John Carpenter’s Vision of Cold War America

From the destruction of suburban safety in the 1978 film Halloween to the paranoia and distrust on display in 1982’s The Thing, Carpenter’s style and characters present a commentary on his worldview. His evolution in horror films represented through Halloween, 1980’s The Fog, The Thing, and 1988’s They Live follow a steady discussion of politics and widespread paranoia during the cold war through a reactionary discourse on violence, consumerism, and history.

            In Halloween the opening point of view shot of young Michael Myers stalking and killing his older sister was completed with an intricate and precise plan and the use of the Panaglide camera. The opening scene from the killer’s point of view sets the tone for Carpenter’s story and the smooth camera movement demonstrate the technical prowess if the crew, in particular Cinematographer Dean Cundey. The shot where young Michael stabs his sister is lit by the lamps on her desk, the eyeholes of the mask presumably covering all but the violent act, focusing the view on the carnage that is unfolding. This usage of light and shadow as well as the shot of the knife thrusting down highlight the violence and intensity of the moment. Later in the film a simple key light is used when the character of Laurie backs away from a grisly discovery of her dead friends and in the shadows the shape of the murderer’s pale ghostly mask emerges, achieved by spotting a single light on the actor’s face and slowly turning it up. The eerie effect succeeds in highlighting the Shape as a supernatural force, unleashed on peaceful suburbia.

In The Thing Carpenter once again uses Cundey and in this instance the closing scene encapsulates the use of lighting. Unsure if the other is an imposter the characters of MacReady and Childs resign themselves to freeze to death, lit only by the burning camp around them and the desolate arctic setting Carpenter presents a nihilistic view of paranoia and death. This placement of the two surviving characters in the cold desolate setting is representative of the isolation and separation of the characters established early on in the film. Another key lighting effect is found in The Fog in which the titular element contains an eerie light when it is seen. This strange bluish light pulses throughout the fog leaning into the “ghost story” plot structure the film adopts. Here the lighting serves a narrative purpose in addition to the symbolic such as in the opening scene where a ghost story is told around a campfire, the narrator tells of a ship sank because the captain mistook a campfire for a lighthouse directly tying in the purpose of light for the film as a harbinger of the narrative events.

As important as lighting is to a Carpenter film, his scores seem to be his most effective element. His use of structure is influenced by his music background and his father who was a composer. So elements of his films are tied directly to his music and his understanding of musical cues and rhythm. In an interview Carpenter compared the musical structure to that of Hitchcock’s narrative saying, “he meticulously laid out a scene, that he was ‘playing the audience like an organ stop.’ In other words, precision leads to drama and emotions. He was borrowing a metaphor from music and some of the greatest music, some of the most emotionally moving music, is precisely written on the page note for note”. In Halloween the menacing saunter of Michael Myers is accompanied by a similar daunting theme that mirrors his slow yet intimidating movements. The now iconic theme of the film, composed entirely by Carpenter, sets the tone for the film as that of a purposeful intense experience. In The Fog the score is again composed by Carpenter and its creepy atmospheric tonal cues set the stage for the fog’s presence and the ghost story that is told in its narrative.

The abysmal score to The Thing was not composed by Carpenter, instead composer Ennio Morricone who created a chilling otherworldly score for the film. Carpenter hired Morricone and even though he did not score the film himself he did in fact record and add his own music to it. The score of The Thing adds to its isolated and unnerving visual quality mirroring the disjointed and disturbing almost human characteristic of the titular creature’s physical attributes and form. The otherworldly origin of the thing itself is highlighted by the synthesized alien score found in Morricone’s music (highlighted by the director’s own) adding a layer of personal touch from Carpenter.

The setting of tone with lighting, space and music allows Carpenter to bring the viewer into the world of the film and the performances the actors give allow the viewer to feel the psychosis of the film and the way that the characters talk and move showcase how the society works in his vision. In Halloween Carpenter’s approach to performance was mainly self-evident. He chose his actors on their individual personalities and his typical attitude toward actors being their ability is determined in their casting and the rest is up to them. Kurt Russell’s performance in many Carpenter films is described by Heather Hendershot as a “Macho slob” and his well-known roles as a tough leading man are ingrained by his performances in Carpenter films. True enough in The Thing where Russell’s character MacReady assumes leadership at one point he even threatens the others with a stick of dynamite, a moment that is intense and stressful and supported by the shivering and uncomfortable movements Russell provides in this pivotal moment. The paranoia reaches it’s peak during the blood test scene where the character’s anger and resentment of his treatment is no longer held back.

In The Fog Carpenter’s dialogue allows for the characters to provide commentary in society and history. The film utilizes the idea of a dark shameful past and a skewed vision of history to draw parallels with the political landscape of the time. The character of Father Malone discovers his ancestors role in a plot to steal from the dead and use the gold to found the town in which the story is set. His discovery of the town’s true history is summarized devastating line “Our celebration tonight is a travesty, we’re honoring murderers.” Actor Hal Holbrook delivers Carpenter’s line in a gravely and disenfranchised tone. Here in the film one can see the view of American history through Carpenter’s eyes as ugly, dark, and shameful. The fictional town has been founded on thievery and celebrates as prosperity and pioneering endurance, one could easily draw comparisons to the treatment of Native Americans and the subsequent desolation of their population by the settlers and founding fathers.

 In Halloween the message is less obvious, but the resulting feeling of despair and fear is where one can draw the conclusions. The performance delivered by Jamie Lee Curtis is that of the trembling and suspicious female form whose virtue and intellect allow her to be the only character to survive the wrath of Myers. As Curtis peers around the bushes where she saw the stalker her paranoia is emphasized by the trembling and hesitant movements in her performance. The invasion of safety represented by the grisly deaths in suburban homes in the film is a subtle yet all too unnerving idea and is a commentary on the destruction of the American home and “nuclear family” paradigm. The horrified reaction to her murdered friends by Laurie is effectively the reaction of the country to the shifting roles and “norms” in the American family. As Curtis screams and jumps back simulating Laurie’s terror the recoil of the American people to a changing social landscape is personified as Carpenter sees it.

They Live features a very physical approach to performance and through the lead actor’s physicality the frustration and purposeful backlash is personified. The protagonist is played by professional wrestler Roddy Piper whose bulging physique is evident in his movements. Piper delivers Nada’s newfound paranoia and as the plot progresses it only becomes more severe. The choice to cast a hulking character actor like Piper becomes clear in a fight scene between the character of Nada and his friend Frank portrayed by the equally intimidating and muscular Keith David. Casting David as a physical match for Piper allows a believable and exhausting fight scene to feel gritty and purposeful. The two massive figures throw each other around and Piper’s panting and wheezing as David delivers convincing blows, his yelling and swinging in an exhausted manner show the characters as human and with a dwindling stamina. The working class hero Piper portrays is convincing and the challenge of taking on the elite is personified by the intensity that Piper delivers in his performance.

Carpenter’s attention to structure and psychology is evident in the editing of his films with quick cuts to long steady moving takes. In the scene where the character Bob meets his demise in Halloween, Myers lifts the knife and plunges it forward as it cuts to the actors kicking and struggling feet and then the go limp, cut to a long shot of the body pinned to the wall with the knife. This quick and jarring editing is subliminal and give the viewer an impression of gore and mayhem and yet no blood is present in the scene. This is mirrored by an earlier scene in which Myers kills the character of Annie and the foggy glass outside conceals the knife penetrating her neck only the flash of the metal is scene and the quick cutting of shots leaves the impression of a bloodbath completely unseen.

The Thing‘s editing takes on a perspective emphasizing the isolation in the scene where Mac converses with Blair through the door of a shed where the latter has been imprisoned. Here the scene is cut with shots from outside the door with shot from inside the shed. The framing and position of each cut emphasizes the separation of Blair from the others with a noose kept in frame from the perspective of the small window of the door. Here the viewer sees the mental state and results of loneliness of Blair’s position and the desire of Mac to keep him away by his framing outside the door. The separation of the characters shows the psychological barrier and the paranoia.

They Live in which Nada discovers the truth through the sunglasses. The color shots or typical advertisements and magazines are inter-cut with black and white shots of bold text with phrases of “obey” and “conform”. Here Carpenter is showcasing his vision of the world seen as a colorful ad filled landscape but revealing Carpenter’s perspective of a black and white world of capitalistic imperialism and repression. The motivating factor for the viewer’s enlightenment is solely dependent on seeing through the glasses and being able to see what the character sees through them. Cutting together Nada walking with the Steadicam shot of moving down the side walk in Black and white allows a connection between sight and vision drawing attention to what is actually seen through the lenses. When the Ghoul’s true forms are revealed to Nada the viewer is invited to a similar revelation through the cutting of shots between a seemingly normal human and the black and white skeletal creature as they are revealed.

Carpenter’s vision offers a nihilistic vision of paranoia and panic contextualized with a dark past and a consumerist greed that is forced upon society. The successful financial achievements of the upper class is shown to be predicated upon the suffering of the working class. The pioneering spirit of the founders are portrayed as a lie to cover up the theft and murder of an indigenous people. The common happiness and relative safety of the suburban household and neighborhood is undermined by the sinister infiltration of murderers and stalkers who live to destroy the comfort of the American family. The communal living situation of men in a frozen landscape only breeds suspicion and hatred fueled by isolation and anxiety. As delivered by Donald Pleasance in Halloween “Death has come to your little town” and so has it come to the optimistic American ideal that Carpenter seeks to undermine.

Published by Patrick Tank

Writer, Horror Fanatic, and Booling Promoter

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