Carpenter was born in Carthage, New York, the son of Milton Jean (née Carter) and Howard Ralph Carpenter, a music professor. He and his family moved to Bowling Green, Kentucky in 1953. He was captivated by movies from an early age, particularly the westerns of Howard Hawks and John Ford, as well as 1950s low budget horror and science fiction films, such as Forbidden Planet and The Thing from Another World and began filming horror shorts on 8 mm film even before entering high school. He briefly attended Western Kentucky University, where his father chaired the music department, but transferred to the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts in 1968 and graduated in 1971.
Academy Award - Live Action Short FilmEdit
At USC Cinema, one of his projects as a co-writer, film editor and music composer, The Resurrection of Broncho Billy (1970), produced by John Longenecker, won an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film. The short film was blown-up to 35mm, sixty prints were made and the film was theatrically released by Universal Studios for two years in the United States and Canada.
1970s: From student films to major theatrical releasesEdit
His first major film as director, Dark Star (1974) was a sci-fi black comedy, that he cowrote with Dan O'Bannon (who later went on to write Alien, borrowing freely from much of Dark Star). The film reportedly cost only $60,000 and was difficult to make, as both Carpenter and O'Bannon completed the film by multitasking, with Carpenter doing the musical score as well as the writing, producing and directing, while O'Bannon acted in the film and did the special effects (which caught the attention of George Lucas who hired him to do work on the special effects for Star Wars). Carpenter's efforts did not go unnoticed as much of Hollywood marveled at his filmmaking abilities within the confines of a shoestring budget.
Carpenter's next film was Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), a low-budget thriller influenced by the films of Howard Hawks, particularly Rio Bravo. As with Dark Star, Carpenter was responsible for many aspects of the film's creation. He not only wrote, directed and scored it, but also edited the film under the pseudonym "John T. Chance" (the name of John Wayne's character in Rio Bravo). Carpenter has said that he considers Assault on Precinct 13 to have been his first real film, because it was the first movie that he shot on a schedule. The film was also significant, because it marked the first time Carpenter worked with Debra Hill, who played prominently in the making of some of Carpenter's most important films.
Working within the limitations of a $100,000 budget, Carpenter assembled a main cast that consisted of experienced but relatively obscure actors. The two leads were Austin Stoker, who had appeared previously in science fiction, disaster and blaxploitation films, and Darwin Joston, who had worked primarily in television and had once been Carpenter's next-door neighbor.
The film was originally released in the United States to mixed critical reviews and lackluster box-office earnings, but after it was screened at the 1977 London Film Festival, it became a critical and commercial success in Europe and is often credited with launching Carpenter's career. The film subsequently received a critical reassessment in the United States, where it is now generally regarded as one of the best exploitation films of the 1970s.
A long forgotten, but still very note worthy film that Carpenter both wrote and directed was the Lauren Hutton thriller Someone's Watching Me! (aka High Rise) in 1978, a very busy year for the director. This made-for-television movie tells a very simplistic, yet rather effective tale of a single, working woman who, shortly after arriving in L.A., discovers that she is gradually being stalked and constantly observed by an unseen predator in the high rise building across from her apartment. Though a made-for-television film, Someone's Watching Me! does stand out from others of the period. Borrowing heavily from Hitchcock classics, Carpenter slowly builds the suspense and intrigue before the final confrontation ensues, making the most out of the theory that what one can't see is far more interesting than what is shown on the screen. Although it has never received much attention, it's interesting to draw some parallels between the story, concept, and visuals in this film with those featured in the director's next immediate production, Halloween.
Halloween was a smash hit on release and helped give birth to the slasher film genre. Originally an idea suggested by producer Irwin Yablans (entitled The Babysitter Murders), who envisioned a film about babysitters being menaced by a stalker, Carpenter took the idea and another suggestion from Yablans that it take place during Halloween and developed a story. Carpenter said of the basic concept: "Halloween night. It has never been the theme in a film. My idea was to do an old haunted house movie." The film was written by Carpenter and Debra Hill with Carpenter admitting that the film was inspired by both Dario Argento's Suspiria and William Friedkin's The Exorcist.
Carpenter again worked with a relatively small budget, $320,000. The film grossed over $65 million initially, making it one of the most successful independent films of all time.
Carpenter relied upon taut suspense rather than the excessive gore that would define later slasher films in order to make the menacing nature of the main character, Michael Myers, more palpable. At times, Carpenter has described Halloween in terms that appeared to directly contradict the more thoughtful, nuanced approach to horror that he actually used, such as: "True crass exploitation. I decided to make a film I would love to have seen as a kid, full of cheap tricks like a haunted house at a fair where you walk down the corridor and things jump out at you." The film has often been cited as an allegory on the virtue of sexual purity and the danger of casual sex, although Carpenter has explained that this was not his intent: "It has been suggested that I was making some kind of moral statement. Believe me, I'm not. In Halloween, I viewed the characters as simply normal teenagers." Of the later slasher films that largely mimicked Carpenter's work on Halloween, few have met with the same critical success.
In addition to the film's critical and commercial success, Carpenter's self-composed "Halloween Theme" remains a recognizable film music theme to this day.
In 1979, John Carpenter began what was to be the first of several collaborations with actor Kurt Russell when he directed the TV movie Elvis. The made-for-TV movie was a smash hit with viewers and critics, and was also released as a feature film in cinemas outside the U. S. and revived the career of Russell, who was a child actor in the 1960s.
1980s: Continued commercial successEdit
Carpenter followed up the success of Halloween with The Fog (1980), a ghostly revenge tale (co-written by Hill) inspired by horror comics such as Tales from the Crypt and by The Crawling Eye, a 1958 movie about monsters hiding in clouds.
Completing The Fog was an unusually difficult process for Carpenter. After viewing a rough cut of the film, he was dissatisfied with the result. For the only time in his filmmaking career, he had to devise a way to salvage a nearly finished film that did not meet his standards. In order to make the movie more coherent and frightening, Carpenter shot additional footage, that included a number of new scenes. Approximately one-third of the finished film is the newer footage.
Despite production problems and mostly negative critical reception, The Fog was another commercial success for Carpenter. The film was made on a budget of $1,000,000, but it grossed over $21,000,000 in the United States alone. Carpenter has said, that The Fog is not his favorite film, although he considers it a "minor horror classic".
Carpenter immediately followed The Fog with the science-fiction adventure Escape from New York (1981), which quickly picked up a large cult and mainstream audiences as well as critical acclaim.
His next film, The Thing (1982), is notable for its high production values, including innovative special effects by Rob Bottin, special visual effects by matte artist Albert Whitlock, a score by Ennio Morricone and a cast including rising star Kurt Russell and respected character actors such as Wilford Brimley, Richard Dysart, Keith David, and Richard Masur. The Thing was made with a budget of $15,000,000, Carpenter's largest up to that point, and distributed by Universal Pictures.
Although Carpenter's film was ostensibly a remake of the 1951 Howard Hawks film, The Thing from Another World, Carpenter's version is more faithful to the John W. Campbell, Jr. short story, Who Goes There?, upon which both films were based. Moreover, unlike the Hawks film, The Thing has a dark, pessimistic tone and a bleak ending, which didn't appeal to audiences in the summer of 1982, when it was released in the wake of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Consequently, it did not perform well commercially and was Carpenter's first financial failure. Later, the movie found new life in the home video and cable markets, and it is now widely regarded as one of the best horror films and remakes ever made.
Carpenter's next film, Christine, was the 1983 adaptation of the Stephen King novel of the same name. The story revolves around a high-school nerd named Arnie Cunningham (Keith Gordon) who buys a junked 1958 Plymouth Fury which turns out to have supernatural powers. As Cunningham restores and rebuilds the car, he becomes unnaturally obsessed with it, with deadly consequences. Christine did respectable business upon its release and was received well by critics; however, Carpenter has been quoted as saying he directed the film because it was the only thing offered to him at the time.
One of the high points in Carpenter's career came in 1984 with the release of Starman, a film that was critically praised but was only a moderate commercial success. Produced by Michael Douglas, the script was well received by Columbia Pictures, which chose it over the script for E.T. and prompted Steven Spielberg to go to Universal Pictures. Douglas chose Carpenter to be the director because of his reputation as an action director who could also convey strong emotion. Starman was favorably reviewed by the Los Angeles Times, New York Times and LA Weekly and described by Carpenter as a film he envisioned as a romantic comedy similar to It Happened One Night only with a space alien. The film received Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for Jeff Bridges' portrayal of Starman and received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Musical Score for Jack Nitzsche.
After seeing footage of Starman, the executive producer of the Superman movie series, Ilya Salkind, offered Carpenter the chance to direct the latest Alexander–Ilya Salkind fantasy epic Santa Claus: The Movie. Salkind made the offer to Carpenter over lunch at The Ritz, and while he loved the idea of breaking from his normal traditions and directing a children's fantasy movie, he requested 24 hours to think over the offer. The next day he had drawn up a list of requirements should he direct the movie; they were: 100 percent creative control, the right to take over scriptwriting duties, being able to co-compose the movie's musical score, total editorial control, the casting of Brian Dennehey as Santa Claus and a $5 million signing-on fee (the same amount that the movie's star Dudley Moore was receiving). Team Salkind were nonplussed by his demands and withdrew their offer for him to direct. Carpenter told Empire magazine ten years later that he wished he'd been less demanding and made the movie because he liked the idea so much and it would have changed critics' views on his limitations as a director.
Following the box office failure of his big-budget action–comedy Big Trouble in Little China (1986), Carpenter struggled to get films financed. He returned to making lower budget films such as Prince of Darkness (1987), a film influenced by the BBC series Quatermass. Although some of the films from this time did pick up a cult audience, he never again realized his mass-market potential.
1990s: Criticism and commercial declineEdit
His 1990s career is characterized by a number of notable misfires: Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992), Village of the Damned (1995) and Escape From L.A. (1996) are examples of films that were critical and box office failures. Notable from this decade is:
- In the Mouth of Madness (1995), yet another Lovecraftian homage, which did not do well either at the box-office or with critics.
- Vampires (1998) starred James Woods as the leader of a band of vampire hunters in league with the Catholic Church.
2000s–present: Remakes and Masters of HorrorEdit
2001 saw the release of Ghosts of Mars and Carpenter's reputation remains strong; his earlier films are considered classics and (because they have continued to perform well on home video) several have been subjected to big budget remakes. 2005 saw remakes of Assault on Precinct 13 and The Fog, the latter being produced by Carpenter himself, though in an interview he defined his involvement as, "I come in and say hello to everybody. Go home."
Carpenter returned to the director's chair in 2005 for an episode of Showtime's Masters of Horror series as one of the thirteen filmmakers involved in the first season. His episode, Cigarette Burns, aired to generally positive reviews, and positive reactions from Carpenter fans, many of whom regard it as on par with his earlier horror classics. He has since contributed another original episode for the show's second season entitled "Pro-Life", about a young girl who is raped and impregnated by a demon and wants to have an abortion, but whose efforts are halted by her religious fanatic, gun-toting father and her three brothers.
A remake of Escape from New York was planned starring Gerard Butler as Snake Plissken but he has since turned the role down.
In February 2009, It was announced that Carpenter has planned for his newest project, called The Ward, starring Amber Heard. It will be his first movie since 2001's Ghosts of Mars.
His films are characterized by minimalist lighting and photography, static cameras, use of steadicam, and distinctive synthesized scores (usually self-composed). He describes himself as having been influenced by Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Nigel Kneale and The Twilight Zone.
With the exception of The Thing, Starman, and Memoirs of an Invisible Man, he has scored all of his films (though some are collaborations), most famously the themes from Halloween and Assault on Precinct 13. His music is generally synthesized with accompaniment from piano and atmospherics.
Carpenter is a big fan of widescreen, and all of his theatrical movies (with the exception of Dark Star) have been filmed in anamorphic with an aspect ratio 2.35:1.
With a career that has spanned over thirty years, John Carpenter has attained a reputation as a respected independent filmmaker. Although some of Carpenter's films have not been commercially or critically successful upon initial theatrical release, Carpenter has developed a large cult following through home video releases of his films. Many of his films, most notably The Thing, have been rediscovered on VHS, laserdisc and DVD and have since been embraced by many fans - interesting, as The Thing was initially Carpenter's first big setback. The film was considered excessively dark, did not do well at the box office and Rob Bottin's effects were considered too grotesque for a mainstream audience. Retrospectively, the film has gained much critical appreciation.
Four years later, Big Trouble in Little China was also poorly received by audiences and critics alike, an eclectic mix of genres that was years ahead of its time. This film, like The Thing, found its audience on VHS and DVD years after its theatrical release.
Many of Carpenter's films have been re-released on DVD as special editions with numerous bonus features. Examples of such are: the collector's editions of Halloween, Escape From New York, Christine,The Thing, Assault on Precinct 13, Big Trouble In Little China and The Fog. Some have been re-issued recently with a new anamorphic widescreen transfer. In the UK, several of Carpenter's films have been released on DVD with audio commentary by Carpenter and his stars (They Live, with actor/wrestler Roddy Piper, Starman with actor Jeff Bridges and Prince of Darkness with actor Peter Jason) that have not been released in the United States.
In recent years, Carpenter has been the subject of the documentary film John Carpenter: The Man and His Movies, and his status as a respected filmmaker has been reinforced by American Cinematheque's 2002 retrospective of his films. Moreover, in 2006, the United States Library of Congress deemed Halloween to be "culturally significant" and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry.
Carpenter was romantically involved with his creative partner, Debra Hill, from the time they worked on Assault on Precinct 13 until Carpenter met his future wife, actress Adrienne Barbeau, on the set of his 1978 television movie, Someone's Watching Me.
Despite the end of their romantic relationship, Carpenter and Hill continued to collaborate on films and were able to maintain their friendship. Working with both Carpenter and Barbeau on The Fog, however, was reportedly an emotionally difficult experience for Hill.
Carpenter was married to Barbeau from January 1, 1979 to 1984. During their marriage, Barbeau starred in The Fog, and also appeared in Escape from New York. The couple had one son, John Cody Carpenter (born May 7, 1984).
Carpenter has been married to producer Sandy King since 1990. King produced a number of Carpenter's later feature films, including: They Live, In the Mouth of Madness, Ghosts of Mars and Escape from L.A. She also functioned as script supervisor for some of these films as well as Starman, Big Trouble in Little China and Prince of Darkness.