The Cinema of John Carpenter: The Technique of Terror (2004) Book Review

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John Carpenter has been variously labelled a “maverick”, a “horror director”, an “auteur”, even “the last genre filmmaker in America.” Unlike some of his more talkative and self-reflective colleagues like David Cronenberg or George Romero, he has always remained rather tight-lipped when it came to deeper analysis of his motifs, themes and ideas, preferring his movies to speak for themselves and sometimes even humorously downplaying his own status and importance. Yet, he remains the only director whose not one but two titles (HALLOWEEN and THE THING) can rightly claim their place among the top-ten horror films ever made, so we should not really take his word that he’s not much more than a hack. Carpenter remains one of the most underrated modern American directors (and, frankly, his films from the past 10 or 15 years did not do much to change his status) but this selection of essays provides a full and comprehensive insight into the best work of this auteur and serves as a final proof of his continuing relevance.

Barry Keith Grant opens the book with an excellent essay ‘Disorder in the Universe: John Carpenter and the Question of Genre’ which must be one of the most concise and insightful essays I’ve ever read on Carpenter. This director is viewed in the context of auteur theory, and his “consistent vision” is recognized in his portrayal of “a dark world tainted with evil and corruption in which morality is severely tested and social cohesion crumbles.” Especially helpful is Grant’s comparison of Carpenter’s vision with that of Howard Hawks, his strong influence and role model: it shows numerous Carpenter’s departures from the benevolent, optimistic world of Hawks’s camaraderie.

David Woods “Us and Them: Authority and Identity in Carpenter’s Films” deals with ideology –or, more specifically, the interplay between authority and individual- in the more neglected Carpenter’s films like THEY LIVE, MEMOIRS OF THE INVISIBLE MAN and VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED.

Steve Smith writes about “A Siege Mentality: Form and Ideology in Carpenter’s Early Siege Films” concentrating on the early quartet of HALLOWEEN, THE FOG, THE THING and, especially, on ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13. Smith’s close reading of the PRECINCT 13 is especially illuminating as it reveals the complexities and ambiguities that are usually neglected. Smith defends this film from Robin Wood’s label of ‘regressive’ ideological attitude and makes some clever parallels and contrasts to its two main cinematic influences: Hawks’s RIO BRAVO and Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.

In “Carpenter’s Widescreen Style” Sheldon Hall obviously deals with Carpenter’s formal elements: the use of Panavision, subjective (first person) vision and omniscient narration, patterns of camera movement, framing and editing, extensive exploitation of the breadth and depth of the anamorphic image, his use of frames within frames and of deep staging without deep focus. Most examples come from one of the greatest and scariest of all horrors, HALLOWEEN, but together with the minute analysis of that film’s style Sheldon Hall also provides a very telling context by references to the shooting style of Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks – great Carpenter’s influences none of whom, however, liked anamorphic photography!

Along the similar lines of formal analysis David Burnand and Miguel Mera write about “The Film Music of John Carpenter”, another significant authorial touch by the director who also composed the scores for most of his films.

There are two essays which deal with the main roles Kurt Russel played in four Carpenter’s films (ELVIS, THE THING and the two ESCAPES): Robert Shail’s “Masculinity, Kurt Russell and the ESCAPE Films” analyzes the tensions between the star’s anapologetic right-wing attitude toward machoism, individualism and rebellion and the director’s far more complex approach tinged with irony, parody and even nihilism. The previously mentioned essays prove that Carpenter never uses the ready-made material but always imprints it with his own vision, whether he’s paying homage, making a remake or a book adaptation. If the author’s vision is “extrapolated from the tension between a director’s personality and his material” (as Andrew Sarris formulated “auteur theory”), then Kurt Russell can be seen as another such material (like Hawks, Hitchock, Stephen King, kung-fu, etc.) which becomes reshaped in his hands.

The other essay on this unique director-actor collaboration is “From Elvis to L.A.: Reflections on Carpenter-Russell Films” by Tony Williams. He is more critical of these four films, stating that while they do send up the masculine roles Russell played in other films, they fail to subvert the status quo of the ideology behind such characters. Assuming a leftist position very similar to Robin Wood, Williams criticizes the demonizing of The Other (which, according to Wood’s famous claim, in a “progressive” film must be presented as sympathetic and human) and Carpenter’s equal suspicion of authorities and revolutionaries, which in the eyes of unmitigated Marxists is seen as an unpardonable nihilism.

“Revisionings: Repetition as Creative Nostalgia in the films of John Carpenter” by Omayra Zaragoza Cruz and Raiford Guins is an interesting essay which deals with remakes, adaptations and sequels in Carpenter’s opus viewed in the context of the mass culture, stating that he uses his films to comment on mass culture in a very distinct, even personal manner, as well as on his own position as a filmmaker and film lover. The essay devotes a special spotlight to the films BODY BAGS (where Carpenter had the Crypt-Keeper-like role), IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS and VAMPIRES and concludes that “working within repetition, Carpenter thwarts the common expectations and routine acceptance largely associated with the horror film of the 90ies, by returning to the less habituated moments, motifs, themes and styles from the past.”

Anna Powell’s “Something Came Leaking Out: Carpenter’s Unholy Abominations” deals with the occult elements in CHRISTINE, IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS and THE PRINCE OF DARKNESS, stressing Lovecraft’s influence on IN THE MOUTH… and THE THING and providing a solid reading of CHRISTINE (somewhat misplaced in this occult context).

Any collection of essays must have a few clunkers as well, so let’s moderate our appraisal of the above mentioned works with a few lines about the three not-so-good additions to this book.

“Killing Time… and Time Again: The Popular Appeal of Carpenter’s Horrors and the Impact of THE THING and HALLOWEEN” has the longest title and… little else to offer. This is basically a pointless summary of FANGORIA readers’ letters and personal messages about John Carpenter published in this magazine. The essay does not in any way shed a new light on Carpenter (since it mostly deals with infantile comments from FANGORIA’s readers) and ends with a shallow, predictable conclusion: “As Carpenter would surely realize, the respect and admiration shown by fans to a given film is the real sign of its cultural value.” Yeah, right: messages like this –”Death to D. Cronenberg. Long Live John Carpenter”- surely ‘prove’ a great cultural influence.

Suzie Young in her ominously titled “Restorative and Destructive: Carpenter and Maternal Authority” quite predictably uses every feminist cliche in the book to “recognize” the pattern of Carpenter’s films: “deliverance from the failed homosociality is achieved by mother-goddesses who, as sole parent and originating womb, are both redemptive and appaling and restorative and destructive, enticing and vile.” Ms Young sees “mother-figures” in each and every female protagonist in Carpenter, including the virginal Laurie from HALLOWEEN! Cluttered with the tiresome Freudian and Lacanian idiom (not forgetting the obligatory Julia Kristeva!) it goes on and on about the “pre symbolic and pre-Oedipal pandemonium” and “the guilty womb that readily infects”.

“A Spook Ride on Film: Carpenter and the Gothic” by Marie Mulvey-Roberts is certainly the worst essay in the book: its shallow parallels and empty claims never coalesce into anything coherent or relevant. For example, the following lines seem to indicate a confluence between the female protagonist and the evil force: “Carpenter’s fog is a phantasmagoric fabric of fear heralded by the female disc jockey in the lighthouse. Her voice over the radio waves is similar to the fog in that it too can penetrate walls and barriers.” Yes, and – so what? This indication that Adrienne Barbeau’s character is some kind of accomplice to the fog is never returned to. It was silly to begin with, but why stressing it in the first place? Of course, in this misguided feminist misreading, “in a film in which there are no women, the Thing is the embodiment of the absent mother”! The blood on Kelly’s face (in THE PRINCE OF DARKNESS) “actually represents a displacement of the afterbith”!

Unsupportable claims abound: “The proliferation of the Thing is a variation on the solitary male propagation brought about by Victor Frankenstein,” Ms Mulvey-Roberts preaches, completely forgetting that Dr Frankenstein was an active creator responsible for his creature, while the scientists in THE THING have no responsibility for the Thing propagating there whatsoever! This laugh-riot is full of statements like this one, about THE PRINCE OF DARKNESS: “Kelly, the female acolyte delivering the deliverer is, at the same time, the actress Susan Blanchard, who is facilitating the film director’s vision and its materialization via the cinema screen.” This claim of the similarity between the director and the Prince of Darkness is driven to ridiculous heights (or lows?) in the essay’s conclusion which must be seen to be believed.

Luckily, these three essays fail to significantly undermine the prevalent seriousness and importance of the book whose authors more often than not manage to provide a fresh insight and lucid reading of the well-known but still not-quite-understood classics. The bulk of the essays are certainly well worth your time as they manage to show John Carpenter as a far more complex and potent filmmaker than many would be ready to admit. An Interview with John Carpenter, conducted by Ronald V. Borst, ends the book on a high note, revealing from the first-hand perspective numerous valuable facts about Carpenter’s origins, influences, development, style, themes etc.

Rounded up by the minute filmographies and a vast bibliography for further reading, augmented by well chosen stills from the movies, THE CINEMA OF JOHN CARPENTER is an excellent introduction for the novices and equally helpful elaboration for the initiated.

Edited by Ian Conrich and David Woods
Wallflower Press, London and New York, 2004
224 pages

Buy This Book from Wallflower Press

The Cinema of John Carpenter

Author: Dejan Ognjanovic

Visit Dejan's site The Cult of Ghoul for more horror movie news and reviews.
  • Dustin

    I have the book in this series on George Romero. Romero’s movies have such distinct themes that it keeps the essayists from flying too far off the handle. Carpenter is more all over the place. The question is-Did they mention the fact that Carpenter movies are fun? Cause that’s why I love them. They are unabashed,B-movie,comic book style,ass kickin’fun! He’s not afraid to put a line or action scene in there for no other reason than it’s “cool” (Escape from L.A. has to be that philosophy full tilt..) Carpenter is the man.

  • Dustin

    I have the book in this series on George Romero. Romero’s movies have such distinct themes that it keeps the essayists from flying too far off the handle. Carpenter is more all over the place. The question is-Did they mention the fact that Carpenter movies are fun? Cause that’s why I love them. They are unabashed,B-movie,comic book style,ass kickin’fun! He’s not afraid to put a line or action scene in there for no other reason than it’s “cool” (Escape from L.A. has to be that philosophy full tilt..) Carpenter is the man.

  • Dejan

    I must admit that the pure fun-loving aspect of Carpenter’s films is not given enough credit: that’s why, for example, there is not a single essay on BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA – it’s the most neglected film of his in this entire book. Even the lacklustre, dull movies like VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED got more space (because they could be analyzed in terms of ideology, politics, etc.)!

    You must realize that most theoreticians for some reason believe that’serious’ is the opposite of ‘fun’. I don’t agree, but that’s how many of them see things. That’s why some prefer to see vaginas, wombs, absent mothers and such crap where there is nothing like that – at the same time completely missing the whole point of GENRE filmmaking, which is: FIRST, entertain and SECOND, educate, preach or whatever.

  • Dejan

    I must admit that the pure fun-loving aspect of Carpenter’s films is not given enough credit: that’s why, for example, there is not a single essay on BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA – it’s the most neglected film of his in this entire book. Even the lacklustre, dull movies like VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED got more space (because they could be analyzed in terms of ideology, politics, etc.)!

    You must realize that most theoreticians for some reason believe that’serious’ is the opposite of ‘fun’. I don’t agree, but that’s how many of them see things. That’s why some prefer to see vaginas, wombs, absent mothers and such crap where there is nothing like that – at the same time completely missing the whole point of GENRE filmmaking, which is: FIRST, entertain and SECOND, educate, preach or whatever.