John Carpenter: Purveyor of Poor Taste, Deranged Genius….Or both?

Terror from Beyond the Daves is pleased to welcome back guest writer, Brandon Engel, for his fascinating perspective on a horror legend. 

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It’s all about personal taste. It’s easy to understand why audiences are either charmed or repelled by The Wizard of Oz, The Goodbye Girl and E.T.: The Extra-terrestrial. With “slasher movies”, although it’s easy to understand why many viewers reject such films, it’s a little more ambiguous why they attract such large cult followings.  What is the appeal? Perhaps, the best way to arrive at the answer is to look at the career of the man who is credited with cementing the slasher movie formula, screenwriter/director/producer John Carpenter.

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To look at Carpenter today with his long white hair, he looks sort of like a docile grandpa. As such, it’s hard to understand how such a person could create movies like Halloween (1978), The Fog (1980) and The Thing (1982). From very early in his career, two things were very clear: Carpenter knew how to manipulate his audience, and he could do it effectively on a miniscule budget. Whether they felt disgust, fear, excitement or joy was merely a reflection of that person’s personal taste. The fact he chose to drive fear was a reflection of his own personal taste.

It must be noted that Carpenter’s success and genius is not limited to the horror-film genre. In 1970, he was a significant contributor (co-writer, film editor) to the film The Resurrection of Broncho Billy (1970), which won the Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film. Films such as Elvis (1979), Escape from New York (1981) and Starman (1984) certainly reflected his versatility and flexibility as a filmmaker. No matter how much success he would ever have in another genre, he will always be dubbed “Master of the Horror Film.”

It isn’t necessarily a demented mind that creates a horror film classic, so much as it is an artist who is attentive to how camera angles, backdrops, and the interplay of music and moving images can touch parts of the human spirit we choose to ignore on a normal basis. Carpenter’s low-budget Halloween, which consists of little more than a bunch of unknown actors standing around in Bel-Air looking worried while ominous synthesizer music plays, stands as a testament to how horror movies can be made effectively on a shoestring budget with an extremely simple plot. The film also evokes the cheap visceral thrills of a county fair haunted house ride, where the lights are low, stuff randomly jumps out at you, and the auditory component is crucial.

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Halloween is about a little boy (Michael) who kills his sister one Halloween night, and is sent away to a sanitarium. When Michael turns 21, Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance) is sent to the hospital so that he may help escort Michael to his parole hearing. Michael escapes heads back to his home town of “Haddonfield, Illinois.” For all the bad teenagers (especially girls) in the neighborhood, this ends up being a death sentence. After brutally killing a group of teenagers, Michael is stabbed with a sewing needle and a clothes hanger, and is shot multiple times before he falls out of a window. So the film firmly establishes the “teenagers who consume drugs and fool around will die” trope, the “boogeyman” trope, the “cunning, bookish girl might stand a chance at defeating the boogeyman” trope, and, of course, the “final-girl” trope.

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It doesn’t sound like much, but Carpenter crafted this story into, as film critic Roger Ebert would call it, an “absolutely merciless thriller.” As a testament to Carpenter’s ability to create hysteria, a wild debate ensued amongst film critics and feminist groups. Was the film advocating the sexual objectification and brutalization of women, or was it in fact advocating for the endurance and strength of women as represented by “final-girl” theory? In slasher films, the final-girl is always the killer’s main objective who survives to the end. In Halloween, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis – see Psycho) is that final girl. While she was certainly tormented, as feminists would point out, she ended up a heroine of sorts. Another thing that distinguishes the character is that she is depicted as being clever, studious, and more interested in her class work than boys or partying. How someone views this from a gender perspective is simply a matter of personal taste.

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The real success of any film is determined by how much the audience talks about the film after they see it, not so much what is said before it has been viewed. The fact that Carpenter is still invited to speak at conventions throughout the world, and that he still gives interviews such as the terrific one that he recently gave with Robbie Rodriguez on the El Rey program “The Director’s Chair” (check out this site for El Rey listing info) Carpenter made people talk. He made people feel something. He learned this craft from film-makers like Alfred Hitchcock. As this article shows, Carpenter’s relevance is still apparent 36 years after his best work.

Brandon Engel~

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