Shocker supremo John Carpenter, now 63, welcomed me into his weird, wild world about a decade ago, and who better than arguably the greatest horror movie director of all time to occupy this week’s Halloweeny Blast from the Past?
He smokes endlessly, wears faded blue jeans, talks about sports. By all appearances, John Carpenter is the guy next door. Have a drink with him, shoot the breeze, what the hell? Only thing is, he’s the man who made Halloween, Christine and The Thing. He is, in fact, the best friend a horror movie ever had, a devoted fan of the genre with the power to crawl under our skin and scare us half to death.
Monsters that cannot be stopped. Worlds on the brink of destruction. Heroes who don’t give a damn. Horror or sci-fi, fantasy or comedy, Carpenter knows exactly what we want and delivers the goods with style, intelligence and perhaps most important of all, humour. Clearly, there’s a lot more to him than the guy next door, unless, that is, you happen to be neighbours with the likes of Wes Craven, George Romero or Dario Argento.
“I’ve always had a real affinity for horror,” confirms Carpenter, “and I know the genre very well. But the thing is, it’s not always my choice, I just get offered a lot of horror films.” Not that typecasting presents a problem. “It’s like we say in the States,” he adds sagely, “you gotta dance with the one who brung ya.”
Following a childhood at the movies and a brief stint in a rock ‘n’ roll band called The Kaleidoscopes, Carpenter decided that it was time to go to film school. “I was making pretty good money with the band, meeting girls, and it was fun. I could have stayed with them, but I decided to go to college and get into movies because that was what I’d wanted to do since I was a kid. I wanted to direct, I wanted to make what people saw. I didn’t want to act, I didn’t want to be in front of the camera, I wanted to be behind the scenes, putting it all together.”
The experience proved invaluable, shaping Carpenter’s movie-making philosophy. “When I went to film school, the first thing they said to me was, ‘look, you’re here to make personal films, you gotta make a movie that means something to you, you gotta make a movie with your heart. It doesn’t matter what it’s about,’ the instructor said, ‘it can be about digging a ditch, but make it about something you care about, and make it your vision’. So that’s what I did, and what I still do. I mean, you collaborate with everybody on the set, with the actors, the cameramen and everyone else, but ultimately it’s your vision, your movie.”
Carpenter’s directing method is deceptively simple: turn up on the first day of shooting, and see what happens next. “I try never to plan anything if I can help it, and just see what happens when we get there. As a director you try to let your instincts and your emotions take over and guide you on your way, because if you plan a film it just looks planned, at least it does to me. I can almost see the storyboards flipping by, like the film was made by a computer, but it’s not supposed to be like that.”
Carpenter is especially distressed by writing guides which promise to unlock the secrets of a successful screenplay. The director maintains that the only rule, the only formula he will follow, is that there are no rules. “I bought a book on screenwriting a little while ago, just to browse through it, and,” he continues, shaking his head, “it was a real piece of trash. It said ‘…unhappy endings are a thing of the past’, and that only stupid people write them, but when I was growing up I saw all kinds of different movies with all kinds of different endings.”
But there are a lot of people, the director acknowledges, who simply hate uncertainty. “What about The Thing? One of the things that everyone got upset about with that movie was its open ending. I remember we had a research screening and one girl, I think she was about 17 or 18, asked me what happened at the end. ‘Who was the Thing?’ So I said, ‘Well, you have to use your imagination,’ and she moaned, ‘God, I hate that.’ Now that’s what I call scary.”
Carpenter devotees have long since learnt not to expect neat little happy endings from the director. The futuristic thriller Escape From New York is a perfect case in point. When ultimate anti-hero Snake (Carpenter regular Kurt Russell) mangles an audio tape containing a speech vital to world peace, he condemns the planet to death. Why did he do it? Why did he rob the movie of its happy ending? Why the hell not?
“As a matter of fact, I recently I went up to Aspen to visit Kurt, and we were sitting around talking about the old days, talking about that character. Snake is a guy who believes in himself. Neither world, not the police state nor the prison, is any good, and he’s the baddest of the bad. So you’re talking about an unredeemingly bad future, and he destroys the hope of the world by ripping out the tape, but to me it’s a triumphant moment. I love stuff like that, it’s much more fun than always winning.”
In 1978, with a relatively tiny budget of $300,000, Carpenter wrote, directed and composed the music for Halloween. A guy in a mask stalked Jamie Lee Curtis and $75 million worth of people flocked to the cinema to be frightened senseless. Years later, Carpenter can still send ‘em screaming from the aisles. Trouble is, he’s one of the only directors who can.
“Everyone thinks it’s easy to make horror movies because a lot of people try it,” he explains, “but it’s harder to make someone believe in that stuff than it is to show a scene in real life. That’s easy. You want two people to talk in a scene in a restaurant. Nothing to it, their lines are written down, you point the camera at this person, you point the camera at that person, and you’re all set. But it’s much harder to make you believe that something you know isn’t true is really happening.
“You see, horror is an art form that, apparently on the surface, wears its technique on its sleeve, and a lot of directors believe that if they include enough of the right elements – a monster, a dark house – they’ll have a good horror movie, but the truth is it’s all in the story, and if the stories aren’t any good, that’s where everything comes apart.
“My biggest failures have been because the stories were shitty. I made one that had all the earmarks of being a really frightening movie, but it was a big mistake because I had no feeling for it. I had no feeling for the source material, I had no feeling for what was going on. I didn’t find this out – stupid me – until I’d finished it, and then I realised that I’d just walked through the project. I wasn’t scared by the subject, it wasn’t something that compelled me, and I didn’t make it work for the audience. I didn’t do it right.”
The odd misfire aside, Carpenter is a director better known for getting it right. “There’s some other life-force that goes on in a film that makes it good,” he adds with a grin, “and if everybody knew how to do it, it wouldn’t be special.”