John Carpenter is still scary
“Sir, please hang up the phone, please,” Jordan Peele tweeted last July, to a fan who suggested he might already be the best horror director of all time. “I love your enthusiasm,” Peele added, but “I just won’t tolerate any slander from John Carpenter!!!” Carpenter’s case as America’s greatest living genre filmmaker has certainly been made, whether Carpenter himself wants to hear it or not. His best films, such as his slasher “Halloween” (1978), are breathtakingly composed and steeped in a creeping, factual dread that has earned him comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock. Even the most minor titles of his filmography bristle with invention. Novelist Jonathan Lethem once proposed that the centerpiece sequence of Carpenter’s “They Live” (1988) – in which an obnoxious drifter, played by WWF star Roddy (Rowdy) Piper, dons a pair of magic sunglasses and perceives a campaign of subliminal subjugation by mind-controlling aliens – should be kept in a time capsule as the pinnacle of neo-B-movie art. Yet since the dismal critical reception of Carpenter’s sci-fi thriller “The Thing” (1982) – that Vincent Canby derided as “virtually storyless”, “instant trash” and “the quintessential moron movie” – it had a chip on the shoulder of popular opinion of its work. His most famous quote – although it’s hard to confirm whether he actually said it – is a comment on his own changing reputation: “In France, I am an author. In England, I am a director of horror films. In Germany, I am a filmmaker. In the United States, I am a tramp.
In conversation, Carpenter, now seventy-four, is terse in a way that might sound hostile if it weren’t for hints of deadpan comedy. He has an aversion to discussing the art of cinema, which could be a byproduct of the same tortured perfectionism that contributed to his early retirement more than a decade ago. Carpenter hasn’t directed a movie since his snake thriller “The Ward” (2010), and he’s kept a wary and selective distance from the industry ever since. I still have an email from a publicist explaining that Carpenter wouldn’t be attending the Toronto International Film Festival that year because he “got a jury summons (seriously).” Carpenter has composed the music for many of his films, and he’s agreed to serve as composer and executive producer for David Gordon Green’s new “Halloween” sequel cycle, including “Halloween Ends” this fall. But bring up this year’s fortieth anniversary of “The Thing” — or the welcome fact that the film is now widely regarded as a modern classic — and his patience wanes. We spoke twice recently on the phone; Carpenter was in Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife, producer Sandy King. Both times, he seemed to have his eye on the clock and was much happier chatting about video games, pro wrestling, and his beloved NBA champions, the Golden State Warriors. Sometimes, though, I wondered if maybe he was enjoying the movie more than he was letting on. Our conversations have been condensed and edited.
I know you are an NBA fan and a Golden State Warriors fan. Can we start by talking about it?
Sure. What do you want to know?
I am in Toronto. Was it a particularly satisfying title after losing in the final to Toronto in 2019 and then being out of action for a while?
They’ve had a few disasters in recent years, starting with KD’s [Kevin Durant’s] injury and then, in the same game, it was—
Klay Thompson was also injured.
Those were dark times. It looked like the Warriors might be over. They were underrated by the whole league, okay? No one picked them to be a great team, or even a winning team; they were just ignored. But look what happened: they beat Boston. It was an amazing victory, a wonderful, wonderful victory! I mean, I can’t say enough.
Do you read a lot about the NBA or listen to basketball podcasts, or just watch the games?
I watch the match. I was a Lakers fan until Lebron came along. . . .
Have you ever played basketball yourself?
I did, but I was no good. I tried.
Were you a shooter or did you play indoors?
I was attacking. Now tell me about Toronto. What’s going on there?
You mean the city, or the basketball team?
The city. I did a film in Toronto a few years ago.
I didn’t want to take the plunge, but you know the movie theater in “In the Mouth of Madness” (1994)? That’s where I got married, at the Eglinton Theatre.
Oh my God.
What are your memories of Toronto during “In the Mouth of Madness”?
We had good pitches. We had to drive for hours to get to this covered bridge. I remember that, my God. But it worked, you know? Everything we had in terms of location, everything we needed was there. It was a good shoot, and then it got cold.
I love the opening of “In the Mouth of Madness”, with all these novels produced by the printing presses. Was the idea to do something about how horror comes off an assembly line?
Yes, but the whole thing was. . . I thought no one had ever really done a great Lovecraft story. It was my attempt to do so.
What is your relationship with Lovecraft?
I’ve been a Lovecraft fan since I was little, ever since my dad gave me a book called “Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural.” I remember reading Lovecraft for the first time and loving it.
Did you have a really visceral imagination when you were a kid? Was it easy to imagine the things in those books in your mind?
Visceral imagination? I had imagination. I don’t know how visceral it was, but yeah, I was a big fan of horror movies and monster movies, like most of us at that time. Lovecraft was an author from a time that I really didn’t know. He’s one of the fathers of science fiction and horror, and I love his stuff, I love it.
One observation that has been made about your films is that, like in Lovecraft, evil is something monstrous that the characters are forced to confront face to face, instead of it coming from within them- same. There are all those times when people on screen just can’t believe what they’re watching or how to deal with it.
I think you are right. It’s true, and I don’t know where it came from exactly. But that’s all.
Were there things you were particularly afraid of when you were growing up? Fears or phobias, whether or not they are found in your films?
I was afraid of everything when I was little. Everything terrified me.
Has it gotten better with age?
Well yeah. I mean, I beat that. My whole life has been about overcoming fear and dealing with it, personally and professionally. One of the things I personally did to overcome my fears was to become a helicopter pilot. I got my commercial pilot’s license, and it’s just because I thought, Well, if I’m going to make movies about badass, I better be one for a minute. It’s a pretty hard thing to do, fly a helicopter.
Do you remember the first time you managed to get a helicopter off the ground?
Yes of course.
How was it?
It was fabulous. I mean, they don’t look like anything else. They’re dangerous, but, you know, you’re trying to tame the beast. Anyway, I got my pilot’s license in 1982 or 1983—I can’t remember which one—and I was running.
You didn’t fly any of the helicopters in “The Thing,” did you?
The helicopter sequences in this film are quite amazing.
Thanks very much. It was actually two different guys flying – one was in Stewart, BC and the other was in Juneau, Alaska over the ice fields. But, yeah, it’s a helicopter movie.
These opening footage of a helicopter chasing a dog across ice is so weird and mysterious. Where is he from?
The animal we used for hunting was called Jed. He was half wolf, half dog. He was just an amazing animal, so well trained. He actually ran right under the helicopter, because he was so well trained. It’s an unusual scene. Like, what are these guys doing? Why are they after this dog?____
It’s the fortieth anniversary of “The Thing” this year. It’s a film that has aged very well after being very poorly received.
Maybe. It wasn’t a fun experience, you know? But I felt the film then as I do now: I really like it. I thought I had done a good job.
“The Thing” is a remake of the movie “The Thing from Another World”, which was produced by Howard Hawks, and I know you are a fan of his work. How did you come to see his films for the first time?
Well, I studied it in film school and got to see it in person. He came to speak at school. I fell in love with his work because it is so versatile. He did adventures and “The Thing from Another World”, he did cowboy movies, comedies. I mean, he did all kinds of things. I studied plumbing: how Hawks made films, how he directed scenes. I was a fan of that. But other than that, I liked the strong women he had. I’ve always been drawn to that.
“Halloween” definitely has that with Jamie Lee Curtis, and that character has become an archetype for the “Final Girl” idea.
Where does the “Final Girl” come from?
There’s a book by a movie scholar named Carol J. Clover called “Men, women and chainsawswhere she writes about how many horror movies have this character at the end, after everyone has been killed, confronting the monster. “Halloween” is Exhibit A.