Reviews, articles, rants & ramblings on the darker side of the media fringe

John Carpenter – Part 1

John Carpenter_Movie Banner 1John Howard Carpenter (born January 16, 1948) is an American film director, screenwriter, producer, editor and composer. Although Carpenter has worked in numerous film genres, he is most commonly associated with horror and science fiction films from the 1970’s and 1980’s.

JOHN_CARPENTERAlmost all the films in Carpenter’s career have garnered cult followings, particularly: Dark Star (1974), Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Halloween (1978), Escape from New York (1981), The Thing (1982), Starman (1984), Big Trouble in Little China (1986) and They Live! (1988), while Carpenter has been acknowledged as an influential filmmaker.

Carpenter was born in Carthage, New York, the son of Milton Jean and Howard Ralph Carpenter, a music professor. He was captivated by movies from an early age, particularly the westerns of Howard Hawks and John Ford, as well as 1950’s low budget horror films, such as The Thing from Another World and high budget science fiction like Forbidden Planet and began filming horror shorts on 8mm film even before entering high school. He attended Western Kentucky University where his father chaired the music department, then transferred to the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts in 1968, but later dropped out to make his first feature.

Halloween_Jamie Lee CurtisHe collaborated with producer John Longenecker as co-writer, film editor and music composer for The Resurrection of Broncho Billy (1970), which won an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film. The short film was blown-up to 35mm, and the film was theatrically released by Universal Studios for two years in the United States and Canada.

His first major film as director, Dark Star (1974), was a science fiction black comedy that he co-wrote with Dan O’Bannon (who later went on to write Alien, borrowing freely from much of Dark Star). The film reportedly cost only $60,000 and was difficult to make as both Carpenter and O’Bannon completed the film by multitasking, with Carpenter doing the musical score as well as the writing, producing and directing, while O’Bannon acted in the film and did the special effects (which caught the attention of George Lucas who hired him to do work on the special effects for Star Wars). 

Halloween_Michael MyersCarpenter’s next film was Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), a low-budget thriller influenced by the films of Howard Hawks, particularly Rio Bravo. As with Dark Star, Carpenter was responsible for many aspects of the film’s creation. He not only wrote, directed and scored it, but also edited the film under the pseudonym “John T. Chance” (the name of John Wayne’s character in Rio Bravo). Carpenter has said that he considers Assault on Precinct 13 to have been his first real film because it was the first movie that he shot on a schedule. The film also marked the first time Carpenter worked with Debra Hill, who played prominently in the making of some of Carpenter’s most important films.

Working within the limitations of a $100,000 budget, Carpenter assembled a main cast that consisted of experienced but relatively obscure actors. The film was originally released in the United States to mixed critical reviews and lacklustre box-office earnings, but after it was screened at the 1977 London Film Festival, it became a critical and commercial success in Europe and is often credited with launching Carpenter’s career. The film subsequently received a critical reassessment in the United States, where it is now generally regarded as one of the best exploitation films of the 1970’s.

Carpenter both wrote and directed the Lauren Hutton thriller Someone’s Watching Me!. This TV movie is the tale of a single, working woman who, shortly after arriving in L.A., discovers that she is being stalked. However, it was his next film which changed the horror landscape, and for which he will be mostly remembered.

Halloween_postersHalloween (1978) was a commercial hit and helped give birth to the slasher film genre. Originally an idea suggested by producer Irwin Yablans (titled The Babysitter Murders), who envisioned a film about babysitters being menaced by a stalker, Carpenter took the idea and another suggestion from Yablans that it take place during Halloween and developed a story. Carpenter said of the basic concept: “Halloween night. It has never been the theme in a film. My idea was to do an old haunted house movie.” The film was written by Carpenter and Debra Hill with Carpenter admitting that the music was inspired by both Dario Argento’s Suspiria (which also influenced the films surreal colour scheme) and William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. 

Debra Hall_John Carpenter_HALLOWEENCarpenter again worked with a relatively small budget, $320,000, and a young cast of unknowns, headed by Jamie Lee Curtis. The film grossed over $65 million initially, making it one of the most successful independent films of all time. In addition to the film’s critical and commercial success, Carpenter’s self-composed “Halloween Theme” became recognizable apart from the movie.

Carpenter has described Halloween as: “True crass exploitation. I decided to make a film I would love to have seen as a kid, full of cheap tricks like a haunted house at a fair where you walk down the corridor and things jump out at you.” The film has often been cited as an allegory on the virtue of sexual purity and the danger of casual sex, although Carpenter has explained that this was not his intent: “It has been suggested that I was making some kind of moral statement. Believe me, I’m not. In Halloween, I viewed the characters as simply normal teenagers.”

In 1979, John Carpenter began what was to be the first of several collaborations with actor Kurt Russell when he directed the TV movie Elvis. The made-for-TV movie was a hit with viewers and critics, and was also released as a feature film in cinemas outside the U. S. and revived the career of Russell, who was a child actor in the 1960’s.

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