Director Retrospective: John Carpenter
It’s been awhile since I wrote one of these director retrospectives (*moving!*), but I thought that I’d sit down and try to compose another one. This time, I’m looking at the filmic work of one of my favorite directors — albeit one whose work I have to admit is extremely hit-or-miss. I’m talking about the horror/sci-fi icon: John Carpenter.
The Big List
I’ve seen all 18 feature-length films by John Carpenter.
Here’s the list: Dark Star (1974); Assault on Precinct 13 (1976); Halloween (1978); The Fog (1980); Escape from New York (1981); The Thing (1982); Christine (1983); Starman (1984); Big Trouble in Little China (1986); Prince of Darkness (1987); They Live (1988); Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992); In the Mouth of Madness (1994); Village of the Damned (1995); Escape from L.A. (1996); Vampires (1998); Ghosts of Mars (2001); The Ward (2010).
The Top Five
Here are my picks for the Top-Five films by John Carpenter (ranked form #1-#5 with a few brief comments on each film…)
The Thing (1982) – My. Favorite. Film. Of. All. Time. I love love love love love, etc. (in adfinitum) Carpenter’s The Thing. Based on Howard Hawkes’s The Thing from Another World (which has one really memorable scene), which was itself based on a John W. Campbell novella (entitled Who Goes There?), John Carpenter’s The Thing was initially a disappointment with both audiences and critics. [After all, it had the unfortunate “luck” of competing for viewers with Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and Steven Spielberg’s more optimistic alien “invasion” film, E.T.] Fortunately, the film’s impressive technical achievements — notably Rob Bottin’s amaaaaaaazing practical-effects (which a 22-year-old Bottin worked so hard on that he literally had a physical breakdown during shooting and had to be hospitalized) and the musical score done by Ennio Morricone (who most casual viewers probably know from his work with Sergio Leone and, more recently, Quentin Tarantino) — kept The Thing just alive enough in the horror consciousness that it eventually garnered the critical respect that it fully deserves. The ensemble cast is excellent here, providing nice foils to one another. They really feel like a group who’ve been cooped-up far too long with one another. In particular, Kurt Russell (as a pilot with the world’s best hat, MacReady), Keith David (as Childs, who’s far more efficient with an axe than any normal person ought be), and Wilford Brimley (as three-parts cowboy to one-part physician, Dr. Blair) are fantastic. And I don’t want to forget the work by Jed the Dog either — in, seriously, one of the creepiest canine performances captured on film. There are so many great stories about this movie — most of which involve a truly dangerous film-set: from the artificially freezing temperatures that they created in one of the hottest L.A. summers on record to the excessive pyro-effects that almost burned everything up (including a puppeteer) to a dynamite toss that was a little too real for movie-star Kurt Russell, etc. etc. etc. When you read about this movie, it’s pretty amazing that nobody died during filming. An all-time great horror film one-liner, an all-time great horror film ending, an all-time great horror film monster — if this isn’t (at the very least) in your Top 10 Horror Films of All Time, you’re doing it wrong. The Thing is, among his own films, John Carpenter’s favorite; and since I probably watch it at least once a month, I’m inclined to agree with him.
They Live (1988) – Of all the films on this John Carpenter list, They Live is the one that I’d recommend to literally everyone, regardless of preferences toward genre, tone, style, subject-matter, etc. On the one hand, it’s easily one of Carpenter’s most “campy” and “pulpy” films (probably second only to the next film on this list); on the other hand, it’s also his most politically conscious and culturally relevant film — one that explores how deeply entrenched we are in the predominant ideologies of our time (e.g. capitalism, materialism, sexism, etc.) and how those ideologies are spread and allowed to flourish, often without our knowing. [Re-watching the film made me think of Althusser and his notions of ISAs.] I won’t say much about the plot, other than it involves some magical sunglasses and disguised aliens and rebel groups, etc. It features probably the most rugged pair of anti-heroes to ever grace the screen — i.e. “Rowdy” Roddy Piper and Keith David — not to mention what has to be one of the best, longest, most gratuitous (and kinda, sorta real) fist-fights of all time. Furthermore, the film graced the world with this beauty of a one-liner — a line that Piper developed from his wrestling promo material. Oh, and They Live also happens to be, hilariously albeit not-so-surprisingly, one of Slavoj Zizek’s favorite films. [Seriously, if you ever get a chance to watch / listen to Zizek riff on this movie, you can tell how giddy he is just talking about it.] John Carpenter’s biting critique of the 1980s era Reaganomics and its effects (which are still felt today obviously), They Live should be required viewing on the risks and dangers of mindless, dogmatic neo-conservatism.
Big Trouble in Little China (1986) – There are people out there — although I’m clearly not one of them — who regard Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China as the director’s best film. While people didn’t really care for it when it was originally released, there’s a sort of kitschy peculiarity and nostalgic charm with the film that feels undeniable to me. (It’s probably this quality that’s led the film to being such a “cult classic.”) Aside from being very weird and very fun, my main interest in the film is one of genre classification — i.e. just what in the hell do you call this movie? If you put me in a corner and forced me to make a designation, I guess I’d say that it’s a “camp horror sci-fi action-adventure fantasy buddy-comedy kung-fu comics movie.” (You know…that esteemed genre.) But for a genre-film fan like me, that messiness is exactly what makes this film so exciting! Some Carpenter regulars make appearances here — e.g. Victor Wong, Dennis Dun, and Kurt Russell (in another iconic Carpenter role for the actor as the brash and bumbling trucker Jack Burton, whose cockiness definitely exceeds his heroic capabilities). The special-effects are wonderfully gross and hokey; and the film’s central idea and tone feel similarly pulpy — like a “boy’s book” type adventure (in the vein of Tintin or perhaps Indiana Jones). It’s more or less a really good “B-movie” that obviously adores the material and the influences that it’s paying homage to.
In the Mouth of Madness (1994) – OK…this might be a bit of a surprise pick. For the #4 slot, I’m going with, I think, the last “great” John Carpenter film (in terms of chronology): In the Mouth of Madness. Mostly panned by critics, In the Mouth of Madness tells the story of insurance investigator John Trent (played by the wonderful Sam Neill, in one of his most overlooked roles), who is hired by a book-publishing company to find a missing, enigmatic, best-selling horror writer named Sutter Cane (basically a stand-in for Stephen King) so that Cane’s final, anticipated book can be released to the hungry masses. As Trent explores Cane’s literature and the small and not-on-the-map New England town where Cane’s expected to reside, Trent is drawn deeper and deeper and deeper into a state of paranoia, uncertainty, existentialism, and cosmic horror. Aside from Neill’s excellent performance, the rest of the cast here is also solid — e.g. Julie Carmen (doing good work in a somewhat underdeveloped role), Jurgen Prochnow, David Warner, Frances Bay, and Charlton Heston (in a small but effective role). While Sutter Cane seems like proxy for Stephen King, it’s really another horror icon — H.P. Lovecraft — that seems to most closely relate to In the Mouth of Madness via the New England setting, the ancient and other-dimensional creatures, the bending of perception and reality, etc. etc. Simply put, I feel pretty confident saying that this is the best Lovecraftian film ever made, though it doesn’t directly reference that writer (though the film’s title certainly echoes Lovecraft’s The Mountains of Madness). Moreover, while this film is technically considered to be part of Carpenter’s “Apocalypse Trilogy” (with The Thing and Prince of Darkness), it seems to have more in common with They Live — particularly in terms of the veneer of reality within “civilized” society and the role that mass-media plays in propagating docility and uncritical service to the powers-that-be. If you’re a fan of horror (particularly Lovecraftian cosmic-horror), then go find a copy of In the Mouth of Madness.
Halloween (1978) – An iconic horror/terror film in the slasher sub-genre, Carpenter’s Halloween deserves every bit of praise that it has received. The premise couldn’t get much simpler: A young boy (Michael Myers) murders his sister and is sent away to an asylum, only to escape and return to his hometown to stalk high-schooler Laurie Strode and slowly kill all her friends — all while trying to avoid his longtime psychiatrist Dr. Loomis, who is convinced that Michael is pure evil, etc. Jamie Lee Curtis is great in her first film role as Laurie, one of the original and influential “final girl” horror characters. [I was happy to learn that Curtis is returning to the role in next year’s Halloween film!] And Donald Pleasence adds gravitas as Dr. Loomis — even though he doesn’t seem like a terribly good psychiatrist by any professional measure. Halloween is hilariously low-budget — the now-famous Michael Myers mask was bought and used solely because it was the cheapest option for the costume department (it’s actually a William Shatner mask of all things!). Most of the terror is achieved just by Michael standing off in the distance or creepily ducking behind some bushes and/or the heavy reliance upon lots and lots of shadows/darkness. But it probably succeeds because of, not in spite of, this simple and shoestring quality. Oh…and Carpenter’s score for the film — he does most/all of the themes for his movies — is his most instantly recognizable to my mind. I suppose one could wonder: If Halloween is so iconic and influential, why not rate it higher? Well, for all its excellent qualities, it just doesn’t really feel to me like a John Carpenter film, especially in light of his larger filmography. Regardless, it ought be watched every October.
The Underrated One
There are a few options that I considered here. The Fog is, I think, an above-average (and mildly underrated) horror film that provides nice visuals, creepy atmosphere, and a campy old-school horror premise — while not overstaying its welcome in terms of runtime. Similarly, Christine takes a goofy idea from a Stephen King novel (i.e. a story about a haunted and/or malevolent classic-car) and creates a film that’s enjoyable and worthy of its cult-classic status due to its total commitment to said idea and its resulting wacky characterizations. But I’m going with another Carpenter film here: Prince of Darkness (1987). Oh boy — where to start with this movie? The plot is your “typical” story about an ancient canister of ooze that’s protected by a secret society of priests in a hidden church laboratory — that is until a group of curious graduate students awaken the Anti-God and open a portal to hell. And then you get a tribe of demon-possessed homeless people (led by Alice Cooper because *reasons*), some pustulating zombies, a computer virus connected to the aforementioned ooze, an ancient prophecy, and a recurring VHS-like fever dream. Yada yada yada. You know…your standard stuff. Ha ha! I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Prince of Darkness is a “good” film — though I did like it — so much as it’s a wildly memorable film. Really…I don’t think I’ve seen anything else quite like it. Totally, totally bonkers experience.
The One to Avoid
Quite a few contenders for the title of best-of-the-worst John Carpenter film. In fact, most of his 1990s and 2000s films (e.g. Escape from L.A., Vampires, The Ward, etc.) can be skipped, unless you’re a hardcore Carpenter fan. His Ghosts of Mars has potential as a campy action / horror / sci-fi concept, but it’s executed very poorly. I actually don’t think that Carpenter’s Village of the Damned is terrible — it just feels completely unnecessary. And I will never understand the critical love that Assault on Precinct 13 and Starman receive — the former is just totally forgettable to me (aside from being an indicator of the career that would follow) and the latter is a cheesy mishmash of genres (i.e. it’s clear that Carpenter doesn’t really know how to deal with the romantic elements of the story). But the clear-cut “winner” here is the widely and deservedly panned Memoirs of an Invisible Man. With the exception of the lead (i.e. Chevy Chase, of whom I’m not much of a fan), the rest of the cast is strong is talented (e.g. Daryl Hannah, Sam Neill, Michael McKean, etc.). But the tone of the film is as grating as it is peculiar — did anyone really want a comedy(ish) take on this classic horror / sci-fi concept? And the special-effects by the usually reliable Industrial Light and Magic feels incredibly hokey and simply doesn’t hold up these many years later. (While I understand that the special-effects game is hard to judge over time and due to shifting audience expectations because of technological advancements, I just find it hard to believe that these were ever passable effects.) Just skip it and stick to the Carpenter classics.
The Place to Start
If you’re looking to explore Carpenter’s oeuvre for the first time or simply to go back and re-experience some of his films, I’d suggest starting with his Escape from New York (1981). While I don’t think it’s his “best film” — and, in fact, as you can see, I don’t even have it ranked in my “Top Five” Carpenter films — I do think it’s the best early example of the director’s trademark style and sensibility. (Obviously, Halloween came out several years before this film; however, for all its greatness, Halloween doesn’t really feel like a Carpenter film to me.) Anchored by arguably the best Carpenter cast — e.g. Kurt Russell, Lee Van Cleef, Isaac Hayes, Harry Dean Stanton (*sad face*), Donald Pleasance, Ernest Borgnine, etc. — Escape from New York demonstrates what I think are those characteristics that are most crucial to John Carpenter movies: the brash and kick-ass male protagonist (the iconic Snake Plissken in this case), the dark and pessimistic worldview, the memorable synth / electronic musical score, the obvious love of the science-fiction genre, the pitch-black humor mixed with violence, etc. etc. Escape from New York is, in some ways, Carpenter at his most 1980s-ish, which really is the best Carpenter. So if you like (or can at least appreciate) this film, then you might also like his better efforts (like The Thing, They Live, Big Trouble in Little China, etc.).
The Final Word
Overall, John Carpenter’s filmography is a bit of a mixed bag. While he has several lackluster and/or pretty terrible films, he’s also got about 10 films that are good-to-great. And, in fact, among Carpenter’s best work, I think he has created three legitimate “masterpieces” (i.e. Halloween, They Live, and The Thing) that are deserving of cinematic and artistic preservation for future generations, due to either their formal influence, their cultural critiques, or their insights into human nature. He’s been an invaluable contributor to the horror and science-fiction genres, and it’s difficult to think of a director whose work has come to better define a particular vision of the 1980s (and late 1970s) America as John Carpenter.