Laurie Strode, Michael Myers, Dr. Sam Loomis, Snake Plissken, Jack Burton, Arnie Cunningham, R.J. Macready, and John Nada all have one thing in common. Do you know what it is? They are all closely associated with John Carpenter. Some in more ways than one, but that’s the common denominator in this particular equation. Though it has been over a decade since his last directorial effort, his name, as well as his work, have a certain air to them that make us believe in good, evil, right, wrong, independence, and in many ways, ourselves. This isn’t a biography on John Carpenter or a breakdown of his work from film to film. It’s a look at what he has done to inspire the filmmaking community, film audiences, and free thinkers the world over for over four decades.
In the early days of his career, Carpenter had a very strong sense of self that has been his trademark from Assault on Precinct Thirteen to The Ward. Not only as a director, but as a writer, editor, and composer, as well. For instance, if not for the score he composed for Assault, Donald Pleasance wouldn’t have agreed to be in Halloween. And what would that movie be without the performance he gives as Dr. Loomis? Thank all the powers that be that we don’t have to know. Pleasance is just as connected to the Halloween franchise as Carpenter himself.
Carpenter is unapologetic in his feelings and opinions when it comes to his work. His movies aren’t just movies. They speak to the human condition. Good and evil are real. They exist, and we can never truly know what form they’ll come in. That’s why Michael Myers doesn’t speak. The character was named Michael Myers, but both in the credits and behind the scenes he is referred to as only The Shape. On the other side of that coin, we have good in Dr. Loomis, Michael’s gun-toting psychiatrist. Loomis knows that Myers has transcended humanity and in doing so has become the embodiment of evil. Pure and unadulterated. In my many viewings of Halloween, and there have been many, I’ve realized that Michael represents anyone and everyone. Just like the Thing in The Thing. The only person we can be certain of in this world is ourselves. The evil of humanity can come from anywhere, from anyone, at any time.
The Thing (1982)
What is the difference between right and wrong? Is it concrete or does it vary from situation to situation? Is it right to show up ready to, “Chew bubble gum and kick ass,” without any bubble gum, like Nada in They Live? Absolutely not, but if we saw the world through Nada’s sunglasses, would our basic opinions on right and wrong change? They Live was a social commentary on the way the people in power view the population as a whole. Is it right? Is it wrong? That is for an individual to determine for themselves, but the thing that Carpenter gets across from film to film is the philosophy of ‘do what’s best for you.’ Figure it out. He explores what could come from these situations, and he focuses on the people’s responses to the situations—what a person can do and what they’re willing to do in extreme circumstances.
They Live (1988)
Snake Plissken is a prime example of the idea of independence Carpenter expresses through his work. Snake is just Snake, and he doesn’t care who likes him or who doesn’t. He exists to keep Snake alive. He has one good eye left, and he intends on keeping it focused on his needs, his wants, and his desires. Jack Burton, also played by Kurt Russell, in Big Trouble in Little China is also an individual. Jack is Jack, and that’s all he knows how to be. That’s all he wants to be, and he’s fine with that. When he says, “The police have more important things to do,” he’s saying we as individuals have to make a stand. This is our fight, and we’re going to fight it to the end, regardless of what that end is. Jack Crow in Vampires does what he believes is best. It may go against what the church wants, but it’s what has to be done, so he does it.
John Carpenter also expresses the importance of being self-reliant and believing in yourself. One of the best ways this is shown is from Laurie’s struggle in Halloween or Arnie’s determination to buy Christine in the beginning of Christine. Laurie is tired by the end of her night babysitting, and if not for Dr. Loomis, she may well have met her end. But she didn’t because she was willing to fight back. The Shape is a relentless force, but she says “NO!” She won’t be just another notch in his knife handle. Arnie, on the other hand, showed the same independence in a less physical manner. He was determined to buy Christine and no one, not his best friend, not his parents, not his girl, or any other “sh*tter” was going to come between him and Christine, the love of his life. That love would eventually be his undoing, and it would make him a person nobody wanted to be around, but he believed that was his decision, and no one could change his mind.
This approach may be “too cerebral,” but I don’t think so. So many of Carpenter’s characters over the years have helped me to see that believing in myself and being an individual is the most important thing that a person can do with their life. Succeed or fail, the individual is happier than the one that follows the crowd. Another icon of pop culture, Bruce Lee, once said, “Only the self-sufficient stand alone. Most people follow the crowd and imitate.” I’m not sure if Carpenter is aware of the quote from Lee, but he, and his body of work, are a prime example of the importance of the individual in today’s world. That is why John Carpenter is the “Independent King.”