Following the surprise success of Assault on Precinct 13 in Europe, Carpenter turned his attention to the horror genre, turning out the horror double bill of Halloween (1978) and The Fog (1980).
Whilst the London Film Festival and Cannes started the buzz for Assault on Precinct 13 in Europe, it was at the Milan Film Festival that Irwin Yablans, an independent film producer, and Moustapha Akkad earmarked Carpenter for the project that they hoped would rival the impact of The Exorcist (1973). Halloween was a film that came out of these events, and should need no introduction. Its plot was simple but effective; a psychotic killer on Halloween night who stalks and kills the babysitters of a small suburban town. It would not be overstating it to suggest that it was in Europe that Carpenter’s career took an important step forward: the opportunity to do his seminal slasher horror.
Despite the transition between genres, Halloween was a continuation of Assault on Precinct 13 in one respect. Both films were exercises in simmering tension, though Halloween would affirm that the suspenseful cinema of John Carpenter derived in part from his uniquely personal synthesised sound.
Halloween was not just a continuation, nor should it be solely defined as such. Rather it was an affirmation of Carpenter’s auteurial presence. The simmering tension derives from Carpenter’s patience. He has a willingness to let his characters speak, an appreciation for the performances and the dialogue, confident that what is front of the camera is interesting. He avoids unnecessary flamboyant camera set-ups. But the most important element is perhaps the way in which Carpenter understands expectation, using the anticipation of violence to unnerve his audience. He understands that violence is the release of tension built through expectation. Carpenter’s Halloween plunges us into the realm of anticipation; it frays our nerves, the intensity of the violence void of blood and gore loses none of its intensity in the hands of a master of suspense.
The night has always been a fearful time since the birth of the horror film, and Wes Craven can be charged with turning dreams to nightmares. One of the innovative touches in Halloween was for Carpenter to have his protagonists stalked by day, in the baking hot sun. In so doing he continued a theme discussed in part one: creating a claustrophobic hell for his protagonists, with a renewed sense of isolation.
The white William Shatner mask gave Myers a human face, yet its lack of defining features hid any sense of humanity behind its faint human features. Most likely a consequence of movie magic, the white face would illuminate like the moon in the darkness; his body hidden by the black boiler suit, allowing him to appear as if out of nowhere, able to materialise supernaturally from the shadows. Whilst the ‘Street Thunder’ in Assault were reminiscent of Romero’s influence, the walk of Michael affectionately now known as ‘the shape’, was Carpenter giving his monster a human feature: “To make Michael Myers frightening, I had him walk like a man, not a monster.” Whereas Romero was dehumanizing his once human monsters, Carpenter was striking an effective compromise between the human identity and its distortion.
Whilst Halloween spawned many sequels, the first of which Carpenter wrote, it not only helped the local beer sales, which Carpenter needed to get through the arduous process of writing the script, but also gave the horror genre something to imitate – inspiring a host of slasher films.
What earned Carpenter’s Halloween the critical praise was his use of suspense, the way in which he created space onto which we could project our fears, our anticipations. Unlike the films that succeeded it, Halloween was defined more by the suspense than it was the violence. Carpenter use of violence and comedy was not dissimilar to the use of punctuation in a sentence. They are moments in which Carpenter lets us catch our breath, or rather our wits before we continue the terrifying experience of the night he came home.
Carpenter’s foray into horror proved to be an important contribution to both the horror genre and its slasher sub-genre. Unlike his other films, it is the one that raises him high in the annals of cinema more so than any other. With Halloween he cast a shadow over other notable horror films and their directors. Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace (1964) and Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974) are considered early slasher films, the latter’s plot of a mysterious killer stalking a sorority house of young girls, and the point of view shots accredited to Carpenter are lost in the shadow of Halloween’s overwhelming commercial success.
I would not go so far as to say that Halloween overshadows Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960). Academia whether you judge it pretentious or not, refuses to degrade the iconic director of British cinema by associating him with the low brow slasher film. Nevertheless, along with Psycho, Peeping Tom with a male killer stalking and murdering women are considered early prototypes of the slasher film, though it would not come to prominence until Halloween eighteen years later.
After Psycho comes Halloween. After Hitchcock comes John Carpenter. That is quite a legacy for a director who once remarked, “In England, I’m a horror movie director. In Germany, I’m a filmmaker. In the US, I’m a bum.”
Halloween, for all its auteurial qualities, establishes Carpenter as a towering presence within the horror genre. It shows the extent of his relevance, inspiring a host of slasher films, and casting shadows over previous films that should be considered amongst the first slasher films. Carpenter has clouded the origins merely through the reputation of Halloween: first there was the great Alfred Hitchcock, and then there was the bum John Carpenter.
It is with a touch of irony that Halloween is the first feature of his horror double bill. For Carpenter it was the case of going through paradise to get to hell. Halloween was shot in twenty one days, cost $325,000 and went on to gross $47 million domestically. Carpenter’s first horror film was a remarkable success; a critical and commercial hit. The Fog however was a different story altogether. Whilst I include it in this retrospective, Carpenter’s assessment is not a case of a director struggling to see the quality of his work because of his subjectivity. It is undoubtedly “a minor horror classic.”
The Fog possesses at its heart an intriguing premise, a supernatural fog that sweeps across the fishing town of Antonio Bay, carrying with it the ghosts of a century old shipwreck, looking to claim the lives of six people.
The underdeveloped Father Malone (Hal Holbrook) is both a glaring miscue, and the reason attributed to Christopher Lee’s declining of the part; despite his eagerness to work with Carpenter. Two years earlier his agents had dismissed Halloween as a silly little film, and the Dr. Loomis part went to Donald Pleasance rather than Carpenter’s first choice. Whilst all ended well with Halloween, I can’t say the same for The Fog.
Lee knew that the Father Malone character required fleshing out, and despite making his reasons clear for declining the part, Carpenter failed to act on Lee’s advice, and rather than revisiting the script chose to cast Hal Holbrook, and so the film fundamentally lacks a central protagonist. Compounding this was the structural problem of the killing of three of the six victims in the first act alone. Carpenter’s usual penchant for pacing is missing, as is the appreciation for characterisation.
Yet despite these flaws, the film is seductive. With an appealing premise, effective soundtrack, moments of suspense equal to Carpenter’s best, and the town DJ’s sharp dialogue, and the wonderfully constructed exposition of the story behind the shipwreck and the founding of Antonio Bay; The Fog seduces us into considering it a classic.
Carpenter’s second horror film presents an interesting comparison to Halloween in the implication of the supernatural. There is only a suspicion of the supernatural in Halloween, and that suspicion could readily be explained away as the ramblings of an old man. The subtle supernatural nuances in Halloween are delicately balanced between the premise of reality and something otherworldly. The Fog’s overtones are bold: a sweeping force that conjures up a shipwrecked cutter along with its dead captain and crew, disrupts lines of communication, disabling phone lines and interfering with the radio transmission.
Pleasance’s speech in Halloween describes his encounter fifteen years ago with the young Michael, referring to him as pure evil, serves principally to confound us in the film’s closing moments. Carpenter maximises the implication of the supernatural at this point. Loomis looks over the balcony, and his expression silently speaks a thousand words. He knew he wouldn’t see the evil lying below. What we thought was a psychotic killer, is revealed to be something more ominous: a supernatural force. With a touch of simplicity, Carpenter’s montage recaptures the terrifying events of the film, as we are left to reel in the revelation of the supernatural as truth, and not just the ramblings of an old man.
John Houseman’s ghost story around the camp fire in the opening scenes are reminiscent of Loomis’ story in Halloween, and whilst the events from the beginning are more overtly supernatural in The Fog, this horror double bill ties into a thematic concern of Carpenter’s films, that those who are attentive to their surroundings will generally survive.
If anything The Fog serves to reveal the other side of Carpenter. Compared to the success of Halloween, it shows Carpenter’s creative struggles, and in spite of these flaws, and his realisation in the editing room that the film simply did not work, The Fog as “a minor horror classic” is a success. In anybody else’s hands it remains an unanswered question as to how it would have turned out, though the recent remake with an alternative director may answer that: not very well.