Tis’ the season, the Halloween season, and Grizzly Bomb is counting down its favorite films from a modern master of horror.
Director John Carpenter is synonymous with creating some of the most influential films of all time, as well as solidifying his place in pop-culture with an incredibly distinctive style that is endlessly copied and homaged. The prolific director highly-regarded for his work in the horror genre, with his breakthrough film, Halloween, spawning several sequels. It’s no secret that we’re big fans of the master as well.
So, without further ado here are our top 10 favorite John Carpenter movies:
10. Assault On Precinct 13 (1976)
Heavily borrowing from the plot of Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo, John Carpenter’s Assault On Precinct 13 is a smart, efficient police thriller. Following Austin Stoker’s Ethan Bishop, an intelligent police officer assigned to work in a run-down police precinct after temporarily housing death-row inmate Napoleon Wilson, played by Darwin Joston. They soon find themselves having to team up in an unlikely partnership of convenience when the police station is attacked by a shadowy, multiracial gang out for revenge after an LAPD raid kills their members.
Being one of Carpenter’s earliest films, Assault On Precinct 13 already shows a genius at work. Working with limited resources and displaying a knack for sparse dialogue, Carpenter’s cynical universe of characters defined by their actions and attitude permeates this unrelenting and aggressive film. There are no psychoanalyzing these baddies, they are evil because they act on primal instinct when provoked. Simple as that.
Some of the cinematography displays a knack that Carpenter and longtime partner Dean Cundey would evolve when they would work together for the first time on Halloween. The action is intermittently cut between panoramic vistas with the claustrophobic setting of Precinct 13. Stoker’s Bishop displays traits that would become a staple of Carpenter’s films with Kurt Russell. Less is more in Carpenter’s world where an effortless cool never feels faked. This isn’t to underestimate Laurie Zimmer’s character Leigh, a police secretary who evolves into a badass in a time of crisis.
Assault On Precinct 13 devolves into a hell of abandoned chaos, one that could extrapolate and exploit racial and classist undertones but never does. Often compared with the films George Romero’s films like The Night Of The Living Dead, Carpenter’s films showcase macho heroics and the dealings of men-at-work in a Hawksian fashion. By 1976, Carpenter had found his own, unique voice and we were about to witness a decade’s worth of work that has rarely been equaled.
9. Prince Of Darkness (1987)
Science and religion clash in John Carpenter’s Prince Of Darkness, and the deconstruction of the notion of God makes up the second entry in what would go on to be known as Carpenter’s “Apocalypse Trilogy”. The film acts somewhere between Nigel Kneale and Dennis Wheatley novels brought forward into Carpenter’s synth-grungey Hawksian filter. Carpenter wrote the film under the pseudonym Martin Quatermass, a tip of the hat to the British science-fiction hero Dr. Quatermass and his creator, Kneale. Carpenter has often cited Kneal and the Quatermass films as huge influences on his youth. 1967’s Quatermass And The Pit, in which an ancient artifact in unearthed and leads to unsettling notions of the nature of evil itself feels deftly apt.
Prince Of Darkness centers around Father Loomis (that’s Donald Pleasence taking on the same name as his Halloween character) who calls upon professor Birack to help him analyze a mysterious green substance that he discovered in the basement of an abandoned church in downtown L.A. Father Loomis is on the trail of a conspiracy by the church to cover up what is essentially the physical substance of Satan. Birack brings his university students along for help and after some investigating find that the green liquid substantiates the existence of an anti-matter universe, or anti-god (“it” who created Satan). This Anti-God figure demands to be brought into the physical world and thusly plots to possess the inhabitants both outside and within the church to aid it in its quest.
The L.A. landscapes become scorching, petulant chasms that feel both haunting and forbidding. As mentioned before, Prince Of Darkness is often maligned by some viewers who see it as a mish-mash of Carpenter tropes. To some, the film almost plays like a John Carpenter parody or rip-off, and yes, the film can trail off into some silly notions but underneath that are some definite scares that pay homage to everything from Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus (the mirror effect) to Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou. Gruelling transformations, pristine photography and controlled camera techniques hold on faces we came to know as part of the Carpenter’s stock company (Victor Wong, Dennis Dun, and Pleasence). Add in the low-fi, technological aspect of demonic possession like whenever a character goes to sleep, their subconscious becomes receptive to a video message from the future trying to avert the disaster that unfolds can be a haunting prospect to the welcoming viewer.
The setting is, again, a claustrophobic one that feels subverted with widescreen framing that favors a flat depth of field. One particular sequence involving a bug-infested student begins to border on the use of abstract space within the frame. Now would be a good time to mention a jarring cameo from Alice Cooper as one of the dingy homeless people that are in on Satan’s plan to release the Anti-God. Tie that all together with a an effective and haunting music score that feels like a cross between the bombastic and the choirly and you have one of the most divisive films in the master’s career and our number 9 pick.
8. Christine (1983)
Christine follows the unbridled primal love a 1957 red Plymouth Fury has over its owner and vice versa. After two accidents just off the assembly, the car is sent off to for sale and later found 21 years later by nerdish Arnie Cunnigham. Arnie falls in love with the car at first sight and learns that the first owner bestowed the name Christine on the automobile. Arnie works to restore the Plymouth and, in the process, his personality begins to change, too. A cockier, confident Arnie emerges; one who dates the pretty high school girls and dishes some serious cocky attitude. But Christine isn’t so understanding as the car begins to kill everyone it sees standing between it and Arnie being together. Arnie himself begins to feel an air of jealousy that the car would act on its own accord to stand between him and landing a lifestyle he always wished for.
The film would be Carpenter’s follow-up after The Thing, and his second big studio movie to date. It was based on a novel by Stephen King and shot so fast on the heels of that book that when the source novel came out the movie followed less than four months later. Whether fans consider this more of a Carpenter or King’s film is up for debate. Aesthetically and aurally the film is quintessential Carpenter. The eerie synth scores are one of the best the director ever composed, offering up an almost deep yearning that could be attributed to either Christine or Arnie’s emotional journey. Though the director hasn’t spoken much personally about this film he did recently produced one of his first film projects in a long time with a music video for “Christine‘s theme”.
Christine is a handsome horror film, spouting a stupendous cast that includes the one and only (and dearly departed) Harry Dean Stanton, and has several set-pieces that feel above and beyond the usual genre fare of the era. Christine often deals in fetishized demons, the ones that truly possess and often feel indestructible to the user. Arnie cannot shake the car, or is it that he doesn’t want to? When most 80’s film involving a possessed car would spill over into camp, John Carpenter’s Christine feels like frustrated revenge fantasies taken to artistic heights.
7. Starman (1984)
An extraterrestrial romance, 1984’s Starman is a film of deep, moving beauty and hope that often dwells on the nature of healing both physically and emotionally. Acting as a sort of shallow apology for the box office failure of The Thing, Carpenter injected a sense of richly felt sincerity into Starman. An Oscar-nominated performance from Jeff Bridged (a rarity for a Carpenter film) anchors the film in an odd surrealism that begins to feel endearing as the story progresses. Karen Allen, fresh off of Raider Of The Lost Ark, is maybe the best she’s ever been. The film is almost totally reliant on Allen’s performance, surely among the strongest in the director’s filmography, as she conveys the pains of depression, love, and, most movingly, healing.
The film follows a benevolent alien who has come to Earth in response to an invitation found on the gold phonograph record installed on the Voyager 2 space probe. This lone alien finds itself at the home of Karen Allen’s Jenny. After Jenny turns off the home movie of her recently decent lover and falls asleep, the alien floats through her living room and appears in the resurrected shape of her lost love. In what is one of the weirdest sequences in any Carpenter film, the alien transforms via incredible practical and optical effects work. The romance is elevated by the odd nature of Carpenter’s affinity for the classic-everyman-from-out-of-town narrative. This one just happens to be a nude Jeff Bridges in his prime. They head on the run, hoping to get Bridges’ starman back to his ship before his failing health leaves him at the mercy of government agencies.
Starman is filled with the beauty of landscapes and people that often are left out of other Carpenter films. The frame often finding a tranquility and beauty in the simplistic. “When I was going to film school…I knew in my heart I could do anything,” Carpenter was quoted during the press junket. “Musicals, gangster movies, westerns, love stories…the only question was: would they offer me those kinds of projects?” It was obvious with Starman that Carpenter wanted to try something different and succeeded.
The film also contains one of most uplifting scores of any Carpenter movie. However, he didn’t compose it (though now plays it as part of his concert tours), that honor goes to Jack Nitzsche of One Flew Over The Cuckoo Nest‘s fame. Nitzche’s themes of hope and healing are elevated by the more tranquil and grand score, something between John Williams and Kubrick’s 2001.
6. In The Mouth Of Madness (1994)
The last entry in Carpenter’s “Apocalypse Trilogy”, In The Mouth Of Madness is influenced by and large by the work of H.P. Lovecraft. Although the director would often touch on the prolific horror author’s work (these themes pop up in The Thing, Prince Of Darkness and even The Ward), It was this film that Carpenter truly unleashed some of the most grotesquely surreal horror creations since the set pieces of The Thing.
Starring Sam Neill as freelance insurance investigator John Trent, In The Mouth Of Madness centers on Trent’s journey to track down a popular horror novelist named Sutter Cane (played with Gotti, biting menace by Jürgen Prochnow) who is in possession of a manuscript his publishers are desperate to get their hands on. So begins a tale into a small hamlet of America where time and space literally begin to rip, and creatures from Cane’s pros begin to unlock something beyond our reality.
The Lovecraftian flourishes cannot be overstated as the film begins amid an asylum and told in flashback, a standard narrative device for Lovecraft; not to mention the creature designs themselves, with their tentacled malice and predilection to bend reality. There is also long-time friend and collaborator Stephen King’s influence in the film. Sutter Kane is most discernably inspired by authors such as King, though Prochnow’s appearance borders on Neil Gaiman’s choice of hair and garb.
In The Mouth Of Madness marked the most recent entry in our list of favorite John Carpenter movies, and even if the director was never quite able to reach the heights he did during his 80’s prime, this film is a lasting testament to the relative ease with which Carpenter could weave a trippy, gonzo tale of apocalyptic American horror. In The Mouth Of Madness marked the auteur’s last rebel yell in the form of post-modern chaos.
5. Big Trouble In Little China (1986)
Originally envisioned as a Western set in the 1880’s, screenwriter W.D. Richter was brought aboard to rewrite the script, extensively modernizing the Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein original take on Big Trouble In Little China. This was a studio-hire for Carpenter, who was rushed into production so it could beat the similarly themed The Golden Child, starring Eddie Murphy. However, never think Carpenter does anything without it satisfying himself. It was a desire of his for a long time to one day direct a martial arts film.
Big Trouble In Little China centers around the character of truck driver Jack Burton, a clueless and inept but macho hero played with gusto by Kurt Russell (wearing a pair of funky, high-top moccasins that Russell himself found). Burton arrives in San Francisco and is swept into a great adventure set in the underground of Chinatown with his friend Wang Chi. The two set out to rescue Chi’s fiancee Miao Yin and Gracie Law (she’s a lawyer) from the clutches of an ancient sorcerer named Lo Pan. The two team with bus driver and sorcerer apprentice Egg Shen and his compatriots to defeat Lo Pan and his deadly assailants.
The film is the stuff of Saturday matinee dreams, something Carpenter and Russell would have seen on a double-bill at their local childhood theater. Much of the film’s pan-Asian mysticism feels out of date but never feels overtly done in hurtful taste. For some, this was the movie that introduced audiences to Hong Kong cinema, and the film features a predominately Asian cast. Even Burton, who could be seen as the film’s white savior, is a bumbling hero in way over his head and usually need the assistance of Wang Chi or Egg Shen’s exposition.
Released 30 years ago, Big Trouble In Little China has since become a cult classic, and like so many of John Carpenter’s other films, it’s only growing in reputation. There are few filmmakers whose work went so unseen, so unappreciated by audiences only to be later welcome with open arms by contemporaries. In particular, Big Trouble In Little China has become a joyous blending of genre styles; a cinematic oddity in a filmography stacked with many cinematic oddities. The film is endlessly quotable, and you can tell studios are wise to its popularity as a long-gestating remake has been in the work for years now.
4. Halloween (1978)
Alfred Hitchcock once said (thank you, Ebert): “I enjoy playing the audience like a piano.” The film that truly defined the slasher genre was not Hitch’s Psycho but in the form of a powder-white William Shatner mask and a looming figure known as Michael Myers. John Carpenter’s Halloween is textbook piano playing, and perhaps the Be-All-End-All of boogeyman movies.
Six-year-old Michael Myers brutally murders his older sister on a cold Halloween night in 1963. 15 years later, while set to be transferred to a court date, adult Michael steals a car and escapes, determined with unrepentant ambition and almost elemental force to return to his hometown of Haddonfield, Illinois for Halloween, and the pursuit of his next victims.
It’s Carpenter’s technical prowess that makes Halloween a defining entry in the horror genre, easily surpassing any of the sequels to come in its wake. Foreground compositions become standards of filmmaking as the camera establishes the situation, usually panning to one side or the other and thus revealing…something. These ordinary, everyday victims become pawns inside the frame, often being played the same as an instrument. Carpenter absorbs you into his widescreen vistas only to set you off with unease when their stillness is broken by the shape of a murderous figure. Credit should, of course, go to the director of photography Dean Cundy, who is almost just as responsible for making a John Carpenter film look like a John Carpenter film as the director himself.
The influence of Howard Hawks is, again, all over Halloween, with Sheriff Leigh Bracket being lifted from Hawks’ famed screenwriter (who penned Rio Bravo). Even the two kids Laurie is babysitting sit and watch The Thing From Another World, which Carpenter would remake into his masterpiece 4 years later. The presence of Hawks’ stripped-down, muscular filmmaking lends itself to Carpenter’s direction and screenplay. Halloween is almost all drive, a circular movie that can end and begin on a loop without losing a viewer’s attention.
Lastly, the film succeeds in doing something almost every director, producer, star or studio desires. It created an required yearly viewing. There will not be a Halloween night that does not play Carpenter’s original from now until the end of time. That’s Carpenter playing one long piano solo, and what a piece of music it is: Four simple notes, etched into popular culture.
3. They Live (1988)
They Live seemed to predict much of the 21st century. Roddy Piper’s unemployed drifter John Nada learns of a secret alien invasion happening right in front of us after he puts on a pair of sunglasses created by rebels trying to awaken the “sheeple”. A parable that feels just as prevalent now as it did during Ronald Reagan’s America of the mid-1980’s, They Live depicts middle class as increasingly disappearing, unable to support their means because the rich keep getting richer. Jobless, poor and getting angry, Piper’s John holds up in a “Hooverville”- like camp with his new pal Frank Armitage, played by Keith David. The two begin to unravel this conspiracy.
They Live was based on a 1968 short story by Ray Nelson titled Eight O’Clock In The Morning by way of a pulp comic filter. He has said that the political satire wasn’t there in the original; Carpenter added it as a response to the way American politics and culture changed, becoming more openly acquisitive and hateful under Reagan during the 80’s. They Live essentially heightens the experience of the disenfranchised into their own old-school action film.
One of the film’s defining motifs is Roddy Piper continuously putting on the alien veil-lifting sunglasses that reveal magazine ads, billboards, newspaper, and TV commercials, that at once seem to be selling the same old commercialized lifestyle, are in fact bearing subliminal messages of servitude and obedience. Simply by switching the film stock from color to black and white, Carpenter and DP Dean Cundey convey a stark, matter-of-fact realization: that we are all complicit in our society’s servitude. They Live holds true to its themes with assured B-movie gusto that are trademarks of Carpenter most revered work.
Always an individual with counterculture leanings, Carpenter made one of the most unabashedly leftist studio pictures of the era, and one of the oddest but most distinctive works in the director’s incredible filmography. It may have overt political messages but enough “fun” to satisfy even the most casual genre fan, especially when it comes to one of the longest, most laugh-out-loud fight scenes in cinematic history. Shortly before that, Piper’s John robs a bank and delivers one of the film’s most memorable lines: “I am here to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and I’m all out of bubblegum.” It feels like we need more heroes like Nada today.
2. Escape From New York (1981)
In Escape From New York, Carpenter finds his ultimate hero in the form of Kurt Russell as Snak Plissken. The Roguish hero ripped right out of the acerbic pulp comics of Carpenter and Russell’s youth, Snake is a cowboy only looking out for himself; a bad-ass who spits braggadocio with palpable contempt. Again, we’re seeing Carpenter’s politics ooze through in bourbon-breathed vigor as Snake doesn’t “give a f***k about your way, or your President”. The character became eccentric enough to become an identifiable figure in pop culture. So much so that Hideo Kojima based so much of his Metal Gear Solid‘s Snake character (voiced by David Hayter) that it’s almost become more recognizable than Russell’s incarnation.
At the time of the film’s production, Carpenter spoke with Starlog about one film particular inspiration for Escape from New York:
“I wrote Escape From New York way back in 1974; I believe I was inspired by the movie Death Wish that was very popular at the time. I didn’t agree with the philosophy of it, taking the law into one’s own hands, but the film came across with the sense of New York as a kind of jungle, and I wanted to make an SF film along those lines.”
It’s in this corrosive environment that a governing system takes on an almost fascistic stance against its population. American armed forces hold a stranglehold over a literal city prison as the mistreatment of the working class is struck lower, victimized, and even villainized. It’s interesting to not that one of the film’s antagonists, the Duke of New York, as played by Isaac Hayes, is a black man. One who ascends to power while incarcerated and surrounded by the disenfranchised.
Escape From New York is a more severe, ardent version of a comic-book world than what Carpenter would later explore in films like Big Trouble In Little China, but nevertheless just as pulpy. At its heart, this is a B-movie made with A-movie gravitas. Carpenter’s films aren’t necessarily known for their cheeriness, but a special sort of bleak, borderline cynicism. The doom and gloom of the back-to-back desolation that is Escape From New York and The Thing owes it all to the complete dedication of its filmmaker’s vision. This is a nightmare that feels too well lived-in; too well constructed to feel overwrought or outright depressing. Plus, it’s just a really badass movie.
1. The Thing (1982)
What’s to be said about John Carpenter’s The Thing that hasn’t been said before? Not to be hyperbolic but the film is a goddamn masterpiece. Since we have to start somewhere, and since we did nominate The Thing as our favorite of the auteur’s films, it’s only fair to start at the beginning.
We all know the film’s story: A group of Americans are holed up in an Antarctic research post and are thusly terrorized and assimilated by a shape-changing alien from another world. If it gets back to civilization it could mean the destruction of our Earth so these rag-tag group of men (ripped right out of a Howard Hawks film: Only Angels Have Wings, Rio Bravo) must try and flush out the thing or perish in the harsh snowy environment. Opening just two weeks after Steven Spielberg’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial presented audiences with a different kind of alien altogether, the film was met with a frosty reception both at the box-office and with critics.
In The Thing, paranoia is the main enemy and due to the film’s stripped-down narrative and claustrophobic setting, Carpenter created the textbook example of absorbing “bottle horror”. Based on John W. Campbell’s short story Who Goes There? and updating 1951’s The Thing From Another World, this shape-shifting alien immediately brings a sense of unease. Sleep deprived and shut-in, the team begin to suspect one another with the de facto hero of the story being none other than mainstay Kurt Russell (in all his bearded glory) delivering a faintly John Wayne-like performance. We can’t forget the supporting cast either as Keith David, David Clennon and, especially, Wilford Brimley turn in fantastic ensemble work.
This is easily one of the greatest and most elegantly constructed B-movies of all time. Constructed with craftspeople and an artist at the height of his filmmaking prowess. The film is clean, fluid, direct and always motivated by purpose. Dean Cundey’s lighting and photography, which is amplified by his incredible use of anamorphic lenses, creates a sense of unease in every frame. Chills are a-plenty but so are the practical effects. Created by a then 23-year old Rob Bottin (and assisted by Stan Winston for the dog transformation scene), The Thing has some of the most mind-bending practical and optical effects of any movie of the decade. Pre-chewed regurgitation and pulpy red stuff fly left and right.
Carpenter created a film that is structured with rhythm. The way the character spoke to one another created a pacing that was just as fundamental as its driving, pulsating score. Over the years the film has only grown in stature; one that continues to grow because Carpenter never rattled your senses numb like so many other films. The Thing permeates through your psyche. It festers and grows in uneasy menace, assimilating itself into your memories before fading to black…only to start again with those iconic music notes.
Though he may not be making another film anytime soon, Carpenter’s name and style continue to permeate our pop culture. From his ongoing concert tours or seeing his classic films still influence everything from merchandise to film and television, and beyond, John Carpenter is truly one of the greatest living maverick filmmakers alive, and we’re grateful to have his grouchy ass around.
Sources: Universal, CKK Corporation, New Line Cinema,
Compass International Pictures, Columbia Pictures, Sony, MGM