John Carpenter: How it influenced contemporary horror

January 16th is a special day for fans of fantastic cinema, because John Carpenter birthday. Talking about John Carpenter’s cinema means talking about a coherent and heterogeneous, compact but diversified authorial path which has distinguished American cinema from the seventies to today, and which is reflected with great power on today’s works by the new filmmakers despite the estrangement, increasingly inevitable, of the director from the scenes. When Jordan Peele replied to cartoonist Adam Ellis, who on Twitter called him the “best director horror of all time”, wrote that it would be better for him to “put the phone down” because he could not tolerate “another slander on John Carpenter”. Carpenter’s name did not emerge entirely by chance: Peele, in fact, must have having stumbled upon one of the replies to the discussion, in which some users advanced the hypothesis that Halloween – The night of the witches was, after all, the only great film born from the director.

Contemporary horror: the point of the situation

This episode is probably the most concise summary possible of the connection that exists between Carpenter and the new generation of horror filmmakers, and how and how much the influence of his works resonates in the scary stories that are represented on the screen today. Taking stock of the situation ofhorror today we realize how composite and complex the picture before us is: what we have witnessed in the twenty years that have taken us away from the beginning of the 2000s is a perpetual succession and jumble of currents, sub-genres and cinematographic strands that now seem be the shared direction and shortly thereafter leave room for the following models.

From Carpenter to Rob Zombie: here is the new Halloween

John Carpenter on the set of The Ward

John Carpenter on the set of The Ward

Among the residual splinters of the extreme French new wave – so influential as to have been able to fracture its geographical boundaries to spread as a stylistic trend overseas – and the remake/reboot (today’s more consistent than ten years ago), and after being there leave behind the wave of found footage not always inspired, horror has turned into a precious object, a tool aware of being able to study the contemporary. Works such as Escape – Get Out, Barbarian, Hereditary – The roots of evil or Midsommar – The village of the damned (and the list would be long) have shown today’s audience that frightening and being frightened is much more than a simple trick and that, trivially, it is only the persistence of the film in the mind of the spectator outside the theater that guarantees the persistence of the work beyond its cultural period. John Carpenter is one of the most shining examples of directors and authors who have been able to absorb the sensibilities of their era to synthesize them in a new language suitable for narrating universes understandable to every spectator.

Halloween and the slasher revolutionized

Though Halloween were it really the director’s only great film it would really be a waste to end the discussion like this. Understandable to be addicted to its formula, after more than forty years from the first chapter and thirteen films, directed by ten directors, which shape what is probably the most beloved horror franchise of all time. Yet the 1978 audience had to think otherwise, because Halloween it was almost like nothing made before. Sure, Carpenter and Debra Hill (on screenplay) steal the structure of the slasher from Chain reaction it’s at Do not open that door, but they violate it and manipulate it from within, enhancing its potential. Laurie Strode is, like Tobe Hooper’s Sally Hardesty, one final girl in a nutshell; but he smells the threat, evades it and even tries to answer it, starting to sow on the path what will become the primary characteristics of this narrative trope in the following decades. With Michael Myers it will become the dual focal point of an entire saga (unlike what happens with Hooper’s film, where Sally exhausts her narrative arc in the first film), based on the relationship of co-dependence between two counterparts, equally charisma and relevance.

Halloween – Genesis of a nightmare night

Jamie Lee Curtis in a promotional photo for Halloween, '78

Jamie Lee Curtis in a promotional photo for Halloween, ’78

Myers himself is a shadow (“The Shape” his nickname) who with Leatherface can only share the type of weapon and a mask to hide his face, but the illogical immortality that characterizes him is a novelty that will prove particularly suitable to shape multiple similar villains (Jason Voorhees the first) and potentially infinite series. It is on all these characteristics, and not on those of the previous horror films, that the Scream of Wes Craven and any other parody will ironize with extreme lucidity, ultimately crystallizing the model of Halloween as a paradigm of the modern slasher: the monster, once exiled in rural and desert areas of the United States, is now in the cities and inside the homes of Americans. What’s worse, his identity remains elusive. If Myers has superhuman qualities, Craven’s Ghostface – who is his direct son – must be unmasked in order to be annihilated, but he cannot be eliminated because he can reincarnate into anyone.

A modern conception of Evil

Dr. Loomis, a man of science, surrenders to the (very unscientific) hypothesis according to which Myers is simply “evil”. And evil is a concept that the Carpenter’s horror movies, profoundly Lovacraftian, has always dealt with it by fixing it from story to story as a narrative pillar. It exists on the corporal level, sometimes as an organism, but in forms that are not always clear. Not only Halloween and The Shape, but also The Lord of Evil and the mysterious liquid, green substance, which should constitute the materialization of none other than Satan himself. Or even the alien de The thingequally liquid in its parasitic essence of shape-shifting able to emulate every human being, swallowing his body and tearing apart his physical boundaries.

Halloween Kills, Jamie Lee Curtis: “We are all both Laurie Strode and Michael Myers”

Halloween Kills 22

Halloween Kills: James Jude Courtney in a scene from the horror movie

Evil as a semi-physical yet never fully visible being is the ideal compromise between the tradition of fanta-horror monstrous creatures and what will come after Carpenter. It Follows, a film by David R. Mitchell released in 2016, literally assimilates the Carpenterian lesson – even on a stylistic level – positioning itself as a perfect hybrid between Halloween and The Thing. The villain that threatens Mitchell’s adolescent protagonists is not even an individual: he is, rather, an entity capable of taking on the appearance of any person, as long as he remains able to complete his (easily guessed) task. From the two works by Carpenter It Follows it also draws the lesson on the power of an unresolved ending.

Jordan Peele and Carpenter’s Film Legacy

It is perhaps in the horror of Jordan Peele that it is possible to find all the founding elements of Carpenter’s cinema polarized with a density never seen before. Self Get Outthe writer-director’s debut, showed more than a clear affinity with The Stepford Wives And Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, in its approach to fantastic matter and in the construction of allegorical mechanisms, Peele’s cinema is the most admirable follower of Carpenter. The use of gender as a means of reflecting on the reality that is shaped by the society we represent as a community is Peele’s trump card from Get Out to the recent Nope, his last film directed in chronological order. Fra Noi, in which the duplicity of the protagonists had the double role of purely horrific and symbolic material (a source of fear in itself and as a mirror of the duplicity of the United States), and then Nope, in which the sci-fi constituent opened a meditation on the sense of showbusiness and the act of looking, Peele borrows and inherits from Carpenter his ability to merge the show with social criticism, entertainment with the need to analyze the present. Perhaps inspired by Peele’s three films, Zach Cregger also arrives with his own Barbariannightmare at levels in which the social hierarchy is represented by means of a real architecture that serves to lead the protagonist to unknown and dark places.

Screaming actresses: from Vera Farmiga to Jamie Lee Curtis, the great scream queens of cinema and TV

Big Trouble in Chinatown: Kurt Russell and director John Carpenter in a promotional image

Big Trouble in Chinatown: Kurt Russell and director John Carpenter in a promotional image

And let’s not forget CandymanNia DaCosta’s remake of Bernard Rose’s original film based on Clive Barker’s novel, in which the myth of the black martyr becomes a cinematic symbol for a disturbing staging of systemic racism. They liveundisputed cult, appears as a sort of progenitor for all these works (as it is 1997: Escape from New York for several dystopian universes of today, starting with The Purge) who question themselves, through the possibility of the game made available by the horror genre, on the most underground but most inflexible scaffolding of society. Contemporary horror therefore seems split into two essential tendencies: one of these is the one focused on psychological introspection and individual traumas, a subject very dear to grief horror home A24 and Blumhouse. The other is the one that widens the lens on more individuals, more concerted actions, and therefore on the social body that manufactures the very essence of the world in which we live. It is cinema that has changed public perception of the potential of horror, and it is cinema that looks to John Carpenter as a point of reference.

John Carpenter: How it influenced contemporary horror