John Carpenter is one of my favorite directors. I’ve been a horror junkie since I was a little kid watching the Universal classics on the Saturday TV matinee. My mother’s boyfriend took my sister, mom and I to see Halloween during its initial run and it was the first movie that ever scared the crap out of me. My friends Chuck, Mike, Calvin and I enjoyed Escape from New York and the Fog growing up
For my 18th birthday Mike and I went to see what I feel is Carpenter’s masterpiece, The Thing and it was the third film to ever really scare me (Alien was the 2nd). The effects were outlandish and completely over the top but what has really stuck with me through years of repeat viewings is how marvelous a portrait of paranoia this is. Other well-done paranoid films deal with the hero/heroine not being able to trust people/organizations/government. Carpenter took that a step further – while Kurt Russell is nominally the hero, the entire ensemble cast can’t trust each other and the film’s ending reflects that mindset.
I’ve really enjoyed John Carpenter’s films. He made some more really good films (Big Trouble in Little China, In the Mouth of Madness, Vampires) and even his not-as-good films are fascinating (Village of the Damned, Ghosts of Mars). 3 of John Carpenter’s films are available on instant Netflix as well as 2 episodes of Showtime’s Masters of Horror that he directed.
1. Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) – “This taut action flick from writer-director John Carpenter pits an understaffed police station against a bloodthirsty gang’s angry horde gathering outside the precinct’s walls… Assault on Precinct 13, co-starring Austin Stoker and Darwin Joston, is among his best”
This early effort is very tense and co-stars two of Carpenter’s regulars Charles Cyphers and Nancy Kyes. It is essentially an urban update of Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo. Carpenter would of course go on to remake Hawks’ The Thing from Another World. Look for the early scene in which John Carpenter breaks one of the Hollywood cardinal taboos.
2. Starman (1984) – “In this sci-fi love story from John Carpenter, Jeff Bridges — who received an Oscar nod for his work — plays Starman, an alien who crashes on Earth and takes the form of a recently deceased man in order to evade authorities. On seeing the image of her dead husband before her, widow Jenny (Karen Allen) is frightened. But eventually, Starman wins her trust — and her affection — and she agrees to help him return to his home planet”
A rare light-hearted film from Carpenter, this story really works because of Jeff Bridges and Karen Allen. A sweet romance with a science fiction background and a dollop of humor, this is a good date movie.
3. Prince of Darkness (1987) – “A cylinder of mysterious, green liquid is found in an abandoned church. It may contain the ultimate evil: an ancient iniquity that longs to escape. Several physicists try to comprehend what’s happening and race to save the world, even as they’re being turned into zombies one by one. Director John Carpenter fills Prince of Darkness with his trademark mix of horror and humor.”
One of my favorite horror movies (I’m a sucker for apocalyptic movies), this one does suffer from the somewhat wooden performance of the two young lead actors but is redeemed by wonderful performances from Donald Pleasence (Halloween) and Victor Wong (Big Trouble in Little China). Though the movie is serious horror, many of the names are in-jokes such as written by Martin Quatermass (actually written by Carpenter).
4. Masters of Horror: Cigarette Burns (2006) – “Hired by a millionaire collector (Udo Kier) to retrieve the infamous Le Fin du Monde — a violent movie that reportedly causes viewers to turn into homicidal maniacs after they watch it — an unsuspecting theater owner (Norman Reedus) begins to fall under the film’s spell. John Carpenter directs this unsettling installment of the “Masters of Horror” series, following one man’s search for the holy grail of horror cinema.”
This is definitely one of the best Masters of Horror shows. Sadly that isn’t saying much – many of the episodes feel like they paid the directors to put their name on the show. Cigarette Burns is disturbingly creepy and darkly funny.
5. Masters of Horror: Pro-Life (2007) – “When a scared 15-year-old girl (Caitlin Wachs) goes to an isolated clinic to end her pregnancy, her anti-abortion activist father (Ron Perlman) and brothers arrive, heavily armed and determined to force their way in and stop the procedure. But there’ll be hell to pay when the baby’s unearthly father gets involved. Emmanuelle Vaugier and Mark Feuerstein co-star in this episode of the spine-chilling Showtime series, directed by John Carpenter.”
Wow talk about your wasted potential. Take one of my favorite directors, add an underrated genre actor (Ron Perlman) and top with an interesting premise – this should have been knocked out of the park. Unfortunately it feels like John Carpenter was just in it for the paycheck. It is watchable but nothing special.