The following is a college paper that I wrote in 2005 for a Intro to Media Production course at Emerson College:
The 1960’s saw a downfall in the popularity as well as the revenue of many big budget Hollywood films. The cause of this was due to the Communist blacklisting of several key individuals in the industry and the massive success of television. Yet, it was during this decade that American colleges and universities began to take cinema seriously as a field of study now that the Hollywood studio system was in decline. This would give rise to the next generation of influential film auteur that created films like The Graduate and Easy Rider to break the rules of cinema and depict those individuals who were part of the anti-establishment.
One filmmaker in particular, however, took the title of “auteur” to a whole new level. John Carpenter would become one of the most creative, yet, underrated filmmakers of the American New Wave period. Carpenter directed, wrote, edited, scored, and sometimes acted in the majority of his films. His work would eventually gain a cult fanbase due to his love for shock value as well as creating films that reflected the tension in America during the late 1960s and 1970s.
When Carpenter was attending U.S.C. in the early 1970s, the scope of American cinema had changed as the major studios found that films involving the counter-culture which were directed by the first generation of filmmakers coming out of film schools could deliver critical and commercial success. The swift of power from the studios was now coming into the hands of these new filmmakers like Mike Nichols, William Friedkin, and Francis Ford Coppola among several others. The success of these filmmakers who broke the conventional rules of how to make a successful film gave Carpenter, inspired by the works of Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock, the opportunity to work independently on films that were not of the Hollywood standard. Colin Odell and Michelle LeBlanc, contributors to Vector Magazine and have previously written biographies on David Lynch and Jackie Chan, write in their book, John Carpenter, that Carpenter was not only interested in linear filmmaking but “also experimented with special effects – using stop-motion photography in the Ray Harryhausen style or even going as far as to employ such techniques as back projection” (LeBlanc & Odell15). His master thesis, 1974’s Dark Star, would take three years to complete. The highly ambitious science fiction involved a group of goofy astronauts stuck in space on a wrecked spaceship forced to live together with disgust for one another and doomed to die in space. Like most student films, Carpenter funded the project himself along with co-screenwriter, Dan O’Bannon, but had to keep raising money within a three year period and would constantly halt production until he had enough funds from mutual friends to continue.
The critical success of Dark Star brought Carpenter to the attention of two independent film producers, Joseph Kaufman and J. Stein Kaplan, who gave him the creative freedom to make a project of his choice with the only catch being that he would have to work with a low budget. In response to his love for westerns, Carpenter wrote, scored, edited, and directed 1976’s Assault on Precinct 13, a modern day remake of the John Wayne classic, Rio Bravo. The story involved a small band of police officers and criminals surrounded by a murderous cult out to avenge the deaths of some of their members. The film unveils many of the distinct signs of Carpenter’s cinematic style that would be apparent in almost every film he followed: Graphic violence, anti-heroes above the law, desolate locations, unpredictable deaths, moving point-of-view shots, and the use of electronic sound to build up mood. These elements establish “the work of an auteur who has studied what he finds enjoyable or interesting about the film form and has used these as templates for his own vision” (LeBlanc & Odell 22).
Among many of the themes that are essential in Assault on Precinct 13 as well as most of Carpenter’s work is the relationship between men and the responsibilities they have for each other. The characters of the strong-willed cop, Bishop, and the philosophical con man, Napoleon Wilson, are two men on opposite sides of the law; however, as the cult raids the precinct, Bishop saves Wilson’s life and as the film progresses, the roles reverse. John Kenneth Muir, a writer and amateur filmmaker, writes in his book, The Films of John Carpenter, that Bishop and Wilson’s “dialogue, bordering on flirtatious at points, artfully highlights both their differences and similarities” (Muir 11).
Yet, Carpenter was also a filmmaker who always wanted his way with his films when it came down to the tone of violence. The catalyst for the precinct raid involved the senseless death of a little girl who gets shot dead in the chest by one of the cult members while asking for some ice cream from a doomed ice cream truck driver. Carpenter tricked his way past the MPAA by sending a print of the film with the scene cut and eventually released all other prints to the theatres with the scene intact. While the scene angered audiences who were still recovering from the graphic images of the Vietnam War on the news, Carpenter, in an interview published in the book, John Carpenter: The Prince of Darkness written by the publisher of Le Cinephage, Gilles Boulenger, says that he shot the scene “for dramatic reasons and second (and I think it is a dramatic reason too) it’s scarier when it’s random” (Boulenger 89).
Carpenter’s next project would eventually become his signature film in the horror movie genre: 1978’s Halloween. This was the first entry in the popular franchise, which told the story about a masked serial killer named Michael Myers who stalks a group of babysitters on Halloween night. Once again, Carpenter was working with a low budget situation; however, his creativity was stepped up a notch from Assault on Precinct 13. It was the first film where Carpenter utilized the panaglide, “a body held damping system that enables smooth hand-held camera movement” (Le Blanc & Odell 27). With the use of the panaglide, Carpenter was free from the restrictions of using a dolly for camera movement and created one of the most unexpected opening sequences in a horror film, reminiscent of the opening scene in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, in which the audience sees through Myers’ point-of-view as he picks up a knife and prepares to approach his first victim. Yet, for Carpenter, “the real pay-off is the reverse angle when the mask comes off and you see it is a little boy and we pull back” (Boulenger 103).
One of the most talked-about issues since the release of Halloween is the sexual context of the film. The heroine character of Laurie, played by Jamie Lee Curtis, is a single virgin while her babysitter friends commit the act of fornication with their boyfriends before they meet their doom. J. Nada, the Webmaster of The John Carpenter Website writes that “this aspect was carried through in many of the films similar to Halloween, most notable the Friday the 13th series” (Nada, par 8). Some critics perceive this as Carpenter’s reaction to sexually active teenagers; however, Carpenter feels that Myers is only killing these girls due to an ambiguous sub-plot in which Myers, as a child, murders his sister while she engages in intercourse with her boyfriend.
Carpenter also took a step forward in his ability to compose his films. Feeling that the rough cut of the film wasn’t scary enough, Carpenter pulled out his synthesizer, took inspiration from legendary film composer, Bernard Herrmann, and put together a frightening horror score in addition to the film’s theme song for “psychopaths on the prowl” (Nada, par. 7). With its electronic driving edge, the theme to Halloween became as terrifying and infamous as the themes to Jaws and The Exorcist.
The box office success of Halloween established Carpenter as part of an elite of first generation directors coming out of film school that included the likes of Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese. His career would expand from television movies (Somebody’s Watching Me and Elvis) to more mainstream theatrical releases (The Fog). Yet, it was 1981’s Escape From New York that helped bridge Carpenter to the big budget Hollywood blockbusters. The story takes place in a post-apocalyptic future where Manhattan is exiled from the United States and becomes a maximum-security prison. When the criminals following a plane crash capture the President of the U.S., the United States Police Force hires an ex-commando turned felon, Snake Plissken, played by Kurt Russell.
Unlike most of his previous films at the time, Carpenter’s protagonists in Escape From New York are all anti-heroes who were outcasts of society. In particular, the Snake Plissken character, the strong silent type who dons an eye patch and a few tattoos, can be characterized as “a hard-working patriot who has been betrayed by his country, a rogue who despite his avowed self-interest does work for the good of others – an anti-hero and a professional” (LeBlanc & Odell 36). Carpenter also was now capable of tackling a larger-than-life production by working with future Steven Spielberg cinematographer, Dean Cundey, who would be responsible for Escape’s dark and gritty atmosphere, as well as Jaws production designer, Joe Alves, who would make New York look like hell on earth.
The political context of Escape From New York was the most essential for Carpenter. When the initial draft was written in 1973, the Vietnam War already made the American people distrust the government and Carpenter wanted to respond to the rebellion with his screenplay being more of a “what if” scenario; however, Nick Alaway, the editor of the website, The 80s Movie Rewind, believes that the success of Escape From New York was due to “America’s desire to watch a successful rescue mission in the aftermath of the Iran hostage crisis” (Alaway, par. 19). Also, like Dirty Harry, the audiences wanted to see the type of heroes who take direct action in getting the job done without laws and politicians standing in their way.
Each of the three films directed by John Carpenter have their own similarities and distinctions. There’s also a sense of artistic growth with each film that Carpenter follows. Assault on Precinct 13 was a way for Carpenter to tap into his love for westerns while creating a reactionary story to the high crime rate in America at the time; Halloween would be a simple slasher movie concept that was enhanced by Carpenter’s creativity in shooting long takes so that the audiences wouldn’t know what to expect as they wait for a killing to happen as well as placing them at times in the point-of-view of Michael Myers which was rarely seen in any film in the genre at the time; and Escape From New York finally saw Carpenter in control of his vision involving a doomed society with its savior being the ultimate anti-hero who not only drives the film into unexpected turns but also gives the audience an exciting ride full of action and morbid suspense that would set the standard for such influential action films as First Blood and Die Hard.
I see John Carpenter as an auteur that believes in making his own artistic decisions with his work and caring less about making quick bucks at the box office. Even to this day, Hollywood studios see Carpenter as a bum because he refused to sell himself out to their hype. I appreciate his ability to take control of almost every essential component to filmmaking as a way to masterfully articulate his point-of-view, which is an ability that is difficult for most film directors to achieve. Without a shadow of a doubt, John Carpenter’s name should be mentioned in the dictionary under the word “auteur.”
Boulenger, Gilles. John Carpenter: The Prince of Darkness. Los Angeles: Silman-James
Alaway, Nick. The 80s Movie Rewind. 4 April 2005.
Le Blanc, Michelle, and Odell, Colin. John Carpenter. North Pomfret: Trafalgar Books,
Muir, John K. The Films of John Carpenter. Jefferson: McFarland & Company , 2001.
Nada, J. The John Carpenter Website. 8 March 2005.
The Official John Carpenter. 23 August 2001.