John Carpenter is a filmmaker best characterized by his work in genre films. He became fascinated by film at a young age and attended film school at the University of Southern California before dropping out in 1974 to film his feature debut, Dark Star. That film didn’t get much commercial traction, but caught the attention of many in the industry who admired Carpenter’s ability to make the film on a shoestring budget. His follow-up was 1976’s Assault on Precinct 13, which didn’t receive much attention upon release, but after a showing at several festivals in 1977 became a critical hit and received a strong cult following.
Carpenter had his breakout film with 1978’s Halloween, which started the slasher subgenre and became a massive hit on a tiny budget (and is one of the most successful independent films of all time). Next, he made The Fog in 1980 with his biggest budget yet. That film made a profit in theaters and received mostly positive reviews. His 1981 film Escape From New York had some success at the box office, and was well received by critics. 1982’s The Thing was his most expensive movie to date, yet it failed to find an audience in theaters and struggled to earn praise from critics who were disgusted by its special effects. He found more success with his next film, Christine (1983), which was an adaptation of the Stephen King novel. The next year he directed Starman, which critics loved but was not a hit at the box office. Big Trouble in Little China (1986) followed, and became his first box office bomb.
Following the poor box office performance of his last few films, Carpenter returned to low budget filmmaking. Fisrt, he released Prince of Darkness (1987) which found moderate success in theaters despite poor reviews. They Live (1988) was his next film, and had similar success as Prince of Darkness, although it has gained a cult following since. Carpenter tried another big budget movie with Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992), but that film failed in theaters and was not well reviewed by critics. In The Mouth of Madness (1994) broke even at the box office and had mixed reviews. Village of the Damned (1995) was his follow-up, but it lost money in theaters and received only mediocre reviews. Escape From LA (1996) was the ill-fated sequel to Escape From New York, and Carpenter’s biggest budget to date. Despite both of those characteristics, it was a flop in theaters and brought in more mixed reviews for Carpenter. Vampires (1998) followed in its predecessors’ footsteps with lackluster reviews but managed to break even at the box office. Carpenter released Ghosts of Mars in 2001, and then stepped away from directing movies. The only other film he has directed was 2010’s The Ward.
So the question posed is, if you are watching a John Carpenter film and you don’t know it, what are the things to look for that would identify it as such? Here are five of Carpenter’s trademarks as director, in no particular order:
The Prince of Darkness
The Prince of Darkness is not a nickname bestowed upon John Carpenter merely because he made a horror film of the same name, and we don’t call him the Master of Horror simply because he directed a few episodes of the series entitled Masters of Horror. These nicknames are representative of his entire filmography and unique approach to filmmaking. Despite making films in several genres besides horror, the way Carpenter makes his films lends itself well to creating dark, and thrilling moments. Carpenter was the originator of many different techniques and ideas that today are taken for granted or seen as tropes in the genre. His creativity went on to influence many other filmmakers and help define an era in cult-horror filmmaking.
First of all, Carpenter knows the importance of setting. All of his films do a tremendous job of playing off of the environment, to the point where the environment becomes like another character. Consider, The Thing, where the characters are stuck inside a frigid antarctic outpost unable to escape the phantom threat inside. Carpenter amplifies this feeling of helplessness with shots of closed doors and characters peering through windows. In Christine, it’s an inanimate object that comes alive. Here Carpenter emphasizes the background where the city streets themselves become unexpectedly haunting to the audience. The opening shot in Halloween is an excellent example of how Carpenter puts in extra effort to create a setting. That shot is a long one which tours a household, but has sinister intent. Terror is lurking in a typical safe place. Even when Carpenter’s films aren’t straight horror, they use the scenery effectively. Consider the subliminal messages in They Live or the dirty grunge of Escape From New York
Another thing that Carpenter brought to his films is creating a tone of paranoia. He wanted his audience to not be sure what they should be afraid of. This is in contrast to traditional horror from the 50’s/60’s where the source of fear was typically quite obvious (actor dressed in some sort of monster suit). The Thing is a great example. The characters have no idea if everyone else is who they say they are, and because of this the audience can’t trust anyone. In The Mouth of Madness, Carpenter creates a world inside a world where the audiences’ ability to determine what is supposed to be real gets more and more difficult. To assist with the illusion of paranoia, Carpenter makes frequent use of the jump scare, making sure to keep his audience on their toes.
Dark and Bleak
Visually, John Carpenter’s film’s don’t exude a lot of flashy style. One could say that his approach is minimalist. Part of this has to do with his budgets, which are typically pretty small. He is very economical about getting the most out of his movies. This can include small, claustrophobic sets and streamlining a plot to be as efficient as possible. Prince of Darkness takes place inside a Church, while The Thing is mostly confined to one building. Dark Star is a great example of how Carpenter uses his frugality to the films advantage rather than disadvantage. The sets are shockingly sparse, atypical to the futuristic computer-infested interior shots we are used to seeing in space-faring science fiction. The tone of the film is also comedic, which helps to make the cost effective stylings a bit more forgivable. Indeed, in most of his films, a somewhat wacky tone is adopted almost as if to make sure the audience is not taking everything too seriously and is having a great time.
However, despite having comedic tendencies, Carpenter’s films are very effective at seeping into you. The picture is typically presented in a straightforward manner, which can be a bit disconcerting. His use of natural lighting creates an overall dark and moody film quality. In addition, he makes use of shaky hand cam to demonstrate first person perspective. It’s also a no nonsense approach. Carpenter creates a tough, gritty environment that the audience has to approach head-on. He avoids complicated camera movements that might otherwise suggest that what is unfolding is set-up and not in fact genuine. The audience sees a reality that is similar to their own, and they cast aside thoughts that could interfere. It doesn’t feel as much like a movie anymore. In Assault on Precinct 13, that makes the situation feel more dangerous. In Halloween, the audience feels helpless. In turn, this makes Carpenter’s paranoia that much easier to take hold.
John Carpenter’s films are haunting because of what he does both as director and composer. Carpenter grew up learning about music because his father was a professor on the subject. This childhood pastime has transferred to Carpenter’s work as a filmmaker where he composes and performs much of the music that is heard in his films. The most iconic aspect of his music is one that is shared with his movies; a minimalist approach with few instruments being heard at the same time. Carpenter was a pioneer of the use of synthesizers to create music scores, and the 70’s and 80’s sounds of these machines gave Carpenter’s films a haunting and bleak auditory landscape.
Starting with Dark Star, Carpenter uses sparse arrangements and folk music to set a tone, then piles on thick acid synth keys when things get tense. Assault on Precinct 13 has Carpenter strictly in synth mode, creating an eerie score that matches the dangerous, and threatening tone of the film’s city setting. In Escape From New York, Carpenter’s talents at creating scores reached new heights as he mixed elements of disco, reggae, and pop music to create something truly unique and exciting. This is contrasted with The Fog where the sonic landscape is more atmospheric and ominous to go along with that films’ “creature”. The iconic theme from Halloween is perhaps his biggest contribution to film scores. For one, it has an odd 5/4 time signature which is off putting but at the same time catchy. It perfectly matches the tone of the film, being chilling but also drawing you in.
There’s Something In a Name
Carpenter likes to use names in his films from real life people, places, and influences. In Halloween, the town of Haddonfield, Illinois is taken from Haddonfield, New Jersey, where producer Debra Hill grew up. The street names come from Carpenter’s home town of Bowling Green, Kentucky. Carpenter named some of his characters in this film as homage to Alfred Hitchcock, with the character Tommy Doyle named after Lt. Thomas Doyle in Rear Window, and Dr. Loomis’ name taken from the boyfriend of Marion Crane in Psycho. In Dark Star, the character names are descriptive of their personality traits. The character named Doolittle refers to the famous animal-talker Dr. Doolittle because he can talk to the computer, but that’s about it. Also, you have the character named Sgt. Pinback, who is named as such to refer to his demeanor as a pinhead. Carpenter also liked to name people after his friends. In The Fog, Jamie Lee’s character is named Elizabeth Solley, after Carpenter’s friend. Similarly, Ben Tamer in Halloween is named after someone Carpenter went to school with. Finally, Carpenter also uses clever names in his credits. He uses a pseudonym John T. Chance for his editor credit in Assault on Precinct 13. John T. Chance is Clint Eastwood’s character from Rio Bravo. In They Live, Carpenter uses the pseudonym of Frank Armitage for his writing credit, named after the Disney background animator. In The Prince of Darkness, the writing credit for Carpenter is listed as Martin Quatermass, which is a reference to the best-known character of Nigel Kneale, Bernard Quatermass.
Sneaking Up On You
Carpenter has many cameos in his own films, perhaps as an homage to Alfred Hitchcock who did the same thing. Carpenter’s cameos are typically brief, having him in the background or in voice only. The one exception is Body Bags, a TV movie he directed, where he plays an actual character in the film, a deranged coroner. Besides, that outlier, Carpenter hardly shows his face on film. In Dark Star, Halloween, and They Live, Carpenter’s cameo is restricted to his voice only. In both The Thing and Big Trouble In Little China, he is an extra in the background. In Village of the Damned, he is a man on the phone at a booth, but is turned around from the camera. Carpenter’s biggest roles in his own films have to do with helicopters because he has a license to operate a helicopter in real life. In Starman and in Memoirs of an Invisible Man, he plays a helicopter pilot, and in Escape From New York he can be seen as a man inside a helicopter at one point.
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