Dr. Terror stalks Hollywood
By J.R. Young
Michael Myers returned home on Halloween - 15 years to the day since he'd caught his sister with her drawers down and her tawny legs wrapped around the pimply face of her new boyfriend; 15 years since Michael had waited for her boyfriend to leave, and then followed his sister upstairs where she basked naked in the afterglow of sin; and 15 years since eight-year-old Michael had raised a butcher knife above his head and plunged it to the hilt between her perky little breasts, again and again, 'til she was reduced to bite sized pieces.
Now the old house was boarded up. His family was gone. But Michael was back - the Avenging Angel of Evil.
He'd watched, and waited. He knew they'd be at it again, those three teenage tarts whose cotton panties were damp with delicious thoughts of the hot cock they'd be bobbing for that night behind closed doors. Nothing would stay him from his appointed task. Nothing... except the virgin, a tall girl with dark and wary eyes. She was pure; she had been raised on guilt. She'd never been touched down there. Her friends laughed at her. But she saw the evil.
And she saw Michael, a shadow behind the old elm, a cold face behind the afternoon glare of a windshield. She saw him watching. Her friends, the bad girls, didn't see him, and they made fun of her fears. And they paid. Like so many naked lambs at the slaughter, they felt the cutting edge of the Avenging Angel. It was just like 15 years before.
But not the virgin. She saw and she resisted him with every ounce of her strength. She put a scissors into his back, a knife in his side, the sharp end of a coat hanger into his dark eyes... again and again. But he kept coming back. And in the end, you knew there'd be no end. Michael had returned - he always would. Evil was loose. Evil was still in our midst.
That's HALLOWEEN: an instant classic of the horror genre, a shit-in-the-pants thriller, a "B" movie masterpiece.
And pure John Carpenter. He wrote and directed it, and as a result he is the hottest young director to drive through the mythic Hollywood portals since George Lucas pulled into town with AMERICAN GRAFFITI in tow a few years back. At 31, Carpenter is no longer a simple figure of cultish adoration. HALLOWEEN changed all that.
He's hot stuff. He farts, and the trade newssheets report it. He made HALLOWEEN for a clean $300,000, and its box office is now over $20 million. That means he's now bankable. And that means he's big.
He's also tough to get hold of. I tried many times. But, messages that are dutifully recorded by his answering service pile up. And when you complain to his agent, his agent complains right back. He can't get hold of Carpenter either.
"It kinda drives you crazy," the agent says over the phone, "but that's how it is. He's busy. Real busy. He goes into production next month [with THE FOG for Avco-Embassy, which is budgeted at $2 million]. He's writing. He's planning. And he's looking at more damn deals than Monte Hall." You can almost feel the agent shake his head. "So what else can you expect. But if you reach him, tell him to call me."
One afternoon, I finally get through. A brisk, flat voice wants to know what I want. I want to talk about HALLOWEEN, about him, I say. Carpenter thinks it over a moment, shuffles through his calendar, and then is back.
"Tuesday night. I'll be there. Five to seven?" Five to seven?
On Tuesday night, precisely at five, he knocks on my door. He's not what I had expected. He looks almost frail, with dark, reclusive eyes, an untrimmed mustache, and long hair that curls near the top of his narrow shoulders. His hands are soft, and his grip, as we shake hands, is tentative. Huh! So this is the guy that's given us the most inexplicable vision of pure evil that we've seen since THE THING. He looks as if evil has just given him a good going over! He wears a slick black jacket with ELVIS stitched in pink on the back, jeans and tennis shoes, and carries a can of Pepsi.
He is all business, a man with a schedule. When he asks how long this is going to take, it is clear it isn't going to take more than the alotted two hours. Not that he is unfriendly. Simply direct and punctual, almost atonal in his attitude. Distant.
"HALLOWEEN," he muses. "True crass exploitation. I decided to make a film I would love to have seen as a kid, full of cheap tricks like a haunted house at a fair where you walk down the corridor and things jump out at you. All cheap tricks. But when you come out, you love it. I remember a William Castle film, THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, where a skeleton came out of a box next to the screen and it floated on a string out over the audience. Real cheap stuff, but I watched that and thought, 'Wow, isn't that the greatest stuff of all time!' So I thought I'd make a film like that. Fuck everybody. I don't care if this is something I shouldn't be doing. I really like it."
Obviously he's right. But John, as it turns out, usually is when he trusts his instincts. That's how he's always been, even as a kid. In fact, that kid in him is the final authority as to what goes, the one whose judgment he trusts the most. Carpenter always goes back to him, back to the musty darkness of the Capitol Theatre or the State or the Princess in downtown Bowling Green, Kentucky, where he spent half his waking hours as a kid, with a bag of buttered popcorn and a box of Jujubes.
"I can remember at USC in the late Sixties when everybody was making socially relevant films. Good God, they'd have given anything if you made a film about Vietnam, about American injustices. That's the kind of thing they wanted. They looked down on you and felt you were naive if you cared about Hollywood films. But I wasn't caught up in that. I went back to my roots.
"I kept asking myself, why did I go see RIO BRAVO five times in 1959? Because it was an emotional film, and I love emotional films, films that get people emotionally involved, that manipulate people to feel something. Suspense. Fear. Anxiety. Prime color feelings. If you can get people to cry, what more can you ask for? It's those basic feelings I'm after. When I was a kid, those were the types of films that took me away from my everyday life. Siting in a theater made me a whole person. The more tension, suspense and emotion, the more I got into the film. And I knew that was the kind of film I wanted to make." Hence, HALLOWEEN.
IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE - talk about a "prime color experience." For Carpenter the movie changed his life. It was the first 3D film he ever saw. The year was 1953, and John was five. He sat down front at the Capitol adjusting the flimsy cardboard glasses as the houselights dimmed and the heavy curtain rolled open. And there, a moment later, a huge ball of black and white flame flashed not only across the screen, but turned and rocketed off the screen, right at him, right over the shoulder of the guy in front of him, and blew up in John's face. He jumped straight up out of his seat, his eyes bulging, and a big Wow!!! locked tightly in his paralyzed throat. Terrified? You bet! But he was also filled with an awe and wonder at what he had seen, what he had felt, and it was then that he thought, this is it. That was the day he decided to be a filmmaker.
John Carpenter was born in Carthage, New York in 1948, but moved to Bowling Green, Kentucky when he was three. His father, newly hired at Bowling Green's Western Kentucky University as a classical music teacher, was a bona fide, PhD-carrying New York intellectual, and at that time there weren't too many of those in town. Bowling Green was a small farming community in the Bible Belt, and, as Carpenter remembers, "very unsophisticated, very basic and very fundamental."
From the beginning John was different from all his friends, living always in contradictory worlds - fundamentalist community and intellectually oriented home - resulting in what he considers a lonely childhood. Until he discovered the movies, that is. They opened up a brand new world, and those flights of fantasy soon extended into real time. He began making his own movies when he was eight. He made 8-millimeter features that ranged from five to 40 minutes. Gladiator movies, Gorgan the Space Monster, lots of special effects, costumes, animated explosions using the advanced techniques of Kleenex and stop action.
"When I left the theater, I didn't just want to play out the movies I saw," Carpenter recalls of those days. "I wanted to make my own, and then take them back to the theater and show them." He still has those prepubescent epics somewhere under lock and key, and refuses to show them to anybody. "They're really pretty awful. But then I have always been pretty hard on myself. I expect a lot. I always have, in everything I do."
At 12, Carpenter took his first cerebral sojourn outside of the movies. He discovered Elvis Presley on the radio one day, and began a long-standing love affair with rock 'n' roll, an affair that continues to this day. There was added impetus for his love of the big beat in the fact that his father, a schooled classical violinist, was also working as a sideman in Nashville during the formative years of the Nashville Sound in the late Fifties and early Sixties. His dad even received a gold record for his work on pop-singer Brenda Lee's biggest hit, "I'm Sorry."
At the time, John decided he wanted to be a rock 'n' roller himself - Roy Orbison was his favorite then - so he formed his own band of Bowling Green locals, which he maintained all through high school and into his first year of college at Western Kentucky where he played frat houses and local clubs in the area. He let his hair grow long and came to be known as the first "freak" in town. By his own admission, however, he wasn't really happy hanging around his own hometown and getting nowhere. It was about that time that he read about the USC film school, and the next fall he enrolled.
"I arrived in L.A. the most naive human being on the face of the earth," Carpenter recalls about his first day in Los Angeles. "When I got off the plane at LAX, I got a map of Los Angeles, looked up USC, and decided to walk. It only looked like it was a couple of blocks away. After about 15 blocks of carting my luggage down some endless street, iI looked at the map again. It took me a while to figure out the scope of Los Angeles. If I'd continued walking that day, I would still be walking. I was a real country boy."
The country boy did very well at USC once he arrived. In his last year he won an Academy Award for the best short subject for THE RESSURECTION OF BRONCO BILLY, a 40-minute student film starring Johnny Crawford, which Carpenter both wrote and edited. USC accepted the award on behalf of the school, a fact that still pisses Carpenter off, but he knew he was ready for Hollywood.
After graduation in 1971 he began work on DARK STAR. It provided the first real clues to the direction that John Carpenter was to take. The film can best be described as a screwball science-fiction comedy about men living on a spaceship. Their job is to bomb unstable planets. The live in a constant state of extreme horniness because there are no women on board the ship.
Today Carpenter calls DARK STAR his baptism of fire. "I lived with that film for four years - writing, directing, doing the music, raising the money. It only cost $60,000, but it was a tough $60,000 to raise. The film was done piecemeal over the four years as we collected money. And in that time, actors cut their hair, went bald, got fat. It was terrible. But it was an obsession. Totally obsessional. An incredible saga I'd like to forget." DARK STAR premiered at Los Angeles' 1974 Filmex to a very enthusiastic crowd, but when it went into general release... nothing. "It was crushing," he recalls. "I thought, 'My God, I've just spent four brutal years doing nothing else but trying to put that film togerther, survivng hand-to-mouth.'" He shakes his head. "The only way we got it made was that we were so naive we believed we could do it, and out of that naive energy came the film."
To this day, Carpenter hasn't seen a cent from the four-year effort. Nor did the producers come running to his door with handfuls of money begging him to do another film as he had expected. That year, 1974, was very depressing, but John soon got down to serious screenwriting, and by the year's end had sold three screenplays, including the original version of THE EYES OF LAURA MARS. Jon Peters and Barbara Streisand purchased it as a vehicle for Streisand, who eventually decided that her image would be damaged by a film where a killer goes around with an ice pick punching out the eyes of his victims. Shortly thereafter, John dropped out as a writer, and was not involved in the film when EYES finally came to fruitation starring Faye Dunaway. By that time, however, he had been approached by investors with barely more than a handful of money, and asked if he wanted to direct a film for them. His answer was an instant unqualified yes, and the result was ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13, which Carpenter describes as "a low-budget action film, a modern-day western. RIO BRAVO in a ghetto. About youth gangs laying seige to a police station. But it was all very stylized, unrealistic. When it was released, it did zero."
Zero, that is, until it was released in Europe in 1978 following a big splash at the London Film Festival. People began queuing up in a long line to get in to see it. John was amazed.
"They didn't look upon ASSAULT as a realistic youth gang film, but as a good old fashioned film noir. A melodrama. Which is how I made it. And for the first time in my life, I'd been accepted as a director for my style. It was a very revelatory and confusing experience to have people, two years after the original release, begin to recognize what I'd put into the film."
Following the new success of ASSAULT, investors once again came looking for Carpenter with $300,000, a paltry sum by today's movie standards. And this time, the result was HALLOWEEN.
"I wrote it in two weeks. It just came out of me. And then we went right into production, and that was it. We shot it in 20 days in Pasadena and Hollywood. It was a very easy movie. All planned on paper. The biggest problem was framing out the palm trees."
HALLOWEEN's success marks a transition in Carpenter's life. He now knows he will have a problem keeping full control of his films. And as he becomes more successful, that problem will become even greater.
"I've always wanted to write, direct, edit, do the music, decide on the clothes, the locations... everything. Absolute control. And for my first four films, I managed. But now there are more people and money involved, it's becoming increasingly difficult, and I'm just beginning to struggle with it."
The fact that following HALLOWEEN he accepted the chore of directing the TV blockbuster, ELVIS, is a first step in coming to grips with that problem. "It was the hardest I ever worked," Carpenter admits. "I knew it was a chance, because my career was being set up as a maker of horror and action films, which I knew I could do the rest of my life. It would be fun, too, but when ABC sent me ELVIS to read, I knew right away I was going to do it. Number one, I've always loved Elvis, and number two, I knew it was going to stretch me. It was different than anything I'd ever done before. It was long, episodic, and all acting, all scenes between people. No murder. No creeping around. Everything I'd ever done before went right out the window."
Carpenter also expected massive interference from ABC, but soon discovered that they didn't really know what they wanted. "I was given carte blanche," he says. "Two-and-a-half million bucks. But I also found out that for many of the people involved in the project, it was just another assignment, which was a brand new experience for me. But I knew exactly what I wanted. And I think I got it."
When ABC looked at the Neilsons, they felt he'd gotten it too. ELVIS rolled to a ratings victory over two other blockbusters - GONE WITH THE WIND and ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST.
As for his personal life since HALLOWEEN, Carpenter shrugs. "The telephone rings more. I have to seek out my privacy more. But thse things are all external. I still enjoy doing the same things. I still wear tennis shoes. I still enjoy getting drunk. I still like rock 'n' roll. I still don't like pretensions. I still don't go to Beverly Hills. I'm trying my best to maintain my freedom as an individual, and not get sucked up in that world, because I feel that it's ultimately hollow and not very fulfilling. You must stay in touch with real people and the real world. I don't go to Hollywood parties. I don't hang out with big stars."
Except that he did marry Adrienne Barbeau, the buxom daughter on MAUDE, over Christmas after living with her for a few months. That's a change. You bet! But Carpenter just shrugs again. "Men always want me to say things about Adrienne other than what I say... how unbelievable it is to be with such a beautiful woman. But that has nothing to do with our relationship," he says quietly. "It's not a fantasy relationship. Everybody wants people in show business to live out a life as a fantasy person. I know when I go home to Bowling Green, I still have to make sure that even my parents understand the reality of my life. They tend to want to fantasize about me. But all I can say is that Adrienne is an unbelievable human being. It was respect and the things we had in common that brought us together. We have a normal life. We get down to basics. We sit at home on Saturday night and watch TV. We have gin rummy tournaments. We go to the beach and sit in the sun. What else can I say? I know all the cliches in Hollywood about directors and actresses, but... you do what you feel. There was real life before Hollywood, and there will be real life after Hollywood."
Carpenter sits for a moment, his hands folded carefully across his lap, and his tennis-shoed feet up on the coffee table. The Pepsi is long gone. It's almost seven. He's very quiet. And then slowly he looks over.
"If I were talking to myself four years ago, I would tell myself, 'John, it's not like you think it's going to be. It's different. It's not the romanticized vision. It's somwhere inbetween.'" He pulls at his moustache. "Look, I'm not an established director. I haven't made it. I'm still struggling. I try not to take myself too seriously. I have a toy that hangs in the kitchen. It's the plastic face of an ugly old woman, and you pull a string and she spits in your face and laughs. A hollow recorded laugh. And every time I think I've accomplished something great, I go in and pull that string, and it spits in my face and laughs. It's my way of staying down to earth. I think when you take something you've done too seriously, you begin to lose it." He shrugs, and looks at his watch. "I can't think of anything else to tell you. I'm really not that interesting of a person."
So life goes on, for both Carpenter and the kid that's in the back of his head, as they work out a precarious balance somewhere between what is real and what is fantasy. There's a scene in HALLOWEEN that hints at that conundrum, if you're watching the movie carefully and allowing the child in your head to sleep. It is presented in quite explicit and frightening terms.
Inside the darkened living room, and sitting in front of the television, the virgin and the two little kids are purposefully scaring themselves witless by watching two horror classics, FORBIDDEN PLANET and THE THING (two of Carpenter's favorites). And why not? The doors are securely locked. They've got their hot-buttered popcorn. They're perfectly safe. And, of course, it's only a movie. What better way can you imagine to scare yourself to death?
Except that just across the street, pure evil is laying waste to the flesh of their friends. The virgin and the kids don't know that - yet. Only we know, and we sit on the edge of our seats in the theater, waiting, full of dread, anticipating further carnage when evil crosses the street to stalk the innocents. We wait, munching our hot-buttered popcorn in the full safety of a theater, scaring ourselves witless, having a great time. After all, it's only a movie...