John Carpenter's "Halloween" has become an acknowledged classic, a taut and surprisingly restrained exercise in shock and suspense that changed the American horror film forever. No longer would it be enough to create horrific characters; they'd have to do horrific things as well, and do them right there on the screen. For good or ill, without "Halloween," there would never have been a "Friday the 13th," "Nightmare on Elm Street" or "Scream."
Carpenter's four-decade-long career has included prize-winning biopics (1979's "Elvis"), science-fiction (1984's "Starman") and adventure films (1981's "Escape from New York"). But for most moviegoers, he continues to be a mainstay of the horror genre — thanks not only to "Halloween," but also to what followed: 1982's "The Thing," 1983's "Christine" (one of Hollywood's best Stephen King adaptations) and 1998's "Vampires" among them.
Carpenter, 63, will be in the Baltimore area this weekend for the Monster-Mania Con 20 fan convention. Speaking over the phone from his Los Angeles office, he talked about why horror movies are a lot more difficult to make than they might appear.
What makes for a good horror film? What makes for a good scary movie?
There's a number of things. One that engages you, so that you're really involved in what's going on on the screen. Obvisouly, it needs to scare you, it needs to work on some level on you. It needs to get a hold of you. And it just needs to be really really good filmmaking. It's like anything else. What makes a good comedy? Well, you find yourself laughing. What makes a good horror movie? Well, you find yourself screaming.
You say one that can engage you. How do you do that? How do you engage your audience?
Through the characters, through the set-up, through the environment and the mood and the style. Everything about filmmaking is trying to do that, get people engaged in the story. But primarily, it's the actors. If you care about them, you've got it made.
Horror movies have a reputation for being cheap or easy. Is that deserved? Are horror movies degraded unnecessarily?
Is it deserved? Some. There are a lot of bad horror films, really bad ones. There are a few really good ones, and every once in a while, there are great ones. And those are the ones you want to hang on to, those are the ones you want to see.
Do you think the genre's maybe too easy for some people?
Oh gosh, no. There's nothing easy about it, to be successful at it. It's like comedy. You know, a lot of comedy is timing. The same with horror, exactly the same. It's all about the timing -- the timing that you use in setting up the suspense, there's timing in setting up the characters, the environment, everything about it.
I wouldn't say it's easy. It may look easy to people -- everybody thinks they know how to do it now, it's just part of the culture. But to do it well is real hard.
What kind of shape is the genre in right now? Is this a good time for horror movies, a bad time? Are we in kind of a fallow period, possibly?
I don't really know. Usually, things will just kind of coast until something comes along and changes the whole game. That happens every once in a while -- a film comes along and really grabs your imagination. Then we go off in a different direction.
I don't really know right now. Things are percolating. I don't see a lot of enormous risks being taken -- which bothers me a bit, I think if there's one genre that ought to try, it's horror. They can get away with it. I'd love to see people take chances a little bit more.
When you say 'game-changer,' 'Halloween' was certainly a game-changer, there's no question about that. When you were making the film, did you have any inkling that you were on to something special?
Not a clue. We just wanted to make a good movie. That was the whole thing. We just wanted to make a movie, get it done. No, we had no idea.
Was the critical reaction surprising to you?
The whole thing was weird, the entire thing was strange....The reviews would stagger in and man, did we get some bad ones. Woof. Wow. People didn't think it was frightening, people didn't think it was good. 'Carpenter is not gifted with actors' was one comment, which was 'Wow.' But then, it kind of started getting re-reviewed. It started in the Village Voice, Roger Ebert gave it a good review. Then, all of a sudden, people started taking a second look at it. That's happened with a bunch of movies, I think. That sort of happened with 'Bonnie & Clyde.' When 'Vertigo' came out, it was really thought to be a complete disaster. Much later, we discovered, 'My god, this is a masterpiece.' Same with 'The Searchers.' It was thought to be this slow, moribund movie, but it wasn't.
When the idea of a sequel to 'Halloween' came you were not big on the idea of being involved -- or on the idea of there being a sequel.
Not really, I really didn't think there was much more of a story to be told. I thought we'd just told it all. But boy, was I wrong.
Do you fell the sequels have served the story well? Or do you wish that maybe the string had run out by now?
I don't want to comment on that. I benefit financially from them, which is a great and fabulous thing, but I don't know....Like I say, I thought there wasn't much more you could do with that story, in terms of maintaining what we had and what we started with. I still feel that way.
What movies scare you? What are the classic horror movies, as far as you're concerned? What movies have really affected you -- not just influenced you, but out and out scared you?
I think we are frightened the most by movies we see when we are young. I grew up in the '50s, so there's several films that I watched back then that made me jump out of my seat. 'The Thing from Another World,' a Howard Hawks-Christian Nyby collaboration from the early '50s. Believe it or not, a movie called 'The Fly' -- Popcorn was flying when she pulled that black cloak off his head. I went nuts.
One that just grabbed a hold of me was a British film in 1957 called 'The Curse of Frankenstein.' Very early Hammer, with Christopher Lee as the monster and Peter Cushing. I was just mesmerized by that movie.
I think that you get frightened and you remember fondly movies that you saw when you were young.
You've kind of been pigeonholed as a horror film director, although you've certainly done other things. Is that a negative, being restricted to that one genre in people's minds?
It's not a problem. I got to have a career out of this, so I can't complain. And I've gotten to do enough variants on these themes that I'm happy. So no, not at all. I'm not disappointed in the least.
What's your experience like when you go to conventions? Does the enthusiasm of the fans, surprise you?
I go for the fans, and the fans are just wonderful people. They're delightful, very kind. They're funny, they're very smart. It's just fun to be with them. That's what got me, when I first began to go to these. I thought, 'Well, I'll try this out.' It was the fact that the fans were so nice. Astonishing.
Was there a movie that you've done that you were disappointed didn't do better? I'm thinking of a movie like 'The Thing,' for instance.
That's the one. I wish it had done better; my career would have been different.
I would have had more opportunities to reach out a little bit more in suspense and horror. It would have been different. But that's not what happened. It was hated.
Why was that?
I had no clue. It was a mystery to me. There were a couple of magazines at the time, they asked, 'Was this the most hated movie ever made?' Fans hated it. They thought I'd raped the madonna by re-making that movie, I guess. And done it in such a bad way, by showing this awful monster all the time.
What's next for you? What's on the horizon?
I'm developing a couple of things, taking it easy and praying for the NBA season to actually be on this year. Praying and praying.