John Carpenter turns 69 today. To celebrate, Fandom looks back at seven times the Master of Horror put the willies right up us, or just plain flipped audiences out. Happy birthday, JC!
1. ‘Christine’: When Arnie Turns
In 1983, John Carpenter adapted Stephen King’s literary horror classic Christine for the screen. The story, about a demonic car – a red 1957 Plymouth Fury – that possesses its owner and turns murderous at first seems a bit silly. Critics at the time weren’t overly sold on the film. But it’s since become a cult classic, and deservedly so.
Carpenter builds up the tension slowly. It’s this, alongside the characteristic foreboding atmosphere he crafts, that is the key in part to his success. In Christine, it leads us deliberately to the most startling sequence of the film – one that has all the more power because of what’s gone before.
Arnie, played by Keith Gordon, is a sweetheart. His mother is a bit overprotective and he’s bullied at school. He looks nerdy and lacks confidence. All that changes when Christine, the red Plymouth, comes into his life and his personality gradually shifts. But it’s the point in the film where Arnie switches completely that’s most chilling.
As Arnie catches sight of a totalled Christine – trashed by a gang of bullies – the film hurtles towards the point of no return. For a moment the audience teeters as we feel sympathy for the bullied schoolboy, but then we lose it as he lashes out at new girlfriend Leigh. He blames her and calls her a “shi**er” – a word he begins to use increasingly frequently to describe his enemies.
After dinner at home with his family, he attacks his dad before heading back to Christine, who’s parked at a local garage. This pivotal scene sees Arnie finally lose himself and become inextricably melded with Christine. The car begins to repair itself and John Carpenter’s tinkly synth music plays, naturally.
Then, that classic shot of Arnie with his back to the camera facing Christine; shiny new front, headlights beaming. The music changes vibe – becoming noirish, almost sexy – and we know there’s no going back.
2. ‘The Fog’: The Dead Seaman
The Fog opens with a traditional ghost story being told around the campfire. And, although we have a sense that this will have repercussions later in the film and it’s therefore appropriately unsettling, this moment isn’t the film’s spookiest. Neither are the ghostly figures in the fog or even the death scenes necessarily the most freaky. That accolade is reserved for the film’s biggest jump, which comes when Jamie Lee Curtis’s Elizabeth and Tom Atkin’s Nick are exploring the boat whose crew seems to have mysteriously disappeared.
As the couple sit down, they begin to chat, and Nick adds a little more colour to the ghost story from the opening scene. Parallel editing is in full effect here, as Nick’s story is intercut with shots of Father Malone reading from the diary of his grandfather, which he found hidden in the wall.
The effect is to quicken the pace, and ratchet up the tension as the entire back story unfolds. John Carpenter’s classic score begins to swell. There’s a close-up shot of a cupboard; its handle slides. Suddenly, the cupboard opens and its contents clatter out, making us jump. But just when we think the scare is over, and we’ve all exhaled, a dead body falls on Elizabeth from behind.
3. ‘Escape From New York’: The President’s Finger
The whole premise of Escape From New York freaks us out, to be honest. Set in 1997 in an alternative future (the film was made in 1981), it’s based on the notion that crime rates in New York have spiralled out of control. With a huge criminal contingent, the whole of Manhattan is now a walled prison, with nobody on the inside to keep control. But when the President of the United States crash lands inside the facility during a hijacking of Air Force One, he’s taken hostage, and the authorities resort to desperate measures.
They offer dangerous convict Snake Plissken the opportunity of an out if he can locate and rescue Donald Pleasence’s President within 24 hours. With Snake something of a caricature, a comic-book character almost, the film at this point lacks the menace to really trouble us. It’s at the moment when a character called Romero – he with the wind-tunnel styled hair – delivers the President’s severed finger neatly wrapped in a handkerchief that we know these bad guys mean business.
But before we leave Escape From New York, there are other standout moments that deserve a mention. There’s the death match Snake is challenged to, in which he embeds a nail-studded baseball bat in the skull of his opponent (could this have influenced Negan’s weapon of choice, Lucille, in The Walking Dead?). There’s also the moment The Duke’s men are taking pot shots for entertainment at a humiliated and terrified President, which is pretty screwed up. Finally, there’s the head on a stick that Snake and co. drive past as they take the short cut down Broadway to put the frighteners on you.
4. ‘Halloween’: When Michael Myers Stalks Laurie
Halloween was a film that changed the game for horror – and certainly the slasher film. In Halloween, John Carpenter pioneered and popularised filming techniques that are still used in horror today.
But whichever of the kill or attempted kill scenes lives on most prominently in your head, it’s the film’s early stalking scenes and Carpenter’s slow, deliberate build up that most freak us out.
Our first introduction to Michael Myers – today a fully fledged, fully recognisable screen horror icon – is via a first-person perspective. We don’t know it yet, but he’s just a kid, and he’s just murdered his sister.
Fast forward several years and Myers is now a grown-up, having escaped the facility he was being held in and returned to his hometown of Haddonfield, Illinois. He first sees Laurie, who’s not unlike the sister he murdered, through the window of the former family home he’s gone back to. And so begins a stalking campaign. He shows up again, watching her in plain sight from the pavement – we’re over his shoulder as his back fills the right-hand side of the frame. As we watch him watching her, she walks off ahead, away from the camera, and we can hear his heavy breathing beneath his mask. Is there a tinge of excitement? Yuk.
A bit later, he’s brazenly pulled up outside her school in the car he stole from the institution. He stands watching her, again from the pavement as she’s in class. Scary John Carpenter music plays. She looks back and he’s gone.
Later still, he drives past her when she’s with her friends and makes no secret of the fact he’s staring; stalking. The music switches key, Nancy Loomis shouts and Michael Myers drives off before popping up again amid the washing on the line in her neighbour’s garden.
5. ‘Assault on Precinct 13’: The Little Girl
Another John Carpenter film depicting a society that’s broken, Assault on Precinct 13 is a relentlessly brutal look at mindless violence. The situation is bleak. A police station in a ghetto in South Central LA is being shut down and a lieutenant is tasked with taking charge of the police precinct during its final hours. Crime is rife, and a violent gang is on the rampage.
The most shocking moment occurs ahead of the film’s main events – the siege on the police station – and it’s still one of cinema’s most startling scenes. Of course, we’re talking about the moment where one of the gang members savagely shoots and kills the little girl at the ice-cream truck.
She may have been a bit annoying. She may have even been a bit of a brat, demanding a vanilla twist instead of the regular vanilla she’d been given, but all she wanted was what she’d paid for. She didn’t deserve to die.
Its function as a scene is to set us up for a no-holds-barred showdown. From this point on, we know this gang will stop at nothing.
6. ‘The Thing’: The Defibrillator Scene
The Thing is a John Carpenter classic, but its body-horror leanings and graphic effects could have come straight out of a David Cronenberg film. There are many moments that are so gross-out you might find yourself recoiling from the screen. Or you might have done in 1982 at least, when the film was first released, and the effects were like nothing ever seen before.
Carpenter’s sci-fi horror is considered by many to be his finest film. And while you might pinpoint the scene in which the dog basically turns inside out, grows tentacles and spurts purple liquid as its freakiest scene, we beg to differ and argue the toss for the defibrillator scene. Know the one? It’s the scene the teacher in Stranger Things is watching at home with his girlfriend.
As Dr. Copper attempts to revive Norris, a jagged cavity suddenly opens in his chest, swallowing Copper’s arms and chomping them off. A grotesque, deformed humanoid creature comes out. Kurt Russell’s Mac is poised with the flamethrower but at the same time, Norris’s head stretches off down the side of the table, separating itself from the body. A tongue tendril whips out and pulls the whole thing along. It grows legs and antennae and emerges as a gruesome arachnid-type creature with an upside-down head.
7. ‘Village of the Damned’: Death By BBQ
Village of the Damned may be considered one of John Carpenter’s lesser films but it’s definitely a curiosity. If only for its eclectic cast. Cheers and Veronica’s Closet star Kirstie Alley features alongside Crocodile Dundee’s Linda Koslowski, Christopher Reeve in his final role before his tragic horse-riding accident, and Mark Hamill, who plays a priest.
It also has a couple of moments of genuine horror, one in which a woman is compelled to boil her own arms. Nice. But the most startling occurs after the residents of Midwich come round following a sudden village-wide blackout. A woman screams, and the camera cuts to a poor guy who’d fallen unconscious onto a barbecue – he’d been chargrilled to death.