24
Oct
2010
Whose Film Is It Anyway?
John Carpenter
Jordan
Note: The purpose of Whose Film Is It Anyway? is to examine the validity of the auteur theory through the lens of individual film-makers, taking a look at their bodies of work and highlighting the technical elements, personal style, and thematic consistency of their films. Ultimately, the goal of this column will be to generate a discussion of the merits of auteur theory through examinations of directors widely considered auteurs, analyses of directors whose status as auteurs is more tenuous, and occasional looks at non-directors who may drive the quality and content of their films with more assuredness than the directors they work with.

"In France, I'm an auteur; in Germany, a filmmaker; in Britain, a genre film director; and, in the USA, a bum"-John Carpenter

Determining whether a given director is an auteur is not always easy. Sometimes a director makes each film their own in very small, hard to notice ways, yet still manages to leave a mark on every film. In other cases, though, determining the true author of a movie is pretty simple. John Carpenter, like most of the directors I cover in this column, is a part of the latter group. Not only does he direct his films, he also usually writes, produces, scores, edits, and occasionally acts in them. With that much involvement in each of his movies, it is pretty simple to declare the man an auteur. Throughout his work, he utilizes minimalist lighting, static cameras, and the steadicam (a camera that is mounted to the cameraman in such a way as to isolate the movements of the operator from the camera, and thus allowing for incredibly smooth shots), all in service of building suspense and delivering shocks. While John Carpenter has made forays into science fiction and action films, this column will be focusing solely on his contributions to the genre of horror (this is, after all, Halloween Horror Auteur Month).

Carpenter's most famous film, Halloween, almost single handedly created the slasher film, and established many of the tropes that remain at the center of the genre. The film is set in the fictional Midwest town of Haddonfield, Illinois, on the titular holiday, and follows Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis, in her film debut) as she and her babysitting friends are stalked by the psychotic Michael Myers (Nick Castle). The film opens with a classic Carpenter point of view scene, as the camera peers out from behind the masked eyes of a young Michael Myers as he takes his first life. Halloween may be best known as one of the founders of the trope throughout slasher films in which promiscuous girls die while the chaste and innocent central girl survives, but the film also features an incompetent cop who is reluctant to believe that a killer is stalking the streets. Carpenter refuses the notion that the movie is a morality play, though, dismissing the idea that he is murdering young women for being sexually promiscuous, and even disavowing critics of the notion that Curtis survives the film because she is chaste. As he puts it, critics, "completely missed the point there ["¦] The one girl who is the most sexually uptight just keeps stabbing this guy with a long knife. She's the most sexually frustrated. She's the one that's killed him. Not because she's a virgin but because all that sexually repressed energy starts coming out. She uses all those phallic symbols on the guy." During the shooting of the film, Carpenter pushed to keep the gore level low, hoping to build suspense and trade on the audiences dread more than actually relying on gore to create the fear. He also worked very closely with his actors to manage their level of terror at any given point, as the film was shot out of sequence. To do this, he created a "fear meter," telling his actresses (and especially Curtis) where on the meter they would be in each scene. His score also perfectly meshes with the tone of the film, building a slow since of dread and impending doom as Michael Myers slowly stalks his prey.






Carpenter's next film, The Fog, is less successful, even by Carpenter's own admission. He describes, "It was terrible. I had a movie that didn't work, and I knew it in my heart". The film tells the story of the centennial celebration in Antonio Bay, California, that is interrupted by mysterious fog that envelopes the town and brings with it vengeful ghosts who have returned to make the town pay for the sins of the past. This is a recurring theme throughout Carpenter's work, as his characters are often faced against evils focused on revenge and punishing people for previous indiscretions. Here, the indiscretions taint the entirety of the town, which, in another horror trope was actually founded with gold stolen from a ship that the original settlers caused to sink. Knowing that the film was not particularly good, Carpenter did heavy reshoots on it, adding the tale by the old sea captain that opens the film, and breaking with his desire to use suspense rather than gore to add frights to a movie by throwing in more gratuitous death scenes. This became necessary in Carpenter's mind when he realized that the horror market had become decidedly gorier in the two years since Halloween and that his new film would have to keep up. The score is reminiscent Halloween as well, using similar musical progressions to build dread.





The slow, deliberate pacing of Carpenter's films is an often frustrating tendency. In his best work, like Halloween and The Thing (which I will discuss in a moment), the pacing works to draw you in and keep you riveted when the actual scares come in the final act. In The Fog, and They Live, however, the pacing makes the films feel uneventful for almost their entire runtime. They Live is the worst offender in this tendency. Ostensibly, the film follows Nada (Roddy Piper) as he discovers a pair of sunglasses that allow him to see the world as we all know it truly is"”a mass heap of subliminal messaging keeping us calm and sedated while alien overlords disguised as the moneyed elite reap the benefits of our endless, meaningless toiling. The premise is pure gold, especially as a satire of Reagan era greed and overconsumption, but the pacing (along with many, many other mistakes) brings the film to its knees. The sunglasses that reveal the true nature of the world aren't discovered until nearly 45 minutes into the film, and the alien killing glory that is theoretically the draw to the movies is confined almost entirely to the last act of the movie. For an example of how ridiculously drawn out the movie is, look no further than the scene below, a six minute long fight scene between the film's heroes in which Nada spends the entire time just trying to make his co-worker try on the glasses. While the pacing is bad, it certainly isn't helped by the terrible dialogue (including the laughable moment in which Piper walks into a bank holding a shotgun and says, for no apparent reason, "I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I'm all out of bubblegum."), and a score that sounds as flat and synthesizer heavy as pretty much every score composed in the latter part of the "˜80s. Carpenter made bad decisions at pretty much every turn in They Live, yet those decisions are clearly his. Even in making a shitty, shitty movie, John Carpenter made his own movie.





Fortunately, he fared much better a few years earlier in 1982's The Thing, a taut science fiction horror film that builds tension through accumulating paranoia. After a dog wanders into their Antarctic Research Center, a team of scientists (including Kurt Russell and Keith David) discover it to be a parasitic alien that can take the form of any creature it kills. As the team tries to determine whether The Thing has infected any of them, and who may not be what they seem, paranoia grows. The Thing succeeds by building a claustrophobic tension as the characters realize how complete their isolation is, and how little they can trust even those that they have around them. An unapologetically dark and hopeless film, The Thing also combines the escalating tension of Halloween with the increased gore levels of The Fog (actually taking the gross factor up a thousand percent here). While most horror films try to hide the antagonist for as much of the movie as possible, The Thing revels in the disgusting monster its created, giving the villain of the title substantial screen time and yet never failing to make the site of it terrifying. In part this is because of how well Carpenter manages the mood of the cast, but the fear also comes from how completely horrifying the threat at the film's center is. Carpenter is also helped by the masterful score composed by Ennio Moricone (who I have already discussed at length in my examination of Sergio Leone), who understands musical composition in film better than pretty much anyone.



John Carpenter is not the greatest director of all time, and in fact, has become more inconsistent in recent years (let's not even mention Ghosts of Mars, his most recent effort), but each of his movies is unmistakably his own. He puts his heart and soul into every one of his efforts, and the results bear his mark regardless of their quality. His examinations of the effects of the past on the present, his haunting scores, and his use of lighting and camera techniques remain consistent throughout his work, whether or not he employs them successfully. An auteur is not required to be a good director, nor a consistent one. All that is required to mark a filmmaker as an auteur is the unmistakable note of a personal authorial stamp on each of their films. And, for better or worse, John Carpenter only makes one kind of movie: his own.


Read more Whose Film Is It Anyway? here

Coming up on Who's Film Is It Anyway?:


11/7: James Cameron

11/21: Kathryn Bigelow

12/5: Darren Aronofsky

12/19: Frank Capra
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