“Sir, please put down the phone, please,” Jordan Peele tweet Last July, a fan suggested he might already be the best horror director of all time. “I love your enthusiasm,” Peele added, but “I will not tolerate any slander of John Carpenter!!!” Carpenter’s case as the greatest living American genre filmmaker must have stood, Whether or not Carpenter himself wants to hear it. His best films, like his career killer “Halloween” (1978), are breathtaking and full of creepy real-life horror that puts him on par with Alfred Hitchcock. Even the more minor titles of his film work are full of inventions. Novelist Jonathan Lethem once suggested the core sequence of Carpenter’s “They’re Alive” (1988) – one of which is tempered by WWF star Roddy (Rody) Piper The irascible wanderer dons a pair of magical sunglasses and perceives a subliminal campaign of subjugation unleashed by mind-controlled aliens—should be preserved in a time capsule as the culmination of new B-movie art. However, since Carpenter’s sci-fi thriller The Thing (1982) was met with dismal criticism – Vincent Canby derided it as “barely storyless”, “instant trash” and “typical” Idiot Movies” – he started to take part in the popular perception of his work over his shoulder. His most famous quote – though it’s hard to confirm whether he actually said it – is a comment on his own changing reputation: “In France, I’m a director. In England, I’m a horror director. In Germany, I’m a filmmaker. In America, I’m a bum.”
In the conversation, Carpenter, 74, is succinct and can seem hostile without a hint of cold comedy. His aversion to discussing film art may be a byproduct of the same tortured perfectionism that led to his early retirement more than a decade ago. Carpenter hasn’t directed a movie since his snake pit thriller “Ward” (2010), and he’s maintained a cautious, selective distance from the industry ever since. I still get an email from a PR person explaining that Carpenter won’t be at the Toronto International Film Festival that year because he’s “required to be a juror (seriously)”. Carpenter, who has composed the music for many of his films, has agreed to serve as composer and executive producer on David Gordon Green’s new cycle of “Halloween” sequels, including this fall’s “Halloween’s Over.” But bringing up this year’s 40th anniversary of “Stranger Things” — or the welcome fact that the film is widely regarded today as a modern classic — his patience begins to wane. We spoke on the phone twice recently; Carpenter is in Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife, producer Sandy King. Both times, he seemed to be keeping his eye on the clock and was more than happy to discuss video games, professional wrestling and his beloved NBA champion Golden State Warriors. Sometimes, though, I wonder if he likes the conversation in the movie more than he shows it. Our conversation has been condensed and edited.
I know you’re an NBA fan and a Golden State Warriors fan. Can we talk first?
certainly. What do you want to know?
I am in Toronto. Was it a particularly satisfying title after the 2019 Finals loss to Toronto?
They’ve had some disasters over the past few years, starting with KD [Kevin Durant’s] Injury, and then, in the same game, it was—
Klay Thompson — he’s also injured.
Those were grim times. It looks like the Warriors may be over. They’re underrated by the entire league, okay? No one thought they were a great team, or even a winning team; they were just ignored. But look what happened: They beat Boston. It was an amazing victory, a wonderful, wonderful victory! I mean, I can’t say enough.
Do you read a lot about the NBA or listen to basketball podcasts, or do you just watch games?
I watch games. I was a Lakers fan until, well, until LeBron came along. . . .
Have you ever played basketball yourself?
I did it but I didn’t get any benefit. I tried.
Are you a shooter, or do you play in the paint?
I am a striker. Now, tell me about Toronto. what happened there?
Did you mean the city or the basketball team?
City. I made a movie in Toronto a few years ago.
I hate to shoot, but you know the movie theater in “Mouth of Madness” (1994)? That’s where I got married, at the Eglinton Theatre.
Oh my goodness.
What are your memories of Toronto during Mouth of Madness?
We have some nice locations. We had to drive for hours to get to this covered bridge. I remember – my god. But it worked, you know? Everything we have in terms of location, everything we need is there. It was a good shot and then it got cold.
I love the opening of Mouth of Madness, all of these novels were mass-printed by the printing press. Is the idea to make some changes to the way horror comes off the assembly line?
Yes, but the whole thing is. . . I don’t think anyone has really written a great Lovecraft story. Here is my attempt to do so.
What is your relationship with Lovecraft?
I’ve been a Lovecraft fan since I was a kid because my father gave me a book called The Great Story of the Horror and the Supernatural. I remember reading Lovecraft for the first time and just loving him.
Did you have a truly heartfelt imagination as a child? Is it easy to visualize things in those books in your mind?
Imagining from the heart? I have an imagination. I don’t know how visceral it was, but yeah, I’m a big fan of horror and monster movies, like most of us back in those days. Lovecraft is a writer from a time I really haven’t lived through. He’s one of the fathers of science fiction and horror, and I love his work, just love it.
One observation about your film is that, as in Lovecraft, evil is a scary thing, and the characters are forced to face it face-to-face, not from within them. In all of these moments, the people on the screen simply can’t believe what they’re looking at, or what to do with it.
I think you are right. It’s true, I don’t know where it came from, exactly. But that’s it.
Was there anything you were particularly afraid of when you were growing up? Any fears or phobias, whether or not they make it into your films?
I was afraid of everything when I was a kid. Everything scares me.
Does it get better with age?
um, yes. I mean, I conquered that. My whole life has been about overcoming fear and dealing with it, both personally and professionally. One of the things I personally did to overcome my fear was that 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 a movie about tough guys, I better do it for a minute. Flying a helicopter is a very challenging thing.
Do you remember the first time you managed to get a helicopter into the air?
Of course, of course.
What does that feel like?
awesome. I mean, they’re not like anything else. They’re dangerous, but, you know, you’re trying to tame this beast. Anyway, I got my pilot’s license in ’82 or ’83 – I don’t remember which one – and I started running.
In “The Thing,” you didn’t fly any helicopters, did you?
The helicopter sequence in that movie is amazing.
Hmm, thanks. There were actually several different people flying – one in Stewart, British Columbia, another in Juneau, Alaska, above the ice sheet. But yeah, it’s a helicopter movie.
Those opening scenes of helicopters chasing dogs on ice are so weird and mysterious. Where did it come from?
The animal we used to chase was called Jed. He is half wolf and half dog. He’s just an incredible animal, well trained. He actually ran under the helicopter because he was so trained. This is an unusual scene. Like, what are these people doing? Why are they hunting this dog? ____
This year marks the 40th anniversary of The Thing. This is a movie that has aged well after a very rough reception.
It may be so. It’s not a fun experience, you know? But I felt the same way about the movie then as I do now: I really liked it. I thought I was doing well.
“The Thing” is a remake of the film “The Thing from another World” by Howard Hawks, I know you’re a fan of his work. How did you first watch his movies?
Well, I studied him at film school and met him in person. He came down to talk at school. I fell in love with his work because of his versatility. He’s done adventures and “stuff from another world,” he’s done cowboy movies and comedies. I mean, he did all kinds of things. I looked into the pipeline: how Hawkes made the movie, how he staged the scene. I’m a fan of that. But other than that, I love the strong women he has. I’ve always been interested in this.
“Halloween” definitely had Jamie Lee Curtis, a character who became the prototype for the “Final Girl” idea.
Where does this come from, “final girl”?
Film scholar Carol J. Clover writes in her book, Men, Women, and Chainsaws, that many horror films end up with this character, and that it is used in others. After killing, whoever faces down the monster. “Halloween” is Exhibit A.