John Carpenter Critical Essays

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.