carpenter cabinThe Pioneer Log Cabin on Western Kentucky University’s campus was filmmaker John Carpenter’s childhood home.
“Everything I know about evil I learned in Bowling Green.”
While that may not sound like a glowing endorsement to most, I react to John Carpenter’s pseudo-cryptic statement—said with a chuckle—with utter delight. Where else would a genius of horror, suspense and thought-provoking terror develop his muse if not on the streets of his hometown?
It is during our formative years that those fears are born, nurtured and groomed. The tree branch that scratches our window, the societal turmoil going on around us, and shadows that take the shape of every movie villain and monster in our young memory banks create our personal sense of scary, and if John Carpenter wants to credit Bowling Green, Ky., for inspiring his gift for the goose bump, I am all for it.
Born Jan. 16, 1948 in Carthage, N.Y., Carpenter moved with his parents into Western Kentucky University’s iconic Pioneer Log Cabin five years later when his father accepted a faculty position teaching music. Carpenter’s lifelong love affair with cinema blossomed during countless afternoons spent in Bowling Green theaters. “There was a movie that came out in 1956 called Forbidden Planet,” recalls Carpenter. “I remember thinking, ‘I want to do that. I want to direct.’ I saw the director as the real creative force behind the movie, and that’s what I wanted to do.”
Carpenter attended WKU for two years before transferring to the University of Southern California to study filmmaking. “I studied how to make movies at USC—what effects you can create. You need to know your craft,” he says. But the basics of moviemaking were only the beginning. “I wanted to do something that hadn’t been done before. Stories need different layers. You have the plot, but beneath that, there is something that the audience picks up on, something subtle they experience.” The director incorporated those elements into his films and created works that went beyond shock, fear and suspense to a much deeper level of creepy captivation.
Carpenter’s career began its roller coaster ride while he was still a student at USC. Working with classmates John Longenecker and James Rokos, he helped create a 16mm short film called The Resurrection of Bronco Billy. The film was converted to 35mm and went on to win the 1970 Academy Award for Best Short Film, firmly placing Carpenter on the moviemaking map. It also gave him the chance to toy with a Western theme—a favorite of his since childhood. “I got into it to make Westerns, but nobody was really doing that anymore,” says Carpenter. His 1974 project Dark Star gave fans the chance to watch the director further develop his timing and creativity in a comedy/sci-fi combo.
Gritty suspense and palpable fear define Assault on Precinct 13, Carpenter’s 1976 thriller about a skeleton staff and a handful of inmates forced to defend a closing police precinct and themselves from a violent street gang seeking revenge. Though not initially well-received, its premiere at the 1977 London Film Festival brought critical acclaim and turned Assault into a cult classic. As was the case with many of his projects, Carpenter wrote, directed and composed the musical score for this film, and he relied on terrifying realism to heighten the action. Special effects come into play more prominently in later Carpenter works, but the filmmaker never relied on showy graphics to make his point. “I like old movies,” he muses. “I like to see the artistry in them.”
Halloween, released in 1978, is arguably Carpenter’s best-known film. Its references to Bowling Green locales have delighted Kentucky viewers for decades and forever tie the filmmaker to the Bluegrass State. But it is the movie’s place in horror history that is most notable. Considered the first of the “slasher” horror film subgenre, Halloween also is one of the most financially successful independent films ever made. Produced on a budget of roughly $325,000, the movie went on to gross more than $50 million in the United States alone and remains a rite of passage for horror fans everywhere.
Expert camera direction and a musical score composed by Carpenter drive the tempo and rhythm of this film and intensify the audience’s connection to the story. “Slasher” usually brings to mind gory scenes of teenage characters gratuitously dispatched via machete or meat hook, with blood and assorted human detritus flowing freely. Halloween engages in little of that. Relying instead on the innate fear and anxiety in all of us, Carpenter uses the stark simplicity of a masked killer, Halloween night and the blind terror of a victim to increase our pulse rate and keep us glued to the screen.
Halloween was the linchpin of Carpenter’s most successful decade at the box office. His roles as writer, director, producer, composer and actor—or some combination thereof—brought his creative influence to films such as Eyes of Laura Mars (1978), The Fog (1980), Escape From New York (1981), The Thing (1982) and They Live (1988) and put each film on every horror/suspense/thriller buff’s must-see list, whether as a box office smash or cult favorite.
The next two decades were inconsistent from a critical standpoint, but that is largely because Carpenter remains true to his artistic, storyteller roots and distances himself from the over-the-top action narratives that dominate the modern thriller genre. Carpenter’s love of 1950s cinema is always evident in his work, and fans are quick to recognize the creative genius behind each story. An August 2001 LA Weekly article by Paul Malcolm lauded Carpenter for his true-to-genre style and solid filmmaking talent, noting, “Carpenter still makes movies like a fan, drawing from an eclectic mix of ‘A’ and ‘B’ movies to craft his distinctive, cross-pollinated genre staples.” When I ask him how he did this, how he creates films that never forget the audience has a mind as well as eyes and ears, he laughs and says, “I don’t know! I just use my instinct. It comes down to this for everyone in the industry. You have to believe it yourself.”
Carpenter’s life now is more relaxed and centered on the pleasures of video games (he collaborated on the storyline for F.E.A.R. 3) and NBA basketball, but his films will continue to terrify and inspire moviegoers for generations.
Reel Sites, Real Scary
Ever been featured in a horror film? What about your house, street or neighborhood? If you’re a resident of Bowling Green, any number of those possibilities could be true, and you can find out just how devilishly close you’ve come to macabre fame by participating in Reel Sites, Real Scary: A John Carpenter Driving Tour. The 17-site excursion offers participants an up-close look at the filmmaker’s childhood home, favorite movie venue and various spots around town mentioned (no scenes actually were filmed in Kentucky) in his films, including Halloween and The Fog. Jamie Lee Curtis may not run past your vehicle shrieking, but the local connections to Carpenter’s terrifying masterpiece will add a whole new level of fright to your October 31.
“Horror movie fans absolutely love the driving tour because many of them recall the references after learning Carpenter grew up in Bowling Green, especially the fictional Smiths Grove Sanitarium,” says Marissa Butler of the Bowling Green Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. The tour aims to bring Carpenter’s early years in B.G. and creative muse to life. “We are always looking for ways to tie the visitor experience to the stories of our people and places, so this was a perfect way to showcase our area’s pop culture connection,” says Butler.
Carpenter himself collaborated on the tour’s brochure, and plans are underway to incorporate mobile technology into the experience and use it as a connection to other sites and events throughout the city. “The goal of the driving tour,” says Butler, “is for newcomers to learn more about John Carpenter while having fun exploring our community.” For more information on the tour, visit visitbgky.com.