John Carpenter: The Camera, The Subject, and Manipulating Perspective

By  · Published on November 14th, 2016

One way the Master of Horror earned his title.

Horror, more so than other genres, perhaps, has a vested interest in drawing you into the story. Horror needs you to be more than a spectator, but rather an emotional participant, if its full effect is going to hit you. Nobody understands this better than the undisputed Master of Horror, the great John Carpenter, whose best films – Halloween, The Thing, They Live — manipulate perspective in a way that causes us to identify with both the would-be victims and the person/creature/entity wishing them ill. Identification with the former attaches us to the narrative, their eyes serve as our surrogates into the world of the film and their emotions are our cues for how to respond to what we’re seeing, while identification with the latter places us in the uncomfortable, sometime indecipherable headspace of the offender, we see the fear they cause, and since we’ve already identified with the victims, what we’re really seeing is our own fear reflected back at us.

There are myriad ways Carpenter plays with perspective, but the foremost is with evolving P.O.V. shots that transform the subject to the spectator, or vice versa. Think about the scene in They Live when Nada tries on the glasses for the first time. Carpenter switches P.O.V. back and forth – we see Nada walking, but every time he puts the glasses on, we’re in his perspective, seeing what he sees – to show us both the world we see and the world we don’t. Or think about the opening sequence of Halloween, in which we are the killer moving through the house, a perspective that persists until the mask over the camera is pulled away and then the perspective becomes the subject, a little boy in a costume with a very, very big knife.

In the following silent essay – that is, no commentary, just footage speaking for itself – Kino has collected these two scenes and other such from Carpenter’s filmography (including Starman, The Thing, Prince of Darkness and In the Mouth of Madness) that best illustrate his masterful manipulation of perspective. Isolated like this, note the emotional shift that happens in you when the perspective shifts, how it either drags you in or jars you out of the worlds of the films, and the effect that has on your understanding of the narrative.

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