Halloween tradition holds that someone will appear for Horrortober who produces the reaction of “wait, you haven’t gotten to them yet?” And, no, I haven’t gotten to John Carpenter yet. This despite the fact that I’ve written about people I’m so unfamiliar with that I’ve had to ask friends where I should use an image of them from—though that’s mostly women, since finding women of horror is one of my annual challenges—and I’ve known who John Carpenter was for literally decades now, even though I don’t think I actually saw any of his movies until college. At that, I think that was mostly catching bits of Ghosts of Mars on a then-boyfriend’s Cinemax.
John Carpenter has actually made astonishingly few movies for the size of his impact on the world of horror. What’s more, not all of them have been horror films. In 1970, a film he scored, edited, and co-wrote won an Oscar—Carpenter has yet to win in his own right, even for an honorary win—that was a sort of Western fantasy. Assault on Precinct 13 is a thriller. He directed a TV movie about Elvis and the charming science fiction romance Starman. And of course there’s Big Trouble in Little China, which I have seen and which rather defies genre categorization.
But you’re here to talk about Halloween, and so am I. What else, in October? Now, I am not a horror fan myself and routinely ask the help of others (in particular Tom Kuhn) to block out my schedule for the month. But a few years ago, I did feel the need to get around to watching it. Now, I’ll never understand why he didn’t just, you know, set it in California—it’s filmed not far from where I grew up and looks it—but while I’m not particularly interested in the genre, it’s a well-made movie, and its impact on the genre of horror cannot be overestimated.
In many ways, the film served to codify a lot of horror tropes, with Laurie Strode as horror’s definitive Final Girl. (Yes, I’ve written about Jamie Lee Curtis.) It’s a killer who hasn’t really got motivation—they gave him some in later films, but in the first one, he’s killing the people around Laurie just because—and seems unstoppable. All the other horror movies that came after borrowed at least something from it, either intentionally or not. Alas that few of them did it so well.
Carpenter himself, meanwhile, was inspired by his father. Who was a music teacher. Oh, he loved film from an early age and made movies in high school and all that good stuff, but also he loves music. Mostly that’s what he’s doing these days. He was one of the first musicians to introduce synthesizer to movie scores; one supposes that’s at least in part because a synthesizer is cheaper than an orchestra. He’s scored, either alone or in partnership, almost all of his own movies. And even if you haven’t seen Halloween, you’d recognize his score for it if you heard it.