John Carpenter, Master of Disguise: Why He’s the Answer to that Classic Question of what Cinema Should Be

© Imeh Akpanudosen

There’s that well-known argument between film fans: should cinema be art, or just pure entertainment? Can one be entertained by one of Andrei Tarkovsky’s slow-burning allegories, or find an artistic flair in the explosion-fests of Michael Bay?

Well what if I were to tell you of a director who deals single-handedly with schlocky, pulpy fiction? Who writes and works with scripts and stories that would leap right into the b-movie basket of the studio era? And despite this, what if I were to tell you that this director extracts artistic value out of the most outrageous of these premises? If you’re interested up to this point – which I hope you would be seeing as you clicked on the article – then you should know the director’s name is John Carpenter.

Only last night, on that student-friendly holiday of Halloween, my friends and I had gotten together to watch Carpenter’s famous slasher frightfest Halloween (an appropriate film to watch for the day I think). With a preview interview featuring the man himself to start with, what followed was a hugely enjoyable experience. Audience members were laughing, pointing at the screen when they could spot infamous Carpenter creation Michael Myers in the background, stalking his next target. There was even applause at the end, a rarity these days. What was this applause for? I think, quite simply, for giving us such a good time.

See, the thing with Carpenter is that any film of his you watch, you can throw your feet up for a good time, or sit forward and notice all the brilliant touches in his craft. For every casual viewer, who is just looking to laugh at the hilariously histrionic screeches and screams of Michael’s victims, to a film nerd such as myself, who eats up the chance to watch Carpenter’s camera glide across the scenery, proving once and for all that he doesn’t give a single care about the rules and regulations of classical cinematography, Halloween, and to a greater extent, Carpenter’s filmography, welcomes an audience that enjoys both film art and entertainment.

© Compass International
Infamous ‘Carpenter creation Michael Myers’, in John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978): Nick Castle as Michael Myers © Compass International

One must never be afraid to let the laughs flow when watching a Carpenter movie. In all honesty, if he were there, he’d probably be laughing with you: that’s kind of his thing.

To prove this, I’ll defer to Carpenter’s literal thing, and by that I mean his 80’s alien horror classic The Thing, a superior remake of Christian Nyby and Howard Hawks’ 1951 studio horror The Thing from Another World. For those of you who have shamefully yet to see it, there’s a classic scene involving a defibrillator and a deformed alien creature that ends with a deliberately meta line: as the creature’s head falls off its corpse, it proceeds to grow legs out of its skull and crawl away like a spider, to which a character exclaims ‘you’ve got to be fucking kidding me’.

It’s in these little touches that we feel Carpenter winking at us: it’s okay to think this is ridiculous, he reckons so too. And yet, with The Thing for example, there’s such narrative quality and prosthetic genius at play with Rob Bottin’s seminal practical effects, that it can be respected and admired as much as it can be laughed at and lapped up. It’s the spiritual sibling to Alien in a way; Alien is the serious and grounded relative to The Thing’s more upbeat, blood-pumping thrill ride.

There’s a quirky quality to Carpenter that will never extinguish. He’s the perfect director for that time in your movie-going life where you can’t quite figure out which way you’re likely to fall in terms of watching an arthouse film tonight, or a flashy blockbuster instead. He’s a man for the best of both worlds. Only in a Carpenter film, a movie such as They Live, will you find a hilariously over-the-top action horror that is imbued with an ideological subtext that renowned radical philosopher Slavoj Žižek would go on to use in his cinematic study on society’s mechanisms, The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology. That’s Carpenter in a nutshell: like a playful father who you never forget to respect.

So it’s with this article that I encourage you to go watch some John Carpenter movies. Start with The Thing as it sets the tone for his style i.e. don’t take it all too seriously, just grin along to the show. Then I recommend any of these classics to follow: Halloween, Escape from New York, They Live, Christine, Big Trouble in Little China. There’s so much more beyond that, but I think the purest Carpenter experience lies within these films. Especially Big Trouble in Little China, absurdity of the highest order that welcomes a glass or two of your strongest beverage to absolutely cackle at it (trust me, once you’ve seen it, you’ll know it’s the intended effect).

If you couldn’t tell already, I’m a John Carpenter film fanboy. And you should be too. So go forth and watch a few, otherwise Michael Myers will be after you.

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