John Carpenter is sometimes referred to as the “master of the horror film.” This is a reasonable title, bearing in mind that he has proved to be not only a director with a visually and thematically consistent body of work, but also a true visionary of the horror genre. Although usually misunderstood and under appreciated by audiences and film critics alike, John Carpenter has created some of the most intense, imaginative, influential and successful horror films in cinema history. Consider for example Halloween (1978), one of the most profitable independent films ever made. This one film spawned seven sequels, countless imitations, and ignited the slasher-film boom that flourished and dominated the horror film industry during the late 1970s and early 1980s. (1) At the same time, it would be unfair to categorize John Carpenter as just a horror film director, as he has also created exceptional science fiction and action films. However, it is worth noticing that even if the majority of Carpenter’s films belong to a fantastic genre, they all bear a strong influence from the western. Regardless of their subject matter, the films directed by John Carpenter are characterized by his mastery of the cinematographical craft, and by the showcasing of engaging narratives that convey a profound commentary on the many social, racial, gender and sexual anxieties of our modern world.
John Carpenter was born January 15, 1948 in Carthage, New York, and raised in Bowling Green, Kentucky. From an early age, Carpenter showed a strong interest in films and filmmaking. The westerns directed by Howard Hawks and John Ford, as well as the many low budget science fiction films from the 1950s, had a strong influence on him during his youth. His father, an established musician, also influenced him in the development of his musical skills. In the late 1960s Carpenter enrolled in the film program at the University of Southern California (USC), one of the most respected film schools in the USA. It was in the early 1970s, still under the aegis of USC and as part of his Master’s thesis project, that Carpenter directed his first film. Dark Star (1975) is a science fiction film that tells the story of four astronauts on a mission to destroy unstable worlds, with the hope of making future space exploration and colonization a safer venture. Dark Star is remarkable for being one of the first films to portray a postmodernist futuristic environment, years before the arrival of Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979) and Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1981). Besides showcasing a radically new type of setting for a space opera film, Dark Star has a smart and highly imaginative plot. Undeniably, one of the film’s highlights is when the astronauts engage in a philosophical discussion with a malfunctioning nuclear bomb, trying to persuade it not to explode inside the ship. As a student film, with a very limited budget and a relatively inexperienced crew, Dark Star was an incredibly challenging film to make from a technical perspective. Nevertheless, the film was successfully completed and received a limited theatrical release. It became an instant cult classic and was welcomed with overall positive reviews from critics and audiences, but most importantly, it heralded John Carpenter as a clever, creative and resourceful filmmaker.
Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) was Carpenter’s first professional production, and although it is not as popular as some of his other films, it is one of his most accomplished works. This film could be described as a remake of Howard Hawk’s classic western Rio Bravo (1959) set in modern day Los Angeles, in the macabre style of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). Assault on Precinct 13 depicts the story of a police station under siege by a ruthless and vicious gang. A rookie policeman, an enigmatic prisoner on his way to death row, a catatonic man, and a reliable woman are among the characters that have to endure, during the course of an entire night, a brutal assault carried out by a group of faceless aggressors. For this low-budget, independent film, Carpenter enjoyed a great degree of creative control, which allowed him to craft an extremely violent, but highly stylized, fable of urban violence. As a matter of fact, this is one of the few films that graphically portray a young child being shot.
Even as an early entry in the director’s oeuvre, Assault on Precinct 13 clearly showcases Carpenter’s distinctive visual and thematic style. (2) Carpenter’s ongoing fascination with Hawksian themes permeates the narrative of Assault on Precinct 13 and most of his films thereafter: heroes that are trustworthy professionals pitted with impossible odds against an evil wrongdoer, the strong bond between seemingly opposed characters, the continuing battle of the sexes, and the collapse of authority institutions. Visually, the elegant composition and framing of Assault on Precinct 13 are a result of Carpenter’s enduring preference for the Panavision format. In all of his films, Carpenter takes full advantage of this widescreen format to create stylish setups and elegant frame compositions that present to the audience a clear layout of the space where the cinematic action is taking place. At the same time, Carpenter has an inclination for highly economical camera setups and movements, which tend to maximize the development of the narrative. Finally, but no less important to note, Assault on Precinct 13 features a rhythmic electronic soundtrack composed and performed by John Carpenter himself, who has created the score for most of his films.
John Carpenter’s next film, Halloween (1978), would prove to be the most successful of his career, and one of the most influential and enduring movies of the horror genre. (3) Although Halloween has a very simple storyline—a baby sitter being terrorized by an unstoppable serial killer—Carpenter managed to create a highly stylized, intelligent, and decidedly scary horror movie. Enjoying full creative control, Carpenter produced a powerful narrative that explores the repressed sexuality of the young sitter, and the violence she ends up exerting on her attacker. (4) He further developed the intense storyline by creating visually outstanding scenes. Visual highlights of the film include the gradual emergence of the white masked killer from the shadows and the ubiquitous subjective point of view shots of the killer at the beginning of the film. However the real achievement of Carpenter, as a director and as a storyteller, was to create a memorable and truly frightening viewing experience. The success of Halloween established the reputation of John Carpenter as a director able to produce a high quality film on a modest budget.
After the unquestionable financial success of Halloween, John Carpenter was given the opportunity to handle productions involving much larger budgets. Fortunately he was able to retain a high degree of creative control in these projects. In 1980 he directed The Fog, an atmospheric and beautifully photographed ghost story where the supernatural entities are the product of the cultural guilt of a small town community. (5) However, it was in 1981 when Carpenter was finally able to realize one of his dream projects, Escape From New York, a futuristic action film for which he had written the script in the mid 1970s. The plot is at its roots a western, greatly indebted to the work of Sergio Leone and Howard Hawks. However the originality of Escape From New York lies in its daring central concept of depicting Manhattan as a grim and dangerous high security prison. Carpenter showcased in this film a fascist, brutal, bleak and nihilistic future where freedom and civil rights are totally absent, even outside the penal complex. In a sense, Escape From New York presents a cynical view of the greed, crime, violence, corruption, overpopulation and selfishness found in contemporary America. Upon its release, the film not only found warm reception and success, but also turned out to be a seminal science fiction film that generated numerous imitations. Escape From New York is pivotal in Carpenter’s career as it marked his farewell from independent productions; his next four films would be under the aegis of the Hollywood system.
While nearly everyone readily identifies John Carpenter with Halloween, his most accomplished, if not his most successful, work to date has been The Thing (1982). (6) As the title suggests, The Thing is a remake of the classic Howard Hawks production The Thing From Another World (Christian Nyby, 1951), which was loosely based on the seminal science fiction novella “Who goes there?” by John W. Campbell, Jr. However Carpenter thankfully avoids a mere faithful retelling of the revered classic film. The Thing presents the members of an Antarctic station battling a relentless alien threat that absorbs and imitates living creatures, and transforms human flesh into gruesome creatures. For the characters in this film, the destruction of the monster is just as important as being able to figure out which members of the team are infected with the extraterrestrial menace. Carpenter created a complex web of paranoia where trust is completely nonexistent, and offered a unique study of the conflictive relationships generated among the group of men. At the same time, the grotesque transformations of the human body showcased in the film make explicit, in true Cronenbergian fashion, the fragility of the flesh, while the idea of a highly contagious terror functions as a metaphor for AIDS.
Because of its distinctive setting and bizarre title creature, The Thing could easily be Carpenter’s most challenging and technically complex film to date. (7) However, no difficulty was impossible to overcome by Carpenter and his crew. The desolate Antarctic landscape and the claustrophobic base are incredibly convincing, the design of the monster remains one of the most frightening creatures in cinema history, and the gruesome and extremely realistic special effects continue to be unmatched even in today’s era of seemingly unbound digital artistry. But most importantly, Carpenter’s direction may be the finest in his entire career. In order to enhance the realism of the narrative, Carpenter uses very simple camera setups and elegant composition that exploits the entire extension of the Panavision widescreen frame. So, for example, in a scene that takes place in the infirmary, two characters menacingly surround the hero who is positioned at the center of the frame, while the outermost left hand side of the frame shows the hand of a character hiding a scalpel. This image dramatically intensifies the feelings of paranoia and claustrophobia that are crucial to the film. Unfortunately, at the time of its original release, The Thing‘s critical and box office reception was very poor. However in subsequent years The Thing has managed to find a second life in video, where not only it has been rediscovered by audiences in general, but it has also become a prime film for academic discussion. (8) The current reassessment of The Thing stands as a solid argument for considering John Carpenter as a visionary director ahead of his own time.
Sooner or later, most directors associated with the horror genre end up helming a production based on a Stephen King book. In 1983 Carpenter had his turn with Christine, a story about a demonic car wracking havoc. Next, Carpenter directed Starman (1984), a romantic science fiction film about an alien stranded on Earth. While both Christine and Starman were successful with audiences and critics alike, they remain as two of the least interesting films in Carpenter’s oeuvre. On the other hand Big Trouble in Little China (1986) is one of his finest films to date. This multifaceted film effectively combines elements of the western, horror, fantasy and Hong Kong martial arts films. The film also features some of the best martial arts choreography of its time in a Western film. In a sense this film anticipated martial arts extravaganzas such as The Matrix (Andy and Larry Wachowski, 1999) and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, 2000), as well as the western assimilation of the distinctive Hong Kong action film style of directors such as Tsui Hark and John Woo. At the same time, Big Trouble in Little China presents a unique deconstruction of the mythologies of the American action hero. Indeed, Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) is the complete antithesis of the 1980s action hero: he is an ignorant fool who thinks he is John Wayne, and his attempted heroics are misguided and even dangerous. (9) As with The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China was ahead of its time, and audiences in 1986 were not ready for the flamboyant Hong Kong style action films or for the mockery of the emblematic American action hero. As a result, Big Trouble in Little China was poorly received upon its original release. However in the past few years it has slowly been revisited and rediscovered on video.
After having directed four films in the Hollywood studio system, Carpenter grew disappointed and frustrated because of the studio executives’ interference and lack of support. Carpenter longed for the days of independent filmmaking, where even if he had small budgets, he had complete creative control. Carpenter returned to the independent arena and as a result his next two projects turned out to be among the most inspired, imaginative and provocative films of his career. Prince of Darkness (1987) showcases a unique blend of occultism, demonology and cutting edge theoretical physics, in a tale that is reminiscent of the cosmic horrors created by H. P. Lovecraft. Carpenter offers a sharp commentary on faith and religion, which according to the film’s plot are mere inventions created by our ancestors to try to understand extraordinary, but nevertheless real and tangible, physical phenomena. Technically, this film is close to flawless, and the escalating intensity of the last 15 minutes is an example of superlative pace and rhythm.
In Prince of Darkness, Carpenter also had the opportunity to explore important social issues such as the poverty and the class segregation found in modern day Los Angeles. These topics became the focus of his next film, They Live (1988), which possibly presents one of the most imaginative, provocative and incisive criticisms on these subjects found in cinema history. (10) In this film, specially designed sunglasses allow the user to see the world as it really is: the upper class, TV show hosts, government officials and law enforcement agents are extraterrestrials who are secretly exploiting the Earth’s resources. On the other hand, the homeless and the working class are still humans, who are being hypnotized with subliminal images that force them to obey the law, marry and reproduce, avoid creative thinking and to adopt a very conformist attitude. Without a doubt They Live was ahead of its time and in a sense this little-known film anticipated the post-apocalyptic world depicted in The Matrix.
After a four-year hiatus from feature filmmaking, Carpenter returned to the big screen in 1992 with the comedic Memoirs of an Invisible Man, probably his least interesting film. However, three years later Carpenter would return with an extraordinary film. Similar to Prince of Darkness, In the Mouth of Madness (1995) is greatly inspired by the alienating and terrifying worlds of cosmic horror envisioned by H.P. Lovecraft. This apocalyptic film concerns the provocative idea of horror books producing schizophrenia in readers, while simultaneously opening the doors to unnamable horrors from beyond. The narrative style of In the Mouth of Madness is completely nonlinear, and Carpenter cleverly uses space and time dislocation and disorientation to create a nightmarish world. Most important, it is a self-conscious film that invites the viewer to meditate about the paradoxical nature of horror cinema. (11)
Subsequent to Village of the Damned (1995), an uninspired remake of the 1960 classic science fiction film, Carpenter directed three films that virtually deconstruct, reinvent and cross-fertilize the western genre. Escape From Los Angeles (1996), Vampires (1998) and Ghosts From Mars (2001) are horror and science fiction films, but at their core they encompass the narrative construction and mythological structure of the westerns directed by John Ford, Sergio Leone and his much admired Howard Hawks. Visually and in his narrative, Carpenter managed to distill, refine and purify the crucial ingredients of the western, and imaginatively recreated them within the context of a fantastic genre film. These three films showcase tough and seemingly unemotional professionals with mercenary spirits, who are giving battle to a powerful evil in the middle of a desolate landscape. By the end of their adventure, their major triumph is to rediscover their empathic and emotional human nature.
After a 28-year career in the film industry, John Carpenter has directed some of the most successful, seminal, provocative, imaginative, intense and frightening films in cinema history. Even more, a number of his films have clearly been ahead of their time, and they have slowly been rediscovered and reassessed by audiences and academics in recent years. Without a doubt, films such as The Thing and They Live establish Carpenter as a true visionary of the fantastic cinema. At the same time, he has reinvented and resurrected the western in the form of action, horror and science fiction films. Unfortunately, John Carpenter is a name associated with the frequently under-appreciated horror genre, and as a consequence, most of his films lack the critical attention that they deserve. However, in terms of visual style and narrative development, John Carpenter certainly stands out as an exceptional horror director and also as one of the greatest filmmakers in cinema history.
Dark Star (1975) also producer, writer and music composer
Assault On Precinct 13 (1976) also writer, music composer and editor under the John T. Chance pseudonym
Halloween (1978) also writer and music composer
The Fog (1980) also writer and music composer
Escape from New York (1981) also writer and music composer
The Thing (1982)
Christine (1983) also music composer
Big Trouble in Little China (1986) also music composer
Prince of Darkness (1987) also music composer and writer under the Martin Quatermass pseudonym
They Live (1988) also music composer and writer under the Frank Armitage pseudonym
Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992)
In the Mouth of Madness (1995) also music composer
Village of the Damned (1995) also music composer
Escape from L.A. (1996) also writer and music composer
Vampires (1998) also music composer
Ghosts from Mars (2001) also writer and music composer
The Ward (2010)
John Carpenter: Escape from New York (2016) Video short
John Carpenter: Distant Dream (2016) Video short
John Carpenter: Christine (2017) Video short
Made-for-television films directed by John Carpenter:
Someone’s Watching Me! (1978) also writer
John Carpenter Presents Body Bags (1993) also co-producer and music composer
The Resurrection of Bronco Billy (James R. Rokos, 1970) writer, editor and music composer
Zuma Beach (Lee H. Katzin, 1978) writer
Eyes of Laura Mars (Irvin Kershner, 1978) writer
Halloween II (Rick Rosenthal, 1981) writer, producer and music composer
Halloween III: The Season of the Witch (Tommy Lee Wallace, 1982) producer and music composer
The Philadelphia Experiment (Stewart Raffill, 1984) executive producer
Black Moon Raising (Harley Cokeliss, 1985) writer and executive producer
El Diablo (Peter Markle, 1990) writer
Blood River (Mel Damski, 1991) writer
Silent Predators (Noel Nosseck, 1999) made for television; teleplay
Vampires: Los Muertos (Tommy Lee Wallace, 2002) executive producer
Anne Billson, The Thing, British Film Institute Modern Classics, BFI Publishing, 1997
M. Le Blanc and C. Odell, John Carpenter, Pocket Essentials, 2001
Robert C Cumbow, Order in the Universe: The Films of John Carpenter, Second Edition, The Scarecrow Press, 2000
Dennis Fischer, Horror Film Directors, 1931-1990, McFarland & Company, 1991
Kent Jones, “American Movie Classic: John Carpenter”, Film Comment, January/February 1999
John McCarty, The Fearmakers, St, Martin’s Press, 1994
John Kenneth Muir, The Films of John Carpenter, McFarland & Company, 2000
(Note: The “Official John Carpenter Web Page” reproduces a large number of magazine and newspaper articles dealing with John Carpenter and his films.)
Articles in Senses of Cinema
Compiled by author and Albert Fung
Film Directors: Articles on the Internet Several online articles on Carpenter can be found here. Just scroll down.
The official John Carpenter web page A good source of information, images and sound clips.
Outpost #31 An exhaustive source of information about The Thing.
Click here to search for John Carpenter DVDs, videos and books at
DVDs and Laserdiscs with a commentary track with John Carpenter:
Assault On Precinct 13: Region 1 NTSC DVDHalloween: Criterion Collection LaserdiscThe Fog: Region 1 NTSC DVDEscape from New York: Image Special Edition LaserdiscThe Thing: Region 1 NTSC DVDStarman: Region 2 PAL DVDBig Trouble in Little China: Region 1 NTSC DVDPrince of Darkness: Region 2 PAL DVDThey Live: Region 2 PAL DVDIn the Mouth of Madness: Region 1 NTSC DVDVampires: Region 1 NTSC DVDGhosts from Mars: Region 1 NTSC DVD
- See, for instance, A. Rockoff, Going to Pieces, The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film, 1978-1986, McFarland & Company, 2002.
- Broad discussions of Carpenter’s visual and thematic style can be found in: R. C. Cumbow, Order in the Universe, The Films of John Carpenter, The Scarecrow Press, Second Edition, 2000, and in J. K. Muir, The Films of John Carpenter, McFarland & Company, 2000. A more simplified presentation is given in: M. Le Blanc and C. Odell, John Carpenter, Pocket Essentials, 2001.
- Halloween has been the focus of several academic discussions. See, for instance, C.J. Clover, Men, Women and Chainsaws, Gender in the Modern Horror Film, Princeton University Press, 1992, V. Dika, Games of Terror: Halloween, Friday the 13th, and the Films of the Stalker Cycle, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1990, and S. Neale, “Halloween: Suspense, Aggression and the Look”, in B. K. Grant (ed.), Planks of Reason: Essays on the Horror Film, The Scarecrow Press, 1984.
- See the interesting discussion presented in Clover, ibid.
- According to Robin Wood, if we subscribe to Freudian theory, some horror films can be understood in terms of a psychological “Returned of the Repressed,” where the monsters embody repressed desires and feelings (see, for example, R. Wood, “The American Nightmare: Horror in the 70s” in Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan, Columbia University Press, New York, 1986). However, several horror films can also be analyzed in terms of a sociological or cultural “Return of the Repressed,” where the monsters are the product of repressed guilt generated from actions wrongly done by our own society (In: M. Lanzagorta, “Moralizing the Primitive in Modern Cinema”, to appear in Pop Matters http://www.popmatters.com/). Such is the case of The Fog, where ghosts from people who were killed 100 years ago by the greedy founders of the town attack the town community.
- An in-depth discussion of The Thing can be found in: A. Billson, The Thing, British Film Institute Modern Classics, BFI Publishing, 1997.
- A detailed description of the making of The Thing can be found in the special edition of Cinefantastique magazine, November-December, 1982, and in the bonus features found in the special edition DVD.
- See, for example, Billson, ibid, and S. Neale, “’You’ve Got To Be Fucking Kidding!’ Knowledge, Belief and Judgment in Science Fiction”, in A. Kuhn (ed.), Alien Zone, Verso, 1990.
- Let us recall that in the mid 1980s, the American action hero mythology was based on films such as Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, 1981), Rambo: First Blood Part II (George Pan Cosmatos, 1985), Die Hard (John McTiernan, 1988) and Lethal Weapon (Richard Donner, 1987), where the hero was portrayed as strong, experienced and never wrong. A good discussion on 1980s action film heroes can be found in: S. Jeffords, Hard Bodies: Hollywood Masculinity in the Reagan Era, Rutgers University Press, 1994.
- An interesting discussion on They Live can be found in: L. McLarty, “Alien/Nation: Invasions, Abductions, and the Politics of Identity” in C. Sharrett (ed.), Mythologies of Violence in Postmodern Media, Wayne State University Press, 1999.
- According to N. Carroll, horror cinema is paradoxical because audiences find pleasure from seemingly disgusting images. See: N. Carroll, The Philosophy of Horror, Routledge, 1990.