Everyone loves happy endings. The villain is vanquished, the hero is victorious, and they all live happily ever after. Most of our media circles around this basic idea, that inherent good wins out over inherent evil. John Carpenter disagrees. The director of some of the most beloved genre films of all time, Carpenter was known for making films where the heroes didn’t always win, and if they did, it was a hollow victory. Carpenter’s films were filled with cynicism and nihilism, looking at the harsher side of humanity.

When interviewed for the film NIGHTMARES IN RED, WHITE AND BLUE, Carpenter had this to say about storytelling:

“Essentially there are two types of horror movies; one is it’s all about where evil is, the location of it…the evil is out there, in the dark, it’s beyond the woods, it’s the other tribe, it’s the people who don’t look like us, that don’t speak like us. And that’s the external evil…But, the other location of evil…the evil is right in here, it’s in our own human hearts. That particular type of story is harder to tell… It’s harder to say ‘I’ve met the enemy, and the enemy is us. We are the enemy’.

Carpenter has always focused on how people react to evil, either coming from within or as a siege upon them from outside sources. While many films of the era showed triumph against this evil, the power of good fighting and defeating it, Carpenter’s films were unique for their outlook. Both heroes and villains had flaws, and no mercy was given to them. Even in instances of sacrifice, they would usually find it was in vain, as the evil had already won. Carpenter carried this torch of nihilism throughout his career, and many of his films found their themes in his specific brand of lost hope.

A Night of White Hot Hate.nihilism

Carpenter showed his brand of nihilism early in his career. Coming off of the success of DARK STAR, Carpenter started on what he considered his “first true movie,” ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13. ASSAULT tells the story of a city gone mad, with death and violence ruling the streets. The film focuses on a small, isolated police precinct, as a ruthless gang descends on the building, killing cop and criminal alike.

This early outing showed the brand of nihilism that Carpenter continued to refine throughout his career. The opening scenes show a barrage of cops, mowing down fleeing gang members. We then switch over to a gang leader, cooly sitting in the backseat of a car, a rifle aimed out the window, nonchalantly searching for his next victim.

This victim becomes a young girl, killed in cold blood. The grieving and rage-filled father chases down her attacker and kills him. Violence and hate spew from the police, the gangs, and civilians alike. Carpenter immediately shows us a world of lawlessness, where nothing is black and white.

This same hate follows the father, as he seeks refuge in a nearby police station from revenge-minded gang members. Fueled by hate, they will kill anyone who stands in their way.

In its final moment, ASSAULT shows what this hate brings. The few survivors stand in a burned-out police station, anything of substance destroyed by the flames. They stand, and look over the wreckage, feeling as hollow and burnt as the building itself. Just like the grieving father, nothing of substance is left when hate dictates the world.

While Carpenter didn’t focus on the aspects of hate again in his films, this thorough line of human atrocities and nihilism help shape his later films.

 It Is Cold. It Is Coming.

While Carpenter’s follow up to ASSAULT was his most successful film, HALLOWEEN, it didn’t include any of the cynicism and nihilism Carpenter was later known for. It wasn’t until THE FOG that Carpenter’s nihilistic streak returned.

THE FOG follows the inhabitants of the small fishing town of Antonio Bay. while preparing the town’s centennial celebration, a creepy mist comes in from the west. Within that fog, is the ghosts of sailors past, looking for vengeance.

The Ghosts Of Antonio Bay.

What Carpenter is able to communicate with this film, that several paranormal films avoid or rewrite, is the inherent nihilism of these morality plays. With THE FOG, the morality focused upon is “sins of the father.” These ghosts have returned to settle their unfair demise.

Carpenter has taken this idea, of paying for our ancestor’s sins and played it out to a nihilistic end. The film presents the idea that those sins cannot be skirted and avoided, that a restitution must be paid in blood. It is an old-world mentality, to be fair, but Carpenter says a lot about it. Antonio Bay is an All American town, built on blood. Towns across the country have bloody histories, with only lip service paid to them; a small monument here, a cultural rewrite there.

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Carpenter takes this bloody history and literally has it rise for revenge. He uses a ghost story to show the violence and bloodshed that America was built on, and how we avoid it until it has ramifications.

Carpenter took this nihilistic worldview and kicked it up a notch with his next feature.

Breaking Out Is Impossible. Breaking In Is Insane.

Carpenter followed up THE FOG with his most politically charged film yet, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK. ESCAPE takes place in a near future, where New York City has become a maximum security prison. War hero and criminal Snake Plissken are sent in after Air Force One crashes within.

Carpenter wrote ESCAPE in the mid-’70s, right during the height of the Watergate Scandal. He wrote it specifically to reflect the attitude of the time, stating:

“The whole feeling of the country was one of real cynicism about the President.”

Carpenter carries that cynicism and nihilism throughout. We see a country that has turned Manhattan into a giant prison. Instead of rehabilitating criminals, they set them loose in a desolate cityscape, like an industrial Lord Of The Flies.

Snake Plissken.

Snake is introduced through his war commendations and his capital crime. Carpenter gives us a warped version of a protagonist in this broken future; a decorated war hero who turns on his country. America is also a police state, where the fear of crime has made the populace cheer for their own oppression, feeling comfortable under the boot of fascism. Carpenters version of the President doesn’t give any hopes for the future either. He is a scared, selfish man, more focused on image preservation than empathy.

As we follow snake into the destroyed Manhattan, we see the opposite of fascism, as the city is pure anarchy. There is violence in the streets, and death is around every corner. Carpenter shows us the faults of both complete control, and complete chaos. Neither system works, instead of surviving on pure force, Carpenter argues. The politicians are as power hungry and rotten as the worst gang leaders.

The Warmest Place To Hide Is Man.nihilism

After ESCAPE, Carpenter remade of the Howard Hawkes classic THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD. The original film follows a group of scientists who come across an alien being and must come together to vanquish it. Carpenter’s film instead focuses on isolation and the paranoia that it can instill.

Where as Hawkes creature was a 7-foot tall monstrosity, Carpenter’s creature was more of a virus, able to hide and imitate those around it. Carpenter’s creation added to the paranoia, as we see how each of these men deal with their unknowable predicament.

While fighting the creature is what brought the scientists together in the original film, it tears them apart both literally and figuratively in Carpenter’s film. Knowing that any of them could be this creature, each man begins to branch away, paranoid that it is among them. It takes the idea of the red scare, that communists live in our communities, and brings it to a bloody conclusion. Instead of working together, the men whittle each other down, screaming accusations and fighting their own ranks. By the time they decide to work together, it’s too late.

In the end, only two men remain. They sit across from each other, staying close to the warm glow of the burning camp. They only have hours of life left, but instead of cherishing them, they watch each other, their paranoia brimming and suffocating to the last breath. With this, Carpenter is showing what happens when we are under pressure; instead of coming together, we push away, selfishly trying to find our own solutions. When things get bad, we get worse.

Sadly, THE THING flopped, and Carpenter moved away from his patented nihilism to more popular cinematic tropes for several years. Then, in 1987, Carpenter’s brand of nihilism reared its head once again.

It Is Evil. It’s Real. It Is Awakening.

Jumping ahead six years, it is important to know that Carpenter’s career has been in an influx, coming off of another huge flop in BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA. Carpenter’s nihilism seemingly returned after this professional disappointment.

In 1987, Carpenter released PRINCE OF DARKNESS. PRINCE follows a group of researchers as they attempt to identify a mysterious container locked beneath a church, which leads to deadly results. It is one of Carpenter’s first forays into religious criticism.

The Cylinder.

PRINCE puts forth a priest, played by long time collaborator Donald Pleasance, who loses his faith throughout the film. After realizing the cylinder is a long kept secret of the church, he begins to both turn away from his faith while desperately chasing it.  He scolds and chastises the religion he has spent his life following, but while being pursued by the possessed, he hides himself, praying to a deity he so desperately wants an answer from.

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In the end, neither the priest’s prayers nor the last second sacrifice can stop what is coming. Throughout the film, the characters see predictions of the apocalypse through dreams. Even after seemingly ending it, the messages continue, now warning of a new threat. They haven’t stopped the end of the world, they’ve only given it a new face.

While PRINCE OF DARKNESS has a streak of that Carpenter cynicism, it isn’t until his next film where Carpenter made one of the ultimate cult protest film of all time.

You May Even Vote For Them This Fall.

In 1988, Carpenter released THEY LIVE, which became a cult classic. It is Carpenter’s most politically charged film, as well as his most cynical.

THEY LIVE follows a blue-collar worker, played by WWE great Roddy Piper, who, after finding a pair of special sunglasses, is able to see the aliens that have subdued and controlled the world. They control the media, the government, and the corporations.

With the sunglasses on, we see billboards for alcohol changed to the singular word “CONSUME.” A magazine’s articles change to “MONEY IS YOUR GOD.” Alien politicians give hollow promises on TV. This is Carpenter’s view of how far society has crumbled, and how much we’ve turned into sheep.

While the film is based on a short story, the harder political edge to it came from Carpenters dislike of the commercialization of the 1980’s, as well as the disastrous effects of Reaganomics.  This isn’t subtle cynicism, this is in your face from nearly the first shot.


What the film lacks in subtleness, it makes up for with a harsher nihilism. These aliens aren’t invading; they’ve already won. Our protagonist isn’t able to convince the world through words, he has to join a resistance group and essentially become a domestic terrorist to wake people up, dying at the end of his troubles. It is like a lost episode of BLACK MIRROR, bitter ending and all.

Carpenter’s streak of cynicism and nihilism didn’t appear cinematically again until 1994 when Carpenter made one of his last cult-loved film.

Lived Any Good Books Lately?

In 1994, Carpenter released IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS. The film follows a private investigator as he searches for a missing horror author. His search takes him to a small, New England town, where nothing is as it seems.

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Carpenter concludes his Apocalypse trilogy (Following THE THING and PRINCE OF DARKNESS) with MADNESS.  We see a world that has fallen into itself, destroyed by the whims of man. When the PI goes stumbling through the ruined streets, we know there is no recovering from this.

This is also an apocalypse that delves into Carpenters fascination of man-made destruction. The author is the most popular in the world; his book read by millions. He is also a madman, who realizes the power he now holds. The author surmises that, since his book is more popular than the bible, does that make him the new god? He uses this power to shape the world, initially using the small town to experiment. He soon unleashes his holy terror, releasing his newest novel, resulting at the end of society.

Acceptance of Fate.

Carpenter takes another lash at organized religion here but also criticizes the use of groupthink, where people can be warped and manipulated through a group mentality (Carpenter used this once before in PRINCE, where simple minded people are manipulated in the sphere of influence by Lucifer). Humankind essentially terminates itself through their collective belief in this one author’s word.

In an ending oozing with nihilism, the PI sits in a movie theater, alone, watching the cinematic adaptation of the world ending novel. He realizes he is just watching the same film we all just watched, as he psychotically laughs at the final reel, staring back at his broken self on screen.

“Yeah, Well, Fuck You, Too!”: The Humanity In Nihilism

While Carpenters films are cynical and filled with nihilism, his protagonists were always fighters, hopefuls, the “best when things are worst.” In ASSAULT, police and criminals fight side by side, working together to defeat the enemy. THE FOG presents a drunken priest sacrificing himself to try and make amends.

In ESCAPE, Snake Plissken enlists the aid of new friends and former enemies to complete his mission. In THE THING, R.J. Macready stares down the alien creature and curses it, before sacrificing himself to defeat it. In PRINCE, A young student gives her life and soul to damn the anti-god. THEY LIVE present a lone wanderer dies to reveal the truth. In MADNESS, The PI is institutionalized for trying to reveal the truth.

While these worlds are filled with cynicism and nihilism, the protagonists are champions against this void of hope. That is what makes his films so powerful; they are neither worlds of hope and glory, or worlds of gloom and loss. They are broken, fractured worlds of nihilism, filled with hopeful, determined people who fight against the powers that be. Even if the future seems set in its grim ways, they don’t falter, and they don’t quit. In the uncertain and seemingly broken world we live in now, isn’t that what we truly need? Those that look above the cynicism and nihilism and fight back?

Defiant to the end.

Carpenters films resonated in the fallout of Watergate. They resonated in the broken family units created by Reaganomics and the War on Drugs. Again, they resonated in the Warhawk years of the Bush administration. Still, they resonate in the tumultuous year of the Trump presidency. Where there is fear in the power of authority and wealth, Carpenter’s films will remain relevant in their content and their protest.


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