Most films in Carpenter's career were initially commercial and critical failures, with the notable exceptions of Halloween (1978), The Fog (1980), Escape from New York (1981), and Starman (1984). However, many of Carpenter's films from the 1970s and the 1980s have come to be viewed as cult classics, and he has been acknowledged as an influential filmmaker. Cult classics that Carpenter directed include: Dark Star (1974), Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), The Thing (1982), Christine (1983), Big Trouble in Little China (1986), Prince of Darkness (1987), They Live (1988) and In the Mouth of Madness (1995).
Carpenter is also notable for having composed or co-composed most of the music of his films; some of them are now considered cult classics as well, with the main theme of Halloween being considered a part of popular culture. He released his first studio album Lost Themes in 2015, and also won a Saturn Award for Best Music for Vampires (1998).
Carpenter was born January 16, 1948 in Carthage, New York, the son of Milton Jean (née Carter) and Howard Ralph Carpenter, a music professor. He and his family moved to Bowling Green, Kentucky in 1953. He was captivated by movies from an early age, particularly the westerns of Howard Hawks and John Ford, as well as 1950s low budget horror films, such as The Thing from Another World and high budget science fiction like Forbidden Planet and began filming horror shorts on 8 mm film even before entering high school. He attended Western Kentucky University, where his father chaired the music department, then transferred to the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts in 1968, but dropped out to make his first feature.
In a beginning film course at USC Cinema in 1969, Carpenter wrote and directed an 8-minute short film, Captain Voyeur. The film was rediscovered in the USC archives in 2011 and proved interesting because it revealed elements that would appear in his later film, Halloween (1978).
The following year he collaborated with producer John Longenecker as co-writer, film editor and music composer for The Resurrection of Broncho Billy (1970), which won an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film. The short film was blown-up to 35mm, sixty prints were made, and the film was theatrically released by Universal Studios for two years in the United States and Canada.
His first major film as director, Dark Star (1974), was a science fiction black comedy that he cowrote with Dan O'Bannon (who later went on to write Alien, borrowing freely from much of Dark Star). The film reportedly cost only $60,000 and was difficult to make as both Carpenter and O'Bannon completed the film by multitasking, with Carpenter doing the musical score as well as the writing, producing and directing, while O'Bannon acted in the film and did the special effects (which caught the attention of George Lucas who hired him to do work on the special effects for Star Wars). Carpenter's efforts did not go unnoticed as much of Hollywood marveled at his filmmaking abilities within the confines of a shoestring budget.
Carpenter's next film was Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), a low-budget thriller influenced by the films of Howard Hawks, particularly Rio Bravo. As with Dark Star, Carpenter was responsible for many aspects of the film's creation. He not only wrote, directed and scored it, but also edited the film under the pseudonym "John T. Chance" (the name of John Wayne's character in Rio Bravo). Carpenter has said that he considers Assault on Precinct 13 to have been his first real film because it was the first movie that he shot on a schedule. The film marked the first time Carpenter worked with Debra Hill, who played prominently in the making of some of Carpenter's most important films.
Carpenter assembled a main cast that consisted of experienced but relatively obscure actors. The two leads were Austin Stoker, who had appeared previously in science fiction, disaster and blaxploitation films, and Darwin Joston, who had worked primarily in television and had once been Carpenter's next-door neighbor.
The film received a critical reassessment in the United States, where it is now generally regarded as one of the best exploitation films of the 1970s.
Carpenter both wrote and directed the Lauren Hutton thriller Someone's Watching Me!. This TV movie is the tale of a single, working woman who, shortly after arriving in L.A., discovers that she is being stalked.
Eyes of Laura Mars, a 1978 thriller film starring Faye Dunaway and Tommy Lee Jones and directed by Irvin Kershner was adapted (in collaboration with David Zelag Goodman) from a spec script titled Eyes, written by John Carpenter, and would become Carpenter's first major studio film of his career.
Halloween (1978) was a commercial hit and helped give birth to the slasher film genre. Originally an idea suggested by producer Irwin Yablans (titled The Babysitter Murders), who envisioned a film about babysitters being menaced by a stalker, Carpenter took the idea and another suggestion from Yablans that it take place during Halloween and developed a story. Carpenter said of the basic concept: "Halloween night. It has never been the theme in a film. My idea was to do an old haunted house movie." The film was written by Carpenter and Debra Hill with Carpenter admitting that the music was inspired by both Dario Argento's Suspiria (which also influenced the film's surreal color scheme) and William Friedkin's The Exorcist.
Carpenter again worked with a relatively small budget, $320,000. The film grossed over $65 million initially, making it one of the most successful independent films of all time.
Carpenter has described Halloween as: "True crass exploitation. I decided to make a film I would love to have seen as a kid, full of cheap tricks like a haunted house at a fair where you walk down the corridor and things jump out at you." The film has often been cited as an allegory on the virtue of sexual purity and the danger of casual sex, although Carpenter has explained that this was not his intent: "It has been suggested that I was making some kind of moral statement. Believe me, I'm not. In Halloween, I viewed the characters as simply normal teenagers."
In addition to the film's critical and commercial success, Carpenter's self-composed "Halloween Theme" became recognizable apart from the movie.
In 1979, John Carpenter began what was to be the first of several collaborations with actor Kurt Russell when he directed the television film Elvis.
Carpenter followed up the success of Halloween with The Fog (1980), a ghostly revenge tale (co-written by Hill) inspired by horror comics such as Tales from the Crypt and by The Crawling Eye, a 1958 movie about monsters hiding in clouds.
Completing The Fog was an unusually difficult process for Carpenter. After viewing a rough cut of the film, he was dissatisfied with the result. For the only time in his filmmaking career, he had to devise a way to salvage a nearly finished film that did not meet his standards. In order to make the movie more coherent and frightening, Carpenter shot additional footage that included a number of new scenes.
Despite production problems and mostly negative critical reception, The Fog was another commercial success for Carpenter. The film was made on a budget of $1,000,000, but it grossed over $21,000,000 in the United States alone. Carpenter has said that The Fog is not his favorite film, although he considers it a "minor horror classic".
Carpenter immediately followed The Fog with the science-fiction adventure Escape from New York (1981). Starring several actors that Carpenter had collaborated with (Donald Pleasence, Adrienne Barbeau, Tom Atkins, Charles Cyphers, and Frank Doubleday) or would collaborate with again (Kurt Russell and Harry Dean Stanton), as well as several highly notable actors (Lee Van Cleef and Ernest Borgnine), it went on to become both commercially successful (grossing over $25 million) and critically acclaimed (with an 85% on Rotten Tomatoes).
His next film, The Thing (1982), is notable for its high production values, including innovative special effects by Rob Bottin, special visual effects by matte artist Albert Whitlock, a score by Ennio Morricone and a cast including rising star Kurt Russell and respected character actors such as Wilford Brimley, Richard Dysart, Charles Hallahan, Keith David, and Richard Masur. The Thing was distributed by Universal Pictures.
Although Carpenter's film used the same source material as the 1951 Howard Hawks film, The Thing from Another World, it is more faithful to the John W. Campbell, Jr. novella, Who Goes There?, upon which both films were based. Moreover, unlike the Hawks film, The Thing was part of what Carpenter later called his "Apocalypse Trilogy," a trio of films (The Thing, Prince of Darkness, and In the Mouth of Madness) with bleak endings for the film's characters. Being a graphic, sinister horror film, it did not appeal to audiences in the summer of 1982, especially when E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, which illustrated a much more light-hearted picture of alien visitation, was released two weeks prior. In an interview, Carpenter stated that E.T.'s release could have been largely responsible for the film's disappointment. As The Thing did not perform well on a commercial level, it was Carpenter's first financial disappointment.
During filming on The Thing, Universal offered him the chance to direct Firestarter, based on the novel by Stephen King. Carpenter hired Bill Lancaster and Bill Phillips to adapt the novel into different versions of the screenplay. Carpenter had ear-marked Richard Dreyfuss as Andy McGee, but when The Thing was a box-office disappointment, Universal replaced Carpenter with Mark L. Lester. Ironically, Carpenter's next film, Christine, was the 1983 adaptation of the Stephen King novel of the same name. The story revolves around a high-school nerd named Arnie Cunningham (Keith Gordon) who buys a junked 1958 Plymouth Fury which turns out to have supernatural powers. As Cunningham restores and rebuilds the car, he becomes unnaturally obsessed with it, with deadly consequences. Christine did respectable business upon its release and was received well by critics; however, Carpenter has been quoted as saying he directed the film because it was the only thing offered to him at the time.
Starman (1984) was produced by Michael Douglas, the script was well received by Columbia Pictures, which chose it over the script for E.T. and prompted Steven Spielberg to go to Universal Pictures. Douglas chose Carpenter to be the director because of his reputation as an action director who could also convey strong emotion. Starman was favorably reviewed by the Los Angeles Times, New York Times and LA Weekly and described by Carpenter as a film he envisioned as a romantic comedy similar to It Happened One Night only with a space alien. The film received Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for Jeff Bridges' portrayal of Starman and received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Musical Score for Jack Nitzsche. Following the box office failure of his big-budget action–comedy Big Trouble in Little China (1986), Carpenter struggled to get films financed. He returned to making lower budget films such as Prince of Darkness (1987), a film influenced by the BBC series Quatermass. Although some of the films from this time, such as They Live (1988) did pick up a cult audience, he never again realized his mass-market potential.
Carpenter was also offered The Exorcist III in 1989, and met with writer William Peter Blatty (who also authored the novel on which it was based, Legion) over the course of a week. However, the two clashed on the film's climax and Carpenter passed on the project. Blatty directed the film himself a year later. Carpenter said that although they fought over the ending, they held a mutual respect and talked about an interest they both shared: quantum physics.
His 1990s career is characterized by a number of notable misfires: Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992), Village of the Damned (1995) and Escape from L.A. (1996) are examples of films that were critical and box office failures. Also notable from this decade are Body Bags, a TV horror anthology movie that was made in collaboration with Tobe Hooper, In the Mouth of Madness (1995), yet another Lovecraftian homage, which did not do well either at the box office or with critics but now has a cult following, and Vampires (1998), which starred James Woods as the leader of a band of vampire hunters in league with the Catholic Church.
John Carpenter was originally in the running to be the director for the Halloween (1978) follow-up project, Halloween H20: 20 Years Later (1998). Since Jamie Lee Curtis, the star actress from the original and the sequel Halloween II (1981), wanted to reunite the cast and crew of the original film, she reached out to Carpenter to direct Halloween H20: 20 Years Later. Carpenter agreed to direct the movie, but his starting fee as director was 10 million dollars. Carpenter rationalized this by believing the hefty fee was compensation for revenue he never received from the original Halloween, a matter that was still a bit of contention between Carpenter and Halloween producer Moustapha Akkad even after twenty years had passed. When Akkad balked at Carpenter's fee, Carpenter left the project. Steve Miner took over directing of Halloween H20: 20 Years Later, which was a box office success and received generally favorable reviews.
2001 saw the release of Ghosts of Mars. 2005 saw remakes of Assault on Precinct 13 and The Fog, the latter being produced by Carpenter himself, though in an interview he defined his involvement as, "I come in and say hello to everybody. Go home."
In 2007 Rob Zombie produced and directed Halloween, a re-imagining of Carpenter's 1978 film that spawned a sequel two years later.
Carpenter returned to the director's chair in 2005 for an episode of Showtime's Masters of Horror series as one of the thirteen filmmakers involved in the first season. His episode, "Cigarette Burns", aired to generally positive reviews, and positive reactions from Carpenter fans, many of whom regard it as on par with his earlier horror classics. He has since contributed another original episode for the show's second season entitled "Pro-Life", about a young girl who is raped and impregnated by a demon and wants to have an abortion, but whose efforts are halted by her religious fanatic, gun-toting father and her three brothers.
The Ward, Carpenter's first movie since 2001's Ghosts of Mars, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 13, 2010. Carpenter narrated the video game F.E.A.R. 3. On October 10, 2010, Carpenter received the Lifetime Award from the Freak Show Horror Film Festival. Test footage from the set of Darkchylde emerged in July 2010 and on October 31, 2010, it was announced Carpenter is to direct. On February 3, 2015, the indie label Sacred Bones Records released his album Lost Themes. On October 19, 2015, All Tomorrow's Parties announced that Carpenter will be performing old and new compositions in London and Manchester, England.
In February 2016, Carpenter announced a follow up to Lost Themes titled Lost Themes II, which was released on April 15, 2016. He will be performing live in 2016 as well, and is currently set to perform at All Tomorrow's Parties in Iceland and Primavera Sound in Spain.
On May 23, 2016, it was announced that Carpenter would act as executive producer on a new Halloween film, planned for an October 2018 release, his first direct involvement in the franchise since 1982's Halloween III: Season of the Witch.
His films are characterized by minimalist lighting and photography, static cameras, use of steadicam, and distinctive synthesized scores (usually self-composed).
With the exception of Someone's Watching Me!, Elvis, The Thing, Starman, Memoirs of an Invisible Man, and The Ward, he has scored all of his films (though some are collaborations), most famously the themes from Halloween and Assault on Precinct 13. His music is generally synthesized with accompaniment from piano and atmospherics.
Carpenter is an outspoken proponent of widescreen filming, and all of his theatrical movies (with the exception of Dark Star and The Ward) were filmed anamorphic with a 2.35:1 or greater aspect ratio. The Ward was shot in Super 35, the first time Carpenter has ever used that system. Carpenter has stated he feels that the 35mm Panavision anamorphic format is "the best movie system there is", preferring it over both digital and 3D film.
On a recent interview, Carpenter stated that it was his father's work, as a music teacher, which first sparked an interest in him to make music. This interest was to play a major role in his later career: he composed the music to most of his films, and the soundtrack to many of those became "cult" items for record collectors. A 21st-Century revival of his music is due in no small amount to the Death Waltz record label, which reissued several of his soundtracks, including Escape from New York, Halloween II, Halloween III: Season of the Witch, Assault on Precinct 13, They Live, Prince of Darkness and The Fog.
Carpenter was an early adopter of synthesizers, since his film debut Dark Star, when he used a EMC VCS3 synth. His soundtracks went on to influence electronic artists who followed, but Carpenter himself admitted he had no particular interest in synths other than that they provided a means to "sound big with just a keyboard". For many years he worked in partnership with musician Alan Howarth, who would realize his vision by focusing on the more technical aspects of recording, allowing Carpenter to focus on writing the music.
The renewed interest in John Carpenter's music thanks to the Death Waltz reissues and Lost Themes albums lead him to, for the first time ever, tour as a musician. As of 2016, Carpenter is more involved with his music career than film-making, though in May of that same year it has been announced he'll be involved in a new Halloween film.
Carpenter has also contributed an opening narration for the retro-80's synthwave band Gunship, on their track entitled "Tech Noir." The narration is in line with Carpenter's earlier work on apocalyptic themes.
Many of Carpenter's films have been re-released on DVD as special editions with numerous bonus features. Examples of such are: the collector's editions of Halloween, Escape from New York, Christine, The Thing, Assault on Precinct 13, Big Trouble In Little China and The Fog. Some were re-issued with a new anamorphic widescreen transfer. In the UK, several of Carpenter's films have been released on DVD with audio commentary by Carpenter and his stars (They Live, with actor/wrestler Roddy Piper, Starman with actor Jeff Bridges and Prince of Darkness with actor Peter Jason).
Carpenter has been the subject of the documentary film John Carpenter: The Man and His Movies, and American Cinematheque's 2002 retrospective of his films. Moreover, in 2006, the United States Library of Congress deemed Halloween to be "culturally significant" and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry.
In 2010, writer and actor Mark Gatiss interviewed Carpenter about his career and films for his BBC documentary series A History of Horror. Carpenter appears in all three episodes of the series. He was also interviewed by Robert Rodriguez for his The Director's Chair series on El Rey Network.
Filmmakers that have been influenced by Carpenter include James Cameron, Quentin Tarantino, Guillermo del Toro, Robert Rodriguez, James Wan, Edgar Wright, Danny Boyle, Nicolas Winding Refn, Adam Wingard, Neil Marshall, Michael Dougherty, Ben Wheatley, Jeff Nichols, Bong Joon-ho, James Gunn, Mike Flanagan, David Robert Mitchell, Duffer Brothers, Jeremy Saulnier, Trey Edward Shults, Drew Goddard, David F. Sandberg, James DeMonaco, Adam Green, Ted Geoghegan, Keith Gordon, Jack Thomas Smith, and Marvin Kren. The video game Dead Space 3 is said to be influenced by Carpenter's The Thing, The Fog and Halloween, and Carpenter has stated that he would be enthusiastic to adapt that series into a feature film. Specific films influenced by Carpenter's include Sean S. Cunningham's Friday the 13th, which was inspired by the success of Halloween, Tarantino's The Hateful Eight, which was heavily influenced by The Thing, Wingard's The Guest, which was inspired by Michael Myers and influenced by Halloween III: Season of the Witch's music, Nichols' Midnight Special, which is said to have used Starman as a reference point, and Kren's Blood Glacier, which is said to be a homage to or recreation of The Thing.
Hans Zimmer also cited Carpenter as an influence on his compositions.
Carpenter met his future wife, actress Adrienne Barbeau, on the set of his 1978 television movie Someone's Watching Me!. Carpenter was married to Barbeau from January 1, 1979, to 1984. During their marriage, Barbeau starred in The Fog, and also appeared in Escape from New York. The couple had one son, John Cody Carpenter (born May 7, 1984).
Carpenter has been married to producer Sandy King since 1990. King produced Carpenter's later films In the Mouth of Madness, Village of the Damned, Vampires and Ghosts of Mars. She earlier had been the script supervisor on his films Starman, Big Trouble in Little China, Prince of Darkness, and They Live. On They Live she was also associate producer. She co-created the comic book series Asylum, with which Carpenter is involved.
He appeared in an episode of Animal Planet's Animal Icons titled "It Came from Japan", where he discussed his love and admiration for the original Godzilla film.
Carpenter is also a known supporter of video games as a media and art form and has a particular liking for the F.E.A.R. franchise in general, even going as far as offering himself as a spokesman and helping direct the cinematics for the third game. He has expressed an interest in making a movie based on Dead Space.Lost Themes (February 3, 2015)
Lost Themes II (April 15, 2016)
Anthology: Movie Themes 1974-1998 (October 20, 2017)
Lost Themes Remixed (October 16, 2015)
Classic Themes Redux EP (June 17, 2016)