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John Carpenter’s Legacy

The list of great filmmakers this world has given us is a long one; however, the list of filmmakers who have gone on to affect pop culture in general – who have contributed previously untapped resources, as well as created icons and sub-genres that are still in use today – well, that list is much smaller. John Carpenter’s most famous films are arguably from the first act of his career (Assault on Precinct 13, up to and including They Live), and these titles usually make the shortlist of Carpenter fan favorites. His influence in cinema goes well beyond the go-to slasher movie clichés created in Halloween (the virginal heroine, the “he’s not dead!” moments of shock, the embittered Dr. Frankenstein forced to chase down his nemesis, the sex-and-you’re-dead mentality). Michael Myers was not the first killer to wear a mask, nor was Halloween the first movie through which we witnessed acts from the killer’s point of view, but the cheapie 1978 slasher’s influence on the horror genre cannot be denied.

But we know all this. Just like we know that The Thing (very under-appreciated at the time) proved how physical, in-camera effects could shape a film and make it legendary, or that his uncanny ability for creating simple but effective music drives many of his films into excellence, or that Snake Plissken is one of the most bad-ass anti-heroes of all time.

However, there are not-so-obvious inspirations out there as well. Carpenter helped to set trends more than he, or the general public, might realize (and should he ever stumble across this article, it’s safe to assume he’d call “bullshit” halfway through and click off, because his bluntness is matched only by his humility). Some theoretical, some factual, and some based on rumor, the below contributions to modern pop-culture exist because of him.

In no particular order:

 “Bad to the Bone”

Probably one of the most recognizable tunes of all time, “Bad to the Bone” by George Thorogood has been used countless times in film and television to enforce, with his or her first entrance, that one character in particular is a total bad ass. One of the most famous uses of the tune is likely the T-800’s first (er, fully-clothed) appearance in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, while Oliver Stone also used the song in 1988’s Talk Radio as his victimized radio host’s theme song.

But the first time it was ever used was in Carpenter’s 1983 adaptation of Christine – more specifically, when the eponymous car rolls down its Detroit assembly line for the first time…and right before it claims its first victim. Even on the commentary track for the film that Carpenter recorded with actor Keith Gordon, he comments on the use of the song, saying, “I’m pretty sure we were the first to ever use that song in a feature.”

Though use of the song eventually descended into parody (it was used in both Problem Child as well as countless episodes of “Married with Children“), at one time it was legitimately used to audibly label something or someone as “bad-ass.”

Team Carpenter was the first.

 Alien

Carpenter directed and co-wrote with Dan O’Bannon 1974’s Dark Star, an offbeat and quirky strange space adventure. Originally a student film, an investor provided the filmmakers with additional money, and the short was expanded into a feature. The plot is as follows: a group of increasingly bored astronauts, who interact with an A.I. computer throughout, accidentally unleash an alien onto their spaceship. The alien (played by a bobbing beach ball and seemingly voiced by a Killer Tomato), picks off the crew members one by one. In 1979, O’Bannon (sans Carpenter) would take that basic concept and go on to write the legendary film Alien, in which a group of increasingly bored astronauts, who interact with an A.I. computer, accidentally unleash an alien onto their spaceship. The alien picks off the crew members one by one. Though neither Carpenter nor O’Bannon would go on record discussing the bad blood that allegedly ensued between them (although in a later interview with Fangoria, Carpenter would describe the man as “complicated”), the two men, once friends, fell out after Alien‘s release. Though a character of Carpenter’s own The Fog was named Dan O’Bannon, said character would go on to be violently killed by the murderous William Blake. But Carpenter, having a macabre sense of humor, may not have necessarily named one of his victims after his old friend to make a statement; with The Fog being released not even one year after Alien, it’s entirely possible Carpenter had no idea Alien was even in production until it was too late to excise O’Bannon’s name from his film.

Whether or not O’Bannon was heavily inspired by Dark Star‘s script when it came time to write the classic Ridley Scott film, at one point he was quoted as having said, “I didn’t steal the concept for Alien from anyone, I stole it from everyone!”

Hrm.

(To take this further, without Alien, there would be no Aliens…and so, would there be a James Cameron? Would there be The Terminator and True Lies, and (ugh) Titanic, the biggest grossing movie of all time? Fight me on it, nerds!)

Jason Voorhees / Friday the 13th /
The Entire ’80s Slasher Movement

Those well-versed in horror trends and origins know that Halloween basically gave birth to the slasher movement of the ’80s. Any holiday up for grabs soon had a poster featuring pointy weapons, masked men, and dripping blood. Christmas, New Year’s, Valentine’s Day…no holiday was safe. However, one can argue there’s a difference between inspiration and a flat-out re-titled carbon copy. Further, anyone can power up Friday the 13th and snidely deride it as a Halloween ripoff. Well, they would be right to do so – it doesn’t take a genius to see that, really – but it helps to have the filmmakers of that film agree. Friday the 13th screenwriter Victor Miller has never played coy with the fact that director Sean Cunningham one day called him up and said, “Halloween is making a lot of money, let’s rip it off.” And so they did. And Friday the 13th – a series that would go on to out-sequel Halloween – was born. Though Jason Voorhees would not appear until Friday the 13th: Part 2, he obviously would not have existed without Part 1. And that, as proclaimed by its own filmmakers, would not have existed were it not for Halloween.

Jason Statham: Action Hero

Regardless if you consider this a good or bad thing (it seems that most people enjoy seeing the bald Brit kick ass in mindless film after mindless film), Carpenter had the foresight to cast Statham in his much-maligned 2001 action/horror flick Ghosts of Mars. Cast as Jericho – a no-nonsense, Natasha-Henstridge-wanting sergeant – Statham kicked ass and took names alongside Ice Cube, blaxploitation legend Pam Grier, and Clea DuVall. Up to this point, Statham had established a small cult following for having appeared in Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock, & Two Smoking Barrels and his more well-known crime caper Snatch, but it wasn’t until Carpenter intervened that Statham was able to show off his bad-ass chops. And the man hasn’t stopped since. After his face-smashing turns in multiple action series, such as The ExpendablesThe Transporter and Crank, his new status as action hero became widely known (and enthusiastically accepted). He most recently played the villain in Furious 7. It made a bajillion dollars at the box office, so perhaps you’ve heard of it.

Duke Nukem

If you’ve seen They Live, and played Duke Nukem, this isn’t much of a stretch. Much like They Live‘s John Nada (Roddy Piper, RIP), Duke Nukem wanders the desolate and seedy streets of Los Angeles while blowing away the aliens that have come to enslave our planet, not to mention utter the truly iconic catchphrase, “I have come here to chew bubble gum and kick ass…and I’m all out of bubble gum.” They even sport the same blue-collar make of average intelligence along with those same black sunglasses. While Duke is an amalgamation of pretty much every ’80s action hero (including Snake Plissken), there is no denying Carpenter’s influence on the character. One might even argue the name derives from the Duke (Isaac Hayes) from Escape from New York. Plus Duke fires off the same cornball-but-awesome one-liners that Nada did with little effort:

 Exactly.

Ghostface / The Scream Series

Screenwriter Kevin Williamson wrote Scream as a love letter to Halloween, the film which gave rebirth to the slasher genre – a genre that had grown so tired that he (and director Wes Craven) created a self-aware parody about teenagers aware of slasher clichés but who fell victim to them anyway. Numerous references to Halloween are scattered throughout the film: Drew Barrymore describes it as her favorite horror movie; the infamous Halloween theme is very subtly applied in Marco Beltrami’s score during the first act as Barrymore cowers behind her television set; Rose McGowan’s Tatum claims that her hysterical friend’s paranoia is starting to sound like “a Wes Carpenter flick;” Jamie Kennedy’s “horror movie rules” monologue that he recites as Halloween is paused on a television behind him; the last act unfolds as the sounds of Halloween play on the television in the background.

Scream was a clever, meta look at Halloween, the clones it inspired, and the rules it created; ironically, Halloween: H20 would come along two years after Scream, which had revitalized the horror genre, and played out with a very Scream-like sensibility (and which Carpenter almost directed personally, but declined, due to series producer Moustapha Akkad balking at his director’s fee).

In 1978, Halloween came along, blew everyone’s mind, and created a sub-genre – the slasher film. That sub-genre grew so tired and dull that it literally died at the end of the ’80s, temporarily taking the horror genre along with it. It would take Scream to breathe new life into the sub-genre, itself being an homage to Halloween. In conclusion, Carpenter’s 1978 fright flick breathed new life into the horror genre not once, but twice. Pretty impressive for a $300,000 indie.

Modern Filmmakers & Their Homages

Everyday, it feels like more and more films and filmmakers – from every spectrum – are taking their cues from Carpenter’s career. From the very low brow to the very high, and in the same way Carpenter was inspired by filmmakers Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock, the new generation have since been inspired by the once-inspired. To cover every instance would keep us here forever, but the more notable titles bare a signature Carpenter style, theme, and sound. Jim Mickle’s Cold in July has taken a page out of Assault in Precinct 13 by making what’s essentially a modern-day western, including the leery alliance dynamic, and which boasts an incredible musical score by Jeff Grace, who seems to be full-on channeling Carpenter’s score for The Fog. The Irish production Let Us Prey (starring Liam Cunningham of “Game of Thrones”), probably the most underrated homage of them all, is the rare title that seems to be honoring the latter portion of Carpenter’s career where his storytelling became pulpier and his images grislier; again, the score by Steve Lynch nails that infamous synth-based style with a killer main theme. This year’s celebrated It Follows has mashed together the suburban terror aspect of Halloween with an infectious growing threat that’s amassing an army of zombielike silent killers a la Prince of Darkness, once again bolstered by an electronic score by Disasterpiece. After Luc Besson became Taken with Liam Neeson, he wrote Lockout, which may be the closest we ever get to Carpenter and Kurt Russell’s long-mooted Escape from Earth: a bitter and sarcastic anti-hero (“Snow,” not “Snake,” played by Guy Pearce) is forced into a rescue mission to locate and retrieve the president’s daughter from a space station prison. (Carpenter himself noticed the similarities between his Escape films and Lockout, as he recently sued Besson and the writers – and won – claiming copyright infringement.) The Guest, one of the best titles on the list, combines Carpenter’s Halloween with Roland Emmerich’s Universal Soldier to present the story of an unstoppable killing machine with an emotionless demeanor; taking place during Halloween week, and even offering several homages to, of all things, Halloween III: Season of the Witch (along with another synthy store by Steve Moore), The Guest is wickedly funny and boasts a strong Laurie-Strode-like heroine in Maika Monroe’s Anna. (Keeping the Universal Soldier/Carpenter connection going: In my interview with filmmaker John Hyams, he admits to his Carpenter influence on his two Universal Soldier films, Regeneration and Day of Reckoning.)

Even after all that, there’s still more to come. More and more horror films are announcing their crowdfunding campaigns or being greenlit for production while citing their desires to recapture that ol’ John Carpenter feeling. In fact, the critically lauded Jeff Nichols (Mud, Take Shelter) is prepping Midnight Special for Warner Bros., which he describes as a “John Carpenter chase movie” (because a “chase John Carpenter movie” would just be weird, even though I’d watch the hell out of that).

It’s this final example of John Carpenter’s influence on the world of film that should give us all a bit of consolation. If you’re like me, it’s become somewhat disheartening to read an interview with Carpenter where he muses on potential future projects with a “whatever happens, happens” mentality; with each passing day, it seems like Darkchylde, or The Bloody Benders, or the handful of other projects to which he was tenuously attached may not happen. Carpenter has been enjoying his semi-retirement off and on since 2001, and with his films constantly being announced for remakes and sequels, and with those royalty checks steadily flowing in, he’s not in a terrible hurry to get back to work. (I don’t blame him.) So if 2010’s The Ward is to remain his swan song, we can at least take comfort in the fact that a legion of filmmakers are ready to take up the mantle and keep fighting the good fight. And if John Carpenter really is done as a director, then all I can do is quote James “Desolation” Williams from Ghosts of Mars: See you later, you big motherfucker!

 

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J. Tonzelli is a writer, film critiquer, and avid Arnold/Van Damme/Bronson enthusiast who resides in rural South Jersey. He is the author of "The End of Summer: Thirteen Tales of Halloween" and the "Fright Friends Adventure" series, co-authored with Chris Evangelista. He loves abandoned buildings, the supernatural, and films by John Carpenter. You can read some of his short fiction at his website, JTonzelli.com, or objectify him by staring at his tweets: @jtonzelli. He apologizes for all the profanity.

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