Berthold Wolpe’s Albertus typeface played a recurring role for credits in a variety of John Carpenter’s films.
Long before you see the dogs transmuted into vicious, physically indeterminate fiends, or Kurt Russell’s monocular anti-hero, named “Snake,” surfing in the submerged city grid of a future dystopian Los Angeles, the essence of most any John Carpenter film is evident in its opening moments, even before his name is seen keystoned atop some spare and ominous title. First there are the antecedent notes of one of his minimalist synthesizer scores (educated as a musician, Carpenter composed the scores to sixteen of his films) which are soon followed by the title credits set in Albertus.
Topically these range between spare survivalist parables and paranoid thrillers, all of them with macabre flourishes in which characters will perish in spectacularly messy ways. Even his most tender film, Starman, features an agonizing transformation sequence that rivals anything in a werewolf movie. All of these films are broad conceptions of genre that are fun even when they’re scary, heartfelt even while they’re sardonic, and focused even when they’re about the obliteration of mankind. Somehow Carpenter’s use of Albertus encompasses all of this.
It’s difficult to precisely describe why this is so, but for measure compare Carpenter to any other filmmaker whose work possesses some typographic signature and the appraisal seems more apt. Doubtless the most known instance of this is Woody Allen, who ornaments each of his films (over forty of them) in Windsor, whose old-fashioned cherubic forms demonstrably complement his film’s wry tones and aesthetics replete in tweed and horn-rimmed spectacles. Or consider Stanley Kubrick, whose stringently precise compositions are presaged in Futura’s geometric letterforms.
Carpenter is harder to characterize than the others mentioned here, principally because his signature is more tonal than it is aesthetic, and this tone is ably evoked by the films’ typography. And it’s unclear how particular he was with Albertus, despite its reiteration in his work. Escape from L.A.’s title designer Nina Saxon responded to this in an interview, when asked if Albertus was the first choice in the film’s title credits: “No. We showed many and they chose it anyway.”
Nevertheless, and regardless of whether Carpenter’s films feature capitalistic aliens, anthropomorphized cars, subterranean monsters or extraterrestrial paramours, they’re all clearly of a piece with one another, a concept initialized in the credits’ sharp, alert serifs and generously spaced capitals, as though etched upon a crypt that foredoomingly leads to another realm.
Below are images of the director’s credit for each of Carpenter’s films that use Albertus, with links and note on the subtle evolution in usage from movie to movie. Thanks to Toshi Omagari for his input.
The Thing (1982) used Albertus again, for both opening and end credits. Oddly, the type was horizontally stretched for the opening credits but not for the end credits. The descending ‘J’ is also clipped for some reason (perhaps they wanted the non-descending ‘J’ but didn’t have a font that included one). More info/images here.
Big Trouble in Little China (1986) broke away from the existing formula slightly for its opening credits, overlaying Albertus through an extended sequence of shots and incorporating lowercase characters differently. Carpenter’s directorial credit doesn’t show until about six minutes in. More info/images here.
License: All Rights Reserved.
Prince of Darkness (1987) continues to evolve the previous approaches, cutting between black title frames and an extended intro sequence. This time, Carpenter’s directorial credit doesn’t show until more than 10 minutes in. More info/images here.
Escape from L.A. (1996) was the first (and last?) return of Albertus to the titles of a Carpenter film following several non-Albertus releases in the 1990s. It is more graphic than previous approaches, incorporating animated scan-lines and crosshair motifs. More info/images here.
Toshi Omagari. License: All Rights Reserved.
Incidentally, the City of London Corporation uses a modified version of Albertus for branding including street signs, and has a John Carpenter Street set in the typeface. This Carpenter was a 14th century figure and has no connection with the director, and the films precede the Albertus branding of the Corporation. It is nevertheless a perfect typographic coincidence.