rare interview with director John Carpenter, who talks to novelist
John Carpenter needs no introduction for the majority of Horror fans.
Nevertheless, it would seem churlish not to give him at least a few
Carpenter was born in 1948 and grew up in Bowling Green, Kentucky, the son of a college music professor. His first feature, the low-budget Science Fiction satire Dark Star (1974), immediately gained him a cult following. Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), a modern reworking of the Howard Hawks western Rio Bravo, received critical acclaim and led to the classic Halloween (1978), which earned more than $75 million on an investment of $300,000 and became one of the most successful and influential independent features ever made. The Fog (1980), Escape From New York (1981) and a remake of Hawks' The Thing (1982) established him as a master of Horror, Science Fiction and suspense. The soon-to-be-released Vampires, starring James Woods, from the novel by John Steakley, is his nineteenth feature, a story about a group of vampire hunters sponsored by the Vatican.
Interviews with Carpenter are not common, and rarely does he fully discuss his feelings towards his work. He did however grant an interview to the novelist Dennis Etchison, described as 'the most original living Horror writer in America' (The Penguin Encyclopedia). Etchison has achieved fame as a novelist (The Fog, Darkside, Shadowman, California Gothic) and also works as a screenwriter, including scripts for Carpenter and Dario Argento.
Dennis Etchison: How do you feel about films that have an overt political agenda? Not just Costa-Gavras and some Third World films, but Frank Capra, for example? What's your reaction?
John Carpenter: Mixed. Regardless of my hatred for some of the messages, they may be brilliantly made. Like Triumph of the Will. What it's espousing is this kind of Aryan white hero, from a low angle, tracking through the crowds-but boy, is it gorgeous! So I'm attracted to them when they're well-made. And if it's a message I want to hear...
DE: A lot of filmmakers - and artists in all areas - claim they're primarily entertainers, without a political agenda. Do you think that's true?. And where would you place yourself on that spectrum?
JC: I don't believe it's ever true that you don't have a political agenda. But for years I lied to myself, and lied in interviews, saying that I'm not a political creature. Because I think I was afraid to come out with an unpopular position. I wanted to be liked, especially by the people in the business, get more jobs, not be ostracized. But if I said, "You know, guys, it seems that we're really tilting into sort of an ultra-right-wing fascist state here, and maybe we need a good old-fashioned dose of socialism to straighten this crap out..." I was afraid that wouldn't be acceptable.
DE: I would think that if we have strong feelings about religion, or politics, or any abstract, it's going to come out in our work even if we're not aware of it. You don't think your early films were devoid of any political attitude, do you?
JC: No. They definitely had a political attitude. But I don't know that you'd discern it from Assault on Precinct 13. You might think, "Oh, this guy's right-wing."
DE: It was about law and order and protection against mob justice. Like Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo.
JC: Yes. Listen, Hawks was a very conservative filmmaker. He was certainly not what you'd call a liberal. I was more interested in the action and the characters and the story, the fun of cinema, as opposed to the political implications. And I think this was the first film where I got called a racist in a review. I thought, What can they possibly be talking about?
DE: You had black cops, didn't you?
JC: Yes. The hero was black. There were black convicts and black cops.
DE: So you were being accused of reverse racism?
JC: I have no idea. I still, to this day, don't understand it.
Vampires pic copyright Columbia
For more of this exclusive and candid interview with John Carpenter, as well as a look behind the scenes of Vampires, see Shivers #55. Part two of the interview will be published in Shivers #56.