John Carpenter, Apocalyptic Filmmaker

John Carpenter’s movies provide visions of societies falling apart. No wonder his work is resonating now more than ever.

“It’s a documentary,” Carpenter is fond of saying. “It’s not science fiction.”

It may come as a surprise to those of us who always loved his films, but the reputation of director John Carpenter wasn’t always so sterling.

Today, Carpenter is universally regarded as one of the great American genre filmmakers, the auteur of a half dozen gritty classics renowned for their steady pacing, pulsing electronic scores, and raw action. In an attempt to cash in on this new consensus, Hollywood has spent the last decade announcing a flurry of remakes, reboots, and reimaginings of his classic films.

In 2018, Blumhouse Productions’ Carpenter-sanctioned (and scored) Halloween sequel brought in $255 million on a $10 million budget. It’s now the highest grossing slasher film in history. And this summer, that same studio announced it was working with Carpenter on yet another reboot of one of his classics — 1982’s The Thing  — despite the fact that there was already a prequel made by another studio less than a decade ago.

It’s quite a shift from the late 1990s, when Carpenter couldn’t even get a low-budget film off the ground. By the turn of the millennium, he’d faded out of filmmaking almost entirely. He is now dedicated to a career in music, touring with his son, Cody, to perform his increasingly celebrated film scores and other compositions worldwide.

After such a steep fall from grace, how do we account for the current widespread reverence for all things John Carpenter? You’d never know now that the majority of his films did poorly at the box office. After a cluster of major and minor hits in the 1970s and early ’80s  — including Halloween (1978), The Fog (1980), Escape From New York (1981), Christine (1983), and Starman (1984)  — Carpenter’s pileup of commercial failures, such as Big Trouble in Little China (1986), Prince of Darkness (1987), Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992), In the Mouth of Madness (1994), Village of the Damned (1995), Escape From L.A. (1996), and Ghosts of Mars (2001), made him increasingly unbankable and doomed his career.

Kurt Russell in The Thing.

Carpenter’s masterpiece, The Thing, was perhaps his most shocking flop, ignored by audiences and widely dismissed by critics in that tragic year of 1982, when Blade Runner also failed dismally. Americans preferred the sunny and suburban E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial to those dark and dreary classics. According to one of Carpenter’s staunchest admirers, director Guillermo del Toro, this failure “fragmented Carpenter’s heart somewhat,” and he reported that Carpenter spoke bitterly about his newly stellar reputation, saying, “What fucking good does that do to me?”

In 2016, Del Toro posted a marathon series of twenty tweets in tribute to John Carpenter, “a true auteur,” that began, “When I think of John Carpenter, I am amazed at the fact that we take him for granted. How can we? Why should we? He is lightning in a bottle.”

After praising individual Carpenter films in terms of their “unsparing precision, simplicity and elegance” and the perfectly “spare rhythmic punctuation” of his scores, Del Toro generates a fusillade of tweets praising The Thing as the peak of Carpenter’s achievements and saying “fuck them all” to the critics who slighted it. He ends by saying, “Final thought for the day: Carpenter creates masterpiece after masterpiece and they are often ignored. Now, go to bluray church and pray.”

It’s not just Del Toro, either. Quentin Tarantino, Bong Joon Ho, Robert Rodriguez, Olivier Assayas, Danny Boyle, Edgar Wright, Nicolas Winding Refn, James DeMonaco (of the Purge franchise), David Robert Mitchell (of It Follows), and Kleber Mendonça Filho (of Bacurau) are among the filmmakers that have sung Carpenter’s praises in interviews, cited his influence on their own filmmaking, and sometimes adoringly referenced his films in their own.

Young people today tend especially to rave about Carpenter’s so-called Apocalypse Trilogy: The Thing, Prince of Darkness, and In the Mouth of Madness. Those films, along with Halloween, Escape From New York, and They Live, are probably the most cited as evidence for his genius.

There’s a simple reason for that — they’ve aged well. Carpenter’s apocalyptic outlook, which might have seemed overly dour in the era of Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton, now feels prescient. Coming out of the dashed left-wing political hopes and failing economy of the 1970s with his cynical, antiauthoritarian inclinations already developed, Carpenter began identifying the United States as a failing state way back in the 1980s, concurrent with Reagan’s two terms as president.

His most explicit attack on the American nightmare is the pseudo-Marxist They Live, in which a working-class hero, played by professional wrestler Roddy Piper, battles aliens who’ve cleverly disguised themselves as the Reagan-era bourgeoisie. “It’s a documentary,” Carpenter is fond of saying. “It’s not science fiction.”

The film’s narrative conceit involves special sunglasses distributed by an underground political organization that allow one to see the aliens in our midst, controlling the human population with sophisticated surveillance devices and omnipresent subliminal messaging like “Consume” and “Obey” and “Do Not Question Authority.” The sunglasses arose out of Carpenter’s desire for a straightforward, tangible way to represent political awakening: “I tried to put myself in the eyes of the revolutionaries. How can we wake people up to the world that they’re in?”

A scene from They Live.

But Carpenter’s dyspeptic views on American capitalism go beyond They Live. Consider the antihero John Trent (Sam Neill) in 1994’s In the Mouth of Madness. A callous and well-dressed insurance investigator, Trent is so engaged in a lunch-hour conversation with an executive that he doesn’t see the ax-wielding religious maniac coming for him until the assailant breaks through the restaurant window and lands on the table. The maniac is a former career man himself, once the literary agent of an ultra-successful pop horror writer named Sutter Cane and now a fanatical Cane worshipper.

There’s a grim underlying pleasure in watching Trent come undone as he discovers that the works of Cane — a publishing phenomenon — are unleashing a monster-ridden apocalypse straight out of an H. P. Lovecraft story. “This book will drive people crazy,” he warns Cane’s publisher. “Let’s hope so,” the executive replies. “The movie comes out next month.” Trent ends the film in a movie theater, watching himself on the big screen as nothing more than a character in the sure-to-be hit adaptation of Cane’s latest novel — not just any book, but a monstrous capitalist achievement with the power to devour reality itself.

It’s no coincidence that politically left filmmakers should respond so strongly to Carpenter’s films, or that increasingly left-leaning young Americans keep returning to them. Carpenter’s characters are typically working-class types, leading precarious lives that are already difficult before the monsters in their landscapes reveal themselves. Just think of protagonists such as hulking, sad-eyed “Rowdy” Roddy Piper as John Nada, the homeless blue-collar guy hunting for a job, who is befriended by black construction crew member Frank Armitage (Keith David) in They Live. And think of the way Frank groans contemptuously when Nada stubbornly insists that hard work and perseverance will provide him opportunities, against all the evidence of urban decay and human suffering around them, because, as Nada says, “I still believe in America.”

The frequently noted “siege structure” of many Carpenter films, entrapping the main characters in tight spaces ringed by multiplying and intensifying sources of danger, is mirrored in our lives of continual catastrophe — wondering where we can hole up to survive pandemics, climate change disasters, a teetering economy, collapsing civil rights and social programs, and the appearance of a political swing toward breakdown and, possibly, fascism.

The city in Assault on Precinct 13 marks the beginning of this structuring device for Carpenter. But he often complicates the framework, with the source of danger infiltrating the confined “safe space” early on, making it unclear whether one should stay in and defend the refuge, break out and battle the complicating threat from outside, or fight a two-front war.

Other Carpenter “siege structures” include the suburban house as terror trap in Halloween, the Antarctic station infiltrated by a body-snatching alien in The Thing, the church ringed by demon-possessed homeless people in Prince of Darkness, and the Manhattan of Escape From New York, a metropolis so degenerated by poverty and crime that it’s been turned into a maximum-security prison. It’s no wonder George A. Romero, with his many famous “siege structure” zombie films, shared such mutual admiration with Carpenter. Both fell out of Hollywood’s good graces just as the Reagan Revolution was revving up, and both saw American society careening toward its disastrous end way back when it was deeply unpopular to do so.

Carpenter is certainly not a fancy director, and his stark, clear, unfussy approach to filmmaking is easy to misread as a lack of ambition. In fact, clarity is a rare and precious quality in a cinematic world where pretentious, convoluted, symbol-laden pontificating is taken as proof of intellect and importance — the logic being that if a movie is hard to follow, it must be good.

In fact, Carpenter’s style is so clean-lined, you may miss his expertise. He gets insidiously terrifying effects from seemingly simple directorial choices. His preferred wide-angle shooting style not only increases the impact of movement in action scenes, it’s also deceptively “open,” giving us the vague sense that we’re taking in the entirety of a setting even though we often can’t locate the danger. Or else the danger is already present as an element in the frame, yet it’s downplayed in a way that accentuates the frighteningly deceptive “normality” of the surroundings.

In the original Halloween, the psychotic killer stands unnaturally still in broad daylight but is largely unnoticed next to a tall fence, or among the sheets hanging on a laundry line, or alongside young children trick-or-treating with their parents.

You can see a similar kind of no-frills craftsmanship in the films of Carpenter’s directing idol, Howard Hawks, who also specialized in genre filmmaking, and who, in fact, was noted for being able to turn his hand to seemingly any popular genre and work wonders. Carpenter returns to Hawks repeatedly for both formal and narrative inspiration, most obviously taking Hawks’s Rio Bravo as the basis for his own Assault on Precinct 13, and inventively remaking the Hawks-produced 1951 monster movie The Thing From Another World as 1982’s infinitely grimmer The Thing.

Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images.

Carpenter’s adaptation, like Hawks’s, is based on the 1938 novella Who Goes There? But his rendition is a wonder of insinuating terror that removes every reassuring element from Hawks’s version, particularly Hawks’s answer to chaos — which, in his serious, action-oriented films, is generally the strength, professional competence, and code of conduct of one man or a group of men who are, or should be, experts at their work.

In Carpenter’s film, the members of the crew that first encounters the alien are all dead almost as soon as the movie starts. And instead of the alien assuming a single, stable shape (originally played by Gunsmoke’s James Arness as a hulking Frankenstein’s Monster), Carpenter opts for a shape-shifting creature. Anyone — or any living thing  — could be the alien. He begins his film with a tour de force chase scene that starts from a slightly wavering Steadicam point-of-view shot, looking up at a formidable, frozen cliff face. Whose point of view is it? It turns out to be the alien, but in a form that no one in the audience can yet recognize, or wants to recognize  — a lone husky running across frozen tundra, chased by an apparent madman in a helicopter taking shots at the dog below.

The madman raving in Norwegian is killed by the American crew, in what they think is self-defense. The dog is brought inside to shelter with the other huskies, who whine in terror at the interloper but are ignored. From then on, we witness total social breakdown in the barracks, where it soon becomes clear that conditions are as deadly inside as out, for the alien is on a stealthy rampage, occupying and destroying the body of one crew member after another.

In the beginning, the men are shot in large, congenial groups. Then, under the pressure of increasing paranoia and distrust, the groups shrink to uneasy alliances of three men per shot, or just two, and, toward the end, one — no man shares a “frame” with another, as each fights a lone battle to survive the alien takeover.

In Hawks’s rendition, there’s no single hero. It’s a team of equals. And their bond only grows stronger, until they finally defeat the alien together. Hawks ends his film with the crew broadcasting a warning to the world: “Watch the skies — everywhere. Keep looking.” It’s the can-do spirit of an America fresh from its victory in the Second World War.

Carpenter’s film, though, ends with his hero, R.J. MacReady, tentatively rejoining forces with his chief rival for leadership, Childs (Keith David), as they freeze to death, together in a frame, outside their burning barracks. Their only mission is to live long enough to prevent the alien from escaping the flames.

It turned out not to be a recipe for box office success. Carpenter later expressed regret at his own attachment to such bleak endings, suggesting that some of his films might’ve done better with audiences if he’d given them more to be happy about at the end.

But Carpenter’s darkly ambivalent conclusions are entirely in keeping with his overall vision — a society falling apart and, as a result, the people devolving into paranoia, cynicism, and an increasing inability to overcome distrust and fight back. Truly an American filmmaker for our times.