Tuesday, December 6, 2011


Stick around this blog long enough and you will be drenched in my unfettered man love for writer/director/musician/visionary/genius John Carpenter. The list of great filmmakers this world has given us is a long one; however, the list of filmmakers who have gone on to change cinema in general - who have contributed previously untapped resources, as well as created icons and sub-genres that are still in use today - well, that list is much smaller. John Carpenter is definitely on that list. His most famous films are arguably from the first act of his career (Assault on Precinct 13, up to and including They Live.) When pressed for their favorite Carpenter film, most fans would confidently say The Thing, Halloween, and Escape from New York. (While I recognize that The Thing is the best movie of his career, my personal favorite is The Fog.) His influence in cinema goes well beyond the go-to slasher movie cliches created in Halloween (the virginal heroine, the "he's not dead!" moments of shock, the embittered Dr. Frankenstein forced to chase down his nemesis, the fuck-and-your-dead mentality). Michael Myers was not the first killer to wear a mask, nor was Halloween the first movie through which we witnessed acts from the killer's point of view, but cheapie 1978 slasher's influence on the horror genre cannot be denied.

But we know all this. We know that Halloween was the beginning of the slasher movement. We know that The Thing (very under-appreciated at the time) proved how physical, in-camera effects can shape a movie and make it legendary. And we know that Snake Plissken is one of the most bad-ass anti-heroes of all time.

Here's a list of nine things (some theoretical, some factual, and some based on rumor) you might not have realized John Carpenter gave the world (in no particular order).

9. Alien (1979)

Carpenter directed and co-wrote with Dan O'Bannon 1974's Dark Star, an offbeat and quirky strange space adventure. Originally a student film, an investor provided the filmmakers with additional money, and the short was expanded into a feature film. The movie's plot is as follows: a group of increasingly bored astronauts, who interact with an AI computer throughout the movie, accidentally unleash an alien onto their spaceship. The alien (played by a bobbing beach ball and seemingly voiced by a Killer Tomato), goes on to pick off the crew members one by one. In 1979, O'Bannon (sans Carpenter) would take that basic concept and go on to write the legendary film Alien, in which a group of increasingly bored astronauts, who interact with an AI computer throughout the movie, accidentally unleash an alien onto their spaceship. The alien goes on to pick off the crew members one by one. Though neither Carpenter or O'Bannon would go on record discussing the bad blood that allegedly ensued between them, the two men, once friends, fell out after Alien's release. Though a character of Carpenter's own The Fog (1980) was named Dan O'Bannon, the character would go on to have both eyes stabbed out by the murderous William Blake. Carpenter, having a macabre sense of humor, may not have necessarily named one of his victims after his old friend to make a statement; with The Fog being released not even one year after Alien, it's entirely possible Carpenter had no idea Alien was even in production until it was too late to excise O'Bannon's name from his movie.

It's fun to speculate, too. Were it not for Alien, there would be no Aliens...and so, would there be a James Cameron? Would there be The Terminator and True Lies, and (ugh) Titanic, the biggest grossing movie of all time?

O'Bannon, years later, would go on to say, "I didn't steal the concept for Alien from anyone, I stole it from everyone!"

While a perfectly tongue-in-cheek and self-deprecating comment, one wonders why he would say such a thing in the first place. Had he, perhaps, received criticism for his script, which had borrowed several elements from Dark Star?

That's one thing we will never truly know.

8. Jason Voorhees / Friday the 13th (1980) / The Entire 80s Slasher Movement

People who know their shit know that Halloween basically gave birth to the slasher movement of the 80s. Any holiday up for grabs soon had a poster featuring pointy weapons, masked men, and dripping blood. Christmas, New Year's, Valentine's Day...no holiday was safe. However, one can argue there's a difference between inspiration and a flat-out re-titled carbon copy. Further, any slack-jawed yokel can sit down, power up Friday the 13th, and snidely deride it as a Halloween rip off. Well, they would be right to do so - it doesn't take a genius to see that, really - but it helps to have the filmmakers of that film agree. Friday the 13th screenwriter Victor Miller has never played coy with the fact that director Sean Cunningham one day called him up and said, “Halloween is making a lot of money, let’s rip it off.” And so they did. And Friday the 13th - a series that would go on to out-sequel Halloween - was born. Though Jason Voorhees would not appear until Friday the 13th: Part 2, he obviously would not have existed without Part 1. And that, as proclaimed by its own filmmakers, would not have existed were it not for Halloween.

7. Kurt Russell

Kurt Russell had just finished a career as a minor league baseball player (eager to escape his prior work as a Disney child actor) when he was cast as the titular rock-n-roller in Carpenter's 1979 television movie event Elvis. To date, it was his first lead role as an adult, not in a television series, and not to mention a project being produced by Dick Clark. All eyes were on Russell, and his performance resulted in an Emmy Award Nomination for Best Actor. Russell would then immediately appear in cult hit Used Cars for Robert Zemeckis, as well as Escape from New York and The Thing. The list of truly amazing movies he's appeared in is endless (but a few are Tombstone, Executive Decision, Breakdown, Tango & Cash(!), Miracle), and none of that would have been possible without this director-actor's first of five collaborations.

6. Jason Statham: Action Hero

Regardless if you consider this a good or bad thing (I'd reason most people enjoy seeing the bald Brit kick ass in mindless film after mindless film), Carpenter had the foresight to cast Statham in his much-maligned 2001 Mars action/horror flick Ghosts of Mars. Cast as Jericho - a no-nonsense, Natasha-Henstridge-vagina-wanting sergeant - Statham kicked ass and took names alongside Police Fucka Ice Cube, blaxploitation legend Pam Grier, and Clea "hey, whatever-happened-to-her?" DuVall. Up to this point, Statham had a small cult following for having appeared in Guy Ritchie's Lock, Stock, & Two Smoking Barrels, and Snatch. It wouldn't be until Carpenter intervened that Statham was able to show off his bad ass chops. And the man hasn't stopped. After his face-smashing turns in The Transporter and Crank series, his new status as action hero became widely known (and enthusiastically accepted). He's due to play a version of the most bad-ass bad ass there ever was: Parker, the legendary creation of crime writer Donald E. Westlake (pseudonym Richard Stark) in an upcoming film adaptation of the same name.

5. Super 8 (2011)

J.J. Abrams' Super 8 is, first and foremost, a nostalgic 70s-set movie wallowing in Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment days. Much like the aim of this blog post, had it not been for E.T., Super 8 would not exist. But that little extraterrestrial miscreant is not the only being responsible for this movie.

J.J. Abrams: “I love [The Thing]. Like Alien, there’s a group of people isolated with this thing in their midst. One of the notable things is Rob Bottin’s unbelievable make-up effects that did things visually that just blew my mind and was so integrated with the intense drama of that paranoia of isolation and fear. There was a great score by Ennio Morricone. What I loved about that movie is it was so deliberate in pacing and so increasingly tense and disturbing and it uses morose, dark comedy in just the right way. Wonderful cast too. All the Carpenter movies really: The Fog and Escape from New York. I love Snake Plisskin.” [J.J. Abrams: Seven films that shaped Super 8] 

4. Jamie Lee Curtis

Much like Kurt Russell, Curtis had never appeared as the lead role in a film before Carpenter cast her in Halloween. Unofficially marketed as the film which starred the daughter of the original scream queen (Janet Leigh, from the legendary Psycho), Halloween would propel Curtis into stardom. She would go on to appear in Carpenter's own The Fog, and the Carpenter-scripted-and-produced Halloween 2, as well as several other horror movies clearly inspire by Halloween's success. In almost every retrospective of Halloween, either in print or broadcast, Curtis has said, "Halloween gave me a movie career." She would go on to star in the most famous movies of her career (ironically, comedies): A Fish Called Wanda, Trading Places, as well as True Lies. In 1998, Curtis spearheaded the production of Halloween: H20. While receiving mixed-to-mostly positive reviews, it was still largely regarded as the best sequel since the original. While some actors/actresses repel any attempts to discuss their early career dabbling in horror, Curtis has only proudly noted her appearance in the 1978 cheapie, and thinks back on the experience "with great pride."

3. Robert Rodriguez

"Of all the people to be amazed by the images of John Carpenter's 1981 sci-fi parable, Escape from New York (1981), none were as captivated as the 12-year-old Tejano boy who sat with his friends in a crowded cinema. Many people watch films and arrogantly proclaim 'I can do that.' This young man said something different: 'I WILL do that. I'm gonna make movies.' The young man in question is Robert Rodriguez and this day was the catalyst of his dream career (IMDB)." Some of Rodriguez's films include El Mariachi, From Dusk Til Dawn, Desperado, Sin City, and Planet Terror (which Carpenter at one point was hired to score before he had to bow out for his "Masters of Horror" responsibilities).

2. Duke Nukem
If you've seen They Live, and played Duke Nukem, this claim isn't much of a stretch. Much like They Live's John Nada (Roddy Piper), Duke Nukem wanders the desolate and seedy streets of Los Angeles, blowing away the aliens that have come to enslave our planet, not to mention utter the truly iconic catchphrase, "I have come here to chew bubble gum and kick ass...and I'm all out of bubble gum." They even have the same black sunglasses. While Duke is an amalgamation of pretty much every 80s action movie hero (including Snake Plissken), there is no denying Carpenter's influence on the character. 

1. Ghostface / Scream (1996)

Screenwriter Kevin Williamson wrote Scream as a love letter to Halloween, the movie which gave birth to the slasher genre - a genre that had grown so tired that he (and director Wes Craven) created a self-aware parody about teenagers aware of slasher movie cliches, yet falling victim to them anyway. Numerous references to Halloween are scattered throughout the film: Drew Barrymore describes it as her favorite horror movie; the infamous Halloween theme is very subtly applied in Marco Beltrami's score in the first act of the film as Barrymore cowers behind her television set; Rose McGowan's Tatum claims that her hysterical friend's paranoia is starting to sound like "a Wes Carpenter flick;" Jamie Kennedy's "horror movie rules" monologue that he recites as Halloween is paused on a television behind him;  the last act of the movie unfolds as the sounds of Halloween plays on the television in the background.

Scream was a clever, meta look at Halloween, the clones it inspired, and the rules it created; ironically, Halloween: H20 would come along two years after Scream, which had revitalized the horror genre, and played out with a very Scream-like tone.

Really, what it comes down to is this: In 1978, Halloween came along, blew everyone's mind, and created a sub-genre - the slasher film. That sub-genre grew so tired and dull that it literally died at the end of the 80s, taking the horror genre along with it. It would take Scream to breathe new life into the sub-genre, itself being an homage to Halloween. Carpenter's 1978 fright flick saved the horror genre not once, but twice. Pretty impressive for a $300,000 indie movie.

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