JOHN CARPENTER: CELEBRATING THE MASTER OF HORROR
Total Film|August 2021
On the eve of Halloween Kills, Total Film meets the man behind Michael Myers, R.J. MacReady and most of your favourite ’80s movies to discuss his tumultuous career, and how he’s happier than ever making music…
JORDAN FARLEY
Hang out on Film Twitter long enough and you’ll eventually stumble across someone posing this chin-scratcher: ‘Which director is responsible for the longest, unbroken run of classic movies?’ There are cases to be made for plenty of filmmakers: Coppola, Kurosawa, Nolan, Villeneuve; but few hold a pumpkin-encased candle to John Carpenter. Between 1976’s Assault On Precinct 13 and 1988’s They Live, Carpenter made 12 films, most of which are considered alltimers today, even if they were rarely recognised as such by contemporary audiences and critics.

Carpenter was prolific, and then some. A multi, multi, multi-hyphenate, he habitually directed, wrote, produced and composed the music for his features. He was 28 years old when he penned the screenplay for Precinct 13 in eight days, and just 30 when he changed horror forever with Halloween. He was a wunderkind to make Damien Chazelle look like a late starter. Today he’d be inundated with rich contracts to helm blockbuster franchise fare, or treated with the auteur reverence of a Tarantino. In 1982, after The Thing bombed, he was dumped as the director of Firestarter.

If Carpenter wasn’t sufficiently celebrated in his heyday, there’s no danger of that anymore. During an hour-long chat in late June, Total Film freely throws around words like ‘masterpiece’ and ‘magnum opus’ – praise he accepts graciously, but not all that comfortably. Following a string of flops in the ’90s, Carpenter fell out of love with movie-making. His relationship to his work is complicated to say the least. “You know, I’m not the biggest fan of talking about [my films],” Carpenter says over the phone from his home in LA. “But let’s do it.”

If there’s one project Carpenter is buzzed to talk about today, it’s Halloween Kills. The belated sequel to Halloween (2018) sees Carpenter return as both composer and executive producer. David Gordon Green, the new trilogy’s director, values Carpenter’s input above almost anyone else, telling TF: “It’s not like a committee of faceless studio executives giving you notes, it’s the genius that created the franchise! It makes you look good.” Carpenter, rather modestly, sees his role as EP a different way: “Everybody comments when the movie’s done. So I do the same as everyone else. It’s tedious, but that’s the way it goes.”

He may not be prepared to pat his own back, but Carpenter will enthusiastically heap praise on others: Green is a “spectacular director!”, and Halloween Kills “a slasher movie times 10!” It’s a film he’s thrilled to be associated with, especially because he no longer has to “suffer under the pressure of directing” and can work on the film in a capacity he still enjoys – as the maestro behind its nostalgic, menacing score, alongside his son Cody and godson Daniel Davies. “We tried some different sounds this time. We let the movie guide us,” he says. “And it’s great fun. I’m very, very proud of this score – and the movie. This is what horror films should be.”

In a different life, Carpenter may have followed in the footsteps of his father and become a music professor himself, but a viewing of Forbidden Planet in 1956 set him down a different path. “It was mind-blowing to me,” he recalls. “Everything about it, especially because it had an electronic soundtrack. It was like I just got dosed with LSD. I thought, ‘Wow, I have to do this.’” At the USC School of Cinematic Arts he “learned how to do the plumbing” and started work on what would become his first feature film – sci-fi comedy Dark Star. Shot in pieces over four years for a grand total of $60,000, Carpenter considers Dark Star a “student film made into a feature film”, though few student films are now regarded as cult classics.

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