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Carpenter, John

Entry updated 9 January 2023. Tagged: Film, People.

(1948-    ) US film-maker. At USC Film School Carpenter collaborated with writer-actor-director Dan O'Bannon on Dark Star (1974), a student effort expanded successfully into a feature that attracted attention for its Absurdist humour and classical suspense, following the adventures of a Spaceship crewed by near-insane astronauts and dangerously unstable sentient bombs. That calling card enabled Carpenter to make Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), a very accomplished "urban Western", and to sell his (eventually rewritten) script for The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978); this in turn won him an assignment to write and direct Halloween (1978), an enormously influential "stalk and slash" movie which spawned a long-running franchise. Carpenter is usually classed as a Horror director, his supernatural work including The Fog (1980), Christine (1983) from Stephen King's novel, Big Trouble in Little China (1986), and Vampires (1998) from John Steakley's Vampire$ (1990), but – perhaps influenced by Nigel Kneale, who wrote Halloween III: Season of the Witch for Carpenter – he often mixes elaborate sf concepts with Gothic horror.

Carpenter's sf films as a director are: Escape from New York (1981), a cynical futuristic adventure, and its belated sequel Escape from LA (1996); The Thing (1982), a commercially unsuccessful but widely admired remake of the 1951 Hawks production that returns to John W Campbell Jr's Paranoid original story for its creature-clogged theme; Starman (1984), a mellow and impersonal mix of Steven Spielberg's road film The Sugarland Express (1973) with The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), Jeff Bridges starring as a benign Alien visitor; Prince of Darkness (1987), a horror movie cross-breeding quantum physics and demonology, whose credits acknowledge Kneale; They Live (1989), a witty and socially conscious pastiche of 1950s alien-invader motifs from a story by Ray F Nelson; Memoirs of An Invisible Man (1992), from the 1987 novel by H F Saint, a bland comedy thriller in the mould of Starman, distinguished by then state-of-the-art Invisibility effects; In the Mouth of Madness, a horror film somewhat in the manner of H P Lovecraft; a US-set remake of Village of the Damned (1995), the 1960 film of John Wyndham's The Midwich Cuckoos (1957; rev 1958); and the interplanetary Zombie western Ghosts of Mars (2001), since which his only work as a feature director has been the psychiatric horror film The Ward (2009).

An admirer of Howard Hawks, whose Rio Bravo (1959) he has repeatedly homaged, Carpenter often uses the values of the western as a point of reference and resistance against authoritarian forces, including those of mainstream Hollywood; never very comfortable dancing to studio tunes, he is at his most interesting when freest of interference, and where possible attaches his name to the film title, for territorial as much as branding reasons. Both the quality and the profitability of his work declined after 1990, though Vampires seeded two sequels; but he has done occasional television work, in 1993 directing the first two parts of a three-part television horror anthology miniseries, Body Bags (1993), and he directed an episode each in both seasons of Masters of Horror (2005-2006). As a screenwriter he is also credited with contributions to The Philadelphia Experiment (1984) and Black Moon Rising (1986), both based on scripts he wrote in the 1970s; and he has contributed to the Videogames Sentinel Returns (1998; score only) and F.E.A.R. 3 (2011). A second-generation composer, Carpenter has worked on the scores for most of his films, and his deft, distinctive electronic soundscapes have had considerable influence in horror cinema. [KN/NL]

see also: Cinema; Media Landscape; Monster Movies.

John Carpenter

born Carthage, New York: 16 January 1948

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