If the four presidential faces that stare from Mount Rushmore were replaced with those of American horror movie directors, then it’s unthinkable that anyone other than John Carpenter would be the first face to be carved in stone.
“It’s all I liked as a kid,” says Carpenter today. “Science fiction and horror movies. I first went to the cinema at four-years-old. I saw The African Queen. I was stunned. I didn’t understand what I was seeing. At first, I thought there were actual people behind the curtain, until my father explained it to me…”
Typically, it was the scene where Humphrey Bogart is covered in leeches that made the greatest impression.
“I fell in love with cinema in 1956 when I saw Forbidden Planet,” he continues. “I thought it was mind-blowing. Making movies was all I wanted to do from that point on. Movies were a place I could go and get away from the real world. The real world scares me, nothing in movies does. The real world is a pretty horrible place sometimes. Especially recently. It makes you lose a bit of hope. Some of the cruelty going on. Syria. That scares me…”
Music Over Movies
Born on January 16th, 1948 in Carthage, New York — the son of a music professor — Carpenter is responsible for a near perfect run of cinema between 1976 and 1988, predominantly within the horror and sci-fi genres. There’s Assault On Precinct 13 (1976), Halloween (1978), The Fog (1980), Escape From New York (1981), The Thing (1982), Christine (1983), Big Trouble In Little China (1986), They Live (1988). And while the worn narrative will tell you otherwise – and there have certainly been latter day missteps, Vampires (1998), Ghosts Of Mars (2001), The Ward (2010, his last movie to date) — Carpenter’s creative flair continues until the present. It’s just, these days, he’s much more concerned with music making.
Since his use of the iconic EMS VCS 3 synthesizer on his first movie, 1974’s Dark Star (not that he’s especially fond of synthesizers; “It was a way to sound big with just a keyboard,” he says), Carpenter has written and performed the majority of the music in his films. Due to his upbringing, music has always been core to his life.
“I’m not sure whether my father ever liked any of my films,” he muses. “But I think he was proud I did the music.”
Performing Live is “Joyous”
Hugely influential on the electronic music scene that followed (without him, no house, no electro, no dubstep), since 2016 Carpenter has been performing his movie themes live. Starting on October 10 in Utrecht in the Netherlands, before stopping in London, and winding up in LA on Halloween itself (of course), when FANDOM speaks to him, he’s preparing to head out on the road. To warm up, they’ve been mucking about playing covers. “We did “Louie Louie” by The Kingsmen…” he says. The mind boggles.
“We’re going to do the music from the films I’ve made,” he says, “including the new Halloween film. I’m going to enjoy playing it and hopefully, the audience will enjoy listening to it. It’s such a joyous experience performing that music. I never thought I would get this experience at this stage in life. I’m getting to play my music, live, as part of a show. And I get to play with my family [Carpenter’s son Cody, and godson Daniel Davies accompany John onstage]. Are we bringing any of the augmented reality stuff we did last time we came? Maybe…”
The Halloween soundtrack marks Carpenter’s return to a franchise – which he kicked off, writing the first two movies with the late, great Debra Hill – that he hasn’t had any direct involvement in since 1982’s Halloween III: Season Of The Witch. Movie three is the only film in the series’ history not to feature antagonist Michael Myers, aka The Shape, arguably horror movie making’s most iconic big evil. The new film (directed by David Gordon Green) picks up as a direct sequel to the 1978 original, retconning the nine that have followed (including two Rob Zombie reboots – Carpenter wasn’t a fan).
“It was a lot of fun to do,” he says of his work on the soundtrack. “What’s it like watching other people’s interpretations of Halloween? Well, the people who own the rights to Halloween are going to exploit it for the benefit of their movie. I’m okay with that. Has anyone ever taken the franchise in a direction I haven’t liked? Yes. I don’t think all the movies were that good. I think the new one is, though.”
“[Michael Myers] came about from me watching a lot of horror movies growing up – a lot of bad ones – and me trying to work out how I could do things differently.”
Still, it’s quite amazing how long The Shape has endured: 40 years this month. That’s longer than Freddy, Jason, Candyman, Pennywise, Pinhead, Chucky… only Leatherface has the jump on him, debuting in 1974. What’s the secret to Michael Myers longevity?
“Oh I don’t know,” says the creator. “He represents pure evil, in a way. He has no feeling. He’s behind a mask. He’s relentless. He hides in the shadows. I’ve never been able to work it out beyond I planned it and the audience got scared. He came about from me watching a lot of horror movies growing up – a lot of bad ones – and me trying to work out how I could do things differently. But a huge part of it was me just getting lucky…”
Those Dead Space/Prince of Darkness Rumours
Video games continue to be a passion. If you’ve never played it, 1998’s Sentinel Returns – perhaps the strangest, creepiest puzzle game ever — which Carpenter composed the soundtrack for, comes much recommended. Currently, he’s playing “Shadow Of The Tomb Raider – I like that. I’m looking forward to the new Fallout game. I played Far Cry 5”.
For years there was a rumour he was signed on to direct a movie adaptation of Dead Space (“There was never any movie – I just said I’d like to do it. Nobody ever offered anything to me”). He’s presently working on “some movie and TV projects”. And there’s new hearsay that’s just surfaced that his much underrated 1987 movie Prince Of Darkness is being developed as a series for the horror network Shudder, but he won’t confirm as much.
Halloween is Done
With a return to the world of Halloween, it’s worth asking if there are any other of his early movies he’d like to revisit…
“Oh man, my older movies are done,” he sighs. “They’re part of history. You either like them or you don’t…”
You could say that about Halloween, though?
“I would say that about Halloween!” he replies. “I wish we had’ve! I didn’t want to do any more of that. But the movie business is about money. It’s about making money.”
Still creative. Still full of ideas. But it’s unlikely you’ll see a new John Carpenter movie any time soon.
He sighs. “How has the movie business changed in the time I’ve been in it? Profoundly. The head of the studio used to have creative juice. Not any more. Now it’s all a giant committee. It’s all become corporatised. They don’t shoot on film anymore, it’s all digital. All sorts of stuff…”
Does he feel that if he had a great idea, like he had with Halloween, he could get that film made in 2018?
“Movies beats you up. It drives you down. I had to give it up. I want a life! Right now I’m finding music easier, and more fulfilling.”
“I don’t know,” he laughs. “And I don’t care either! I still have ideas, but I don’t care if they get made anymore. I matured out of it. I got old. I got tired of it. Movies beats you up. It drives you down. I had to give it up. I want a life! Right now I’m finding music easier, and more fulfilling…”
He pauses. Collects his thoughts.
“I’m just proud of the direction my life took,” he says. “It didn’t have to go the way it has. I worked hard and a lot of people helped me out, but, my god, was I lucky. I was seriously ill a few years ago and it made me see things in a different way. I appreciate stuff like I’ve never done before. I’m just happy to be alive. I saw the limit. The big black wall. The big sleep. I’m just happy I’m here…”
There’s nobody within genre fandom who’d disagree.
Halloween hits screens on October 19. The Halloween Original Soundtrack album is also out October 19. In the meantime, you can catch John Carpenter live on the following dates:
Oct 13: Auditorium Sitges, Barcelona, Spain
Oct 14: La Sirene, La Rochelle, France
Oct 16: Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London, UK
Oct 18: Tyne Theatre, Newcastle, UK
Oct 19: Barrowlands, Glasgow, UK
Oct 21: Albert Hall, Manchester, UK
Oct 31: Palladium, Los Angeles, US