John Carpenter Is Still Scary

“Sir, please put the phone down I beg you,” Jordan Peele tweeted this past July, at a fan who’d suggested that he might already be the best horror director of all time. “I love your enthusiasm,” Peele added, but “I will just not tolerate any John Carpenter slander!!!” The case for Carpenter as the greatest living American genre filmmaker has certainly been made, whether or not Carpenter himself wants to hear it. His best films, such as his career-making slasher “Halloween” (1978), are breathtakingly composed and suffused with a creeping, matter-of-fact dread that has earned him comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock. Even the more minor titles in his filmography bristle with invention. The novelist Jonathan Lethem once proposed that the centerpiece sequence of Carpenter’s “They Live” (1988)—in which an ornery drifter, played by the W.W.F. star Roddy (Rowdy) Piper, dons a pair of magical sunglasses and perceives a campaign of subliminal subjugation waged by mind-controlling aliens—should be preserved in a time capsule as the apex of neo-B-movie artistry. Yet ever since the dismal critical reception of Carpenter’s sci-fi thriller “The Thing” (1982)—which Vincent Canby derided as “virtually storyless,” “instant junk,” and “the quintessential moron movie”—he has had a chip on his shoulder about the popular opinion of his work. His most famous quote—though it’s hard to confirm if he actually said it—is a comment on his own shifting reputation: “In France, I’m an auteur. In England, I’m a horror-movie director. In Germany, I’m a filmmaker. In the U.S., I’m a bum.”

In conversation, Carpenter, now seventy-four, is terse in a way that might seem hostile if it weren’t accompanied by hints of deadpan comedy. He has an aversion to discussing the art of movies, which might be a by-product of the same tortured perfectionism that contributed to his early retirement more than a decade ago. Carpenter hasn’t directed a movie since his snake-pit thriller “The Ward” (2010), and he’s kept a wary, selective distance from the industry in the time since. I still have an e-mail from a publicist explaining that Carpenter would not be attending that year’s Toronto International Film Festival because he “has been called for jury duty (seriously).” Carpenter composed the music for many of his films, and he agreed to serve as a composer and executive producer for David Gordon Green’s new cycle of “Halloween” sequels, including this fall’s “Halloween Ends.” But bring up this year’s fortieth anniversary of “The Thing”—or the welcome fact that the film today is widely considered a modern classic—and his patience wanes. We spoke twice recently over the phone; Carpenter was in Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife, the producer Sandy King. Both times, he seemed to have an eye on the clock, and was much happier to discuss video games, pro wrestling, and his beloved N.B.A. champions the Golden State Warriors. At times, though, I wondered if he might be enjoying the movie talk more than he let on. Our conversations have been condensed and edited.

I know that you’re an N.B.A. fan and a Golden State Warriors fan. Can we start by talking about that?

Sure. What do you wanna know?

I’m in Toronto. Was this a particularly satisfying title after losing in the finals to Toronto in 2019, and then being out of contention for a while?

They had some disasters in the past few years, starting with K.D.’s [Kevin Durant’s] injury and then, in the same game, it was—

Klay Thompson—he got hurt, too.

It was grim times. It looked like the Warriors might be over. They were underappreciated by the entire league, O.K.? Nobody picked them to be a great team, or even a winning team; they were just ignored. But look what happened: they beat Boston. It was an astonishing win, a wonderful, wonderful win! I mean, I can’t say enough.

Do you read a lot about the N.B.A. or listen to basketball podcasts, or do you just watch the games?

I watch the game. I was a Lakers fan up until, well, up until Lebron came. . . .

Did you ever play any basketball yourself?

I did, but I wasn’t any good. I tried.

Were you a shooter, or did you play inside?

I was a forward. Now, tell me about Toronto. What’s happening there?

You mean the city, or the basketball team?

The city. I made a movie in Toronto a few years ago.

I didn’t want to jump the gun, but you know the movie theatre in “In the Mouth of Madness” (1994)? That’s where I got married, at the Eglinton Theatre.

Oh, my goodness.

What are your memories of Toronto during “In the Mouth of Madness”?

We had some good locations. We had to drive for hours to get to this covered bridge. I remember that—my God. But it worked, you know? Everything we had location-wise, everything we needed was there. It was a good shoot, and then it got cold.

I love the opening of “In the Mouth of Madness,” with all those novels being churned out by printing presses. Was the idea to make something about the way horror comes off an assembly line?

Yes, but the whole thing was . . . I thought that nobody has ever really done a great Lovecraft story. This was my attempt at doing that.

What’s your relationship to Lovecraft?

I’ve been a fan of Lovecraft since I was little, since my dad gave me a book called “Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural.” I remember first reading Lovecraft then, and just loving him.

Did you have a really visceral imagination as a kid? Was it easy to picture the things in those books in your mind’s eye?

Visceral imagination? I had an imagination. I don’t know how visceral it was, but, yeah, I was a big horror-movie and monster-movie fan, as most of us in that era were. Lovecraft was an author from an era that I really didn’t experience. He’s one of the fathers of science fiction and horror, and I love his stuff, just love it.

One observation that’s been made about your movies is that, like in Lovecraft, evil is something monstrous that characters are forced to confront face to face, instead of it coming from inside them. There are all these moments when the people onscreen simply can’t believe what they’re looking at, or how to deal with it.

I think you’re right. It’s true, and I don’t know where that comes from, exactly. But that’s it.

Were there things that you were specifically afraid of when you were growing up? Any fears or phobias, whether they found their way into your movies or not?

I was afraid of everything when I was little. Everything terrified me.

Did that get better as you got older?

Well, yeah. I mean, I conquered that. My entire life has been about conquering fear and dealing with it, personally and professionally. One of the things I did personally to conquer my fears was I became a helicopter pilot. I got my commercial pilot’s license, and that was just because I thought, Well, if I’m going to make movies about tough guys, I better be one for a minute. It’s a pretty challenging thing to do, fly a helicopter.

Do you remember the first time you managed to get a helicopter into the air?

Sure, of course.

What was it like?

It was fabulous. I mean, they are unlike anything else. They’re dangerous, but, you know, you’re trying to tame the beast. Anyway, I got my pilot’s license in ’82 or ’83—I can’t remember which—and I was off and running.

You didn’t fly any of the helicopters in “The Thing,” did you?


The helicopter sequences in that movie are pretty stunning.

Well, thank you. It was actually a couple different guys flying—one was in Stewart, British Columbia, and the other in Juneau, Alaska, above the ice fields. But, yeah, it’s a helicopter movie.

Those opening images of a helicopter chasing a dog across the ice are so strange and mysterious. Where did it come from?

The animal that we used for the chase was named Jed. He was part wolf, part dog. He was just an incredible animal, so well trained. He actually ran right under the helicopter, because he was so well trained. It’s an unusual scene. Like, what are these guys doing? Why are they after this dog?____

It’s the fortieth anniversary of “The Thing” this year. It’s a movie that’s aged very well after getting a really rough reception.

Maybe so. It wasn’t a fun experience, you know? But I felt about the movie then as I do now: I really love it. I thought I did a pretty good job.

“The Thing” is a remake of the movie “The Thing from Another World,” which was produced by Howard Hawks, and I know you’re a fan of his work. How did you first come to see his movies?

Well, I studied him in film school, and got to see him in person. He came down to talk at the school. I fell in love with his work because he’s so versatile. He did adventures and “The Thing from Another World,” he did cowboy movies, comedies. I mean, he did all sorts of things. I studied the plumbing: how Hawks made movies, how he staged scenes. I was a fan of that. But other than that I loved the strong women he had. I’ve always been attracted to that.

“Halloween” definitely has that with Jamie Lee Curtis, and that character became an archetype for the idea of the “Final Girl.”

Where does that come from, the “Final Girl”?

There’s a book by a film scholar named Carol J. Clover called “Men, Women, and Chain Saws,” where she writes about how a lot of horror films have this character at the end, after everyone else has been killed, who faces down the monster. “Halloween” is Exhibit A.

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