In 1978, a low budget horror movie called Halloween snuck its way into theaters and changed the face of the genre forever. It was the most successful independent film of all time when it came out, wound up on many critic’s best ten lists of that year, and is still considered one of the scariest movies ever. It inspired every single slasher movie made afterwards (Friday the 13th was a straight up ripoff) and jumpstarted the career of one of cinema’s most influential directors, John Carpenter. Frequently compared to Hitchcock, Carpenter has tried his hand at horror, sci-fi, action, comedy, satire and hybrids of all of those things over the course of his near 40 year career. Not all of his films are good but most of them have at least something interesting and different for the viewer to latch onto. His film scores are perhaps his most distinct trademark and some of them are so oppressive and odd they wind up elevating a few of his lesser efforts. I’ve been thinking a lot about Carpenter lately for a couple of reasons: (1). It’s October so, of course, Halloween is on my mind. (2). Three of the best genre pictures of the year (The Guest, Cold in July, and Blue Ruin) are heavily influenced by Carpenter’s work. So, I decided to re-watch all of his feature films and rank them from worst to best. If you’ve only seen Halloween, you’re missing out on some other terrific movies and may want to give some of them a shot before October 31st. Without further ado, lets take a look at the filmography of one of the true masters of horror.
Village of the Damned
The 90’s were not kind to Carpenter with most of his films being critical and commercial failures. That’s a shame cuz some of his films from that decade were quite good and deserved a wider audience. Not this one though. Village of the Damned is a complete disaster, a movie so awful I’d rank it lower than this if I could. It’s the only Carpenter film that does not have one redeeming quality. Even the score is bland and uninvolving. A remake of the fairly spooky 60’s film, it tells the story of a small town besieged by evil children with psychic powers and terrible wigs. One huge problem is that we learn exactly where the children come from within the first five minutes (they’re aliens, yawn) so there is absolutely no mystery surrounding them. Instead of suspense and tension, we just watch them do dopey things like force people to stick their hands in boiling water or stab themselves. Also troubling is the fact that these kids look so evil and sinister, you wonder why no one suggests murdering them all the second they arrive on screen. Since no one does, we can’t relate to any character cuz they’re all idiots. And the cast, which includes Kirstie Alley as a hard ass government scientist (nope), Christopher Reeve as the town doctor (one of last film roles), and Mark Hamill as the local preacher (what?), is downright bizarre. How the hell do you put Superman and Luke Skywalker in the same movie and then give them nothing to do?
It pains me to rank Carpenter’s most recent film so low. Touted as a return to form for the director, buoyed by a solid cast, and sporting an intriguing premise, The Ward seemed promising when it came out back in 2011. Sadly, it’s just not very good. It’s not offensively awful like Village of the Damned but it does share some of the same problems: a dull score, dopey characters, and an obvious plot. Amber Heard stars as a troubled girl who gets locked up in a mental asylum run by the vaguely sinister Jared Harris. The asylum seems to be haunted but then again, maybe Heard is just crazy. Anyone who has ever seen a movie will figure out what’s going on in five minutes. The acting is serviceable but no one is particularly compelling. The whole thing feels very bland. Carpenter doesn’t do anything to distinguish The Ward from any other horror films. Anybody could have directed this and that, sadly, suggests that Carpenter’s heart just isn’t in it anymore. I hope he bounces back cuz it’d be a real shame to have this wind up as his last film as a director.
Ghosts of Mars
I have a sort of soft spot for this dopey mess but have to admit it’s pretty bad, despite having one of the great B-movie titles of all time. A title like that suggests great, campy fun and while there are some good scenes, they don’t add up to a whole. The fairly straight forward story, which involves martian ghosts possessing people and turning them into zombies, is told very clumsily. Goddamn movie actually contains a flashback within a flashback. It’s also basically a sci-fi remake of Carpenter’s much better Assault on Precinct 13, which established one of his favorite tropes: a group of heroes trapped inside a building while a horde of monsters try to break in. That movie had style, wit, and intensity to spare. Ghosts of Mars has Ice Cube yelling and firing a gun a lot. Still, I kind of enjoy watching it. It’s not boring and is better than a lot of other modern sci-fi horror movies. That fact says more about the current state of the sci-fi horror genre than it does about the quality of this film.
Memoirs of an Invisible Man
Fans of Carpenter frequently forget he directed this Chevy Chase vehicle and it’s easy to see why. It has none of the director’s trademarks, doesn’t fit in with any of the genres he likes to play around in, and feels like it could have been made by anybody, which it pretty much was. Carpenter reportedly only took the job to finance some of his more personal films and was a last minute replacement for Ivan Reitman. This was nothing more than a vanity project for Chase, who supposedly wanted to get away from comedy and make something a little more serious. The result is a confused movie that never settles on a consistent tone. That being said, there are some things to admire. The invisible man effects are terrific even by today’s standards, there are some funny, inventive scenes (such as the one where Chase uses a drunk businessman to hail a cab) and Sam Neill is chilling and calculated as the villain. Carpenter may have not enjoyed working with Chase but he and Neill would collaborate again on the much better In the Mouth of Madness. So at least he got something out this gig.
Escape from LA
I admire this movie much more than I like it. The only sequel Carpenter ever directed finds iconic hero Snake Plissken once again being sent in by the government to accomplish a mission in a city wide prison. Russell is the Deniro to Carpenter’s Scorcese and he clearly has a blast playing Snake. Some of the action scenes are really solid with the one where Russell finds himself parasailing with a transgendered Pam Grier (don’t ask) being the highlight. There’s also some broad satire that works surprisingly well, such as the scene with Bruce Campell as a deformed plastic surgeon. The problem is that a lot of the ideas are better than the execution. Casting Peter Fonda as an aging surfer and having him ride a tsunami with Russell sounds fantastic on paper but on film, thanks to shoddy effects and poor plotting, it’s a non-starter. The villain is also completely uninteresting. The first film had Isacc Hayes as the Duke of New York while this one has…George Corraface as a Che Guvera wannabe. Carpenter and Russell were clearly trying to satirize the genre but they already did that with much more style and fun in Big Trouble in Little China. An admirable misfire.
Christine is loved by many people but I am not one of them, the book or the movie. I’ve just never been able to fully get behind the premise of a possessed car without chuckling a bit. It seems like on of those ideas Stephen King had on a cocaine binge: “A car (snort), yeah a killer car (snort), that’ll keep my publishers at bay for a while (snort snort).” He went back to the idea of a haunted car years later with the infinitely better From a Buick 8. Carpenter does a fine job directing this silly material but, once again, it’s a movie that doesn’t really have his stamp on it and feels like a gig he took to finance something else. Carpenter is at his best when he’s fully invested in the material and can put his own spin on things. Christine is well told, well acted, and well directed but at the end of the day, it’s a movie about a goddamn possessed car.
The Fog has a fantastic opening scene. A group of children sit around a campfire at five minutes to midnight and listen to an old fisherman (John Houseman) tell a creepy ghost story about a doomed ship. This invokes an incredibly creepy atmosphere right away but ultimately promises something the movie never quite delivers on. I rarely say this but The Fog could have benefitted from being a bit longer. The movie ends just as things start to get really exciting and scary. It’s also got too many characters it doesn’t know what to do with. Hell, they could have cut Jamie Lee Curtis out of the film entirely and nobody would have blinked. She is completely superfluous to the story. Another problem is that The Fog doesn’t know what the rules are. We’re told the ghosts in the fog only want revenge on the ancestors of the six conspirators who led them to their death and yet they kill anyone the movie wants them to. Then there’s some nonsense about the ghosts wanting their gold returned to them which raises the question of what in god’s name hundred year old spirits would do with gold. I’m making the film sound a lot worse than it is though. The fog itself looks great and is appropriately supernatural. Carpenter makes wonderful use of shadows and well, fog to obscure the ghosts so we never quite get a clear glimpse at them, which makes them all the more frightening. And the subplot with Adrienne Barbeau as the DJ atop a lighthouse, using her broadcast to tell people how to avoid the fog while fending off ghosts herself is terrifically suspenseful. All in all, it’s a fun movie that could have been a lot better.
Carpenter’s first film is weird as all hell and very different than most of his other work. Made on a shoestring budget and written while he was still in college, it’s a stoner comedy that focuses on four disillusioned space voyagers who have been out in space so long they can’t even remember what they’re supposed to be doing. They play practical jokes on each other, argue about nothing, and mess around with an alien that is literally a beach ball with feet. There’s also a talking bomb who goes through an existential crisis. It’s irreverent, funny, and completely offbeat. The only downfall is that it’s pretty slow and the tiny budget shows at times.
In the Mouth of Madness
This is the closest anyone has ever come to tackling H.P. Lovecraft (even though it’s not based on any of his stories) and that alone makes me love this movie, despite its problems. The ending doesn’t quite work, some of the acting is bad (Julie Carmen ugh) and a couple of the scares are laughable. However, the premise that a writer’s work is so powerful and frightening that it can be brought to life if enough people believe in it is somewhat ingenious. Wes Craven explored similar ideas to better effect in New Nightmare but Carpenter does a nice job with them here too. Sam Neill plays an insurance investigator tasked with hunting down Sutter Cane (great name), a missing horror novelist who ‘outsells Stephen King’ and whose books may or may not be driving people insane. Neill plays a great skeptical protagonist and it’s fun watching him slowly accept that the monsters of Cane’s fiction are real. Speaking of monsters, the creature effects here are outstanding and capture the otherworldly, unknowable nature of many of Lovecraft’s most famous creations. There’s also a clever bit of satire with Charlton Heston as the publisher who doesn’t care if the books are driving people crazy as long as they keep flying off the shelves.
Broad social satire works only when you have a clear cut vision or a willingness to make fun of yourself. They Live has both in spades. Wrestler Roddy Piper stars as a drifter who puts on a pair of sunglasses that show him what’s really going on in the world. Advertisements and magazines actually say things like, ‘obey’, ‘marry & reproduce’, ‘stay asleep’, and ‘watch TV’. And half of the world’s population are actually ghouls from another planet. It’s a delightfully absurd idea that nonetheless resonates because of the way it takes aim at the most materialistic aspects of us as a society. It also stands the test of time seeing as we’re bombarded by more ads and cheap tabloids than ever. They Live has a great B-movie sensibility to it and Roddy Piper makes for an engaging hero. The fight scene between him and Keith David that lasts close to eight minutes (I clocked it) is so well choreographed and humorous that you have to forgive its excess. This is an example of Carpenter not giving a fuck. He sticks it to anyone who has ever pissed him off (including critics) and has a blast showing us how much of our lives are wasted on utterly meaningless things.
Any movie that has James Woods shove a giant black cross through a vampire’s stomach is aces in my book. Carpenter has always said that his favorite type of movie is a western and he comes closest to that genre with Assault on Precinct 13 and this. Woods plays the leader of a band of mercenaries contracted by the Catholic Church to hunt down and kill as many vampires as possible. I love their methods. They shoot them with arrows that are attached to a rotating motor and just drag them out of their homes and into the sunlight. It’s a pisser watching them do this over and over again. Vampires is not much more than good dumb fun but oh what dumb fun it is! Woods is hilarious as the wise-cracking, foul mouthed hero and Carpenter keeps the action and gore pumping from beginning to end.
Prince of Darkness
Many Carpenter fans cite this as one of his worst films and if you feel that way, you may swap it with Christine. For me, it’s the opposite of how I feel about Escape From LA: I admire the ideas so much that I am willing to forgive the movie all of its problems. Said problems include a dull middle section and some bland characters. Nevertheless, this is one of the most ambitious films Carpenter ever made and I cannot help but applaud his audacity. Prince of Darkness focuses on a group of graduate students who find themselves helping a priest (Donald Pleasance) figure out if the mysterious cylinder filled with green slime he found at the bottom of an old church contains Absolute Evil personified. Meanwhile, a group of homeless people become possessed by the substance and began to invade the church. The movie is overflowing with ideas, as the students debate science vs. religion, god vs. devil, and dreams vs. reality. The score here is so good and so foreboding it elevates some of the uninteresting sections. But the main reason I’m ranking the film so high is because of the final shot, which remains one of the most haunting images I have ever seen in a horror movie. I’ve never been able to get it out of my dreams.
Escape From New York
The first of many big screen collaborations with Kurt Russell, Escape From New York is one hell of an action picture. That it’s got a clever satirical worldview is an added bonus. The idea that crime got so bad that Manhattan was turned into a maximum security prison is a great set up that Carpenter takes full advantage of. But Snake Plissken is the main reason I’m ranking this movie so high. Plissken is one of the great monosyllabic anti-heroes with his eye patch, grizzled voice, and don’t-give-a-fuck attitude. He’s up there with Clint Eastwood’s The Man with No Name. There’s also Donald Pleasance’s sniveling President, a not at all subtle spoof of Richard Nixon. And let’s not forget Issac Hayes as the self proclaimed Duke of New York. Everybody has a grand old time here, especially Carpenter who uses matte paintings, practical sets, and even a little CGI to create a perfectly realized dystopian cityscape.
Assault on Precinct 13
A modern western with two extremely compelling heroes, Assault on Precinct 13 is brutally intense from start to finish. When that little girl gets shot, Carpenter lets us know how dangerous and inhuman the villainous street gangs of this world are. They’re not even portrayed as people; none of them speak and there are so many that they take on a disturbing supernatural quality. This makes their relentless attacks on the titular precinct frightening and incredibly suspenseful. The two mismatched leads, one a cop, the other a criminal, have a nice rapport and the way they team up to save the day is clever and exciting. Assault on Precinct 13 is a rush of pure adrenaline. Carpenter has been quoted as saying he’s never had more fun as a filmmaker. You can tell.
Big Trouble in Little China
Easily the funniest movie Carpenter has ever made, Big Trouble in Little China is a hilarious spoof on the modern male action hero. It’s made even funnier cuz of the fact that Carpenter and Russell are spoofing their own creation, Snake Plissken. They make their main character, truck driver Jack Burton, into an utterly useless hero who has no idea how incompetent he is. He gets knocked out right before the climactic fight scene, bumbles his way through every task given to him, and never even figures out what’s going on. The plot, which involves an ancient chinese demon trying to gain immortality, is goofy fun but secondary to the way Carpenter and Russell take our expectations of a typical action hero and shatter them with malicious glee.
Carpenter is frequently accused of making uncaring, clinical films that lack humanity. He proved those claims wrong with Starman, a surprisingly moving, warm, and smart sci-fi romance. Jeff Bridges is excellent as the kind hearted alien who takes the guise of a woman’s (the wonderful, underrated Karen Allen) deceased husband. They way the movie pushes action and sci-fi tropes aside in favor of exploring how these characters learn to love and respect each other is the film’s greatest asset. The movie wisely uses their relationship to deal with issues of loss, companionship, human kindness, and identity. There are also several scenes that are downright magical as the alien shows the woman just how enchanting some of his powers are. We come to care about these two so much that it makes the chase aspect of the movie all the more exciting. And the film’s conclusion is especially touching.
Yep, the one that started it all. Halloween is considered a classic for a reason: it stands the test of time. What was scary in 1978 is still scary today. The way Carpenter keeps Michael Myers in the background, his use of music (who doesn’t love and dread that theme?), the well written characters we care about, the suggestion that Myers is some kind of supernatural force, and, of course, that terrifying final shot. All of it works. So what if some of the acting is not Oscar worthy? And who cares if some of the lines are cheesy? This is a movie told with complete conviction from beginning to end and, like Assault on Precinct 13, it is brutally relentless. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen it and yet every year when I sit down to watch it (it’s an October tradition), I discover that it retains all of its original power.
It’s a close call but I’ve decided to give the number one spot to The Thing for a simple reason: it showcases everything that Carpenter does best. You’ve got your crew of heroes trapped inside with something evil trying to get in. You’ve got your scenes of gripping suspense and paranoia with terrific music underscoring them. You’ve got your wall to wall action scenes. You’ve got your mounting sense of dread. You’ve got your scary camera shots that keep the deadly things in the background, enhancing their terror. You’ve got your state of the art, grisly special effects. You’ve got your wicked sense of humor. You’ve got your bleak ending that leaves everybody wondering. And, of course, you’ve got your Kurt Russell. The Thing is John Carpenter in a nutshell, highlighting all of his strengths and none of his weaknesses. That’s why it beats Halloween.