October 30, 2018

What Makes a John Carpenter Film a John Carpenter Film?

Discover the signature moves of the director who created one of the most iconic horror villains of all time.

No one does horror quite like John Carpenter—but how does John Carpenter do horror? In a genre that is rife with blood, screams, and disgusting monsters that want to kill everything in sight, it might be a little difficult to make distinctions between certain horror directors, especially since there are so few in the industry that turn horror filmmaking into a career. However, the team over at ScreenPrism dissects Carpenter's approach to scaring audiences, from his creepy wide shots, haunting scores, and subtle messages about authoritarianism and the status quo. Check out the video essay below:

Despite being known primarily for his horror films, including The Thing, They Live, and of course, Halloween, Carpenter has worked in many different genres, from sci-fi action adventure to straight up rom-com. However, his cinematic method has largely remained the same throughout his 40+ years in the industry. So, let's quickly go over how you can tell if you're watching a John Carpenter film.

  • He tells you: Yes, John Carpenter likes to include his name in the titles of his films. Why? Because he admires the work of auteurs like Alfred Hitchcock, Sergio Leone, and Howard Hawks, directors who strived to achieve their own unique brand of cinema—and Carpenter wanted to follow suit.
  • He creates unsettling atmospheres: Seemingly mundane things and places get the lion's share of Carpenter's creative attention, which allows him to create unsettling atmospheres in his films: a homicidal maniac just standing in an idyllic suburb in broad daylight, a place of worship becomes a place of horror, and so on.
  • It sounds like him: Carpenter is almost as famous for his composing as he is for his directing. His scores often feature sparse, pulsing, electronic music.
  • Carpenter's widescreens: Where most horror directors go small, Carpenter goes big, at least in terms of his shots. His wides are often populated with elements that add to the tension and unease in a scene and his camera movement, often captured in long, handheld takes, leaves audiences feeling as though much they're closer to the action than they'd like to be.
  • Macho Heroes parodies: Carpenter is a huge fan of the western genre, namely its biggest proponents, Howard Hawks and John Wayne, which is why so many of his films contain parodies of those macho heroes. It's his way of capturing the fun of the action western, while also informing audiences not to take their machismo too seriously.
  • His films burn slowly: Carpenter isn't going to give you the payoff to a setup until he's good and ready! He takes his time, lets his scenes breathe, and allows the tension to build rather than going for the cheap scare. (Though he does that, too.) 
  • Yeah, his movies are very scary: Carpenter's films are scary, but not just because they feature disgusting mutant dog aliens. ScreenPrism describes his films as being "dark reflection of the real world," with perhaps the most obvious example being They Live, a movie in which aliens have taken over Earth and use subliminal messages to get people to spend money and accept the status quo.
  • He relies on tension rather than gore: In films like Halloween, Assault on Precinct 13, and The Thing, Carpenter chooses to build tension to deliver scares rather than gore...
  • ...but when he does go for gore, he goes all out: Just look at the transformation scenes in The Thing. Case in point.
  • There are anti-authoritarian themes: Carpenter often sews the seeds of distrust in authority in his films, often making those with authority, including police offers, government officials, and parents, inept, evil, or in need of help from the citizens and outlaws they've had under their thumb.
  • Departures are still him: Carpenter leaves his fingerprint on whatever he touches, even if not one of his independent or studio films but rather a film he was sixth in line to direct (Starman).
  • You feel unsettled after watching: There are rarely happy endings in a Carpenter film. There aren't really unhappy ones, either. Instead, Carpenter likes to leave questions unanswered and his audiences unsettled, providing little (if any) closure before the screen fades to black.

What are some other signature trademarks of John Carpenter? Let us know down in the comments.     

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