John Carpenter Essentials

This week, "The Fog," filmmaker John Carpenter's 1980 chiller about a fog that rolls into a sleepy seaside community carrying with it ghostly visitors, will be re-released on Blu-ray and DVD by Shout Factory, complete with a host of all new special features (including a wonderful, retrospective conversation with Jamie Lee Curtis that doesn't just cover her collaborations with Carpenter but goes on to include a frank discussion of most of her genre work from that period). With its pristine picture quality and sound, it goes a long way in reminding you what a skilled technician and artist Carpenter truly is, able to conjure forth visions of nightmarish clarity, nearly out of thin air. This is a director capable of keeping you up at night, but one who isn't interested in a cheap scare. When asked to give advice to young filmmakers, he said, simply, "Play for history if possible." That's certainly what Carpenter has tried to do; and to celebrate this recent release we've decided to run down seven of his most essential films. Frequent collaborator Kurt Russell has said of his friend that he "sees the world slightly askew." As a Russell character in a John Carpenter movie would say: no shit.

Carpenter was born in New York state and grew up in Kentucky, where he would first watch the Western and science fiction movies that would prove to be so influential later in life. While attending the University of Southern California's Cinema School, he became well known as an obvious talent (as recounted in Jason Zinoman's essential horror history "Shock Value"). He claims that he got into movies because he wanted to make westerns, but thanks to the success of "Halloween," was stuck mostly in the horror genre (although thematically and visually he would return to the western as a source of inspiration and influence). On a purely visual level, he's almost unparalleled in the world of horror; the widescreen framing, often broken up into comic book-style panels, is a Carpenter trademark that serves to make his work elegantly unnerving. 

If you're looking for a place to start or a couple of movies you might have missed out on, here are seven essential films from the Carpenter canon you have to watch.

Assault on Precinct 13

"Assault on Precinct 13" (1976)
Following "Dark Star," a goofy sci-fi romp co-conceived by future "Alien" screenwriter Dan O'Bannon (their fallout would become the stuff of legend), Carpenter was approached to make a low budget genre movie. Having just sold the screenplay the investor wanted to do, "The Eyes of Laura Mars," to Columbia, Carpenter decided to write an old fashioned "siege" movie, in the style of his hero Howard Hawks' beloved western "Rio Bravo." But he cannily updated it, relocating the setting to the modern day inner city (to quote one of the movie's title cards, "a Los Angeles ghetto"), with a police station serving as a stand-in for a besieged mission setting, and a multi-culti crew of gang bangers, hell bent on revenge after the police kill a half dozen of their own, replacing the prototypical Indians ("with touches of 'Night of the Living Dead' and exploitation movies of the time," Carpenter would later admit). For all intents and purposes, "Assault on Precinct 13" was John Carpenter's first real movie; and as such it's a stunner. The movie has an mesmerizing effect that borders on the hypnotic. This is true right from the very beginning, with Carpenter's percussive, synth-laden score washing over you, bringing with it both anxiety and dread. The images that follow, of the gang bangers riding around Los Angeles on the prowl, is striking due mainly to its simplicity and realism: it could be your street they're driving down. Carpenter's love of luxuriously widescreen photography (35 mm Panavision) is already very much in play, and he shoots the arid Los Angeles inner city like he was lensing a desolate border town in an old western. The director's preoccupation with an almost apocalyptic gloom is also fully accounted for, with the entire movie staged as the beginnings of an all out war against cultured civilization and the forces of anarchical lawlessness. This all culminates in the moment, a sequence so shocking Carpenter says that he wouldn't have included it if he was making the movie today. In this scene, a young girl, complete with blonde, braided hair the color of sunshine, stops for ice cream at an ice cream truck. She walks away, and the gang members overtake the truck. She realizes she was mistakenly given the wrong flavor, and when she returns to exchange it, one of them shoots her dead. This is all explicitly depicted, with the kind of frankness that makes your jaw hinge open. The fact that the murder is witnessed by the little girl's father, who then follows the ice cream truck and becomes an integral part of the melee, makes things even more heartbreaking. Censors threatened to give the movie an X-rating, but Carpenter simply removed the sequence during a review, slipping it back into the film after it had secured an R. "Assault on Precinct 13" has a number of flourishes that would become Carpenter hallmarks: Darwin Joston's Napoleon Wilson would become the prototypical wise-ass Carpenter antihero ("I don't sit in chairs as well as I used to"); long, unbroken takes meant to establish mood and atmosphere (the movie seems to have had a profound effect on Nicolas Winding Refn); a playful tweaking of cultural (or counter cultural) iconography (one of the gang members looks like a dirty hoodrat version of Che Guevara); and a knowing exploitation of what middle class white people are deathly afraid of (in this case the violence lurking in the inner city). When "Assault on Precinct 13" was released, it was met with critical and commercial indifference, even though the film played at Cannes, where the director of the festival called it "astonishing" (George A. Romero, who was attending the festival with "Martin," became an early, vocal supporter). In time, it would become a bona-fide cult sensation, but initially it was largely ignored.    

Halloween Jamie Lee Curtis

"Halloween" (1978)
After a festival screening of "Assault on Precinct 13," John Carpenter was approached by a pair of producers, Irwin Yablans and Moustapha Akkad, who asked if the filmmaker was interested in directing a cheapie horror movie about babysitters getting murdered. With a budget of $300,000 (peanuts, but nearly three times what he had for "Assault on Precinct 13"), Carpenter deferred much of his pay and instead insisted that every dollar be accounted for on the screen, which included shooting the movie in anamorphic widescreen (costly, but inherently powerful). What could have been just another horror film instead because a zeitgeist-capturing game changer; the kind of movie that is still endlessly analyzed and studied today (in addition to being a beloved favorite of slumber parties everywhere). Part of what made "Halloween" so special was the craftsmanship and attention to detail: the long, unbroken Panaglide shots (see test footage here) that compounded and amplified the otherworldly tension (beginning with the prologue, a sequence that seemed like one take but was in fact three, cannily spliced together), the editing that suggested terror was lurking in every shadow or around every corner, and Carpenter's musical score, which added a terrifying dimension while being starkly simplistic. This was all anchored by a lead performance by Jamie Lee Curtis, whose amateurishness in the role doesn't detract from her power but intensifies it further. This is a real girl who is really being terrorized by a faceless specter. The fact that Curtis was the daughter of Janet Leigh, who starred in Alfred Hitchcock's original "Psycho," added a meta-textual knowingness that suited the movie's decidedly postmodern approach to the genre. "Halloween" felt like a line in the sand, with every horror movie afterwards (and there were many, including countless sequels and remakes attached to the "Halloween" brand) being compared to it in some way, either creatively or financially (for a while it was the most profitable independent movie ever) or artistically. It's a movie that every horror filmmaker, seems to be inspired by, but that none have ever been able to top.