Two years ago this week, I posted a review of Dark Star, the first movie from director John Carpenter. Last month, I closed off my chronological amble through his theatrical feature films with a review of The Ward. To celebrate completing this 40,000-word-plus enterprise, I’ve put together a few closing thoughts on my five favorite John Carpenter flicks. Trying to do a complete list of the films from best to worst isn’t an easy task: I’d end up with too many ties, too much second-guessing, too many regrets. Nor do I want to dwell on the negative at the end of this series — dealing with The Ward was negativity enough! So this here is nothing but praise coming from some guy who’s only credential is “posts on a website.”
Since I’ve been asked, I didn’t include Carpenter’s episodes of Masters of Horror on this series, or the anthology movie Body Bags. I won’t rule out writing about these smaller projects in the future, but for the sake of this series, I’ve stuck to theatrical movies. If I did Body Bags, I’d also have to do Elvis and Somebody’s Watching Me, and I just don’t feel like it.
How tough is competition for the top slots in John Carpenter’s career? Halloween didn’t make my list! The director’s most famous and influential movie, an unquestionable masterpiece — and I still couldn’t make room for it among my five favorites.
Anyway, hop aboard the Porkchop Express … here are my Five Favorite John Carpenter films. Have you paid your dues, Ryan?
5. In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
Indulge me. This is my “special” John Carpenter movie. I can see other fans putting different titles in this slot (I’m sure they’ll inform me in the comments), but this meta exploration of literary horror and the writer as a type of malign creator deity is a personal love. It speaks directly to me. It’s unapologetically bookish-horror-nerdy and styled like a classic Hollywood noir: a film that rewards viewers for having done their homework, and which doesn’t seem to care if anyone else can enjoy it. Not a formula for financial success, but that’s never stopped John Carpenter.
Even after writing two articles about In the Mouth of Madness, I haven’t run out of praise for Sam Neill’s portrayal as the happily misanthropic insurance detective and antihero John Trent. Trent’s journey into the world of horror author Sutter Cane, as it gradually becomes the rest of the world, is a fascinating trip. Neill is an amusing guide on this dark road as he follows twists and turns and tries to defy the evidence that reality is changing into a pulpy horror novel around him. Neill should’ve appeared in every Carpenter film after this, since he’s a perfect cynical performer who also possesses old studio system charisma. Only Kurt Russell was a more ideal leading man for Carpenter. Oh well, if this is the last we got of Neill working with Carpenter (and he did make Memoirs of an Invisible Man somewhat watchable), it was a great one and worth it.
4. Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
At the end of each post in this series I placed a titled called “The Pessimistic Carpenter Ending” to reflect the director’s tendency toward negativity and his own enjoyment of downer endings. However, I don’t think of Carpenter as a “downer” director, even when he brings about the end of the world or gets close to it. And no film is less a downer than Big Trouble in Little China. Without a doubt, this is the party film from the director’s catalog: he never made anything as funny or as fun to sit through. It never ceases to delight me: a big carnival of martial arts, fantasy, comedy, and featuring one of the best “heroes” of all time, Kurt Russell’s Jack Burton. Jack Burton was not brought upon this world to “get it” — and he sure doesn’t. But that’s why we love him. Kurt Russell knows the joke and nails the hell out of every line, which is why this is one of the most quotable flicks of the ‘80s. “Like I told my last wife, I says, ‘Honey, I never drive faster than I can see. Besides that, it’s all in the reflexes.’”
Carpenter has often homaged the films of Howard Hawks, but this is where he best captures the rapid-fire crisp, arch dialogue and character dynamics of Hawks in his prime. Big Trouble in Little China has plenty of great action — tops for the director’s films — but the real action thrill for me is watching everybody bounce off each other with electric energy. It’s a true roller coaster movie, the sort where you immediately run back to get in line and ride again.
Now … where’s my truck?
3. Escape From New York (1981)
When film lovers talk about how subversive low-budget science-fiction films could be, Escape From New York is one of the first examples they cite. The original Escape film is the crossover point between ‘70s and ‘80s action SF, where ‘70s exploitation cinema hit its parodic apotheosis in Snake Plissken and set up the new decade for cyberpunk and post-apocalyptic weirdness. And yet, most of what followed Escape From New York wasn’t anywhere near as good. Not until Paul Verhoeven later in the decade would we start seeing a brash return to such trashy satirical science-fiction genius.
Snake Plissken is the other legendary Kurt Russell character, as competent, dangerous, and objective as Jack Burton is klutzy, ineffective, and over-talkative. Snake is a magnetic persona who works both as a commentary on the antihero stereotype and as a perfect antihero in his own right.
Carpenter and Co. handle the film with such smoothness that it’s easy to miss how much happens in it, and how much world-building is packed into a small space and limited budget. The canvas of the dystopian Manhattan prison is portrayed just as much through the bizarre people who inhabit it (and the superb actors who play them) as by the art direction and photography. The sequel, Escape From L.A., has only made the first film shine brighter and made it clear how much Lee Van Cleef added to the movie as the authoritarian foil to Snake Plissken who seems almost as badass as Snake.
2. Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
This is how I think low budget movies should be made — there’s no excuse for other independent genre filmmakers not to try this hard. Shot over less than a month on a budget of $100,000, Assault on Precinct 13 squeezes every last drop from the money available and its significant talent pool to create one of cinema’s superlative thrillers. It manages to be slick and dirty at once, combining a love of zesty classic Hollywood drama and dialogue with ugly street crime and occasionally shocking violence. (Little Kathy’s murder is an all-timer for punching an audience in the face with taboo-breaking.)
Every time I watch the movie — and I never tire of it — I’m again amazed at what Carpenter and his hard-working team managed to pull off. Budgetary tricks such as making the youth gang Street Thunder into a semi-invisible and silent force don’t limit the movie, they enhance it. And the pacing is something to behold: a casual, leisurely start and blam! right into relentless tension and action before closing out with a big old ‘splosion and a character wrap-up that satisfies every expectations. Oh, and the music is awesome as is just about everything else about it because dear God I love this film.
1. The Thing (1982)
Big shock, huh?
The Thing has gone on an astonishing voyage from when it premiered in the crowded Summer of ‘82. At first it was a financial failure and critical whipping post. Then it emerged as a cult favorite. Now it’s a stone-cold classic often listed among the best movies of its decade. It’s even overwhelmed the film that originally steamrollered it at the box-office, E.T.: The Extraterrestrial. Who would’ve imagined that in 1982? The biggest box office success in history has turned into an also-ran to a gruesome horror science-fiction flick that was outright hated when it came out.
Of all the posts I wrote about John Carpenter, the one for The Thing was, without question, the most difficult to hash out. It’s easy to tackle what doesn’t work about a terrible movie, and not much more difficult to pinpoint what works about an ordinary great movie. The Thing, however, is anything but an ordinary great film. It’s a masterpiece of extraordinary complexity. It operates on numerous levels while violating simple by-the-book screenwriting rules. (Character backgrounds? We’ll have none of that at Outpost 31!) Why does it work so well? Why does it continue to work so well? Grappling with these questions is part of why The Thing is such genius, but also why straightforward analysis of it is a pain. The movie is like the Thing itself, inhabiting different forms, hiding in plain sight, shocking when needed, and gone a moment later leaving only lingering amazement.
But, to state the most obvious: The effects are world-class, the actors all bring their A+ game, the suspense sequences are among the greatest ever staged (the blood test!), the atmosphere of doom is horror movie perfection … and I have a ton more to blabber about, but I’d end up writing a new essay by accident and it wouldn’t be too coherent. The Thing is a masterwork, and if you’ve seen it you already know that.
The Chronological “Complete Carpenter” Articles
- Dark Star
- Assault on Precinct 13
- The Fog
- Escape From New York
- The Thing
- Big Trouble in Little China
- Prince of Darkness
- They Live
- Memoirs of an Invisible Man
- In the Mouth of Madness
- Village of the Damned
- Escape From L.A.
- Ghosts of Mars
- The Ward
Ryan Harvey (RyanHarveyAuthor.com) is one of the original bloggers for Black Gate and has written for the site for over a decade. He received the Writers of the Future Award for his short story “An Acolyte of Black Spires.” His stories “The Sorrowless Thief” and “Stand at Dubun-Geb” are available in Black Gate online fiction. A further Ahn-Tarqa adventure, “Farewell to Tyrn”, is available as an e-book. Ryan lives in Costa Mesa, California. Occasionally, people ask him to talk about Edgar Rice Burroughs or Godzilla.