John Carpenter turns 70 years old today, which is remarkable, because it feels like he's been around forever.
For the record, JC's been making movies since the mid-'70s, and somewhat ironically, it took a while for some of them to be fully appreciated in America. As Carpenter himself once wryly noted, "In France, I'm an auteur. In Germany, I'm a filmmaker. In the UK, I'm a horror-director. In the U.S., I'm a bum."
But his legacy is secure, as his films include Halloween, The Thing, Escape From New York, Big Trouble in Little China, Prince of Darkness, and They Live, among many others. And though it's largely impossible, let's rank his genre films, which make up the majority of his catalog (don't worry, we also love his TV movie Elvis).
Before we begin, here he is with Kurt Russell and some props on the set of Big Trouble in Little China. Haha, life is crazy.
Okay, let's go... and BEWARE OF SPOILERS.
Body Bags (1993)
Look, it's ... fine. It's a three-part anthology film, with a wraparound featuring JC as a ghoulish morgue attendant who quips crap like, "You guys are a bunch of stiffs!" And the stories themselves, well... Carpenter directed two of them, and one has Stacy Keach growing a lot of horrific hair, and another is about a serial killer skulking about a gas station.
Tobe Hooper directed the other one, which has Mark Hamill as a baseball player who gets an eye transplant and bad stuff happens. You also get Debbie Harry, Sam Raimi, David Naughton, Roger Corman, Wes Craven, Tom Arnold, Robert Carradine, and of course George 'Buck' Flower and Peter Jason and ...
Yeah, so ... why is this ranked last? 'Cause for all that goodness in casting and premise and such, Body Bags just ... doesn't quite work. But you should watch it anyway. You ultimately can never go completely wrong with JC, after all.
Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992)
It's just... well, not very good. An attempt to modernize and revive the feel of Universal's classic The Invisible Man falls fatally flat with some questionable plotting and lack of chemistry between Chevy Chase and Daryl Hannah. It's the most "un-Carpenter" of all of JC's movies, and was adapted from the best-selling sci-fi fantasy novel by H. F. Saint.
Don't be shocked by the dated sensation you'll be struck by as its yuppie-ness envelops you in a familiar tale of an ordinary dude who becomes transparent after an accidental experiment goes bad. Ghostbusters' Ivan Reitman left the project over tonal conflicts before Carpenter was hired to mop up the mess. Watch it at your own peril and hope your brain doesn't remain in a perpetual state of molecular flux. JC does his absolute best with the comedic material but its entertainment value vanishes after a few minutes. Look, the master even took his own name off the title.
Escape From L.A. (1996)
Okay, let's just tackle this whole uproar about Kurt Russell's Snake Plissken surfing a tsunami with a ponytailed Peter Fonda right now! It happened and it's downright goofy and mildly offensive to fans of the original Escape From New York. Let's move on.
Escape From L.A. is clearly an attempt to reclaim the mystique of the first film. This time, we have our badass, eye-patched mercenary back on the scene, now on the deportation island of Los Angeles in the year 2013 to retrieve a doomsday device from the tyrannical President's daughter. It's over-the-top satirical fun for a while. Now, it certainly is even funnier when seen through the lens of the bizarre political climate our country is now enduring and that makes it worth another watch. Oh, and a couple more morsels: this flick cost $50 million to make and Snake was injected with the fantastically-named Plutonix-7 virus.
Village of the Damned (1995)
Mark Hamill must've had a grand time working with John Carpenter on Body Bags because he came back to play a sniper-rifle-toting priest in this remake of 1960 horror flick of the same name. Why does he have a sniper rifle? Because there's a bunch of glowy-eyed alien kids killing off anyone who stands in their way of world domination! You also get Christopher Reeve, Linda Kozlowski, Meredith Salenger (Natty Gann!), a chain-smoking Kirstie Alley and a short-lived Michael Pare in this cheapo guilty pleasure that features George "Buck" Flower foolishly threatening the little tykes with his mighty janitor's broom before they make short work of his drunk ass.
Masters of Horror: Pro-Life (2006)
Oy vey, Masters of Horror. The Showtime anthology series featuring the work of some more or less (often less, TBH) A-list horror filmmakers should've been one for the history books, but alas ended up offering only a mere handful of truly great mini-movies. At least the series got JC in the director's chair a couple of times during the long drought in-between Ghosts of Mars (2001) and The Ward (2010).
"Pro-Life" is the lesser of JC's MoH offerings, but it's still got Ron Perlman as a gun-toting father laying siege to an abortion clinic as his daughter tries to get rid of her unborn progeny, which happens to be Satan's kid (or something). A bit tame (and lame) until the jaw-dropping birth sequence, and then the film completely loses its mind and... yeah, you should see it.
"Keep a knockin' but you can't come in!" Anyone who's ever felt the juvenile thrill of owning their first car can relate to this twisted tale of a demonic red 1958 Plymouth Fury. Christine was actually the second Stephen King novel adaptation offered to JC after he turned down Firestarter, and he infuses this underrated ruby with a malevolence and psychological undertone far more sophisticated than some of his other B-movie classics.
We still have no clue how he pulled off those effects of the murderous machine regenerating itself in the grungy garage. Okay, we lied, it was via hydraulics. Killer cars are inherently silly but Christine is a gearhead's delight and JC delivers one of his best movies of the '80s. It's "Bad To The Bone" and shouldn't ever need to make apologies.
Ghosts of Mars (2001)
It's kind of fun, right? I mean, it's got Natasha Henstridge, Ice Cube, Pam Grier and, yes, Jason Statham before he was really JASON STATHAM. The crew is on Mars as they battle, uh, colonists who have become possessed by ancient Martian ghosts that force them to apply face paint and pierce themselves in various places and generally act like a bunch of murderous crazies. The baddies are led by Richard Cetrone as "Big Daddy Mars." Sheesh, here's an argument for just staying the f*** on Earth, right?
Ghosts of Mars is kind of... I dunno, awkward across the board and ultimately feels oddly incomplete, though JC seems to be having a total blast, as is particularly felt with his bombastic rock score, one track of which is titled "Kick Ass" and ... hey, why not?
The Ward (2010)
The Ward is JC's most recent gig behind the camera and though it does contain many of his signatures touches, it's an easily forgettable entry in the master's horror resume. Set in 1966, the unsettling tale of an arsonist girl haunted by the deformed ghost of a former inmate at an insane asylum was filmed at the real-life Eastern State Hospital in Washington. It's far from Carpenter's best, but the tight script offers a few solid scares despite the cliched multiple-personality ending. But it was the director's first feature after 2001's Ghosts of Mars and even a bland Carpenter movie can be fun under the right circumstances. Its minuscule $1 million box office haul is more the result of an extremely limited release. Don't be afraid, check yourself in!
Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
JC loosens up a bit from his decade run of dark geek flicks with this campy kung-fu fantasy adventure starring his go-to guy, Kurt Russell. The San Francisco Chinatown setting is refreshing and the slapstick tone gives the material a light-hearted flair missing from grim projects like Halloween, Christine, The Fog, and The Thing, and Russell's inept wise-guy trucker, Jack Burton, has become somewhat of a cult hero in recent years.
The movie was originally written by Gary Goldman and David D. Weinstein as an 1890s western, with Burton conceived as an off-beat gunslinger, though ultimately Big Trouble was rushed into theaters in the summer of '86 to beat out Eddie Murphy's The Golden Child and ended up a commercial failure. Hit the road with the Porkchop Express and get Jack'd.
Masters of Horror: Cigarette Burns (2005)
The unofficial epilogue to JC's so-called "Apocalypse Trilogy" (The Thing; Prince of Darkness; In the Mouth of Madness) is, without a doubt, the best Masters of Horror episode across its two seasons (with maybe Takashi Miike's "Imprint" a close second).
Norman Reedus, pre-The Walking Dead, is hired by the always-delightful Udo Kier to find the print of a film that apparently made people GO COMPLETELY INSANE during its first and only screening, which is confirmed by the frickin' angel that Udo has chained up in his living room, and ... yeah. Hey, any film that ends with Udo Kier spooling his own intestines through a film projector is one to be treasured. What?
Yep, this is "That vampire movie with James Woods" that often gets confused with other similar bloodsucker flicks like Near Dark and From Dusk Till Dawn. JC was having fun making movies again in the '90s and after Escape From L.A. he dipped his lens into the world of fanged fiends with what amounts to a classic Western injected with savage Southwestern vampires.
The film, based on a 1990 horror novel by John Steakley, has a kooky but interesting cast: Woods, former soap star Thomas Ian Griffith, Twin Peaks' Sheryl Lee, the Academy Award-winning Maximilian Schell, and even one of the Baldwin brothers! A semi-pleasing horror romp, especially if you're into JC's bluesy guitar and cowboy harmonica score.
Dark Star (1974)
Dark Star is JC's first feature film and is actually more of a glorified student film, but it does have its own cult charms and subversive humor, especially the bizarre, clawed-foot beach ball alien. The disgruntled crew members of the dilapidated spaceship are unkempt and unappreciated, yet they still go about their task of searching out unstable planets with enthusiastic professionalism and a certain preoccupation with blowing stuff up.
The script was co-written with fellow USC film student and Alien co-writer Dan O'Bannon, who also stars as Pinback. A true cult classic in every sense and made for just $60,000, Dark Star was created in the pre-Star Wars days of 1974 when the genre was still seen as a novelty. Watch it with a mound of munchies and your favorite frosty beverage!
Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
The film with which JC conjured the formula that he would adapt many times over (shadowy and at least vaguely supernatural forces lay siege to a handful of survivors holed up in some sort of structure), Assault on Precinct 13 is one of the most unsettling and intense thrillers ever made ... and a prime example of how to really stretch a dollar (and, sheesh, even a penny). You know there are NO RULES when an innocent little girl who just wants a damn ice cream cone is mercilessly GUN DOWNED BY CRAZY-ASS GANG VIOLENCE ... and that's in the first act! Pure raw craft on display here, and a must-see for anyone mulling over making their own low-to-no-budget film. Also, the score is amazing. Of course it is.
Escape From New York (1981)
The future of 1997 must include XXL electronics by the look of Snake Plissken's ginormous tracking watch and Houk's foot-long walkie-talkie, but don't let that distract you from this solid sci-fi actioner from King Carpenter. Kurt Russell chews the scenery a bit with his portrayal of the war hero criminal trying to save the President inside the maximum security prison of Manhattan Island. Strutting around in a zippered sleeveless muscle tee and snakeskin pants like a hair band refuge with a bad attitude, he's an anti-hero akin to Max Rockatansky. Spaghetti Western alum Lee Van Cleef and the always-awesome Ernest Borgnine lend some added cool to the project along with the sweet synthesizer score by JC and Alan Howarth. The shots of Air Force One aiming toward the Twin Towers in the opening makes for some eerie and unsettling foreshadowing.
They Live (1988)
Yeah, there's the whole "I am here to chew bubblegum and kick ass" and the 20-minute-or-whatever fight scene between Roddy Piper and Keith David, but the true legacy of They Live is the fact that it's by far the angriest film that JC has ever made.
I mean, he was pissed while making this movie. He was pissed at Ronald Reagan, at the state of the economy, at big business, at consumerism, at international relations (or the lack thereof at the time), at how the working class had been reduced to "Nada" (remember, this is how Roddy's character is credited), at censorship (which includes a fourth-wall jab at himself at the end of the film), at garbage cans (they take a beating during the aforementioned Roddy vs. Keith fight), at American know-how being overshadowed by foreign influence (notice how Roddy tells the old woman alien that she needs a "Brazilian plastic surgeon"), at abusive fathers (Roddy's monologue about his asshole dad makes for the greatest acting he's ever done, inside or outside the ring), and at, at, at. Consume.
The Fog (1980)
19th century leper ghosts assaulting a California seaside town while searching for their stolen treasure on the 100th anniversary of their deaths? Smells like a salty hit! The Fog is a Halloween staple and JC's supernatural horror gem was one of his most profitable movies. It was only his third true feature film and completed on the cheap for just one million bucks, yet raked in $21 million at the box office.
As a follow-up film to the sensation of 1978's Halloween, The Fog was marketed heavily by Avco-Embassy Pictures, whose campaign included installing fog machines in the lobbies of theaters. Cough! It also starred Adrienne Barbeau, Carpenter's wife at the time, in her first movie, and also brought back Halloween's Jamie Lee Curtis as the second female lead. Newly remastered prints of the film accentuate the beautiful anamorphic widescreen cinematography and ethereal lighting. The Carpenter-produced 2005 remake was swiftly forgotten.
This is a poetic, two-tissue tearjerker from JC that will melt the frigid hearts of the most skeptical sci-fi fans. Just try to not get a bit misty when Jeff Bridges' extraterrestrial tastes Dutch Apple Pie for the first time or says farewell to Karen Allen in the final scene. It's a touching, layered performance that gained Bridges an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor at that year's congratulatory pageant. Michael Douglas produced Starman for Columbia Pictures, which chose this script over Spielberg's Dark Skies (later retitled E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial), and JC nails a difficult-to-attain tone by centering the story around the relationship between Allen's widowed Wisconsinite and Bridge's child-like alien, who has taken the form of her deceased husband.
Starman was a staple for HBO and seemingly on every other day in the mid-'80s and is JC at his most sentimental and sophisticated. Extra accolades for the haunting musical score by Jack Nitzsche.
Prince of Darkness (1987)
Look, it was great in 1987, and it's great now, and that's that. JC was geeking out over quantum physics and decided to write about it (under the semi-clever pseudonym 'Martin Quatermass'), and what emerged was a story about Satan's son in the form of some sort of green goop being held in the basement of a Los Angeles church, watched over by a priest played by Donald Pleasence (character credited, rather ominously, simply as 'Priest') and being analyzed by a bunch of theoretical physics grad students and their professor (played by Victor Wong, hanging out after Big Trouble in Little China). You also get Riptide's Thom Bray being impaled by a bicycle courtesy of Alice Cooper (yep) and a seemingly endless scene in which stock JC player Peter Jason makes trumpet noises as he makes a sandwich or something, much to the chagrin of the dudes who are trying to concentrate as they monitor the Devil's goopy movements via their 1987 science equipment. "In fact ... YOU WILL NOT BE SAVED." So good. And gooey.
In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
JC's most Lovecraft-ish Lovecraft homage has Sam Neill as an insurance fraud investigator traveling to the supposedly fictional town of Hobb's End to track down Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow, enjoying himself immensely), a bestselling horror writer whose scribblings might actually bring about the end of the world via mass murder, mutation and, uh, madness. Despite a rather rushed final act, ITMOM is one of JC's strongest films, directed with a sure hand and led with confidence and class by Neill (sticking around after Memoirs of an Invisible Man). You also get Frances Bay as sweet hotel manager Mrs. Pickman ... who keeps her naked husband handcuffed to her ankle and eventually chops him up with an axe. Oh, and Charlton Heston as Cane's publisher, who delights to no end. Oh yes and Peter Jason sweating a lot.
"I met him, 15 years ago. I was told there was nothing left: no reason, no conscience, no understanding in even the most rudimentary sense of life or death, of good or evil, right or wrong. I met this... six-year-old child with this blank, pale, emotionless face, and... the blackest eyes, the Devil's eyes. I spent eight years trying to reach him and then another seven trying to keep him locked up, because I realized that what was living behind that boy's eyes was purely and simply... evil."
And it's still the best slasher film of all time. No, it's not "boring" or "dated" or any of that nonsense. Watch it again. Fear it. Live it. Love it. Halloween.
The Thing (1982)
"This thing doesn't want to show itself, it wants to hide inside an imitation. It'll fight if it has to, but it's vulnerable out in the open. If it takes us over, then it has no more enemies, nobody left to kill it. And then it's won." - R.J. MacReady.
Paranoia and dread punctuate what is JC's finest film and we'll seriously arm wrestle anyone who thinks otherwise. The Thing is JC firing on all cylinders as a stylist, storyteller, craftsman, and faithful fan of old-fashioned science fiction films he grew up with in the 1950s. It's actually a more faithful film adaptation of the classic John W. Campbell novella, Who Goes There?, than the 1951 Christian Nyby-directed version. Bolstered by pioneering practical effects by Ron Bottin, a killer cast headed by Kurt Russell, Keith David, Wilford Brimley, and Richard Dysart, and striking cinematography by longtime collaborator Dean Cundey, it's a perfect synthesis of horror and humanity set at a remote Antartica base. Not nearly enough credit is given to the crackling script by Burt Lancaster's son, Bill Lancaster. Besides that thumping synthesizer theme in the helicopter opening, most of the rest of Ennio Morricone's stirring soundtrack was trashed and then recycled in Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight.
Who's still human at the very end? Watch for the icy breath plumes for a clue!