Dark streets, empty lawns, singing trees, and the nauseating pulse of synths — you’re watching a John Carpenter film. Chances are the Master of Horror was responsible for a few of your earliest childhood nightmares. He’s more or less the Ray Bradbury of filmmaking, an underrated visionary who can conjure up a brand of fear that’s both out of this world and within your reach.
Six years after returning to the synthesizer for 2015’s Lost Themes, the Master of Horror is back for more with its second sequel: Lost Themes III: Alive After Death. Once again, Carpenter is working alongside his son Cody Carpenter and his godson Daniel Davies, a collaboration that’s only grown stronger with time. “We’ve matured,” Carpenter has confidently expressed.
In celebration, we’ve resurrected this original breakdown of Carpenter’s filmography, where we first faced all the terror that lies within and shared our findings with you. In the past, this would be the part where we’d tell you that “everyone’s entitled to one good scare.” But, with this ranking and the 10 new tracks within Lost Themes, we think you have plenty of tricks and treats.
21. The Ward (2010)
Runtime: 1 hr. 29 min.
Press Release: In 1966, a troubled young woman arrives at a mental institution only to find it haunted by a vengeful ghost.
Cast: Amber Heard, Mamie Gummer, Danielle Panabaker, Laura-Leigh, Lyndsy Fonesca, Mika Boorem, Jared Harris, Jillian Kramer
Soundtrack: A handful of bubblegum hits from the 1960s, most notably The Newbeats’ “Run Baby Run (Back into My Arms)”. Like Halloween II , it’s used for juxtaposition — a sugary tune to foreshadow horrific events — but isn’t nearly as timeless or effective. Outside of that, we get some overused classical music from Bach and Mozart.
Carpenter’s World: One of the few distinct qualities of The Ward is the autumnal 1966 setting. Since most of the filming was confined to Eastern State Hospital in Washington, Carpenter, cinematographer Yaron Orbach, and the rest of the production team were accurately able to nail the dusky hues of the woods, muted turtlenecks, plaid skirts, and lots of old, creepy hallways.
The Antihero: We won’t spoil too much, but the film’s (admittedly pretty lame) twist ending kinda makes everyone an antihero. And that’s no fun.
Key Scene: Gratuitous partial nudity aside, the slow-burn specter of the below scene feels like vintage Carpenter:
An Unlit Fuse: When discussing 1978’s Halloween, Carpenter decried jump scares in favor of the “bomb under the table,” where the horror comes from the audience knowing what the characters don’t. Outside of the above shower scene, The Ward more or less does away with that concept, sticking to standard loud-noise-thing-jumping-out-at-you jolts instead of subtle sound effects and the periphery.
Let’s Hear It for Harris: While all of the actors are fairly serviceable, Jared Harris somehow manages to chew up the scenery without ever spitting it in our faces. The high-profile thespian seems to be having a lot of fun in an unabashed genre film.
Final Transmission: In terms of raw filmmaking,The Ward is a sleeker and perhaps a higher-quality film than other latter-day Carpenter flicks like Ghosts of Mars and even Escape from L.A. However, it commits the most heinous cinematic sin of all: being boring. Whereas almost every other one of his films has a sense of risk and identity, his tricks here — the jump scares, the predictable twist ending — feel nothing but derivative.
20. Ghosts of Mars (2001)
Runtime: Allegedly 1 hr. 38 min., but feels like 5 hrs.
Press Release: Officer Melanie Ballard and her team of fellow officers and soldiers must transport the dangerous prisoner Desolation Jones to another location. The twist: They’re on Mars and must contend with recently awakened spirits.
Cast: Natasha Henstridge, Ice Cube, Jason Statham, Pam Grier, Joanna Cassidy
Soundtrack: Another of Carpenter’s latter-day misses. His decision to go to guitar for They Live has haunted the filmmaker several times since, and Ghosts of Mars is no exception. To make things worse, he added even more guitars to the party, assembling the likes of Nine Inch Nails’ Robin Finck, G’n’R’s Slash and Buckethead, all of Anthrax, and technical wiz Steve Vai. Because when you think of Mars, you think of early ‘90s rawk.
Carpenter’s World: We’re on Mars. Carpenter had not ventured this far away from Earth since he and Dan O’Bannon visited space in 1974’s Dark Star. Aliens have visited Earth in his films several times, but this is the first time we visit them. In Ghosts, Mars looks a whole lot like New Mexico, which makes sense because that’s where it was filmed. The cheap CGI comes courtesy of whatever computer was available at the time.
The Antihero: Cube plays the aforementioned Desolation Jones, a role that was supposed to go to Statham. If the producers knew now what they didn’t know then, Statham would have remained the film’s co-lead. Either way, the movie still would have sucked. Though Cube is given an undoubtedly cool name (who was better than Carpenter at naming characters?), his role isn’t a very interesting one. He’s a tough guy, but there’s not much more to him. He’s light years away from Snake or Napoleon.
Key Scene: Don’t huff Laugher.
I Love Mars: After several actresses turned down the lead role of Melanie Ballard (wonder why), Courtney Love was cast in the role. You may scoff now, but Love was getting more and more work in respectable fare such as Milos Forman’s The People vs. Larry Flynt and his follow-up, Man on the Moon. The story goes that she injured her foot after it was run over by the ex-wife of someone she was seeing at the time. Courtney Love, ladies and gentlemen! What a life!
A Farewell to John: This was the movie that broke the master’s back. After nearly 30 years and 20 films, Carpenter told A.V. Club back in 2011, “It hit me when I was looking at the extras for the DVD of Ghosts of Mars. It showed me at the beginning of the process on the set. I looked okay. Then it showed me at the very end of the process, doing the music. I was like a dead man. Dead man walking. I thought, ‘Okay. All right. I can’t do this for a while. I just can’t.’ I thought it was a good time to stop.” The bad box office and reviews didn’t do him any favors, either.
Final Transmission: The last few films of Carpenter’s career didn’t have fans screaming for more, and Ghosts of Mars falls into that category. The structure doesn’t work, the performances are lightweight, the camera fade-ins and -outs are pedestrian, and the score is aggressive to a fault. The less said about its flashbacks the better. Carpenter did return nearly a decade later with the just-as-underwhelming 2010 effort, The Ward.
19. Body Bags (1993)
Runtime: 1 hr. 31. min.
Press Release: John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper teamed up for a three-part scare fest on Showtime (to try and send up Tales from the Crypt for the most part). Carpenter directed the first two chapters, “The Gas Station” and “Hair”. The former is a generic slasher about a lone gas station worker being terrorized by a madman. The latter is Stacy Keach and an evil alien hair transplant. Carpenter himself MCs the show as the “The Coroner”, a soft-spoken, bland, Cryptkeeper knockoff.
Cast: Alex Datcher, Stacy Keach, Louis from Revenge of the Nerds, Luke Skywalker, one of the Americans from American Werewolf in London, Twiggy, Sheena Easton … who in the hell casted this?
Soundtrack: It’s cheap. Carpenter worked with Jim Lang on a series of scary sounds and TV-grade noises. There’s a lack of score, and it’s very indistinct Carpenter work. For shame!
Carpenter’s World: Carpenter stepped in front of the camera for his first starring role. He did shabbily, dressing up with fake teeth and black makeup around his sunken eyes. He looks like, well, someone’s dead grandpa. Okay, that is troubling.
The Antihero: Carpenter’s scenery and prop-chewing Coroner has no purpose other than to set up the three stories. He’s not likable, he’s not funny, he’s not even that deep or spooky, he’s just, Showtime’s inferior Cryptkeeper. He’s unseemly.
Key Scene: It’s silly to pick favorites in generally cruddy horror stuff, but if there’s a special moment, it’s Stacy Keach seeing his long flowing hair for the first time, and it looks like a crappy hair metal band hairdo. It’s actually funny to think that Fabio dos were hot stuff in the ‘90s. Keach looks like a chubby, middle-aged Renegade.
Multiple Masters of Suspense: Ah, the ‘90s. It was a time when horror movie directors were household names and still able to draw marquee-level audiences. Not only does Tobe Hooper co-direct, he cameos as a morgue attendant. Sam Raimi? He’s a corpse (and The Employee of the Month!) in the first segment too. The creepy middle-aged man who comes on to the sexy young gas attendant/college student? Wes “I invented Freddy Krueger” Craven himself. Roger Corman even shows up for Tobe Hooper’s installment.
It’s Showtime!: If Body Bags resembles Tales from the Crypt in form and structure, that’s because it was initially proposed as a competitor to HBO’s very popular horror series. Showtime eventually balked and accepted this as a movie instead.
Final Transmission: This whole thing’s just kind of D.O.A. Body Bags is corny, campy, and at times a little embarrassing. And John Carpenter, with all due respect, is not a great actor. Maybe this needed more horror dude cameos? Like, Clive Barker as an S&M dungeon master, Stuart Gordon as a mad scientist, or, ooh! How about Jason Voorhees in a cameo as a hockey goalie in some sort of tongue-in-cheek bit?
You know what, I am stupid and bad. Move on to the next film, please.
18. Escape From L.A. (1996)
Runtime: 1 hr. 41 min.
Press Release: In the futuristic year of 2013 (stifling laughter — when will sci-fi ever avoid dating?), Snake Plissken is back in action, as a nutso religious President needs him to go into Los Angeles (now also a prison island like New York), retrieve a Doomsday device, and maybe save the President’s daughter. If he’s got time … after post-apocalyptic Disneyland.
Cast: Kurt Russell, Steve Buscemi, Peter Fonda, Cliff Robertson, Pam Grier, Stacy Keach
Soundtrack: Carpenter paired up with Shirley Walker and re-used his perfect score from Escape from New York. He then spoiled it a little with rock guitars, cowboy harmonicas, violins, and a White Zombie-resembling nastiness. It’s campy good when it sounds like a spaghetti Western.
Carpenter’s World: Welcome to the wastelands of future Los Angeles. A huge Earthquake took the city to sea, and in Carpenter’s world, that’s ground for constructing island prisons. Shallow Hollywood bastards and peddlers, take that!
The Antihero: Call him Snake — 45-year-old, doing-it-for-a-clean-$10-million Snake. For 1996, that’s pretty impressive there, Kurt Russell. You know Snake Plissken, he’s a B-movie rock star, one of Carpenter’s most beloved, badass creations. So naturally, it’s like watching a middle-aged Rolling Stone get wheelbarrowed out for a health check.
Key Scene: Escape from L.A. isn’t just remembered for its awkwardly late existence but also for its really crappy computer-generated imagery. Between a terribly animated shark attacking Snake in a submarine, and the digitally dopey wave that Snake rides along with a pitifully hammy Peter Fonda cameoing, the latter wins out as the key and most memorably sudsy and stupid scene in Escape from L.A. Hang ten for crapola, dudes!
Call Him Snake, in About 10 Years: In 1985, a script for a sequel was commissioned from Coleman Luck (who wrote a ton of Equalizer episodes, so he was fine), and Carpenter apparently rejected it on the grounds of it being too campy and light. Fast-forward to 1994, and between earthquakes and the L.A. riots, Carpenter and Russell felt like they had the material to revisit ol’ Snake. According to Debra Hill, the producer, Russell wanted the film very badly (it’s apparently his favorite movie character — excellent choice, too), and filming began late 1995 for a summer 1996 release. And then it bombed, grossing half of its $50 million budget. Bummer. At least Russell got to show up, swagger and all, with Goldie Hawn on a Harley at the premiere. That’s stardom for you.
Escape from Earth: If Escape from L.A. had landed with audiences, and there was a need for a third chapter, Carpenter and Russell envisioned a zombie apocalypse where 99% of the world’s population have transformed and Snake would need to get the hell offa Earth. Escape from Earth sounds delightful, and we’d wholeheartedly welcome back Russell and Carpenter for a Snake Plissken victory lap, should they want to. Time has passed, but the Plissken brand is still strong! Come on, zombies are the new hotness! Kurt Russell is still awesome, and Carpenter could use the easy (hopefully modest) hit. You can almost see it.
Earth, 2032 A.Z. (That’s Z for Zombies).
Ext. A barren wasteland. Nothing alive. Suddenly, an extreme close-up of a wincing eye. Pan right. Another eye, but with a sinister eye patch. Hell, I’ll write the damn thing if someone can pass it along!
Final Transmission: Escape from L.A. was just not a good follow-up to the original cult classic. But, if paired with the original on a Friday kitsch night, it’s amusing enough. Watch it sans New York, well, then you have a whole lot of problems onscreen, from low-rent effects and production value to old-age nostalgia gallivanting in black leather for the sake of a cash grab (that didn’t even make that much cash). Escape from L.A. is now a sadly dated dystopia that beat for beat resembles the original, just, worse.
17. Vampires (1998)
Runtime: 1 hr. 48 minutes
Press Release: Under the leadership of Jack Crow (James Woods), a group of surly slayers must stop a master vampire before he finds an ancient Catholic artifact capable of allowing him to walk in the daylight.
Cast: James Woods, Daniel Baldwin, Sheryl Lee, Thomas Ian Griffith, Maximilian Schell, Tim Guinee
Soundtrack: Even though John Carpenter composed the music for Vampires, you’d never know it by listening. His signature moody keyboard loops have been replaced by twangy steel guitar solos that wouldn’t sound out of place at a rough-and-tumble roadhouse.
Carpenter’s World: As James Woods’ character so eloquently describes it, this movie’s set in “another New Mexican shithole.” Everything in the film looks like it was shot through a filthy orange gauze. It’s one of Carpenter’s ugliest films, with cinematography resembling something Steven Soderbergh’s digital camera would barf up on the set of a Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake.
The Antihero: Jack Crow is one of the most despicable protagonists in all of filmdom, let alone in John Carpenter’s oeuvre. If Snake Plissken had an uglier, lewder older brother, it’d be Jack Crow. He trots around the desert wearing black leather and sunglasses, spewing vile, terribly unfunny one-liners and gay slurs along the way. This is the type of guy who beats up a priest, then asks if the punches gave him wood. This is the type of guy who asks a vampire, “After 600 years, how’s your dick working?” This is the type of guy who’s really obsessed with boners, apparently.
The movie tries to make Jack a bit sympathetic with a clichéd backstory, at least. Ya see, Jack is pissy because some vampires killed his parents when he was a boy. After he was orphaned, the Catholic church took him in and taught him how to be a slayer. Unfortunately, the priests didn’t bother to teach him how to clean up his goddamn language or stop using the term “pole-smoker” every five minutes.
Biggest Waste of Laura Palmer: Poor Sheryl Lee. She played one of the most iconic roles in television history, Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks, and John Carpenter puts her through the damn wringer in Vampires. The actress is forced to endure endless degradation. She gets orally raped by a vampire, stripped and gagged by a vampire slayer, and, worst of all, French kissed by Daniel Baldwin. It all makes getting wrapped in plastic and tossed on a riverbank seem like an afternoon at the Four Seasons.
Not Your Daddy’s Vampire: Vampires shuns a lot of the common vampire lore. In this world, vampires burrow under the adobe-colored sands of the desert instead of sleeping in coffins, and they hang out in rundown shacks instead of sprawling mansions. They’re completely immune to garlic, as well, which I guess is good for any Papa John’s franchise in New Mexico. For some reason, Jack and his slayers also insist on hunting the vamps with shotguns, even though the bullets barely slow ‘em down.
Final Transmission: This one’s just a dud. It seems pretty likely that some Hollywood producer wanted to cash in on the bad-boy vampire hunter hullabaloo inspired two years earlier by Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn, but I’m not sure why John Carpenter took the gig. Most of the film’s flaws lie with the script, and no amount of his directorial artistry could have saved this turd.
16. Dark Star (1974)
Runtime: 1 hr. 23 min.
Press Release: Space explorers in the 22nd century have been tasked with blowing up unstable or uninhabitable planets in order to make room for Earth’s colonization. This one team, well, they’ve been in space for 20 years, and the job has just gotten so very boring. But one day, they pick up a beach ball-like alien to break up the monotony, and everything goes incredibly, hysterically wrong.
Cast: Brian Narelle, Cal Kuniholm, Dre Pahich, Dan O’Bannon.
Soundtrack: For one thing, the score’s like a prelude to Carpenter’s later, greater work. Synthesizer sounds and ominous tones are here to hear. Yet the best and most distinctive tune comes in the opening credits. “Benson, Arizona”, by John Yager, is a hillbilly tune with a mellowed-out West Coast bent, and it perfectly sets up the oddball tone of Dark Star.
Carpenter’s World: More like out-of-this-world! Sorry. Carpenter came up with this concept with his buddy Dan O’Bannon (of Return of the Living Dead and Total Recall fame) while they were students at USC.
The Antihero: Dan O’Bannon’s Sgt. Pinback is a pernicious, angry, and just really bored little man. He’s the team’s bombardier, and has devolved after being isolated in space for so long. All of the men have, but O’Bannon’s portrayal is so giddily manic and bitter. It’s a shame to realize that O’Bannon only acted in this and three other films; he had the makings of a great comic character actor, but writing called. Look out for the montage of video diaries that show his gradual decay (and shaggy hair growth) late in the film.
“I do not like the men on this spaceship. They are uncouth and fail to appreciate my better qualities,” he moans.
Chill out, Pinback. You could stand to get some space drugs or space lucky.
Key Scene: When the team takes in a pet alien, one has to scoff at the design. It’s a freaking beach ball, with dots painted on and rubber claw hands placed at the base of it. It’s the lowest of low rent, and yet it’s used with ingenious placement, editing, and conceptual fear. The little bastard terrorizes the crew, and with quick cuts, proper angles, and lighting, the bugger is both creepy and really funny. Considering the budget and limitations, it’s all the more impressive that Carpenter makes a broom fight between Sgt. Pinback and the ball work. It’s the film’s most inventive moment.
Aliens: About that beach ball. The “alien mascot” and the general concept of a creature getting aboard a spaceship and causing hell was later re-used and altered by O’Bannon in what would become the screenplay for Alien.
$60,000 Spaceship: Carpenter and O’Bannon worked together on a $60,000 budget in 1974. That’s, uh, really not much money for making a movie. For context, another sci-fi film that year, the baffling Zardoz, cost $1.57 million to produce. Characters dangling in elevator shafts are achieved with trick camera angles (and actors laying on the floors). Space helmets were just refurbished kids toy costumes. The bombs that the astronauts drop on useless planets? Model trailer and car kits shot up close. It’s low-budget gold all over this thing. The illusions are frugal and clumsy and delightfully so.
Final Transmission: Dark Star’s a deft first feature, brimming with creativity and ambition. It’s just such a fun idea: space ennui. The film works as a creature feature, an exploration film, and a far-out black comedy. It’s John Carpenter’s first feature film, and it’s the best kind of scrappy, low-budget film school project.
15. Village of the Damned (1995)
Runtime: 1 hr. 39 min.
Press Release: In a small coastal town in North Carolina, 10 women mysteriously give birth to children with disturbing psychic abilities. Forming a collective hive mind, the children begin to take over the town, killing anyone who stands in their way in this remake of the 1960 film of the same name.
Cast: Christopher Reeve, Kirstie Alley, Linda Kozlowski, Mark Hamill, Michael Paré, Meredith Salenger, Thomas Dekker, Lindsay Haun
Soundtrack: You’d think the composer team of John Carpenter and The Kinks’ Dave Davies would yield some pretty interesting music, but the soundtrack mostly consists of thriller-film crescendos, with Carpenter’s vivid synths often getting drowned out by more traditional orchestration.
Carpenter’s World: As always, The Carp thrives in building a small, peaceful town poised to get torn apart by some outside force. The ocean vistas, while breathtaking, also make you a bit uneasy since you know they’re going to soon be engulfed in flames.
The Antihero: While he’s ultimately more hero than anti, Thomas Dekker’s David is somewhat ambiguous at the film’s start. Like the other children, he has sleek, white hair and glowing eyes but lacks their murderous impulses since his evil other half was stillborn. By the climax, you’re rooting for the little guy to make it out of town alive.
Smaller Is Scarier: It’s too bad Village of the Damned devolves into a series of hokey explosions and gun battles as the children take on the State Police and National Guard, because the first half of the film is quite creepy. Chalk it up to Carpenter keeping the kids’ warpath localized. Watching them take down the adults individually, almost in secret (that janitor impaling himself on his broom — yikes!), is much more unnerving than wide-scale action movie destruction.
Hair Scare: It seems like any time there’s a kid with bleach-blonde hair in film or TV, they’re bad news. Village of the Damned, Game of Thrones, Akira, the list goes on. Am I alone here, or does society have some sort of undefined fear of ultra-light follicles (this is coming from a guy who had white hair as a kid himself)?
Final Transmission: As chilling as the first half is, Village of the Damned has a hard time sticking the landing and an even harder time breaking away from the original’s screenplay. Despite admirably adding some strong female characters, this remake is just that — a remake.
14. Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992)
Runtime: 1 hr. 39 min.
Press Release: Nick Halloway (Chevy Chase) recounts the maddening and often hilarious series of events that led to his invisible imprisonment.
Cast: Chevy Chase, Daryl Hannah, Sam Neill, Paul Perri, Pat Skipper
Soundtrack: Starman composer Jack Nitzsche was originally attached to score, but then he dropped out. This left the task for the aforementioned Shirley Walker, whose work on Memoirs… made her one of the first female composers to earn a solo score credit on a major Hollywood motion picture. It’s a rousing collection of sustained strings that echo her previous work alongside Danny Elfman. Sadly, she passed away in 2006 at the age of 61.
Carpenter’s World: Not so much. Memoirs… exists outside Carpenter’s signature universe. It’s an adaptation of H.F. Saint’s 1987 novel of the same name and was a vanity project for Chevy Chase, who wanted this to broaden his horizons. It’s a pretty ugly backstory with regards to the screenwriters. William Goldman was initially hired, only to walk away and file a lawsuit after Warner Bros. studio head Mark Canton refused to pay him for his work. He’s credited alongside Robert Collector and Dana Olsen, but given the critical and box office reception of this film, it’s likely neither party gives a shit. Regardless, the film pushed Carpenter out of his comfort zone by shifting the action to various locales as opposed to just one. There’s a beach!
The Antihero: Chase isn’t exactly an antihero. He’s more of a wandering, tragic soul. He didn’t ask to be invisible, even though his character fit the design metaphorically, and the only thing he’s remotely trying to save is himself. Still, you can’t help but root for the man who played Ty Webb.
I want my molecules back! It’s sort of awesome how the special effects of this early ’90s production run circles around the CGI fireworks that sparkle and shine within Paul Verhoeven’s big-budgeted 2000 trainwreck, Hollow Man. Why? They’re all fairly practical. Longtime veteran Ken Pepiot served as special effects coordinator, and his resume leading up to this production was similarly hands-on creatively: *batteries not included, The ‘Burbs, and Predator 2. Say what you will about those films, but their effects were hardly out of touch. With Memoirs…, the effects are never ostentatious and fit organically into every scene. Trying to find the strings or unraveling the secrets is half the fun.
Can we talk about that cast again? As a young, obsessed fan of Jurassic Park, it was difficult to watch Sam Neill play the bad guy. Today, it’s worth appreciating how determined he appears as the nefarious CIA operative David Jenkins. Right below him is the great Stephen Tobolowsky as his terse and stilted supervisor Warren Singleton. The two squeeze right into Carpenter’s rogues gallery of mystery men, and sure enough, he takes advantage of both roles. Rounding out the two is the priceless comedy of Michael McKean, who’s so damn enigmatic he could sell tickets to a 75-minute film of him just eating pistachios.
Final Transmission: The film’s flawed tonally — is it a comedy or is it a drama? — but it’s intriguing for that purpose. Despite this being a studio job, Carpenter has fun on-screen, turning the story into an episodic, neo-noir medley of curious procedurals. And he gets one of the last devoted performances by Chase, who would follow this up with … Cops and Robbersons. The late veteran cinematographer William A. Fraker (Rosemary’s Baby, Bullit) also adds a regal finesse to each scene, specifically the sharp nighttime shots that shine with clarity. To this day, if it’s on television, it’s what I’m watching for the next hour and a half.
13. Prince of Darkness (1987)
Runtime: 1 hr. 42 min.
Press Release: A vicar and a crew of nerdy physics students head to an abandoned LA church to investigate a sinister-looking cylinder filled with spiraling and sinewy Mountain Dew that’s giving off ominous vibes. That’s because the Devil himself is trapped inside, but he’s slowly oozing out to possess the students and the nearby homeless and start the damned Apocalypse.
Cast: Donald Pleasence, Jameson Parker, Victor Wong, Lisa Blount, Dennis Dun!, Susan Blanchard, that dork from Riptide, and Alice Cooper
Soundtrack: In one of his most ominous scores, JC leans on the creepy choir synth settings and drenches this sucker in foreboding arpeggios and nerve-wracking bomp-bomp-bomps. But there’s also a hazy and ethereal feel throughout, like a 45 of “Tubular Bells” played at 33, that underscores the movie’s many talky or “is this all a dream?” moments.
Carpenter’s World: Encapsulated in that creepy old church the same way Satan’s stuck in a fat pneumatic tomb of antifreeze, Prince of Darkness stays claustrophobic as it pontificates heady matters of matter and antimatter. But it’s also the second part of Carpenter’s “Apocalypse Trilogy,” so this would be the 12-year preamble to when the world ends by 1999 like Carpenter’s career did. And, of course, Satan and Jesus are aliens.
The Antihero: Even with his sweet mustache, Jameson (the former of the Simons of Simon and Simon) isn’t really a hero or antihero. He’s just the male lead with a mustache. So the antihero title has to go to the Prince of Darkness himself, and his daddy, the Anti-God.
Line Done Best When Done by Dennis Dun: “Am I crazy, or are we just stroking ourselves heavily here?”
Best Kill: The annoying dork from Riptide being impaled on a bike frame by Alice Cooper.
Final Transmission: It’s legitimately scary, that’s for damn sure. And like Halloween, the creepiness creeps in the many daylight moments as we meet the mute, menacing, bug-ridden, and Satan-possessed homeless. For a movie with so many big ideas, it’s a shame that it devolves into characters constantly fleeing and being picked off by zombies spewing Satan water. But even when it’s lazy and swaps its mystique for traditional horror beats, it stays intense throughout. And those broadcasts from the future that end up in everybody’s dreams are jarring, eerie, and they stick with you. Despite the smarty-farty theoretical physics and theological hogwash, it still winds up being an ambitious slasher film. But its mysterious and malefic tone, surrealist imagery (the mirror stuff still looks cool almost 30 years later), and relentless menace make it one of Carpenter’s eeriest efforts.
12. Elvis (1979)
Runtime: 2 hr. 30 min.
Press Release: With this made-for-TV biopic, writer Anthony Lawrence and director John Carpenter look back at the life and career of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Elvis Presley. From his childhood in Tupelo, Mississippi to blowing away televisions in Las Vegas circa 1970, the film explores the complicated Presley as a son, a performer, a husband, and an artist.
Cast: Kurt Russell. Shelly Winters, Season Hubley, Bing Russell, and Carpenter favorite Charles Cyphers
Soundtrack: Being a period piece taking place mostly in the ‘50s and ‘60s, there wasn’t a lot of room for a bombastic synth score. Instead, viewers are treated to renditions of 25 Elvis classics performed by country singer, Ronnie McDowell. McDowell was a devotee of Presley and wrote and recorded “The King Is Gone” in 1977 as a tribute to his musical idol. McDowell would go on to sing on recordings for the 1981 TV movie Elvis And The Beauty Queen, the 1988 miniseries Elvis And Me, as well as the 1990 TV series, simply titled, Elvis.
Carpenter’s World: Rock ‘n’ roll flows through Carpenter’s veins, from the swagger of Nick Castle as The Shape, to combination of cars, girls, and music in Christine, to his bombastic scores, particularly the heavier, guitar driven, In The Mouth Of Madness. Even today, Carpenter is out touring, playing his themes to sold-out audiences in rock clubs around the world with Daniel Davies, an heir The Kinks. “In 1956, I sat in a house in Bowling Green, Kentucky, and watched Elvis on Ed Sullivan,” Carpenter told Consequence of Sound in 2016. “So I was there right at the beginning … I wasn’t old enough to figure out everything about rock ‘n’ roll, but I was with it.”
The Antihero: When Elvispremiered in February of 1979, the world was only a year and half out from his death in August of 1977. The film deftly blended the mythology of this larger-than-life phenomenon surrounding the kid from Memphis with jet black hair, swiveling hips, and an unmistakable voice. The film wisely portrays the ups and downs, not only in Presley’s life, but also his character. While a superstar, Elvis was a complicated person, just like anyone else.
Key Scene: Carpenter is known for his visual style—self-aware without being too flashy— and here, he keeps the camera movements simple, allowing his actor, Kurt Russell, full command of the stage.
I Think This is the Beginning of a Beautiful Friendship: Kurt Russell was primarily known for his roles in Disney produced films The One And Only, Genuine, Original Family Band, The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, and the latter film’s sequels. Carpenter has recounted that the final casting came down to two actors: one who looked just like Elvis but “could act as well as [a] chair” and, well, Russell. To Russell’s credit, he brought that intangible swagger to the role, and while he was hardly a dead ringer for Presley, he nailed all of the King’s moves and captured his essence. “He made my job incredibly easy,” Carpenter said of his friend and longtime collaborator. “Our collaboration in terms of actor and director? We’d stand around and talk about girls all the time.” Needless to say, Carpenter and Russell discovered a synergy which lead to several collaborations, specifically Escape From New York (and its sequel), The Thing, and Big Trouble In Little China. Yes, without Elvis, there would be no Jack Burton.
Carpenter As A Craftsman: The late ‘70s into the ‘80s was a golden age of the made-for-TV movie. Some of these—including Elvis—would end up being released theatrically overseas, albeit in a truncated form. This was Carpenter’s follow-up to Halloween, and for all intents and purposes, like “The Babysitter Murders,” was just a job — you know, something to keep the lights on. In fact, it’s rumored that Carpenter didn’t even know Halloween was a hit until he was approached during the shooting of Elvis about the possibility of a sequel. In hindsight, Elvis is an anomaly as it’s the only film that Carpenter directed that doesn’t involved some element of horror or the fantastic. Carpenter’s touch as a visual director, however, is evident in the way he shoots the Mississippi landscapes and those unobtrusive tracking shots, particularly any scenes involving Russell on stage as Presley.
Final Transmission: Elvis is a standout film in Carpenter’s catalogue, showcasing him not as a Master of Horror, but rather a Master of Direction and Visual Storytelling. It’s also one of the best, most entertaining, and most honest looks at the life, times, and the phenomenon of Elvis Presley.
11. Christine (1983)
Runtime: 1 hr. 50 min.
Press Release: People start dying after nearsighted nerd Arnie Cunningham (Keith Gordon) buys Christine, the car of his dreams. His best friend (John Stockwell) and girlfriend (Alexandra Paul) rightfully suspect that the car is demonic, so they set out to save Arnie before it’s too late.
Cast: Keith Gordon, John Stockwell, Alexandra Paul, Robert Prosky, Harry Dean Stanton
Soundtrack: Sure, the soundtrack gives you a heavy dose of Carpenter’s signature keyboard — a lot of which sounds suspiciously like The Exorcist’s theme song, “Tubular Bells”. But the real star of the show is old-fashioned rock and roll. The film opens and closes with George Thorogood and the Destroyers’ “Bad to the Bone”, just in case you thought this cherry little Plymouth Fury was anything but, and it also features a variety of ‘50s classics from the likes of Little Richard and Buddy Holly. But Carpenter puts a dark spin on these otherwise fun-loving rock tunes, using them to foreshadow and backdrop all of Christine’s carnage.
Carpenter’s World: Like Halloween, this story’s set in Anytown, USA, in the 1970s. It’s a quaint, small town with tree-lined culs-de-sac, a stereotypical high school, and a smattering of local businesses — including a decrepit, do-it-yourself automotive center where the film’s climactic battle plays out. But this is Stephen King’s world as much as it is Carpenter’s, meaning viewers should expect dialogue punctuated by a lot of folksy 1950s slang.
The Antihero: Keith Gordon stars as Arnie, a nebbish, speckled outcast who’s preyed upon by just about everyone in his life, including the high school bullies and his own parents. Hell, even the pit-stained owner of the local junkyard calls him a creep. That all changes when Arnie discovers Christine. Soon the once-loveable loser transforms into an egotistical, lecherous monster, one who jokes about pussy and puts his dad in a chokehold. Even though Arnie turns into a grade-A douche, it’s still satisfying to watch him and his car plow down all who’ve wronged him, especially the evil greaser Buddy Repperton.
The Stephen King Connection: Christine is the director’s only film adaptation of a Stephen King novel, which is kind of shocking considering the author’s massive output and box office allure during Carpenter’s horror heyday. In fact, King was so popular at the time that this movie went into production before the novel was even finished. That’s because Christine’s producer, Richard Kobritz, optioned off the script after enjoying success with another film adaptation of a King story, Salem’s Lot.
That Loveable Old Coot: Fans of adorable codgers from the ‘80s will be overjoyed with the choices of Christine’s casting director. Robert Blossoms, the elderly next door neighbor with a snow shovel in Home Alone, plays George LeBay, a misanthropic loner in a filthy back brace who sells Christine to Arnie. And Harry Dean Stanton, who jerked tears from America’s ducts as the sad-sack father in Pretty in Pink, co-stars as Detective Junkins, the cop in charge of solving a mysterious string of car-related deaths.
Final Transmission: Christine is a solid entry in John Carpenter’s oeuvre. There’s nothing particularly innovative about the film’s narrative or aesthetics, but it’s damn entertaining. It also holds up surprisingly well for a movie made more than 30 years ago, which is thanks, in part, to Carpenter’s straightforward style and a talented special effects crew. If you’re looking for a film about a supernatural automobile, you can’t do better than this one. You hear me, Maximum Overdrive?