John Howard Carpenter (born January 16, 1948) is an American film director, screenwriter, and musician. He's known primarily for his work in the horror and science fiction genres. His career is speckled with films considered genre classics, as well as a number of movies that initially performed poorly at the box office, but went on to be Vindicated by Cable.
His films are characterized by minimalist lighting and photography, static cameras, use of steadicam, distinctive synthesized scores (usually self-composed), and recurring use of In Case You Forgot Who Wrote It. Many of today's best directors, including Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan, state that they were heavily influenced by Carpenter's style and filmography.
Since the release of Ghosts of Mars in 2001, he has gone into a state of semi-retirement, although he returned to the director's chair for several episodes of Masters of Horror and the movie The Ward.
On February 3, 2015, he released his debut non-soundtrack album under the indie label Sacred Bones Records, Lost Themes and its follow up Lost Themes II on April 15, 2016. He also composed his first TV series theme for Zoo.
In May 2016, it was confirmed that Carpenter would be returning to the Halloween franchise on its 11th entry as executive producer in addition to providing the score.
He's widely regarded by interviewers, fans, and coworkers as one of the chillest old dudes in Hollywood. Although he's been in a state of semi-retirement since 2010, when asked if he would ever direct again, he said that he might, but first he'd have to stop spending all his time watching basketball and playing video games.
Not to be confused with John Carpenter, the famous $1,000,000 winner on the show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, or with John Carpenter, the man tried and acquitted for the murder of Bob Crane, or with John Carpenter, the alias of Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951).
Films (and other media) by John Carpenter (director unless otherwise noted):
- The Resurrection of Broncho Billy (1970) (short film)(writer, editor, composer only)
- Dark Star (1974)
- Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
- Halloween (1978), along with varying involvement in its sequels.
- Someone's Watching Me! (1978), a made-for-TV thriller about a woman being stalked by a peeping tom.
- Elvis (1979): a made-for-TV Elvis Presley biopic; Carpenter's first collaboration with Kurt Russell.
- The Fog (1980)
- Escape from New York (1981)
- The Thing (1982)
- Christine (1983)
- Starman (1984)
- Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
- Prince of Darkness (1987)
- They Live! (1988)
- Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992)
- Body Bags (1993, 2 segments and wraparound)
- In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
- Village of the Damned (1995)
- Escape from L.A. (1996)
- John Carpenter's Vampires (1998)
- Ghosts of Mars (2001)
- Masters of Horror (200506, 2 episodes)
- "Cigarette Burns"
- The Ward (2010)
- F.E.A.R. 3 (2011, cutscenes contributor)
- Zoo (2015; theme only)
- Halloween (2018, producer and composer)
- Halloween Kills (2021, producer and composer)
Tropes used in John Carpenter's works as a whole:
- Anti-Hero: Most of the heroes in his movies aren't clean-cut, or tend to make mistakes that get people killed.
- Bittersweet Ending: Many of his movies have the heroes triumphing at a very steep price, often including their lives; sometimes the menace isn't so much neutralized as inconvenienced to varying degrees - Michael Myers surviving being shot in fact became the Trope Codifier for Slasher villains managing to come back throughout their franchise's movies.
- Cosmic Horror Story: The "apocalypse trilogy" (The Thing, Prince of Darkness and In the Mouth of Madness) is an escalation of the trope over the 3 movies: first, a protean, invasive lifeform threatening to subsume in itself every living thing on the planet in a desolate antarctic setting reminiscent of H. P. Lovecraft's At The Mountains Of Madness; then a liquid corruption that turns out to be Satan, and whose goal is to bring to our world its true father, the Anti-God, in an old church being investigated by academics from an establishment similar to Miskatonic University; and finally, ineffable, unreal horrors attempting to find purchase in our reality through the writings of a Mad Artist and his previously-fictitious Town with a Dark Secret in the middle of Lovecraft Country, all the while screwing over the protagonist in such a way that it was formerly the Trope Namer for Through the Eyes of Madness.
- Corrupt Church: Not so much "corrupt" as harboring a dark and terrible secret. The Fog (1980) has a Catholic priest's ancestor also a priest who had a hand in the death of Blake and his men, the church in Prince of Darkness has Satan itself sealed in a container in its basement, which a sect known as the Brotherhood of Sleep has been keeping secret for a long time (admittedly for the noble goal of preventing its unsealing). Finally, John Carpenter's Vampires has Jan Valek, the Monster Progenitor of the vampire race, whose creation was caused by a failed reverse exorcism sanctioned by the Catholic Church. Also, Cardinal Alba made a deal with Valek to be turned after the ceremony, thus playing this trope straight.
- Creator Couple: He and Debra Hill were involved during their work on Halloween.
- Cryptic Background Reference: Carpenter loves expanding the scope of his movies by doling out worldbuilding and character background in tantalizing chunks, similar to his contemporary George Lucas. Why did Napoleon Wilson kill those people? Why did Snake Plissken fly combat operations over Leningrad? Why is Mars ruled by a matriarchy? The world may never know....
- Daylight Horror:
- Prince of Darkness happens over the span of a single day in a church with obviously working electricity. It was inspired by Nigel Kneale's The Stone Tape, which features key scenes set in small (admittedly dark) room filled with scientists, scientific equipment and haunted by a non-physically-threatening supernatural entity. And it's still terrifying.
- The Thing (1982), while still using night time for some of its scares, manages to have a few intense moments in the light of day. Then again, they're in the stormy antarctic, so it's mostly an overcast daylight. Most of the later parts of the film take place at night (though justified by the way Antarctic winters work), the scenes that actually take place outdoors in darkness (well, partial darkness, the camp has outdoor lights) tend to be some of the less eerie moments, with most of the creepiest scenes being indoors with electric lighting. The one exception might be the scene where the guys encounter the Bennings-Thing, and they'd lit a few flares that lit things up real good.
- One of Carpenter's most effective uses of the trope, and one of the most famous, are the scenes in his film Halloween (1978) when "the shape" is stalking Laurie Strode and her friends through the quiet streets of Haddonfield during the middle of the day. The idyllic, sunny small town environment is rendered uncanny and frightening by the mixture of creepy music and the fact that the audience is aware of a malevolent presence that the onscreen characters cannot seem to sense.
- Extremely Short Timespan: Many of his works take place over the course of only a few days at most or a single night in the case of Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
- Gorn: The Thing (1982), Vampires, and Cigarette Burns.
- The Hero Dies: And that happens a lot in the good endings.
- In Case You Forgot Who Wrote It: John Carpenter is particularly notorious for adding his name to all of his films' titles (such as Halloween (1978), Body Bags, John Carpenter's Vampires, Escape from New York, and Escape from L.A.). He even did it with the Masters of Horror episode he directed, "John Carpenter's Cigarette Burns" (and it was the only episode title in two seasons that noted its director).
- Humanoid Abomination: Often the monsters in Carpenter's movies are just human enough to be genuinely disturbing. Michael Myers is a prime example; we're given every indication that, while he seems to be just an ordinary young man, there is nothing recognizably human going on in his mind.
- Mind Screw: Generally most of his films are pretty straightforward in their delivery, but he's strayed in this territory on a few occasions.
- A partial exception would be The Thing (1982), which despite having a narrative that's more or less easy to follow really leaves out a lot of crucial details that the audience is left to fill in. To this day fans of the movie still debate on who got to the blood, whether Blair was infected before or after he was locked up (which depending on how you look at it can provide wholly different interpretations of his actions over the course of the film), how Fuchs ended up being burned to death outside, and most of all whether the Thing really was defeated, or if perhaps one, both, or neither of the survivors have been assimilated.
- This is nothing when you look at the final instalment of the "Apocalypse Trilogy", In the Mouth of Madness. There's a reason why it's a former trope namer. It starts off with the character being brought into a mental institution, and his story starts off straight forward- a simple investigation into the disappearance of a horror writer due to release the titular novel. Then things get weird when it becomes clear that the books have a weird impact on readers, and he stumbles across a town that shouldn't exist and the writer tells him he's a fictional character created for his novel, and then his partner is literally written out of the story. By the end of the movie, you can't quite tell for certain one way or another who's sane, who's insane, what's real and what's fictional. Is the protagonist real, or is he merely a figment of a writer's imagination? Was the world really destroyed by Lovecraftian monsters or was it something else? Did the entire story even happen or is it all in his head?. To make things even more baffling, the final scene has Sam Neil's character walking into a movie theatre to watch the film adaptation of the book the entire movie has been centred around. It turns out The Film of the Book is actually the movie we've just finished watching.
- Money, Dear Boy: Carpenter is hilariously up front about this, freely admitting he does films for the money. Regarding remakes or sequels of his works, his standing, verbatim principle is "I think it's wonderful as long as they pay me. If they don't pay me, I don't care."
- Rated M for Manly: A lot of his films with Kurt Russell, Escape from New York, Escape from L.A., Big Trouble in Little China, The Thing (1982)... They Live!, and Vampires also counts.
- Silent Antagonist: A common device in Carpenter's work is the monster or villain that does not speak. They are either unable or unwilling to explain their motivations, which enhances the sense of Otherness about them. We never know what they're thinking; all we know is they intend us harm and will not tell us why.
- Thematic Series: John Carpenter has what he considers his "Apocalypse Trilogy" starting with The Thing (1982), going into Prince of Darkness and ending with In the Mouth of Madness. As the name implies, the connection has to do with each of the films presenting a Cosmic Horror Story scenario that could potentially result in the end of the world, by way of alien invasion, the awakening of an Eldritch Abomination that was the basis for Satan, and a crazy writer whose work has possibly been influenced by ancient Lovecraftian monstrosities. All three have the protagonists coming face to face with the end of the world, and they all end on a bleak note but open to interpretation:
- The Thing: The two survivors are left to freeze to death, but there is the small possibility that one of them is the Thing.
- Prince of Darkness: Satan is apparently expelled and trapped in another realm with its father The Anti-God, at the cost of the Love Interest's life, but she starts appearing in the main character's dreams, and then he reaches for that mirror- we don't see what happens next.
- In The Mouth of Madness: The protagonist learns he is a fictional character in a writer's story, he tries to stop the publication of the novel every way he knows how, but Sutter Kane is always one step ahead of him, and before long we can't tell if he's truly mad when other people seem to forget things. The book gets published, people go insane and apparently start mutating into... something else, and before long society is in ruins- and to add further Mind Screw, it turns out the film we've been watching is actually the adaptation of the novel.
- Widescreen Shot: Almost all his movies from Assault on Precinct 13 on were shot using the anamorphic Panavision widescreen process, and his compositions often make full use of the wide frame. In an interview, he said it was some of the best advice he got as a young filmmaker - shooting widescreen with proper anamorphic lenses instantly makes your film look more professional and less cheap.
- A famous example is in Halloween, where we see Jamie Lee Curtis on the left in the foreground while the killer advances toward her from the background on the right.