When thinking about the best films of John Carpenter you immediately envisage slasher classic Halloween or Arctic outpost horror The Thing but the stylish filmmaker has so much more to offer when you delve into his body of work…
The best films of John Carpenter are such indelible works of modern genre cinema that his fall from grace appears even more surprising. But you can’t help looking back at his catalogue of movies with fond memories. More recent fans of cinema and certainly viewers born after the 1980s would be forgiven for thinking Carpenter was a straight-to-video hack with little discernible talent.
There have been few films in the last couple of decades as bad as than Escape From L.A. or Ghosts of Mars, and Carpenter has enjoyed a sort of career hibernation since. But cast your mind back to 1978 and the release of Halloween and you might think differently. There have been few horror films as good as Halloween or The Thing, few fantasy-adventures as weirdly wonderful as Big Trouble In Little China, few science-fiction comedies as satirically astute as They Live. He’s also made a habit of giving Kurt Russell his best roles from Snake Plissken in Escape From New York to the likes of Jack Burton and even Elvis Presley.
If you ask me, John Carpenter is welcome to a long and fruitful retirement. He’s always stuck to his guns and remained undiluted and undeterred by studio interference. The very best films of John Carpenter showcase his determination to remain in creative control of every aspect of his movies, his independence ultimately proving to be his downfall as well as his legacy. Perhaps we would have seen more from the director had he allowed Hollywood to Hollywoodise his films. But he didn’t. He remained independent. As a cult movie hero, John Carpenter is one of the best and most revered. You only have to marvel at his greatest work to know this “straight-to-video hack” is actually one hell of a filmmaker.
10. Vampires (1998)
“Can I ask ya somethin, Padre? When I was kicking your ass back there… you get a little wood?”
Is Vampires one of the best films of John Carpenter? Yes and no. It isn’t up to the standard set by Carpenter’s best work and there are probably at least a couple of movies that deserve to be on this list ahead of this one. But, I’ve always enjoyed it because I like vampire films, but more importantly, a like vampire films with mythology stripped bare. Think Near Dark or more recently Let The Right One In. I also think Vampires is worthy because it is insanely funny as well as being a decent scary movie. And much of the film’s success is down to James Woods who’s brilliant in the role of Jack Crow – a sort of male version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer only Crow has better one-liners. Vampires was actually a financial success for Carpenter, unlike so much of his work.
9. Prince Of Darkness (1987)
“Hello? I’m opening the door, if you want to stop what you’re doing and put your clothes on!”
Prince Of Darkness reunites Donald Pleasance with John Carpenter after the pair worked together on Halloween. The film was Carpenter’s return to independent filmmaking after becoming disillusioned by big-budget studio films after the box office failure of Big Trouble In Little China. The film is very much rooted in horror traditions and although it suffers from a convoluted plot, Carpenter maintains a sinister atmosphere that culminates in a tension-filled finale.
8. The Fog (1980)
“11:55, almost midnight. Enough time for one more story. One more story before 12:00, just to keep us warm.”
The Fog is a traditional ghost story with a few Carpenter sensibilities thrown in. It has a great beginning with an old horror story told around the campfire. The film stars Carpenter’s then-wife Adrienne Barbeau who had starred in the “lost” Carpenter film Someone’s Watching Me in 1978. The director doesn’t feel this is his best film and recalls how he was so dissatisfied with the original cut he went back and re-shot one-third of the movie. Nevertheless, it’s a good horror story that Carpenter says was inspired by the 1958 British film The Trollenberg Terror about monsters hiding in the clouds.
7. They Live (1988)
“I’m here to chew bubble gum and kick ass.”
This could be one of the best films of John Carpenter purely for one scene in particular, but there’s lots to enjoy here. For those that have seen this crazy little sci-fi cult classic it’ll probably rate as the most purely enjoyable film of the director’s career. That’s in no small part down to the performances of wrestling great Rowdy Roddy Piper and Keith David. The left-field nature of the film comes to a head when, for no real reason, Piper and David partake in a wrestling match in a quiet street alley. The fight has be one of the most memorable and funny wrestling match-ups ever put on screen, and adds to the film’s over-the-top legacy. Outrageousness is the name of the game in They Live, a film Carpenter plays for laughs with 1950s sci-fi television as his inspiration.
6. Escape From New York (1981)
“You wanna see him sprayed all over that map, baby? Now where’s the President?”
Kurt Russell appears for the second time in a John Carpenter film after the made-for-TV Elvis. What would become interesting as he continued to work with Carpenter was how the characters he portrayed for the director were all vastly different. Here he takes the machismo of his turn in Big Trouble In Little China with the grit and ballsy courage of MacReady in The Thing to create the iconic Snake Plissken. The film concerns itself, like Assault On Precinct 13, with the fine line between good and bad. Here, Plissken is a criminal sent into Manhattan to rescue the President who has crashed landed there. The catch is – Manhattan is now a cordoned off maximum security prison. Inside the prison walls the prisoners are able to roam free without interference. If Plissken gets in, manages to survive, and saves the president, he will receive a full pardon and walk free. It’s a simple set-up, delivered by Carpenter in a straight-forward fashion. Russell is great and the film motors along at breakneck speed.
5. Assault On Precinct 13 (1976)
“In my situation, days are like women – each one’s so damn precious, but they all end up leaving you.”
Ask the man himself what he deems the best films of John Carpenter are and he’d almost certainly say Assault On Precinct 13. It was heavily influenced by Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo and George A. Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead. Made on a shoestring budget of $100,000, the film sparked interest from Hollywood producers who liked the fact Carpenter could work effectively within the constraints of tights budgets. The relative success of Assault On Precinct 13 would lead to Carpenter’s hiring on Halloween, another film made on a small budget. For me, and many others, Assault on Precinct 13 is one of the best films of John Carpenter because it’s a taut, well-constructed nature, the tension-filled thrills that transpire, and the wonderful premises that sees a disparate group of cons and coppers fending for their lives inside a besieged police station. It is another example of Carpenter investigating the group dynamic and is of particular interest because of how police officer Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker) has to work together with the convicts held at the prison in order to survive. It’s a terrific concept and blurs the distinction between the convenient attributes of good versus bad.
4. Big Trouble In Little China (1986)
“Like I told my last wife, I says, “Honey, I never drive faster than I can see. Besides that, it’s all in the reflexes.””
If you were to ask anyone what film of John Carpenter’s career was the most fun to watch they would either say Big Trouble In Little China or They Live. Kurt Russell is back with Carpenter, this time delivering an altogether different performance than the one we saw in The Thing. Here he’s cocky truck driver Jack Burton, a guy who wants to drink beer, get his next pay cheque, and have a little fun. But the fun has to wait when a friend is kidnapped and Burton must enter the mysterious Chinatown underworld in order to save her. The film mixes spectacular action-adventure with fantasy and mythology, all pulled together by Russell’s wildly funny Burton. Despite undoubtedly being one of the best films of John Carpenter, Big Trouble In Little China was another huge failure at the box office. This resulted in the director’s return to independent film. Yet, like much of Carpenter’s work it has gained a strong following on home video. The film didn’t deserve to be shunned by audiences on its release – it is a funny, engrossing and hugely entertaining action-adventure.
3. In The Mouth Of Madness (1995)
“Reality is not what it used to be!”
One of John Carpenter’s later films – made during his gradual period of decline – is still one of his best. This is a surreal story about private investigator John Trent, played by Sam Neill, investigating the disappearance of a horror writer. Although Stephen King is referenced in the film as a rival it is clear King is a major inspiration for the writer Neill’s character is tasked to find. The film is told in flashback after we learn that Trent has been admitted to a mental institution. It’s a terrific thriller and Neill delivers a gritty performance in the lead role.
2. Halloween (1978)
“I met this six-year-old child, with this blank, pale, emotionless face and, the blackest eyes…the devil’s eyes.”
In 1997, Wes Craven released Scream. It was a film targeted at the youth market – a market that hadn’t seen a quality slasher film released for years. That said, not many who saw and loved Craven’s homage to the slasher genre knew much about the films it was referencing. But the film, and the success of the sequels and new-age slashers, are in debt to one of John Carpenter’s greatest films Halloween. It isn’t the first slasher film but it is the best. Alfred Hitchcock made the Granddaddy of the genre with Psycho, and this was followed in the early 1970s by Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Bob Clark’s Black Christmas which were both hugely influential on Carpenter. He deconstructed the template which had made those films successful and set the conventions which Scream would so shrewdly mock and simultaneously celebrate.
Halloween is so effective because it depicts a monster which is at once unstoppable and seemingly without reason. Similarly, it was what made the violence in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre so alarming – not just the ferocity of it but the fact it lacked motivation and therefore reason. It was terror born out of what can only be described as undiluted, indefinable, and deep-rooted evil. Halloween benefits from its monster – Michael Myers – one of the most iconic antagonists ever envisaged.
1. The Thing (1982)
“I dunno what the hell’s in there, but it’s weird and pissed off, whatever it is.”
I might ridicule remakes but sometimes they reveal some marvellous works of cinema. If we cast our minds back to 1982 – before remakes seemingly became half of all Hollywood production – we find one of the finest adaptations of an original story. John Carpenter’s The Thing modernises the Howard Hawks/Christian Nyby film The Thing from Another World which was an adaptation of the John W. Campbell, Jr. novella Who Goes There?. The Thing arrived on a wave of hype for science-fiction horror thanks largely to the success of Ridley Scott’s 1979 film Alien. And, as science-fiction horror films go, The Thing is one of the most captivating and brilliant exponents of the genre.
This is John Carpenter’s best film because it is not only a frightening horror movie, it is the accumulation of Carpenter’s best attributes as a director coming together to show him at his most masterful. Minimalist lighting, an ominous score, brooding tension and careful build-up make for the perfect backdrop to a great horror story, but his depiction of the breakdown of the group dynamic is at its most refined here. It is a character trait he has looked at in many of his films from Assault On Precinct 13 to Prince of Darkness to The Fog, in how a group of people deal with an overpowering threat. The Thing is the best example of the director deconstructing the loyalties, friendships and trust formed by a group of people; a concept he’s almost obsessed with and one he thrillingly depicts with perfection here.
And of course the performance of Carpenter regular Kurt Russell, who delivers a commanding turn as helicopter pilot R. J. MacReady, is a big plus. He is ably supported by a great cast which includes Richard Dysart, Keith David, Wilford Brimley, Thomas G. Waites, Joel Polis and Charles Hallahan. The special-effects are also fantastic and still look good today in spite of the digital capabilities of filmmakers in the modern era. Rob Bottin created most of the monster effects but Stan Winston was brought in to do some puppet work.
The fact The Thing received a muted critical reception at the time of its release along with a poor box office return may well be due to it being a spectacular horror film. It’s scary so audiences fled to the safe confines of Spielberg’s E.T., which was released around the same time, and it’s suitably gory turning high-horse critics off their cup of tea. But the film has aged well. It quickly became a cult hit on home video, and is now widely considered one of the finest horror films ever made. Occasionally time can be beneficial. For John Carpenter’s The Thing, time has ensured this is his vintage.
Written and compiled by Dan Stephens.
Over to you: what are the best films of John Carpenter in your opinion?
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