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.

  • 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.

  • 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).

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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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