Saturday, October 18, 2014

John Carpenter: A Titan Among Exploitation Filmmakers

Guest post by freelance writer Brandon Engel. 

The tension in the air is palpable. The audience sits on the edge of their seats, digging their nails into the armrest. Suddenly, a knife is thrust into the unsuspecting teenager and the audience screams in terror. The movie, Halloween, terrified audiences across the United States and birthed a new kind of movie—the “slasher” film. John Carpenter wrote and directed many horror films thereby earning himself the nickname “Master of Horror”.

Beyond “Master of Horror”

Known mostly for horror films like Halloween, The Thing, and The Fog, John Carpenter also delved into the world of science fiction with movies like Dark Star, and the highly-popular exploitation film, Assault on Precinct 13. The movie Halloween pioneered aspects of filmmaking that we still see in horror films, today. By creating the “slasher” subgenre, Carpenter presented a new twist on horror films where psychopathic murderers brutally kill a staggering number of victims in expressly graphic ways. Since the killer typically wields weapons like knives or chainsaws, they were dubbed “slasher films”. In Halloween, Michael Myers’ murderous rampage targets teenaged babysitters and their boyfriends. Carpenter’s legacy has stood the test of time, as many of his films are still considered mainstays as your local DirecTV or cable provider’s airwaves are besieged by horror marathons during the month of October.

Halloween and Psycho

Halloween is often compared to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). Most notably, Jamie Lee Curtis played the female lead in Halloween and her mother, Janet Leigh, played a victim in Psycho. In both films the audience “becomes” the killer by seeing through his eyes. Norman Bates peers through a peephole to watch Marion Crane dressing in her motel room. Likewise, moviegoers got to look through Michael’s mask in Halloween as he watched a young couple’s romantic interlude. Through the mask, we see the knife a split-second before Myers plunges it into the lovers. There is little blood in each film, but the audience’s terror is by the murder itself. In Psycho, the audience never sees Norman Bates kill Marion Crane. They merely see a knife slash through the shower curtain, followed by the victim’s screams then watch her blood mix with water as it slowly washes down into the drain.

Film Critics

Film critics have perpetrated Halloween as misogynistic and sadistic claiming the audience identifies with the killer. Other critics centered their criticism on the sexual promiscuity of teenagers and loose morals but in the end, the chaste heroine claims victory over the evil perpetrator. Roger Ebert, a noted movie critic, saw the movie differently. In a review of Halloween, he said, “sympathies are enlisted with the side of the woman, not the killer.” Ebert found that Halloween was not the stereotypical horror film, but had “artistry and craftsmanship”. He went on to say that the film had “developed characters as independent, intelligent, spunky, and interesting people.”

The Final Girl

Originating in Halloween, the "final girl" concept changed horror films. The “final girl” depicts the surviving female facing down the killer. Characteristics of the “final girl” have received some concerns from feminists. Typically, "the final girl" is intelligent and feisty but she does not engage in sex nor is she free to partake in pleasures, such as alcohol or illegal substances, like her friends. The heroine’s femininity is expunged, and she becomes masculine by using a phallic symbol such as a knife to slay the assailant. Others view the “final girl” as a woman with strength of character who overcomes her fear and kills the evil perpetrator. Audiences are intelligent and can identify with both ideologies and simply just want to watch a good horror flick.

John Carpenter’s ideas and innovation have made him a master storyteller as well as the "Master of Horror" and a pioneer of the genre. So, in honor of both him and Halloween, rewatch some of those classics and see if they still make you jump in your seat like they did the first time you saw them.

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