John Carpenter works in two genres: horrors and westerns.
The temptation would be to say he does science fiction too, but you would be wrong. Even his most sci-fi-y works like They Live and Escape from New York follow the western premise of a lone stranger comes into town and gets embroiled in a situation he has to straighten out. The same applies to Big Trouble in Little China, which actually was originally written as a Western before being updated to the modern day-set wacky headfuck that it became. He deals in men of few words (or a ton of words as in Little China when Kurt Russell’s character will not shut the hell up) who see an injustice or someone in need, and step in to save the day. It’s no wonder that Carpenter cites his movie heroes as Howard Hawks and John Ford.
His horror though is where he really stands out as a genius to me. The Thing is still, thirty years later, one of the best horror movies ever made and sets the Gold Standard for movies in which people you think aren’t monsters might be monsters. It has been poorly imitated numerous times but never beaten. And obviously is a remake of a Howard Hawks movie, which incidentally features very prominently in Carpenter’s other horror classic, Halloween.
I recently watched Halloween for the first time in a long time. It was excellent. Spooky, jumpy, chilling. There was no need for a sympathetic backstory for the villain, Michael Myers was just unstoppable evil in coveralls and a William Shatner mask. When I finished the movie I went outside to buy milk. It’s autumn here in Australia so I walked down my tree-lined street in the dark. Brown leaves fell from the trees onto the silent road and I realised, as I strolled to the corner shop, that I was scared. I was scared that something would be following me or about to jump out at me. Not many movies have had that effect on me and for a horror film surely that is the greatest review.
Carpenter’s other great skill is his soundtracks, which he composes himself. We have seen a re-emergence of these synth heavy soundtracks which pile layers of atmosphere upon the action on screen in movies like The Guest and It Follows. Both of these movies owe tons to Carpenter, one for its execution and ability to build tension (It Follows) and the other for it’s Halloween setting and balls to the walls-ness (The Guest).
So why is Carpenter a Cinema Saint? Because when he is on fire he is unstoppable. His best movies feel like they have no concept of the rules of what movies should be about. He says to hell with it and makes a movie in which Kurt Russell fights Chinese sorcerers or Rowdy Roddy Piper sees the true face of the world and then fights Keith David in an alley for fifteen minutes. His movies are fun to watch with great soundtracks and his horrors will make you scared to go out and buy milk.