The Sultan of Shrieks: Revisiting John Carpenter’s Extraordinary Career
With a horror film heyday in the '70s and '80s and a career spanning decades, John Carpenter is known as a master of genre filmmaking. Although he is best known for his blockbuster contributions to the horror genre, Carpenter has written and directed romantic comedies, sci-fi thrillers and action epics. While many of his films were commercial failures, several of them have achieved cult status for their gruesome special effects and imaginative storylines, adding to John Carpenter's cinematic legacy.
Made quickly on a shoestring budget, Halloween (1978) became what is perhaps John Carpenter's most recognizable contribution to cinema history. Featuring the simple premise of a masked killer stalking and tormenting a handful of terrified adolescents, and integrating elements of earlier low-budget thrillers like Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Halloween inspired an entire sub-genre of popular slasher horror films. While the sexual promiscuity of the teenage victims in Halloween leads many film critics to suggest that the film is an analogy for the dangers of indecency, John Carpenter himself has said that he simply loved exploitation films as a kid and wanted to make films with the kind of trashy graphic imagery that would have appealed to his younger self. Despite its cheap budget, Halloween went on to become one of the highest grossing independent films of all time, and was one of the few huge commercial successes of Carpenter's career.
Although films like The Fog (1980) and The Thing (1982) helped cement his status as a horror film genius, John Carpenter's repertoire was far more varied and included classics in several genres. His other-worldly romantic comedy Starman (1984) is often overlooked today, despite earning Oscar and Golden Globe nominations and receiving critical acclaim upon its release in 1984. Columbia Pictures chose the Starman script over Spielberg's E.T. (1982), and the film was one of Carpenter's only ventures into romantic territory — with another notable exception being Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992). Starman was not his only outing as a sci-fi director, however. Some of his earlier films such Dark Star (1974), the action classic Escape From New York (1981) and the dark thriller The Thing all integrated elements of science-fiction.
John Carpenter's career contains several high notes, but as his commercial and critical success began to decline, studios began offering him less juicy projects, prompting his return to independent filmmaking and smaller projects. Although most of these films enjoyed only limited success upon their release, several of them are considered cult classics by audiences today. Films like Prince of Darkness (1987), They Live (1988) and In the Mouth of Madness (1994) are considered by film buffs to be lost gems of horror films, despite their poor box office performance. Although John Carpenter is now retired from directing, he continues to contribute to the horror genre in other mediums, including video games and comic books. And, as evidenced by his recent interview on The Director’s Chair on El Rey Network (click here for details on finding the channel), countless contemporary filmmakers regard him as a major inspiration.
Even though his lengthy career saw both failures and successes, John Carpenter is remembered today for his substantial contributions to film making, including his unique flair for storytelling, scoring and special effects. While cinematic history will have to ultimately forgive his shortcomings, audiences will never forget the impact and influence that films like Halloween and The Thing had on the horror genre as we know it today.