Saturday, October 31, 2015

Spotlight Director: John Carpenter [Contributors: Lynnie and Chelsea]


John Carpenter is my brother Luke's favorite director. Year-round, I am subjected to him torturing me with marathons and re-watches of every possible Carpenter film. When Lynnie approached me about this new film series spotlighting different directors and John Carpenter was on her list, I started to pay more attention to my brother's incessant re-watches of the films. Carpenter's films prey upon the simple fears that we humans have by creating stories that viewers reason could actually happen. Modern horror films have taken advantage of his style and have tried (and failed) mimicking the anxiety and terror he induces through his directing.


When I think of John Carpenter’s directorial style, I think of atmosphere. He has truly mastered the art of setting an atmosphere that reels the viewer into the drama on the screen. He paints a picture, sets a stage, and allows for the landscape and the people to tell the story he wants to convey, instead of hitting you over the head with fancy slides and zooms meant to distract and impress. Known for static shots and minimalist lighting, Carpenter is the type of director you forget is there. He reels you in and builds up toward the climax of his films with precision and aptly drawn scenes framed to perfection.

His movies feel real –– they’re a glimpse into the human condition and the fears and emotional suppression that modern time has drawn out of us. People are his focal point –– the stories they have to tell the lens in which he paints pictures of drama, excitement, fantasy, science fiction, humor, and action. He is a genuine storyteller, and his films reflect his total understanding of pace.

And, since it’s Halloween, I thought it apt to highlight a few of John Carpenter’s horror movies (in no particular ranking).

Fog doesn’t seem like all that scary of a nemesis to face until you watch Carpenter’s 1980 film about the small town of Antonio Bay, California and its dark history. The town is facing its centennial and there are some mostly deceased residents who have something to say about it. They come with the fog, and fog can go anywhere.

The movie focuses primarily on Stevie Wayne (Adrienne Barbeau), a local disc jockey, and her desire to get back to her son as the fog encroaches on the town. I love that the main character is a woman and that the only love story she has in the film is with her son. Beyond that, the film is creepy –– there is impending violence in every frame of the movie. It is a movie that waits, is patient, and it’s perfect for your Halloween viewing.

Everyone knows about Halloween. It is the quintessential scary film. It is the movie that sparked a hundred knockoffs and far too many sequels. Carpenter directed the first film of the franchise, and he left his mark on the most famous serial killer in fictional history.

This is another film where Carpenter lets the dread grow. The voyeuristic nature of the film lets you see what Jamie Lee Curtis’ character does not. You feel the impending violence. Every scare is a build up from something Carpenter began working with at the beginning of the film. The implied things in the film are often more terrifying than what is seen, and it is through Carpenter’s mastery that the film remains so firmly embedded in the psyche of us all.

A theme that Carpenter loved to play with was isolation –– how we react to it and what paths humans will take when thrown into a cage. There is nothing more isolating than a scientific research station in the middle of the Antarctic, and this film plays out with growing terror and a broiling sense of being alone. The way in which the various scientists deal with an alien that can change into any physical matter it touches is a study in basic psychology, as much as it is a scare-worthy plot that will have you itching never to see snow again.

Carpenter made the isolation and the escalating fear palpable in every frame. The camera movements are far more chaotic than the typical long shots of dark hallways that set the stage for the horror.
Just don’t watch this movie while cuddling next to your furry friend. Trust me.


Carpenter knows atmosphere, but he also knows patience, humor, and how to tell a far-fetched story without neglecting the elements that make the film feel real and human. He lets the story speak for itself in a way that few directors manage well. A composer, writer, producer, and director, Carpenter is probably overqualified for this month’s director tribute.


It's the balance of the humor, horror, and knowing when to execute a scare that makes his films so iconic and truly terrifying. Carpenter's direction is only noticeable in style and how he lets the actors feel raw fear without being over-the-top. He set the standard of the horror genre having strong, iconic female characters that are smart and can fight back. When history looks back on the great directors, Carpenter's work will be among the top in his field.

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