John Carpenter: 2014's most influential director?
John Carpenter was once among Hollywood’s most prolific filmmakers. But the man who brought us such genre classics as Halloween, The Thing, Escape From New York, and Assault on Precinct 13 has only made one movie in the past 13 years—2010’s psychological thriller The Ward—and hasn’t troubled the box office in a big way since 1998’s James Woods-starring Vampires. (And Carpenter, 66, doesn’t sound like he’s in any rush to get back behind the camera: “I worked really hard for more years than I’d like to count, but now I can pick and choose things,” says the director, who most recently co-penned a comic book follow-up to his 1986 kung fu-fantasy film Big Trouble in Little China. “I was doing too much—music and writing and all this shit. I had to take a break. I’m developing a couple of things. But we’ll see. There’s no urgency.”)
But Carpenter’s semi-retirement has not diminished his influence on other filmmakers. Quite the opposite. In the past decade, Hollywood has remade several of his films, including Halloween and Assault on Precinct 13, while Sherlock Holmes producer Joel Silver has plans to reboot Escape From New York. “I’d like to do a trilogy,” Silver confirms. “That’d be a nice idea if we could figure it out.” And this year, Carpenter’s influence is being felt in cinemas as never before, with younger filmmakers falling over themselves to pay homage to the director—and borrow from his voluminous horror and science-fiction playbook.
Carpenter’s The Thing, for example, was an obvious influence on February’s alien abduction film Almost Human, just as Halloween helped inspire May’s slasher-musical Stage Fright, whose titles ape the distinctive gothic font beloved by the filmmaker. “We are such John Carpenter fans,” says Stage Fright director Jerome Sable of himself and cowriter Eli Batalion. “Not only do we use the John Carpenter font for the title treatment, but our editor used the ‘eye-dropper’ tool on Photoshop to [get] the exact Assault on Precinct 13 red for the red of our title. That’s how much we were into John Carpenter.”
The plot of last summer’s horror hit The Purge (in which people can commit any crime they like on a designated night) owes a clear debt to Escape From New York (in which people can commit any crime they like within a walled-off Manhattan). However, Purge writer-director James DeMonaco says he sought inspiration from Ennio Morricone’s score for The Thing while plotting the sequel The Purge: Anarchy, which arrives in cinemas July 18. “I literally wrote The Purge 2 to track two of The Thing soundtrack,” recalls DeMonaco, who also wrote the 2005 remake of Assault on Precinct 13. “I would just blast it in my basement. It was driving my wife crazy.”
DeMonaco is not the only filmmaker to be inspired by the synth-heavy soundtracks favored by Carpenter and often penned by the man himself. Director Jim Mickle’s recent, ‘80s-set thriller Cold in July stars Michael C. Hall as an East Texas frame store owner whose shooting of an intruder begets an extremely bloody chain of events. For the film’s soundtrack, Mickle asked composer Jeff Grace to locate his inner Carpenter. “I often temp score movies with Carpenter soundtracks,” says the filmmaker, whose previous credits include 2010’s post-apocalyptic vampire saga Stake Land. “This time we just made the decision, ‘Hey, don’t replace that with more contemporary stuff. No strings—all ’80s synthesizers.’ Jeff went into that little box and he pulled out some amazing stuff.”
Director Adam Wingard (You’re Next) is another fan of the filmmaker’s soundtracks, in particular Carpenter and co-composer Alan Howarth’s score for 1982’s much maligned Halloween III: Season of the Witch. The third entry in the horror franchise is the only one not to feature masked psychopath Michael Myers and was actually directed by longtime Carpenter associate Tommy Lee Wallace. But Wingard reveals the movie influenced his forthcoming film, the Dan Stevens-starring action-thriller The Guest, which is set for September. “It takes place during Halloween and there’s a lot of references in the film to not just Halloween but actually Halloween III,” says Wingard. “That ended up being this really weird, obscure influence, which is a funny film to homage because it’s a lot of people’s least favorite one. But that movie has its own, interesting sci-fi quality. Plus, it might actually be John Carpenter’s best score.”
Why is Carpenter proving so influential now? It is surely no coincidence that all of these aforementioned filmmakers grew up in the director’s mid-‘70s-to-mid-’90s heyday, a period during which he made 16 theatrically-released films, two TV movies and a segment of the anthology project Body Bags, as well as writing numerous other projects. DeMonaco recalls his father buying a VHS of Escape From New York back in the ’80s—a tape the Purge director wore out by repeatedly watching the adventures of Kurt Russell’s eyepatch-sporting anti-hero Snake Plissken. “I actually put it in recently and I can’t see anything, he says. “I couldn’t see Snake Plissken. It literally was a life-changer.”
However, filmmaker Jeremy Saulnier—who directed April’s acclaimed revenge thriller Blue Ruin—argues the current love being shown the director is not just about nostalgia. “His films had something to say about society,” he says, “and were deeper than just found-footage massacres that make me walk out of the theaters and want to vomit.”
DeMonaco echoes Saulnier’s appreciation for the depth of Carpenter’s work. “I always found there was humanity amidst all the B-movie chaos that was occurring,” he says. “He was always paying attention to character in The Thing and Starman and Halloween, whereas some of the other filmmakers I don’t think were.”
So what does Carpenter himself feel about the enduring influence of his oeuvre on younger filmmakers? “I love it,” he says. “But I just wish they would send me money. It doesn’t have to be much—just a couple bucks.”
Blue Ruin, Stage Fright, and Almost Human are available on DVD and Blu-ray. Scream Factory has rereleased a number of Carpenter titles over the past couple of years, including collector’s editions of They Live, The Fog, and Assault on Precinct 13. On September 23, Scream Factory and Anchor Bay will put out Halloween: The Complete Collection, a 15-disc Blu-ray set which includes every film in the franchise.
Additional reporting by Kyle Anderson.
(An earlier version of this story incorrectly implied that the soundtrack of The Thing was written by John Carpenter. The score was of course composed by Ennio Morricone.)