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October 30, 2008 |

By TK Burton | Guides | October 30, 2008 |

“Say goodbye to classical reality, because our logic collapses on the subatomic level… into ghosts and shadows.” - Professor Edward Birack, Prince of Darkness

John Carpenter is a living conundrum. He is responsible for some of the most influential science fiction and horror films of all time. He’s revered by geeks everywhere, and has spawned innumerable imitators, not to mention those who list him as a profound influence. Yet he’s also responsible for some truly terrible movies, bafflingly meager offerings that make us shudder to think about. Therein lies the problem. If the only Carpenter film you’ve seen is, say, Ghosts of Mars, you’re going to think that Carpenter aficionados/junkies like me are likely either insane or just have horrendous taste in movies. You’d almost be justified if you vowed to never watch any more of his work.

However, if you ignore Carpenter’s classic works, you’ll be left with a gaping void in your cinematic knowledge. While some of his earliest works may not have aged well, they are nonetheless critically important contributions to their respective genres. Carpenter’s films are a joy to watch for anyone who has an appreciation for solid, innovative sci-fi or horror. Those two genres are his bread and butter (with some action movies thrown in for good measure) and his ability to tell a good story within those genres is remarkable. Films like Halloween and Prince of Darkness are deathly serious, creepy affairs meant to scare and not amuse; you’ll find no tongue-in-cheek humor there. Yet he does have a wicked sense of humor and a strong taste for satire, as seen in more farcical efforts like They Live and Big Trouble in Little China (which should be a part of this guide but won’t be included since it was reviewed in full here). Carpenter is a master at pacing, never rushing his stories and instead letting them unfold at a leisurely, sometimes frustrating pace. Rarely does he dive straight into the action, and in his creepier works it can take a while to discover the purpose behind the horrors on screen.

With themes that range from a distrust of authority and absolutism, complete with the rebellious anti-hero as a lead (They Live, Escape From New York), to paying for the sins of the past… or the future (The Fog, Prince of Darkness), to simply the coming of the end of the world, Carpenter has covered a lot of ground over the course of his career. His “Apocalypse Trilogy” (The Thing, Prince of Darkness, and In the Mouth of Madness) represent a body of work that all deal with Armageddon resulting from supernatural or alien forces causing humans to turn on each other in some fashion, with grim, dark-hearted results. You’ll also find recurring actors — it’s clear that he’s had some successful working relationships, some of which even would go on to become close friendships, with his actors. Kurt Russell (hell, half the cast of Big Trouble in Little China), Jamie Lee Curtis, Keith David and Donald Pleasence have all had roles in multiple Carpenter films.

That career has been a lengthy one. Dating back to 1962, John Carpenter has directed 30 films, written over 20, produced and even acted in several, not to mention that he frequently composes the music for his films using his house band, The Coupe De Villes. Without question his Golden Age is the period from 1976 to 1988, a dozen years that provided an astonishing list of films that virtually everyone has at least heard of, if not seen and come to revere. While he had limited success both prior to and since then, those films are his pinnacle achievements. For the purposes of this guide, we’ll focus on those classics, with some attention being granted to one or two exceptions.

Without further ado, I give you the Pajiba Guide to the Films of John Carpenter.

Assault%20on%20Precinct%2013%2013.jpgAssault on Precinct 13: A bona fide classic and the rare Carpenter film that is neither Horror nor Science Fiction, 1976’s Assault on Precinct 13 is a seminal entry into the action movie genre. It’s about an old and dilapidated police precinct, about to be shut down and running with a barebones staff. It’s stormed by a gang called Street Thunder, seeking bloody retribution for the deaths of some of their members at the hands of the LAPD, and the entire movie focuses on them laying siege to the building. The leftover police, a handful of prisoners that were meant to be transferred and a few innocent bystanders are caught in the crossfire and must try to defend themselves.

Filmed on a meager budget of $100,000 and filled with no-name actors, Assault on Precinct 13 is one of those films that may be more important than it is good. While it’s still an engaging, stark and visceral film, it hasn’t aged well. Viewed as hyper-violent at the time, it’s rather tame by modern standards. Still, it’s a depiction of a vicious battle between borderline psychotic gangsters and desperate protagonists that still can thrill to this day. The camerawork is inventive and the action, while more sedately paced than the crazed, berserker-edited films of today, is choreographed with style and grit. Every frame of the film is weary and seems washed out, and it gives a harsh picture of a dreary, on-the-verge-of-death neighborhood that is losing the struggle against the bad guys. While not terrifically exciting anymore, it’s an important entry into Carpenter’s work and the action movie genre in general.

halloween-michael.jpgHalloween: 1978’s Halloween is easily the most well known and probably the most popular of all his films. Perhaps the grandfathers of the modern slasher movie, Halloween is an honest to God horror movie. It wants to scare the shit out of you, and overall it succeeds. Right from the eerie opening credits, which feature just the cast and crew information next to a jack-o-lantern floating in blackness and the now-famous music, you know Halloween is the real deal. For those who haven’t seen it, it starts out with a young boy who, for reasons unknown to this day (despite that freakshow Rob Zombie attempting to over-explain it in his wholly unnecessary and awful remake), stabs his older sister to death on Halloween night. Found near-catatonic by his parents, he’s committed to a mental institution. Years later, despite the fearful eye of his doctor, Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence in perhaps his best Carpenter role), a full-grown Michael Myers escapes and returns home.

From there, you can guess where it goes. He begins stalking Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and young Tommy Doyle, the boy she’s babysitting (who thinks he’s seen the Boogieman). Meanwhile, Loomis desperately tries to enlist the help of the local sheriff to help track him down. It may sound like Halloween is boring, derivative slasher movie fare when in fact it’s more accurate to say that everything since is basically a cheap imitator. Like most of Carpenter’s early films, it was filmed on a tiny budget — less than $500,000 — so much so that the cast had to provide their own clothes. It’s completely lacking in special effects, uses makeshift sets and was filmed on a relatively rushed schedule. Despite all of that, it’s a masterful horror film, playing on people’s fear of the dark, of strangers, of the unknown. Michael Myers is nothing less than a force of nature, an enigma. While many have theorized that he kills promiscuous teens as some sort of vengeance, it’s a pithy response that cheapens the truth, which Loomis sums up best:

…there was nothing left. No reason, no conscience, no understanding; even the most rudimentary sense of life or death, good or evil, right or wrong. I met this six-year-old child, with this blank, pale, emotionless face and the blackest eyes… the Devil’s eyes. I spent eight years trying to reach him, and then another seven trying to keep him locked up because I realized what was living behind that boy’s eyes was purely and simply… evil.

Carpenter found genius in simplicity. A methodical, silent killing machine with no motivation, no root causes. We’re spared the lengthy explanations and justifications — he’s an empty vessel filled with nothing more than the instinct for killing that defines him. Halloween also features numerous camera shots taken from Myers’s perspective, allowing us to see and hear as he does, making it even more unsettling. While some of the films on this list have lost their luster and are now more valuable for their contribution than their quality, Halloween is no such entry. It remains to this day one of the best horror movies ever made.

fog-1980.jpgThe Fog: 1980’s The Fog is Carpenter’s second foray into genuine horror. Set in a fictional California town called Antonio Bay, it’s about a town on the verge of its centennial celebration. As the clock strikes midnight, a mysterious fog rolls across the water and into the town. Strange lights are emitted from The Fog and shadowy figures holding baling hooks and scythes appear and disappear, while all sorts of havoc breaks out in the town — car alarms go off, furniture moves around, and shit just gets all-around weird. Three sets of characters try to figure out what’s happening while also trying to stay alive — fisherman Nick and the beautiful hitchhiker/one-night-stand he picked up Elizabeth (Jamie Lee Curtis); Kathy (Janet Leigh), the town matron who is organizing the centennial party with her assistant Sandy (Nancy Loomis), and Stevie (Adrienne Barbeau) the local DJ who can see the fog coming in from the lighthouse she works out of and is desperately trying to get her son out of danger. The story is a lean, tightly paced tale about the town’s dark history with a nasty sins-of-the-father twist. The cast is quite good — no brilliant, career changing performances, but each gives a solid, steady turn. Most intriguingly, it features three absolutely iconic female actresses (Barbeau, Leigh and Curtis, the latter two of which are real-life mother and daughter - an impressive collection of celluloid queens at different stages of their careers.

The Fog is one of Carpenter’s more underrated films. It’s an effectively creepy ghost story with less emphasis on horror and gore, and more on a quiet sense of dread and eerie atmosphere. With a couple of pretty good jump-out-of-your-seat scares, The Fog is a wonderfully successful entry into the list of a dying breed of movies — the honest-to-goodness ghost story.

escape.jpgEscape From New York: 1981’s Escape From New York is set in a dystopian future (1997!), where Manhattan has been walled off and now serves as a barbaric prison-city where the worst of the worst are condemned to live. A convict named Snake Plissken (a raspy, sneering Kurt Russell) is drafted to rescue the President of the United States (Donald Pleasence) after Air Force one crashes into the middle of Manhattan and captured by the ruling gang. Similar to Walter Hill’s The Warriors, it features depictions of gangs that are absolutely bizarre and at times downright loopy. Isaac Hayes of all people plays The Duke, the baddest motherfucker in town and the leader of the President’s captors. We know he’s a badass because he rarely speaks and is surrounded by a pack of goons who dress like they were dragged from a Duran Duran video and then thrown in a pigpen. Oh, and he’s chauffeured around in a giant ‘77 Cadillac Fleetwood with chandeliers hanging from the hood to serve as headlights. Chandeliers, people. It’s a thing of beauty and if you loved me, you’d find that car and buy it for me. Of course, in keeping with the theme of the evils of authoritarian power, the bigger threat to Snake may well actually be the prison warden Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) and the two-faced bastard politicos who sent him in. Along the way, Snake encounters a circus-like cast of characters including Cabbie (Ernest Borgnine), the kind-hearted wheelman, and Brain (Harry Dean Stanton) the treacherous secret-keeper that Snake needs but can’t trust.

It all makes for wacky, exciting fun and it’s worth watching simply to understand its place in the genre’s annals. One of Carpenter’s most well known films, Escape From New York is another one that hasn’t aged too well (Snake’s urban-camouflage tights are a particularly nice touch). So while the visual effects, costumes, and production values clearly suffer under our harsh modern viewing perspective, its central theme of mistrusting authority still holds true today and it’s still entertaining as hell.

the%20thing.jpgThe Thing: While Big Trouble in Little China is easily my favorite Carpenter film (hell, it might be my favorite film, period), 1982’s The Thing (the first in the Apocalypse Trilogy) may well be his best film. Theoretically a remake of 1951’s The Thing From Another World (though some, including myself, call it more of a sequel), The Thing is actually both a more accurate version of the short story “Who Goes There,” by John Campbell, Jr. and certainly a superior film. Taking place at a remote research facility in the Antarctic, The Thing tells the tale of an alien life force that assimilates and then mimics whatever it touches. A research team comes across the alien when they find a dead Norwegian team and the remains of a bizarre corpse. They take in a dog that was being chased by the last survivor from the Norwegian base, not knowing that it harbors the creature.

What follows is a tense, claustrophobic picture that beautifully demonstrates both the effects of extended isolation as well as how quickly people can turn on each other and lose trust in those they see every day. It’s no spoiler to state that the team members soon discover what it is that’s hunting them — it’s a predatory shape-shifter that imitates not only appearance, but voice and personality as well. It makes for a truly frightening, paranoid experience as the cast is picked off one by one and they try to identify who has been taken and who could be next. Starring Kurt Russell, Keith David, and Wilford Brimley among others, the cast is marvelous at depicting a group of men whose nerves have become completely frayed, terrified both of their friends and themselves. Preying on your fears of the unknown and of betrayal, it’s a visceral, riveting experience. Once unmasked, the alien manifests itself in wildly bizarre, gruesome fashion, becoming weird tentacle-and-gristle-laden hybridizations of its victims. Carpenter ratchets up the unease and terror by combining the trust-no-one theme with nerve-wrackingly tight spaces, and then preventing escape due to the ever-present threat of death by freezing outside.

The Thing belongs in the company of the great tin can movies such as Alien and The Abyss. It’s a gut-clenching piece of filmmaking that probably ties with Halloween for the apex of Carpenters achievements.

princeofdarkness.jpgPrince of Darkness: Perhaps one of John Carpenter’s less well-known greats, 1987’s Prince of Darkness is another solid and original entry into the horror genre. Again featuring actors from prior films (Dennis Dun and Victor Wong were both in Big Trouble in Little China, and the omnipresent Donald Pleasence), it’s the second entry into the Apocalypse Trilogy. Prince of Darkness revolves around a priest (Pleasence), a physics professor (Wong) and his students who descend upon a church to study an eerie canister filled with a sinister churning green liquid that is way more than it appears. The nearby homeless and schizophrenics (led by a silent and terrifying Alice Cooper), tainted and possessed by an unseen evil force, descend upon the church with a looming sense of menace. Soon, a battle for survival (and the fate of the world) ensues as they must fight the evil outside as well as within.

Unlike many of Carpenter’s other films, Prince of Darkness is heady, esoteric stuff. Equal parts horror, science-fiction, and philosophical and theological discourse, it’s an ambitious film. The movie is filled with synth-heavy, foreboding music and a constant feeling of dread (aided by continual shots of skin-crawlingly nightmarish, writhing masses of insects in some very unsettling places). Instead of being a simple tale of evil and possession, Prince of Darkness instead chooses to ask questions about the very nature of evil, about God and Satan and the possibility of something more heinous than even the Devil himself. Pleasence and Wong are great, playing a man of God and a man of Science respectively, trying to find out the truth and eventually protect a world that would never believe or understand the things that they know are out there.

Prince of Darkness was ill-received at the box office, and hasn’t garnished the cult status on home video or DVD that other Carpenter films have. It features little in the way of special effects and relies on brains, honest scares and a gripping climax (with a bitch of an ending) to get the job done. The acting is unfortunately quite uneven (as great as Dennis Dun was in BTiLC, he overacts terribly here), which contrasts with the fact that it’s a complex, cerebral picture that stays true to its horror roots. Genuinely unsettling and at times, downright ghastly, it should be experienced by all horror fans.

they_live.jpgThey Live: 1988’s They Live is probably Carpenter’s goofiest yet smartest movie. A magnificently mulleted Roddy Piper (formerly most well-known as the WWF’s “Rowdy Roddy Piper”) stars as the nihilistically named Nada, an itinerant day laborer who, after finding a special pair of sunglasses discovers that the world around him is a sham, and that cadaverous-looking alien doppelgangers walk among us, subliminally brainwashing humans to become mindless drones and eventually, slaves. Nada enlists the help of his friend Frank (Keith David) to begin an insurrectionist rampage and bring down the alien oppressors.

Full of weird, black comedic undertones, They Live is actually a nastily clever, subversive little film. Released during a politically conservative time in American politics and during the height of the unrestrained capitalistic frenzy of the 80’s, it’s a sharp criticism of the consumerist culture of the times. Money has secret messages stating “This Is Your God,” while billboards and advertisements contain hidden slogans like “Obey,” “No Independent Thought,” and “Conform.” Piper is a brash, blustery oaf of an anti-hero, yet he brings a sort of loudmouthed charm to the role. His famous line about kicking ass and chewing bubble game may seem silly now (it was apparently a line he’d been rehearsing to use in the wrestling ring) but it fit well within the framework of both the film and the character.

Carpenter made an interesting choice with They Live — creating a sinister, trust-no-one world with a witty dissident tone to the film — and then casting a brawny lummox to play the lead role. Yet, as with many of his mad science experiments, it works in ways no one thought possible.

Honorable mentions (post 1988):

atmouthofmadness.jpgIn the Mouth of Madness: A deeply flawed film, the first time I saw 1994’s In the Mouth of Madness, I was scared shitless. The second time, I laughed my ass off. The third time lay somewhere in between. Carpenter’s mixed-bag homage to H.P. Lovecraft is a bizarre exploration of insanity, monsters and the power of the written word. At times it’s quite beautiful, with some truly twisted and disturbing imagery. Unfortunately, it also fails to sustain its tone, despite the presence of solid actors like Sam Neill, Charlton Heston and J├╝rgen Prochnow. Still, it’s better than many of Carpenter’s other recent entries, and certainly better than most contemporary horror films.

Carpenter_CigBurns.jpgCigarette Burns: Carpenter’s entry into the first season of Showtime’s deliciously depraved and horrific Masters of Horror series, Cigarette Burns is a glimpse of Carpenter’s greatness resurrected. Essentially, it’s about a film so terrifying, so bloodcurdlingly evil that it caused a wave of insanity and mass murder during its first screening. A man is tasked with finding the remaining print, and his efforts encounter all sorts of bizarre nightmares and shifts in reality. A hallucinatory, phantasmagoric exercise in fear, religion and torture, it’s not for everyone. But if you’re willing, it’s a wickedly sharp, surrealist film that will definitely stay with you.

prolife.JPGPro-Life: Carpenter’s second Masters of Horror entry, Pro-Life is part morality tale, part gore-fest and part unnerving drama. Combining the ideas of abortion shootings with demons and one seriously fucked-up baby, it’s a demented piece that shocks more than scares. The acting is a mixed bag and the production values are less-than-stellar, but it’s worth seeing just to understand how twisted Carpenter’s vision can be.

Happy Halloween, everyone.

TK can be found wandering aimlessly through suburban Massachusetts, wondering how the hell he got there while yelling at the kids on his lawn. You can find him raising the dead in preparation for world domination at Uncooked Meat.

Guides | October 30, 2008 |

TK Burton is the Editorial Director. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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