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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"Big Trouble in Little China" (1986)
“Who is Jack Burton?” crowed the ads for “Big Trouble In Little China,” mistakenly selling this rare Carpenter blockbuster, produced for major studio 20th Century Fox, as a heroic star vehicle for the forever-underestimated Kurt Russell. The truth was, not a single person within the narrative cares about this white interloper, a commentary on the genre that might have been a generation too early. The story follows an ages-old conflict between warring factions of superpowered Chinese warriors utilizing magic (the darkest kind!) to hold dominion over the planet, thanks to the exoticism of two green-eyed girls (just go with it). Into this mess walks urban cowboy Burton, a truck driver who crashes this mystical Eastern throwdown like John Wayne mistakenly falling ass-backwards into “The Chinese Connection” and attempting to tough-guy his way out. Burton is clever and eager enough to assist the good guys, entering their territory in disguise, or freeing captured prisoners. But he’s also pigheaded enough to accidentally knock himself out as the climactic battle rages on around him, before getting pinned underneath increasingly heavy objects. 'Big Trouble' might be Carpenter at his campiest, funniest best, a hodgepodge of genre ideas that still somehow feels as fresh today as it was when it first flopped in the eighties. Much of that comes from Carpenter’s frequent collaborator Russell, who could always be trusted to be loose, charismatic, and dangerous in their joint ventures and who here showcases an affable vulnerability even when he's attempting to be the hero. With Burton’s smarmy sarcasm and bloated sense of self-worth, Russell’s mixture of alpha male aggression and almost absurd boobery lets the film get away with its increasingly-outlandish storyline and its artful visual effects, composed via optical effects and make up augmentation, has aged gracefully over the years.

"They Live" (1988)
Only John Carpenter could turn a movie whose plot goofily hinges on a pair of magical sunglasses (that expose the alien menace lying just beneath the surface of everyday life, in black-and-white for some reason) into a stone cold classic, one whose imagery has been appropriated by both Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign and American skateboard culture and deemed worthy of both an entire book-length dissection by acclaimed novelist Jonathan Lethem as well as a shot-for-shot remake on acclaimed animated television series "South Park." Weirdly, it seems that "They Live," a low budget B-movie takedown of Reagan-era politics starring a non-professional actor (wrestler "Rowdy" Roddy Piper) and pleasurably lo-fi visuals straight out of a fifties sci-fi movie, would go on to become Carpenter's second most influential movie of his career after "Halloween." Part of what makes "They Live" so much fun is how on-the-nose it is; it's rare to see a movie of Carpenter's this uninterested in nuance. And it's kind of liberating. There is nothing subtle about "They Live," from the evil alien menace being a stand in for the Republican party, to the epic fight sequence between Piper and "The Thing" alum Keith David that seems to go on forever, to the surprisingly effective lead performance by Piper (who fits perfectly into the Carpenter "fuck you" hero mold and ad-libbed immortal lines like "I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and I'm all out of bubblegum"), to the ghoulish design of the aliens, who are straight out of a Saturday matinee shocker. One of the great moments on the recent "They Live" Blu-ray, also produced by Shout Factory, is when an interviewer asks Carpenter if there was every any consideration given to cutting down the seemingly endless fight sequence between David and Piper. Carpenter's face curls into a snarl and he says, with mock incredulity, "Fuck no." The sequence in the film when Piper puts on the sunglasses and the "real" world is revealed—"composed with the serene assurance of Hitchcock or Kubrick" according to Lethem—is the source of much of the film's influential power. The black-and-white signage that says "OBEY" was appropriated first by street artist Shepard Fairey for his own campaign and later for Obama's initial presidential run; replicas of the sunglasses (embossed with the film's memorable logo) are sold on fashion websites; and a lone man, awash in a sea of bullshit, has become a striking metaphor for being halfway aware of what was happening while Reagan pushed his dangerous economic and social agendas. On that same Blu-ray interview, Carpenter said, "I would like to point out that I think that the eighties have never ended. They're still with us today. We've never repudiated this Reganomics idea. They're still here. And they're still among us." In other words: they live.    

There are a number of notable Carpenter movies that narrowly missed the cut, among them his TV movie with Russell, "Elvis," which seems as ambitious and arty today as it was in 1979; Carpenter's lone Stephen King adaptation "Christine" (1983) alters many of the specifics from the novel, anthropomorphizing the villainous car, while maintaining its charming coming-of-age tone (it's also one of Carpenter's most elegantly shot movies, which is saying something); and "Starman" (1984) is the director's most emotionally affecting movie, anchored by a pair of brilliant, heartbreaking performances by Jeff Bridges (who was nominated for an Oscar for the part) and Karen Allen. "Starman" shows you how Carpenter is capable of making you cry just as easily as he can make you scream. Also of note are his two episodes of the Showtime series "Masters of Horror," "Cigarette Burns" and (particularly) "Pro-Life." These late career highlights showcased that Carpenter is still very much in tune with what's funny and spooky and is capable of work just as good as some of his older stuff. Those episodes were scary good. with Gabe Toro

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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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