John Carpenter

By: Matthew De Abaitua
January 16, 2010

John Carpenter directs Ice Cube in Ghosts of Mars

Few cultural scraps are as redolent of lo-fi VHS genre pleasures than a movie trailer with JOHN CARPENTER’s (born 1948) name above the title and his own analog synth score. Carpenter’s breakthrough was Dark Star (1974), a wiseass repudiation of 2001: A Space Odyssey’s intergalactic awe. Bits of the movie’s code can be discerned in the DNA of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (chirpy talking bombs and planet-destroying contractors); the SF:UK comedy series Red Dwarf (opening credits featuring a Country & Western number playing over a shot of a sauntering space ship); and — via Dan O’Bannon, who co-wrote both — Ridley Scott’s Alien. James Cameron shot the special effects for Carpenter’s Escape from New York (1981), a sardonic, sweaty film exploring such tropes as social collapse, countercultural paranoia, and unreconstructed masculinity; its cast (Lee Van Cleef and Ernest Borgnine, Harry Dean Stanton, Isaac Hayes) rotating around Kurt Russell’s Snake Plissken reflects the director’s B-movie meets counterculture style. The hobo paranoia of They Live (1988) recasts corporate America as a gnostic sleep-state that our hero — a dispossessed blue-collar worker hopelessly wedded to an American Dream founded on hard work and honesty — can only see through once he’s donned a pair of freak-tinted shades. But The Thing (1982), a remake of Hawks’ and Nyby’s The Thing From Outer Space, is Carpenter’s masterpiece. As the inhabitants of a remote Arctic base, terrorized by an inchoate, decentered monster, turn on one another, Russell delivers the emblematic Carpenter line: “Nobody trusts anybody now.”

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PS: We’ve taken the unusual step of assigning two HiLo Hero items today: Carpenter and Susan Sontag. How could we possibly decide between them?

Each day, HiLobrow.com pays tribute to one of our favorite high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes on that person’s birthday. Click here for more HiLo Hero shout-outs.

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HiLo Heroes, Movies, Sci-Fi

What do you think?

  1. The scene in Assault On Precinct 13 where the thug just blows the little girl away. So brutal, cold-blooded and completely unexpected. It really made you aware that all bets were off in this movie! Also, the soundtrack music in this film was among Carpenter’s best. The title theme was loosely based on Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song”, and was later recycled by pioneering hip-hop DJ Afrika Bambaataa in his track “Bambaataa’s theme”. (Bambaataa was better known for introducing Kraftwerk to the hip-hop community, via “Planet Rock”.)

  2. I know everybody’s going to pick something from They Live, but I have to say the endless improvised fight scene. That, and “I’m all out of bubblegum.”

  3. I’ll second the Extremely Violent Fight Scene With No End, as well, but also, the great opening to The Thing: endless white, a wolf racing across the tundra, the freaked out Norwegians. Amazing tension though environment, worthy of Lovecraft.

  4. Often, when I start to watch “The Thing,” I have to turn it off during the opening scene. It makes me too tense. I’ve only finished watching it once.

  5. My favorite John Carpenter moments (note the plural goodness)?

    Glad ya asked.

    The opening sequence of Escape From New York, narrated by Jamie Lee Curtis.

    Doolittle teaching phenomenology to Bomb No. 20 in Dark Star.

    Any of Rob Bottin’s critters in The Thing, particularly the spider-head.

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