Sam Jones

Sam Jones is a leading author in the new genre of "Nostalgia Noir." His debut book, "The Fever Dream" has been critically well received. Other book and film projects include: "88" and "The Last Savage”

Filtering by Tag: Escape From New York

The brilliance of John Carpenter

October. 1998.

I was eleven years old, sitting in my family's dimly lit living room surfing the channels for a good Halloween flick. At this point in my life, I had yet to submerse myself in the horror genre, my only exposure to any "scary" or "spooky" films limited to what I saw on the Disney channel - Halloweentown, Hocus Pocus, Under Wraps. Don't get me wrong; I love these movies. A good chunk of my childhood is tied to them. 

But I was eleven. I was an adult, far as I saw it. I was ready to watch something terrifying.  

I remember clicking through the channels to find something that would break the "no R-rated movies" rule of the household (which would end up being violated multiple times after this day. I believe Starship Troopers was next). Being that I was the only one home, aside from my sister, I wanted to come back to school telling my buddies that I had finally watched FILL-IN-THE-BLANK. I wanted to be able to experience that curious child/right-of-passage ritual of watching a true-to-form horror movie

I can't remember the channel. AMC, HBO. Whatever it was, it was one of those "30 days of Halloween" movie marathons that were around way before the days of Netflix binging. I stumbled on something that the television guide had listed as John Carpenter's Halloween. I had zero knowledge of the film or the man responsible for it, but the title itself seemed a fitting introduction to the horror genre. For my first scary movie, I would watch one called Halloween.

Boom. Done. Shouldn't be too much to handle.

However, for the next ninety minutes, I was burying my head into my knees as I watched Jamie Lee Curtis, PJ Soles, and Nancy Loomis being stalked by a silent and disturbing entity known as "Michael Myers," a killer with a blank-faced mask and a penchant for being creepy even from a distance. As soon as the final shot of the film played out, when Michael's psychiatrist Dr. Sam Loomis and Laurie Strode realized that Michael was not dead and would continue to haunt the streets of Haddonfield, I was suspicious of every corner, tree, and hedge in my neighborhood. I was entirely convinced that this fictional character in a neutral mask was more than real and most likely coming after me next. 

It would take me awhile to come back to the movie to examine it from a more "cinematic" perspective to figure out why I was so terrified. At the time I didn't understand why I was scared, being that Michael, the boogeyman himself, had possibly the least amount of on-screen time out of anyone else in the film. There was very little blood, the violence was somewhat minimal, and most of the film was spent listening to people talk about the monster than actually showing the monster.

It was something else. It was the moments Michael wasn't there. It was the shots where that haunting piano tune would be playing, and something about the tree at the end of the block in the shot that just did not look right. It was when I started to look more at the collective works of John Carpenter himself that I began to understand the brilliance of a man who I believe is possibly one of the most unsung heroes of many genres. From Assault on Precinct 13, Escape From New York, They Live, Big Trouble In Little China, The Fog, and possibly his most significant cinematic achievement, The Thing, Carpenter is a genius when it comes to building an atmosphere around his films and instilling terror, anxiety, curiosity, madness, and intrigue through mere insinuation, and the lessons I have learned from these films are countless.

The part of his craft that makes him so efficient and slick is the build up. It's the moments in The Fog when he talks about the ghosts before he even shows them. It's the conversations about trust that the characters in The Thing are having that have you feeling uneasy before the Thing itself shows up and rears its ugly head(s). It's Dr. Loomis talking about how black and soulless the eyes of Michael Myers are before we even see him up close. 

It's all about the insinuation.

Now that's not to say Carpenter has never shied away from the gore factor (which is more than apparent in The Thing). It's just more of the build-up and the ratcheting tension he creates that makes the "horrific" moments all the more terrifying, especially when they're accompanied by these hypnotic and otherworldly scores produced by none other than Carpenter himself. I mean, the Escape From New York soundtrack is just... screw it, I'll link a clip to it at the bottom of the blog.

There's so much about John Carpenter and his movies to take note from. Unfortunately, due to the constraints of a blog never needing to go longer than it should, I won't get into the intricacies of Carpenter and what makes him such an overlooked master of film, way beyond the cult status he's been given. Rather than dissect an entire movie of his, I'm going to attach a clip for you from Halloween. Though it's hypocritical for a writer to say this - I find it would more be fitting to show you one of his films rather than tell you about it. After all, it's experiencing movies that are the real test rather than one fan's sycophantic praising of them.

That being said, take in mind the tone, sounds, colors, and everything that plays out in the scene below. You'll see how Carpenter uses his love of wide shots and cramming so much minutia in them that all add up to this overwhelming feeling of anxiety and tension, perfectly reflecting why he is one of the real masters of visceral storytelling. He's a director who wants you feeling his movies, not thinking about them.

So, long story short, consider this my tribute to master John Carpenter and his undeniable inspiration on my writing, as well as my way of saying to you all, "Happy Halloween..."