It feels like Stephen King and John Carpenter have always been inextricably linked to each other. Perhaps that’s because each one is considered a master of their respective field: King as the Master of Horror on the page; Carpenter as the director of some of the most enduring horror movie franchises ever.
But, somehow, they never worked together, leaving horror fans feeling robbed of what could have been one of the best collaborations in film history. The shattering thing is that the two almost did work together on a project, but fate had other ideas. To understand what happened, we have to turn back the clock to the 1970s.
King released his first novel, Carrie, in 1974. A prolific writer, King followed up on this modest hit with ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, Rage, The Stand, The Long Walk and The Dead Zone before the end of the decade. By the time 1980 rolled around, King was the big ticket in town, and so were the rights to movie adaptations of his novels.
While King was establishing himself in the literary world, John Carpenter had been on something of a meteoric rise to fame himself. After winning a collective Oscar in 1970 for The Resurrection of Broncho Billy he co-wrote Dark Star with Dan o’ Bannon (who would later go on to write Alien, Return of the Living Dead, and Total Recall) before helming the sleeper exploitation hit Assault on Precinct 13 in 1976. But it was his next project that would really put him on the map.
Filmed on a measly budget of $300,000 over the course of just 20 days, Halloween went on to rake in $70 million at the box office. Understandably, Hollywood sat up and took notice. Two more minor hits followed in the shape of The Fog and Escape From New York. Neither one was as successful as Halloween, but Carpenter kept getting offered new opportunities. His next project, which would be his most personal film to date, would be what robbed us of a full King-Carpenter collaboration and altered the trajectory of Carpenter’s career forever.
An enormous fan of Howard Hawks, Carpenter chose to remake the 1951 Hawks-penned The Thing from Another World as his next movie. Armed with his biggest ever budget, Carpenter’s version was a tour de force of inventive gory practical effects as he attempted to remain more faithful to the shapeshifting monster in John W. Campbell’s novella Who Goes There? that both The Thing from Another World and his version of The Thing were based on. When The Thing was released on June 25th, 1982, it bombed.
Making only $19.6 million on a budget of $15 million, it marked the first real failure of Carpenter’s career. Released in a summer that saw friendly alien E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial storm the box office with returns of over $660 million, The Thing was blamed for being too nihilistic and was derided by critics and fans alike. Interestingly, another nihilistic film that opened on the same day as The Thing and suffered poor box office returns is now regarded as an undisputed sci-fi classic – Blade Runner. Maybe there’s something to that E.T. curse after all?
Following The Thing’s perceived failure at the box office, Carpenter was fired as the director of the next project he’d been working on, a 1984 adaptation of the Stephen King novel Firestarter. However, in a strange twist of fate, Carpenter and King weren’t to be outdone just yet…
Shuffle back in time ever so slightly to 1983; King was now an established author and had churned out a whopping 11 novels since the release of Carrie. April of ‘83 saw the release of King’s novel Christine, the story of a 1958 Cadillac Plymouth Fury that is apparently possessed by demonic forces. The film rights to Christine had already been purchased by producer Richard Kobritz, who himself had a link to King after developing a TV miniseries of King’s ‘Salem’s Lot in 1979. Kobritz wanted Carpenter to direct Christine, but Carpenter was already tied up with pre-production on Firestarter.
After The Thing didn’t perform as expected and Universal Studios bought themselves out of their multi-picture deal with Carpenter, Carpenter, in his own words, was ‘desperate for work’ and took the job directing Christine. Starring a pre-Baywatch fame Alexandra Paul as love interest Leigh Cabot and semi-regular Carpenter collaborator Harry Dean Stanton as Detective Junkins, Christine impressed audiences with its practical effects and solid acting. Carpenter also composed one of his best now-trademark sparse synth soundtracks with Alan Howarth.
Christine was released in theatres just 8 months after the novel had first hit the shelves. It grossed a respectable $21 million on a budget of $10 million, somewhat restoring Carpenter’s tarnished reputation.
So, 40 years on, how does history look back on this ill-fated matchup between two titans of the horror genre?
The Thing and Christine, like many of Carpenter’s films, have been reevaluated and are now considered cult classics, with The Thing regularly featuring in many critics ‘Top Ten Best Ever’ horror lists. Firestarter, eventually helmed by Mark Lester, only made similar profits to The Thing, pulling in around $18 million on a budget of $12 million and a stack of negative reviews.
Sadly though, Carpenter’s passion for the film industry was severely damaged by his experience of what happened with The Thing. He has often remarked in interviews that had The Thing done well, then his career could have gone off on a completely different tangent. As it was, Carpenter went back to the low-budget movies that offered him more creative control and he gave us a few more classics in the form of They Live and Big Trouble in Little China. The Ward, released in 2010, remains the last film project directed by him.
King, as we know, has done alright for himself in the intervening years too. Now the author of over 65 novels and 200 short stories, his books are frequently made (and remade) into movies and TV movies, with different levels of success. For every The Shawshank Redemption, Green Mile, and IT there is a Cell, The Dark Tower, and Graveyard Shift and King has never been shy about giving us his opinions on them all. King has worked with writer/director Mike Flanagan on a number of occasions recently (Gerald’s Game, Doctor Sleep), but there’s one collaboration that the horror community still wants to see.
Ironically, it is the project that should have been that has a sense of serendipity about it. Firestarter was remade by Blumhouse in 2022, and who do you go to when you want a moody, sparse, synth soundtrack? John Carpenter, of course. Carpenter now spends his days composing movie soundtracks with Cody Carpenter and Daniel Davies, his son and godson, most recently collaborating with them on the David Gordon Green Halloween trilogy. For someone who was burned so badly by the movie industry, Carpenter sure has an interesting way of being disinterested in it.
Now both aged 75, King’s writing seems to be as prolific as ever, and Carpenter has not fully shut the door on directing saying that he’d return if he is given the right project. We can’t help but think that fate might still have one more unexpected twist up its bloody sleeve and that King and Carpenter might finally get to give us a story – a story that’s been 40 years in the making.