John Carpenter Essay - Critical Essays

Carpenter, John

Introduction

John Carpenter 1948-

(Full name John Howard Carpenter; has also written under the pseudonyms Frank Armitage and Martin Quatermass) American screenwriter, director, and producer.

The following entry presents an overview of Carpenter's career through 2001.

Carpenter is a commercially successful film director, screenwriter, producer, and composer whose works encompass the genres of horror, science fiction, action-adventure, and mystery-suspense. He is best known for Halloween (1978), a watershed production in the development of the modern horror film. His other highly acclaimed films include Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Escape from New York (1981) and Starman (1984). Carpenter has been celebrated for his innovative visual style, though some critics have debated the quality of his films, with several reviewers faulting him for his films' gratuitous violence and low-budget production values.

Biographical Information

Carpenter was born on January 16, 1948, in Carthage, New York. His family later moved to Bowling Green, Kentucky, where his father worked as the head of the music department at Western Kentucky University. Carpenter graduated from Western Kentucky University in 1968 and entered graduate school to study film at the University of Southern California. While still at USC film school, Carpenter won an Academy award for best live-action short film for his screenwriting, editing, and composing work on The Resurrection of Bronco Billy (1970). Carpenter also began working on a short, low-budget science-fiction film called Dark Star while at USC, which was later expanded to feature length and released theatrically in 1974. In 1979 he married actress Adrienne Barbeau, with whom he had one child. Carpenter divorced in 1988 and married film producer Sandy King in 1990.

Major Works

Carpenter is widely regarded for his horror and science fiction films that manifest the influence of such classic directors as Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock. Carpenter conceptualized Assault on Precinct 13, one of his earliest films, as a remake of the classic Hollywood Western Rio Bravo, which was directed by Hawks. Assault on Precinct 13 is set in a police station that is in the process of being decommissioned. A young police officer is assigned responsibility for the transfer of the precinct's remaining prisoners. During the transfer, the luckless police officer is forced to provide sanctuary for a father who has killed a gang member responsible for his daughter's death. The gang tracks the father to the precinct house, which lacks both electricity and telephone service. Outnumbered, the precinct's prisoners and the police officer are forced into an uneasy alliance against their attackers. At the beginning of his career, Carpenter also wrote and directed several made-for-television movies, including Someone's Watching Me! (1978) and Elvis (1979). In Someone's Watching Me!, a woman living in a high-rise apartment discovers that her every move is being watched by a stranger. Elvis, a made-for-television movie, starred actor Kurt Russell in a dramatized biography of the legendary singer. Russell would become a long-time collaborator with Carpenter, appearing in several of his films including Escape from New York, The Thing (1982), and Big Trouble in Little China (1986).

Carpenter's first major film and the work he is most widely recognized for is Halloween. The idea for the film was suggested by producer Irwin Yablins, who asked Carpenter to make a film about a killer who murders babysitters. In the opening sequence of Halloween, a child in a clown costume—a boy named Michael Myers—murders his older sister on Halloween night in 1963. Fifteen years later to the day, Myers escapes from the insane asylum where he has spent most of his life and returns to his childhood home. Myers then dons an almost featureless face-mask and begins murdering young women. He eventually sets his sights on a babysitter named Laurie Strode and spends the rest of the film stalking her. Halloween is regarded as one of the definitive “slasher” films—a genre that typically features seemingly unstoppable killers hunting down and violently murdering young adults, either because of their innocence or lack thereof. Halloween has spawned seven sequels, though Carpenter has had little involvement with the series beyond Halloween II, which he co-wrote with Debra Hill. Carpenter next wrote and directed the horror film The Fog (1980), in which the ghosts of a group of lepers arrive in a small town under cover of a thick fog to exact vengeance for crimes committed against them one hundred years earlier. Carpenter's next production, the science-fiction action film Escape from New York, takes place in the year 1997—the near future at the time the film was released. In this future, America's crime rate has risen exponentially and the entire city of New York has been walled off as a maximum security prison. When a helicopter carrying the President of the United States crash-lands in the lawless city, a notorious criminal, Snake Plissken, is sent to retrieve him. Plissken, a war veteran serving a prison sentence for violent crime, is sent into New York with the provision that if he recovers the president within twenty-four hours, he will be set free. If he fails in his mission, an explosive planted in his neck will be detonated. Carpenter brought the Plissken character back in Escape from L.A. (1996), a similarly-plotted film which has the U.S. Government sending Plissken on another mission; this time into the prison town of Los Angeles, which has become an island after a series of massive earthquakes.

Carpenter served only as the director for his next three major films. The Thing remakes the classic 1950s science fiction horror film directed by Howard Hawks. Carpenter's version is set in Antarctica, where a colony of research scientists discovers a buried space ship. The scientists unwittingly awaken an alien presence who begins killing them and assuming their identities. Christine (1983), an adaptation of the novel by Stephen King, centers around a boy who becomes obsessed with a haunted automobile. The car begins killing the boy's enemies and anyone else who would keep him away from the machine. Starman represents a divergence from Carpenter's characteristic action-packed films, focusing more on human drama and romantic comedy. The film follows a space alien who arrives on earth, inhabiting the body of a deceased man. While he flees from the U.S. military, the alien and the widow of the deceased man develop a romantic relationship. Carpenter returned to directing his own screenplays with the films Prince of Darkness (1987) and They Live (1988). They Live is set in Los Angeles in the near future, where a man obtains special sunglasses that allow him to see a hidden alien race that is slowly taking over the planet. The aliens use subliminal messages, broadcast through the mass media, to exert their oppressive control over humanity. In the 1990s, Carpenter directed a number of films, though none were as successful or as critically well-received as his earlier works. Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992), an adaptation of the novel by H. F. Saint, starred Chevy Chase as a man who accidentally becomes invisible and has to run from government agents who want to control him. In the Mouth of Madness (1995) weaves a complex plot—inspired by the works of author H. P. Lovecraft—about a horror writer whose fictional stories become reality for his readers. Village of the Damned (1995) remakes the 1960 film about a group of children in a small town who become possessed by a satanic presence. Vampires (1998) focuses on a team of vampire slayers—sponsored by the Catholic Church—who attempt to foil the plans of a master vampire. Ghosts of Mars (2001) examines the team dynamics of a group of people investigating a mine on Mars where all the workers have been possessed by an unknown force. In addition to his directing, producing, and screenwriting, Carpenter has also composed or co-written the musical scores for many of his films, including Halloween, They Live, and Vampires.

Critical Reception

Carpenter's most outstanding achievement may have been the impact of his 1978 Halloween on the development of the modern horror film. Critics have often focused on the innovative opening sequence of the film, which portrays a murder from the point-of-view of the killer, an approach that has since become a standard horror film device. Critics of Carpenter's films have generally agreed that his mastery of cinematic devices, special effects, and visual craft are impressive throughout much of his oeuvre, even in his least successful films. Reviewers have been divided, however, on other elements of Carpenter's filmmaking. Some have considered Carpenter to be little more than a maker of “schlock” films which are meaningless and hold no societal value or positive message. Other reviewers have held him to be a master of the horror genre who has maintained many of the basic elements of classic genre films while also introducing innovative visual techniques. Carpenter has been faulted by some commentators for his portrayal of women in his films. Critics have noted that in Halloween, all of the sexually active females are murdered while the one who survives remains virginal; suggesting, some have said, that women should be punished for their sexuality. Starman has stood out as unique among Carpenter's films for its focus on romance and the drama of the growing relationship between the two main characters. A number of reviewers have found the love story sweet and skillfully rendered, while others have found it sappy, clichéd, and ineffective. Critics have noted Starman's numerous references to the classic Hawks road movie and romantic comedy It Happened One Night. Escape from New York has been praised by critics for the originality of the film's basic premise, the charismatic hero Snake Plissken, and the humorous and satirical elements of the film. Despite his early successes, however, many reviewers have agreed that Carpenter's post-1990 films have shown a marked decline and have been almost universally panned by critics. Memoirs of an Invisible Man, Vampires, and Ghosts of Mars have all received almost unanimously negative criticism. Critics have increasingly charged Carpenter with a lack of originality and described his newer films as unimaginative rehashings of techniques and plotlines from his earlier work.

Principal Works

The Resurrection of Billy Bronco [screenwriter with Nick Castle, Trace Johnston, John Longenecker, and James R. Rokos] (screenplay) 1970

Dark Star [screenwriter with Dan O'Bannon; director] (film) 1974

John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 [screenwriter and director] (film) 1976

The Eyes of Laura Mars [screenwriter with David Zelag Goodman] (screenplay) 1978

John Carpenter's Halloween [screenwriter with Debra Hill; director] (film) 1978

Someone's Watching Me! [screenwriter and director] (television film) 1978

Elvis [director] (television film) 1979

...

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Criticism

John Carpenter, Tom Milne, and Richard Combs (interview date spring 1978)

SOURCE: Carpenter, John, Tom Milne, and Richard Combs. “The Man in the Cryogenic Freezer.” Sight and Sound 47, no. 2 (spring 1978): 94–98.

[In the following interview, Carpenter discusses his cinematic influences, the Hollywood film industry, and his body of work.]

After the 1960s, when younger American filmmakers seemed to be turning increasingly to Europe for inspiration, have come the nostalgic 70s and a return to the old Hollywood. It can be no accident that three of the decade's most commercially successful movies—The Godfather, Jaws and Star Wars—were not only genre pieces (albeit elephantised), but made by directors who had already...

(The entire section is 4389 words.)

Robert Asahina (review date 18 December 1978)

SOURCE: Asahina, Robert. “Film Fantasies.” New Leader 61, no. 25 (18 December 1978): 17–18.

[In the following excerpt, Asahina argues that Halloween is an immature horror film that warns the audience that “sex kills.”]

Tom Allen, Sarris' disciple and fellow Voice critic, who has praised a cheap thriller called Halloween as “a sleeper that's here to stay,” while simultaneously conceding that it is a “schlock film.” Allen even calls it “a movie of almost unrelieved chills and of violence, conjuring up that unique mix of subliminal threat and contrapuntal physicality employed by Hitchcock” (one of the directors in the auteurist...

(The entire section is 448 words.)

Judith Crist (review date August 1981)

SOURCE: Crist, Judith. “A Masterful Lumet.” Saturday Review 8, no. 8 (August 1981): 61.

[In the following excerpt, Crist describes Escape from New York as a “juvenile action-adventure” film.]

John Carpenter, the young filmmaker whose reputation rests on his having made Halloween for $300,000, then grossing $18.5 million therewith, used bits and pieces of St. Louis, Los Angeles, and Atlanta, along with miniatures and some actual shooting at the Statue of Liberty for his third film, Escape from New York, Carpenter and his screenplay collaborator, Nick Castle, have come up with an interesting starting point: In 1997 crime has reached a...

(The entire section is 417 words.)

Linda Gross (review date 25 June 1982)

SOURCE: Gross, Linda. “The Thing: No Thing to Cheer About.” Los Angeles Times (25 June 1982): section 4, p. 15.

[In the following review, Gross asserts that The Thing lacks any positive message or element of human warmth to counteract the essential nihilism expressed in the film.]

The childhood moviegoing experiences—including the resulting fantasies and nightmares—of a whole generation of film makers now in their 30s are being recycled for present moviegoers.

The new films are sometimes positive (Star Wars, Close Encounters, Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T.) and sometimes aren't.

...

(The entire section is 738 words.)

Sheila Benson (review date 13 December 1984)

SOURCE: Benson, Sheila. “Starlight, Star Bright, 1st Starman to Alight.” Los Angeles Times (13 December 1984): section 6, pp. 1, 8.

[In the following review, Benson praises Starman as “a sweet surprise,” describing the film as a playful and visually beautiful love story.]

A sweet surprise comes our way with Starman. Director John Carpenter, whose beautiful visual sense is usually trained on something thoroughly unpleasant (such as the Thing, or dripping ghouls shrouded in seaweed), has gone straight. And like the sweetness at the heart of Cocteau's Beast, Carpenter has turned out to be a romantic pussycat.

With the exceptional...

(The entire section is 623 words.)

Michael Musto (review date January–February 1985)

SOURCE: Musto, Michael. “Spacing Out.” Saturday Review 11, no. 1 (January–February 1985): 80–81.

[In the following review, Musto criticizes Starman as boring, unoriginal, and unrealistic, but comments that the strength of the film is the element of humanity expressed in the love story.]

A spaceship rockets through the galaxies and the first thing you think is, “That isn't really a spaceship, that's a five-foot model they would like you to think is a spaceship.” The next thought: You are in for two hours of icy-cold technology—laser guns, space-to-earth communications and computer gibberish—dressing up a script that is not even clever...

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Michael Wilmington (review date 2 July 1986)

SOURCE: Wilmington, Michael. “Big Trouble in Little China is Big Trouble Indeed.” Los Angeles Times (2 July 1986): section 6, p. 10.

[In the following review, Wilmington offers a negative assessment of Big Trouble in Little China, calling the film foolish and nonsensical.]

There are many dark plots hatching in Big Trouble in Little China. They're being cooked up in devilish hangouts—catacombs beneath the San Francisco streets—by people with names like Needles, the Wild Man and the Sewer Monster, in places like the Honorable Hall of the Infernal Judge and the Room of the Upside-Down Hell. None is darker or deadlier than the movie itself....

(The entire section is 702 words.)

Michael Wilmington (review date 23 October 1987)

SOURCE: Wilmington, Michael. “A Jumbled Prince of Darkness.Los Angeles Times (23 October 1987): section 6, p. 23.

[In the following review, Wilmington asserts that Prince of Darkness is implausible and excessive, but notes that the film is directed with visual elegance.]

In Prince of Darkness, John Carpenter seems to be hovering between cold-eyed mechanical fear-making and horror camp. The movie deals with cataclysmic possibilities—the destruction of the world and the triumph of Hell—in a peculiarly light-headed way, with a premise that jumbles together Night of the Living Dead, The Omen and Carpenter's own The...

(The entire section is 763 words.)

Peter Rainer (review date 28 February 1992)

SOURCE: Rainer, Peter. “Invisible Man Fails to Master the Possibilities.” Los Angeles Times (28 February 1992): F6.

[In the following review, Rainer notes that Memoirs of an Invisible Man has a promising premise at its core, but the film itself is mediocre.]

Most mediocre movies lack even a promising premise but Memoirs of an Invisible Man is so crammed with intriguing dramatic and comic possibilities that, watching it and being disappointed, you may find yourself rewriting it as you go along. What it might have been is so much more suggestive than what it is.

Chevy Chase plays Nick Halloway, a successful, emotionally...

(The entire section is 755 words.)

Kevin Thomas (review date 3 February 1995)

SOURCE: Thomas, Kevin. “Engrossing Madness: A Darkly Humorous Horror Movie.” Los Angeles Times (3 February 1995): F6.

[In the following review, Thomas offers a positive assessment of In the Mouth of Madness, calling it “a thinking person's horror film.”]

In the Mouth of Madness is a thinking person's horror picture that dares to be as cerebral as it is visceral. An homage to the master of the macabre, novelist H. P. Lovecraft, on the part of its writer Michael De Luca, this handsome, intelligent New Line Cinema production also finds its director, John Carpenter, in top form and provides Sam Neill with one of the most challenging roles of...

(The entire section is 531 words.)

Kevin Thomas (review date 28 April 1995)

SOURCE: Thomas, Kevin. “Village a Slick, Scary Allegory.” Los Angeles Times (28 April 1995): F10.

[In the following review, Thomas compliments the impressive special effects in Village of the Damned, noting that the film is both visually powerful and well-crafted.]

With Village of the Damned, a sleek and scary remake of the 1960 classic thriller of the supernatural, John Carpenter takes us back to a beautiful Northern California coastal community, the very same Marin County locale seen in his spooky 1980 film The Fog.

With ease and dispatch, Carpenter acquaints us with key locals in the close-knit town: its doctor...

(The entire section is 527 words.)

Philip Kemp (review date August 1995)

SOURCE: Kemp, Philip. Review of In the Mouth of Madness, by John Carpenter. Sight and Sound 5, no. 8 (August 1995): 52–53.

[In the following review, Kemp argues that In the Mouth of Madness demonstrates Carpenter's virtuoso cinematic technique, but that the film fails to effectively play on viewers's emotions.]

Even if John Carpenter has yet to recapture the gleeful, buzzsaw energy of his earliest work, several of his subsequent films have come sufficiently within striking distance to keep his admirers hoping for a return to form. In the Mouth of Madness isn't that; but it's an accomplished and well put-together piece of work—one that moreover...

(The entire section is 520 words.)

Boyd Tonkin (review date 20 September 1996)

SOURCE: Tonkin, Boyd. Review of Escape from L.A., by John Carpenter. New Statesman 125, no. 4301 (20 September 1996): 43.

[In the following review, Tonkin concludes that despite the film's spectacular action scenes and stunning visual effects, Escape from L.A. is not a successful film.]

As Independence Day has proved in spades, Americans just love to trash their towns. Ever since the Founding Fathers taught the rebels to worship sturdy farmers with ten acres and a gun, native art has often treated any settlement bigger than a village (or a suburb) as Sodom and Gomorrah incarnate.

John Carpenter—whose fierce and funny genre films...

(The entire section is 840 words.)

Philip Strick (review date October 1996)

SOURCE: Strick, Philip. Review of Escape from L.A., by John Carpenter. Sight and Sound 6, no. 10 (October 1996): 44–45.

[In the following review, Strick observes that Escape from L.A. has impressive visual effects, but concludes that the film is tedious and repetitive.]

“Sounds familiar,” murmurs the one-eyed Snake in his habitual Eastwood monotone, and much of the point of Escape from L.A. is that it shamelessly copies the Plissken predicament of 15 years ago in Escape from New York. Not much has changed: the president is still an arrogant coward, the country's city-sized primary prison still has all the supplies it needs to maintain...

(The entire section is 654 words.)

Lisa Nesselson (review date 4 May 1998)

SOURCE: Nesselson, Lisa. Review of Vampires, by John Carpenter. Variety 370, no. 12 (4 May 1998): 83–84.

[In the following review, Nesselson offers a positive assessment of Vampires, praising the film as suspenseful and humorous.]

The pleasures are modest but consistent in John Carpenter's Vampires, a part-Western, part-horror flick that doesn't aim too high but nails the range it occupies. A tale of parallel quests in the photogenic American Southwest, pic centers on a vampire slayer on the Vatican payroll who's intent on destroying a 600-year-old master vampire before the already superhuman creature gets his hands on a secret weapon that will...

(The entire section is 709 words.)

Kevin Thomas (review date 30 October 1998)

SOURCE: Thomas, Kevin. “In Carpenter's Vampires, the Genre Takes the Stake.” Los Angeles Times (30 October 1998): F22.

[In the following review, Thomas criticizes the plot and direction of Vampires, calling the film “more trash than anything else.”]

Twenty years ago John Carpenter came up with Halloween, which became a classic, but for this Allhallows Eve his savage horror comedy Vampires is more trick than treat, and more trash than anything else. It's so ludicrous—every scene is a sendup, intentionally or otherwise—that it would seem that Carpenter is making an all-out attempt at what he surely knows to be impossible: to drive...

(The entire section is 537 words.)

Kim Newman (review date December 1999)

SOURCE: Newman, Kim. Review of Vampires, by John Carpenter. Sight and Sound 9, no. 12 (December 1999): 60.

[In the following review of Vampires, Newman observes that Carpenter's film represents a significant shift in the vampire film genre in the way it moves the narrative focus from the vampires themselves to the band of vampire hunters.]

Along with the comic-book-based Blade and the television spin-off from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, [Vampires,] this adaptation of John Steakley's disposable novel Vampire$ reflects a significant shift of emphasis in the vampire sub-genre. It's comparable to the mutation of the gangster movie...

(The entire section is 681 words.)

Robert C. Cumbow (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Cumbow, Robert C. “It Was the Bogey Man: Halloween.” In Order in the Universe: The Films of John Carpenter, pp. 47–63. London: Scarecrow, 2000.

[In the following essay, Cumbow examines Carpenter's innovative cinematography in Halloween and discusses the film's significance to the horror film genre.]

Yablans … came to us and said, “Would you make us a movie about babysitters?”

—Debra Hill1

The opening of Halloween reprises the metaphor of Eyes of Laura Mars: the camera as peeping Tom … and as killer. The motif is sustained...

(The entire section is 6254 words.)

John Kenneth Muir (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Muir, John Kenneth. “A History and Overview of John Carpenter's Career.” In The Films of John Carpenter, pp. 5–52. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2000.

[In the following essay, Muir provides an in-depth overview of Carpenter's films from the beginning of his career through the year 2000.]

BEGINNINGS

As the year 1948 marched to an end, America's major Hollywood studios unveiled a parade of new cinematic westerns, films noirs, and suspense-thrillers from notable directors such as Howard Hawks (Red River), John Ford (Fort Apache), John Huston (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Key Largo), and the master of...

(The entire section is 29269 words.)

Greg Braxton (review date 23 August 2001)

SOURCE: Braxton, Greg. “Chill Seeker.” Los Angeles Times (23 August 2001): F10.

[In the following review, Braxton comments that Ghosts of Mars is merely a rehashing of elements from Carpenter's previous films.]

Ghosts of Mars is more than just the latest science-fiction and shoot-'em-up adventure depicting the fight between the forces of good and evil on the Red Planet.

It also could carry the subtitle “John Carpenter's Greatest Hits.”

Carpenter, who is credited with creating the teen-slasher movie genre in 1978 with Halloween and who has directed and written numerous other movies dealing with the...

(The entire section is 965 words.)

Kevin Thomas (review date 24 August 2001)

SOURCE: Thomas, Kevin. “Ghosts of Mars Attempts to Create a Red Scare.” Los Angeles Times (24 August 2001): F6.

[In the following review, Thomas offers a negative assessment of Ghosts of Mars, describing it as “routine Carpenter fare.”]

John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars is arguably the horror/sci-fi director's most routine movie.

Although Carpenter is sometimes schlocky, sometimes over the top, the maker of Halloween and Escape from New York, among many others, can usually be counted on to generate plenty of thrills and chills in high-energy fashion. But Carpenter's heart doesn't seem to be in this lackluster...

(The entire section is 488 words.)

Robert Koehler (review date 27 August–2 September 2001)

SOURCE: Koehler, Robert. “Carpenter Nails Down Retro, Active Planet.” Variety 384, no. 2 (27 August–2 September 2001): 31, 34.

[In the following negative review, Koehler describes Carpenter's cinematic style in Ghosts of Mars as reminiscent of the low-budget “drive–in” movies of the 1970s.]

The natural element for John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars is the drive-in, and that's the problem. Carpenter's movies, and especially his new one, belong to a bygone filmgoing culture that reveled in cheap—rather than corporate-busting expensive—chills and thrills, where your attention was divided between checking out the screen and checking out your...

(The entire section is 954 words.)

Kim Newman (review date December 2001)

SOURCE: Newman, Kim. Review of Ghosts of Mars, by John Carpenter. Sight and Sound 11, no. 12 (December 2001): 51–52.

[In the following review, Newman comments that Ghosts of Mars represents a decline in the quality of Carpenter's films.]

A year too late to count as part of the 2000 blip of Mars movies (Mission to Mars, Red Planet), Ghosts of Mars is honestly titled in that it plunders previous visions of the red planet—the disembodied Martians resisting the human invader from Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles, the ancient savages possessing human hordes from Quatermass and the Pit (a frequent John Carpenter...

(The entire section is 588 words.)

Philip Kerr (review date 10 December 2001)

SOURCE: Kerr, Philip. “Mars Bores.” New Statesman 130, no. 4567 (10 December 2001): 44.

[In the following review, Kerr argues that Ghosts of Mars simply rehashes devices used in Carpenter's previous films.]

Twenty-five years ago, John Carpenter was one of the most original young talents in Hollywood. Before he was 30, he had directed a string of cult hits, such as Dark Star (1974), Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Halloween (1978) and The Fog (1979)—films for which he wrote not just the screenplays, but also the music scores. Carpenter wore his film references proudly. Assault is a clever remake of Howard Hawks's classic...

(The entire section is 827 words.)