Profile: John Carpenter

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John CarpenterThese days it’s hard to imagine the impact that Carpenter’s movies made in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Only Tarantino and Spielberg have made similar impacts as ‘brand-name’ directors, the former on a wave of publicity he largely built himself and the latter by giving the studios exactly what they want.

In pre-internet days, word of mouth was more or less that, supported only by a rabid fanzine culture, and no-one was bigger than Carpenter. Initially his reputation was forged in Europe, where Assault on Precinct 13 was a massive hit at the 1977 London Film Festival before getting a successful theatrical release. This led to his adoption by French critics who recognise an auteur when they see it.

Carpenter’s signature style was established early: sparse synthesizer score, careful wide-screen composition and a respectful but playful take on genre traditions. When Carpenter gets it right, nobody is better, although if you like your director’s hand to be invisible, look elsewhere.

His big breakthrough came with Halloween, which made huge profits in America relative to its meagre budget, and nothing grabs the industry’s attention like that. Over the next few years, Carpenter embarked on a run unequalled in modern cinema – while not all of his movies worked 100% (The Fog and Escape From New York suffer in particular from slack pacing), he threw more ideas at the screen in a short time than any one else has done since, and The Thing has stood the test of time better than almost any genre movie.

Unfortunately it was also a huge box-office disaster (don’t blame me, I saw it three times) and this made Carpenter’s relationship with the studios an uneasy one at best. Some of his movies feel like jobs for hire (parts of Starman, Christine and particularly the dull Memoirs of An Invisible Man) and others are very impressive in parts but struggle against their low-budgets a bit too conspicuously (They Live and Prince of Darkness).

Although cynicism has always been part of Carpenter’s make-up and on-screen attitude, it seems that it’s affected his faith in the industry, resulting in the mean-spirited Vampires and Ghosts of Mars, a retread of Assault on Precinct 13 but without the affection for the characters and subject matter.

It’s now fashionable to regard Carpenter as someone who started bright and burned out, but that’s unfair as he made more good movies in a short time than anyone else I can think of, and even his failures usually have something interesting going on. If he has a fault, it’s that he never discovered a subject with enough subtext to develop as a theme over several movies, and as a result never got the respect of the serious critics. And choosing to stay in the genre ghettoes didn’t help in that respect.

After a short foray back into television, Carpenter has just made The Ward.

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TitleYearMild Peril RatingIMDB Rating
Escape from New York 1981★★★★☆ ★★★½☆
Halloween 1978★★★★☆ ★★★★☆
Prince of Darkness 1987★★★½☆ ★★★½☆
Ghosts of Mars 2001★★½☆☆ ★★½☆☆
They Live 1988★★★½☆ ★★★½☆
Vampires 1998★★☆☆☆ ★★★☆☆
Body Bags 1996★★★☆☆ ★★★☆☆
Dark Star 1974★★★☆☆ ★★★½☆
The Fog 1980★★★½☆ ★★★½☆
Escape from LA 1993★★½☆☆ ★★½☆☆
The Thing 1982★★★★½ ★★★★☆
Big Trouble in Little China 1986★★★½☆ ★★★½☆
Assault on Precinct 13 1976★★★★★ ★★★½☆