Show Hide image

John Carpenter: “Movies don’t scare me. Real life scares me”

The master of horror could write, direct and score his own films. So why did he give it all up? 

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman’s Morning Call email.

It can’t be easy: you’re misunderstood throughout your career, then you become a “legend” the moment you want a quiet life. The director and composer John Carpenter once said he made his films on instinct. In 1982, when the US was facing its worst recession since the Thirties, his instinct told him that his countrymen wanted a movie about an alien virus causing painful death and paranoia in a team of Antarctic researchers. In fact, his countrymen wanted ET instead, released the same summer. The Thing led one critic to call John Carpenter “the pornographer of violence”, which crushed him at the time.

Recently our own Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, said he’d learned the importance of investing early in coronavirus vaccines by watching Stephen Soderbergh’s 2011 movie Contagion. As real life has turned into a horror film, Carpenter’s followers mine his work for some kind of evidence that he could see the future in his movies – that the masters of horror are modern-day prophets, with an innate feel for the outer limits of human suffering. “You have to remember one thing,” he says, from the home in Los Angeles he shares with his wife, Sandy, “and you have to print this. No one tells me anything. I could be influential worldwide: I would never know, because no one tells me. I live in complete stupidity.”

[See also: Why Carole King’s Tapestry still speaks to us]

At the time of writing, Carpenter, aged 73, has not had the coronavirus vaccine; nobody knows how to get it, where to go, he says. “This is America, you understand. We elected Donald Trump as president: that’s the kind of people we are.” Of the former president’s quick recovery from the disease, he says, “Did you consider that maybe he never had it?” But one assumes he can rest easy now that Trump is gone. “Well, he may come back, you can’t ever say he’s over,” he says, in earnest: he could be talking about the deathless psycho, Michael Myers, from his most famous film, Halloween.

Carpenter’s conversation is punctuated with little cries of “Oy!” and “Gaaad” and “Why are we talking about these depressing things?” But Joe Biden’s election, he is pleased about.

“He’s very old though,” he says. “Have you seen how he walks? He walks like an elderly gent. Even I don’t walk that way. He’s going to fall and die or something, right away. Kamala Harris is fabulous. First of all, she’s hot. And second of all, she’s smart, and we finally have somebody in power who’s hot and smart! Good for us! I wish she was president.”

The governor of California, Gavin Newsom, has lifted restrictions on the state, but Carpenter has been living as if in lockdown for a long time. He inhabits a nook of the winding Hollywood Boulevard, in the Hollywood foothills; he says, with a mite of sarcasm, “We live in beautiful Los Angeles. It’s a place that has great weather, beautiful women, and the movie business, so you can’t go wrong.”

Today, like many days before it, has started with coffee, then video games: Carpenter is deep into Fallout 76, which is set 25 years after a nuclear war has devastated the Earth. The game had, in his words, “a bumpy release”, much like many of his movies.

While Carpenter has directed 18 films, his name was briefly attached to three dozen more. He was asked to direct Top Gun (not interested) and Fatal Attraction (he said he’d seen the movie before, and it was called Play Misty for Me). His fans fantasise about the alternate reality in which he made those giant hits, but an air of dedicated indifference hangs about him.

The man who would write, direct, ­produce, edit and score his own films was happy to give it all up: “Take the work off my shoulders, please!” he says. “I just want to sit here. I’m having a great time, because I don’t have to do the directing, and listen to people yell at me, and I don’t have divas around me, ­demanding things.”

A 20-minute walk from his home is the hotel Chateau Marmont, which in the early 1970s was frequented by the long haired, musical and fabulous. At that time, newly arrived in LA, Carpenter was studying at the elite School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California, ten miles away. Skinny and moustachioed, usually to be seen in plaid and flares, he looked like a member of the Doobie Brothers, or the fiddle player in some cool Seventies bluegrass band. But he was driven. When he was 22, a short student film he worked on, The Resurrection of Broncho Billy, won an Oscar. It was the only one he’s ever received.

***

Carpenter grew up in the 1950s, in a reproduction pioneer log cabin situated on the sparkling clean campus of Western Kentucky University, and now used for lectures by the folk studies programme. Completely out of place, his childhood home looks like the set of a movie. His father was professor of music: the family moved from New York state to Bowling Green, Kentucky, in 1953. John never got the hang of his dad’s principal instrument, the violin (“God, it was a torment; I was a skinny kid and I was picked on. When you’re walking to school with a violin – it was a target to kick me”) but he played other things. His father taught him 5/4 time on the bongos and it’s that extra beat, like a heart palpitation, which can be heard in the tinkly, eternally unsettling theme tune he recorded in 1978 for Halloween.

The contrast of his genteel, academic background with the segregated Deep South forged Carpenter’s sense of outsiderdom, while the hyper-real world of 1950s sci-fi – and the 8mm movie camera he’d been ­given by his parents – brought his imagination into focus: “Everything scared me as a kid,” he says. “Everything. I just found some ­creative well-spring in horror and science fiction. I still watch that crap now.” As a boy he would try to sneak into the local cinema via the “coloured” entrance, because it was cheaper.

“You see what happened recently in Washington, at the Capitol?” he says. “You see those people? I grew up with them. That was the South, OK? I could not wait to get out of there, and get here to Los Angeles and be safe. It’s the Jim Crow South, and I just didn’t realise how strong it still is. And Lord God help us,” he adds, again. “Why are we talking about these depressing things?”

If you came to Halloween for the first time now, you’d be struck by the weight of the horror film clichés. But Carpenter pretty much started them all: the extended tracking shot of the outside of the suburban house at night; the killer’s POV filmed on a smooth Panaglide stabiliser; the expressionless, motiveless masked killer; the hapless babysitter. He even established the unspoken morality made explicit in the 1990s comedy-horror film Scream: you may not survive the movie if you drink alcohol, have sex or say, “I’ll be right back.”

[See also: Making Ma Rainey]

Halloween was filmed in 22 days for $325,000, and it took $47m at the box office. The game-changing Michael Myers face was in fact a poorly rendered mask of William Shatner as Captain Kirk, picked up for two dollars in a toy store. The bigger and more baroque Carpenter’s movies got, and the more he experimented with ­different genres, the less people liked them: there were financial flops, overblown special effects and unlucky clashes with other, more popular films. But in 2014 he was voted the most influential horror director of all time by Entertainment Weekly: in the same year It Follows, so clearly inspired by Halloween, appealed to people who usually couldn’t stand the genre and a wave of new, chic, scary films began. Carpenter is regularly told, at HorrorCons across the world, that fans are waiting for his own next horror film, and more than once he’s replied, “Big fucking deal.”

“Movies don’t scare me,” he tells me. “It’s real life that scares me. Assad scares me. He’s a demon. He drops gas on children. He’s a monster. But scary movies, come on! They’re phoney, they’re fantasies. Michael Myers does not exist. But the real-life stuff, oy! That’s a whole different situation. I can’t explain human nature. I can’t explain ­humanity or why that’s the way it is. But my stuff, thank God, is fake. I don’t want anything to do with real life.”

***

He may claim to spend all day sitting on his couch and looking forward to his dinner, but like much of what John Carpenter says, it’s not strictly true. While he seems to have no interest in horror these days, he continues to write horror music – three albums of the stuff, so far; soundtracks to unmade movies of the mind.

It is funny to think of the 73-year-old ­firing up Logic Pro music software on his laptop and tinkering away on songs with titles like “Dead Eyes” and “Cemetery” for reasons best known to himself. It doesn’t bring him much money, no one is pleading for the next John ­Carpenter record, but unlike his films, the music keeps coming: “People are begging me to stop.” Everything that made his film scores famous is here – the big menacing basslines, the innately spooky intervals, the ghosts of his father’s bongos. It is the truest picture, one likes to think, of the inside of his head.

“Music is an entirely different art form than the movies,” he says, perking up. “It is older and ancient but it is also, how can I put this, closer to God. It is the one thing that lifts us up from this slime. And you don’t have to talk about it, you can just hear it. Music is instantaneous.”

In the mid-1980s, he received a letter from Dave Davies of the Kinks and the two became friends. When Davies’ marriage collapsed, Carpenter took in Davies’ teenage son, Daniel, and helped raise the boy alongside his own (he has one child, John Cody Carpenter, from his previous marriage to the actress Adrienne Barbeau).

In the past five years, Carpenter has had an alternative career as a rock star, playing his spooky tunes across the world in a live band with his “two boys” and the rhythm section from Tenacious D.

One memorable night at the Rex Theatre in Paris, at the end of their first world tour, he faced two balconies draped in beautiful young people and felt something akin to an old thrill. “I’m not a teenager, but oh, my heart. Standing up on stage with this bunch of really hot women out there in front of me. I mean, fuck directing, this is the thing.”

John Carpenter’s latest album “Lost Themes III: Alive After Death” is out now on Sacred Bones Records

[See also: Quo Vadis, Aida? is a powerful drama about the Srebrenica genocide]

 

Kate Mossman is a senior writer at the New Statesman

This article appears in the 10 February 2021 issue of the New Statesman, End of the affair