DIRECTOR RETROSPECTIVE: JOHN CARPENTER

Guest review by Brandon Engel, a freelance writer specializing in entertainment and pop culture, as well as an aspiring filmmaker.

  is heralded by many genre enthusiasts as a “horror icon,” but his body of work extends into other genres. Though perhaps best known for his work on Halloween and his “Apocalypse Trilogy”—The Thing (1982), Prince of Darkness (1987) and In The Mouth of Madness (1994)—Carpenter has been writing, directing and producing genre films since the early 1970’s.

Halloween, released in 1978, ushered in a new era of “slasher” films, although originally Carpenter set out only to “make a film [he] would love to have seen as a kid.” His self-described “crass exploitation” film earned over $65 million at the box office. Not bad, considering that the film was made for a budget of approximately $325,000 and with mostly unknown actors (with the notable exception of Bond villain ). Although Carpenter admitted it wasn’t his favorite film, The Fog (1980) became a successful cult movie all the same, although critical reception was initially lukewarm. Rounding out Carpenter’s horror masterpieces is The Thing. Although The Thing proved to be a box-office disappointment, these three movies cemented Carpenter’s reputation as a master of the horror genre.

However, Carpenter has tried his hand at science-fiction as well. In fact, his first significant outing as director was the ultra-low budget feature Dark Star (1974), which he worked on with USC classmate Dan O’Bannon (whom you may recognize as the screenwriter for Ridley Scott’s Alien). The film was a parody of classic science-fiction films such as ’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Several of Carpenter’s other successful films integrate elements of science-fiction, such as Starman (1984), about an unlikely coupling between an alien and a widow fleeing from government agents, and Escape from New York (1981), about a dystopian future where a crime ridden United States has been forced to turn Manhattan Island in New York City into a maximum-security prison.

John Carpenter on the set of The Ward (2011)
John Carpenter on the set of The Ward (2011)

Every career has it high and low points, and Carpenter’s is no exception. After the dismal box-office performance of The Thing, Carpenter lost the opportunity to direct Firestarter, based on the book by Stephen King. In the 1990’s, he produced several flops including Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992), Village of the Damned (1995), and Escape From L.A. (1996). Perhaps due to this decline in Carpenter’s popularity, his films Prince of Darkness (1987, about the Anti-Christ), They Live (1988, about aliens secretly controlling the human population) and In the Mouth of Madness (1994, about a Lovecraftian author whose fiendish imaginings become manifest) did not garner the attention they deserved.

After being semi retired in the 2000’s, Carpenter saw a resurgence of his work after remakes of his Halloween, Assault on Precinct 13, The Thing and The Fog. In 2005, Carpenter returned to film, contributing to the Masters of Horror series for Showtime, a compilation of 13 different notable horror filmmakers. Reviews for his episode “Cigarette Burns” were positive, prompting Carpenter to follow up with the feature The Ward (2011). That film, whose plot follows an institutionalized woman named Kristen who is haunted by a mysterious and deadly zombie-like ghost, brought lukewarm reviews. One critic described the film as “just as good as most of the films in mainstream horror today.” Shallow praise for the “master of horror.”

Despite the fact that he never again realized his mass-market potential since the decline of his career began in the late 1980’s, John Carpenter has no doubt created a lasting legacy for himself, in horror, science fiction, and filmmaking in general. As was reflected in his recent interview with filmmaker  on the latter’s El Rey Network (available on DirectTV), Carpenter has had an enormous influence on many popular genre filmmakers currently working. His name will be forever associated with the rises and falls—the successes and failures—that are the mark of a lifetime spent in the entertainment business.

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