If you’re already visiting this site, it’s a foregone conclusion that you’re familiar with the filmography of John Carpenter — one of the most revered and familiar names in genre cinema. While we’ve been experiencing something of a Carpenter Renaissance lately, thanks to the recent surge in the multi-talented artist’s music career and John’s surprising return to the HALLOWEEN franchise (in partnership with Blumhouse!), we’ve been a bit remiss in examining the man’s extensive cinematic CV. That’s all going to change today.
For the sake of genre loyalty, we won’t be including Carpenter’s pure sci-fi flicks (STARMAN, DARK STAR), dramatic works (ELVIS) or comedic pieces (MEMOIRS OF AN INVISIBLE MAN) on this list; no, this one is dedicated to the filmmaker’s darkest genre works.
As is the norm, I ask that you don’t crucify me should I rank these films in an order you disagree with — just keep in mind, this is all subjective!
VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED
This is one of those very rare duds that Carpenter somehow fell into. It’s a remake of Wolf Rilla’s bone-chilling classic of the same title, and while Carpenter does a fine job of modernizing the story, the dread that permeates Rilla’s flick is — unfortunately — nowhere to be found.
ESCAPE FROM L.A.
While this probably qualifies as more of an action film than anything else, Snake Plissken still has plenty of evil shit to overcome as he hunts for a device that could turn the world inside out. As was the case with ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, there are sci-fi elements incorporated into the film — but Bruce Campbell’s Surgeon General of Beverly Hills character is more than enough to view this one with a macabre eye.
MASTERS OF HORROR: PRO-LIFE
Although this episode has a twisted, almost ROSEMARY’S BABY vibe going for it, it still falls a little flat. Ron Perlman makes a fine appearance, but there are very few camera techniques or scenic shots that harken back to Carpenter’s more beloved works. PRO-LIFE isn’t a terrible MASTERS OF HORROR installment, but it’s a far cry from the standouts of the bunch.
Technically speaking, this isn’t Carpenter’s film alone. BODY BAGS is a straight-to-Showtime anthology that features a humorous segment directed by Carpenter, a creepy gas station tale and one mighty cool hosting gig for the man. John’s never found it all too enjoyable being in front of the camera, but he sure as hell had a blast with here.
GHOSTS OF MARS
Some people love it, and some hate it. Personally, I thought GHOSTS OF MARS is a hell of a lot of fun. We get a supernatural war on Mars with all sorts of self-mutilated monstrosities, and a memorable police unit that features Pam Grier, an early appearance from Jason Statham, a tough-guy gig for Ice Cube and the long and lovely Natasha Henstridge. Oh yeah, there are also all kinds of awesome gore and practical effects utilized — which earns big points in my book.
I’m still a bit confused at the hatred that THE WARD seems to draw from fans. Stylistically speaking, this film is more reminiscent of Carpenter’s earlier works than the bulk of films cluttering the latter stages of his career. He’s not afraid to hold the long shots, and he works eerie magic in empty corridors of a facility that encourages some brutal “medical methods.” Look for some creepy moments here, as well as a small handful of compelling personalities.
I don’t care what anyone says — VAMPIRES epitomizes brainless fun. Jack Crow (James Woods) is a kick-ass vampire hunter, and he’s got a cool squad with him, traveling about searching for Valek, the granddaddy of all bloodsuckers. There’s a heavy dose of ultra-violence in the earlier portions of the film, and once more we see all kinds of fantastic special effects. If you like your vampire stories heavy on action, you should enjoy the hell out of this flick.
ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13
I’ll openly admit that this is no horror film… however, Carpenter’s camerawork and editing scream grindhouse horror. There’s a sense of desperation that courses through the film, and when that is coupled with the drive-in look of the flick, ASSAULT ends up feeling very much in line with a genre film.
SOMEONE’S WATCHING ME!
The only problem with SOMEONE’S WATCHING ME! is the fact that it’s a huge pain in the ass to track down. This made-for-television flick is consistently creepy, and it’s far more successful than your average “stalking in the house” flick. Carpenter generates a sense of doom that to this day is only rivaled by young, genuine talents like Bryan Bertino (THE STRANGERS) and Mike Flanagan (HUSH). If you have the chance to check out this one… jump on it!
I know… I said I wasn’t going to incorporate science fiction in the list. But THEY LIVE isn’t just a fan favorite piece from Carpenter — it’s also pretty damn chilling. The sociopolitical commentary feels as though it receives stronger emphasis than Carpenter is accustomed to injecting into his pictures, but it works very well. Roddy Piper and Keith David are both brilliant, and then you throw in a prime and stunning Meg Foster and the flick just gets better.
PRINCE OF DARKNESS
This is a strange story, and it’s always felt just a bit disjointed… but what it lacks in proper structure, it makes up for in pure passion. The dilapidated church setting is great, and the essence of Satan swirling about in the form of green slime is pretty awesome. Then we get those creepy fuckers lurking about, eager to do the Devil’s work. It all comes together in a much more enjoyable package than it probably should have.
BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA
BIG TROUBLE might very well be the most enjoyable film on Carpenter’s resume. That’s an interesting statement, because the film is — to be kind — batshit crazy. There’s a little of everything happening here: science fiction, horror, unadulterated action and even a touch of romance. But the greatest aspect of this flick, hands down, is Kurt Russell in that sleeveless t-shirt. The man is just beautiful when he goes all tough-guy on us!
MASTERS OF HORROR: CIGARETTE BURNS
John Carpenter’s other film featured in the MASTERS OF HORROR series was a serious home run. I don’t want to spoil the interesting twists, so I’m watching my wording closely… but be prepared for some genuinely evil shit, an appearance from Norman Reedus, an unexpected angel and a video so taboo it just might cost your life. An exceptional return to form for a great director.
IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS
Although Carpenter has from time to time injected some nods to H.P. Lovecraft, he’s never done so to the extent that he does here. It must be said, his incorporation of familiar elements from the Lovecraft mythos works alarmingly well — this movie produced some of the more terrifying visuals Carpenter has ever created. It’s also got a great cast, iconic images and a perfectly befuddling pace.
ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK
Our first introduction to Snake Plissken is golden on every level imaginable. We get an American Mad Max kind of antihero, a ton of obstacles and creepy-looking antagonists — plus there’s more commentary to take in if you choose to look for it. If you don’t, you just get another wild John Carpenter journey packed with action and anxiety.
If you strip way character details and pronounced plot points, THE FOG is just your basic ghost story. Fortunately for us, it’s a damn well-told ghost story! To this day, the film looks brilliant (Scream Factory’s Blu-ray showcases it better than ever), and the intricacies of the script are interesting and magnetic. We want to know what’s happening in this film and why, and Carpenter delivers answers with perfection. I’ll forever love the image of a dense fog bank swallowing the sea, before a quick cut to the stunning and sultry Stevie Wayne (Adrienne Barbeau). That’s the kind of stuff dreams are made of.
Technically one of the most beautiful creations Carpenter ever had a hand in, CHRISTINE is a near-perfect film. The characters travel an extreme yet believable gamut; a jaw-dropping machine with a taste for flesh rids the world of any who disrespect her; and two teenagers put everything on the line to (hopefully) save their greatest friend, who gave into the dark call of a demonic ’57 Plymouth. Everything about this film is masterful — and it deserves to be recognized as one of the greatest genre films in existence.
What can we really say about HALLOWEEN that does it justice? Outside of Bob Clark’s BLACK CHRISTMAS, HALLOWEEN essentially marked the healthy birth of the slasher film. It established the ground rules; it established that the idea of comfort is a myth; it established a paralyzing realization in validating the existence of the real-life Boogeyman. HALLOWEEN always has been and always will be one of the greatest films ever made — never before or after would Carpenter’s connection with a story click to such mind-melting success.
Carpenter’s remake of a space-monster classic both is and isn’t intimate: Unlike HALLOWEEN, there is a much larger group of characters to focus on and get to know — but, once friendships are established, personalities really come through and shine just as strongly as those in HALLOWEEN, if not stronger. Also, the threat in this film is beyond terrifying, and dangerous in a multitude of ways. THE THING surpasses HALLOWEEN as a result of a lot more necessary action and aggression, the greatest practical effects we’ve ever seen, and the faithfulness to John W. Campbell Jr.’s gripping short story.