Carpenter’s horror | Daily News

Carpenter’s horror

The slasher film has seen better days. Although much of the generic horror we get from the genre is still there – the masked antagonist, the pure teenage victims, the hapless enforcers of the law, the indifferent parents, and the final standoff – the tropes have been used again and again so much that we don’t feel what the director’s trying to make us feel.

Not unlike exorcism movies, slasher flicks tend to bore us with their sense of predictability. When was the last time you saw a film about possession where the possessed victim – almost always a girl, and almost always in her adolescence – reminds you of sweet little Linda Blair from The Exorcist (1973)?

Directors today love predictability: it’s a safer bet. The 70s brought us a lot of exciting genre films, and almost all of them were hits at the box-office. By the end of the 80s and the beginning of the 90s, the studios let go of any innovativeness.

At one level, the slasher movie is a continuation of 19th century Victorian horror – it’s the old Frankenstein story, where the pure, chaste heroine forms the object of the monster’s lustful attention – and the old vampire myth. We never get an explanation as to why the freak who’s out to kill everyone with a knife or chainsaw or axe acts the way he does?

Mindless excess

Is he working out his libido, or just taking revenge on imagined slights? The best slasher films did not answer that question, because the directors knew how to engage audiences with the action, the blood, the gore without mindless excess; they knew how to milk the terror and the horror without insulting audiences, their intelligence, and their expectations. The first real slasher flick, in that sense, has to be Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960); though there’s no real rampage, no out-of-control killer on the loose, he kills out of a perverse impulse: he is his mother. Psychoanalysis doesn’t work out that way in real-life, but that’s the charm of the perverse killer movie: his logic is the logic of Freudian surrealism.

If George A. Romero invented the zombie thriller (Night of the Living Dead, 1968) and Tobe Hooper the slasher thriller (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, 1974), John Carpenter went on to reinvent the latter by borrowing tropes from the former. Texas doesn’t fit the mould of the modern slasher flick: it concentrates the tension and the energy on one girl, and it’s set in a far-off locality which the protagonists might as well have crossed dimensions to reach. Night of the Living Dead pits an entire population to the horde of the undead; this is closer to the slashers that Carpenter directed and started out with in Halloween (1978).

The timing of the latter film couldn’t have been better: Brian de Palma was about to release The Fury (1978) two years after Carrie (1976), and Bob Clark had made Black Christmas four years earlier. I’ve often wondered why the slasher flick became a vogue at the end of the 70s, just as possession and exorcism movies became a vogue at the end of the 60s. Was it the fact that it could be made for so little? Halloween certainly was made for little – it cost USD 350,000 dollar – and reaped so much – USD 70 million, according to one estimate the most an independent movie ever made in that decade.

The formula that Carpenter works through, and with, in Halloween has been hacked today, and it no longer offers any surprises. Who doesn’t expect all those girls and boys, some of them engaged in premarital coitus, to fall off under the villain’s knife one after another? Who doesn’t expect jump-scares at the most unlikely of moments, like washing your face and then facing the bathroom mirror only to find the killer right behind you?

Shaky ground

In Halloween Carpenter paid tribute to Psycho and the reference is there even in the name of the psychiatrist who attempts to capture the killer: Sam Loomis, the first victim’s lover in Hitchcock’s movie. The psychoanalytical framework in which the slasher flick is supposed to work has always tread on some shaky ground, and it’s more pretentious than you’d expect. It’s like the science in Star Wars (1977): glamorised and mystified, and carefully worked out to evoke horror from the audience.

I felt like laughing at the final scene in Psycho, where the psychiatrist explains why the villain acted as he did, and it’s the only weak point in that film, but that has become the norm in the slasher flick. The psychiatrist is there to rationalise, but also to confuse, to philosophise about the villain.

He couldn’t rationalise why the killer did what he did to all those people in Psycho to Janet Leigh, because by the time they arrested him she was already underwater, hidden away, dead; but he could rationalise why the killer went on a rampage to Janet Leigh’s daughter, Jamie Lee Curtis, the killer’s primary target in Halloween. Unlike Leigh, Curtis survives, though just barely.

The slasher flick didn’t necessarily get good responses from mainstream critics – Roger Ebert was no fan of it, and nor was Pauline Kael – but they responded well to Halloween. Ebert liked it – the only Halloween in the entire franchise that he really liked – though Kael saw it as a “pitiful, amateurish plot”, a horror film “stripped of everything but dumn scariness” – words better suited to the slasher flicks today.

Kael was wrong, I think: Carpenter gave us the best he could with a USD 350,000 flick, and though he staggers and falls once or twice, especially towards the end with the final face-off between Curtis and the killer, it works. It’s not dumb scariness that brings the whole plot together: we feel what all those young men and women feel before the killer runs loose in their midst; they aren’t emotionless jerks like their successors in later slasher flicks; and the killer, when he makes appearances, isn’t just scary, he’s intriguing. Carpenter may well have been influenced by the Master of Suspense – though Brian De Palma was busy proving himself as the next Hitchcock – but his conception of horror, and terror, is more or less his. Halloween bears this out.

First horror flick

John Carpenter grew up on a diet of Westerns and sci-fi. As a child growing up in New York, he craved, and watched, John Ford and Howard Hawks Westerns. He wasn’t in high school, we are told, when he began making his first horror flick on 8mm film. His other obsession was sci-fi horror: The Thing from Another World (1951) and Forbidden Planet (1956), the latter of which was based, loosely, on Shakespeare’s The Tempest. After attending Western Kentucky University, he moved to the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts. In 1968, he decided to get out, and make his first film. This was Captain Voyeur (1969), which contained elements of, and indeed predicted, Halloween.

An Oscar-winning Western short flick (The Resurrection of Broncho Billy, 1970) and a sci-fi comedy flick (Dark Star, 1974) followed, and these were followed by his first major work, Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), which, among other novelties, cast an African-American as a cop trying to protect and cordon off a police station from a bunch of gang members. To the extent that the film is about law enforcers and law abiding citizens protecting themselves from an group of murderous outlaws, Assault bears the stamp of not just the Western, but also the zombie thriller, and indeed Carpenter was influenced by both. Carpenter’s next film in that sense had to expand on the Western and zombie motif, and it did: Halloween, even though it seems to borrow heavily from the zombie thriller, also bears the distinct mark of a Western, with the pure, chaste heroine but minus the cowboy.

Carpenter’s ventures in the 80s have been more or less panned by critics. Some have been received warmly, others lukewarmly, and still others badly. I find them intriguing, though none of them can be termed a classic. The Fog (1978) is about a group of marooned sailors, ghosts really, coming back to kill off the descendants of those who had them killed centuries ago. Escape from New York (1981) is a dystopian sci-fi adventure set in New York (obviously) and featuring Kurt Russell, who starred in Carpenter’s next production, The Thing (1982). This, widely considered to be Carpenter’s best and most effective sci-fi horror outing, was based on The Thing from Another World, a childhood favourite of his; a prequel was shot in 2011, and a remake, with Blumhouse Productions, was planned out last year.

Christine (1983), about a sentient car that tries to do what killers do in slasher flicks, and Starman (1984) were moderately received, as was Big Trouble in Little China (1986), where Carpenter returns to his teenage fascination with comedy. They Live (1988), though part-satire, is a searing indictment of capitalism, and Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1994) tells us what H. G. Welles might have written if he concentrated just hard enough on the biology and not just physics of being invisible, while Village of the Damned (1995), Escape from L. A. (1996), Vampires (1998), Ghosts of Mars (2001), and The Ward (2010) were all barring none poorly received. The Thing, still considered his best after Halloween, spawned two sequels: Prince of Darkness (1987), a chilling melange of sci-fi horror and apocalyptic horror, and In the Mouth of Madness (1994), a wry look at the world of mass publishing.


The Ward

Assault on Precinct