Halloween Creep Out: Three by John Carpenter

John Carpenter brought a level of artistry and integrity to his films.



Webster Film Series, October 28-30, 2011

With Halloween just around the corner, there’s no better way to get into the mood than by viewing some classic films by John Carpenter, the man often credited with inventing the slasher film. However you may feel about that genre, bear in mind that Carpenter brought a level of artistry and integrity to his films, which is found only sporadically in the works of the many imitators who came after him. Don’t judge the originals by the remakes, in other words. If you haven’t seen Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), The Fog (1980), and The Thing (1982), you owe it to yourself to check them out. Each offers a master class in creating suspense while telling a coherent story, a far more complex task than springing jump scares on the audience and flinging fake blood and body parts around the set.

The Thing (October 28, 7:30 p.m.) is set in a research station in the Antarctic, and Carpenter capitalizes on the dramatic possibilities inherent in the contrast between the claustrophobic interiors of the station and the vast expanse of the wintry landscape outside. The film opens with a paradoxical event: A handsome Alaskan Malamute (sled dog) races across the tundra, pursued by a Norwegian helicopter bearing a sniper who is trying to kill the dog. An explosion and an assassination later, the American crew (led by Donald Moffat and including Kurt Russell, Richard Masur, Richard Dysart, and Wilford Brimley) takes the dog into its kennel, only to discover too late that appearances can be deceptive.

The Thing is the goriest of the three films in this series (Roger Ebert called it “a great barf-bag of a movie”), thanks to realistic special effects created by Rob Bottin (The Howling, Total Recall, Se7en) and Stan Winston (Aliens, Terminator 2, Jurassic Park). Splatter fans will find plenty to enjoy in this film, but there’s much more going on than just grossing out the audience. Carpenter’s film stays truer to its source material, John W. Campbell, Jr.’s 1938 novella Who Goes There?, than the 1951 Howard Hawks-Christian Nyby feature The Thing from Another World. Most notably, Carpenter retains a key element from Campbell’s story which was dropped in the 1951 film: a murderous alien which can pass unnoticed among humans because it can change its appearance to match that of anything it has killed. If that’s not high-octane nightmare fuel for a paranoid world (whether in 1935 or 2011), I don’t know what is.

The Fog (October 29, 7:30 p.m.) is a classic revenge flick in which the modern-day residents of a California coastal town (Antonio Bay) are called to account for the dark deeds of their ancestors. Carpenter grabs the audience from the opening scene, in which a grizzled John Houseman tells a spooky campfire tale to a rapt group of kids. Neither the tale nor the time of its telling are random: It’s just before midnight on the eve of the town’s centennial, and the story concerns a shipwreck which occurred 100 years ago in that very location. Soon, strange things begin to happen in the town. Car alarms go off for no apparent reason, phones ring, and windows break. Most significantly, a stone falls out of the wall in the local Catholic Church, allowing the priest (Hal Holbrook) to discover an old diary that explains how the shipwreck of Housman’s tale happened to take place.

Things quickly get worse as a mysterious fog moves in from the sea, carrying the ghosts of the men killed in that long-ago shipwreck. Cinematographer Dean Cundey (a long-time Carpenter collaborator who also shot Halloween and The Thing) makes the most of the dramatic possibilities inherent in an isolated coastal town, as well as the scare potential of darkness, fog, and silent strangers bearing longshoremen’s hooks. The cast also includes Adrienne Barbeau as DJ Stevie Wayne, Jamie Lee Curtis as a hitchhiker picked up by townie Nick Castle (Tom Atkins), and Janet Leigh in a hilarious performance as Kathy Williams, the somewhat overwrought impresario of the centennial celebration.

Halloween (October 30, 7:30 p.m.) is one of the most financially successful independent films of all time. Shot for about $300,000, it grossed around $60 million worldwide, equivalent to over $200 million today. This success has been both blessing and a curse. While it made Carpenter’s reputation, it also inspired a host of imitations who embraced the “teenagers who have sex must die” trope, but upped the graphic violence quotient in their films while discarding the well-calibrated suspense that made Carpenter’s original so memorable.

So don’t blame the original Halloween for all the remakes and imitations that attempted to replicate its success, because if there’s one John Carpenter film which is a must-see, it’s Halloween. Accept no substitutes; this film has got it all, from a scary clown to a succession of nubile, naughty adolescents, and an apparently motiveless but absolutely ruthless killer. There’s surprisingly little gore in Halloween, yet it’s one of the scariest films of all time (Roger Ebert likens it to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho), and the entire film is an object lesson in low-budget filmmaking done right. There’s some good acting in the film, also. Jamie Lee Curtis gives a breakthrough performance as the archetypal “good girl” Laurie Strode, while character actor Donald Pleasance gives perhaps his best-known performance as the psychiatrist determined to track down the murderous Michael Myers. | Sarah Boslaugh

Halloween Creep Out: Three by John Carpenter will be screened at 7:30 p.m. on October 28 (The Thing), October 29 (The Fog), and October 30 (Halloween) in Moore Auditorium, Webster Hall, 470 E. Lockwood Ave. in Webster Groves. Admission is $6 for the general public; $5 for seniors, Webster alumni, and students from other schools; and $4 for Webster University faculty and staff. For more information, including directions and the complete Film Series calendar, visit www.webster.edu/filmseries.

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