Halloween’s own Prince of Darkness
Of course we all know John Carpenter. Starting with Halloween, his movies have never just been The Fog, or Christine, or In The Mouth of Madness, but John Carpenter’s The Fog, John Carpenter’s Christine, John Carpenter’s etc. He rose from obscurity to fame in a relatively short period of time and kept his name above the title throughout his long career. Yet, with a handful of exceptions, Carpenter’s movies never made money upon their initial release, nor were they critically well-received. But as much as his films struggled to find an audience during their theatrical runs, they found a willing audience on cable TV or VHS tape. His films became cult favorites and Carpenter still managed to keep on making them in his own voice.
Carpenter is known as a “Master of Horror,” but one can’t discount his dry, subversive sense of humor. His first feature, Dark Star, is a low-key comedy that combines elements of Strangeglovian satire with silent film slapstick. It’s as if Jacques Tati had directed Alien. And that same odd blend of self-aware camp and suspense has permeated every one of his films since. The fight scene in They Live goes on for so long, it loops around past annoying and becomes funny- like Sideshow Bob stepping on those rakes. Jurgen Prochnow’s performance in In the Mouth of Madness is wickedly arch. Even at their most serious, you can see the huge grin on Carpenter’s face. It’s hard to imagine him not finding the defibrillator scene in The Thing wickedly funny.
Carpenter is known as a “Master of Horror,” but one can’t discount his dry, subversive sense of humor.
This is one of the reasons why remakes of Carpenter’s films never resonate as well as the original. The filmmakers are copying the notes, but none of the feeling. They’ve tried time and time again with remakes of Halloween, The Fog, and Assault on Precinct 13, and remakes/sequels of They Live and Big Trouble in Little China have been in various stages of development for some time. But no one seems to be able to duplicate Carpenter’s strange alchemy. And the answer is never ‘more money’ or ‘better special effects.’ Carpenter’s at his best when he’s forced to work around his budget limitations.
Carpenter hasn’t directed a movie since 2010’s The Ward. He’s been more involved in his music production, having released three studio albums in the last eight years. He also served as a producer on David Gordon Green’s 2018 Halloween sequel. It’s unclear if he’ll ever return to the director’s chair, but even if that never happens, his legacy is secure. His films never found the mass audience that directors like Spielberg attract, nor were they ever rewarded with end-of-the-year awards, but then, neither were Hitchcock’s films.
Carpenter single-handedly changed the face of horror films with Halloween by launching the slasher-film genre (which is an admittedly mixed blessing), and gave us numerous, unique cult classics. Sure, he’s a “Master of Horror,” but more importantly John Carpenter is a master at making the kind of movies that John Carpenter wants to make. They don’t always fit comfortably into any one genre, but they all clearly came from the same source.
– Jeffrey Knight
Fan for Life: A Personal Recollection on John Carpenter
by Paul Hibbard
When you are young, movies can be reality to you. You are barely understanding that you’re watching actors on screen, much less knowing who the director is. So, when I found out that the same person directed or produced a few movies that really had an impact on me as a kid, that’s when I knew I was a John Carpenter fan for life.
Halloween was a pivotal film for any child horror fan in the 80s and 90s. The stalking Michael Myers roaming the streets on Halloween always creeped me out as I trick or treated. He could be walking anywhere. Following me.
But Halloween III: Season of the Witch was just as important. I didn’t really understand at the time that they were both from the same series, they were just two films that tore into my young mind and never left (Carpenter was the producer and the brainchild of Season of the Witch). The melting masks of dissolving worms and Todd Atkins frantically screaming to shut down the commercials at the end of the movie really creeped me out in ways I couldn’t comprehend.
And then, when I got a little older, and really started exploring comedy, Big Trouble in Little China became an essential film for me. Kurt Russell was hilarious in the John Wayne-inspired performance. The movie is a perfect blend of creepy, haunting and hilarious.
As I got a little older, I started to see the ideas behind more political horror. They Live was always a big part of that exploration. The anti-consumerism message was perfect for someone in my early teens, who needed to be against something, but also needed it to be a broad and simplistic message because I was too young to really understand things.
One day I put it all together. These four movies, which all held an important part of my youth, were all done by the same guy. I can’t even picture my childhood without Carpenter being a part of it.
Interestingly enough, as he fizzled out in the world of filmmaking, he entered another passion of mine: music. Now, music was always important to his work, as he’d score his own films. But in recent years, he has all but washed his hands of the world of filmmaking and has released albums, made up of his music to the vocals of some very talented indie artists. They lend their talents because of how much they respect him. Many of these musicians are my age, and like me, they grew up on Carpenter. And he has always remained a part of our lives.
1979, Metro Goldwyn Mayer, dir. John Carpenter
by Krystal Lyon
So you’re John Carpenter and Debra Hill. You’ve just released one of the greatest horror films of all time, Halloween, where do you go from here? How about an old fashioned ghost story based on revenge, pirates and a supernatural weather phenomenon. Carpenter’s The Fog was different than Halloween. Same suspense, same Jamie Lee Curtis, but they’ve left the suburbs and the evil that is chasing them is no Michael Myers.
The sleepy coastal town of Antonio Bay, California has beautiful beach views, and a small town community. They are celebrating their centennial when strange paranormal activity starts to occur around the town during the witching hour. Windows shatter, a glowing fog moves in from the sea and something is knocking at your door! Who is it, what do they want and why have they come to Antonio Bay?
I loved The Fog, it was a thrilling delight in this haunted season. To quote Carpenter, “It’s easy to get into spooky stuff, it’s just as natural as breathing.” We might all be a little scared of a good ghost story but there’s no denying the way we are drawn to these tales of the beyond. We love a fright around a campfire as kids, we go on tours of haunted spots all over the world, and we can’t help but look over our shoulders on a foggy, eerie night.
The Fog was released in 1979, so the effects and frights might feel a little dated. But, here are three great reasons why you should watch it this week to prepare for Halloween. First, Carpenter is attracted to strong female characters and we get the trifecta in The Fog. Not only is Curtis back but her mom, Janet Leigh (yes, that Janet Leigh from Psycho) joins the amazing ensemble. Both are strong women that lead and for the most part they aren’t paralyzed in fear. And then Carpenter added Adrienne Barbeau as the sultry and fearless Stevie Wayne, the “Nightlight” radio DJ spinning her tunes from an old lighthouse. Oh she’s such a wonderful character!
Second, The Fog is based on an actual true story! No, there are no ghosts surfing in on a wave of mist to terrify California, but there were people that faked lighthouses on the shore and caused ships to crash on the rocks. (Carpenter got this part of the story from Tales From The Crypt) I also love that Carpenter and Hill got the idea for the frightening fog from a trip to Stonehenge where they witnessed a fog that rolled in and engulfed them. When asked about the evilness of The Fog Carpenter said, “It’s absolutely terrifying when you can’t personify evil.”
Lastly, I love thinking about ghost stories as revenge tales. Why else would a soul wander around this earth? These are not the ghosts in A Christmas Carol. Ghosts might have all the time in the world, but they usually aren’t trying to teach you a lesson. No, they are tortured souls, and the revenge factor makes sense. Do we pay for our past sins or for the sins of our fathers? Oh, all of this along with the cool 70’s vibe and Carpenter’s gift for suspense made this Film Admission assignment an absolute treat!
Escape From New York
1981, Embassy Pictures, dir. John Carpenter
by Sharon Autenrieth
I am a sucker for cinematic urban hellscapes, from Warriors to RoboCop to District 9. I’m not sure, though, that any of them can surpass the Manhattan of John Carpenter’s Escape from New York: simultaneously vivid, glowing with ominous orange fires; and dark, filthy, and teeming with vermin of every kind.
The premise of Escape from New York is wonderfully simple. In the near future (1997) Manhattan is a maximum security prison where criminals are left to survive by any means necessary, or not survive, as the case may be. A wall surrounds the island, the bridges have been mined, and the waters are closely monitored from a guard tower on Liberty Island. Once on Manhattan Island, you can’t check out, and you can never leave.
When Air Force One is hijacked by terrorists and crashed in Manhattan, the search for the president (who survived the crash in an escape pod) is on. To heighten the movie’s stakes, the president was on his way to a meeting to negotiate with world leaders on the brink of nuclear war. He must be found, alive – and he must be rescued within 24 hours. The search and rescue task is given to one Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), both a war hero and a convicted criminal. If he rescues the president he’ll receive a pardon for his crime (a gold heist) and will be able to leave the island. If he fails to find the president in the allotted time, two implants in his neck will explode, killing him instantly.
And so the action countdown clock begins as Snake goes deeper and deeper into New York’s circles of hell. This dystopia is ruled by gangs, terrorized by cannibals and predators of every kind, but still oddly vibrant. All male chorus lines perform vaudeville shows in decaying theaters, a cheerful cabbie listens to big band music in his car, the Duke of New York rides in splendor in limo with crystal chandeliers mounted on the hood. Life finds a way.
Shout out to my beloved St. Louis for being the shooting location for much of Escape from New York’s urban blight. Los Angeles also did some stand in work, especially the Sepulveda Dam as the futuristic concrete bridge.
Although it’s an early ‘80s release, the cast of Escape from New York is a glorious 70s Hollywood ensemble, with Ernest Borgnine, Donald Pleasence, Harry Dean Stanton, Isaac Hayes, Adrienne Barbeau, and Lee Van Cleef. Van Cleef’s casting as the prison governor is just one of the film’s hat tips to Sergio Leone. Snake Plissken – quiet, unflappable – is clearly a reflection of Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name – though Plissken has a name, and everyone knows it. “I thought you were dead,” he’s told by virtually everyone he meets.
Russell must have been a revelation at the time of this film’s release. He was transitioning in his career, still only a few years past starring in a number of Disney family movies. The adorable dimpled boy has transformed here into stubble, muscles, hissing, and the soon-to-be iconic eye patch. He brings a wit to his laconic character that Eastwood lacked, and which allowed Carpenter to cast him a few years later in the much stranger action-comedy Big Trouble in Little China. I’m convinced that only Russell’s charisma made that work.
Escape from New York also benefits from excellent matte painting and models filling out the cityscape, and and a pulsing electronic score (co-written by Carpenter) driving the considerable action. This feels like a transition film, from the grit of movies like Warriors and Carpenter’s own Assault on Precinct 13 to the action blockbusters of the 80s like RoboCop and Terminator; and it remains entirely watchable and entertaining almost 40 years later.
1982, Universal Pictures, dir. John Carpenter
by Erik Yates
Though John Carpenter is iconic, his films, sadly, are for me a source of many possible film admissions. Thankfully, due to his filmography being this month’s Film Admissions pick, I’ve been able to see two of his must-see films: The Thing and Halloween. Halloween will be covered in this column by Jeffrey Knight (see below), but it was nevertheless a great film to knock off my list- especially before I saw and reviewed the 2018 sequel.
As for The Thing, the first thing I have to say is that this film has a fantastic cast. Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, T.K. Carter, David Clennon, Keith David, Richard Dysart, Charles Hallahan, Peter Maloney, Richard Masur, Donald Moffat, and Joel Polis are a great ensemble for this particular film. If you are unsure of some of these names, look them up as you are bound to have seen many of their other films, each being great character actors.
The Thing very closely resembles Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) in terms of its small quarters and the way the characters must try to work to defeat an alien life form that is considerably more advanced than they are. Carpenter is able to add a deeper paranoia that surrounds this team of individuals, each being blamed for the series of deaths that are occurring in this Antarctica-based scientific laboratory. In actuality, it’s all due to the alien’s ability to mimic any life form. Who is the real version of themselves, and which is the alien?
While Carpenter’s The Thing is often referenced or partially copied (the most recent in my mind is the Kate Beckinsale thriller Whiteout), it is without equal. The film begins with a space craft entering the Earth’s atmosphere, depicted as what I thought pretty horrible visual effects, especially considering that he did much better in this department just two years later in his film Starman. Given that in 1982 we were several years into an era of spaceship films such as Star Wars, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Alien, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, I expected more from Carpenter for this opening shot.
Later in the film, I realized that Carpenter obviously saved his effects money for ‘The Thing’ itself, as his creature is brilliantly created and executed throughout the film. This is particularly true when it’s shown to be in the middle of shape-shifting. Having physical and practical puppets, masks, robotics, animatronics, and effects are vastly superior, in my opinion, to computer generated ones, and help add to the story by making ‘The Thing’ a more real and substantive presence on the screen. Actors can truly interact with the physical representations rather than today’s use of green-screen, where they have to completely pretend that they are interacting with something that will be added into the scene via post-production computer rendering. Motion-capture has helped bridge this gap in recent years through the work of someone like Andy Serkis, but practical effects continue to be the most effective, as seen by the latest Star Wars films that have gone practical following the heavily computer animated Episodes I-III. Carpenter, however, never really abandoned it, and in The Thing, it is one of the great strengths of building the terror that plagues this team. Carpenter is a great director to watch, and I’m thankful I got to fill a few big movie watching holes by viewing The Thing (and Halloween). Fortunately, there are quite a few more films by this must-see director for me to discover.
1983, Columbia Pictures Corporation, dir. John Carpenter
by Robert Hornak
The phrase “haunted Herbie” kept coming to mind, so the story couldn’t be anything but patently silly. But there’s enough slow character and mood building in the first half hour, it becomes slightly easier to believe a ’57 Fury can be the villain in a slasher movie. Gist is, school nerd Arnie Cunningham takes a liking to the abandoned, near-rusted-out husk of “Christine”, as the car is called by its previous owner, fixes her up, strokes her dash in just such a way that the car, possessed right off the assembly line, imbues him with the confidence to shed his outcast trappings.
The only trouble with this back-door Faustian bargain is that Christine will do everything in her horsepower to destroy anyone who gets between her and the man at the wheel. Just your classic “boy and his car” story, based on the Stephen King book, that wields a potent American symbol from an era of perceived purity, fuels its head gasket with a perverse legalism that it then takes to its logical conclusion, killing off any and all threats to its monogamous love.
Meanwhile, nice guy Dennis is Arnie’s quarterback friend who sees the bizarre manifestation of cool in his geeky pal and stages a kind of vehicular intervention with a garage forklift, trying to simultaneously destroy the murderous auto and reset the high school archetype meter back to nerd-loses-girl normalcy. At home, Arnie’s newfound swagger comes down on his overbearing mom and weak-willed dad – it’s telling that the car is from the era of James Dean, and the Rebel family dynamic has survived to the ’80s, but the response isn’t to curl into a brooding recluse, but to vocally threaten murder by bumper.
Carpenter does what he does well in this movie, but without the wink that should’ve come naturally after his then-recent Escape from New York (1981), a movie that knows it’s a movie and enjoys the fact that you know it too. Maybe it’s King’s involvement (I don’t know if he was involved at all), but there’s a heavy expectation of fear and suspense in the bones of the movie that doesn’t ring true when its femme fatale is a vindictive Plymouth.
Big Trouble in Little China
1986, Twentieth Century Fox, dir. John Carpenter
by Taylor Blake
While there’s another John Carpenter movie considered quintessential late October viewing, let’s give one to the movie lovers with a phobia of horror. Halloween isn’t your only option for your witching hour, thank goodness!
Ghosts, skeletons, and monsters (oh my!) spook the frames of Big Trouble in Little China, an action adventure with special effects that have aged as well as the cursed villain, David Lo Pan (James Hong). When Lo Pan’s trio of henchmen kidnap Wang Chi’s (Dennis Dun) fiancée, he and his buddy Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) team up to rescue her in a caper built on one-liners, a non sequitur frame story, and (what I’m pretty sure is) a self-aware take on low-budget kitsch.
Even if you’re like me and have yet to master your knowledge of Eastern cinema and Chinese mythology, Big Trouble in Little China is easy to follow with a familiar plot structure; that said, I can’t say I’ve ever seen a movie like it before. I also can’t say with authority whether it’s respectful of the traditions and legends it’s referencing (but I would love any insight or resources you can recommend—shoot us a tweet @zekefilm). What I can say: It’s hard not to enjoy a movie in which Kurt Russell is hamming it up for 99 minutes as a walking cliché who appropriately drives a truck called the Pork Chop Express. Sure, it would be nice if at least one female character weren’t a damsel, and yes, those cheap-looking effects are um, grotesque at best. But if you’re looking for a supernatural story that’s more funny than frightening, Big Trouble is a cult classic to pair with your Halloween candy.
Prince of Darkness
1987, Larry Franco Productions, dir. John Carpenter
by Max Foizey
“THE BROTHERHOOD OF SLEEP”
A priest (Donald Pleasence) discovers a clear cylinder containing a green slime in the basement of an abandoned church. There is strange text next to the cylinder that the priest does not understand and the slime seems…alive. All of this disturbs the priest a great deal. He decides to invite quantum physics professor Howard Birack (Victor Wong) and his students to the church to see if they can decipher the text next to the cylinder. Shortly after this group arrives in the church, many homeless people (including one played by Alice Cooper) start surrounding the building.
Once translated with the help of computers, the students reveal the secret of the ooze: it’s the living embodiment of Satan. Our grad students start having a shared nightmare of a dark figure emerging from the church, with a voice telling them the dream is actually a warning broadcast from the future. Some try to leave the church. The homeless people turn violent and prevent escape. Professor Birack and the priest realize they are all trapped and must prevent Satan from crossing over into our reality.
Starring Simon and Simon’s Jameson Parker (and his mustache), Prince of Darkness is a slow burn movie, and I mean slow. There is a lot of talk of physics and religion and not a lot of action until a good 30 or 40 minutes in. But that’s OK! Just try to take in all of the gonzo ideas Carpenter is throwing at you while you wait for flesh to be torn from people’s faces. Because that will happen.
Written, directed, and scored by the man himself, Prince of Darkness is possibly the most “John Carpenter” of all John Carpenter films, that is to say it features many of his regular actors (Dennis Dun, Peter Jason, Donald Pleasence, Victor Wong) and it focuses on some of his favorite themes (isolation, the apocalypse, science and terror). The script is a bit unfocused but his direction is sure, bringing us unforgettable images, one fun jump scare, and a dynamite finale. The film also features a very strong score with all of the synth goodness you’ve come to expect from his work.
Released between Big Trouble in Little China and They Live, Prince of Darkness isn’t as good as either of those films, but it is worth watching for the hardcore Carpenter fan.
1978, Compass International Pictures, dir. John Carpenter
by Jeffrey Knight
Forty years after its initial release, and after countless sequels, remakes, reboots and pale imitations, Halloween should seem completely ridiculous. And it is. It’s the filmic equivalent of those ‘Kentucky Fried Rat’ stories we told each other as kids. It’s gross-out shock wrapped in hushed and solemn warnings: beware, for on Halloween night, an escaped lunatic stalks the streets of suburbia with a chef’s knife. Yet, the film has an undeniable power. For as corny and campy as Halloween can be (see: any scene involving Donald Pleasence), it slowly and almost ratchets up the tension- almost imperceptibly until you realize just how nervous you are. Halloween isn’t very scary in the moment, but it’s terrifying in the aggregate.
The plot of the movie is as barebones as it gets. The original title of the movie was The Babysitter Murders and that just about sums things up perfectly. Michael Myers (usually played onscreen by either Nick Castle or Tony Moran) was put into a mental hospital after he murdered his sister when he was six on Halloween night. On another Halloween, fifteen years later, he escapes and heads back to his hometown to turn his isolated kill into an all-out spree. He starts stalking a trio of high school seniors (played by Nancy Loomis, P.J. Soles, and most famously Jamie Lee Curtis in her film debut) and their boyfriends. That night he starts killing them one by one until only Laurie, played by Curtis, is left to battle the implacable killer.
Kills in slasher movies can act as a sort of release valve. The killer stalks his prey (and the killer is almost always male- almost), typically through POV shots (and Halloween has a doozy of a POV shot that runs for nearly the first 6 or 7 minutes of the movie), and the suspense and terror are allowed to build until the killer strikes. Meyers escapes from the institution holding him pretty much right after the opening credits, and starts stalking his victims soon after that. The first ‘proper’ kill comes nearly an hour into the movie- and the movie is only an hour and a half long. That’s a long time to slowly sustain tension, and Carpenter manages the trick beautifully.
Halloween is a film that popularized an entire sub-genre of horror, but however much the other films tried to outdo Halloween, none were able to match its sustained tension. And I’m not really sure any of them were trying. For the slasher films that followed, the point wasn’t the terror, it was the sudden shock, the creative and increasingly absurd kills and the sophisticated makeup and gore effects that go with them. For being the forefather of the ‘Mad Slasher Film’ genre, Halloween itself has surprisingly little gore. “The Shape” kills one of his (few) victims by stapling him to a kitchen cabinet with a chef’s knife through the gut, but there’s no blood. It is, of course, an oversight that later films (including its direct sequels) would overcompensate for.
As a side note, the kids Laurie babysits are watching Howard Hawks’s The Thing From Another World, a movie Carpenter himself would remake four years later. That’s not important to the plot or anything, I just thought that was cool.