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10 Essential John Carpenter Films You Need To Watch

07 July 2014 | Features, Film Lists | by Liam Hathaway

John Carpenter

John Carpenter is arguably one of the most important and influential genre directors of the last forty years. He quickly established a cult following with many of his 1970s and 1980s efforts that have since become classics, but a string of critical and commercial flops in the 1990s led to the director becoming disillusioned with filmmaking and the Hollywood system. Despite a few stints with the Masters Of Horror series in the mid-2000s and a return to directing with The Ward in 2010, Carpenter has not since recaptured the success or the consistency of his earlier works. These are the 10 essential John Carpenter movies.

 

10. Dark Star (1974)

Dark Star (1974)

The Plot

The restless crew on a deep space mission encounter numerous ridiculous problems aboard their ship. Amongst their issues are a troublesome beach-ball-like alien causing havoc, an irritating computer voice, a dead captain whose brain can be defrosted when his acumen is required and a thermo-nuclear bomb that is dead set on exploding!

Why It’s So Great

Dark Star was produced as a film project whilst Carpenter was a student at the University of Southern California on a shoestring budget of merely $60,000 – a figure that makes the film all the more momentous as it is chock full of elaborate special effects that give the film a distinctively unique aesthetic.

Many could argue that Dark Star is not an essential Carpenter film due to its amateurish qualities, but it is a significant debut due to the potential that it promised from the director as well as it did for co-writer and actor Dan O’Bannon who played the character Pinback. O’Bannon of course went on to write ‘Alien’ which was released five years after Dark Star.

Despite being made over four decades ago, Dark Star has not lost its charm and it remains an appealingly light-hearted sci-fi comedy. Definitely worthy of a checkout for those who want to see the work of the now-legendary director at the primordial stage of his career.

 

9. The Fog (1980)

fog-1980-pirates

The Plot

On the centennial anniversary of Antonio Bay’s existence, punishing ghost Pirates return from their watery grave through an eerie fogbank which aided their demise. Their mission is to exact revenge on the grandsons of the founding fathers of the town who were instrumental in murdering them for their riches one-hundred years ago.

Why It’s So Great

This film was Carpenter’s first theatrical release after Halloween and it also directly followed his Elvis biopic that was made for TV. It might be fair to say that The Fog may not be as ground-breaking, or perhaps as skilfully devised as Halloween, but it certainly is an effective seaside chiller.

The Fog also contains considerable influences from Hammer horror films; it has an almost comedic amount of jump scares, some very eerie visuals (most notably, the spectral figures looming amongst the swirling fog) and the narrative works like a traditional bedtime story. The terrific opening scene consisting purely of John Houseman telling the folklore tale of the shipwreck sets the tone absolutely perfectly.

As per usual, The Fog contains music which was composed by Carpenter and is certainly one of his creepiest; a slowly trickling piano score with an ominous synth drones underneath suits the image of the fog rolling in with the tide all too well. Matching the right music to what is on screen has always been one of Carpenter’s strengths and it is an indispensable asset for a filmmaker, particularly within the horror genre.

Featuring a cast of Carpenter regulars such as Adrienne Barbeau, Jamie Lee Curtis, Tom Atkins, Charles Cyphers, Nancy Kyes as well as a brief cameo from the director himself – The Fog feels very much like an archetypal Carpenter film – meaning that everything feels familiar, from the music to the characters to the scares. It may not be Carpenter’s absolute best (although many would firmly disagree) but the director is certainly playing to his strengths here, and with a cast and crew he was comfortable with.

 

8. Starman (1984)

Starman (1984)

The Plot

A grieving widow is visited by a sentient alien who has taken the form of her late husband after responding to Voyager 2’s invitation and arriving on Earth. With the NSA hot on their heels, the two embark on a cross-country journey towards a rendezvous point in Arizona that the ‘starman’ must make within three days or else he will expire.

Why It’s So Great

After being cruelly labelled the “pornographer of violence” for his remake of ‘The Thing From Another World’, Carpenter temporarily shifted into a lower gear and this comparably mellow 1984 effort demonstrates the change. A lesser filmmaker may have succumb to the pressures of transferring his strengths outside of his comfort zone, but here Carpenter managed to succeed and produce one of his most accomplished and arguably his most moving film to date. Carpenter himself had admitted that Starman was an ‘apology’ to those who disparaged The Thing, but do not let that deter you from this film.

The film deals primarily with heavy themes such as grief and romance, but the overall mood is lifted by some well-placed moments of humour which are dotted around the proceedings. Although many have rightfully drawn comparison to ‘E.T.’, Starman is actually a more mature outing containing two sympathetic lead characters who are brilliantly acted by Karen Allen, and Jeff Bridges as the alien in a terrifically unique performance.

As with only a select few films from Carpenter’s filmography, Starman was not written by him, as it also does not feature a score by him either. This means that the film does not possess the distinct impressions of a Carpenter film (as perhaps The Fog does), but the sheer quality and offbeat chemistry between the leads makes up for this – as it does for some fairly dated special effects and a few didactic moments concerning the way humans behave to one another. Starman remains an essential film for exhibiting Carpenters talents to a more gentle effect despite it sometimes being shunned by fans of the director’s much more aggressive work.

 

7. Assault On Precinct 13 (1976)

Assault on Precinct 13

The Plot

Set in a violent L.A. neighbourhood, Lt. Bishop is assigned to take charge of a police precinct on the eve of its closure. Meanwhile, after a young girl is murdered by a vicious gang of cut-throats, her father takes revenge but is chased to the precinct where the gang stage an all-out assault. Armed only with a few guns, a limited amount of bullets and accompanied by a handful of helpful but dangerous criminals – will Bishop and precinct 13 make it until dawn?

Why It’s So Great

A taut and gripping thriller, Assault On Precinct 13 showcases Carpenter’s mastery over creating suspense by using the simplest of cinematography, editing techniques and a lean score to tweak the audience’s nerves. When the titular assault actually begins, we scarcely get a proper look at the attackers who are piling through the windows. They are often seen from a distance or creeping in the shadows; a faceless and unstoppable force, comparable to the soldiers in ‘Battleship Potemkin’ or the zombies in ‘Night Of The Living Dead’.

Another remarkable aspect of this movie is the fact that the film stars black actor Austin Stoker in the lead role, yet the film is not a Blaxploitation film – a rather exceptional feat considering it was made during the mid-1970s, the height of that particular movement.

Although Carpenter’s subsequent success with Halloween officially put him on the cinematic map; Assault On Precinct 13’s stirring reception at numerous European film festivals (including Cannes) is what initially made audiences and critics stand up and take note of his name. The notorious ‘ice-cream’ scene shocked the majority of U.S. audiences to the extent that they certified the film with an R rating. This lead most U.S. critics to dismiss it as banal exploitation, only for them to change their minds after Halloween caused a considerably larger fuss two years later.

Carpenter would give Assault On Precinct 13’s plot a supernatural spin with his 1987 effort, Prince Of Darkness – a film which may be less compelling but is still an interesting and entertaining fright fest!

 

6. In The Mouth Of Madness (1994)

In The Mouth Of Madness (1994)

The Plot

When an astronomically famous horror writer, Sutter Cane, loses contact with his publishing agency with a highly anticipated upcoming novel imminent, they hire John Trent – an experienced insurance investigator – to track him down. Upon arriving at Cane’s seemingly ficticious whereabouts and with the line dividing reality and fiction constantly blurring, Trent realises that he himself may actually be within the new novel.

Why It’s So Great

It has already been mentioned that the overall quality of Carpenter’s output had something of a decline in the 90s, according to most critics. Memoirs Of An Invisible Man seemed a touch out of character and his Village Of The Damned remake did not have the impact of his rendition of The Thing. Although Vampires stands as an efficient horror-western, In The Mouth Of Madness as Carpenter’s most unique film as well as his best of the 90s.

Usually the director would refrain from utilizing slow-motion sequences and fast editing as it is often typically used in a way that is stylistically detached from the narrative. Here, these particular touches compliment the disorientating meta-narrative approach and the character’s tenuous grasp of reality.

Previously, Carpenter had also dabbled with incorporating elements of H.P. Lovecraft into his work, but this is his most ‘Lovecraftian’ effort. Its narrative structure, mentions of the Elder Ones and prevailing themes of insanity, religion and threats from beyond the realm of our existence – are all influences from the cult novelist’s work. With the film also being the final chapter of Carpenter’s self-proclaimed “apocalypse trilogy” it boasts a pessimistically brilliant ending.

In one instance, Carpenter also deliberately mocks the whole ‘movies cause violence’ debate by having a character watch his movie – therefore implicating himself in the debate. Needless to say, it is a weird movie!

Sam Neill is excellent in his second outing with Carpenter (after Memoirs Of An Invisible Man) and actually saw the script as a black comedy which is evident in his wry performance. The film also stars Julie Carmen, Charlton Heston, David Warner, Peter Jason (Carpenter regular) and Jürgen Prochnow as the elusive Sutter Cane. In The Mouth Of Madness is certainly one of Carpenter’s most underrated film.

 

 

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  • CaptainBlake

    Excellent write-up on a great filmmaker. May he bless us with his old passion again here soon.

    • Terry Shannon

      Agreed. As much as I like Prince of Darkness (at least it got a nod in the Assault on Precinct 13 write up), I think the author’s rationale is sound in his assessments. Though I would put Prince of Darkness at #11. 😉

  • Darklight

    WHERE THE HECK IS ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13?!

    • Terry Shannon

      Erm….#7.

  • Shteno

    C’mon
    man!? You’re actually placing “Big Trouble In Little China’ in a list
    of ’Essential‘? Get real! It is one of his greatest misses
    (even by his own words) and you’re serious about it?

    • Buck Bell

      Curious — what’s your general age range? I ask, b/c I’ve noted over the years that people roughly my age (let’s say 35 – 45) tend to love this film, whereas others are more lukewarm.

    • ladyofargonne

      Just because the director isn’t happy with it doesn’t mean the audience doesn’t like it.

  • stargraves

    Nice list. I think Ghosts of Mars though, is far more of a retread of Assault on Precinct 13 than Prince of Darkness; with cops and robbers having to join forces. Besides, both movies are actually westerns! But anything praising Carpenter’s work is good in my book. Well done Liam. One thing though, occasionally your enthusiasm gets in the way of the sentence structure; the best advice I’ve encountered to essayists, is to read the prose out loud. Grammar and spelling mistakes leap out, as well as any sentence flow issues or ideological points. For a quick example, the Body Horror line in The Thing is a somewhat circular argument, saying how it was one of the best examples of the genre, which was popular, because of films like The Thing. (Final point – should be AIDS – the S is part of the name.) Otherwise – keep on recognising the brilliance of Carpenter and spreading the faith – great article!

  • Veronica Clarke

    ‘Big Trouble in little China’ is funny. That’s why it’s a good movie.

  • Amber Wells

    I just saw “The Thing” for the 1st last year and it was amazing! “Big Trouble” is wonderful. It’s like a good bottle of wine: better with age.

  • Víctor CG

    Come on guys, you forgot Prince of Darkness in your top 10 ! Is part of “apocalypse trilogy”, where the devil is outside waiting and want to getting inside the bodies also. The perfect clue of Carpenter work. It’s a pity because at the same time a love story and metaphysic horror creative plot. Greets !

    • Yolanda Anne Brown

      I worked at a theater in S.F. when “Prince of Darkness” hit the screens. Me and the crew sat up to watch the film before opening day and I thought it was such a fantastic film. We even got “They Live,” and I loved watching the audience’s reaction to the prolonged fight scene. Those were the days. R.I.P. Roddy Piper.

    • Simon Gilliam

      exactly. The list is rendered invalid immediately without “Prince of Darkness” listed, and listed high…

  • Maximo Cunillera

    The 1979 made for tv bio of Elvis presley………. Kurt Russell is awesome in this and Carpenter delivers perhaps the best movie bio

  • Gines Velazquez

    Cristine character trasnformation is excelent.

  • Kowalsky
  • ladyofargonne

    I had to watch In the Mouth of Madness during the day.

  • Atle Ryttersveen

    I think VAMPIRES is very underrated. I love that movie.

  • Rollyn Stafford

    Great list!

  • FUNKADELIAN

    nO Prince Of Darkness.
    Nevertheless,good list!
    No Ghosts Of Mars or The Ward
    SOLD!

  • Kevin_OKeeffe

    “…which reflected America’s undefeatable attitude during Reagan’s revolution; the then-President even survived an assassination attempt – the only one to do so.”

    Andrew Jackson, and Harry S. Truman, were both very nearly assassinated, during highly credible attempts on their lives.