High Times Greats: John Carpenter

A 1982 interview with the horror-film maestro.
High Times Greats: John Carpenter
John Carpenter/ High Times

From the August, 1982 issue of High Times comes Michael Wilmington’s interview with legendary director John Carpenter, which we’re republishing here on the occasion of Carpenter’s birthday January 16.

The Thing, 1951: A small cluster of USAF officers, scientists and one reporter in an isolated Antarctic outpost; a few huts and an airfield in the annihilating cold. A downed UFO. A being frozen in an ice slab, escaping when the slab melts. An “intellectual carrot,” purely vegetable, with no emotions or feelings, thriving on blood and reproducing itself like plant spores. Killing them off, one by one. The crazed scientist, trying to preserve it; preserve its seedlings. The surviving USAF officers trapped at the end of a darkening corridor. The Thing, battering its way through, toward the last humans in its way. Closer, closer… the darkness. The electric arc… Again, the darkness…

The Thing—based on John W. Campbell’s 1938 classic, “Who Goes There?”; produced (and quasi-directed) by Howard Hawks—is a genuine movie sci-fi classic, a milestone of ’50s paranoia. On close inspection, the monster (James Arness in a sort of bulky jump suit) may not have ripped your head up much, but the movie itself dredged up all the primal fears of its time: science running amok; mysterious, alien intruders from other countries, other planets; the death of feeling; alienation; entrapment; slaughter and bloodshed as a matter of cold policy. The Thing crystallized those terrors; it still does.

Writer-director John Carpenter—modern movie maestro of suspense and horror—so admires The Thing that he put it on the TV set that Jamie Lee Curtis watches throughout much of the bloody B blockbuster Halloween. Now, with producer Stuart Cohen and screenwriter Bill Lancaster (Burt’s son and the author of The Bad News Bears), Carpenter has remade the classic—not by copying Hawks’s (as Carpenter admits) un-improvable classic, but by going back to Campbell’s original story, which has, in some ways, an even more terrifying premise. Campbell’s original Thing is not only apparently indestructible; it can reproduce itself as clones of the human members of the party—killing them, taking their place, luring others to their doom and killing and replacing them. Finally…

Carpenter has been fantastic at creating moods of claustrophobia, paranoia, entrapment; slow, inexorable death on tiptoe: The funky astronauts on a drifting spaceship of Dark Star, the police, besieged by a psychopathic teen gang in Assault on Precinct 13; the suburban teenagers, prey to an invincible psycho-slasher maniac in Halloween; the whole California coastal town succumbing to The Fog; and a hideous dystopian blood-drenched future Manhattan in Escape from New York. In The Thing (based on what I saw of the product reel) he may have outdone himself. The situation is quintessential terror: 12 men, trapped, besieged, beset upon by an invincible menace—and never knowing which of them the monster has taken over. One by one, hour by hour, they die, with no relief in sight. No hope, no help from the outside world, no defenses. A female friend of mine literally could not walk down the street where she lived, after dark, for a year after she saw Halloween, without shuddering. The Thing may shoot similar antarctic frissons through the rest of the streets in the rest of the country.

What does Carpenter have to say about his movies and their grisly aftertaste? He’s surprisingly mild-spoken, affable, considerate. Here he is on The Thing—and other things.

High Times: How do you feel about The Thing?

Carpenter: I’m really happy with it. I’m extremely happy with it.

High Times: Could you talk about the relationship of your movie to Howard Hawks’s 1951 The Thing?

Carpenter: I thought that the only reason to make The Thing was to go back to the original short story (John W. Campbell, Jr.’s ”Who Goes There?”) and not try to remake Howard Hawks’s film: an excellent movie, which couldn’t be much improved upon—except maybe to update the design of the monster. So we went right back to the short story, which has an entirely different kind of plot.

High Times: What are you trying to do with this new version?

Carpenter: I’m trying to make a really good monster movie. I think they’re the hardest thing to do.

High Times: What are you most conscious of: character, thematics, atmosphere? Or just trying to give people a big jolt?

Carpenter: Obviously, I try to do all those things. Mood and style and effect is very important to this kind of movie. When you’re doing a monster movie, you can’t be lyrical. It’s got to be strong. And monster movies can be dreadful. They can be just awful. And there have been too many awful ones, and very few good ones. So, we’re sensitive in that area: trying to make it convincing.

High Times: What are some of the “very good ones”—monster movies you like?

Carpenter: I liked [the original] The Thing. I liked Them—the one about the giant ant. I enjoyed parts of Alien, which is a monster movie pure and simple. Mostly I loved the monster movies of the ’50s. They really had a sense of wonder about them, whereas now they have to dig up terrible stuff to make it work. Them and The Thing are probably my favorites.

High Times: How does your The Thing differ from your other films?

Carpenter: Well, I feel it’s more intense; I feel it’s more real. I went for a basic realism, and tried not to stylize it much, because I feel that the monster is so outrageously stylized throughout the entire film that the context of reality had to be very solid.

High Times: What would you like to do in the future?

Carpenter: I’d love to do comedies, musicals, war films. Mainly Westerns; I’d love to do Westerns.

High Times: Do you have trouble selling that kind of project to studios? Are you typed as a horror director?

Carpenter: Trouble? Well, it’s hard to say. I don’t really think so. I don’t consider myself a horror director. I don’t think the people I work for do. I don’t think Escape from New York is a horror movie. Nor do I think Elvis is a horror film— or Someone’s Watching Me. Halloween certainly was; The Fog was; and this one is a monster movie. But they all have certain elements in common: tension and suspense.

High Times: Could you talk about your next projects more specifically?

Carpenter: I just got a go on Firestarter, from the Stephen King novel, and I don’t consider that a horror film. I’ve got a Western called El Diablo. I want to do a Vietnam movie called ‘Nam. And I have a science fiction film called The Stars My Destination.

High Times: Oh, Alfred Bester—great book.

Carpenter: Yup. The greatest. And, really, that’s about all that’s cookin’.

High Times: Could you tell me which directors you like—besides Hawks, Hitchcock and Ford, the ones everybody sees in your work?

Carpenter: Polanski and Buñuel. I like [George] Romero and [David] Cronenberg; I think they’re pretty good. I’m trying to get Romero into the Hollywood system a little bit: working out a deal where I produce a film for him. To go back into the past, some of Fritz Lang’s work, some of Max Ophuls’s work.

High Times: Would you like to do something as flamboyant and romantic and elaborate as Max Ophuls?

Carpenter: Probably not. I just admire his guts in being able to move the camera in every single shot: just being in love with the dolly track.

High Times: Do you see any relief in sight for the problems working directors and writers have getting decent projects together?

Carpenter: Oh, it’s bad times for the movie business right now. I think when there are good times—when everything is doing well, and the economy is doing well—it’s easier. It’s easier for everybody. It’s very difficult now. And movies, when they cost a lot of money, they have to make a lot of money. And when they don’t, it really hurts. A lot of the films that have failed in the last few years have hurt the creative end. I mean, Heaven’s Gate hurt directors real bad. I think what a director wants to do is get control over his films; so that he is the artistic force behind it, and no one meddles with him. And I think it’s kind of a career-long struggle of all directors… well, you know, sometimes they’re more willing to give it to you than others. And when a film of that magnitude—with a director’s “artistic control”—when it bombs like that, you have a real problem.

High Times: When I saw the uncut Heaven’s Gate in New York, the audience gave it an ovation. And throughout the movie, people were yelling “Fuck Vincent Canby!” [Ed. note: Canby is the New York Times film critic who lambasted Heaven’s Gate on its opening.]

Carpenter: Were they? Yeah. That was pretty devastating of him, wasn’t it? That was one of the most unbelievable reviews I’ve ever read in my life.

High Times: You haven’t really done anything light or funny since Dark Star. Would you like to?

Carpenter: Yeah, I would. It’s just that—those are the kinds of films that I’m hired to make. I think it changed with Assault on Precinct 13—I had that sort of dark view for a while—and then it culminated in Halloween. I think there’s humor in The Thing. I think there’s humor in all my films. I guess it’s not quite as obvious as Dark Star. Maybe I had a better sense of humor back then.

High Times: Does the intense paranoia and claustrophobia you’re so good at visualizing reflect your view of the world?

Carpenter: Absolutely. That’s the way I see life. For all of us.

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