Many of us who saw David Gordon Green’s Halloween Kills (2021) last month were inevitably disappointed with it, perhaps unsurprisingly. Part of what was frustrating about the new film was Green’s attempt to position it in relation to John Carpenter’s 1978 original, with constant references and “call-backs” being made throughout to the original trauma of Michael Meyers’ killing spree in Haddonfield, IL, to the suffering of the survivors in this narrative, and to the musical score, title fonts, and other surface details from the original film. This self-referential atmosphere might have been interesting if it had had a point, but in this context it ultimately felt hollow and meaningless, a way of harkening back to the original film without offering up any new observations about it. Carpenter’s original film possessed a sense of mise-en-scène and stylistic dexterity all its own, while Green’s seemed to be calling attention only to its own absence of formal integrity.
The disappointment I felt about the new film’s referential misguidedness got me thinking about Carpenter’s 1978 original. If ever there was a post-classical American filmmaker who wore his influences on his sleeve, it was Carpenter. In Dave Kehr’s original Chicago Reader capsule review of the seminal slasher, he wrote that Carpenter “displays an almost perfect understanding of the mechanics of classical suspense.” In fact, it would be difficult for anyone with a basic understanding of the history of American cinema to watch Halloween and not think of Alfred Hitchcock: the film’s implicit concern with disturbing forms of sexual transgression seems to build on Hitchcock’s work in his masterpieces Vertigo (1958) and Marnie (1964). Hitchcock’s work looms large over Carpenter’s text, but like any great artist, Carpenter absorbs his influences and builds upon them reticently — the myth of Hitchcock can be felt deeply in the interiority of the film itself, in its inner workings and formal rhythms. This kind of deep critical learning from past works should be seen as a far cry from the superficial homages of Green’s recent exercise in fan fiction; it’s a responsible way of dealing with the so-called “anxiety of influence” that all artists carry, as Harold Bloom put it.
Additionally, there’s another American master whose work seems to operate as an even more crucial subtext in Carpenter’s cinema: Howard Hawks. Of course, Carpenter made explicit this relationship by officially remaking one of Hawks’s own classics, 1951’s The Thing from Another World, as The Thing in 1982. But Carpenter’s subsequent films are even more Hawksian in their emphasis on (primarily male) group dynamics and on a kind of democratic, utopian team ethos as a means of holding back dark forces. Prince of Darkness (1987), perhaps Carpenter’s magnum opus, resembles Rio Bravo (1959) in that its opening passages detail a group of people, defined by their differences in characteristics from one another, coming together under a singular setting.
After a period of resistance to one another, a sense of duty acts as a binding agent which links the characters together. This is the formation and consolidation of the group that one encounters in almost all of Hawks’s action-adventure films. In Prince of Darkness, these characters are scientists who become trapped in an abandoned church after the discovery of an ancient, molecular evil (the “prince” of the title) that’s being kept alive in the basement. Carpenter seems to like using a strong classical structure upon which he can construct his own ideas, and the sturdiness of working against a particularly Hawksian text here makes the film come alive, enacting a vibrant dialogue with film history in the process.
With Big Trouble in Little China (1986), probably Carpenter’s most Hawksian film, the director gives us his ultimate Hawksian hero in Kurt Russell, the 1980s American cinema’s equivalent of John Wayne. Like Roddy Piper in They Live (1988), Russell’s performance is defined not only by its masculinity but by its sense of professionalism — his personal qualities as a character are inseparable from his pragmatic function within the narrative, his duty-bound sense of morality and heroism. Carpenter’s film can be seen as an update on Hawks’s ‘40s and ‘50s films, taking classical structures and watching what happens as they become alchemically mixed with the special effects-bound trappings of ‘80s action and horror cinema. Carpenter’s cinema remains a liberating and potent blend of historical reticence and formal creativity. It’s a refreshing voice to hear from within a cinematic landscape that’s become all too comfortable with the pointless rehashing of its own cultural detritus.
Jack Miller enjoys the films of Howard Hawks, Jacques Tourneur and John Ford. He graduated from Indiana University with a BA in English, and currently resides in Chicago. He also enjoys listening to country and disco music.