An encounter with the horror legend at his home in Hollywood – slightly extended version. (Dazed, 2010)
Photography Marlene Marino
In The Blood
Creator of some of the finest horror films of all time, John Carpenter tells us why he’s about to get get his party started… again
John Carpenter’s films were and should still be an essential part of any healthily mis-spent childhood, wantonly corrupting and desensitizing an adolescent’s jelly-like mind as effectively as anyone could hope. It’s no secret that his later output struggled to live up to the visceral, paranoid and nihilistic genius of his 70s and 80s zingers Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, Escape from New York, The Thing and They Live, but the director became something of a whipping boy for critics throughout the 90s, with matters reaching a nadir when his (actually rather watchable in a late-night sort of way) Ghosts of Mars got taken round the back for a particularly brutal shoeing. Understandably, he was a bit hacked off and effectively quit the business, but almost a decade later he’s back with a 60s-set slasher in a mental asylum, starring Amber Heard and picking up some decent reviews. Still, we love him unconditionally if only for the fact that in the same summer that the rest of the world was phoning home about a cute-n-cuddly ET, he brought out a film featuring a grotesquely violent body-morphing alien, in which everyone dies. We visited him at his Hollywood house to smoke cigarettes and talk slashers, soundtracks and sport.
So John, how come you haven’t made a film for nine years?
Well, I directed two episodes of this Masters of Horror, and that was the thing that got me interested in movies again. I had a great time. I just love being on the floor with the actors and the camera crew, it rekindled an enthusiasm that I had lost earlier.
Why did you lose that enthusiasm for film?
I made back-to-back movies throughout the 90s, and the last one in 2001, Ghosts of Mars, just tanked critically and commercially, I’d burned myself out. I thought, I have to stop now, I can’t do this – it stopped being fun. I was grouchy, pissed off with people.
I’d burned myself out. I thought, I have to stop now, I can’t do this – it stopped being fun
How was it working with a young cast like Amber Heard?
It was terrific. They’re young, talented, idealistic… everything I’m not.
Why did you set it in 1966?
In ’74 or ’76, I don’t remember which, they changed the mental institution rules in this country. You couldn’t keep somebody involuntarily any more, but you could before then. And that was a requirement of our story. We could have set it in the 50s, which would have made it interesting but… well, Shutter Island is in the 50s, so the producers got scared of that.
Why do you think people are drawn to stories about insanity?
Because I think everybody has a little of that within them. Everyone questions their sanity and perception at some point.
What do you think are the key ingredients for a successful horror?
The thing you have to realize is that there are no rules. Every story is different, The Ward, for instance, has a lot of ‘jump scares’ in it, which are a little passé these days. They’re a bit old school.
It’s something you’ve always been fond of.
I’ve always loved them, they’re cheap, easy to do and they’re fun, and I have one of the cheapest ‘jump scares’ in the history of movies, which I’m very proud of. But I wouldn’t necessarily do that every time. Every movie is different, which I realised very early on in my career. That’s why some didn’t work as well as others.
You’ve made many films that deal with the end of world in some way. What do you make of the current fascination with the apocalypse?
I think that there’s massive change going on in the world, and there are some looming things out there that we’re going to have to deal with this century, maybe overpopulation, running out of oil, out of water, food, climate change. And there was an apocalyptic event in 2001 in the United States… now our politics have gone completely insane.
What do you make of the way the country is heading?
Well, that’s the history of our country. Always arguing and fighting. I mean, we’re a crazy country – the greatest thing about America is that it has everything in it. We have geniuses, artists, serial killers, crazy politicians, strip clubs. We’ve got it all here.
Of the films you’ve made, do you have any favourites?
I don’t look at my movies any more, I can’t stand it. God, I hate it.
I don’t look at my movies any more, I can’t stand it.
God, I hate it
Which have you been asked to do a sequel to most often?
The first one was Halloween because it made money, then there was Assault on Precinct 13 then The Fog, now there’s Escape From New York… now they’re doing The Thing again, which in itself was kind of a re-make. That’s part of the culture now.
How do you feel about your films being remade?
In many cases, what happens when a film of mine is remade is that I extend my hand and a cheque is put into it, for which I did nothing. Which is a job I’ve wanted to do all my life! (laughs)
Any types of film you’d like to revisit?
I’d love to do another post-apocalyptic movie, they’re just fun! But they’ve been done so many times now, it’s hard to come up with something original. I’d love to do another space movie.
When The Thing came out, people were shocked at the level of gore in it – what do you make of today’s extreme horror?
Oh boy! Horror movies go through cycles – take the Twilight series, it’s a traditional vampire story, PG13 for the teenage girls. But if you make a movie like the Saw films, which are probably the best of those… The first couple are fun, and hilarious! They were really playful, and Jigsaw was a fabulous bad guy – the later ones got a little, err, you know. I’m not a great fan of ‘torture porn’. I remember when I was younger, in the 60s, I saw Blood Feast. That film was just over-the-top violent!
Was it inspiring to you in any way?
No, it wasn’t inspiring – I didn’t feel particularly good afterwards.
Be honest – when you’re relaxing, don’t you ever just fancy a whimsical romantic comedy?
Sure! Absolutely, but I have to confess that in my age I just watch basketball. I just can’t get enough basketball. That’s the most fun for me. You guys have any basketball over there? Cricket, I don’t get.
It’s a slowed down, complicated version of baseball that plays over five days and can end in a draw.
Baseball is one of the most boring sports ever, and to think that you guys have perfected that boredom is amazing to me.
Do you still play basketball on set?
I’m too old for that now! I rest. It’s a lot of work.
You’ve seen Hollywood change, but is this an exciting time for young filmmakers?
Oh my god, you don’t have to go to film school, you can just buy a bunch of DVDs and watch the special features. Fight Club, the behind the scenes are unbelievable. It shows everything. You watch the movie and can really see his thinking. It’s amazing the stuff you can learn. So, don’t waste your money on film school, get the DVD extras!
What makes a successful soundtrack?
When I did scores, which I’m not going to do any more, oh it kills you, I used to simply improvise to the image. That’s all your trying to do, find a mood that supports the scene… sometimes you hit certain things, sometimes you lay back. That’s done occasionally these days but not much any more, it’s all John Williams stuff, a lot of great composers.
The minimalism in the scores you’ve done, do you think something can be effective because it’s so stripped back?
Absolutely! If you look at the shower scene in Psycho, a very famous score but it’s hardly anything at all, its just strings, DING DING DING DING! You can’t get much simpler than that, but it’s very effective.
Your music has been influential for hip hop artists and electronic musicians, like Assault on Precinct 13. How do you feel about seeing your work taken and used in a different context?
It’s great, it’s fun. It’s something I would never have thought of to literally take a piece and redo it and add to it. But my shock at seeing Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Inglorious Bastards’…at the opening of that movie suddenly it was the ‘Green Leaves of Summer’ from The Alamo, it’s like you gotta be KIDDING! Fuck you! You actually took a piece of music from another movie? How cheap! And then there’s a scene, and they’re playing some incidental music from Kelly’s Heroes and I thought you can’t be serious! Really, you’re just Xeroxing this … it was jaw-dropping. I guess it’s okay – not to me! – but I guess people liked it. But I was insulted, how dare he do that?
My shock at seeing Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Inglorious Bastards’… at the opening of that movie suddenly it was the ‘Green Leaves of Summer’ from The Alamo, it’s like you gotta be KIDDING! Fuck you!
Do you consider that a different usage from sampling your music?
That’s fine, but if you took my theme from Halloween and put it on some other movie, stop, stop! What a lack of creativity, a lack of vision, I mean you just can’t do this. It’s theft.
He would presumably defend that by saying it’s ironic.
I don’t know what to say. But I’m an old guy now, so it offends me whereas it doesn’t offend, let’s say, the ironic youth. (smiles)
That’s a good band name. What kind of music do you listen to?
I don’t listen so much to music any more. But every once in a while, some song comes along, right now in my mind is that Pink song, “Let’s get this party started on a Saturday night”, and I kind of enjoy that.
Er, are you going to use that in a film?
I don’t think so.
Have you heard of a band called Zombie Zombie?
Okay, they’re a French act with a lot of vintage analogue synths and drum machines, and have just done a covers album where they are playing all your famous scores. And they do it as a live show.
That’s fabulous! You could really do me a big favour, and send me a copy of that, I’d love to hear that. I love electronic dance music, I have to be honest with you – I LOVE that. The beat comes from disco, which I loved also.
How prophetic do you think your films have been?
The biggest movie of mine that didn’t work was Escape from New York, because back in the 70s when I wrote it, New York was in huge decline, crime, garbage would pile up on the streets, and 42nd street was all peep shows and drugs and hookers. It was a dangerous place. It’s Disneyland now, a tourist attraction, not a prison. (laughs) So, that was obviously completely wrong.
Well, there are many other cities in America that have declined.
Big time. Detroit is a dangerous place.
So if you had done “Escape from Detroit” you would have nailed it?
That’s true! But I think that the political issues are prophetic and still true. That was Reaganism, we’re still with it, and it’s still with us. Which dispirits me enormously. Now I understand more why Ronald Regan was elected, but back then it was so confusing.
Originally published in Dazed & Confused, December 2010