Original Creator: John Carpenter Turns Lo-Fi Horror Into An Art
Each week we pay homage to a select “Original Creator”—an iconic artist from days gone by whose work influences and informs today’s creators. These are artists who were innovative and revolutionary in their fields. Bold visionaries and radicals, groundbreaking frontiersmen and women who inspired and informed culture as we know it today. This week: John Carpenter.
No one does stylish lo-fi horror like John Carpenter. And no one does stylish lo-fi horror with a custom soundtrack made on what sounds like a Casio keyboard, like John Carpenter. And no one did more to trounce on all that good work making seminal horror and sci-fi flicks, like the late ’90s/early ’00s John Carpenter, either. But there you go. This horror auteur combines low budget thrills and a b-movie aesthetic with the symbolic undertones of Hitchcock—stacking it with shocks, twists and nasty violence. Along with Wes Craven and David Cronenberg, Carpenter formed the Hollywood triumvirate of the horror new wave of the 1970s/80s—a period which, unbeknown to anyone at the time, would be plundered continually by the same place that nurtured it, so they could create that great modern malaise of a monster: the remake.
Carpenter wasn’t averse to a remake himself, though, and his films are rich with cinematic awareness (unlike everybody else, he wasn’t operating in a creative vacuum). He was strongly influenced by the Western genre—John Ford and Howard Hawks—but used it as a template to riff off to build his own uniquely fantastical tales (the character Jack Burton is John Wayne in a Carpenter universe). While he may have been influenced by the Western, Carpenter made imaginative, tense, terrifying, and influential films in sci-fi, horror, and action movie genres, often using his Robert De Niro—Kurt Russell—as a protagonist.
His films pound along, gorging the viewer on a cocktail of emotions—anxiety, fear, pity, amusement, surprise, disgust, relief—while critiquing and passing comment on the many ills and prejudices of our modern ways. He was a master craftsman of cinematography, framing his films with expertise, while filling the frames with unnerving, enthralling, and violent stories—with a soundtrack that could leave you feeling existentially sick or high. Whatever he was doing to the viewer, he made sure he was doing it with suspense, intrigue, intelligence, and wit. Let’s just hope he doesn’t make another Ghost of Mars.
Here’s a selection of some of his finest:
The incredible opening is a one-take steadicam POV shot creepily encroaching on a suburban abode with a pumpkin sitting out front. In this scene, Carpenter expertly lays down the blueprint for the slasher film—the couple making out, the dumb teens, a suburban setting and a mad bogeyman with a knife on the loose. It’s stylish, intelligent, scary, and spawned plenty of sequels, just like any self-respecting horror movie should.
A visceral, brutal, captivating horror remake that explores the frailty of flesh via plenty of gruesome physical transformations. Another brilliant opening sets the scene as a shape-shifting alien arrives in Antarctica. Then what follows is a blend of sci-fi and horror as the survivors try to kill the alien, who’s intent on turning them into fleshy abominations because, like the tagline says, “Man is the warmest place to hide.” It’s full of menace and paranoia as the men turn on each other and trust is consumed along with their bodies.
Assault on Precinct 13
When, near the beginning, a little girl gets gratuitously shot in the face at point blank range when she’s trying to buy an ice-cream, you know you’re in for a brutal time. Narratively inspired by the Western Rio Bravo, a local police station is under siege from a group of mysterious but persistent hoodlums. It channels the abject horror of Night of the Living Dead while referencing Hitchcock’s The Birds with it’s relentless and inexplicable attack. Plus, the amazing synth soundtrack by Carpenter is a real mood-setter too.
“I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass…and I’m all out of bubblegum.” John Nada (aka Roddy Piper) is one of the all-time great action anti-heroes, right up there with Ash from the Evil Dead trilogy. In this film specially designed sunglasses allow the wearer to see the abhorrent truth of the world—the ruling classes are aliens stealing the Earth’s resources, while the poor suffer the consequences. Never has social critique looked like so much fun. In Carpenter’s action movies—this and the Escape From… series—his heroes are the opposite to the Arnies, Van Dammes and Stallones of the day—they’re misguided, arrogant and hilarious.
Big Trouble in Little China
Truck driver ol’ Jack Burton is one of the greatest characters in cinema, full of ridiculous quips and bloated self-worth, he’s a complete mockery of what a hero should be. The film itself is a fantastical tale that crosses genres, and takes in street gangs, occultism, stolen fiancées and a mystical battle fought for centuries in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Transformers: Dark of the Moon, it ain’t.