John Carpenter’s America
“In England, I’m a horror movie director. In Germany, I’m a filmmaker. In the U.S., I’m a bum.”
John Carpenter once said that about how he’s perceived in different countries. While he’s always been considered a legend among the horror faithful, that general perception still rings true for the most part when it comes to the larger critical establishment, film academia, and to a lesser extent the casual moviegoing public (to the extent that they’re even familiar with him beyond perhaps recognizing his name from being above the titles of one or two movies they’ve seen). Earlier this year, the Cannes Film Festival — widely thought of as the most prestigious film festival in the world by cinephiles — awarded him with their Carrosse d’Or (Golden Coach), akin to a lifetime achievement award. Mainland Europe seems to take him seriously as a filmmaker, but in his home country, he’s mostly still relegated to the term “cult favorite” or something like that. He’s regarded well enough that they’ll acknowledge he has a loyal following, but they’re not going to be giving him an Honorary Oscar anytime soon, I can assure you.
This apparent dichotomy of critical esteem on opposite sides of the Atlantic is odd to me, because looking at his filmography, it’s hard to think of too many more quintessentially American filmmakers.
Even taking into consideration the directors and movies that influenced him, he always seemed much more steeped in American traditions than most of his contemporaries. Carpenter rose to prominence during the New Hollywood era, a movement in American cinema from roughly the late ’60s through the early ’80s that included the likes of Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg, Altman, and De Palma among its forerunners. Eschewing the values of the old studio system and taking full advantage of the then still recent disbanding of the Motion Picture Production Code, these filmmakers ushered in a revolution of independent cinema marked by a strong belief in auteur theory. And being that they were largely trying to forge their own path in American cinema, their influences did not primarily come from America. Rather, it was the French New Wave and Italian Neorealism that probably had the biggest influence on New Hollywood.
But amidst a movement inspired largely by European cinema, John Carpenter’s influences were mostly American: westerns, the monster movies of the ’30s and ’40s, the sci-fi movies of the ’50s, and above all, Howard Hawks (who made movies in all of the aforementioned categories among countless other genres). Hollywood studio movies remained Carpenter’s main source of inspiration during an era when they had become unfashionable if not even archaic in the eyes of most up-and-coming directors. That’s not to say that his films were old-fashioned, though. On the contrary, Carpenter fits in quite snugly with the rest of the larger movement going on around him at the time — not just his fellow horror directors like Craven, Hooper, and Romero, but even in the wider context of Scorsese and Spielberg. But by focusing on influences rooted in America, he managed to reinterpret those archetypes for a more cynical, socially conscious generation of post-Vietnam, post-Watergate cinema, and I’d argue that it’s this repurposing of classic American tropes that makes his films so vital and prescient to this day.
His breakthrough 1976 feature Assault on Precinct 13 is a very direct example of this. Essentially a reimagining of Howard Hawks’s 1959 western Rio Bravo set in modern-day Los Angeles, this movie is ostensibly about a group of people trapped in a police station being terrorized by a gang of criminals. The basic framework provides rife opportunities for character development and suspense mostly in a single location, which is partly why Carpenter made the film (a movie set largely in one location is a perfect challenge for a budding director working with a small budget). While it’s definitely not a faithful adaptation of Rio Bravo to the point that it could be considered a remake, the influence is clear not just in the blueprint of the narrative but also in the many of the stylistic choices. Flashy, attention-calling camera shots are avoided in favor of a more economical approach to staging, and even the acting style can be said to bear the mark of Old Hollywood in that it’s not going for the sort of post-Brando method realism that had taken over by that point. I’ve seen other people cite the acting as one of the weaker aspects of the film, but if you keep in mind that it’s not striving for realism, the actors all do exactly what they need to be doing.
And that touches upon another point that I think may account for why Carpenter isn’t more highly regarded among American film critics and scholars. While I would certainly count Carpenter as an auteur, most of his movies took the reverse approach that almost all “serious” auteurs of the time did, so it’s easy for certain critics who have a more narrow view of what great cinema is “supposed” to be to dismiss him. If you look at the films of Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg, etc., you’ll see that a common element in their approach is stylized direction and cinematography, but realistic acting and writing. The characters in their movies talk the way real people do, and at least in the early stages of their careers, there wasn’t much in the way of artificially heightened drama. The style and personality of the movies were in the directing: the way the camera moved, the framing, the editing, the use of music. The approach was essentially to portray realistic scenes filtered through stylized cinematic techniques. That was the standard approach to what most critics and scholars viewed as auteurist filmmaking.
Carpenter’s approach was basically the opposite of that. The writing, acting, and narrative trajectories of his movies were often heightened, and the directing and editing were more subdued. There are exceptions, of course, like the opening POV shot in Halloween, but for the most part, Carpenter’s directing style very rarely calls attention to itself. There aren’t any slow-motion scenes, extreme closeups, uses of split screen, flashy editing, or technically dazzling Steadicam shots. That’s not to say his movies aren’t stylish, just that the style isn’t at the forefront. Even when he does throw in an elaborate shot once in a while, it’s easy to not notice it until a later viewing. You notice the dolly zoom when Chief Brody realizes the shark is attacking in Jaws right away. You can’t possibly watch the prom scene in Carrie without noticing the onslaught of cinematic techniques it’s incorporating; it’s a visual assault. And that’s not a sleight on either of those films at all. They’re absolutely brilliant. But that’s not what Carpenter was ever going for, and it doesn’t make him any less brilliant.
Taking influence from classic westerns is one thing, but it was with his next film that Carpenter really honed in on his reappropriation of Americana. 1978’s Halloween was at one point the most financially successful independent film of all time, and it’s widely credited with starting the slasher craze that followed (you can argue that it wasn’t the first slasher, but it undoubtedly popularized the genre). And while of course the expert building of suspense and unforgettable set pieces made it great, I would argue that it was its use of classic American imagery and tropes that truly made it resonate to the extent that it did. Setting the movie in an everyday suburban community populated with familiar character archetypes is what elevates it to a level of almost myth. No, maybe high school girls don’t really talk the way they do in this movie, but that’s how the cultural image of high school girls is, and again, realism is not what the movie is going for. It’s employing archetypes and tropes from our collective cultural consciousness and subverting them, and that’s what makes it so powerful. A realistic depiction of a serial killer stalking teenagers in a suburban neighborhood would make for a gritty, depressing movie. It would be disturbing, but it wouldn’t have the same nightmarish effect that Halloween achieves by preying on our collective subconscious fears. By establishing a familiar setting with familiar characters — too familiar, you could argue, but that’s the point — the movie puts you in a comfort zone that is quickly and violently ripped away and exposed by an equally archetypal boogeyman in Michael Myers (he’s even literally referred to as the boogeyman, of course).
It’s easy to disgust or repulse an audience. It’s even easy to disturb them. That can be done just by showing the most gruesome images you can think of. But in order to truly scare them, to get under their skin, linger in their minds, and essentially become the stuff of pop cultural myth, you have to make sure the horror they see can’t just be compartmentalized or separated from what they perceive as their comfort zone. You have to inject that horror into their comfort zone. That’s why Halloween resonated with audiences then and continues to today. Michael Myers is a true American Boogeyman. And not just because he’s a creepy guy in a mask who goes around killing teenagers. It’s because he exists in the same universe of pop cultural consciousness as white picket fences, Leave It to Beaver, and George Washington chopping down a cherry tree. Carpenter’s extensive use of classic Americana throughout the movie establishes that, and that’s what makes it so effective.
Carpenter’s followup film, 1980’s The Fog, may be the most pronounced example of his use of Americana. The movie revolves around the centennial of a small, coastal town in California. It paints a portrait of small-town American life so filled with intentionally corny cliches that you can practically smell the wet summer grass and burgers cooking on the grill. The surface wholesomeness of this setup is again used to welcome the audience into familiar territory before subverting it with terror, this time in the form of ghosts seeking revenge for misdeeds done to them by the town’s founders. It’s the town’s dark past literally coming back to haunt it, which is about as obvious a metaphor as you can get, but again, the symbols and tropes used in Carpenter’s films are not the sort that are meant to be decoded in academic film journals. They are used in the way that classic fables and folk tales use them. Several of Carpenter’s films can be understood as modern-day campfire tales (he’s even used that analogy himself on multiple occasions). They aren’t necessarily designed to be scrutinized and dissected like a lot of art cinema is; they’re meant to be direct and effective so that they get into your psyche and stay there. They are very much nightmares rooted in American iconography.
There’s a parallel to be made between Michael Myers in Halloween and the ghosts in The Fog aside from them serving as archetypal boogeymen. Both Michael Myers and the ghostly crew of the Elizabeth Dane have origins in the towns they haunt. They are not outsiders or alien invaders wreaking havoc on a random small town like in many of the ’50s sci-fi movies Carpenter grew up on. They are both representations of their respective towns’ dark pasts being uncovered. Michael Myers is frequently seen appearing out of the darkness and the shadows, and the ghosts in The Fog are seen coming out of…well, the fog. They are images of the past that have been obscured over time resurfacing. A lot of people associate the cinematic trope of exposing the horror beneath small-town American life with David Lynch, but I would argue John Carpenter is just as deserving of bringing that theme to the forefront. He once said:
“Essentially there are two types of horror movies. One is it’s all about where evil is, the location of it…the evil is out there, in the dark, it’s beyond the woods, it’s the other tribe, it’s the people who don’t look like us, that don’t speak like us. And that’s the external evil. But the other location of evil…the evil is right in here, it’s in our own human hearts. That particular type of story is harder to tell. It’s harder to say ‘I’ve met the enemy, and the enemy is us. We are the enemy.'”
One of the brilliant things about John Carpenter’s movies — Halloween and The Fog being perfect examples of this — is that they often function as both of those types of horror movies. The ghosts in The Fog and Michael Myers are the evil that’s out there in the dark, in the fog. But they also come from right here in this small, idyllic American town. The idealized version of America from which these movies derive their iconography is so far removed from the bleak reality that we interpret these boogeymen as external evil, but to borrow the title of a Cronenberg movie, they came from within. We’ve created a facade of cultural myths and safe ideals to cover up the darkness beneath it, to the point that when the darkness seeps through, we don’t even recognize it as our own. Not to expound too much, because I do believe these movies are very much meant to be enjoyed viscerally on a surface level above all else, but there’s definitely a case to be made that these movies not only use American iconography for the effect of subverting familiarity, but because these movies are actually about American identity.
Of course, I can’t talk about Carpenter looking behind the facade of everyday American life to reveal the darkness it contains without talking about They Live. This is the most literal depiction of that idea that he’s done, and quite possibly that anybody has done. In this film, Nada (played by “Rowdy” Roddy Piper) happens upon some mysterious sunglasses that allow him to see the true nature of everything around him, and it turns out the entire society is designed to get people to obey and consume. The billboards, newspaper ads, and TV commercials all literally just say things like “OBEY,” “CONFORM,” and “MARRY AND REPRODUCE” when viewed with these glasses. Unlike The Fog and Halloween, however, They Live doesn’t present an idyllic, suburban setting rooted in classic Americana. It’s told from the perspective of a homeless man in an urban environment, and so it is decidedly less entrenched in that starry-eyed view of America. But I mean, hey, if you want to make the connection that not having that starry-eyed view is what allowed Nada to see through the facade, I don’t see why you couldn’t turn that into a solid argument.
I won’t be focusing on They Live anymore, however, because I am trying to stick with Carpenter’s films that are rooted in Americana, and that one (explicitly, intentionally) goes against that. So let’s backtrack a bit to 1983 when he made Christine. Apparently he wasn’t thrilled with the prospect of making this movie, and only did so because adapting a Stephen King book was considered a nearly guaranteed box office draw, which he needed after the financial and critical failure of the previous year’s The Thing (I know, it’s baffling to think that masterpiece was ever considered a failure on any level, but it was). Christine is HEAVILY steeped in Americana, though, so it fits into this subject perfectly. It concerns a nerdy, unpopular high school boy who acquires a 1958 Plymouth Fury and then gradually undergoes some behavioral changes that are beneficial to him at first but soon become destructive. This is a classic (I just realized I’m using that word a lot in this article, and I apologize) story that falls under both the “be careful what you wish for” and “character becomes everything he hates” tropes, but yet again, it’s told with such skill and personality that it’s far more effective than it would appear just reading the synopsis. I, for one, never thought that a movie about a killer car — which, yes, is the eventual trajectory of the plot — could be anything but cheesy fun, but somehow it never feels cheesy because Carpenter plays it so sincerely (even if he allegedly didn’t care much about the movie, which I guess is just a testament to his professionalism).
While the car is not an American invention, it has nonetheless long been associated as a quintessential symbol of American freedom, particularly those ’50s and ’60s models produced in the heyday of the Detroit motor industry. And aside from representing a certain idea of freedom, it’s no secret that the car has often served as a symbol of sexuality, and male sexuality in particular. To the point, the saying about muscle cars acting as a penis substitute didn’t just come out of nowhere. Especially during the boom of teen culture in the ’50s and early ’60s (think Rebel Without a Cause, American Graffiti, Grease, etc.), muscle cars were perceived as exuding the aura of masculinity. There was perhaps no greater beacon of male sexual energy than a souped-up muscle car.
Christine exploits that idea and takes it to its logical conclusion in a way, that the carnal male lust represented by these cars is ultimately a destructive force. The titular car not only turns Arnie (the lead character) from a lovable loser into a narcissistic asshole, it totally consumes him and, indeed, reveals itself to have a mind of its own. In addition to the car being a ’50s model, the whole movie is filled with ’50s imagery and music despite taking place in 1978. Although this was made in the early ’80s, there was already a sense among some (John Carpenter and Stephen King both included, evidently) that the cultural shift to return to the ideals of the 1950s was a misguided, in many ways even dangerous mentality. Carpenter was again using the idea of the past returning to haunt the present, only this time the past wasn’t rearing its head out of the shadows or the fog; it was willfully brought into the present. The horrific part is that it turns out in this case, the past that Arnie tried to resurrect in order to improve his “cool” factor (he essentially becomes a greaser) was a past that never truly existed, at least not in the idealized way he thought that it did. Like Halloween and The Fog, Christine also shows the idealized facade of small-town American life being disrupted by the darkness lurking beneath its surface.
Finally, I want to briefly discuss two characters in Carpenter’s films that seem rather pointedly intended to play with two classic American movie archetypes, and this goes back to the influence that westerns had on his work. With the possible exception of Michael Myers, I would venture to guess that the two most popular characters in Carpenter’s filmography are two played by Kurt Russell: Snake Plissken in Escape from New York (as well as its sequel, Escape from L.A.) and Jack Burton in Big Trouble in Little China. MacReady in The Thing, also played by Russell, is way up there too, but while The Thing is undoubtedly the most popular movie the two have collaborated on, I still think Snake Plissken and Jack Burton seem to be more celebrated just as characters, but correct me if I’m wrong on that. In any case, it doesn’t really affect where I’m going with this discussion, so I digress.
It’s not very difficult to see that Snake Plissken is heavily inspired by Clint Eastwood, and Jack Burton is heavily inspired by John Wayne. These are almost undeniably the two most iconic western stars of all time, each from a different era and each representing a different set of values. Essentially adopting their personas and transposing them into a dystopian action film and a comedic martial arts fantasy, respectively, is — wait for it — yet another example of Carpenter using classic American archetypes and repurposing them for something else entirely. Except in the previous films I discussed, you could say that it was the setting that was presented as familiar Americana that the characters existed within. With these films, it’s the main characters who are the familiar Americana being placed in a strange new setting.
Whispery, raspy-voiced Snake Plissken in Escape from New York is the calm, collected, disillusioned badass antihero who finds himself in a predicament in which he must act heroically almost against his will, which is nearly the same exact role that Clint Eastwood plays as the Man with No Name in the Dollars trilogy (or the Man with No Name trilogy, depending on whom you ask). Instead of the Old West, though, this updated version of that character archetype finds himself in a dystopian version of Manhattan, after the island has become one big no man’s land prison where criminals are sent to roam about in a lawless wasteland cut off from the rest of society. He encounters a colorful cast of characters along the way, several of whom end up joining him on his mission, as was the case in the Dollars movies.
The Manhattan of Escape from New York can be seen as a satire of how Middle America viewed New York City at the time. A crime-ridden hellscape occupied by criminals and degenerates, it’s a dirty, seedy environment stripped of any semblance of moral structure, it’s an encapsulation of the fears that Americans had of going to New York based on the (admittedly true) reports they’d heard on the news about the prostitutes-and-heroin Mecca that was 42nd Street at the time. Similarly, the Los Angeles of Escape from L.A. can be seen as a satire of how those same people viewed that city: a bizarre, Oz-like fantasy land inhabited by fame-obsessed, narcissistic plastic surgery junkies (oh, and surfing hippies). The movie even ends in what is clearly meant to be Disneyland, as if the point hadn’t already been made.
Ol’ Jack Burton, on the other hand, well, he’s modeled after John Wayne in everything except his trucker appearance. His mannerisms, the way he walks, his speech…it’s all John Wayne. He’s a naive, arrogant doofus who presents himself as a hero but in reality isn’t that helpful at all (a lot of people have pointed out that he’s actually a comic relief sidekick who thinks he’s the main hero of the story). He gets mixed up in a whole lot of weird sorcery and kung fu shenanigans in San Francisco Chinatown, and…well, Big Trouble in Little China is really a movie that you have to just experience firsthand. It can’t be done justice through synopsis. But Jack Burton is positioned as a clear outsider in the world of the movie even though he never stops acting like he knows exactly what he’s doing. He gets in way over his head, and therein lies much of the movie’s humor.
Snake Plissken and Jack Burton both represent the same basic premise, though: the quintessential American playing the part of the outsider in his own land. More specifically, they play with the ideas that three of America’s biggest cities — New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco — are scary, weird, basically foreign places in the eyes of most Americans. But of course, to many people both in America and at the world at large, those cities are what they associate most with America. In fact, I would guess that for a lot of non-Americans, New York and L.A. in particular are their most prominent points of reference for America thanks to their frequent portrayals in media. So that these big cities were and still are viewed as being almost ideologically and culturally un-American by a significant portion of the American population is a bit of a strange concept. And that’s exactly what Escape from New York and Big Trouble in Little China play into. They show what in the collective American consciousness is thought of as an archetypal “American Man” on an odyssey through a bizarre foreign land…which also happens to be one of the biggest cities in America. They play into the often staggering disconnect between urban and rural America. And it works both ways, of course, because the inhabitants of those cities in these movies don’t understand the protagonist any more than he understands them.
Yet again, they’re movies that are at their core about American identity and all the strange, funny, scary contradictions that come with it.
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