You can’t have a conversation about cult movies of the last 50 years and not talk about John Carpenter. As a director, writer, producer, and composer, Carpenter’s work spans multiple mediums—and genres.
From comedy-westerns like the 1990 TV-movie El Diablo (a passion project of Carpenter’s, which he almost quit 1982’s The Thing to work on) to his celebrated “Apocalypse Trilogy” (a collection of films, including The Thing, 1987’s Prince of Darkness, and 1994’s In The Mouth of Madness, which are all known for their bleak themes and grim endings), the filmmaker has ventured across all kinds of cinematic terrain throughout his storied career.
In the process, Carpenter even helped popularize a genre of his own—horror’s slasher sub-genre—and paved the way for other aspiring independent filmmakers to chart their own course in Hollywood. Below are 10 more facts you might not know about the man who once said he doesn’t even watch any of his own films.
1. John Carpenter is one of the most successful independent filmmakers of all time.
Halloween (1978)—Carpenter’s third feature film, following the sci-fi comedy Dark Star (1974) and the crime-thriller Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)—was made on a shoestring budget of about $325,000, went on to gross $70 million worldwide, making it one of the most successful independent films of all time.
Everything about the production was done in true jamming econo fashion: Carpenter and co-screenwriter Debra Hill wrote the script in 10 days; most of the cast wore their own clothes; and Carpenter famously did the film’s score. He collected a relatively meager $10,000 for his efforts, but worked out a deal wherein he retained 10 percent of Halloween’s overall profits.
2. He really, really digs Godzilla movies.
The radioactive reptile left a big impression on Carpenter at a young age. He caught early entries in the kaiju series—like 1954’s Gojira, which was directed and co-written by Ishirō Honda—when he was still “just a little tyke.” In 2022, he told Den of Geek that “Godzilla was very formidable at the time, that’s the original black and white. I was also fascinated because the effects were just so interesting and fabulous. Everything about it was great.”
The films were a “monstrous pleasure” for him growing up and, as a kid, he even directed shorts inspired by them, like Gorgo vs. Godzilla. The short—which Carpenter claims will never be released publicly—reportedly features claymation versions of both creatures, duking it out for ultimate monster movie supremacy.
3. He doesn’t have any Oscars—but he’s worked on an Oscar-winning project before.
You’d think a filmmaker as renowned as Carpenter would have several Oscars tucked away on a shelf somewhere. But in fact, Carpenter has never technically won one—although he did work on a project early in his career that earned some gold. The Resurrection of Broncho Billy, a 1970 short he edited, co-wrote, and created the music for while a student at the University of Southern California, won the Best Short Subject (Live Action) Oscar at the 43rd Academy Awards.
Of all the full-length feature films Carpenter subsequently directed or worked on, only one received any kind of recognition from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It was Starman, a 1984 sci-fi romance. Leading man Jeff Bridges received an Oscar nomination for his work in the flick, although F. Murray Abraham took home the award for his work in Amadeus.
4. Carpenter insisted that Kurt Russell be cast as Snake Plissken.
With the dystopian action movie Escape from New York (1981), Carpenter—who was inspired by the Watergate scandal when he penned the original screenplay in 1976—created one of cinema’s most memorable antiheroes in Snake Plissken, a former Special Forces soldier looking to be pardoned for past crimes by helping save the president of the United States.
Kurt Russell, who was largely known for Disney movies at the time, was not considered a good choice for the role by AVCO Embassy Pictures, which financed and distributed the film. But Carpenter, who had already worked with Russell on the 1979 made-for-TV film Elvis, overruled these objections and cast Russell as the mercenary-for-hire anyway.
Russell gladly accepted the role, and even made a few suggestions. “When I read Snake Plissken, I said to John, ‘Oh, I know what I want to do! I want to wear an eye-patch,’” Russell told Esquire in a 2015 interview. He went on to explain that he imagined nuclear dust had gotten into Plissken’s left eye. “Who knows? Maybe he can still see out of it? Maybe he can see through that eye-patch. He’s constantly in a little bit of pain and agony because his left eye is always bugging him,” the actor added.
Russell would go on to star in three other Carpenter films, including reprising the role of Plissken in the 1996 cult classic, Escape from L.A.
5. The Thing was Carpenter’s first studio film—and critics and audiences absolutely hated it.
Although it’s now widely regarded as one of the best horror films of the 1980s—and arguably, of all time—The Thing wasn’t a hit when it first landed in theaters back in June 1982, earning just $19.6 million domestically against a budget of $15 million.
Fresh off the cute, kid-friendly alien depiction seen in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (which was also released in June of that year), audiences were aghast over the film’s nihilistic tone and gory special effects, which were helmed by Rob Bottin and FX legend Stan Winston.
Critics were none too kind, either. Vincent Canby, then-film critic for The New York Times, absolutely eviscerated The Thing in his review, dubbing the flick “instant junk” and “a foolish, depressing, overproduced movie that mixes horror with science fiction to make something that is fun as neither one thing or the other.” He also claimed it would probably only be entertaining for folks who enjoyed the sight of a “head walking around on spiderlike legs” and “two or more burned bodies fused together to look like spareribs covered with barbecue sauce.” (What can we say? Guilty as charged, man.)
For Carpenter, the negative response led to a lot of disillusionment with the Hollywood machine. “I take every failure hard. The one I took the hardest was The Thing,” Carpenter told Time Out New York in 2008. “The movie was hated. Even by science-fiction fans. They thought that I had betrayed some kind of trust, and the piling on was insane. Even the original movie’s director, Christian Nyby, was dissing me.”
6. He was supposed to direct Firestarter, but was fired because of The Thing.
Stephen King adaptations were seen as guaranteed money-makers by film studios back in the early 1980s. Even Carpenter got in on the action: He was originally attached to direct Firestarter, the 1984 adaptation of King’s hit 1980 novel of the same name. But after the critical and commercial failure of The Thing, Universal Pictures—the studio in charge of Firestarter’s distribution—dropped Carpenter from the project.
He ultimately bounced back with 1983’s criminally underrated Christine, based on the book King published that same year. Carpenter even convinced screenwriter Bill Phillips, who was initially attached to the Firestarter adaptation, to pen the script for Christine.
7. Carpenter turned down the chance to direct Top Gun ...
For all the cult classics that Carpenter has made over the years, there’s an equally large number of unrealized projects, too. From Meltdown (a ’70s-era thriller that Carpenter described as “kind of Halloween in a nuclear power plant”) to a flick about Santa Claus, the movies he didn’t end up making are nearly as famous as the ones he did.
But beyond Firestarter, there are a few other legendary ’80s flicks that Carpenter nearly sunk his teeth into, including the 1986 mega-hit Top Gun. He quickly turned it down, however. “I read it, and I thought, ‘I wouldn’t do that thing for a million bucks,’” he told The Daily Beast in a 2021 interview.
In particular, Carpenter had a big issue with the original ending. “They fight the Russians in the third act? Come on now. There’d be World War III. Stop that. Come on,” he told Entertainment.ie.
Carpenter’s dislike of the original Top Gun script has even given rise to a theory among film fans that the ending of the film was rewritten because of his criticism.
8. ... But he earned his commercial pilot’s license.
Although he passed on Top Gun, the director took to the skies in other ways. He got his commercial pilot’s license circa 1983, and told The New Yorker that he did it as a way of personally conquering some fears. “I got my commercial pilot’s license, and that was just because I thought, Well, if I’m going to make movies about tough guys, I better be one for a minute.”
Despite describing the experience of flying as “fabulous” and “unlike anything else,” he told GQ in 2021 that he has eased off it in recent years. “I wasn’t able to fly [a helicopter] every day for a lot of different reasons, so I said, ‘I can’t do this.’ I would’ve been putting myself and perhaps a lot of other people in jeopardy.”
9. Carpenter was married to actress Adrienne Barbeau.
“All I knew about John was that he made horror movies,” Barbeau told Roger Ebert in a 1980 interview. “I walked in expecting some kind of hard-boiled guy, and here was this sweet, salt-and-pepper, gentle man ... I think I began to fall in love with him right then and there.”
Barbeau—who was mostly famous at the time for her work on the sitcom Maude, and for her Broadway run as Rizzo in Grease—appeared in two of Carpenter’s best-known films: Escape from New York and 1980’s The Fog. In 1984, the couple welcomed a son, Cody, who followed in his parents' creative footsteps. Cody works as a Hollywood composer and has helped with the scores for Halloween (2018), Halloween Kills (2021), and Halloween Ends (2022).
10. These days, Carpenter would rather be at home, playing video games and watching basketball.
It’s easy to label Carpenter one of the all-time greats of the horror genre—because he is. Despite his iconic legacy, however, the man has other priorities these days.
After he was referred to as a “one of the master directors of horror films” by Business Insider in a 2023 interview, the They Live director replied: “That’s nice. Sorry, I’m eating a Popsicle.” But then added: “Look, I’m not a master of anything. I just want to play video games and watch basketball. That's all I care about doing. I don’t want to bother anybody.”
And what video games, pray tell, does the reluctant master of horror dig the most? Fallout 76, Borderlands, Ratchet And Clank, and Horizon: Forbidden West are all among his recent favorites. He’s also been pretty vocal online about the Assassin’s Creed games, and told The A.V. Club in 2022: “I did like [Assassin’s Creed] Valhalla, that was pretty damn good. I like the early ones a lot, where you had to climb up the towers and synchronize. I love that.”
While he’s said that he thinks Dead Space would “make a real great movie,” he isn’t officially attached to any video game adaptations at the moment. But he does have a game in the works, John Carpenter’s Toxic Commando, which is set to launch sometime this year.