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The Everlasting Influence of John Carpenter

Where to Stream

The Void

Master of horror, action, and all things suspenseful John Carpenter has been cranking out classics for years. The fascinating thing about Carpenter is that he truly exists in a class all his own; he’s rarely mentioned amongst big names like Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg, and Lucas, but he’s been just as prolific and influential as they have. Carpenter is one of our greatest living directors, and his incomparable body of work, as well as his ability to cross genres, has made him a distinctive force in the film industry. There’s an edge to his work, and the slew of iconic films he released in the 1970s and 1980s are still influencing filmmakers today.

A ton of today’s top directors have all named Carpenter as a heavy influence in their careers during interviews or at one time or another; James Cameron, Edgar Wright, Danny Boyle, Quentin Tarantino, Jeff Nichols, James Gunn, The Duffer Brothers, Guillermo del Toro, Drew Goddard, Ben Wheatley, and Bong Joon-ho are just a few of the plethora of big-time filmmakers who have referenced Carpenter as an influence on their work. In fact, Tarantino admitted that The Thing was the only film he had the cast of The Hateful Eight watch – the classic flick heavily colors his own (not to mention the use of Kurt Russell as a lead). The Duffer Brothers’ hit Netflix original Stranger Things was an obvious ode to the 80s, and within that, a prominent use of Carpenter-esque traits. The most blatant homage to Carpenter is the show’s signature synth score; the atmospheric component that the score contributes is incredibly reminiscent of much of Carpenter’s work. There are other references to Carpenter’s work that are pretty pointed (like a poster for The Thing in Mike’s basement), but the general feeling of the series – which also bears similarities to Spielberg, Stephen King, and others – clearly has Carpenter’s hand in it.

The VoidEverett Collection

This weekend, The Void hits theaters, and if it isn’t obvious from the film’s trailer, it’s essentially a love letter to Carpenter. This 80s throwback creature feature is rarely done well nowadays, but writer-directors Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski nail it in this terrifying tale. (It also helps that the directing duo have backgrounds in art direction and effects make-up, and experience with creating low-budget, high-impact horror films). Without Carpenter, it’s likely that a film like this would not exist – he was something of a pioneer of utilizing a small budget for a big story in a confined location, using practical effects for his creatures, and using long shots and framing to generate a sense of suspense and dread.

The disciplined use of camerawork to aid in narrative is perhaps best illustrated in Halloween, Carpenter’s 1978 slasher film that birthed iconic masked madman Michael Myers, opens with a long tracking shot that establishes the setting, evokes a sense of dread and suspense, and ensures that the eventual gut punch of the scene (in this case, Myers’ murder of his sister), is absolutely terrifying. The flick was shot on a tight budget ($325,000) and went on to become one of the most influential horror movies of all time – the genre was completely shifted by Halloween. Tracking shots are not the only manner in which Carpenter utilizes his camerawork for storytelling; his framing has always lent itself to apprehension and uncertainty. He’ll often take his time before there’s any blood or gore on screen, and instead give us an image that shows our protagonist seemingly safe – with the killer (or monster) looming nearby, just barely visible enough to give you goosebumps when you realize what’s occurring.

HalloweenEverett Collection

Carpenter’s use of score to establish a sense of dread and paranoia has also become something of a staple within the genre; even his title sequences can make you feel uneasy. (Stranger Things utilizes this habit well). Assault on Precinct 13 and The Thing are two prime examples of his use of electronic score and limited setting to create an eerie sense of dread and suspense. Carpenter knows what his best tools are and he utilizes them seemingly effortlessly; his scripts are good, but his ability to put them on screen is better.

In the last few years, Carpenter’s influence has once again played a prominent role in a handful of films. The most obvious (and best-executed) are perhaps films like It Follows and The Guestthough there have certainly been a ton of others. Most of these flicks utilize the “Final Girl” trope, and the use masterful use of camerawork in all three are what make them stand-out films. The Guest is a blatant homage to Carpenter; it even opens with a title card that uses Carpenter’s signature font and a Jack O’Lantern, and the bumping synth score drives the action-horror hybrid. It Follows utilizes framing in a way that immediately evokes Carpenter; while our leading lady sits in class, she suddenly notices a figure approaching across the yard. It’s distant, and it’s horrifying. The construction of tension and atmosphere throughout the film set in suburbia is what makes it so undeniably Carpenter-esque (though director David Robert Mitchell certainly still exudes his own confidence and sense of storytelling – and we can’t wait to see what he does next.)

The GuestEverett Collection

These trademarks – the disciplined use of camerawork to aid in narrative, unique title cards, atmospheric, synth-y scores, and practical effects – are exactly how Carpenter became the icon he remains today. Carpenter has proven time and time again that you don’t need a big budget or elaborate set to tell a hell of a story; the filmmakers that follow suit tend to find the same success in storytelling that he has. As The Void creeps into theaters and on demand this weekend, Carpenter’s hand in allowing films like this to exist should not be overlooked – and the legacy he’s left across multiple genres is sure to endure for years to come.

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