They Live" (1988)
John Carpenter's loopy "They Live" is less an alien invasion movie as much as it is an aliens-are-already-here, thank-you-very-much movie. Former pro-wrestler "Rowdy" Roddy Piper plays Nada, a drifter who falls in with a band of resistance fighters who combat the alien menace with the aid of magical sunglasses. (Just go with it.) The movie's centerpiece, a seemingly endless fight sequence between Piper and the irrepressible Keith David, has nothing to do with intergalactic ghouls, but it's still great fun. Much has been made of the movie's Reagan-era subtext (novelist Jonathan Lethem wrote a wonderful textual analysis of the film last year -- again, just go with it), but what really makes an impression is its goofy go-for-broke-ness. It might be part of Carpenter's broody "apocalypse" trilogy, but it has a lightness that makes it play more like a Saturday afternoon serial. [A-]

The Thing From Another World" (1951)
Based on the 1938 short story “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell Jr., “The Thing From Another World” is probably best remembered today as the basis for John Carpenter’s 1982 remake “The Thing.” Directed by Howard Hawks’ protegee and former editor Christian Nyby (and some say ghost directed by Hawks himself), this 1951 chiller also centers on a group of scientists working on an arctic base near the North Pole who discover an unknown craft crashed nearby. And that’s where the similarities end. In the original, The Thing is portrayed by James Arness as a hulking alien intruder closer to a 1950s Jason Voorhees, stalking members of the crew, rather than as an organism that can imitate living things like in the Carpenter version and original story. Carpenter himself was a huge fan of the original film (placing it all over the televisions in “Halloween”) and despite its '50s genre trappings, the film has quite a bit of suspense. There is a particularly thrilling sequence where The Thing bursts in on the crew only to be doused with kerosene and lit on fire (seriously, it’s great). Though Carpenter’s version of the story is rightfully considered one of the best remakes of all time, the original deserves to stand on its own. [B-]

The Thing" (1982)
It takes a set of brass balls to take on hall-of-famer Howard Hawks and come out on top, but to do it twice is something truly impressive. Five years after "Assault on Precinct 13" reworked "Rio Bravo," John Carpenter took on "The Thing From Another World," the sci-fi ghost-directed by Hawks, and turned it into a stone-cold classic -- to this writer's mind one of the greatest horror flicks of all time. It's rare for an alien creature to be truly, well, alien, but the astonishing practical effects in "The Thing" are a marvel, turning up something truly otherworldly and thoroughly nausea-inducing. But they'd be nothing without the impossibly taut thriller that Carpenter creates around him. The conceit that any of the film's cast, led by Carpenter's beloved Kurt Russell and stuffed with character actor greats like Donald Moffat, Keith David and Wilford Brimley, could at any moment turn into a horrifying creature, is a great one, and Carpenter and screenwriter Bill Lancaster (the son of Burt Lancaster, fact fans) take them through every twist and turn possible. The original wasn't well-regarded at the time, but it's established itself as a firm classic today, to the extent that the prequel that hits later this year can only feel like a fool's errand. [A+]