Saturday, May 16, 2015
Top 10 John Carpenter Films
There's a whole era of horror directors whose work has not only stood the test of time, but are considered the masters of the genre. George Romero, Tobe Hooper, David Cronenberg, Wes Craven, John Landis, and of course, John Carpenter. All these filmmakers achieved both mainstream success, and massive success within the horror genre over the years, but among them all, there's always been something in particular about Carpenter's filmography that has stuck out to me above all the previously mentioned. Maybe it's because he's always been kind of underrated, even within the horror genre itself if you can believe that. Either way, a majority of his films are among my favorite films of all time in ANY genre...and he's the only filmmaker alive to hold that distinction to me personally.
Now not every film Carpenter has directed has been a classic (just watch "Memoirs of an Invisible Man"...or rather, don't). That aside, he's made more great films than he has bad, and a large handful of which are fucking excellent. So without further adieu, here's my top ten John Carpenter films in the history of fucking ever. If you've never seen some or any of these before, not only are you missing out, you're out of your fucking mind.
10. STARMAN (1984)
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Karen Allen, Charles Martin Smith
The only Carpenter film to ever have an Oscar nomination (Bridges for Best Actor), "Starman" is a slightly sentimental but surprisingly endearing story of a recently widowed woman that comes across an alien being that has taken the form of her late husband. Unlike nearly everything else on this list, "Starman" is far from horror, but it remains one of Carpenter's best-made films, and features one of the best performances of Jeff Bridges' legendary career.
9. PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1987)
Starring: Donald Pleasence, Lisa Blount, Jameson Parker
It's not everyday you find a film that blends meta-physics with Satan, but here we are. A priest invites some physics students to check out a mysterious vat of green liquid in the basement of an abandoned church, only to learn that it's really the essence of Satan himself. There's demonic possession (including Alice Cooper as a homeless bum!) and some supremely interesting ideas that get thrown around in the midst of all the murder and mayhem, combined with a surprising amount of dread and the fact that you really don't know what the fuck is going to happen next. Supremely underrated film in Carpenter's body of work.
8. IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS (1994)
Starring: Sam Neill, Jurgen Prochnow, David Warner
Speaking of supremely underrated films in Carpenter's body of work, "In the Mouth of Madness" is a gleeful take on fandom, namely that of current horror authors like Stephen King. Sam Neill plays an insurance investigator tasked with learning more of the disappearance of a popular horror novelist, only to learn that the author's creations seem to be coming to life...and driving people murderously insane. There's a lot of Lovecraft-ian touches here and there, and its ending is a total fucking hoot.
7. BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986)
Starring: Kurt Russell, Kim Catrall, Dennis Dun
There isn't much I can say about "Big Trouble in Little China" that hasn't already been said plenty of times already. This film, like many other of Carpenter's films on this list, was a box office bomb that ended up finding its audience some time after its initial release. Now recognized as a bona-fide cult classic, "Big Trouble in Little China" is a mix of Chinese martial-arts mysticism and American-ized, John Wayne-archetype thrills. The makeup effects are fan-fucking-tastic, and Kurt Russell is one of the most memorable asshole heroes ever. Though this wasn't his first time as an asshole hero in a Carpenter movie...we'll get to those films in a bit.
6. THE FOG (1980)
Starring: Hal Holbrook, Jamie Lee Curtis, Adrienne Barbeau
An underappreciated film, even by some die hard Carpenter fans, "The Fog" is the most atmospheric of all of Carpenter's films. A super creepy ghost story that features a bevy of big-name acting talent, "The Fog" manages to ratchet up suspense and dread throughout its running time. Even if it gets a tad predictable as things begin winding to a close, it still manages to give you the creeps regardless. This film, like many of the next ones to come on this list, received an unnecessary remake, which somehow ended up becoming one of the absolute worst remakes in horror history. No I'm not shitting you.
5. ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981)
Starring: Kurt Russell, Lee Van Cleef, Harry Dean Stanton
Another film I can't say much about that hasn't already been said hundreds of times already. You all know the plot, and you all know that it has one of the most iconic antiheroes in all of film history. "Escape From New York" is a perfect example of a filmmaker being able to do a lot with very little. Pretty low budget but boasting an immensely talented cast that includes Carpenter regulars like Tom Atkins and Adrienne Barbeau, and big time screen vets like Lee Van Cleef and Ernest Borgnine. It's easy to point out its faults in terms of its production values, but Carpenter and co. truly made the most of what they had to work with, helping the film become a cult classic to this very day. Carpenter and Russell would return for a 1996 sequel, "Escape from L.A.", which is equal parts enjoyable and disappointing. Then again, I guess one more trip with Snake Plisskin is better than no trip at all. Maybe we'll finally get the long awaited third film "Escape From Earth" instead of a shitty remake? I wouldn't count on that, but a guy can dream.
4. ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (1976)
Starring: Austin Stoker, Darwin Joston, Laurie Zimmer
Carpenter's follow up to his 1974 debut "Dark Star", "Assault on Precinct 13" is a 70s-era western on steroids. Taking cues from filmmakers like Howard Hawks and even a page from George Romero's "Night of the Living Dead", this film finds a soon to be closed down police precinct under siege by a large cadre of gang members. The inhabitants of the precinct, which includes both cops and criminals, have to team up if they have any hope of survival. It's dark, violent, and can be super nasty (including the infamous scene of a little girl meeting her end while trying to get ice cream); all of which helped gain Carpenter a lot of notoriety as his film career was really taking off. It would be the film he made after this that would cement him as a true visionary of the genre...and we'll get to that soon.
3. THEY LIVE (1988)
Starring: Roddy Piper, Keith David, Meg Foster
A film that was seemingly largely ignored upon release, but received so much acclaim over the years and has surprisingly become a timeless classic, "They Live" is a treat. Roddy fucking Piper plays a guy just looking to make a living and finds himself relegated among the homeless and destitute, until he discovers the shocking truth about society: billboards, magazines, and all media are loaded with subliminal messages telling us humans to OBEY and CONSUME...but that isn't even the worst of it. Those in charge are really alien beings and they've been among us for some time. Those that sell out to them are given riches and fame, while the poor keep getting poorer. Loaded with biting social commentary and featuring a brilliantly drawn out fist fight between Piper and Keith David, "They Live" is fucking wonderful. Watch it now. I fucking said so.
2. THE THING (1982)
Starring: Kurt Russell, Keith David, Wilford Brimley
A remake of the 1951 "The Thing From Another World", and much more faithful to its source material than that film ever was ("Who Goes There?"), "The Thing" is one of the absolute best horror movies of the 80s. An American research team in the Arctic comes across an alien being that can imitate and absorb any life form it touches, causing mass paranoia among the group and some of the most gruesome special effects of the era. Seriously, the makeup and creature effects by Rob Bottin are so fucking ahead of their time that it's hard to believe that they were crafted in the era that they were. That, combined with the overwhelming sense of dread and isolation, and the fact that you literally don't know what the fuck is going to happen next, all helps make "The Thing" one of my personal favorite films of all time. Even though it was a relative bomb when it came out (apparently audiences didn't want to see an intelligent movie featuring a blood thirsty alien being after "E.T." had just come out), "The Thing" has grown into a bona-fide classic of the genre, even going so far as to outshining the original film. There was a remake/prequel/whatever the fuck that came out a couple years ago, and that bombed too. That film however is about as far from a classic as a film can get, so don't waste your time.
1. HALLOWEEN (1978)
Starring: Donald Pleasence, Jamie Lee Curtis, PJ Soles
What, you were expecting "Ghosts of Mars"? The original "Halloween" jump started the slasher genre of the 80s, made Carpenter a household name (relatively), made a star of Jamie Lee Curtis, and gave birth to one of the most iconic horror villains in cinematic history. There's nothing about "Halloween" that I can say that you haven't already heard. It's amazingly suspenseful, atmospheric, and one of the most purely enjoyable horror movies to ever see the light of day. The film has spawned numerous sequels, remakes, toys, comics, and a legacy that cannot be matched. It's become a ritual in the decades since to watch the film every October, and with good reason. Even though nearly everything in the film has become a cliché of the modern slasher genre, this was the one that started them all, and none have done it better since.
Well, there you have it. Now granted, there are other Carpenter movies that didn't make this list that aren't bad like "Christine" and his remake of "Village of the Damned", but these ten films listed here are essential viewing. With that in mind, stop reading this fucking thing and go check them out if you haven't already. Thank me later.