John Carpenter attended Western Kentucky University, where his father chaired the music department, then transferred to the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts during 1968, but quit to make his first feature film.
His early work was a fond and felicitous tribute to the aura of RKO in the forties: very low-budget pictures full of visceral excitement and rich cinematic texture that belie their cost. He adores and refers to the style of Hitchcock and the atmosphere of Hawks, and he made Dark Star as a rebuke to 2001 and an affirmation of the innocent wonder of The Thing or Forbidden Planet. With effect, for Dark Star is among the best space travel film since the early fifties.
Precinct 13 is a Hawksian set piece of a police station besieged by hoodlums - economical, tense, beautiful, and highly arousing. It fulfills all Carpenter’s ambitions for gripping the audience emotionally and never letting go. But it has a natural taste that uses violence or sensation quickly and obliquely - so much more tender a play upon audiences than De Palma’s ruthless grip.
Halloween showed that, despite remarkable facility with the medium, Carpenter remained loyal to his B-movie revivalism. It was likely that someone would insist that he work with a big budget - cheap films frighten financiers more than blockbusters. Big budgets mean commercial decisions and projects compromised by profit sharers and residual artists.
Carpenter also wrote scripts, to keep in practice and to make money for his own projects. He had no great esteem for such work, and probably regards The Eyes of Laura Mars (78, Irvin Kershner), which he wrote with David Zelag Goodman, with the scorn it deserves. However, suppose that Jon Peters, Kershner, and Dunaway had yielded to Carpenter and Lauren Hutton and you have a brilliantly contrived TV thriller called High Rise (78).
Carpenter did not advance. The Fog has some creepy moments; Escape from New York is not just a great title - it’s a complete vision of New York’s dread of where it is going; The Thing is retread Hawks; and Starman is that rarity, a love story that grows out of sci-fi, with a fine performance by Jeff Bridges. There’s not a lot to be said for the rest - and the rest also includes the producer’s job on some Halloween repeats. Since 1984, Carpenter has become terminally boyish in his pursuit of spooks, devils, and thrills. Memoirs of an Invisible Man has Chevy Chase as a comic special effect: that is a working definition of being at the end of one's tether.
At the outset, John Carpenter knew he was a throwback, but he had no guilt: “If I had three wishes, one of them would be Send me back to tbe 40s and the studio system and let me direct movies.’ Because I would have been happiest there. I feel I am a little bit out of time. I have much more of a kinship for older-style films, and very few films that are made now interest me at all. I get up and walk out on them.”
In 1979 he married Adrienne Barbeau. In 1984 they divorced and had one son, John Howard Jr. In 1990 he married Sandy King.