“Brennan Went to Film School” is a column that proves that horror has just as much to say about the world as your average Oscar nominee. Probably more, if we’re being honest.
***A Warning: This column contains plot spoilers for The Carpenter***
I usually try to dig into big mainstream movies in this column, because 1) I want people to actually read it and 2) it’s easier to re-evaluate something that everybody is already familiar with and the culture at large has already begun to analyze. But sometimes you just need to throw your hat in the ring for a movie that almost nobody has ever heard of, and in this Haunted August we’re having over here at Dread, it’s time to dust off a title that’s been haunting the back of my brain since I first saw it a year and a half ago.
It’s part haunted house movie, part slasher, all French Canadian… It’s 1988’s The Carpenter, starring Wings Hauser!
The Carpenter finds its lead Alice Jarrett (Lynne Adams) in the middle of a nervous breakdown, busily slicing up all her husband’s suits with a pair of fabric scissors. She is hospitalized and when she’s released, she finds out that her husband Martin (Pierre Lenoir) has bought a brand new fixer-upper house in the country. She loves it at first but begins to feel trapped when she realizes that Martin won’t let her do anything, from picking out wallpaper to making her own decisions regarding her medication.
There is a team of construction workers remodeling the house during the day, but she discovers one sleepless night that there’s an extra carpenter (Hauser) who works late hours, all through the night. He doesn’t seem to be working for the other crew, and whenever anyone threatens Alice’s well-being, he has an annoying tendency to murder them with construction tools. Nevertheless, she begins to fall in love with him, being the one man who can actually see her worth. Thus begins a twisted tale of romance, revenge, and people being drilled in the freaking throat. It later becomes clear that the Carpenter is the ghost of the man who originally built the house, and was a bit of an obsessive about doing all the work himself. Also, any damage done to the house appears on his body, so he’s inextricably linked to the construction work, gaining more power as the house improves.
The Carpenter is a lot of things. It’s a little bit of Suspiria (a scene where a can of paint is shaken over a crying Alice is pure style in service of the uncanny), a little bit Looney Tunes (a scene where Wings Hauser is working at a tool bench is chockablock with Bugs Bunny surreality), and a lot Ghost. But what it is at its core is a feminist parable about the different ways that masculinity attempts to keep women in their place.
Let’s start with Martin, a professor who is shown literally teaching a class about Paul Bunyan and depictions of American masculinity. He is a spineless dweeb who cheats on Alice and attempts to control her every move, using her breakdown as an excuse to pass of her discomfort and genuine concerns for her well being as “hysteria.”
And then there’s the Carpenter. While he’s initially successful at seducing Alice with his talk about traditional manhood and work ethic, his enticing brand of protective masculinity quickly sours and turns toxic. Although it seems like his chivalry will serve her well, the second she goes against his will, he turns his violence toward her. He proves to be cartoon parody of old school masculinity, literally a ghost of a bygone era that’s perhaps not as bygone as one might wish.
Alice is trapped between two equally abhorrent incarnations of masculinity, one who is keeping her trapped in the house, and one who more or less literally is the house, and she must save herself by divesting herself of both these men. It’s an exciting and impactful story of a woman finally becoming free from all the trappings of the patriarchy, from the constraints of a toxic marriage to the Rosemary’s Baby-esque medical culture that never took her complaints seriously.
Now, don’t get confused. The Carpenter is a very low budget affair, with some peculiar technical issues and very low production value. But it’s perhaps the smartest slasher in the late-80’s market, with the most feeling and sympathy toward its female protagonist. I don’t know how many of these you’ve seen, but take it from me that this is not a common occurrence.
For extra credit, hear me talking about The Carpenter on the Keep Screaming podcast with horror author Aaron Dries!
Brennan Klein is a writer and podcaster who talks horror movies every chance he gets. And when you’re talking to him about something else, he’s probably thinking about horror movies. On his blog Popcorn Culture, he is running through reviews of every slasher film of the 1980s, and on his podcast, Scream 101, he and a non-horror nerd co-host tackle horror franchises from tip to tail! He also produces the LGBTQ horror podcast Attack of the Queerwolf!