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The Essentials: 7 Great John Carpenter Movies

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by Drew Taylor
July 30, 2013 12:43 PM
8 Comments
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The Fog

"The Fog" (1980)
Carpenter's follow-up to "Halloween" ended up being one of his most difficult, both creatively and personally, as he dealt with both an incomprehensible first cut that required more than a third of the film to be entirely reshot and the dissolution of his relationship with producer and co-writer Debra Hill, who had been a huge part of the success of "Halloween" and would continue to be a strong creative voice in many of his subsequent films. Instead, Carpenter was falling in love with Adrienne Barbeau, whom he cast in "The Fog" as Stevie Wayne, the owner of a radio station in the sleepy seaside hamlet of Antonio Bay, on the night that a ghostly haze rolls into town, carrying with it murderous spirits hell bent on revenge. Assuming a similar dynamic to that of his "Assault on Precinct 13," "The Fog" is the closest Carpenter has come to mimicking Robert Altman, with a collection of interlacing stories, including the tale of a young girl (Jamie Lee Curtis) who gets picked up by a hitchhiker (Tom Atkins) and subsequently stranded in the sleepy town, with Barbeau's doomed DJ (perched atop her evocative lighthouse radio station), and a priest (Hal Holbrook), who is dealing with the sins of the past in an effort to save his future. "The Fog" is, above all else, a mood piece, with the titular meteorological anomaly beautifully brought to the screen in big, milky clouds that Carpenter and his cinematographer Dean Cundey light from behind for maximum scariness; the killer pirates (leprosy victims murdered by the town's forefathers) taking on a raggedy fairy tale quality which, coupled with the fog, gives off the impression that they've stepped out of your nightmares and into real life. "The Fog" isn't completely successful—the mixture of creaky ghost story spookiness, exemplified by the film's opening, in which John Houseman literally tells a ghost story for about five minutes, with splatter movie violence, is often times uneasy. But it is still really, really scary and truly influential—French electronic duo Justice seem to have designed their whole live stage show based on the last five minutes of the movie (complete with the light-up cross), and Sony, in their infinite wisdom, decided to remake the movie in 2005 as a bloody teen horror movie starring a pair of quickly forgotten television actors and with none of the original's wit, humor or heart.       

Escape From New York Poster Header

"Escape From New York" (1981)
As explained by a robotic female voice during the opening moments of the movie, "Escape from New York" takes place in a dystopian future where, following a 400% rise in crime by the year 1988, "the once-great city of New York has become the one maximum security prison for the entire country. There are no guards inside the island; only prisoners and the worlds they have made. The rules are simple: once you go in, you don't come out." It's in this sooty tomorrowland that we meet Snake Plissken, played by frequent Carpenter fave Kurt Russell, who is imprisoned for a bank robbery (a sequence ultimately cut out of the movie but serving as one of history's more memorable deleted scenes) and tasked with retrieving the President of the United States (Dr. Loomis himself, Donald Pleasence) after Air Force One crashes on the deadly island (as part of a terrorist plot), whose urban jungle landscape has mutated into a fearsome, burnt-out wasteland, ruled by warlords like the The Duke (Isaac Hayes, his velvety voice bottomed-out into a gritty snarl). Snake's utter indifference (he's been injected with a tiny bomb), plus the enormity of the situation outside of New York (the entire world teeters on the brink of a global war, if a doodad the president is carrying doesn't reach its destination), adds for an endlessly exciting adventure. Carpenter's vision of New York City (actually a post-riot St. Louis) is certainly bleak but it's not colorless or humor-free; there are a number of flourishes that border on the downright whimsical (things like Ernest Borgnine's Cabbie character and the streak of "Dr. Strangelove"-style satire). In fact, the director brought on old pal Nick Castle, who played "The Shape" in "Halloween," to rewrite his original draft, which Carpenter found too serious and straightforward, with an eye towards making it weirder and more esoteric. Castle (and Carpenter) succeeded, tenfold. "Escape from New York" was Carpenter's first large scale production, at least compared to his earlier films, with a budget of more than $6 million (five times what he had for "The Fog"), and his ingenuity shines through in every sequence. Unburdened by prototypical visual effects, the movie feels damningly real, with some of his sharpest, most stark widescreen cinematography, full of deep blacks and otherworldly lens flares (this kind of ethereal nighttime photography would become a Carpenter hallmark). Carpenter's cast, too, totally shines, with Lee Van Cleef, Harry Dean Stanton, Tom Atkins, and Adrienne Barbeau putting in fine supporting performances, along with the larger roles essayed by Pleasence and Hayes. Of course it's Russell's Snake Plisskin, a tattooed, one-eyed, walking "fuck you," that would serve to be a bona fide cinematic icon, the kind of delicious anti-hero adored and endlessly quoted ("I don't give a fuck about your war") by fans of a certain shade of low budget, high concept genre cinema. "He has no higher cause or sense of righteousness," Carpenter would later say. When Russell and Carpenter would revisit this particular world, for 1997's "Escape from L.A.," the results weren't as rewarding. While the film has a certain amount of goofball charm, it's largely undone by cripplingly awful visual effects (including a number of primitive computer-generated effects), the lack of a cohesive backstory, and the feeling like everyone involved was striving to recapture lighting in a bottle, without noticing the bottle had already cracked. Plans for a third film, "Escape from Earth," were quietly shuttered after the commercial and critical failure of 'L.A.' Still, a grizzled old Snake Plissken, finally the age of the Western heroes Russell was emulating, might be a complete and total blast. Is it too early to suggest a Kickstarter campaign?        

The Thing

"The Thing" (1982)
The summer of 1982 is the stuff of legend, if you're a fan of quality big budget studio genre movies, taking on the mythical quality of the Summer of Love or The Year We Made Contact in the mind of most film fanatics. This single sunshiney season gave us "Poltergeist," "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan," "The Road Warrior," "E.T.," "Conan the Barbarian," "TRON," "Blade Runner," and "Rocky III." Oh, and "The Thing." Carpenter finally intersected with his longtime hero Howard Hawks when he remade the director's 1951 sci-fi classic "The Thing From Another World" (a movie that one of the babysitters is watching in "Halloween") as "The Thing," an altogether different beast that hedged closer to the original John W. Campbell short story and featured cutting-edge effects by the wizardly Rob Bottin and Stan Winston. "The Thing" once again stars Kurt Russell, this time as a helicopter pilot stationed at a desolate arctic research station who comes in contact with a deadly, shape-shifting alien who is able to duplicate human form almost perfectly. While most of the attention "The Thing" received was due to its shocking visual effects, including a sequence when a member of the team who has been replaced by "The Thing" turns into a giant monster, his head popping off his body, sprouting legs, and scuttling away, but even more overwhelming than the film's gory monster effects was the inherent palpable sense of claustrophobia and paranoia. Brilliantly constructed, "The Thing" was Carpenter's first big studio movie, with the director relinquishing much of the one-man-band- style control he had doggedly maintained throughout his earlier films (it was based on a script by Bill Lancaster and featured a score by Ennio Morricone) and embracing the technology and shooting schedule that the money afforded. Instead of being hailed, as it should have, as a visionary, nearly apocalyptic landmark, it was met with a hostile response from both audiences and critics, who took the film to task for its excessive, overtly grotesque special effects. Critic David Ansen famously wrote in Newsweek (in a review called "Frozen Slime") that, "John Carpenter blows it." Even genre critics, who you'd think would be sympathetic, were withering, with sci-fi magazine Starlog taking the director to task and suggesting he'd be better off directing automobile accidents than movies. Russell seemed to acknowledge early on that "people aren't going to appreciate this for 20 years," due to the movie's effects, but the reaction to the movie seemed to deeply affect Carpenter, even though the movie's failure to connect with audiences had less to do with Carpenter's pitch black worldview and more with the cinematic climate: audiences were loving the feel-good fuzziness of "E.T.;" they weren't interested in a dread-filled character piece with an alien this horrifyingly violent (Carpenter reacted by making a sweetly nuanced riff on "E.T.," "Starman"). Thankfully, "The Thing" has gone on to become a major cult film, accepted by the cultural mainstream as a true achievement in the genre: an artful, scary-as-hell meditation on man's inherent loneliness and the dark corners of the human psyche, dramatized by Carpenter's note-perfect direction that favored characterization expressed by action rather than dialogue and cluttered, comic book-style framing.

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8 Comments

  • Ryan Gowland | August 2, 2013 12:46 PMReply

    Nice work, Dave and Gabe. I love Carpenter and completely agree with your list. I think the female voice in "Escape" is actually Curtis, by the way, and there is a great blog piece about "The Thing" that details how Carpenter was able to make the changes he wanted due to a break in filming and seeing an early cut. After that, he reshot tons of footage, altering the deaths of Bennings and Fuchs and changing the movie into the classic it is today.

  • Sue | August 1, 2013 8:26 PMReply

    I completely agree with this list. Thanks for writing such an excellent piece on his best films. :)

  • Jake | July 31, 2013 10:24 AMReply

    Hopefully PRINCE OF DARKNESS will be revisited as one of Carpenter's most intriguing efforts after the Scream Factory release hits this September. It may not be his "best" film -- it's hampered greatly by a reduced budget -- but it showcases his admiration for Lovecraft/E.C. Comics/Hammer flicks in the most stylized, gleefully bizarre package. Also, Donald Pleasance screaming about faith while Egg Shen from BIG TROUBLE screams about science is a total delight.

    DARKNESS, while fitting snugly between THE THING & IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS in Carpenter's "Apocalypse Trilogy," works as part of a killer '80s Lovecraft triple feature with Tobe Hooper's LIFEFORCE & Stuart Gordon's FROM BEYOND.

  • Rob | July 31, 2013 10:01 AMReply

    Great list. Saw "Dark Star" recently. Not his best, but I'm glad it got mentioned.

  • [A] | July 30, 2013 2:30 PMReply

    Good list -- I bet it was a "pain" to choose only 7 titles.

  • cory everett | July 30, 2013 1:55 PMReply

    I'd probably swap "The Fog" for "In The Mouth Of Madness" but otherwise agree.

  • Duddi | July 30, 2013 6:37 PM

    Yeap, I second your opinion, I was going to write this my self. IMO "In The Mouth of Madness" is master Carpenter's most underrated movie of his carrier, and also one of the most underrated movies of 90's. I recently watched his whole filmography and yet again i find "In the Mouth of Madness" somehow "under the radar film". Also it was cool to include "Assault on Precinct 13" on the list cuz not many people have seen it... I was eager to see if these two movies have made it on the list, so I like the list but it also feels that something's missing ( In the M. of M.). ;-)

  • Rick | July 30, 2013 5:15 PM

    Yea I agree

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