McGinnis: All Things considered — an interview with John CarpenterWritten by Jeff McGinnis | | firstname.lastname@example.org
For many horror fans, Halloween wouldn’t be the same without the works of John Carpenter to keep them company.
The influential director helped sire the modern slasher genre with his seminal 1978 horror classic “Halloween.” But he also continued to bring his wonderfully twisted cinematic vision to the screen in the two decades that followed. “The Thing,” “Escape from New York,” “Big Trouble in Little China,” “They Live” and on and on — Carpenter’s work commands a huge cult following and much of it can be described as being definitively ahead of its time.
Then, in 2001, he just stopped. Following the release of his sci-fi feature “Ghosts of Mars,” Carpenter, who had been one of the most prolific and consistent directors in Hollywood, dropped off the map. He wouldn’t direct a feature film again for nearly 10 years, until the recent release of “The Ward,” a film about a haunted mental hospital.
Why the decade of delay?
“I was burned out. Toasted. Exhausted,” Carpenter said in an interview with Toledo Free Press Star. “I’d been working steadily since the 1970s. I needed a break. ‘The Ward’ was the first movie ready to go when I decided to go back to work.”
He said the new film’s structure intrigued him.
“My experience working with an ensemble cast was the biggest attraction to this little ghost story. Every day I spend on the set I learn something. The talented actresses, the advances in digital technology, the challenges of low-budget filmmaking … every aspect of directing ‘The Ward’ gave me enormous satisfaction,” Carpenter said.
During his career, Carpenter has worked with numerous young actors who would go on to bigger stardom — Jamie Lee Curtis, a post-Disney Kurt Russell — and “The Ward’s” casting of Amber Heard, who with roles in “Drive Angry” and “The Rum Diary” seems poised to break through to the next level, falls right in line with that trend.
“Amber is very beautiful and very talented. Like everyone else in the movie business, she has to deal with what’s offered. It’s a treacherous business and I think she’s navigating the storms quite well,” Carpenter said.
The storms do not except Carpenter from their wrath, however. Entertainment’s ever-changing business model is always looking for the next big thing, often at the expense of the legends who came before. Now, as streaming video begins to reign, the options for filmmakers are becoming more limited — even for Carpenter.
“These days, the DVD market has shrunk from what it was,” Carpenter said. “Downloading movies from the Internet has shaken the traditions of the movie business. It’s getting harder out there.”
But another facet of entertainment is its desire to cash in on valuable franchises. Such is the case with one of Carpenter’s most popular films — his 1982 horror opus “The Thing,” about a group of researchers in Antarctica who face an alien entity which can imitate other living forms.
On Oct. 14, a new version of “The Thing” was released, ostensibly a prequel to Carpenter’s version, though he said he had “no input” into the new film.
“I thought the idea of the Norwegian camp was interesting,” Carpenter said of the new film’s setting. “I wish the filmmakers well and hope their version of ‘The Thing’ is a success.”
Carpenter’s “Thing” first received a cool reception from critics and audiences, though as time passed the 1982 film garnered a cult following and has become recognized as a genre classic.
“The hopelessness of the situation in ‘The Thing’ was evident in the story,” Carpenter said of his film’s bleak, unforgiving tone. “Other stories provoke different emotions and ambience. There are really no general rules about horror. It all depends on the story.”
He rejected the suggestion that on-camera, practical effects, such as the ones used in his 1982 film, are more convincing than digital ones.
“Used correctly, digital effects are most powerful and a major breakthrough in special effects. I think of the dinosaur charge across the valley in ‘Jurassic Park.’ Breathtaking,” Carpenter said.
As for Carpenter, it appears fans won’t have to wait another decade to see another work by one of the true masters of the macabre.
“I have projects I’m developing,” Carpenter said when asked what was next for him. “And I’m in mourning for the NBA season that won’t be.”
Asked if he had any advice for young filmmakers, Carpenter kept his words short and true.
“Steel your spine and dig in for the long haul. Don’t give up.”
Email Jeff at PopGoesJeff@gmail.com.