John Carpenter’s films were and should still be an essential part of any healthily misspent childhood, corrupting the adolescent mind as effectively as anyone could hope. It’s no secret his later output struggled to live up to the visceral, paranoid and nihilistic genius of 70s and 80s classics Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, Escape From New York, They Live and The Thing, but the director became something of a whipping boy for critics throughout the 90s, with matters reaching a head when his (actually rather watchable in a late-night sort of way) Ghosts of Mars got taken round the back for a shoeing.
He quit the game after that, but almost a decade later he’s back with a 60s-set slasher in a mental asylum, starring Amber Heard and picking up some decent reviews. Whatever the case, we love him unconditionally if only for the fact that in the same summer the rest of the world was getting gooey about cute ‘n’ cuddly ET, he put out a film featuring a grotesquely violent body-morphing alien, and in which everyone dies. We visited him at his Hollywood home to smoke cigarettes and talk slashers, soundtracks and sport.
So, John – how come you haven’t made a film for nine years?
I directed two TV episodes, and that got me interested again. I just loved being on the floor with the actors and the camera crew. It rekindled an enthusiasm that I had lost.
Why did you lose that love?
I made movies throughout the 90s, and the last one in 2001, Ghosts of Mars, tanked critically and commercially. I’d burned myself out. It stopped being fun. I had to stop.
How was it working with a young cast like Amber Heard?
Terrific. They’re young, talented, idealistic… everything I’m not!
Why did you set the film in 1966?
In 74 or 76, they changed the mental institution rules in this country. You couldn’t keep somebody involuntarily any more. And that was a requirement of our story. We could have set it in the 50s but… well, Shutter Island is in the 50s, so the producers got scared of that.
What are the key ingredients for a successful horror?
There are no rules. Every story is different. The Ward, for instance, has a lot of ‘jump scares’ in it, which are a little passé these days.
It’s something you’ve always been fond of…
I’ve always loved them, they’re easy to do and fun, and I have one of the cheapest ‘jump scares’ in the history of movies, which I’m very proud of. But every movie is different, and that’s something I realised very early on in my career. That’s why some didn’t work as well as others.
Why have you made lots of films that deal with the end of world?
There are some looming things out there we’re going to have to deal with this century. And, well, there was an apocalyptic event in 2001 in the United States… and now our politics have gone completely insane.
What do you make of the way your country is heading?
Our country’s history is arguing and fighting. I mean, we’re a crazy country – the greatest thing about America is that it has everything in it. We have geniuses, artists, serial killers, crazy politicians, strip clubs… we’ve got it all!
How do you feel about your films being remade?
Now they’re doing The Thing again, which in itself was kind of a re-make. In many cases, what happens when a film of mine is remade is that. I extend my hand and a cheque is put into it, for which I did nothing. Which is a job I’ve wanted to do all my life! (laughs)
When The Thing came out, people were shocked at the level of gore – what do you make of today’s extreme horrors?
Oh boy! If you take movies like the Saw films… the first couple are fun, and hilarious! They were really playful, and Jigsaw was a fabulous bad guy – the later ones got a little, err, you know. I’m not a great fan of ‘torture porn’.
Be honest – don’t you ever just fancy a whimsical romantic comedy?
Sure! Absolutely, but I have to confess that at my age I just watch basketball. That’s the most fun for me. You guys have basketball over there? Cricket, I don’t get.
It’s a slower, more complicated version of baseball over five days that can end in a draw.
Baseball is one of the most boring sports ever, and to think you guys have perfected that boredom is amazing to me.
You still play basketball on set?
I’m too old for that now! I rest. It’s a lot of work.
You’ve seen Hollywood decline, but is this an exciting time for young filmmakers?
Oh my God, you don’t have to go to film school. Fight Club? The behind-the-scenes are unbelievable! It shows everything. You watch the movie and Fincher takes you round each shot, you can really see his thinking. Don’t waste your money on film school. Get the DVD extras!
Your film scores were so minimalist. Do you think they can be more effective when stripped back?
Absolutely! Look at the shower scene in Psycho, it’s a very famous score but it’s hardly anything at all, its just strings, DING DING DING DING! You can’t get simpler than that, but it’s extremely effective.
Scores like your one for Assault On Precinct 13 have been very influential on hip hop and electronic musicians. How do you feel about seeing your work used in a different context?
It’s fun. It’s something I would never have thought of, to take a piece and add to it. But my shock at seeing Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds… at the opening of that movie it was the ‘Green Leaves Of Summer’ from The Alamo, it’s like you gotta be KIDDING me! FUCK YOU! You actually took a piece of music from another movie? How CHEAP! And then playing some incidental music from Kelly’s Heroes! It was jaw-dropping. I was insulted – how dare he do that?
You consider that a different usage from people sampling your music?
That’s fine, but if you took my theme from Halloween and put it on some other movie, stop! What a lack of creativity, a lack of vision. It’s theft.
He would presumably defend this by saying it’s ironic.
I’m an old guy now, so it offends me whereas it doesn’t offend, let’s say… the ironic youth!
That’s a good band name. What kind of music do you listen to?
I don’t listen so much to music any more. But every once in a while, some song comes along, right now it’s that Pink song, “Let’s get this party started” – I kind of enjoy that.
Er… are you going to use that in a film?
I don’t think so.
How prophetic do you think your films have been?
The biggest movie of mine that didn’t work was Escape From New York, because back in the 70s when I wrote it, New York was in huge decline. It was a dangerous place. It’s Disneyland now, a tourist attraction, not a prison. (laughs) So, that was obviously completely wrong.
Well, there are many other cities in America that have declined.
Big time! Detroit is a really dangerous place.
So, if you had made ‘Escape From Detroit’, you would have nailed it?
That’s true! But I think its political issues are prophetic and still true. That was Reaganism – we’re still with it, and it’s still with us. Now I understand more why Ronald Reagan was elected, but back then it was all so confusing.
The Ward will be out in 2011