John Carpenter’s low-budget, precision-made slasher Halloween is one of the cornerstones of the modern horror film. A massive hit upon its initial release in 1978, the movie spawned a franchise and scores of imitators, and put Carpenter on the path to becoming an above-the-title household name. Carpenter’s subsequent career produced countless classics and cult favorites—from Escape From New York and The Thing to They Live and Big Trouble In Little China—and though his output has slowed down, he remains a tremendous influence on filmmakers far and wide.
With Halloween returning to multiplexes tonight, and it being Horrors Week here at The A.V. Club, now seemed a good a time as any to call up one of the defining masters of American genre film and talk shop.
The A.V. Club: What makes horror work?
John Carpenter: Well, there’s a very specific secret: It should be scary.
AVC: To you?
JC: [Laughs.] No, not particularly. It needs to be scary to the audience, because they’re the ones that are going to make it or break it.
AVC: Let me float you a theory. You’re a big Howard Hawks fan—that classical tradition of characters defined by their actions. And in your work, they’re defined by how they react when confronted with horror.
JC: I hadn’t thought of that. Can I use that?
AVC: It’s yours.
JC: I love it.
AVC: Maybe it ties back to perspective. Part of what makes Halloween scary is the way it composes the perspective of the audience. Is that what it comes down to?
JC: Well, there’s no one thing or explanation. There’s a number of things that make a successful horror film. They just have to all work. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. It’s real simple.
AVC: And when it doesn’t work?
JC: There’s a whole raft of reasons. Perhaps you don’t get the audience to suspend their disbelief. Something takes them out of it. They’re distracted by something that you do that you didn’t mean to do as a director.
AVC: You have a scary image, like a man with a knife—you still have to build to it, let the audience in there.
JC: I sure hope so. A movie’s not just the pictures. It’s the story and it’s the perspective and it’s the tempo and it’s the silence and it’s the music—it’s all the stuff that’s going on. All the sensory stuff. Sometimes you can get a lot of suspense going in a non-horror film. It all depends. But, look, if there was one secret way of doing a horror movie then everybody would be doing it. [Laughs.] We’d all be making great movies every second. But it doesn’t work that way. There’s a little bit of magic involved, and that’s what makes it so interesting.
AVC: Has what audiences are scared of changed?
JC: No, horror’s always been the same. It’s flexible. It changes with societal changes. During a war like Vietnam, people may feel different than they do during peacetime. During tough times like the Depression, it’s different from flush times. But people are still scared of the same things. We’re all scared of the same things. Death. Pain. Loss of a loved one. You can make a list, and in every society it’s the same. These are fears that we all have. I have ’em. You have ’em. We’re all scared of this stuff.
AVC: Say you made Halloween now.
JC: Well, they wouldn’t wear bell-bottoms. The clothes would be different, but the structure would be pretty much the same—but, look, I could be wrong about all of this stuff. What do I know?
AVC: Well, if I needed an expert opinion on this subject, you’d be the guy.
JC: [Laughs.] Oh, no!
AVC: Hey, if you don’t know, I don’t think anybody does.
JC: I feel more comfortable with that, because I don’t have a clue. You know, I’ve been a fan of horror for years and years and years. People say things like, “The rule is that you never show the devil.” I’ve heard that. An actress lectured me on that once. But if you have a good-looking devil, and it looks convincing—well, yes, you show it! You kidding? It’ll scare the shit out of the audience. If you have a stupid devil, then you don’t show it.
That’s why I always worry about rules. You know, rules for horror. It’s just not that easy or simple. But when I say horror is essentially the same, I mean its purpose. Throughout the years, it’s been to scare you. Its purpose is to take away the reality of your life for a little while and scare you in safety—in the safety of the theater. That’s its purpose.
AVC: “Showing the devil” makes me think of Night Of The Demon.
JC: That’s a perfect example, because that’s a great damn demon. It’s one of my favorites. I know Jacques Tourneur was upset that they put that demon in the movie, but it’s good, dude. It’s good-looking, it works great.
AVC: Did you first see that back in the ’50s?
JC: I sure did.
AVC: Any other horror movies that left an impression on you early on?
JC: The early Hammer films were really terrifying. For instance, The Curse Of Frankenstein was really unbelievable to me. I mean, I was only 9 years old. It was on a double bill with X The Unknown. Man, it was great—scary stuff in those days of atomic radiation. I still love watching those movies.
AVC: Wasn’t The Curse Of Frankenstein Hammer’s first one in color?
JC: Yeah. They did The Quatermass Xperiment just before, and then they decided they were going to remake the old Universal horror films, and that was the first. Their Dracula—which wasn’t until the following year, I think—was great, too.
AVC: Those early Hammer horror movies can get pretty colorful, but not like the Italian stuff from the ’60s and ’70s.
JC: Oh, hell yeah. Now, if you look at a movie like Suspiria, the Dario Argento movie—that was done in imbibition, a technique by which you could control the colors separately. There were only a couple of labs in the world that could do that. One was in Rome. If you look at the color of that movie, it’s unbelievable. Oh, man. It was all planned out beautifully
AVC: Let’s talk planning, because Halloween and Assault On Precinct 13 were made on very low budgets. Did you plan a lot of it advance?
JC: Big time, because if you don’t have any money, you better be prepared. You know, how’s this going to work, how are we going to pull this stuff off with a micro budget, because that’s what we had on both of those movies. They were planned out to the shot.
AVC: And once you got bigger budget, did you keep to the meticulous planning, or were finally happy to be able to try more things on the fly?
JC: Oh, the latter. You don’t have to be quite as rigid in your planning when you have a bigger budget. You can experiment, which was delightful. It was like a breather. “Thank God that, for a minute here, we don’t have to just worry about the fact that we don’t have any money.” But now we’re back to the days of cheap horror films. Blumhouse is taking us back.
AVC: And now we’re in the digital age. You think there are lessons people need to keep in mind, in terms of being a resourceful genre filmmaker?
JC: I think the rules of filmmaking are the essentially the same as they were since, I guess, The Birth Of A Nation. The way you make movies: long shot, close-up, camera movement, structure—it’s all the same. Not much has changed. But the technology of movies has vastly changed. From 35mm black-and-white to color, from nitrate film to safety film and now into digital—and yet we’re still breaking scenes into master shots and close-ups. The cinema narrative has not changed that much since the silent film.
AVC: Do you think it should?
JC: Well, sure, people do try. There are movies made that try different narrative things, but usually they’re impossible to watch for an audience. [Laughs.] There’s a reason why the narrative that Hollywood developed has worked all these years. It’s because it speaks directly to the unconscious of the audience. It goes directly in there, into the emotion. That’s important, because movies are about getting the audience to project their feelings on to the screen. That’s what they’re all about. So if I’m scared, I’m scared for the characters up there.
AVC: I know you play a lot of games. Is the horror mechanic different there?
JC: It is. But the whole idea of a game works differently. You get scared in games. I play this series of games called Dead Space, where essentially you’re trapped on a spaceship with monsters running around after you. It’s really fun. When you play it for the first time, you don’t know what’s going to happen in that room that you’re about to go into—but what happens is you expect to be attacked by some horrible monster, or to be trapped by it. It’s a totally different narrative.
AVC: When I play Dead Space, I just die over and over again.
JC: Well, hell yeah! [Laughs.] Put it on easy, dude. Put it on the easiest until you get used to it.
AVC: You don’t think that alters suspense? Because when you finish a movie for the first time, you’ve experienced every moment only once, but by the time you finish a game, you’ve experienced the same moments over and over.
JC: But you know, revisiting things is fun. Not everything has to be new. I still love watching Rio Bravo. I mean it. I know what’s going to happen, I know that John Wayne and Angie Dickinson are going to end up together, but I still love watching it. I love watching The Big Sleep, but I’ve seen it I don’t know how many times. Replaying in a game is the same. Sometimes you find new things in games while replaying, and you see things that you didn’t see before.