14. Elvis (1979)
During its original broadcast back in 1979 this made-for-television biopic on the iconic “King of Rock and Roll”, Elvis Presley (Kurt Russell) was a ratings juggernaut. Not only was it a massive hit for ABC, it scored a wealth of Primetime Emmy Awards nominations and, more importantly amongst Carpenter fans, it was the very first of the fruitful and famed collaborations between him and star Kurt Russell.
Elvis recounts Presley’s life from the tender age of ten through to his 1969 Vegas comeback, and while this kind of celebrity biography has been filmed ad infinitum ever since, back when it first appeared much of what is presented here felt fresh and formative. So confident in its content that the producers released Elvis theatrically overseas in Europe, where it performed well owing more to Presley’s popularity and Russell’s performance than to Carpenter’s considerable skills behind the camera.
An interesting tidbit of trivia and meta-coincidence is that Russell’s real-life wife at the time and father, Season Hubley and Bing Russell, co-starred as Presley’s own wife and father, Priscilla and Vernon Presley, respectively.
Elvis is a well made film, a valuable social artifact, and while poles apart from Carpenter’s usual genre fare, a fascinating and finely hewn viewing experience. Check it out.
13. Christine (1983)
Though adapted by screenwriter Bill Phillips from the so-so 1983 best-seller of the same name from Stephen King, Carpenter added many of his distinctive flourishes to Christine, ostensibly the story of a demonic automobile and a young man’s obsession with it.
Keith Gordon is well cast and very believable as achingly unpopular nerd Arnie Cunningham, whose pride and joy is the 1958 Plymouth Fury beater that he buys, restores, and christens “Christine.”
When Arnie’s best friend Dennis Guilder (John Stockwell), and girlfriend Leigh Cabot (Alexandra Paul) begin sharing a mutual concern that Arnie’s Christine fixation may be unhealthy, neither realize that the automobile in question is actually sentient and responsible for the brutal (and deserved) death of high school bully Buddy Repperton (William Ostrander, oozing ugliness), and several of his douchebag cronies.
Christine steers into some potentially silly directions but the game cast, extraordinary special effects, smart pacing, a catchy soundtrack featuring Motown-era classics, and a particularly eerie and driving original score from Carpenter make this film one of the sturdier King adaptations. Like so many of Carpenter’s films, Christine is something of a cult classic. Who knew that 1950s teen culture (even though the film uses a contemporary setting), and killer cars could be such simpatico bedfellows?
12. Dark Star (1974)
John Carpenter’s first flight as filmmaker––co-written with Dan O’Bannon (Alien), who also stars––is a consistently clever black comedy set in space. Marred somewhat by uneven acting and a miniscule budget, Dark Star nevertheless delivers some stylish smarts, more than a few guffaws, and enough stinging satire to secure it the fan devotion which it sincerely deserves.
It’s a testament to Carpenter’s creativity that so much on screen stems from so little. A shoestring of around $60, 000 is used to maximum effect for a story set entirely in outer space, aboard the eponymous starship “Dark Star” in the mid 22nd century.
The ship’s mission is to obliterate via AI-powered nuclear incendiary devices, unstable planets that could endanger human colonies. The ragtag crew are an odd assortment of surfers, hippies, and eccentrics, not to mention the ship’s mascot, an alien lifeform that looks little more than a beach ball. Okay, I’ve seen the movie several times and I’m fairly certain that it IS in fact a beach ball.
Fans of the BBC’s cult sci-fi TV sitcom Red Dwarf should note that that show’s creator, Doug Naylor, credits Dark Star as his inspiration for the series, so how cool is that? Add into the mix Carpenter’s very first synth-driven (and as always, exceptional) score and you’re left with a genre spoof that delights in strangeness and technology running amok. An impressive debut.
11. Escape from L.A. (1996)
A reappraisal of Escape from L.A. is long overdue, and it’s a pity that audiences didn’t better appreciate this sharp, shoot the works sequel to 1981’s dystopian knockout hit Escape from New York. Set in the year 2013 and not long after Los Angeles was leveled by an enormous earthquake, isolated from the continent by a flooded San Fernando Valley and quickly converted into a prison island, a citadel for scum.
Enter Kurt Russell reprising his ultra-masculine anti-hero, the seminal Snake Plissken, and it’s only a matter of minutes before shit gets real. Some super lame mid-90s CGI aside, this Escape offers more stinging satire, Machiavellian mischief, and pitch-black laughs than its appealing predecessor, and while it may not carry the same register as the first Snake outing, it really is an excellent sequel.
“Escape from L.A. is better than the first movie––ten times better––it’s got more to it! It’s more mature. I think some people didn’t like it because they felt it was a remake, not a sequel,” Carpenter told Creative Screenwriting in a 2014 interview, adding with a little venom: “People didn’t want to see Escape that time, but they really didn’t want to see The Thing, either. You just wait.”
10. Prince of Darkness (1987)
This apocalyptic, atmospheric, and spine-tingling horror from 1987, Prince of Darkness, is worthy of revisitation for anyone who may have lumped it in with the deluge of supernatural genre films that flooded the late 1980s and trust me, this movie is miles above similarly themed drek like The Seventh Sign (1988) or Wes Craven’s meandering misfire Deadly Blessing (1981).
With a game cast of some of Carpenter’s best and most menacing regulars, actors such as Donald Pleasence, Peter Jason, and Victor Wong, not to mention a show-stopping and creepy AF cameo from Alice Cooper, this film is startlingly good.
The middle film in Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy, which began with The Thing and concludes with In the Mouth of Madness, Prince of Darkness may just be his most overlooked motion picture.
Showcasing all the elements that make Carpenter great; an overly dramatic yet absolutely awesome synth-saturated soundtrack (which, like much of his best work is something of an homage to Dario Argento’s “house band” Goblin), scenes of shocking violence, tense stand-offs, at times ludicrous plot twists, dark humor, memorable dialogue, a heaping helping of cornball theatrics, just enough pseudo-science to lend some credibility, and an ending to make you jump out of your seat. Prince of Darkness is an absolute scream.
9. Starman (1984)
John Carpenter’s sci-fi fantasy romance Starman is another unexpected surprise coming from the Master of Horror as it’s a film with a generous heart, and primarily concerns itself with ideas of overcoming grief through reconnection and intense love. Apart from a few fashionable jumpscares, very little in Starman indicates Carpenter’s usual startling routine and instead a focus is placed on sympathetic characters and warmer aspects of humanity.
Charting the cross-country saga and driving down a few road movie aphorisms, Starman tells the tale of a humanoid alien (Jeff Bridges, brilliant) who touches down in Wisconsin. This alien takes the form of Scott Hayden, the deceased husband of Jenny Hayden (Karen Allen, also wonderful), and before you can say “amants sur la course” the pair are on the run, bound for Arizona and a chance to return to deep space, if they’re lucky.
Allen’s longing and emotional confusion is countered and ably matched by Bridges’ idiot savant-like alien––he was rewarded with an Oscar-nomination for his flashy performance––at once detached and completely compelling. Starman is a moving romance and a rousing albeit low-key adventure yarn with its head and heart high in the heavens. It also sired a short-lived TV series with Robert Hays (Airplane!) in the eponymous role.
8. The Fog (1980)
A stylish and unassuming genre gem, The Fog is a slow burning, character driven, and distinctly startling old-fashioned ghost story. I saw this at a young and impressionable age and as a result any time I see a bank of fog rolling in an instinctive fight-or-flight impulse sends me running for safety. Am I the only one?
With a signature sweeping, ominous, and fist-pumping score by the man himself, Carpenter along with writing partner/producer Debra Hill, take pains to effectively fashion the tragic tale surrounding Antonio Bay. A coastal town in California, this little burg has a dark history that, on the eve of its centennial, is about to come screaming as it catches up with it.
The Fog features a strong cast including Carpenter’s then-wife Adrienne Barbeau, and scream queens Jamie Lee Curtis (his muse from Halloween, of course), and Janet Leigh (Curtis’ mother, forever famous for her shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho), The Fog takes it’s time unfolding as the many protagonists come to learn the town’s history, which involves the deliberate destruction of the Elizabeth Dane, a 19th century clipper, occupied with a leper colony.
As a strange fog envelopes the town and sightings of a ghost ship and her haunted crew start to surface, the coming horrors and other-worldliness play out something like a skewered American folktale.
Sure, there are some gaping plot holes and the narrative makes some logical leaps that you’re best to just roll with, the end result in The Fog is a fright favorite, despite or perhaps because of all the horror clichés––so many jumpscares and people with their backs to dark, foggy entrances!––that still generate sizable goosebumps and easy-to-appreciate plaudits.