’s New Clothes, these characters are often the only ones who can see reality for what it is, often leading to the funniest or exciting moments in Carpenter’s movies.

Laurie Strode, for example, is the sensible teenager who babysits while all her friends are off getting stoned or jumping into bed with their boyfriends. Strode’s the only one who’s clear-sighted enough to note that something’s gravely wrong, which is at least partly why she’s one of the only characters to survive until the end credits.

They Live’s hulking drifter Nada (the late Rowdy Roddy Piper) can literally see what others can’t thanks to a special pair of shades: these reveal that the rich and powerful (what we might now term the one percent) are all bug-eyed aliens, disguised and walking among us in Armani suits and expensive dresses. It’s a slyly satirical idea from Carpenter, resulting in one of his very best and funniest films.

They Live could also be seen as a companion piece to Escape From New York, which introduces perhaps the most cynical action hero in 80s cinema - the ex-soldier and former convict forced to rescue a corrupt and weasly US President (Donald Pleasence) from New York, now a giant maximum security prison. The movie was initially written in the wake of the Watergate Scandal in the mid-1970s, and it’s easy to see more of a trace of Nixon in Pleasence’s cold-hearted President (just look at his indifferent reaction when Snake asks him about all the people who died in the process of rescuing him).

It’s through characters like Laurie, Nada, Snake and The Thing’s MacReady that Carpenter casts his wry eye over the world. They’re his ground-level entry point into his worlds of violence and chaos. At first glance, Carpenter’s outright comedy Big Trouble In Little China might not appear to fit this mould, But bear in mind that the star of that movie - Kurt Russell’s hard-drinking trucker Jack Burton - isn’t really the hero at all; in most instances, he’s the least capable character in the entire film. The running joke in Big Trouble In Little China, therefore, is that Burton thinks he’s the hero of the piece, but fails to realise that it’s actually his pal Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) who’s the really smart, capable one...

Re-appropriating staples from westerns

This entry’s self-explanatory. John Carpenter, long a devotee of Hollywood auteur Howard Hawks, has infused his love of westerns into just about every film he’s ever made. Assault On Precinct 13 is often described as an urban western. Escape From New York’s Snake Plissken is like an old-world gunslinger thrown into a grimy future dystopia. Big Trouble In Little China even began as a period western before screenwriter WD Richter updated it to present-day (that is, 1980s) San Francisco. Ghosts Of Mars, one of Carpenter’s least satisfying films, is a space western as well as a hark back to Assault On Precinct 13.

It’s a sad fact that the western’s relative lack of popularity through the 80s and 90s meant that Carpenter never got to make a pure entry in that genre; it would have been interesting to have seen him direct, say, Tombstone, which starred his old partner in filmmaking crime Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp. At any rate, the spirit of classic westerns runs deep in Carpenter’s filmmaking, as this Crave article explores in wonderful detail. The ten-gallon hats and horses may be missing, but the lone gunslingers, besieged forts and squinty machismo of the genre are still everywhere to be found.

Economical storytelling

From his very first feature, Dark Star, Carpenter managed to wring every drop of possibility from small budgets and confined locations. From that debut to his last film to date, 2010's The Ward, Carpenter's films have been largely defined by their narrative economy; whether they're urban thrillers, slasher horrors or classic ghost stories, like The Fog, the plots in Carpenter movies are pared back to their bare essentials.

Even when the budgets grew as the director's profile grew in the 1980s, the plots remained streamlined. The Thing takes place almost entirely in the confines of an Antarctic research station. The action-comedy Big Trouble In Little China largely unfolds in one building in San Francisco's Chinatown. Apocalyptic horror Prince Of Darkness restricts its nightmarish events to an old church.

Carpenter's focus on relatively small groups of characters, claustrophobic locations and direct storytelling has had a quiet yet obvious impact on other film directors. Consider Quentin Tarantino's feature debut Reservoir Dogs first; about a group of criminals holed up in a warehouse after a botched diamond robbery, its events are very much like 70s-era Carpenter (Reservoir Dogs' infamous ear-slicing scene could even be seen as its own analogue of the shocking death of a young girl buying an ice cream in Assault On Precinct 13).

If that sounds a little far-fetched, here's what Tarantino had to say about his latest film, The Hateful Eight - another film with a small cast of characters loitering in a remote, confined location.

"The Thing is the one movie that is the most influential movie on this movie per se," Tarantino told Christopher Nolan in a January Q&A. "It's the only movie that I showed the cast. I even showed it to Kurt Russell. He loved watching it with the cast: 'That's mine baby, that's what I did.'"

If you're still sceptical about the debt Reservoir Dogs owes Carpenter, here's the best bit:

"...And actually, Reservoir Dogs was very much influenced by The Thing," Tarantino continued, "so it goes a long way..."

Indeed, Carpenter's narrative economy has fed into all kinds of movies. Just look at the number of films that have taken place in a single building from the last few years alone: Attack The Block, The Raid, Tower Block and '71. They're very different films, running the gamut from sci-fi comedy to action to period thriller, but all shot through with Carpenter's keen-eyed sensibility. As for 2012's Dredd, check out Tim George's 2015 piece about why it's the best film Carpenter never made.

An enduring influence, and a director who deserves his due

The irony of John Carpenter’s status as a director of cult classics is that several of his best films were initially dismissed either critically or commercially at the time of release. Film critic Vincent Canby famously condemned The Thing as “instant junk” in 1982, and audiences, charmed by the warm glow of E.T.’s benign alien presence, didn’t exactly flock to see Carpenter’s protean horror. Big Trouble In Little China, released the same year as the hit Eddie Murphy comedy The Golden Child, which had a similar theme, simply couldn’t compete at the box office.

Yet Carpenter’s films have endured, even as the movies that won awards or soared to the top of the box office in the 80s have gradually faded from memory. That Carpenter worked primarily as a genre director often meant his movies were sniffily dismissed by mainstream critics when he was at the height of his creative powers.

How different things might have been had Carpenter been a 30-something film director working in the 21st century instead of the late 20th. We are, after all, in an era where genre cinema is being given far more respect than it once was. This is an era where a low-budget horror like It Follows makes a buzz not at drive-in movie theatres, but at the Cannes Film Festival. In 1978, having a film like Halloween debut at a ‘respectable’ venue like Cannes would have been unthinkable.

Jeremy Saulnier’s debut thriller, Blue Ruin - another movie with more than a hint of John Carpenter’s streamlined, tough edge - also premiered at Cannes. Saulnier’s next film is Green Room, a startlingly violent, intense film about a band stuck in the back room of a night club infested with murderous neo-Nazis. Shades of Assault On Precinct 13? Undoubtedly.

When asked by Entertainment Weekly what he thought about the influence of his filmmaking, his response was characteristically dry. “I love it,” he said. “But I just wish they would send me money. It doesn’t have to be much - just a couple bucks.”

These days, Carpenter’s concentrating on his other career as a musician - he’s currently promoting his forthcoming album, John Carpenter’s Lost Themes II. But as I hope this brief overview has proved, the director created an extraordinary collection of movies over his long career. His films are thrilling, disturbing, caustically witty and often delightfully personal and odd. Above all, they’re crafted with far more care and intelligence than the glib critics of the 70s and 80s might have had us believe.

Simply put, without the unique sights and sounds of John Carpenter’s movies, our modern filmmaking landscape wouldn’t be the same. 

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