10 Essential John Carpenter Films You Need To Watch

5. They Live (1988)

They Live

The Plot

John Nada is a lowly construction worker who stumbles across a rather significant pair of sunglasses that enable him to see the world for what it really is: a civilization run by a tyrannical alien race who have entranced humans to obey, consume and conform via media, advertisement and strict authority. Nada however, is determined to expose the aliens at any cost – chewing bubblegum, or not chewing bubblegum!

Why It’s So Great

They Live was influenced by what Carpenter witnessed as a decline of American values in the 1980s. Reaganomics, superfluous excessiveness and the increasing commerciality that had set in during the decade. This film was Carpenters answer to those qualms and works as a cutting satire in the same vein as George Romero’s ‘Dawn Of The Dead’ just as much as it is a hugely enjoyable science-fiction action picture. Some people dispute that Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1956) was supposed to be an allegory for Communism, but there is no mistaking They Live’s true intentions as a mockery of the systems it gleefully opposes.

As well as mocking governments and society as a whole, many have argued that They Live’s main protagonist, John Nada (Roddy Piper of WWE fame), was an extension of Carpenter’s deconstruction of the 80s male hero – which began with Jack Burton in Big Trouble In Little China. In addition to him being a hero that the audience can root for, he also talks absolute garbage when affronted with adversity causing almost terminal levels of bravado. If a 1980s Schwarzenegger or Stallone were to utter the phrase, “Life’s a bitch, and she’s back in heat”, we would not question it, but with John Nada, it is right that we should laugh at him!

One of the most (in)famous moments of the film comes in the form of a five-minute fight scene between Nada and Frank (Keith David). Utilizing Piper’s skills as a wrestler, the two punch, kick, suplex, drag, throw, slam each other around an alley way – all for the sake of getting Frank to where the sunglasses! For lack of a better phrase, They Live is spectacularly awesome.


4. Big Trouble In Little China (1986)


The Plot

Jack Burton has seen it all… or so he thinks! But when a pair of green-eyed women are kidnapped and delivered to an ancient Chinese sorcerer for him to wed, Jack – along with his friend Wang Chi – must venture into the perilous underbelly of San Francisco’s Chinatown to battle the supernatural forces of Chinese black magic and mystical evil to get them back (as well as his beloved truck!)

Why It’s So Great

This genre-busting extravaganza was Carpenter at one of his most commercial peaks with the film being produced by 20TH Century Fox, but it is also one of his most creative films. Big Trouble In Little China takes screwball comedy, Kung-Fu, sorcery, action a splash of horror and a rather terrific John Wayne impression courtesy of Kurt Russell then throws the lot into a blender. The result is one vigorously entertaining film.

As touched upon previously with Nada in They Live, Big Trouble In Little China saw the beginning of Carpenter mocking male machismo of the day. Many 80s action heroes such as Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Lundgren or Norris were famed for their efficient ass-kicking abilities which reflected America’s undefeatable attitude during Reagan’s revolution; the then-President even survived an assassination attempt – the only one to do so.

The character of Jack Burton, on the other hand, completely opposes this rationale. He may have charisma pouring out of his ears, but as a hero – he is as inept as they come. He is almost entirely upstaged by his companion Wang Chi as it is he who effortlessly dispatches the bad guys with his bare hands and Burton who must resort to guns and knives, although he is still as incompetent at using them. Even his most heroic moment – that comes at a crucial point – is subverted by the fact that he is wearing lipstick having just kissed Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall).

Carpenter’s ideas and the film as a whole were not appreciated upon release – the studio even added an introductory scene in order to make Burton seem more “heroic”, indicating that even they did not quite grasp the character. The film flopped at the box office, but thanks to video and rental it has joined the long line of Carpenter cult classics. Big Trouble In Little China is one hell of a fun movie!


3. Escape From New York (1981)

Escape from New York

The Plot

Set in the then-future of 1997, Manhattan Island has been converted into a maximum security prison due to a drastic crime rate increase in the U.S. When Air Force One is hijacked and crashed into the prison, the President ejects but is held captive by the self-appointed ‘Duke of New York’. With the President due to appear at a summit meeting for world peace in twenty-four hours, the Police Commissioner decides to send in ex-soldier turned prison-bound rebel Snake Plissken to get the President out in time.

Why It’s So Great

First and foremost, Snake Plissken is perhaps the coolest character that Carpenter ever committed to film; sporting an eye-patch, hissing Eastwood-like speech and boasting a self-contained anti-establishment attitude, you would be hard-pressed to suggest a more badass anti-hero from the 1980s in general. Additionally, he also stands as a sort of precursor for the unconventional protagonists that would feature in Carpenter’s later films such as the aforementioned Jack Burton and to a lesser extent, John Nada.

The premise of the film was allegedly borne out of a certain level of pessimism that had emerged in the U.S.A surrounding the recent and current presidents who were in office when the screenplay was being written in the mid-1970s. Escape From New York also proved doubly significant upon release as it hit theatres shortly after the Iran hostage crisis was over.

The films also features a group of veteran actors such as Lee Van Cleef, Donald Pleasence and Ernest Borgnine, a solid performance from Isaac Hayes as ‘The Duke’, as well as a series of colourful supporting characters – there is never a dull moment during ‘Escape’, and let us not forget that cracking score (surely one of Carpenter’s best). The imaginative, if slightly cynical sci-fi premise cemented Carpenter as one of the leading genre directors that were emerging from the 1970s and 80s; this is simply one of the all-time great cult movies.

The sequel, Escape From L.A., is fun – but by no means essential.


2. Halloween (1978)

halloween laurie

The Plot

Exactly fifteen years after murdering his older sister, a twenty-one year old Michael Myers escapes from his incarceration and returns to his hometown of Haddonfield, Illinois. Donning navy overalls, an eerie expressionless mask and brandishing a kitchen knife – the mysterious and inscrutable Myers sets out on a killing spree targeting the local teenagers, on Halloween night no less.

Why It’s So Great

Although ‘Psycho’, ‘Peeping Tom’, ‘Alice, Sweet Alice’ and a few even earlier had somewhat influenced the slasher film sub-genre – the huge critical and commercial success of Carpenter’s low-budget 1978 horror had undeniably instigated the plethora of similar horror films which followed throughout the 1980s. Halloween is of course the film which made him a household name for horror and also gave Jamie Lee Curtis a career.

One of the differences which sets Halloween apart from many of the slashers that followed in its wake is Dean Cundey’s terrific Panaglide cinematography. Back then, the roving camerawork was scarcely seen and made Carpenter’s films all the more distinctive and equally impressive. The terrific cinematography is put to great effect for the celebrated but still disquieting opening scene which starts as a lengthy Panaglide shot from the perspective of the killer as he stalks and ultimately stabs his sister to death. It then culminates in a terrific crane shot that basically frames how the horrific crime will rattle this suburban neighbourhood for year to come.

As well as being a skilfully crafted horror film – Halloween is also a testament to simplicity, rather than opting for elaborate methods to create scares. From the creepy plain white mask (famously a modified William Shatner mask), the jittery 5/4 time piano score, the simple suspense producing editing in the finale and the fact that the film does not feature a lot of blood spill – Halloween succeeded by going with very little.


1. The Thing (1982)


The Plot

An American Antarctica-based research team comes into contact with a faceless, shape-shifting alien entity which assimilates its victims and imitates them perfectly. The claustrophobia and paranoia intensifies as the team struggle to tell who has been taken over by the alien and who has not.

Why It’s So Great

Eschewing the ‘vegetable man creature’ of the 1951 original, ‘The Thing From Another World’, Carpenter’s version goes for wild, gooey and horrifying special effects courtesy of Rob Bottin and an uncredited Stan Winston which wholly tops off the almost tangible suspense in graphically detailed glory. It also successfully emulates John W. Campbell’s ‘Who Goes There?’, the original source material which the 1951 version only scratched the surface of.

Due to its subject matter coinciding with the era of which it was made, the premise has often been interpreted as an allegory for Communism, the Reagan Administration, the spread of venereal diseases (namely AIDs) and even, to some extent, illegal immigration. Carpenter himself on the DVD commentary speaks of the eeriness of the film’s similarity to the AIDs pandemic which was emerging at the time of film’s release.

Just as often as Halloween (if not, more so) The Thing is hailed as Carpenters masterpiece; it certainly is one of his absolute scariest films and is also recognized as one of the very best examples of the ‘body-horror’ sub-genre which was prominent during the 80s thanks to films such as this. Kurt Russell’s restrained performance as the reluctantly appointed and rational-minded leader, MacReady, may well be his best but the film boasts terrific acting all-round (even from the dog, Jed).

Packing a sustained sense of tension, dread and uncertainty – not to mention an ingenious premise – The Thing is quite simply a perfect horror movie.

Author Bio: Liam Hathaway has a lifelong passion of watching and reading about any/every sort of film which has lead him to be a Film Studies student at Sheffield Hallam University. His favourite directors at the moment are John Carpenter, Ben Wheatley, Werner Herzog and Martin Scorsese.