The Complete Carpenter: My 5 Favorite John Carpenter Movies

Saturday, December 1st, 2018 | Posted by Ryan Harvey

John-Carpenter-with-axe

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?

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The Complete Carpenter: The Ward (2010)

Saturday, November 17th, 2018 | Posted by Ryan Harvey

ward-2010-posterI started this John Carpenter career overview less than two years ago with Dark Star. Now I’ve come to what may end up as John Carpenter’s final film as director, appropriately a low-budget indie horror film. Carpenter had gone into semi-retirement after Ghosts of Mars flopped at the box office, only directing two episodes of Showtime’s anthology series Masters of Horror over the next nine years. The Ward wasn’t sold as a glorious comeback for the director, but a surreptitious little film that arrived without fanfare in a handful of theaters, a same-day VOD release, and home video a month later.

This isn’t where the Carpenter story ends, thankfully. I doubt he’ll direct another film (never say never), but he’s in a good creative place now. He’s released two superb original albums (Lost Themes, Lost Themes II), tours the country playing shows with his son Cody and godson Daniel Davies, and composed the score for the recent smash-hit installment in the Halloween franchise, which he also executive produced.

This makes me feel a bit better about discussing The Ward, because it’s not the last stop on Carpenter’s career. It won’t be the last article in the series either, since next week I’ll wrap-up two years of the Complete Carpenter with a summary of my five favorite of his movies. I’m not going to list my five worst because I’d prefer to send off this long project — more than 40,000 words — on a feeling of celebration.

But, if you really must know what I movie I’d put at the bottom of the list … it’s The Ward. Easy.

The Story

In 1966, young runaway Kristen (Amber Heard) is sent to a psychiatric hospital in Oregon after she burns down an empty farmhouse. Kristen is placed under the care of Dr. Stringer (Jared Harris), who is looking after five other troubled young women in the hospital’s special psychiatric ward: aggressive Emily (Mamie Gummer), flirtatious Sarah (Danielle Panabaker), artistic Iris (Lyndsy Fonseca), and infantile Zoey (Laura-Leigh). Dr. Stringer believes he can cure Kristen, but Kristen starts to suspect something sinister in the ward is responsible for the disappearance of patients before her. When more vanishings occur, Kristen believes the wrathful ghost of a previous patient, Alice Hudson, is murdering the ward’s occupants. Kristen attempts an escape with the surviving girls before the killer ghosts turns the electroshock therapy machine on her.

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The Complete Carpenter: Ghosts of Mars (2001)

Saturday, November 10th, 2018 | Posted by Ryan Harvey

Ghosts-of-Mars-One-SheetLast month, John Carpenter made his return to the big screen after an eight-year absence. Not as director, but as executive producer and (more importantly) composer for the new Halloween. It was great having him back, the film’s pretty darn good considering this franchise’s track record, and the score is fantastic.

Now I have to come in and get all negative because look what film is next on my (almost finished) John Carpenter career retrospective.

Carpenter has experienced many financial disappointments with his movies, but none was more catastrophic than the reception for Ghosts of Mars in 2001. Costing $28 million to make at Sony’s Screen Gems division (the folks responsible for the Resident Evil and Underworld movies), John Carpenter’s semi-remake of Assault on Precinct 13 set on Mars only grossed $14 during its theatrical run. That’s not the domestic gross — that’s the worldwide gross. In the aftermath of this flop, Carpenter took a near decade-long hiatus from moviemaking and has only directed one film since. (“I was burned out. Absolutely wiped out. I had to stop,” he said in a 2011 interview.)

I’ve examined Ghosts of Mars before. At that time, it was my first viewing since the movie was in theaters. Now that I’ve gotten to grips with analyzing those initial reactions, how does the film hold up? Is it Carpenter’s worst movie, as many people have pegged it?

The Story

The year: 2176. The place: Mars, now colonized by 640,000 humans under a matriarchal organization, the Matronage. Lt. Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge), an officer in the Martian Police Force, is part of a team sent by train to pick up notorious outlaw James “Desolation” Williams (Ice Cube) from lock-up at the Shining Canyon mining camp. When the MFP arrives at Shining Canyon, they initially find the camp deserted except for a few prisoners locked in cells and numerous mutilated bodies. Soon, they find out what happened: Mars’s long-dormant native population has microscopically turned all the miners at the station into ravening brutes looking to wipe out the human invaders. The MFP teams up with Desolation Williams and the prisoners to survive the onslaught of the Martian host bodies and make it back to the train when it returns.

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The Complete Carpenter: Vampires (1998)

Saturday, September 29th, 2018 | Posted by Ryan Harvey

vampires-1999-one-sheet-posterEscape from L.A. was almost the final film in John Carpenter’s career. He wasn’t enjoying filmmaking as much as he once did, and retirement was looking more attractive. There was also a depressing feeling that movie trends were passing him by — the master’s students had started to take over genre filmmaking. But when Largo Entertainment approached him about directing an adaptation of John Steakley’s 1990 novel Vampire$, the director couldn’t resist the chance to take another crack at making a Western using another genre. The popularity of vampire films had surged in the late 1980s and through the ‘90s. One of the biggest vampire movie hits and a significant influence on the approaching superhero boom of the 2000s, Blade, came out the same year as Vampires.

Blade is arguably one of the problems Vampires ran into when it was released the day before Halloween. Although opening strong at #1, Vampires suffered an enormous second week drop and barely made back its production budget in the US. Younger audiences apparently wanted to see the slick black trenchcoat vampire-hunting heroics of Wesley Snipes in a modern city rather than a grungy ode to Italian Westerns starring James Woods. (The CinemaScore rating of audience reactions to Vampires was a dismal D+. Blade got an A-.) The film that horror magazines had touted throughout the year as John Carpenter’s comeback ended up hastening his retirement.

The Story

Jack Crow (James Woods) is the leader of a vampire-slaying squad working for the Vatican to eradicate the plague of bloodsuckers across the southwestern US. After his team wipes out a vamp nest in New Mexico, the master vampire (Thomas Ian Griffith) slaughters all of Crow’s team while they’re boozing it up at a nearby motel. Only Crow and Montoya (Daniel Baldwin) escape. They take along Katrina (Sheryl Lee), a prostitute who was bitten by the vampire. Crow plans to use Katrina to track down the master and kill him. The Vatican assigns a new priest to work with Crow, Father Adam Guiteau (Tim Guinee), as they hunt for the powerful vampire, who is none other than Jan Valek, the first vampire ever created. Valek is seeking for an object hidden somewhere in the Southwest that will allow him to complete his original reverse exorcism and become the first vampire capable of walking during the day. Crow and Guiteau hunt desperately while Montoya becomes ensnared by Katrina.
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The Complete Carpenter: Escape From L.A. (1996)

Saturday, September 1st, 2018 | Posted by Ryan Harvey

escape-from-l-a-movie-poster

In the Starman review last year, I estimated my John Carpenter career retrospective was on pace to reach Escape From L.A. by December 2018. Lookee here, I’m a few months ahead! With only three movies left, I may finish this project in just under two years.

John Carpenter was planning to remake The Creature From the Black Lagoon after his contractual obligation with another remake, Village of the Damned. But he also had another project brewing: a sequel to his 1981 hit Escape From New York. The new adventures of a now bi-coastal Snake Plissken was in development for a decade, but might never have happened if not for Kurt Russell’s love for the character. Carpenter rejoined with producer Debra Hill, whom he hadn’t worked with since Escape From New York, and somehow managed to convince Paramount Pictures to give him $50 million — the heftiest budget of his career — so Kurt Russell could slip on the eyepatch, zipper vest, and simmering surliness for another go at dystopian action satire.

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The Complete Carpenter: Village of the Damned (1995)

Saturday, August 18th, 2018 | Posted by Ryan Harvey

village-of-the-damned-movie-poster-1995

Here’s a crossover I want to see in a comic: Superman vs. The Village of the Damned. I just thought of that as I sat down to write because Christopher Reeve is in this movie. Hey DC, you’re welcome! You need all the help you can get.

Anyway, welcome to the late period of John Carpenter’s career. It’s downhill from this point, dear readers.

Village of the Damned came about when Carpenter and his producer Sandy King (whom he married in 1990) signed a contract with Universal and tried to set up a Creature From the Black Lagoon remake. When project planning bogged down, Tom Pollock at Universal handed Carpenter a script for a remake of the 1960 British SF/horror picture Village of the Damned (based on the novel The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham) and asked the director if he’d make this before continuing with Creature. Carpenter agreed to do it as part of his contract.

Village of the Damned was a commercial failure when released in April 1995 after Universal rushed its release schedule. The Creature From the Black Lagoon remake never got the greenlight from the studio and faded away. So rather than getting a John Carpenter remake he was passionate about, sort of a follow-up to The Thing, we got a John Carpenter remake he was just trying to get out of the way.

The Story

A bizarre phenomenon strikes the Northern California town of Midwich: for six hours, every person and animal in the town and surrounding countryside falls unconscious. Pretty weird. But weirder is that a month later local doctor Alan Chaffee (Christopher Reeve) finds out that ten Midwich women are pregnant — and the conception date is the day of the blackouts. Dr. Susan Verner (Kirstie Alley), an epidemiologist studying the occurrence for the US government, offers financial incentives for the pregnant women to carry their children to term so the offspring can be studied.

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The Complete Carpenter: In the Mouth of Madness (1994)

Saturday, August 11th, 2018 | Posted by Ryan Harvey

in-mouth-of-madness-horizontal-poster

“I think, therefore you are.”

—Sutter Cane (Do you read Sutter Cane?)

John Carpenter’s career couldn’t have taken a sharper turn than to go from the impersonal director-for-hire Memoirs of an Invisible Man, targeted toward a mainstream date-night audience, to In the Mouth of Madness, a highly personal film aimed at the narrowest and most specific audience of horror lovers possible. Of course, In the Mouth of Madness was a financial failure — the biggest at that point in Carpenter’s career. And, in a familiar pattern, it’s now revered and widely considered John Carpenter’s last great film. (I hope this turns out to be false, because Carpenter is still alive and I want him to direct again. Still, the odds of him turning out something better at this point … yeah, wouldn’t take that bet.)

I analyzed In the Mouth of Madness for Black Gate in 2014 for its debut on Blu-ray. As cosmic fate would have it, this next entry in my John Carpenter retrospective falls right at the release of a new special edition Blu-ray from Shout! Factory, giving me an opportunity to make a few new observations. Not that I might run out of things to talk about when it comes to a layered, strange, cerebral, and unapologetically nerdy flick like In the Mouth of Madness. This one will drive you absolutely mad!

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The Complete Carpenter: Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992)

Saturday, May 19th, 2018 | Posted by Ryan Harvey

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The turnaround time on this installment of my John Carpenter retrospective was fast. That’s because there isn’t much to say about Memoirs of an Invisible Man. It’s the only film Carpenter directed strictly as a work-for-hire job. He came onto the film to get it shot after most of the creative pre-production decisions were already made. He didn’t take his usual above the title possessive credit, the only time that happened since Dark Star.

This article series by its nature takes an auteur approach to film analysis, and there’s not much to analyze with a movie where the director himself acknowledges he had little authorial voice in the final product. But there’s not much to analyze no matter the approach because this is a deeply mediocre movie.

Basically, if you want to skip this article and wait for In the Mouth of Madness, neither I nor John Carpenter will mind.

The Story

Chevy Chase plays Nick Halloway, a rich San Francisco investment banker who gets turned invisible by a scientific accident. Sinister government intelligence agent and hatchet man David Jenkins (Sam Neill) pursues Nick as a potential asset. Nick meets a pretty woman, Alice Monroe (Daryl Hannah), who helps him out. Eventually, Nick outwits Jenkins and goes to live in Switzerland with Alice, although he stays invisible. Roll credits.

The real story is what happened in pre-production. Memoirs of an Invisible Man was a Chevy Chase vanity project. He purchased the rights to H. F. Saint’s novel as a path to more serious leading man roles. This change in approach to what was supposed to be a comedy caused original director Ivan Reitman to jump ship, and screenwriter William Goldman (The Princess Bride and other movies far better than this one) followed soon after. Many directors were considered, and for a while Lethal Weapon’s Richard Donner was the serious contender. But then John Carpenter — not somebody you’d expect to helm a Chevy Chase movie of any type — ended up with the job. Possibly it was Carpenter’s track record working with visual effects and having directed another couple-on-the-run SF movie, Starman, that got Chase’s attention. Carpenter was engaged in a legal dispute with Alive Films at the time and decided to do the work-for-hire gig. Let’s see how that went.

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The Complete Carpenter: They Live (1988)

Saturday, May 12th, 2018 | Posted by Ryan Harvey

They-Live-Theatrical-Poster“What’s the threat? We all sell out every day. Might as well be on the winning team.”

The career of John Carpenter spans four decades, but the 1980s was his special golden era. Although his ‘80s films may not have always succeeded at the box office, their run of quality is humbling: Escape from New York (1981), The Thing (1982), Big Trouble in Little China (1986), and Prince of Darkness (1987). While Christine (1983) and Starman (1984) aren’t in the same tier as that group, they’re good movies audiences still enjoy today.

No other film could have closed out the John Carpenter Decade better than They Live. It’s not only the last movie he made in the ‘80s, it serves as a DO NOT QUESTION AUTHORITY curtain closer on the entirety of the decade.

The Story

Only four characters in the movie have names, so let’s get the actor attributions out of the way: Nada (Roddy Piper), Frank Armitage (David Keith), Holly Thompson (Meg WATCH TV Foster), and Gilbert (Peter Jason). “Frank Armitage” is also Carpenter’s screenwriter pseudonym, giving the impression that a fictional character in the movie also wrote it. That nicely predicts the meta-horror of In the Mouth of Madness by six years.

Nada is a drifter who’s come to L.A. searching for work. He meets another construction worker, Frank, who introduces him to the shanty town and homeless shelter of Justiceville. There’s something strange going on under the surface of Justiceville, however, and Nada discovers the shelter organizers using a nearby church to develop strange science equipment — and a bunch of sunglasses, for some reason. After a suspiciously timed police raid demolishes Justiceville, Nada escapes and finds himself in possession of the sunglasses. When he puts on a pair, he can see the disturbing truth of the world: ghoulish alien creatures disguised as the rich and powerful actually rule the planet. They’ve peppered all visual media with subliminal messages of submission to mindless consumerism to cow the human population.

But Nada is all out of bubblegum and he ain’t having this. He gets Frank to work with him — after they savagely beat each other in a back alley for five minutes — and then seeks out the underground resistance. However, they’re not only facing alien invaders, but also the human collaborators who have sold out for their slice of ‘80s yuppiedom.

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The Complete Carpenter: Prince of Darkness (1988)

Saturday, March 17th, 2018 | Posted by Ryan Harvey

prince-of-darkness-original-posterThis is where I came in. I’ve reached the point in my John Carpenter career retrospective where I’m writing about a movie to which I’ve already given a full Black Gate article. In fact, it was writing about Prince of Darkness for its 2013 Blu-ray release that planted the idea in my head of surveying the full Carpenter filmography. I’ll make my best effort to offer new insights on Prince of Darkness, but overlap with the previous article is inevitable as I look at the second of John Carpenter’s self-proclaimed “Apocalypse Trilogy,” which starts with The Thing (1982) and ends with In the Mouth of Madness (1994).

Prince of Darkness was Carpenter’s return to indie filmmaking after a series of financial disappointments and general aggravation with the big studios. Carpenter made the movie as part of a multi-picture deal with Alive Films that would also include They Live. Universal picked up Prince of Darkness for distribution, and in the fall of 1987 it achieved that rare distinction among Carpenter films: it was a financial success during its initial theatrical run.

The Story

An English priest (Donald Pleasence) discovers a secret that for centuries has been under the protection of an enigmatic monastic sect called the Brotherhood of Sleep: a giant cylinder of swirling green energy held in the underground vault of a church in downtown Los Angeles. The priest calls on his professional acquaintance, physics professor Edward Birack (Victor Wong), to investigate the bizarre phenomenon, which the priest believes is beginning to “awaken.” Birack gathers a team of his graduate students and other researchers for a weekend camp-out in the church to make observations.

To make a long and often baffling story short and perhaps more baffling … The team learns from a medieval volume filled with Latin, Greek, Coptic, and quadratic equations that the cylinder contains Satan, an energy entity that is the son of the Anti-God from an antimatter dimension. The Catholic Church kept the physicality of the evil disguised for two millennia behind religious symbolism. Satan’s essence escapes the containment cylinder and possesses members of the observation team, while a horde of zombified homeless people encircles the church to prevent escape. Nightmare visions possibly sent from the future through tachyon particles portend an apocalyptic nightmare if the Anti-God isn’t prevented from crossing into this reality. Alice Cooper impales a tech nerd on a bicycle and it only gets stranger from there.

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