Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Director Essentials: John Carpenter

by Patrick Bromley
Here's something you already knew: John Carpenter is the best.

In trying to choose the movies that best make us understand John Carpenter, it's tempting to put one of his attempts at "one for them" on the list -- titles like Starman or Christine or Memoirs of an Invisible Man -- but none of those movies tell us anything about him as a filmmaker other than that he is somewhat uncomfortable making movies that aren't entirely his own. It's equally tempting to put one of his more recent films on the list to talk about what has become of Carpenter, but that would mean suggesting that people seek out Ghosts of Mars (not the worst) or The Ward (the worst). Instead, let's focus on his great movies. He made a whole bunch of them.

1. Dark Star (1974) - To really understand a filmmaker, it's important to understand his or her beginnings. Carpenter's first movie, Dark Star, was a student film that was turned into a feature. It's incredibly well-made considering the resources, suggesting that Carpenter was a born filmmaker, but tonally it owes much more to screenwriter and co-star Dan O'Bannon than to anything Carpenter would do in the future. Carpenter's movies always have a comic streak in them, from the moments of black humor amidst the bleakness of The Thing to the cartoon absurdity of Big Trouble in Little China, but the whacked-out humor of Dark Star is pure O'Bannon. It's too bad that the movie ended the relationship between the two; it would have been nice to see what else they could come up with as they got older and better. This movie is even more impressive when you consider that it was made several years before the films you think it's parodying (except 2001, of course).
2. Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) - Here's where Carpenter really becomes Carpenter. Basically remaking Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo with way more brutality and nihilism (R.I.P. 12-year old Kim Richards), Carpenter made one of the all-time great siege movies, made even more effective by its low budget, electronic score and overall scuzzy feel. A ton of genre movies from the '80s until now have ripped this movie off (including one competent but soulless remake in 2005), but there's no topping the original.

3. Halloween (1978) - John Carpenter's first masterpiece is also the movie responsible for ruining his career. Sure, it made him a household name and afforded him the freedom to pick and choose his projects for at least the next decade, but it quickly boxed him in as a horror guy, and it's clear that Carpenter wanted to work in more than just a single genre. I've spoken at some length on my feelings about the film, which is beautiful and technically perfect but which usually leaves me cold, but there is no denying that Halloween changed the face of horror films. It didn't invent the slasher movie (I know, I know, Black Christmas), but it sure made it viable. I tend to like Carpenter's messier efforts more than this because they have more personality, but it's hard argue to with Halloween's perfection.
4. Escape from New York (1981) - Boy, Carpenter was on a roll in the early '80s. While The Fog isn't among his best, it doesn't derail a run of classics that starts with Halloween in '78 and ends with The Thing in '82. Sandwiched comfortably in there is his futuristic action movie Escape From New York. This was Carpenter's first big-screen teaming with Kurt Russell (they had previously worked together on the TV movie Elvis), and the result is one of most iconic antiheroes in all of genre cinema and possibly my favorite actor/director partnership ever. This also features one of Carpenter's best scores -- I defy you to stop humming it all day once it's in your head. Escape from New York is pure John Carpenter: distrust of authority, loner hero, deadpan humor, bleak worldview. It's a movie that creeps higher up on my list of favorites every year.

5. The Thing (1982) - A critical and financial failure when it first played in theaters, Carpenter's remake of The Thing (based less on Howard Hawks' The Thing From Another World than on John Campbell Jr.'s story "Who Goes There?") found new life on cable and VHS. Nowadays, it's not only regarded as one of Carpenter's best, but one of the best horror movies ever made. This is one of his most Hawksian movies, not just because he's literally remaking Hawks but because it's about a group of men (NO WOMEN) stuck together in a single locale forced to work together and solve a problem -- namely, who/what is killing them off and taking their places by imitating them? Tense, lean, imaginative with brilliant, goopy effects from Rob Bottin -- every single thing about The Thing works. This is still my favorite John Carpenter movie.
6. Big Trouble in Little China (1986) - After playing it safe in the studio system for a couple of years following the failure of The Thing, Carpenter once again cuts loose with his Eastern Western, again teaming with Kurt Russell to create a character that's one eyepatch shy of being as iconic as Snake Plissken. The fact that Big Trouble in Little China exists at all is amazing; that it was released by a major studio with A-list talent even more so. Like nearly every single one of Carpenter's movies, Big Trouble in Little China found a cult audience who discovered it after it flopped in theaters; it has gone on to become one of the most beloved genre movies of the 1980s. I would chastise audiences for not being on board 25 years ago when Carpenter needed them, but it's not really their fault. People just didn't know what to make of Big Trouble in Little China. The trouble with being ahead of your time is that you have to wait for the rest of the world to catch up.

7. Prince of Darkness (1987) - Like In the Mouth of Madness a little further down the list, Prince of Darkness was written off upon release but has developed a following in the years since (a statement that could be made about more than half of Carpenter's filmography). Combining sci-fi, philosophy, Satan worship, theology, horror and the Quatermass series, Prince of Darkness is a movie more interested in examining the idea of evil than in letting evil really cut loose. For many it will be too slow and talky (or silly, as any movie that argues that the devil is a green liquid will be accused of being), but it's clear that Carpenter is trying to push himself into new territory. It helps that a few of the sequences are as tense and scary as almost anything the filmmaker has done.

8. They Live (1988) - Carpenter's third movie in three years is one of his all-time greats, sythesizing the idea-driven approach of Prince of Darkness with the insane entertainment value of Big Trouble in Little China. With great action (alley fight!), sci-fi goofiness and angry, heavy-handed satire of Reagan America, They Live is another perfect encapsulation of Carpenter as a filmmaker. Few directors were able to create so many personal statements wrapped inside genre movies. It's what makes Carpenter great when he's at his best: not only do his movies kick fucking ass, but there's so much of him in them.
9. In the Mouth of Madness (1994) - One of the most underrated movies in Carpenter's filmography, In the Mouth of Madness is due for a critical reevaluation. For a long time, I've thought They Live was his last best movie, but it might be this one. Sam Neill plays an insurance investigator hired by a publishing company to look into the disappearance of Sutter Cane, a hugely popular horror novelist whose books are now believed to be causing readers to go insane and murder people. Carpenter was working with some "meta" ideas about horror two years before Scream (and the same year as Wes Craven's New Nightmare, which would make a fantastic double bill with this movie). It's also a chance to see him do something different. This isn't a western. This isn't Carpenter doing Howard Hawks. This is balls-out horror in the Lovecraft tradition, and it's thrilling to watch the movie get crazier and crazier as it unfolds. Madness completes the director's "apocalypse trilogy," which includes The Thing and Prince of Darkness. Quality-wise, it ranks right between the two.

10. Escape from L.A. (1996) - This one -- the last of Carpenter's movies that demands to be seen -- is still underappreciated even by Carpenter fans. Angry audiences accused the film, which brings back Kurt Russell as Snake Plissken and has him encountering crazy plastic surgeons (Bruce Campbell), con men (Steve Buscemi) and transsexual criminals (Pam Grier), of being too silly and jokey. And it is, but not by accident. Escape from L.A. is like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 in that it presents all of the familiar characters and elements but changes to tone to one of absurdist comedy -- a fact that people are still only starting to figure out. That it's as bleak as the original might be confusing, too, as the dark worldview seems to be at odds with the movie's exaggerated humor. Escape from L.A. might be Carpenter's first outright comedy since Dark Star (yes, I'm aware of Memoirs of an Invisible Man, but for something to be considered a comedy it has to have jokes), and it's great to see him subverting some of the tropes that he himself established 15 years earlier. Classic Carpenter -- a filmmaker who alternates between the razorblade and the sledgehammer.
More Director Essentials:
1. Michael Bay
2. Woody Allen
3. Ron Howard
4. Sidney Lumet
5. Paul Verhoeven
6. Steven Soderbergh
7. Tim Burton
8. Joe Dante
9. Robert Zemeckis
10. Michael Cimino
11. Wes Craven
12. Spike Lee
13. John Landis   
14. Brian De Palma 
15. Steven Spielberg
16. Tony Scott
17. Sam Raimi 
18. Richard Donner


  1. I share your - well, it's not lack of enthusiasm, but perhaps a lack of passion - about Halloween. I've wondered myself why I don't love it more. I watch it each and every Halloween and enjoy it, but...

    I want it to be MORE. I keep looking for deeper issues under the surface, and have to keep reminding myself there aren't any - and that's not the movie's fault. Carpenter has been driven crazy by theorizing of Halloween, for example that the girls are being "punished" for their sexuality (anyone looking at the movie can see that the girls are viewed with affection - they are each very likable, which is why their ultimate fates matter). Or how about the notion that the opening shot invites us to identify with the killer? Because, you know, it's a POV shot and that's what they're for. I've seen this movie dozens of times. Not once when Michael is climbing the steps to his sister's bedroom am I thinking "Yeah, get that wench!" If anything, I'm more terrified because I've been shackled to his perspective and can't get away. There's only one reason Carpenter filmed the opening shot this way, and it wasn't to make us identify with a mass-murderer. It's so he can keep the killer's identity a secret until the very last moment. And boy, does that work!

    I still find myself wishing that Halloween had the same layers of meaning that, say, Psycho has. Or even The Thing, which I think is Carpenter's best film and a great study in paranoia. But, as I mentioned earlier, that's not the movie's fault. It's an awesome scary movie. That should be enough.

  2. I second the yes to all of what Steve K. said - I too really enjoy it, it's technically perfect, it does what it sets out to do, yet I just don't LOVE it as much as say, my unstabbed brother from an adoptive mother, Mike.

    Wow - one of the things I love about the F Directors! series is I'm almost surprised by how much of a well-known director's work I HAVEN'T seen. In the past couple years The Thing has become one of my favourite sci-fi/horror movies (a favourite movie PERIOD actually)(oh, and LOVE that picture of Carpenter and Russell) yet I really haven't explored much of Carpenter's other work. I've seen neither of the Escape movies, They Live! or Big Trouble in Little China and those seem like pretty big misses on my part.

    Going back to Heath's column, with all the garbage coming out these days, I guess it's nice to have a treasure trove of new-to-me classics to fall back on!

    1. You're in for a treat, Sol. I'm kind of jealous that you get to experience some of these movies for the first time. I hope you dig 'em! Please let us know what you think of them when you getting around to watching.

    2. Whenever I find out someone hasn't seen a great movie I really like, I always want to watch it with them! Being with someone when they lose their virginity to a great movie is ALMOST as good as your own first time. I guess what I'm saying is, if you happen to be in the neighbourhood, feel free to stop by and we'll check one of these out!

      I'd like to discuss movies I watched after reading/hearing about them here, but I'm never sure where it's appropriate. Going back to a long-dead thread seems potentially fruitless and I don't really like just cramming it in an unrelated new thread. Too bad there isn't more of a general discussion area somehow...

      Oh, and real quick - was so glad I saw eye-to-eye (or heart-to-heart?) with you (and Patrick) on Cloud Atlas - I love a lot of movies, but it's one of those rarer movies that I'm actually IN love with. Hopefully in our next lives we live in the same neighbourhood. And you're a sexy Asian chick.

  3. I have a complicated history with "Escape from L.A.". I actually didn't seen "Escape from New York" until after "L.A.". Upon my first viewing of "L.A.", I liked it well enough. But after seeing "New York", it bugs me how much of a carbon copy "L.A." seems to be. I get that tone-wise they are very different, but if I can match a majority of similar plot-points to each movie, I lose the element of surprise. I think I like "L.A.", I just wish I liked it more.

  4. Wow, this is great. I do love Halloween, but when I try to think of why, I can't really explain it. I love everything about it: the music, the way it's filmed, the pacing...I like living in the world. I guess it's just one of those things that "hits" me. You know, sometimes a movie does that and even when you see and recognize things that could be better, they don't really bother you.

    For me, I've never really gotten why Big Trouble In Little China is so good. But I didn't see it in the 80s, which could have something to do with it. I like it, but I don't love it.

    Having said that, I'd watch ANY John Carpenter movie at the drop of a hat. He's one of our greats. He's interesting, and he makes interesting movies.

    And the picture of Carpenter and Kurt Russell makes me SO happy.

    1. By the way, have you purchased the Scream Factory blu-ray for They Live? I haven't yet, but it's on my short list. I was just curious. I think it will be on my Scary Movie Month list this year.

    2. BTiLC wouldn't appear at the top of my favorite Carpenter movies (I'm like you in that I like it more than love it), but it's so unabashedly weird and silly that I can't help but admire it.

      I wish Carpenter was still interesting. He stopped doing anything new around 1994; even the one movie on this list from after that point is, as Shannon points out, basically just a re-do of his earlier work.

    3. Erika got me the Blu-ray ray of They Live last Christmas. It's great. I wanted it mostly for the Carpenter/Piper commentary track, which has been available in Region 2 for years. I was always so jealous. It's very entertaining.

  5. I would argue that while it's not always as well-regarded as some of his other work, The Fog deserves to be on this list, more than Escape From L.A., which as others have mentioned, is really derivative of the original and has a satirical edge that's a bit too blunt.

    The Fog on the other hand displays one of Carpenter's best skills: his ability to create atmosphere, so to speak, often out of nothing at all. Just look at the fantastic campfire scene that starts the movie or the great opening montage of strange events in Antonio Bay, both of which immediately set-up the film's creepy mood with a deftness we don't see much anymore.

    It also reflects some clear shifts in his career: he was attempting to make a film that was scary without being overtly violent, something he decided wasn't working in post-production and a stylistic choice he never really made again, which I think is a pity because what subtlety is left to those ghostly attack scenes is fantastic.

    Additionally he has commented on how by this point he felt he had got the mechanics of the false scare/real scare timing down, which is why he didn't really bother with it again from here on.

    Beyond all that, there's the wonderfully unconventional script structure, the ensemble nature of the cast, the fact that he cast Tom Atkins and had him hook up with Jamie Lee Curtis onscreen (because clearly no woman can resist the moustache), and another wonderfully evocative score.

    I also wouldn't necessarily write off Starman as a 'one for them' project. While he didn't write the screenplay, Carpenter has commented that he was eager to take the project to see if he could do something more optimistic and outside of his usual oeuvre, much as you mentioned in the Halloween entry. I think he succeeded beautifully.

    Otherwise, great list!

    1. I won't argue with your choices, because you give a lot of valid reasons why you would include them. I didn't mean to be dismissive of Starman, because you're right -- he does a good job with something outside of comfort zone. I just don't feel like it's really a "John Carpenter" movie.

      And you have tons of good points for The Fog. I guess it just comes down to personal preference; I feel like what he does well in that movie (atmosphere) he had already done in Halloween. The same argument could be made for Escape from N.Y./L.A., but I like how one is played (basically) straight and one for laughs -- like Evil Dead versus Evil Dead 2.

      Mostly, though, it's just fun to talk about these movies, because they're all really good.

    2. I agree. They are all good and his creative streak in the late 70s and 80s was remarkable.

      It's interesting to consider some of the projects he didn't get to do, such as Firestarter, which he got fired from in the aftermath of The Thing, and the remake of Creature From the Black Lagoon he had been developing with Rick Baker designing the creature.

      I read he's been interested in helming a Dead Space adaptation. Here's hoping he still has another great one left in him.

    3. I worry having seen The Ward that doesn't have it anymore, but maybe it's just a question of finding material that moves him.

      I would have liked to see his Firestarter too, though I get the feeling it would have felt a lot like his Christine. And in some ways, it seems like Mark Lester was doing a Carpenter impression with his movie.

      Where did it really start to go wrong? I guess the '90s were rough.

    4. Thanks for sticking up for The Fog. Sometimes I think it might be my favorite Carpenter movie. I know it isn't technically as good as Halloween, or certainly The Thing. But I love living in the world of The Fog so much. Few movies make me as happy. It's funny, because I normally don't love Ghost movies. But The Fog feels like a wonderful, comfortable experience of listening to a ghost story around a camp fire. The music, the cinematography, and the atmosphere just work for me. And I still say some of the Gothic imagery is some of the greatest stuff ever put in front of a camera.

  6. Would it be fair to say that Carpenter had a hand in making a Tarantino possible?

    And I think Christine deserves an honorable mention. Almost no gore but creepy as hell.

    1. CHRISTINE was my big Carpenter blind spot that I finally saw for the first time last year. I liked it much more than I thought I would.

  7. This is a great list, Patrick. You've managed to articulate what makes Carpenter so special to me. Also, I love any piece that makes me want to immediately start watching the movies mentioned. I'll begin with THEY LIVE tonight.

    I can't argue with anything that Steve K, Patrick or Sol have said about HALLOWEEN, especially since you were all very kind to it. It's my favorite horror film of all time and one of my favorite movies period, but I recognize it's not for everyone.

  8. Cool list there Patrick, I have actually seen all of these films save for Dark Star (I'll get to it I swear). I would actually say his last good film was Vampires. I am not saying its great but I can at least put it on and have a nice cheesy time with James Woods hamming it up. His unique directorial voice hasnt always made his films profitable but dammit they sure made his movies unique.

    1. I kind of like Vampires, too. It can be tricky to cut the list to 10.

      You make a great point -- it's fascinating how beloved so many of his movies are but how little box office success he's had, post-Halloween.

  9. Escape from L.A. would be in my top five Carpenter movies(Halloween, Big Trouble in Little China, Escape from NY, The Thing). Like most fans that saw it the first time, I didn’t like the satirical change in tone from the “dark” original NY. As I watched it a few more times, I appreciated all the in jokes & over the top silliness. L.A. still has one of my favorite antihero endings. I can’t believe any of today’s action movies would have the guts to have the main protagonist commit an action that would kill millions of innocent civilians like Snake Plissken did with the EMP device. The final scene & Snake’s one-liner was the perfect way to end it.

    I still have to check out In the Mouth of Madness.

  10. I hate to be "that guy" but you have a typo in your comment for The Thing. You use the phrase "one of the best horror movies ever made". The typo is the inclusion of the word 'horror'. Remove that and the facts check out.

    (seriously...i know its a "duh" statement but The Thing is legit one of the greatest movies of all time. Masterpiece).