John Carpenter: Master of Horror
When we think of horror movies, a few names come to mind. High on the list is filmmaker John Carpenter, who created the enduring cinematic menace of Michael Myers.
Carpenter was born in Carthage, New York, but his family moved to Bowling Green, Kentucky in 1953. He attended Western Kentucky University, where his father was a music professor, before moving to Los Angeles to study film at USC.
“Everything I learned about horror was from that place,” Carpenter said of Kentucky. “We were Yankees in the Jim Crow South. The United States is a violent country. We always have been. We embrace our individuality and our violence.”
There are numerous references to his childhood in Halloween, including a reference to “Smiths Grove, IL.” That’s the name of a small town located about 15 miles north of Bowling Green. There are also numerous references to street names that are major roads in the city.
The film was shot in 21 days on a budget of $320,000. It became the highest-grossing independent movie ever made when released.
He admits his early success owes something to good fortune as much as talent.
“We were just a bunch of young kids who barely knew what we were doing,” Carpenter said.
The theme music to Halloween also contributed much to the movie’s popularity. It was written in the rare 5/4 time signature, which he learned from his father.
“It was cheap and fast,” Carpenter said of composing the soundtrack. “Movies are pieces of film stuck together in a certain rhythm, an absolute beat, like a musical composition. The rhythm you create affects the audience. I was thinking of the themes from Psycho and Jaws as I went into the studio with a sound guy from USC. The score was done in three days. I was just trying to finish a movie!”
Since then, he has had numerous roles in the film industry including writer, actor, composer, producer, and director.
He said his favorite actors to collaborate with are Jeff Bridges, Kurt Russell and Sam O’Neil. Bridges, he said, is the finest actor of his generation, and he gave frequent collaborator Russell respect for taking on roles that potentially risk making him look silly.
Speaking of silliness, it doesn’t take long to realize Carpenter isn’t a big fan of most films playing these days — or those churning them out.
“I’m not a fan of torture horror like the Saw movies or this renewed trend of 3D,” he said. “Also, I’m not a big fan of how the Internet has affected the movies. Every time someone downloads a movie of mine from a bit torrent, they are taking money from me.”
Carpenter feels much more of a kinship for older-style films.
“Very few films that are made now interest me at all. I get up and walk out of them,” he said.
“When I worked at Universal, things were vastly different. They were generous and gave us extra time to work on effects. Today, you don’t make movies, you’re making product. It’s show business — not show art. Directors are treated like bums now. This is a bad time for creative people. Hollywood is a mean place to work.”
The disdain is increasingly mutual. He acknowledged some professional misfires in recent years.
“For a while now, people haven’t really been getting my movies,” he said. “Certainly the box office hasn’t been up to speed. Sure, some of my recent stuff hasn’t been perfect, but neither has it been the shit that many have said. Critically, it’s all become a bit of crapshoot. The critics thought I was a bum when I started out, and they think I’m a bum now. I don’t deny that commercial success means a lot to me. The best reviews you can get are at the box office. If you movie doesn’t perform immediately, the exhibitors want to get rid of it. The exhibitors only want product in their theaters which makes money. Quality has nothing to do with it.”
Carpenter turned down offers to direct such hits as Top Gun, Fatal Attraction and Zombieland. It would be wrong to say he doesn’t like anything he sees on the big screen these days.
“I like what Christopher Nolan has done as a director on the newer Batman films. Even if you’re doing a remake, make it your own movie. I’m flattered if someone comes to me with the idea of remaking one of my films. Remakes are big right now because it’s become increasingly difficult to lure audiences into theaters. Advertising a remade title that may be familiar to audiences can hopefully cut through the clutter of titles and products that one sees. Remake or original, it still comes down to old-fashioned hard work.”
It can be hard to match early success, but to his credit, Carpenter did not settle into the role of a hack endlessly exploiting his creation with creativity set on auto-pilot. As Steven Spielberg did after striking a hit with Jaws, Carpenter declined to helm the sequel to Halloween.
“I didn’t think there was a story after the first Halloween movie,” he said. “I didn’t want to direct the same movie again, so I settled into my favorite role in the movie biz: sitting on my couch watching an NBA game and putting my hand out to collect a check,” he joked.
“On Halloween 2 and 3, I had pressure to write something and had a six-pack,” he said. “I thought Halloween 3 was unduly trashed. Audiences wanted the same old thing over and over again. The producers got mad because they thought I’d destroyed their franchise. They took it out of my hands, and I was done with Halloween.”
Considering how lame the sequels that followed became — populated by lackluster characters that existed merely to be slain on screen for spectacle — it was a good move to disassociate himself from the horror cash cow of Michael Myers.
Still, his own credits are a mix of hits and flops.
“I wear each of my films as a badge of pride,” Carpenter said. “I cherish my bad reviews because I don’t want to be in the mainstream. I want to be an individual. If the critics start liking my movies, then I’m in deep trouble.
“I’ve realized that ambition in trying to make a mark in the movies is immature. Luck and the randomness of fate play such a big part in whether I’m a success or a failure. Regardless of how bitter I was because of my experiences at the studios, I’m still making films because I love it.”