Time Out NY:
Oct. 29-Nov. 5, 1998
Prince of Darness
Horror maestro John Carpenter talks about VAMPIRES, cops, postmodernists and other scary subjects
By Keith Bearden
Like the four big-leaguers of contemporary American film - Spielberg, Lucas, Coppola and Scorsese - John Carpenter was among the first generation of filmmakers who honed their talents in film school (he went to USC), and he has already left an indelible mark on film history. HALLOWEEN is as important to modern terror as PSYCHO was some 20 years before it, and Carpenter's masterpiece, 1982's THE THING, remains one of the most genuinely nightmarish movies of the last 30 years, perhaps ever. Along the way, the writer-director-producer-composer-actor has made TV movies (ELVIS, SOMEONE IS WATCHING ME, BODY BAGS) and cranked out a string of unique action, sci-fi and horror feature, with varying degrees of success. Almost three decades in, he's no closer to inclusion in the aforementioned pantheon, but in Carpenter's defense, not one of those auteurs possesses the twisted genius to cast a pro wrestler as their lead hero ("Rowdy" Roddy Piper in THEY LIVE), to have the Bride of Satan played by the L'eggs panyhose lady (in PRINCE OF DARKNESS) or to write a country theme song for a movie that takes place entirely in outer space (DARK STAR). As Carpenter's latest fright-fest, VAMPIRES, arrives in theaters, TONY put the bite on him.
TIME OUT NEW YORK: Isn't the vampire myth played out by now?
John Carpenter: You have to try to make it fresh. Vampires are generic and a cliche, but people are stil interested. Look at Anne Rice. Vampires, werewlves, all that stuff - it's a universal ancient myth. It's a metaphor - the evil side of our hearts, the wild beast we all might turn into if not for the civilizing hand of God or society or what have you.
TONY: A lot of your films get panned by the critics, then go on to become cult favorites.
JC: You never know. Sometimes it works, and sometimes people say, "What is this shit?" You're right though - almost all my movies get panned. A movie like STARMAN, which was more culturally acceptable, that's not gonna get panned. That's a movie where we get to feel good about the human race. My other films are "ooky" - you know, they don't make you feel good about things. HALLOWEEN was a case of a few critics rallying for it and then the rest all falling in line behind them. But those are pretty much it.
TONY: What bugs you most about films today?
JC: Movies have been transformed by this whole postmodern deconstructive cynicism. Movies refer to other movies or TV shows. In CRIMSON TIDE, they have someone tell the nervous radio operator, "Remember STAR TREK? Remember how they have to beam somebody up? That's what you have to do." It was jaw-dropping, unbelievable - nobody talks like that on a submarine! That's my problem. It's this winking self-referential stuff. The thing I was put off by in SCREAM was the continuing references to the rules HALLOWEEN laid down. I mean, come on, guys! Write your own story!
TONY: Critics loved SCREAM because it wasn't a horror movie but a film about filmmaking.
JC: I know, I know.
TONY: But you're part of the whole film-school generation that bred this sort of thing.
JC: I know. We should all be taken out and shot.
TONY: HALLOWEEN has been so imitated. Do you feel like everyone's raiding your bag of tricks?
JC: Well, they do for that story. That's why you can't go back and tell it again. Like the remake of PSYCHO. How can you do any more than what Hitchcock did?
TONY: Is that why you weren't involved in H20?
JC: Man, that sounded like a career-ending movie if ever there was one. Besides, what else did I have to say about this thing? The first sequel was [greenlighted] back in 1980, and I said, well I don't wanna direct it, but I'll sit down and write something. Big mistake! Middle of thenight, chugging beer, trying to come up with some ideas. What is there? There's nothing left to say.
TONY: Got to keep the wheels of commerce turning...
JC: Hey, they paid me, too. So I'm just as big a whore as any of them.
TONY: One of the best things about VAMPIRES is the avoidance of MTV-style cutting. Those long lingering shots can be terrifying.
JC: Yeah. We live in an attention-deficit-disorder era. You don't realize what it's like now. Studios don't do more than two weeks of heavy advertising, because they found out the kids don't remember - more than two weeks, they forget! After that they don't recall the title of the movie they saw, and if they haven't told their friends by then, it's all over. It's bizarre!
TONY: You made ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK. What do you think of the city?
JC: I read the New York Times every day, and it seems you people have a little police-department problem going on. I've read some pretty incredible stories about brutality up there. What is this shit? How can you all let this happen?
TONY: I guess they dont want the LAPD getting all the glory.
JC: Well, we have totally changed down here. We started community policing. Cops are part of the neighborhood and interact with everyone now. It's not the SWAT team from hell it used to be. You see, we got our asses kicked. Do you understand me? Big time. You people need to have a good old-fashioned riot like we did. Did a world of good.