The Hot Seat – John Carpenter

John Carpenter is a filmmaker that I’ve always considered complicated. He’s made classics, no doubt, but I’ve heard a lot of trash-talk about much of his filmography. While The Thing, Halloween, and The Fog are considered masterpieces…the rest are not. I’d heard so much negativity around his other films that I actively avoided them, even some that are beloved. He recently won the March Madness poll for the Blank Check Podcast, so I decided to check his films out before they covered him. What I found was that I adore almost everything he’s ever directed, each film unique and special in its own tones and structure. I didn’t even go through them in order, but I think that added to my enjoyment of each entry. There were surprises, disappointments, and even one film that left me in tears. Whether or not you want to take this journey with me, I urge you to at least check out my top ten. There are true masterpieces of both art and schlock, something I’ve not quite found with any other director.

Let’s get into the films.

18. Dark Star [1974]: Look, not everyone makes a name for themselves with the first film. Sometimes they need to stumble around in the dark, searching for true creative inspiration. Carpenter’s first film was a collaboration with Dan O’Bannon, the man that conceived of Ridley Scott’s Alien. It’s an awkward little black comedy, one that I enjoyed with mild attention and could edit almost half an hour out of. There’s an alien made out of a beachball, a dead captain frozen and communicating through some psychic connection, and someone surfing on debris in space. It’s a strange thing to watch when you know it was the precursor and trial run for Alien, but overall it’s just a fascinating curio that serves as an introduction to John Carpenter and a history of one of the greatest franchises we’ve ever had.

17. Memoirs of an Invisible Man [1992]: This was such a weird thing. This was one of the pseudo-adaptations of the H.G. Wells novel that I wasn’t anywhere near familiar with. It’s a rom-com, but it’s not funny. It’s a sci-fi thriller, but not one I found particularly thrilling. This film lies in the middle of everything right up until Chevy Chase appears in blackface, a moment that left me freaked out and baffled and frustrated. Daryl Hannah is given very little to do and almost no character, instead left to serve as the object of Chevy’s desires while he also has little to do other than just run away from Sam Neil. It’s a frustrating movie, one that feels anemic in its lack of tonal security and dependence on a comedy star turning in a dramatic performance. I was so hopeful and while the graphic work is stunning…it’s just a bag of nothing.

16. The Ward [2010]: This was John Carpenter’s swan song, the final feather in his cap. It stars Amber Heard, a problem in and of itself, but the twist is such a boring one for any audience that’s seen Dexter, Identity, or Fight Club. Outside of that, I found the whole ordeal kind of entertaining. It’s disappointing only because it’s John Carpenter, the master of thrillers and horror. An asylum picture that’s so aggressively standard was offensive to most critics, but I looked at it as something any new director would kill to have make it to the big screen. It’s got some fun character moments, a couple of acceptable jump scares, and some blunt performances to hold it all together. John Carpenter’s final film is as much a let-down from the master of horror as it would be a badge of honor for many other filmmakers. The sad thing is that it was attached to him, leaving it the target of excessive scrutiny and hatred that put a scar on the man’s legacy.

15. Vampires [1998]: Look, you get at least a tertiary Baldwin here. What more do you want? James Woods as a scummy vampire hunter kind of works, or at least matches his scummy modern personality. Alongside that, you get Sheryl Lee (Laura Palmer herself) and Mark Boone Junior (who would be the butt of a falafel joke in Batman Begins). John Carpenter was at his peak with his ability to cast, on the wane but holding out hope for another hit. What audiences received was an angry homage to From Dusk Till Dawn and a wicked score built on slide guitars. Vampires isn’t always a fun film, but it’s a gross and vicious one that turned out to be way more fun than I thought it would be.

14. Christine [1983]: I don’t have much bad to say from here on. Stephen King adaptations are something of a special breed, both glorious and ugly at the same time, but Christine is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. A demonic car is a plot device that would be unique in any other filmography, but with Carpenter it merely feels par for the course. No one is flexing their muscles here, no one showing off. Instead, this adaptation of Stephen King’s novel is simply a wild time that I didn’t expect. The classic nerd-to-badass transformation is treated as a symptom of a bigger problem, one that will encompass the lives of everyone the geek loves. The car itself is gorgeous, but it gets outshined by the effects. I’m truly able to say that I’ve never seen a car put itself back together, let along watch it recover from multiple violent accidents. It’s both a technical achievement and a cinematic one, layering our experience with characters and effects that we genuinely care about. It’s wild.

13. Ghosts of Mars [2001]: Look, the guy told you what you were going to get with the title. One of the major complaints, when the film dropped, was one of intent. The director had returned to horror, but with a script originally meant for a Snake Plissken film with a script that was once rumored to be for a third Snake Plissken film. Everything about it insisted on a camp thriller, but the word “ghosts” was so powerful that it demolished the chance for greatness. The score contains a lot of early 00s guitar rock, which works alongside Ice Cube spraying bullets and crying, “C’mon, you mindless motherfuckers!” Nothing exists that measures up to this intentionally schlocky masterpiece. It’s absolute trash, but it’s trash that stars Jason Statham and Ice Cube. It’s trash with a John Carpenter score that sounds like a gym bro’s workout playlist. It’s trash that features possessed demon zombies that worship pain while trying to kick Americans off of their land and somehow still manages to be entertaining. I get riled up watching this film, and I make no bones about it.

12. Escape from L.A. [1996]: Look, it was never going to be as great as the original film. The kicker? It’s got Snake Plissken surfboarding on a city street till he can jump to Steve Buscemi’s car. Nothing about this is as prescient or targeted as the original, but what we got is still a unique vision of America that would feel poignant today. I’d never seen this film, but watching it a couple of weeks ago led me to hate parts of America even more as I wallowed in the idea that hypocritical religious fundamentalism ruled us all. The entire film is about working through the darkest aspects of Conservativism in America, a thought process that drives the lead character to reset modernity in an attempt to destroy this most evil of factions. Ridiculous, stupid, and thrilling, Escape from L.A. serves as one of the only modern late sequels I’ll stand by.

11. Village of the Damned [1995]: Is this a good remake? Only sort of. Does it star Christopher Reeves and Mark Hamill? Absolutely, and that alone makes it worth your time. Luke Skywalker and Superman team up to combat some platinum-haired monsters that clearly only care about their alien parents. There’s no pretending that they aren’t alien, instead focusing entirely on the journey of the community to accept their “otherness.” While the film initially feels like an attempt to discuss subcultures, it instead winds up being a “woo-hah” film about accepted norms being the dominant force of human nature. The main reason it gets the position on this list that it does is that…look, the cast just does a wild job with the material. Mark Hamill is minimally used, but he makes a good time of every second he’s onscreen. Christopher Reeves has sexual chemistry with every adult onscreen, leaving us with an adorable “will-the-won’t-they” that lasts until the final moments. If you’re going to remake a B-movie and keep it at that status then this is how I want it to go.

10. Assault on Precinct 13 [1976]: This is where I start offending people. Look, it’s a fun little thriller that has no characterization. I adore each performance, one by one establishing motivation without a backstory, but none of them is anything more than threadbare. It’s hard to criticize such tight, concise storytelling, but many of you worship this film so I’m left with no choice but to forge my own path. Assault on Precinct 13 is an incredibly well-plotted thriller that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny due to some of the ideas left out. I’m sorry, but it is a fun film that isn’t perfect and I stand by that. I adore it, however, and I want everyone to witness the majesty of Austin Stoker. This guy leads a film about non-characters and manages to make it feel like something you’ve never seen before. Everything he does is desperate, exciting, and dangerous. Carpenter works well when given room to play or constrictions that hold him back, leaving little room in the center. This is one that he made for a shoestring budget and he ditched most characterization in order to allow for thrills. A thoroughly enjoyable ride, despite being a bit anemic.

09. Big Trouble in Little China [1986]: From here on out I’ll have very little to say about each film that isn’t praise. Kurt Russell really is a treasure, one that works best alongside Carpenter to create sincere goofiness. Big Trouble in Little China, a film about a trucker helping a young man save his fiancee from an ancient sorcerer, is what I want from so many modern action films. It’s tight at 99 minutes, lean and muscular like its lead character, and has no room for ideas that many other films get trapped in. There’s no relationship drama, no time for any romance outside of baser instincts, and no “familia” (a thing that I’ve come to enjoy in the Fast & Furious franchise). Instead, it’s just two men against an underground army that they don’t understand, full of only brutality and excitement. This was not one of Carpenter’s auteur flicks, but it’s one that he was able to bring his sensibilities to in a way that would go on to be considered classic. Hilarious, brutal, and ridiculous, Big Trouble in Little China is a kind of masterpiece.

08. The Fog [1980]: Yes, I’ve sadly placed this down here. While I adore Carpenter’s story about leprous ghost pirates, his lack of characterization here is what makes me want more than what he’s offered. I adore this film, having seen it about a dozen times in the last decade, but sometimes he’s out of gas in some ways. This film was made on the coattails of Halloween, with Carpenter sort of cementing his place as a horror icon with back-to-back hits and accolades from audiences all over America. I take this with a grain of salt as there’s not much here. Each individual character feels alive, but you know almost nothing about them and they make for an awkward bunch. Until the climactic moments, we merely live in a series of vignettes, an anthology picture that ties itself in perhaps too-neat of a bow by its closing moments. I love it, and most people seem to feel the same, but the lack of depth certainly makes for an issue with some viewers and is a stumbling point for many Carpenter films.

07. Escape from New York [1981]: Look, there’s nothing so exciting as this lean little movie about Kurt Russell rescuing Donald Pleasence from Isaac Hayes (who drives around in a car with chandeliers instead of headlights). In a world that exists as a militaristic neo-fascist state, one man is tasked with keeping that existence alive even as he falls prey to it. The reception of films like this (or Halloween) is what led him to be labeled as a master of horrors/thrillers/horror-thrillers. Escape from New York isn’t a perfect film by any means, but it’s gross and gritty in a way that evokes where the early 80s New York City had landed at the time. Snake Plissken can stalk the streets and trip over everything from parasites to prostitutes, all of them dirty and desperate to stay alive. So few films are this openly nihilistic and distrusting of humanity, but Carpenter pulls it off with effortless charisma.

06. They Live [1988]: You’re damn right he cast Rowdy Roddy Piper. They Live chronicles the journey of a drifter as he strives to save the world from evil alien creatures, capitalism, and ultimately slavery. Few films are so purposefully silly in their execution, but few could get away with being this overtly critical of the very system that allowed the movie to exist in the first place. Piper uses a pair of specially-made sunglasses that allow him to see things like subliminal messaging that hides within marketing material, skeletal aliens that pretend to be people, and the surveillance technology that keeps tabs on it all. It’s odd that this came out as far back as it did, given that our current American climate sees the population realizing that we’re closer to this reality than not. Most remember the five-minute fight scene between Piper and Keith David, but I always remember an image of an alien in fine furs. She’s standing in front of a sign that says “Obey” and magazines that say “Consume,” a grotesque still image of modern American society. John Carpenter’s primal scream remains one for the ages.

05. Prince of Darkness [1987]: The Catholic church is hiding what they believe to be the Antichrist. It’s a green liquid in a sealed tube, buried beneath the basement of an order that goes by the moniker “The Brotherhood of Sleep.” A group of scientists is brought in, working with a priest (Donald Pleasence), to scientifically prove that everything is real and that they have to stop an apocalypse that haunts all of their dreams. All of this is incredibly silly and ridiculous, but most films about Catholicism are. The premise is, unfortunately, not completely backed by its execution, but the film’s failures aggressively refuse to bring down the thin narrative. The sheer amount of bodily fluids being sprayed, swallowed, and shot all over the walls is fascinating enough to make effects geeks swoon. The real masterwork is in the scientific grounding, one that wouldn’t hold up to real scrutiny but nonetheless adds an idea that feels more interesting than the traditional God v. Satan stories we’ve gotten elsewhere.

04. Starman [1984]: That final piece of music from Jack Nitzsche is an absolute showstopper. When I sat down to this one I knew absolutely nothing, all due to the fact that I’d ignored a lot of Carpenter and had made no effort to fix that. I’d not seen much from Karen Allen (best known as Marion Ravenwood in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark), but her performance took my breath away. I’d only ever seen Jeff Bridges as a portly gentleman that always sounded like he had marbles squirreled away in his cheeks, but here he’s electric and just covered in abs. While I found some of the random offshoot moments to be a bit silly, the final moments took everything and married it together for a gorgeous and achingly sorrowful climax. Sometimes a film falls through the cracks of history and gets forgotten, often to the loss of audiences everywhere. Starman is one of those great losses, a tragic romance hidden amongst the pounding premises of horror-thrillers that riddle the rest of Carpenter’s career.

03. Halloween [1978]: Things changed here. We all know that, right? Halloween wasn’t the first true slasher film, but it has become known as THE template for how to do this thing right. Final girls, brutal kills that celebrate the magic of effects work, and the signature score from Carpenter, all find their footing here. Many horror icons would go on to have a lasting influence, but none have had the staying power of Michael Meyers. Carpenter would only stick through the franchise here and there, but the legacy he wrought has continued to hold sway over cinema to this day. We’re in the middle of yet another take on the film, one from David Gordon-Green and Danny MacBride, and the success of this film has brought the bloodbath forward in time to a new generation of fans. John Carpenter’s career was made here, on only his second film, and few films have continued to have this level of influence.

Just Wait": On the 35th Anniversary of John Carpenter's The Thing (1982) -  Diabolique Magazine

02. The Thing [1982]: Look at me, having just waxed poetic about Halloween, and now I’ve got to gush about one more film. Ridley Scott’s Alien and John Carpenter’s The Thing are often held up together as the pinnacle of body horror, films about being invaded by an alien creature intent on our destruction. Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, Keith David, and so many other character actors populate the cast for wall-to-wall excellent performances. Arctic wastelands are often saved for science fiction films, such as The Midnight Sky or Ice Station Zebra, but Carpenter uses the landscape to create a sense of isolation and keeps the group small, with minimal chance for escape. This is a film I watch on a regular basis, and I think it deserves regular viewings. Each time I find something new to love in the creature design, the performances, or even the set design of the station. It’s a truly wonderful film.

01. In the Mouth of Madness [1994]: Look, Sam Neill going insane because of Lovecraftian horror is just an absolute gift and we should all be grateful. While late-period Carpenter is typically treated as something to ignore, this wound up being my favorite of his films. It’s a messy meal, but sometimes those get to be the best. While The Thing and Halloween are excellent and near-perfect films, I think In the Mouth of Madness celebrates something that was prescient for its time. Meta-textual filmmaking has existed for quite some time, but this hasn’t Marc Forster’s Stranger Than Fiction. Instead, Carpenter wants to tell a story about the horror genre itself. He uses Lovecraft’s idea of terror in the face of the completely unknown to put the lead character in a state of disorientation, taking us viewers along for the ride. Nothing is easy or perfectly explained, but that’s the beauty in what Carpenter tried. It’s adventurous, and in modern horror, I have to applaud it. I wish we got more content this imaginative.

That’s John Carpenter! I’m glad I got off my ass and checked out his work, a grouping of films that I had just plain ignored for so long. Not all of them are winners, but every single one is full of interesting ideas and is well-worth your time.

What about you? What’s your favorite Carpenter movie?

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