Cinema and Media Studies John Carpenter
by
Ian Conrich
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0317

Introduction

John Carpenter (b. 1948) belongs to a group of celebrated neo-horror (or new wave horror) filmmakers who are associated with the genre’s renaissance in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Beginning as a feature director with the science fiction film Dark Star (1974), Carpenter became noted for a period of extraordinary creativity between 1978 and 1982, when his most seminal movies—Halloween (1978), Escape from New York (1981), and The Thing (1982)—were made. Working within a post-classical Hollywood, Carpenter is a director of a generation, who, like his contemporaries Joe Dante, Steven Spielberg, and Martin Scorsese, is knowledgeable of the studio system and the screen greats that had gone before. The versatile filmmaker Howard Hawks was a particular inspiration to Carpenter, who was similarly comfortable moving between genres, directing, for instance, the science fiction–romance Starman (1984) and the music biopic Elvis (1979). Carpenter even employed Hawks’s siege narratives for his productions and subsequently translated the Hawksian western into a number of his films, as evidenced in the urban thriller Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) and the Gothic horror Vampires (1998). For Carpenter is a confident and uninhibited filmmaker who cleverly employs a “B” movie aesthetic that sees him adapting and recombining genres. This is perhaps most explicitly identified in the middle period of his career and the films Big Trouble in Little China (1986), Prince of Darkness (1987), and They Live (1988). Unfortunately, it has led to his films being both applauded and dismissed. After the disappointment of Ghosts of Mars (2001), he was to make just one further feature, the hospital horror The Ward (2010). The impact, however, of his earlier work is evident in his cult following and the industry’s attempts to remake and revisit several of his films – Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, The Fog (1979), The Thing. In addition to directing twenty-one features, Carpenter was often the scriptwriter, and he composed the music, for the majority of his films, which has helped reignite his career in recent years. A CD of new music, John Carpenter’s Lost Themes, was released in 2014, followed by John Carpenter’s Lost Themes II (2016). These compositions have subsequently been combined with his earlier iconic film scores and promoted in concerts where Carpenter performs live with his band while clips from his films are projected on a giant screen. He had played in a rock ’n’ roll band in his youth, but in many ways this career change later in his life has been unexpected. For such an influential filmmaker, scholarly and critical material is surprisingly lacking. It is a consequence perhaps of Carpenter’s uneven career, with a handful of his films having received much of the attention.

General Overviews

While few books provide a general overview of Carpenter’s films, his appeal is undoubtedly international with original publications appearing in English, French, German, Spanish, and Italian. Two of these publications—Schnelle 1991 in Austria and D’Agnolo Valan and Turigliatto 1999 in Italy—accompanied film festival retrospectives of Carpenter’s oeuvre. With Carpenter’s career faltering, a desire emerged to revisit and reappraise his body of work and to view his films in context. The Austrian retrospective was just a year after publication of Cumbow 1990 and Loderhose 1990, the first two books on Carpenter (the former in English, the latter in German). Yet, this was a short-lived period of focus on Carpenter’s films, and significantly it had come later than his contemporaries—David Cronenberg, George A. Romero, and Brian De Palma—whose work had received book-length studies in the early to mid-1980s. Moreover, in the years since just two books of note have appeared in English: Muir 2000 and Conrich and Woods 2004. It is frustrating that most of the books that have been published have followed a rigid and repetitive structure that addresses the films in chronological order and with each contained in their own separate chapters. This format has restricted opportunities for developing understandings of themes and techniques, with the studies often functioning as critical reviews. In contrast, Lagier and Thoret 1998, Conrich and Woods 2004, and, to some degree, Cáceres Tapia and Vargas 2013 present a series of fresh perspectives in achieving a cross-analysis of the films and their formal elements.

  • Cáceres Tapia, J. D., and Sergio Vargas, eds. John Carpenter: Ultimátum a la tierra. Madrid: Macnulti Editores, 2013.

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    This is a key publication of original material for the Spanish market. It is divided into two parts, with Part 1 on themes, such as “Symbols, Myths and Metaphysics” and “Politics and Poetics of the Antihero.” Part 2 devotes between three and five pages to each film, in turn. The appendixes include a useful bibliography and a list of different editions of the films on DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD.

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  • Conrich, Ian, and David Woods, eds. The Cinema of John Carpenter: The Technique of Terror. London: Wallflower, 2004.

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    Pioneering collection of twelve original articles, plus a long interview with Carpenter. Covers a wide range of topics, including Carpenter’s film music and his use of widescreen, Kurt Russell and masculinity, fandom, politics, the Gothic, the question of genre, and Carpenter’s early siege films. Contains film scores and an exhaustive bibliography of articles and reviews compiled in film order. Initially published by Wallflower Press; later distributed by Columbia University Press.

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  • Cumbow, Robert C. Order in the Universe: The Films of John Carpenter. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1990.

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    For a long time this was the only book in English on Carpenter, and it was reprinted in 2000 in an updated second edition. It addresses each film, in turn, in separate chapters, but it remains an important study, not least because in his readings of the films Cumbow has emerged as an opposing voice. This is most obvious in his depoliticized reading of Assault on Precinct 13 (1976).

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  • D’Agnolo Valan, Giulia, and Roberto Turigliatto. John Carpenter. Turin, Italy: Lindau, 1999.

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    First book in Italian on Carpenter. Published to accompany a retrospective of Carpenter’s career at the Seventeenth Torino Film Festival. Contains a mixture of critical overviews, synopses, and interview material.

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  • Lagier, Luc, and Jean-Baptiste Thoret. Mythes et masques: Les fantômes de John Carpenter. Paris: Dreamland Éditeur, 1998.

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    An impressive and well-illustrated book in French that deserves to be both reprinted and translated into English. The book is more interested in Carpenter’s horror and science fiction films and approaches them analytically and thematically with support from detailed scene and shot examinations. It includes an interview with Carpenter.

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  • Loderhose, Willy. John Carpenter: Das grosse Filmbuch. Hamburg, Germany: Bastei Lubbe, 1990.

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    First book in German that is now dated. Essentially structured as a series of chronological reviews of each of one of Carpenter’s films. It includes a filmography and an interview with Carpenter.

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  • Muir, John Kenneth. The Films of John Carpenter. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2000.

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    Primarily designed as a consideration of each of Carpenter’s films in order of production. Every section presents extensive credits, a lengthy synopsis, and a critical commentary (as opposed to detailed analysis). This is useful as an introductory text, but it often functions as a record of Carpenter’s career.

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  • Schnelle, Frank. Suspense, Shock, Terror: John Carpenter und seine Filme. Stuttgart: Verlag Robert Fischer & Uwe Wiedleroither, 1991.

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    A small book that was the first on Carpenter published for distribution in Austria. Its primary purpose was to accompany a retrospective of Carpenter’s career at the Vienna (or Viennale) International Film Festival. It tries hard to cover as much ground as possible, and at the time it would have been an important introduction to Carpenter’s work. An updated version appeared as Carpenter. Suspense, Shock, Terror, through Kindle in 2013, and this includes a 1996 interview with Carpenter.

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Short Book Studies of Single Films

Of the twenty-one feature films that Carpenter has directed a number have acquired a cult audience. From this group, Halloween (1978), The Thing (1982), They Live (1988), and In the Mouth of Madness (1995) have become the subject of short book studies of a single film. In fact, such is the popularity of these films that The Thing and They Live have attracted competing short book studies. The inspiration for these publications is the British Film Institute (BFI), which in 1992 began a series of highly successful short books to accompany its list of 360 films that were judged to be classics of cinema. Each is focused on one film from the pantheon, with critics, film historians, and filmmakers invited to author the appreciation. Such was the profitability of the series that a second followed from the BFI on “modern classics,” covering films after 1981. The impact of both series has led to numerous imitators, looking to either create a new niche list or to produce collected books for the many worthy films originally overlooked by the BFI. Halloween, a progenitor of the slasher film and the origin for a legendary screen boogeyman, has led to ten sequels and remakes. The Thing, which updated John W. Campbell’s short story “Who Goes There?” (1938), foregrounded unforgettable prosthetic effects that effectively married science fiction and body horror. They Live is a science fiction satire on Reaganism, rampant capitalism and yuppies, with an undisguised “B” movie aesthetic that placed pro-wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper in the lead role. In the Mouth of Madness is a self-reflexive Lovecraftian horror film, the final part of Carpenter’s apocalypse trilogy, which began with The Thing and took in Prince of Darkness (1987), that has several nods to Stephen King. Billson 1997 on The Thing, part of the BFI series, was the first of these short books on Carpenter to appear, followed by Lethem 2010 on They Live, which was part of a “Deep Focus” series published by Soft Skull Press. They Live is reexamined in Wilson 2015 for the “Cultographies” series published by Wallflower Press, while publisher Auteur has included three Carpenter films in its growing “Devil’s Advocates” series of books devoted to seminal horror films. Here, Conolly 2013 discusses The Thing, Leeder 2014 treats Halloween, and Blyth 2018 examines In the Mouth of Madness.

  • Billson, Anne. The Thing. London: British Film Institute, 1997.

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    One of the early batch of titles in the BFI Modern Classics series of film books. Billson’s aim is to recover The Thing from its original poor reception and the accusations of excess. Audiences were seemingly unprepared for the nihilism of The Thing, with Steven Spielberg’s family-friendly film E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) released the same year. Billson positions The Thing as a landmark film and focuses much of her study on the infamous blood-test scene.

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  • Blyth, Michael. In the Mouth of Madness. Leighton Buzzard, UK: Auteur, 2018.

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    For Blyth, In the Mouth of Madness is a neglected postmodern masterpiece, which, he argues, is stylistically bold and thematically complex. Seeing Carpenter as an auteur, he reads within the film themes and ideas that have reoccurred throughout his earlier work, including global terminality, evil as an unstoppable and unrelenting force and a distrust of authority, and industry.

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  • Conolly, Jez. The Thing. Leighton Buzzard, UK: Auteur, 2013.

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    Published sixteen years after Billson 1997, Conolly’s book reflects on the growing elevation of The Thing as a preeminent horror film and on the wider ways in which it has been influencing popular culture, including the 2011 prequel. Billson’s study was more objective and less personal and she was primarily interested in the special effects. Conolly, in contrast, spends more time examining Carpenter’s cinematography.

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  • Leeder, Murray. Halloween. Leighton Buzzard, UK: Auteur, 2014.

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    This is the second of the three studies of Carpenter films in Auteur’s Devil’s Advocates series. It is a compact reconsideration of many of the topics that have been covered previously, from form and style and representations of femininity to the question of urban legends.

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  • Lethem, Jonathan. They Live. Berkeley, CA: Soft Skull Press, 2010.

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    A pocket-sized book that moves through the film from start to finish, structuring its short sections according to a specific screen time (in minutes/seconds) and pausing at a moment worthy of reflection or an opinion. It swings between description and analysis, and it reads more like the commentary option that accompanies a DVD release.

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  • Wilson, D. Harlan. They Live. London: Wallflower, 2015.

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    An insightful study in the Cultographies series that is distributed by Columbia University Press. Wilson considers the origins of the film and the performance of lead actor Roddy Piper and places them within the context of cinema in the 1980s. Like Blyth’s study on In the Mouth of Madness (Blyth 2018), Wilson views They Live as an unusually complex genre film, with layers of sociopolitical meaning that have not been sufficiently explored.

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Interviews

Carpenter has given many interviews, but they have often been quite short. Moreover, some degree of repetition is found in what he conveys from one interview to the next. Essentially, the interviews can be divided into three periods in which they can be seen to have varied. Many of Carpenter’s best interviews were given between 1978 and the early 1980s, when he was a young and emerging talent. On the back of the craftmanship and technique he exhibited in making Halloween (1978), primary film magazines, such as Sight and Sound, Films and Filming, Film Comment, and Cahiers du Cinéma, published relatively long conversations with Carpenter, as can be seen in the interviews Milne and Combs 1978, Appelbaum 1979, McCarthy 1980, and Wells 1980. By the mid-1980s, the general quality of the conversations had decreased, with the film magazines replaced by shorter newspaper interviews and items for fanzines and prozines. From this second period, the release of Prince of Darkness (1987) and They Live (1988) led to a richer vein of media coverage and interviews, such as Newman 1988. The retrospectives and reappraisals of Carpenter work began in the 1990s with the majority of the books that were published containing Carpenter interviews. Boulanger 2003 is a long interview with Carpenter, while Borst 2004 provides a valuable and insightful conversation. The third period occurred when Carpenter released his CDs of new music in 2014 and 2016 and toured live concerts in support. At this point, a reenergized Carpenter gave an abundance of interviews, many for online publications, for example, Yanick 2014, Portner 2015, and Weiss 2017. In these interviews the predominant topic is Carpenter’s film scores and CD compositions, with some revisiting of his career highs, in particular Halloween.

  • Appelbaum, Ron. “From Cult Homage to Creative Control.” Films and Filming 25.9 (June 1979): 10–16.

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    This is an extensive and important interview, which was published at a time when Carpenter was viewed as “cinema’s latest discovery.” It remains today a vital and key interview with Carpenter, who gives long responses to a series of questions that include the stylization and casting of Halloween (1978), influences, music, scriptwriting, and television work. Films and Filming published a companion interview three months later (in issue 25.12) with Carpenter’s producer Debra Hill.

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  • Borst, Ron. “An Interview with John Carpenter.” In The Cinema of John Carpenter: The Technique of Terror. Edited by Ian Conrich and David Woods, 167–179. London: Wallflower, 2004.

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    A substantial and crucial interview with questions compiled in advance by the editors after consultation with the contributors to the book. These original questions probe and move beyond previous interviews with sections on “Formative Years,” “Industry,” “Politics and Ideology,” “Craft,” “Music,” “Genre,” and “Collaboration and Creativity.”

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  • Boulanger, Gilles. John Carpenter: The Prince of Darkness. Beverly Hills, CA: Silman-James, 2003.

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    Constructive book-length collection of new interviews with Carpenter, conducted between 1997 and 2001, that explores all of his films except The Ward. Addresses the films chronologically and is more interested in issues of production. Begins with chapters on Carpenter’s early life and “Methodology,” with the better material—questions and answers—in these sections and over the first half of his film career. Some of the chapters are quite short.

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  • McCarthy, Todd. “Trick and Treat.” Film Comment 16.1 (January–February 1980): 17–24.

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    Conducted during post production on The Fog (1980), McCarthy positions Carpenter as an auteur in relation to other directors, both contemporary and from the past. The conversation reflects on the studio system, independent filmmaking, the challenges in working as a director for hire, the western genre, and the influence of Howard Hawks. Includes a separate interview with Carpenter’s producer Debra Hill.

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  • Milne, Tom, and Richard Combs. “The Man in the Cryogenic Freezer.” Sight and Sound 47.2 (Spring 1978): 94–98.

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    The first significant discussion on Carpenter published in the United Kingdom. Appearing prior to Halloween (1978), it focuses on Dark Star (1974) and Assault on Precinct 13 (1976). The conversation is concerned with issues that would reoccur in later interviews: the influence of Howard Hawks, Hollywood and “B” movies. In addition, it explores the humor in Dark Star and the controversial scene in Assault on Precinct 13, where a child is unexpectedly shot.

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  • Newman, Kim. “They Live!” Fear 1 (July–August 1988): 12–15.

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    Newman interviews Carpenter on Prince of Darkness (1987), addressing the influence of novelist Nigel Kneale, while anticipating They Live (1988). Carpenter reveals a degree of negativity about the challenges within his career, from the difficulties of adapting novels and a desire to no longer be involved in the Halloween series to the demands made by the studios and the tainted style of the new directors brought up on MTV aesthetics.

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  • Portner, Dave. “John Carpenter.” Interview (2 February 2015).

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    Carpenter’s rekindled career saw him interviewed by the famous culture and fashion magazine that had been founded by Andy Warhol. Portner, who is a musician and a declared fan of Carpenter, leads the interview. The discussion contains a valuable consideration of Carpenter’s creative use of music for his films and on his recent CD release. It also briefly explores Halloween (1978).

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  • Weiss, Jeff. “Interview: John Carpenter Talks ‘Halloween,’ and Releasing Albums in Your 60s.” Aesthetic Magazine (14 October 2017).

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    With the release of his second CD of new music, Lost Themes II, magazines and online sites known more for music than film reviews were again interviewing Carpenter. This is a long and valuable interview that covers many of Carpenter’s films and talks about influences. It inspires conversation that is not found elsewhere. An excellent starting point for research on Carpenter’s music.

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  • Wells, Jeffrey. “New Fright Master John Carpenter.” Films in Review 31.4 (April 1980): 219–224.

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    Following the release of The Fog (1980), Carpenter was positive about his future career, with the pre-production of The Thing (1982) mentioned. The horror genre is discussed and its effects on audiences, but Carpenter states that he sees himself more as a director of suspense and thrillers. Screen acting and the music for his films are two important topics covered in this interview.

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  • Yanick, Joe. “We Asked John Carpenter (Almost) Every Question You Could Think of about His Career.” Noisey (26 July 2014).

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    One of many interviews Carpenter gave to music publications following a new phase in his career. The usual questions it addresses include Carpenter’s collaborations and use of technology. The interview, which followed the re-release of Carpenter’s film scores on vinyl, discusses the resurgence of interest in the format.

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Form and Style

Unlike many other directors making horror and films with ‘B’ movie aesthetics, Carpenter has been celebrated for his technical abilities as a filmmaker. Foremost in this recognition of his form and style is his self-composed film music and his use of framing and widescreen cinematography. Both are given chapters (Conrich 2004 and Burnand and Mera 2004) in Conrich and Woods 2004 (cited under General Overviews), which remains the only full-length book of collected articles on Carpenter. The collection has a stated aim to move across the films as much as possible to construct examinations of form, style, and themes, and here the interest is most in understanding Carpenter’s techniques for creating terror. Carpenter’s film music is simple but effective and constitutes a distinctive element of his productions. Prior to Burnand and Mera 2004, no real analysis of Carpenter’s film music had appeared, which has since become a major definer in his popular identity. Conrich and Woods 2004 (cited under General Overviews) also contains Hall 2004, with the first significant study of Carpenter’s preference for filming in the anamorphic process. The release of these Panavision titles on laserdisc is addressed in Lucas 1995, revealing Carpenter to be an important director for these sophisticated home cinema recordings. The horror genre has long fascinated researchers trying to understand the processes for generating fear and suspense. It is a subject that interests Neale 1984 and Telotte 1987, which both present a detailed examination of the form and structure of Halloween (1978). They explore the positioning and framing of the camera in a horror film that was celebrated for the ways in which it controlled screen space, perception, and audience engagement. The structural properties of Halloween are also of primary importance for Dika 1990, which views the film as the progenitor for a particular type of horror narrative. These articles reveal Carpenter to have a precise and methodical approach to the crafting of his films. That said, numerous Carpenter films failed to generate the desired critical or commercial success on original release, but they continue to exhibit a popularity that has positioned many of these movies as cult classics. Conrich 2004 and Mulvey-Roberts 2004 are studies that provide an understanding of the appeal, with the former focused on actual readers’ letters and fan material on the Internet. Many of the fan appreciations involve the performances of regular Carpenter collaborator actor Kurt Russell, and Shail 2004 and Williams 2004 investigate these screen depictions of masculinity.

  • Burnand, David, and Miguel Mera. “Fast and Cheap? The Film Music of John Carpenter.” In The Cinema of John Carpenter: The Technique of Terror. Edited by Ian Conrich and David Woods, 49–65. London: Wallflower, 2004.

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    This chapter provides is a seminal examination of Carpenter’s film compositions and treatment of music and sound, which was written by scholars from the Royal College of Music. Of the five case studies of films, four are from his early period—Dark Star (1974), Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Halloween (1978), and Escape From New York (1981)—as these best illustrate Carpenter’s methods. The fifth case study is Vampires (1998). Includes numerous extracts from musical scores.

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  • Conrich, Ian. “Killing Time . . . and Time Again: The Popular Appeal of Carpenter’s Horrors and the Impact of The Thing and Halloween.” In The Cinema of John Carpenter: The Technique of Terror. Edited by Ian Conrich and David Woods, 91–106. London: Wallflower, 2004.

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    Little analysis exists of the fans and audiences of Carpenter’s films. This pioneering article addresses the gap by focusing on Carpenter’s films from 1978 to 1982 and by primarily employing readers’ letters, personal messages, and poll results from the horror prozine Fangoria in the 1980s. It also considers later users of the Internet who have created fan fiction and scaled models, which testifies to Carpenter’s enduring popular appeal.

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  • Dika, Vera. Games of Terror: Halloween, Friday the 13th, and the Films of the Stalker Cycle. London: Associated University Presses, 1990.

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    Adopting a structuralist approach developed by Vladimir Propp and focusing on just the period from 1978 to 1981, Dika argues that Halloween (1978) marked the beginning of a cycle of stalker films. Recognizing nine films that followed in the wake of Halloween, she identifies seventeen narrative functions that each stalker film will employ in order.

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  • Hall, Sheldon. “Carpenter’s Widescreen Style.” In The Cinema of John Carpenter: The Technique of Terror. Edited by Ian Conrich and David Woods, 66–77. London: Wallflower, 2004.

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    A valuable and focused consideration of Carpenter’s favoring of the anamorphic process of Panavision written by an expert on widescreen cinema. Hall employs Halloween (1978) as a case study and contrasts Carpenter’s style with other directors noted for their use of widescreen. He concludes that Carpenter’s use may not be as complex or as baroque, but it is just as elegant and intelligent.

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  • Lucas, Tim. “The Panavision World of John Carpenter.” Video Watchdog 27 (1995): 49–55.

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    Published bimonthly from 1990 to 2017, Video Watchdog, subtitled “the Perfectionist’s Guide to Fantastic Video,” was a champion for prints available in the best and most complete versions. Widescreen films were often released for home consumption in cropped prints or in the wrong ratio. Focusing on Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Halloween (1978), and Escape From New York (1981), Lucas recognizes Carpenter to be a mature director. He notes a renaissance in Carpenter’s Panavision films on laserdisc and reflects on the audio commentaries.

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  • Mulvey-Roberts, Marie. “‘A Spook Ride on Film’: Carpenter and the Gothic.” In The Cinema of John Carpenter: The Technique of Terror. Edited by Ian Conrich and David Woods, 78–90. London: Wallflower, 2004.

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    A specialist working within the field of the Gothic, Mulvey-Roberts views Carpenter as effectively summoning forth a dark cinema of the monstrous. She is interested in form and function in order to both understand how the Gothic body is depicted and understand the relationship between Carpenter and his audience as he crafts an experience in terror. At work is a blurring of the line between the audience and the fiction.

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  • Neale, Steve. “Halloween: Suspense, Aggression and the Look.” In Planks of Reason: Essays on the Horror Film. Edited by Barry Keith Grant, 331–345. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1984.

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    Neale’s groundbreaking study was originally published in Framework 14 (1981) at a time when academia did not take contemporary horror films seriously. Drawn to Halloween’s construction of the shot, Neale explores the textual, cinematic, and psychoanalytic mechanisms that enable this modern horror to effectively create moments of suspense. He reveals the film’s sophistication through its positioning of the camera, framing, the point of view shot, and the on-screen appearances of Michael Myers.

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  • Shail, Robert. “Masculinity, Kurt Russell and the Escape Films.” In The Cinema of John Carpenter: The Technique of Terror. Edited by Ian Conrich and David Woods, 107–117. London: Wallflower, 2004.

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    Kurt Russell has collaborated with Carpenter in more than five films. He appears to function as Carpenter’s cinematic alter ego and this relationship is most explicit in the character Snake Plissken in the films Escape From New York (1981) and Escape From L.A. (1996). Shail examines Plissken’s anti-heroism and the changes in characterization across the two films, concluding that the depictions rework notions of masculinity. The character’s rebelliousness is also sensitive to the times.

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  • Telotte, J. P. “Through a Pumpkin’s Eye: The Reflexive Nature of Horror.” In American Horrors: Essays on the Modern American Horror Film. Edited by Gregory Waller, 114–128. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987.

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    Originally published in Literature/ Film Quarterly (1982), Telotte examines modes of vision within the horror film, both within the text and from the position of the screen audience. With Halloween (1978) as his case study, Telotte argues that the horror film exhibits a reflexive nature that investigates conventions for seeing.

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  • Williams, Tony. “From Elvis to L.A.: Reflections on the Carpenter-Russell Films.” In The Cinema of John Carpenter: The Technique of Terror. Edited by Ian Conrich and David Woods, 118–127. London: Wallflower, 2004.

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    A companion publication to Shail 2004, Williams considers the Carpenter-Russell collaborations and focuses most on Elvis (1979). Williams argues that Russell is often employed by Carpenter to parody Hollywood masculinity and is cast in nihilistic roles in films depicting chaos. Elvis, however, presents an alternative with its masculinity failed and vulnerable.

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Genre, Themes, and Politics

Undoubtedly a director who is comfortable working within film genres, Carpenter has openly talked about the influence of filmmakers who had worked within the Hollywood studio system. Carpenter has combined and reworked genres to create horror-westerns, science fiction romances, and martial arts action comedies. These films all exhibit a consistency in the themes that interest Carpenter and that show him to be an auteur. A need to reappraise and recover Carpenter from the margins is a common feature of the publications that have addressed these issues. Jones 1999 makes such an explicit attempt. It was published at a time when Carpenter’s career had floundered. A few years later, Grant 2004 reiterated the importance of Carpenter as a genre filmmaker in a discussion that also explores the political content of his films. The readings of these films, however, have led to disagreements. The anti-authoritarianism detected in Grant 2004 is developed in Woods 2004, while Grant simultaneously explores an argument put forth in Williams 1979 that Carpenter’s early work showed him to be a reactionary filmmaker. Smith 2004 also considers the position expressed in Williams 1979, and, despite the differences, it does recognize the complexities within an apparently anti-intellectual genre film. Smith is drawn to a narrative theme in Carpenter’s work of the siege, with Guins and Cruz 2004 theorizing the later repetitions and recycling. This connects with Powell 2004, which considers the role of adaptation within Carpenter’s occult films. At the same time, the author’s interest in the monstrous and the abject is shared with Young 2004, which examines the maternal figure in films that have otherwise often been viewed as masculine. Many of these publications, like the short book studies, have argued that while Carpenter’s films are commercial and designed for a popular audience they contain complex ideas and topics.

  • Grant, Barry Keith. “Disorder in the Universe: John Carpenter and the Question of Genre.” In The Cinema of John Carpenter: The Technique of Terror. Edited by Ian Conrich and David Woods, 10–20. London: Wallflower, 2004.

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    In this opening chapter in this collection Grant argues for Carpenter as a consistent and committed genre filmmaker. Grant reflects on Carpenter’s approach to narrative, his political edge, his targeting of the church, and his appreciation of Howard Hawks, including the fundamental differences between these two filmmakers. The view of Carpenter as a right-wing filmmaker is challenged by Grant as only partially accurate.

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  • Guins, Raiford, and Omayra Zaragoza Cruz. “Revisionings: Repetition as Creative Nostalgia in the Films of John Carpenter.” In The Cinema of John Carpenter: The Technique of Terror. Edited by Ian Conrich and David Woods, 155–166. London: Wallflower, 2004.

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    Focused on Body Bags (1993), In the Mouth of Madness (1995), and Vampires (1998) and employing theorists Horkheimer and Adorno, the authors consider the importance of mass culture, genre, and reflexivity within Carpenter’s later horror films. As the horror genre has developed it has demonstrated a repetition of ideas, and it is here that Carpenter’s work provides a revealing case study. This is a director who reflects upon and recognizes the power of film cycles.

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  • Jones, Kent. “John Carpenter: American Movie Classic.” Film Comment 35.1 (January–February 1999): 26–31.

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    This article gives an important reappraisal of Carpenter’s oeuvre that argues against his marginalization as a director. For Jones, Carpenter stands alone as the last genre filmmaker in America. In support, he positions him against many other directors, including the masters, and recognizes the influences of Hollywood cinema, as opposed to European art films.

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  • Powell, Anna. “‘Something Came Leaking Out’: Carpenter’s Unholy Abominations.” In The Cinema of John Carpenter: The Technique of Terror. Edited by Ian Conrich and David Woods, 140–154. London: Wallflower, 2004.

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    A number of Carpenter’s films show an interest in the occult and a connection to the work of H. P. Lovecraft. In her discussion, Powell explores these influences, notions of the abject, age-old evil, and apocalyptic themes with a focus on Christine (1983), Prince of Darkness (1987), and In the Mouth of Madness (1995).

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  • Smith, Steve. “A Siege Mentality? Form and Ideology in Carpenter’s Early Siege Films.” In The Cinema of John Carpenter: The Technique of Terror. Edited by Ian Conrich and David Woods, 35–48. London: Wallflower, 2004.

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    This chapter provides a concentrated discussion that follows the narrative motif of the siege through four of Carpenter’s earliest films, while considering questions of genre. The siege motif was borrowed from Howard Hawks and Smith argues that it shows an unexpected level of sociopolitical sophistication in Carpenter’s hands. The central text within the article is Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), for which Smith assesses the competing views of Williams 1979 and Cumbow 1990 (cited under General Overviews).

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  • Williams, Tony. “Assault on Precinct 13: The Mechanics of Repression.” In The American Nightmare: Essays on the Horror Film. Edited by Robin Wood and Richard Lippe, 67–73. Toronto: Festival of Festivals, 1979.

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    A pioneering article in the study of Carpenter’s work, published in an influential short collection of essays that was not widely circulated. Williams treats the politics of this early Carpenter film, which he regards as reactionary. He argues that in this right-wing film the gang members are depicted as the monstrous Other and as an evil mass that prohibits audience identification.

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  • Woods, David. “Us and Them: Authority and Identity in Carpenter’s Films.” In The Cinema of John Carpenter: The Technique of Terror. Edited by Ian Conrich and David Woods, 21–34. London: Wallflower, 2004.

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    A crucial discussion in which Woods explores Carpenter as a director making genre films, popular and commercial, that disavow intellectualism but which can also be read for their social and political content. In particular, Woods is interested in Carpenter’s anti-authoritarianism and a perceived “us” versus “them” divide in his work. The article focuses on Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992), Village of the Damned (1995), and They Live (1988).

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  • Young, Suzie. “Restorative and Destructive: Carpenter and Maternal Authority.” In The Cinema of John Carpenter: The Technique of Terror. Edited by Ian Conrich and David Woods, 128–139. London: Wallflower, 2004.

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    Within the worlds of masculinity constructed in Carpenter’s films significant depictions of femininity occur. The forms that are taken, in particular, by the mother figures—literal and metaphorical—are the focus of Suzie Young’s fascinating article: the mother figures that guide men, the mother-son dyad, the maternal as the source of conflict resolution or as the site of evil. The study engages with psychoanalysis and the monstrous-feminine.

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Studies of Specific Films in Journals and Anthologies

Beyond the short book studies of single films relatively few publications have undertaken a focused consideration of a single Carpenter film. Halloween (1978) is a seminal text and consequently it appears in many monographs on the horror genre, but it does so generally as part of a wider history. Likewise, The Thing (1982) is included in numerous monographs on the horror and science fiction genres. Other movies in Carpenter’s oeuvre have been forgotten and it is telling that he is almost never examined in the key film journals. Prince 2004 is a rare exception, with its discussion of The Thing published in the now defunct Wide Angle. Another important film theorist, Steve Neale, also presents The Thing as an important text and case study for a fresh genre approach in Neale 1990. It marks the second time Neale had turned to Carpenter after the study of Halloween in Neale 1984 (cited under Form and Style). One publication, the Journal of Popular Film and Television, stands out for its willingness to publish articles on Carpenter’s films. To date, it has published five articles covering Halloween (1978) (Rathgeb 1991), The Fog (1980) (Leeder 2009), The Thing (1982) (Addison 2013, Guerrero 1990), and Prince of Darkness (1987) (Dietrich 1991). A serious neglect exists of Carpenter’s other films, such as Ghosts of Mars (2001), on which a solitary but short publication, Whalen 2002, was published in Literature/Film Quarterly.

  • Addison, Heather. “Cinema’s Darkest Vision: Looking into the Void in John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982).” Journal of Popular Film and Television 41.3 (September 2013): 154–166.

    DOI: 10.1080/01956051.2012.755488Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This article revisits The Thing (1982), reflecting on previous discussions and positioning the film within the Reagan era, in relation to body horror, the AIDS epidemic, masculinity, relationships, humanity, and the apocalypse. Its value is in the range of issues covered, though unfortunately it lacks an original voice.

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  • Dietrich, Bryan. “Prince of Darkness, Prince of Light: From Faust to Physicist.” Journal of Popular Film and Television 19.2 (Summer 1991): 91–96.

    DOI: 10.1080/01956051.1991.9944114Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    For Singer the negative reviews received by Prince of Darkness (1987) miss its important themes of science and the role of the church, with the latter displaced by the former. Singer is most interested in the figure of the physicist, the only person capable of saving mankind. He posits that the film reflects the diminishing role of religion in society.

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  • Guerrero, Edward. “AIDS as Monster in Science Fiction and Horror Cinema.” Journal of Popular Film and Television 18.3 (Fall 1990): 86–93.

    DOI: 10.1080/01956051.1990.10662021Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Guerrero was not the first critic to read The Thing (1982) as an allegory for the AIDS epidemic, but he definitely develops the argument with respect to blood, disease, and homosexuality. For Guerrero, among this group of isolated men, a fear of the Thing is the inability to know who is infected. The film is placed alongside other horror and science fiction AIDS allegories from the 1980s.

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  • Leeder, Murray. “Skeletons Sail an Etheric Ocean: Approaching the Ghost in John Carpenter’s The Fog.” Journal of Popular Film and Television 37.2 (Summer 2009): 70–79.

    DOI: 10.3200/JPFT.37.2.70-79Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Leeder has researched elsewhere on both Carpenter (Leeder 2014 [cited under Short Book Studies of Single Films]) and hauntings. The ghosts within The Fog (1980) serve as the focus for an examination of two key aspects of spectral films: the return of a repressed history and communication in relation to the body and spirit. The film’s lighthouse turned radio station is of particular significance for Leeder’s argument.

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  • Neale, Steve. “‘You’ve Got to Be Fucking Kidding!’: Knowledge, Belief and Judgement in Science Fiction.” In Alien Zone: Cultural Theory and Contemporary Science Fiction Cinema. Edited by Annette Kuhn, 160–168. London: Verso, 1990.

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    This article’s starting point is the famous moment in The Thing (1982) when the protagonist declares astonishment at a creature transformation. The outrageousness of the scene and the incredible latex special effects also appeared to stun its cinema audience. It is the power of effects for the science fiction genre that is the focus for Neale’s discussion. The article was reprinted in the edited collection Liquid Metal: The Science Fiction Film Reader, edited by Sean Redmond (New York: Wallflower, 2004), pp. 11–16.

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  • Prince, Stephen. “Dread, Taboo and The Thing: Toward a Social Theory of the Horror Film.” In The Horror Film. Edited by Stephen Prince, 118–130. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2004.

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    Prince has long had an interest in dystopian films and in this early article he argues against the trend for reading horror cinema through psychoanalysis. Instead, he proposes anthropological theories of taboo by Mary Douglas and Edmund Leach. These theories are demonstrated in a study of The Thing (1982), with its ambiguities of the body, fragility of the humans, and the threats of the monstrous. The article was originally published in Wide Angle 10.3 (1988): 20–29.

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  • Rathgeb, Douglas L. “Bogeyman from the Id: Nightmare and Reality in Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street.” Journal of Popular Film and Television 19.1 (Spring 1991): 36–43.

    DOI: 10.1080/01956051.1991.9944106Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This article is an early attempt at understanding the function of the screen bogeyman. Rathgeb contrasts two of the contemporary horror film’s most iconic figures. He unexpectedly builds the discussion on a foundation that considers Laurel and Hardy’s March of the Wooden Soldiers (1934). He argues that Halloween (1978) is an example of invasive horror.

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  • Whalen, Tom. “‘This Is about One Thing—Dominion’: John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars.” Literature/Film Quarterly 30.4 (2002): 304–307.

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    The last of Carpenter’s films are his most neglected, and critical discussion of Ghosts of Mars (2001) has been minimal. Whalen reads it as a war film and within the political context of 9/11. Within this undeveloped article, Whalen is particularly concerned with Carpenter’s craftsmanship and manipulation of genres.

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