Just like “Halloween’s” Michael Myers, John Carpenter’s career just couldn’t stay dead – even if he nearly killed it himself.
One of the seminal genre filmmakers of the late 70s and 80s with a filmography that includes a long list of horror and sci-fi classics - including “The Fog,” “Escape From New York,” “The Thing,” “Christine,” “Starman,” “Big Trouble In Little China,” “They Live” and the aforementioned “Halloween” – Carpenter, 63, is back behind the camera at last after a decade-long absence with the new thriller “The Ward.”
But it wasn’t that Hollywood stopped calling; Carpenter quit picking up the phone.
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“I hadn't made a movie since 2001 [“Ghosts of Mars”] and I had to stop because, frankly, I got burned out on the movie business,” the writer-director tells PopcornBiz. “I just didn't want to do it any more. In fact, I thought about quitting. I started on my road back when I did these two TV series. 'Masters of Horror.’
"It was actually fun again. I didn't have much responsibility – I just sort of showed up. It wasn't a giant shoot and I had a great time. [Then] 'The Ward' came along and everything was perfect. It was an ensemble cast in a limited location with a small budget and it was a claustrophobic feel to it. I thought, 'This is okay. This is great for my first time back really directing a feature.'”
But what was it, exactly, that nearly slid the knife into Carpenter’s career ambitions?
“The movie business, dude,” he says simply. “I've been doing this for forty-some-odd years, and I've been doing it back to back to back – not only sometimes writing it, but directing it and doing the music. And what you give up is your private life. You have no life. I just thought, 'I can't do this any more.' And it doesn't help that 'The Ghost of Mars' tanked like the Titanic.”
With “The Ward” – a moody, macabre tale set in the minimal environs of a 1960s mental hospital where the comely patients, led by the film’s star Amber Heard, are tormented by a mysterious, malevolent force – Carpenter was able to go back to his low-budget, maverick roots and get back to the business of crafting old-school scares.
He admits he didn’t indulge himself with many of the film industry’s technological innovations over the years he’d been on hiatus.
“We didn't have any money for new equipment and techniques,” he chuckles. “We barely had any money for the makeup and hair! We had a lot of struggles on this film because it was a tiny movie. It's all about storytelling. That's all directing is about: It's not about equipment. It's not about anything else. It's telling a story.”
Carpenter remains acutely aware of the visceral potency of the horror genre that his earlier films largely redefined.
“It's a genre that started when cinema was created,” says Carpenter. “It's been with us in various stages of popularity ever since because everyone who is alive is afraid of the same things. We're all born afraid. We're afraid of death. We're afraid of the unknown.
"We're afraid of being hurt, disfigured. We're afraid of losing a loved one, of losing our identity. Anything that I'm afraid of, everybody is afraid of. It speaks to us.
"Comedy sometimes doesn't travel to other cultures. Horror - fear, is in every single culture. That's why it's so powerful.”