The films of John Carpenter mean a great deal to me. His films are benchmark experiences and one of the reasons why I care so deeply about cinema. I was 10 when I saw HALLOWEEN. I found the film to be so terrifying that I was scared to walk home from school by myself for the next two weeks, even going so far as to create a story of a bully so my Mom would pick me up after the bell rang. I saw THEY LIVE and THE THING about 2 days apart from each other when I was 16; in fact, a week after I saw THEY LIVE “Rowdy” Roddy Piper came walking into my video store to rent BLACKBEARD’S GHOST and I had a chance to talk to him about the film.
Carpenter is a daring filmmaker; though he is most closely associated with the horror genre I always thought of him more along the lines of one of his idols, Mr Howard Hawks. Like Hawks, Carpenter is always able to transition from genre to genre and always able to create a deeper and challenging context. He can create visceral action, Hitchcockian tension with a sci-fi bent, and touching moments of pause. Carpenter is an enormous talent with a deeply committed fan base. Choosing ten films and ranking them was difficult and far from definitive but I gave it my best shot. Dig in, Bastards!
10. THE FOG (1980)
Shot for a reported $1 million dollars and distributed as part of a two picture deal with AVCO-Embassy (who would also distribute ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK), this film was completely re-created during post-production. Not happy with how the film worked (he thought it was too flat to be effective), Carpenter removed as much as 30% of what he shot, created a new character, and generally added more eeriness to the film. It paid off; THE FOG is a film constructed by atmosphere and cheap tricks to great effect. Though more zombie than ghosts, the figures move with a lumbering intensity thanks to some tremendous make-up effects by Rob Bottin. This was the first feature film to re-unite Janet Leigh with her daughter (HALLOWEEN alum) Jamie Lee Curtis. Written by John Carpenter and Debra Hill, produced by Debra Hill.
9. CHRISTINE (1980)
A few months after being fired from the production of FIRESTARTER (a project which eventually ended up going to Mark Lester), John Carpenter had the opportunity to take up another Stephen King book, this time it was Christine. Stephen King adaptions are notorious for being wildly inconsistent, a slight upgrade from their reputation pre-SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION. There were exceptions though and CHRISTINE proved that in the right hands, King’s material could lay some serious rubber across the screen. The scares start slow but run the red light to nightmares before it’s all over. Stephen King and Carpenter established a very close friendship following this film. Written by Bill Phillips, produced by Richard Korbitz (coming off of 1979’s SALEM’S LOT).
8. IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS (1994)
After the unfortunate misstep of MEMOIRS OF AN INVISIBLE MAN, Carpenter made a return to horror with an incredibly capable cast that includes Sam Neil in one of his best roles. IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS is a conclusion to the “Apocalypse Trilogy” and a sequel of sorts to PRINCE OF DARKNESS, only now the demon or anti-god has found a way to set himself free of the shackles that confine him. This film, at its core, is a very interesting discussion on the role of horror in our society and to some extent the issue of censorship, a weighty discussion wrapped up in a terrifying lovecraftian tale. Written by Michael De Luca, produced by Sandy King.
7. PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1987)
John Carpenter’s career is unfortunately peppered by angry executives disappointed with box office returns. After BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA failed to connect with the audience and critics, Carpenter returned to the familiar ground of low budget filmmaking with PRINCE OF DARKNESS. This remains one of the scariest films Carpenter ever created because of the reality this film is set in. Carpenter had been studying theoretical physics and atomic theory; through this reading he created a story about an anti-god. This is probably Carpenter’s most cerebral film; the scares feel very real, as does the danger. This is without question one of the most underrated films in the Carpenter cannon. This is the second film in the unofficial “Apocalypse Trilogy” which started with THE THING and concluded with IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS. Written by John Carpenter (though credited as Martin Quatermass, much to the dismay of Nigel Kneale), produced by Larry J. Franco.
6. BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986)
Originally, Carpenter was going to direct THE GOLDEN CHILD with Eddie Murphy for Paramount, a project I think could have been really interesting under Carpenter’s direction, but the thought of my childhood minus Jack Burton and the Porkchop Express is like Plissken without an eyepatch. The character of Jack Burton is as crazy as Plissken is mean. Though both characters are out for themselves, Burton realizes he isn’t clever enough to survive on his own and quickly adjusts… even if he won’t admit it. This film an homage to Carpenter’s love of Asian cinema. Films like ZU: WARRIORS FROM THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN, FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH and SWORDS OF FAME. From the wild action, punchy dialogue (this film is Carpenter’s most quotable), the misplaced hero who quickly is relegated to sidekick, to the amazing sets which create a dark Shaw Brothers like quality, this is vintage Carpenter. Long live Egg Shen. Written by W.D. Richter, produced by Larry Franco.
5. ELVIS (1979)
Shortly after finishing HALLOWEEN, Carpenter made a deal to make his second film for television (the first being the decent, though flawed, SOMEONE’S WATCHING ME), ELVIS. This was the first collaboration between Carpenter and Russell who would go on to make 5 films together. With 88 locations, 150 speaking parts, and only 30 days to shoot the three hour film, the task in front of Carpenter was tremendous for a young director but he created one of the best made for television films of all-time. Carpenter shifts the focus away from the music (though they had some incredible voice talent in Ronnie McDowell) and instead focused on the person Elvis was and how little control he had over his life once he achieved fame. This remains a very unique film in Carpenter’s biography and every time I watch this I wonder what another character driven drama directed by Carpenter would look like. Even though this is a Carpenter Top 10 I do want to note that this is an amazing performance by Russell, one of the more impressive roles of his career. Written and produced by Anthony Lawrence.
4. ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981)
The final picture Carpenter did for Avco-Embassy, this was written by Carpenter and his friend Nick Castle (The Shape in HALLOWEEN) in 1974, the project was re-written to accommodate their budget in 1980. Carpenter was originally working on THE PHILIDEPHIA EXPERIMENT but had difficulty finding a strong third act for the film. Eventually, he went back to Avco-Embassy and told them he was unable to finish the story at which point they asked what else he had. How about an urban western set in a dystopian future with a lone, tough as hell anti-hero with the personality of a switchblade? They agreed and a true classic was born. Constantly being greeted by “I thought you were dead” which created a mythic like feel to him, limping through the second half which created a vulnerability, Snake Plissken is an iconic figure thanks once again to Russell’s delivery. Originally, the studio didn’t believe in Russell as an action star. Instead they wanted Charles Bronson, somebody proven. Once again, they were wrong. Written by Carpenter and Nick Castle, produced by Debra Hill and Larry J. Franco.
3. ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (1976)
Though many Carpenter films were created with westerns in mind, ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 is an unabashed update of Howard Hawks’ RIO BRAVO. Originally called THE SEIGE, Carpenter was able to make this film with the help of his USC colleagues, notably producer J. Stein Kaplan. Released in 1976, this film failed to make an impression on critics or film goers but it has built a reputation as one of the best action films of the 70s in addition to being considered one of the most underrated films of all-time. Though the action scenes are visceral and chaotic which create a reality to the situation, it’s the soundtrack of this movie that I find to be the most effective element; moments of haunting silence that are broken by gunfire and intensity. There is a vintage feel to this film, whether it’s the hawksian dialogue or the old school charm of Napolean Wilson (played by Darwin Joston) I’m not sure, but it’s one hell of ride. Written by John Carpenter, produced by J. Stein Kaplan.
2. HALLOWEEN (1978)
It is the moment you realize you are looking through the eyes of a killer in the opening scene, the moment you see The Shape standing in the distance… alone… waiting, the moment you realize there is nowhere else to run and you must fight. This film is an experience like no other; never was a horror film so patient. Carpenter knew that effective use of tension would play better than buckets of blood and empty screams, this was true horror, terror unlike anything I have ever seen. This film illustrates suspense over shock. Though the ending of this film is a deadly game of cat and mouse, the most unsettling moments are when Michael Myers just appears in the background; patiently watching his prey. Watching this film is a reminder of how far off the path we have come in the horror genre. Anybody can create scenes of grizzly torture and over the top violence; but it takes a true master to create a film that is more concerned with what is happening in the background than the foreground. With the creation of Michael Myers, Carpenter not only created one of the most iconic characters of all-time, but he also flawlessly illustrated Hitchock’s point when he classically stated “There’s two people having breakfast and there’s a bomb under the table. If it explodes, that’s a surprise. But if it doesn’t…” Written by John Carpenter and Debra Hill, produced by Debra Hill.
1. THE THING (1982)
I know I’m human. And if you were all these things, then you’d just attack me right now, so some of you are still human. This thing doesn’t want to show itself, it wants to hide inside an imitation. It’ll fight if it has to, but it’s vulnerable out in the open. If it takes us over, then it has no more enemies, nobody left to kill it. And then it’s won. – MacReady
There is a paranoia that permeates the claustrophobic confines of Outpost 31. Who has been turned from human to host? It hides inside the warm blooded, lurking just beneath the surface of our humanity, waiting to eradicate any potential threat to its existence. It is vicious, ruthless, and could be right next to you without you knowing. More faithful adaptation of Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell, Jr. than remake of Howard Hawks’ THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951), John Carpenter created a science fiction masterpiece. There is a lot to admire in this film; from the effects by Rob Bottin which are even more impressive today than they were in 1981, to the incredible cast lead once again by Kurt Russell in the second best performance of his career (not even MacReady can take Elvis). Carpenter created a film that forces us to project onto the alien life form: greed, diseases, evil, conformity, even humanity itself. It is what we make of it. It is far more complex than its simple outline suggests, a trait shared with many films in Carpenter’s filmography. THE THING is a love letter to science fiction and the craft of cinema.
I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Carpenter. He is a quiet person who is both deftly comedic and reflective. THE THING was a box office failure, not only was it released within weeks of E.T., it was also a film that like the creature itself had to gestate before the audience warmed to it. It isn’t the first film that failed to make an impression that went on to become a classic and it certainly won’t be the last. Carpenter could care less about the box office; he is concerned with the person reading this, with you. “I play for the horizon” Carpenter said in our recent interview. “What I mean by that is that I play for a longer game, something that’s going to last. If you strip away the costumes and the acting styles, hopefully it’s something that will last.” Indeed.
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