Why It’s Time For A Re-appreciation Of Mr John Carpenter
Mr Kurt Russell in The Thing, 1982. Photograph by Alamy
The thing about Mr John Carpenter’s <i>The Thing</i>, plus why we can’t get the movie maestro’s music out of our heads.
For all the doffs of the cap to Mr Steven Spielberg that litter Netflix’s recent hit series Stranger Things, it isn’t a poster of ET that hangs in Mike’s den – or, indeed, Poltergeist (penned and produced by Mr Spielberg) that his teacher Mr Clarke watches on VHS on a Saturday night. It’s Mr John Carpenter’s The Thing. Overlooked (and R-rated) at the time, the film has grown in stature, as has the reputation of its director, who, next week, enjoys his own season at the BFI in London. But while Mr Spielberg’s filmography is still growing and his mantelpiece is laden down with awards (three Oscars and counting), Mr Carpenter isn’t even making movies anymore – he’s too busy making music.
The Thing is notable in Mr Carpenter’s back catalogue because he didn’t write the score; the legendary composer Mr Ennio Morricone did. And if you came here hoping for confirmation that the early 1980s was a purple patch of originality compared with the focus-group-friendly franchises of today, it is worth noting that the film is itself a remake (of 1951’s T_he Thing From Another World_). Plus, while minds were quite literally blown (apart) on screen in The Thing, the box office was hardly set alight. A victim of bad scheduling, the movie came out two weeks after Mr Spielberg’s ET and the same day as Mr Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, suggesting that audiences had reached saturation point with era-defining sci-fi movies.
Dark Star, 1974. Photograph courtesy BFI
If in 1982 you were ducking into a cinema to escape the tensions of the Cold War – then at its peak – a witch-hunt on a claustrophobic Antarctic research base was not going to do it. In The Thing, which stars Mr Kurt Russell as a burly helicopter pilot, the cast, already battling the elements, are picked off one by one by an alien interloper that has the particularly scary ability to perfectly imitate other living organisms, which naturally sends all the characters into an infighting, paranoid frenzy. Come the finale, you’re not even sure if the last man standing is a man (Mr Carpenter apparently agreed to film a “happy” ending that confirmed he was, but it is yet to see the light of day).
Perhaps in capturing its era (if not the metamorphosing extraterrestrial), The Thing has become a cult classic, but not before being classified a video nasty in the UK under the Video Recordings Act 1984 (while not banned, copies of it were liable to seizure and confiscation; it was only passed uncut in 2009). This is largely down to Mr Carpenter’s home-made special effects, including the “melted plastic and microwaved bubble gum” used to create the alien shape-shifter that so tickled Stranger Things’ Mr Clarke.
Mr Nick Castle as Michael Myers in Halloween, 1978. Photograph courtesy BFI
Both Mr David Cronenberg’s Scanners and Mr Sam Raimi’s original The Evil Dead had set the tone for gore the previous year. However, Mr Carpenter (who had previously turned a beachball into an oddly convincing alien in his space comedy debut Dark Star, which opens the BFI’s Mr Carpenter season) arguably pushed the genre further, setting the stage for Mr Peter Jackson (who before ruling Middle Earth was known for splattering aliens and zombies in the films Bad Taste and Braindead) and Mr Robert Rodriguez. The Thing perhaps also proves that explosions that involving Plasticine are so much more gratifying than those that utilise pixels.
There is a lot more to Mr Carpenter’s 1980s oeuvre than inventive gore and chilling sci-fi concepts. The one thing that Stranger Things lifts most effectively from the world of Mr Carpenter is its haunting, analogue-sounding synth soundtrack. Mr Carpenter excelled in this field, composing the unforgettable scores for films such as slasher classic Halloween (screening on 17 October and 7 November) and Escape From New York (24 and 28 October). And it’s in this field that, today, he feels more comfortable. Which is why you might not be able to catch the auteur at the BFI, but you can definitely see him playing some of his music live as he takes his latest album Lost Themes II on tour this October. That Mr Carpenter is known for embracing the synthesiser, an affordable instrument that bestows the powers of an entire orchestra on one person, is symbolic of the do-it-yourself ethos at the heart of his film-making.
Mr Kurt Russell as Snake Plissken in Escape From New York, 1981. Photograph courtesy BFI
The creeping feeling that the early 1980s were an era of unbridled creativity, a cultural high point when anyone could do anything, is perhaps a little misleading. It was precisely through being bridled – by a lack of resources, and without the computers or budget of a big-studio franchise – that Mr Carpenter and his peers thrived, by thinking of new (and cheap) ways to cobble together films, from the visuals and special effects to the music. By necessity, they were made by a tiny crew, rather than by committee, so could genuinely claim to be one man’s vision. But more than anything, what makes their work stand out today is the only thing they had to fall back on: imagination.