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October 29, 2011

The Mike's True Heroes of Horror (9/10) - John Carpenter

This one didn't require thought at all.  When I tried to think of the people in horror who mean the most to me, this name came out immediately.  I wouldn't love horror like I do if there were no...
John Carpenter
Who is John Carpenter?
Raised in Bowling Green, Kentucky, John Carpenter grew up loving the films of Howard Hawks and John Ford and started making his own Super 8 horror movies as a young teen.  He started his secondary education at Western Kentucky University - and I'm obliged to mention that their school mascot is pretty much a Blob - but transferred to the prestigious USC film program, where he won an Oscar as part of the crew behind the short film The Resurrection of Broncho Billy in 1970.
Carpenter's personal life and his life in movies would intersect many times, with his significant others including Debra Hill (who co-wrote and produced his first hit with him), Adrienne Barbeau (who he was married to from 1979-1984 and had a son with) and his current wife Sandy King (who produced several of his later films before and since their marriage in 1990).  Today he's still active in horror - albeit far less frequently - and this weekend he's even contributing to well known comedy website Funny or Die.
Carpenter is best known for....
If we have to narrow it down, Carpenter's legacy most likely ties in to his two most revered horror films - Halloween and The Thing.  The former film was a revolutionary box office success that changed the face of horror in the late '70s, giving a face and a shape to the slasher genre that would inspire a subgenre to develop over the following decades.  It also, unlike most of the slashers that followed it, provided an example of just how tense, crisp, and dark a horror film could be.  I've talked about it plenty of times before, the short version of the story ends with me saying that Halloween is my favorite horror film.

Though today's horror audiences condemn remakes more often than they shower, Carpenter's most loved film might be his remake of The Thing From Another World.  I'd say The Thing is one of those movies that is so good that it makes me want to shun how good it is sometimes. Like, I feel like I'm rooting for the Yankees when I like it, but it's just so dang good.  And people didn't like it when it came out!  that's one of many things that makes me very mad when I think about John Carpenter, but we're gonna talk more about that later.
Other Horror Hits....
It's safe to say that Carpenter has spent his entire career - unless you count his TV biopic Elvis - making genre films, with sci-fi (Escape from New York, They Live) and action (Assault on Precinct 13, Big Trouble in Little China) hits among his most loved films.  But he's never strayed too far from the horror genre in the three decades since Halloween.  His follow up to that film was the classic ghost story The Fog, and he made a couple more pure horror films - the Stephen King adaptation Christine and the religion-meets-science tale Prince of Darkness in the 1980s.  His later works have been almost completely horror, with my favorite of his late films being In the Mouth of Madness and Vampires (which I still say is underrated).
So, why's John Carpenter here?
My respect for John Carpenter is probably best summed up by how mad I get when I think about the ups and downs of his career.  I'm not sure who I'm mad at - the studios, the viewers, Carpenter himself - but I'm just mad.  I think I'm mad that we're not all worshipping Carpenter the same way Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorcese get worshipped.  I think I'm mad that studios don't say "Hey, we want to make a good genre flick, why don't we let John Carpenter do something?"  I'm certain that I'm mad that the last thirteen years feature only 6 films by Carpenter, who had the best run any genre filmmaker has ever had between 1976 and 1988.

When Carpenter was in his prime and had control over his movies - writing, directing, and even composing the music - I strongly believe that he was as good as any filmmaker has been since Alfred Hitchcock.  But the first red flag regarding Carpenter's ability to gain a hold over Hollywood was his films' box office performance.  We know that Halloween was a big hit - 47 million dollars at the box office in 1978 is a hefty sum, especially when you consider that it cost about 320,000 - but Carpenter's next highest grossing film - Starman, an Oscar-nominated family sci-fi film he made for Columbia Pictures - falls about 20 million dollars behind that one.  According to, the total earnings of Carpenter's films (288 million) is less money than each of the top 47 grossing single movies of all-time made at the box office (Number 47, one of the Harry Potter films, made 290 million).  I realize that these totals aren't adjusted for inflation of ticket prices and that kind of stuff, but that's still kind of a problem when you consider that films that were considered gigantic bombs like Last Action Hero and Cobra made more money than Carpenter's most successful film.
Of course, you can't blame the studios for not giving the keys to the kingdom to a guy whose films didn't make enough money, which brings us to the viewers.  The fact of the matter is that  most people who go to the movies - dare I call them "the average moviegoer" - want things wrapped up in a nice neat package with a happy ending.  John Carpenter has never really subscribed to that theory.  If you look at Carpenter's films, I say that not one of them wraps everything up well.  Almost all of his endings are ambiguous, ranging from blatant hints of danger (Halloween, Christine, BtiLC) to antiheroes winning but messing up society (The Escape flicks, They Live) to wide open and possibly damning finales (The Thing, Prince of Darkness).  The masses don't always want that kind of ending, but Carpenter sure seems like he did.

Though the box office figures were meager, many of Carpenter's films turned a profit on their initial release.  The four that were generally mentioned as busts - The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China, They Live, and Prince of Darkness - can easily be earmarked as his films that stray the farthest from the comfort zone of mainstream audiences.  The Thing is certainly the most puzzling example in the group, considering the fact that it's pretty much universally loved by everyone who likes horror movies. I seriously can't wrap my head around the fact that people didn't like it when it came out.  It blows my mind.
I've spent like four paragraphs complaining, and I think that has to be a sign of how much I connect with Carpenter's work.  In my eyes, he's just what the genre fan needs - a practical filmmaker who won't sugarcoat things and will make the film he wants to make.  And it kills me when I think of how he made a bunch of films I love and got so beaten up by the studios and the audiences and the critics that he suddenly was gone from movie screens for five years and resurfaced with a half-cocked Chevy Chase vehicle that the studio tinkered with.  I know that some of the blame falls on Carpenter - his insistence on control cost him the chance to direct films like Santa Claus: The Movie, Fatal Attraction, Exorcist III, and even Top Gun - but I....well, I guess I'm too much of a homer to buy in to that.

And that's where I realize just how much John Carpenter has meant to me as a filmmaker.  He doesn't pull punches, he didn't just rent himself out for a paycheck (some would argue that this has changed, I won't go there), and he brought an unflinching and dark vision to his films.  He represents what I want from genre cinema and, particularly, horror cinema.  And even though I wish he ran Hollywood, I wouldn't trade the films he's done for the films made by of any of his contemporaries.  John Carpenter's world isn't a world I want to live in, but I could watch his world unfold any day.  And when I consider his best horror films and everything else he's done,  it's impossible for me to not list him here.
When it comes down to it, I'll go to battle alongside John Carpenter any day.  That's the mark of a true hero.

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