Born in New York in 1948, John Howard Carpenter grew up watching movies. Among his favorite genres were the westerns of Howard Hawks and John Ford and of course horror and science fiction movies. Carpenter began to make his own movies even before attending high school. He attended a couple of universities before dropping out to pursue filmmaking full time.
Carpenter’s moviemaking career stated off with a bang. After making the movie short “Captain Voyeur,” Carpenter collaborated with other filmmakers on the movie The Resurrection of Bronco Billy, which won an Academy Award for Best Live Short Action Film. The movie starred Johnny Crawford, best known as the son of Lucas McCain, The Rifleman [http://www.therifleman.net/].
Carpenter has gone on to establish himself as a successful and prolific filmmaker involved in all facets of the business, from writing screenplays and composing music to producing and directing. He has worked on movies for the big screen and television for various genres, although he has proved most successful in the horror and science fiction genres. Carpenter’s last film to date has been 2010’s The Ward.
Although there are many fans who find that all of Carpenter’s films have merit, I have selected what I consider the top five horror films Carpenter has made to date. This was not an easy task, but most of you may appreciate at last half of the choices made, if not more.
In the Mouth of Madness
In 1995, Carpenter attempted to explore the cosmic terror genre first proposed by H.P. Lovecraft. The result was In the Mouth of Madness, which mixed themes taken from Lovecraft but more prominently from Stephen King.
The movie tells the story of John Trent (Sam Neill), who is hired by a publisher (Charlton Heston) to find Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow), a best-selling author whose books have the power to drive readers insane. Trent tracks Cane to a town known as Hobb’s End, a supposedly fictitious town that transcends the realms between fact and fiction.
Although a good horror movie, In the Mouth of Madness has been panned by many Lovecraft fans because it emphasizes monsters and insanity over the broader themes explored by Lovecraft, namely cosmic horror, humanity’s insignificance in the world cosmos, and the sense of the outsider. Still, those who enjoy Carpenter movies will enjoy this one.
Prince of Darkness
Made in 1987, Prince of Darkness was Carpenter’s extended foray into combining conventional gore-driven horror with the subtle, deeply scary elements of terror. The result is a mixed bag, although Carpenter’s attempt at terror—particularly the film’s ending—are sure to give horror fans the chills.
The story details the discovery of a mysterious cylinder filled with a strange, glowing liquid. Father Loomis (Donald Pleasance) brings together a group of student scientists and philosophers to unravel the mystery of the cylinder. Loomis himself believes that the cylinder contains the ultimate evil.
Although the theme that the ultimate evil is really Satan’s son (and that Satan is an extraterrestrial) is more than cheesy, Carpenter’s ideas regarding the “Brotherhood of Sleep” and their communication skills that transcend time and space make Prince of Darkness a must-see chiller.
John Carpenter hopped on the Stephen King wagon in 1983, directing the movie adaptation of King’s Christine. Although there are some deviations in the movie, Carpenter and screenwriter Bill Philips effectively mine the source material, making the movie a pretty good adaptation.
The movie’s story centers on a red-and-white 1958 Plymouth Fury (her name is “Christine”), which from its assembly is possessed by the spirit of a vengeful female entity. The car’s latest owner, Arnie Cunningham (Keith Gordon), begins to change along with the car—he begins to regress into a 1950s hood while the car literally restores itself from junkyard trash to cherry. It falls on Dennis Guilder (John Stockwell), Arnie’s best friend, and Leigh Cabot (Alexandra Paul), Arnie’s girlfriend, so save Arnie by destroying Christine once and for all.
Carpenter has a great time telling the story and uses music—his own and that of popular artists—to give the film much of its flavor. The film is strongest when using King’s material, as very few authors have the skills to create such fully formed and compelling people.
In 1982, Carpenter released John Carpenter’s The Thing. At first, referring to the film under his name may hint at some ego, but it isn’t. Carpenter is merely distinguishing his movie from Howard Hawk’s Thing from another World. Next to Halloween, John Carpenter’s The Thing is Carpenter’s best horror film, although there have been detractors who have found the movie “too gory.”
The Thing is about a shape-shifting creature buried deep in the Antarctic ice. A Norwegian science team discovers the creature and brings it back to their base, where it successfully reanimates and kills all but two of the team. The two then pursue the creature—now in the form of a dog—to the American science station, where both men are killed and the dog begins to befriend the American personnel. The bulk of the film has the thing assuming the forms of team members, creating a sense of heightened hysteria as the human team members literally wonder, who goes there?
Claustrophobic, gory, and featuring a signature cast led by Kurt Russell, The Thing was originally panned by many critics and fans, particularly those in the science fiction community. Interestingly, Carpenter’s movie had more in common with the source material than the 1951 movie. The Thing has finally gained an audience after many years, but the initial panning of the movie hurt Carpenter—something that hardcore fans cannot forgive.
With Halloween, John Carpenter in 1978 brought the slasher film to contemporary audiences, making the movie one of the most successful ever in an independent genre. Halloween would influence many horror films in the 1980s, and in 2007 Rob Zombie remade the film, reviving interest in the original yet again.
Halloween’s story centers of Michael Myers, a withdrawn and violent child who grows up in an insane asylum. One day before the 15th anniversary of his sister’s death, Myers escapes the Warren County Smith’s Grove Sanitarium and returns to Haddonfield, Illinois, where he intends to relive his stabbing of his sexually promiscuous sister. With Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence) hot on his trail, “The Shape” begins to stalk and eventually attack a trio of girls: Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), Annie Brackett (Nancy Loomis), and Lynda van der Klok (P.J. Soles).
Perhaps one of the biggest concepts to influence the horror genre was the idea of an “eternal killer.” Halloween screenplay co-writer Debra Hill has noted, “[T]he idea was that you couldn’t kill evil, and that was how we [she and Carpenter] came about the story. We went back to the old idea of Samhain, that Halloween was the night where all the souls are let out to wreak havoc on the living, and then came up with the story about the most evil kid who ever lived.”