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The Reluctant Legacy of John Carpenter

Outwardly, John Carpenter doesn't look like one of the most fearsome men on the planet.


Sporting horn-rimmed glasses, an encyclopaedic memory of cinema and a ponytail as white as a unicorn's mane, he more resembles a hippie holdout; 

that affable college film prof who never quite surrendered the Peacenik ideal. 

He says "dude" a lot. When a conversation gets too philosophical, he'll crack, "Anybody got some weed?"

But give the guy a camera, keyboard and 90 minutes to tell you a bedtime story, and he'll harsh your mellow something fierce. The creator of the Halloween franchise, which turns 38 this year, has earned a lot of titles in Hollywood, most of which he says are misnomers: The Master of Horror, The Sultan of Splat, Godfather of the Slasher Flick.

Carpenter, 67, invited Moviepilot to his converted bungalow office for a rare peek at a 43-year career that includes The Thing and Starman. A double retinal detachment in 2012 and multiple eye surgeries, Carpenter has slowed his filmmaking. But not his storytelling:


Moviepilot: What projects have been keeping you busy lately?

Carpenter: My debut album! (Lost Themes, his first album featuring music not in his films). I did it with my son Cody. You know, I can play a keyboard pretty well, but I can't read a lick of music. I’m also working on a new line of comic books.

Moviepilot: About?

Carpenter: (With a grin) We’re not ready to say. Not yet. No formal announcement.

Moviepilot: How did you get interested in horror?

Carpenter: There was such a wave of monster movies when I was growing up in Bowling Green (Kentucky). Godzilla, The Fly. That left an impression that never went away, how gripped I was by what was happening on screen. Even then, I knew I wanted to make movies.

Moviepilot: You developed a reputation as a jack-of-all trades; what prompted you to write, produce and score so many of your early movies?

Carpenter: Truthfully, money. We didn’t have much early on. Even Halloween. I had to do those things or they weren’t going to get done.

Moviepilot: Wikipedia describes you as having introduced the slasher film to Hollywood. How do you feel about all the titles you’ve accumulated over your career?

Carpenter: I'm none of those things. I was just trying to tell a good story. That's all I ever wanted to do. Tell good stories.

Moviepilot: So you don’t consider yourself the Godfather of the Slasher Flick?

Carpenter: No, I didn't create the slasher movie. Alfred Hitchcock did. With Psycho.

Moviepilot: Critics also described Halloween as one of the first to use sexual allegory in a horror film. Were you making a larger statement about sexual purity?

Carpenter: No. I’ve been described a lot of ways by a lot of people. I just wanted to make a movie with normal kids, doing what normal kids do.Moviepilot: Halloween has spawned nine spinoffs, yet you never directed another, and you rarely do sequels. Why?

Carpenter: I’ve always believed that if you do the story right the first time, you shouldn’t have to make another.

Moviepilot: What do you think of today’s horror?

Carpenter: I’m a fan of some of it. I like Guillermo del Toro. The Walking Dead. And I enjoyed Let the Right One In (a 2008 Swedish vampire film).

Moviepilot: Given today’s bleak headlines, why do you think horror is still a staple genre?

Carpenter: You watch the news, and things like ISIS are really scary. But people will still want to go to a theatre to be in the dark and scared, because it’s a safe scare.

Moviepilot: Does horror translate on the small screen?

Carpenter: I think so. Like The Walking Dead. It’s still story, story, story. If it’s on the big screen or on a television set, a good horror story is going to play well on it.

Moviepilot: You’ve directed 28 films; what do you think when you see one of your movies on TV?

Carpenter: I can’t watch any movie that I made. If I’m channel-surfing, I may stop on it for a second. But then I’ll think, ‘Why the hell did I do that?’ I’m my own worst critic. So I’ll change the channel after a few minutes.

Moviepilot: More horror movies are rated PG-13; how do you feel about the shift?

Carpenter: I’m glad to see more PG-13s. Most boys go the R-rated movies. Not the girls as much. But with (the lower rating), you broaden the audience.

Moviepilot: You once were quoted as saying that first you came up with the film idea, then you found financing. Given the rise of “micro budget” horror, how important is money to the genre?

Carpenter: I won’t shoot without a budget secured. Not for one day. I have no idea what the Zeitgeist is. I just make the movies that I’d like to see. But, in the end, if the money doesn’t come through, then you’ve got no movie.

Moviepilot: After Halloween’s success, you had some high-profile clashes with studios, including Universal. Do you still blame them for the middling success of The Thing?

Carpenter: Yes. They released it two weeks after E.T. You’ve got a good alien and a bad alien. Which one are you going to want to see?

Moviepilot: So what is it about horror?

Carpenter: I love everything about it, from scoring to doing comic books to video games.

Moviepilot: And what scares John Carpenter?

Carpenter: The same as everyone else. The heart of any horror story is the fear of death, of the unknown. We will always fear those things we can't quite see, that are just out of our sight. I'm no different than anyone. I worry about death just like everybody. I could die tomorrow. We all want to keep going, to see one more day.