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?
10. Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
Runtime: 99 Sweet and Sour Minutes
Press Release: Trucker Jack Burton and his pal Wang Chi must fight their way across Chinatown and scores of street gangs and ancient magical baddies in order to rescue Wang’s green-eyed fiancée from the clutches of the evil sorcerer Lo Pan. That’s taking the easy way to describe the bananas plot of John Carpenter’s unapologetically silly and hammy kung fu/comedy/horror/action mutant.
Cast: Kurt Russell, Dennis Dun, Kim Cattrall, James Hong, Victor Wong, Al “Endo” Leong, and Carter Wong, Peter Kwong, and James Pax as the Three Storms who remind you of Raiden
Soundtrack: Claiming that “other scores for American movies about Chinese characters are basically rinky tink, chop suey music,” JC eschewed those cliches (mostly) and delivered a signature Carpenter without nary a gong to be heard. There’s some slowhand guitar atop our requisite thumping synths, then plenty of bow-bow-bows and mood swells. But the coup de grâce is the Coupe De’ Villes, a supergroup of Carpenter, Nick Castle, and Tommy Lee Wallace, rocking out that badass theme song.
Carpenter’s World: A self-contained and mystical Chinatown where demons invoke lightning storms and gangs mow down other gangs whenever they damn well please. Much is set in Lo Pan’s fantastic lair of temples, dungeons, underground caverns, throne rooms, and the fight-scene-ready warehouse where the Lords of Death keep ladies captive. But mostly, it’s a cartoonish world of dark magic that’s absolutely ridiculous and makes you wish there was a sequel that featured the oft-mentioned 18 Chinese levels of Hell (the hell of being cut to pieces, the hell where you’re skinned alive, the hell of upside-down sinners).
The Antihero: Ol’ Jack Burton, a man who’s paid his dues (the check is in the mail) and never drives The Pork Chop Express faster than he can see. What’s not to love about this sweet goober? He’s no brooding MacReady, and he sure as hell ain’t Snake Plissken. He’s more of a John Wayne with fetal alcohol syndrome, but he’s definitely the Carpenter/Russell character we’d all rather chug a six-pack with. And Jack’s a guy who’s been all talk most of his life, but he walks the walk when the chips are stacked, even pluggin’ his first guy (although he won’t admit it’s his first). Yeah, you could say he’s actually Wang’s sidekick, since Wang gets to fight almost everybody. But the guy’s trying. Heroic? Whatever. Just give the guy his truck back.
Key Scene: Many of the best scenes — every fight, the wheelchair bit, Jack’s nerdy disguise when he goes undercover at a brothel — seem to be on YouTube. But I guess the part where Thunder blows up represents the film well enough.
Lines Done Best When Done by Dennis Dun: (Tie) “How do you think I feel, Jack. I lost a whole girl!” and “Hell of Boiling Oil”
Nerd Tips for Comic Con Q&As: The delightful James Hong relishes reciting Lo Pan lines. Even does the creepy hand gestures as he does ’em. But if you ask John Carpenter to sing a few bars of “Big Trouble in Little China” (even offering to do the Tommy Lee Wallace “in little Chi-nah” part), he’ll look at you like you just farted in his face and growl, “No, I’m not going to sing. I’m gonna end this Q&A now, I’ve got to go meet my drug dealer.” True story.
Final Transmission: Much like its soulmate, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, Big Trouble in Little China was misunderstood, or just simply not enjoyed, by critics and audiences upon release. Then it turned into one of those cult classics that are usually forced upon you with the words, “Dude, you haven’t seen…” While the cornball comedy, high-wire martial arts scenes, and monster horror don’t always mesh, the whole of it is fascinating, the fights are fun, the dialogue is endlessly quotable (and funnier every time), and it makes you pine for the high quality coke going around 20th Century Fox when this got greenlit. And dismissing Escape from L.A., it’s the last time you get that easy chemistry between Carpenter and his best leading man (aside from Roddy Piper).
09. In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
Runtime: 1 hr. 35 min.
Press Release: As his latest and most provocative title is about to be published, Sutter Cane (Jürgen Prochnow), a Lovecraftian, Stephen King-like author with a fanbase of biblical proportions, goes missing, and it’s up to insurance investigator John Trent (Sam Neill) to find and return the mysterious author. However, as Trent gets closer to the author, his perceptions of truth and fiction begin to break down, and he encounters some freaky stuff in a spooked Maine town. So, it’s the meta-King non-adaptation?
Cast: Sam Neill, Julie Carmen, Jürgen Prochnow, David Warner, Bernie Casey, and Charlton Heston in a glorified cameo
Soundtrack: Carpenter worked with Jim Lang again here, and wound up with a score that sounded distinctly like a Metallica knock-off. That’s because, according to a Wall Street Journal interview last year, Carpenter said the editor, Edward A. Warschilka kept putting in Metallica as temp music during editing. Carpenter loved how it sounded, and it inspired the rock score.
Carpenter’s World: Carpenter’s called this the third and final chapter in his “Apocalypse Trilogy,” a series of films that more or less play with the idea of the end of all things in some form. The Thing was the first and was a biological end, and Prince of Darkness was the second and a very religious end.
The Antihero: As a no-frills insurance man, John Trent is a super-powered cynic. Nothing gets by the guy. So when old ladies start growing tentacles and axe-wielding maniacs come his way and Trent has fever dreams that could maybe be explained by bad leftovers or something, he always pauses and grasps for reality.
Key Scene: The ending is the clear winner, a comical, cynical and all-around scary series of events that pins down the elliptical and nonsensical nature of the film and what it’s trying to say about the powers of art and entertainment. But we don’t really want to give that away now do we? Carpenter tried more than he had in years with this one. In the Mouth of Madness could be seen as heady gimmickry, but it’s incredibly well executed. Carpenter was invigorated, having fun here, and you could really see it in the details. It’s just impressive how some really good costuming made for the best bit in the movie.
Carpenter’s References: Carpenter was always a film school brat through and through. All his movies either reference or directly show other favorite features of his. In The Mouth of Madness is no different. Robot Monster from 1953 is watched by Sam Neill near the end. It’s one of Carpenter’s childhood favorites.
For the Love of Lovecraft: Sutter Cane passages are read throughout the film, and it’s often alluded that he’s an author dealing in Lovecraftian content: monsters, old creatures, things that go bump in the night. “Old ones” are mentioned, which hints at the Cthulhu mythos from Lovecraft. Even the title is a play on In the Mountains of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft, and his stories (“The Rats in The Wall,” and “The Haunter of the Dark,” to name a few) get quoted often in the film.
Final Transmission: One could argue for In The Mouth of Madness as Carpenter’s most underappreciated and misunderstood film. Yes, it has requisite creature effects and jump scares, but Michael De Luca’s script is much cleverer than the surface suggests. Imagine literature taking on supernatural powers because of how mainstream culture embraces it (not to mention fouler things at play, like old god monsters). A book becomes powerful, so much so that it becomes an accepted reality and truth. I mean, people think the Bible actually happened. That’s the ingenious concept underneath the usual scares. In the Mouth of Madness is a relentless thrill to boot. It’s Carpenter’s best ‘90s effort, and probably his last really entertaining film.
08. They Live (1988)
Runtime: 1 hr. 33 min.
Press Release: A nameless drifter (Roddy Piper) stumbles on a pair of special sunglasses, which lead him to a surprising discovery: America’s upper class has been taken over by aliens. So he teams up with his pal Frank (Keith David) to try stopping the aliens before they destroy the country.
Cast: Roddy Piper, Keith David, Meg Foster
Soundtrack: Classic Carpenter. With frequent collaborator Alan Howarth, he creates a score with propulsive bass lines and keyboard tracks. There are even some sax and harmonica solos thrown in to enhance its ‘80s-ness.
Carpenter’s World: In They Live’s dystopian view of the world, America is overrun with police brutality, racial injustice, and class warfare. In other words, it’s kind of like everyday life in 2015. Carpenter hammers home his anti-Reaganomics message by showing the gritty, smoggy reality of 1980s Los Angeles, specifically the ghettos populated by the city’s working poor and homeless.
The Antihero: Roddy Piper’s nameless hero is an everyman. Dressed in dirty jeans and a flannel shirt, he walks the streets of LA looking for a job, hoping that he can achieve the American dream with a little bit of hard work. In the entire Carpenter cannon, this character is one of the most relatable, one of the nicest. He’s not really an antihero so much as a straight-up hero, a guy who only fights and smack-talks when pushed.
As an actor, Piper is extremely likable and natural. His Canadian accent occasionally sneaks through, but it only lends authenticity to his character’s aw-shucks attitude. As a former professional wrestler, “Rowdy” Roddy infuses his performance with an impressive physicality and ability to insult his opponents. In fact, he ad-libbed the film’s most famous line: “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass … and I’m all out of bubblegum.” It’s really just a damn shame that the guy’s acting career fizzled out after They Live. He was the 1980’s answer to The Rock.
Filmdom’s Greatest Fight Scene: For my money, They Live contains six of the greatest minutes of film in John Carpenter’s storied career. After Frank refuses to try on his friend’s magical sunglasses, things get, well, intense. What follows is one of the best back-alley fistfights in the history of cinema. It’s a grunting, bloody, no-holds-barred blowout between the muscly Keith David and the even more muscly Roddy Piper. The two perform a brutal ballet, one where balls get kicked, broken bottles get brandished, and eyes get gouged. Did I mention it goes on for six whole minutes?! In fact, this brawl has become so legendary that it was even replicated blow-for-blow in the infamous “cripple fight” between Timmy and Jimmy on South Park.
Carpenter Gets Revenge on the Critics: Pay careful attention to the last few minutes of the film. After Roddy blows up the aliens’ satellite, their skeletal faces are finally visible on television. One of these skeletal faces belongs to Gene Siskel (portrayed by an actor), who’s bashing George Romero and John Carpenter for relying on gratuitous violence in the scene just as he did in real life.
Final Transmission: They Live is just as effective now as it was in 1988. That’s thanks, in part, to the fact that the Reagan-era politics that inspired the script have only grown stronger in recent years. But regardless of viewers’ personal political beliefs, the film’s still a blast to watch because of its action sequences and its humor. In fact, this might be John Carpenter’s funniest movie. If Roddy Piper calling an old woman “formaldehyde-face” doesn’t elicit at least a giggle, you better check your pulse.
07. The Fog (1980)
Runtime: 89 minutes
Press Release: A mysterious fog rolls into Antonio Bay, bringing with it a band of vengeful ghost mariners who were killed by the town’s founders 100 years earlier.
Cast: Adrienne Barbeau, Jamie Lee Curtis, Tom Atkins, John Houseman, Janet Leigh, James Canning, Charles Cyphers, Nancy Loomis, Ty Mitchell, Hal Holbrook
Soundtrack: Already a sparse composer, Carpenter somehow increases his minimalism here, relying more on single piano lines and not as many layered synths. This makes for melodies that are a bit more graceful and in line with the film’s breezy ocean setting.
Carpenter’s World: Like Amity in Jaws, Antonio Bay really does look like a place you’d want to vacation. And, as is the case with so many Carpenter films, the idyllic locale makes the presence of a dark, otherworldly force all the more alarming.
The Antihero: The ghosts themselves are true antiheroes. On one hand, they murder innocent people. On the other hand, they have every right to be pissed off!
Is that seaweed or hair?: Even during the film’s climax, you never get a good look at the ghosts. Stringy hair, flaky skin, red, red eyes, and that’s about it. It’s as if the spirits are made of the fog itself — intangible and impossible to discern.
Act Your Age: What I love about early Carpenter films is that he wasn’t afraid to make them about people his own age. Other than Jamie Lee Curtis and the kid who plays Adrienne Barbeau’s son, every member of The Fog’s ensemble cast is over 30. Even better, they’re all pretty normal looking, bucking the ’80s trend of exclusively casting young, nubile co-eds in horror films. You tend to feel more for characters when they look like people in your everyday life.
Final Transmission: Despite a considerable amount of re-shoots, The Fog has an ease to both its horror and non-horror elements. Part of it is the strength of its cast (Tom Atkins can sell just about anything), part of it is its beach-town laziness, and part of it is the ethereal nature of its antagonists. It all reminds you of summer, making you forget about the terror slowly creeping up on you until it’s too late.
06. Someone’s Watching Me! (1978)
Runtime: 1 hr. 38 min.
Press Release: Leigh Michaels (Lauren Hutton) is a young and aspiring television director who’s just moved into a new high rise apartment building in Los Angeles. That good life turns bad, however, when she starts receiving bizarre phone calls and eerie gifts from an elusive stalker.
Cast: Lauren Hutton, Adrienne Barbeau, Charles Cyphers, David Birney
Soundtrack: Although he was fresh off 1976’s Assault on Precinct 13, Carpenter left all the scoring for Someone’s Watching Me! to veteran film and television composer Harry Sukman. At the time, it was an obvious choice for NBC, seeing how Sukman was an Oscar winner — with other notable nominations to his name — and had an unshakable resume: 30 episodes of Bonanza, 60 episodes of Dr. Kildare, and countless other credits that would make any suit’s head spin. His work here adds all the necessary paranoia and menace, while also tapping into the triumphant pulse of event television at the time. This would also be one of his final scores, as he’d tap out the following year with one hell of a swan song: Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot mini-series.
Carpenter’s World: If you couldn’t tell he loved Hitchcock from watching Halloween — ahem, the name Sam Loomis, the Bernard Herrmann-esque score, and the inspired casting of Janet Leigh’s daughter, Jamie Lee Curtis — then you sure as hell got the message with this television movie. The pastiches are everywhere, from the opening credits (see above) to the premise itself, which essentially boils down to a gender twist on Rear Window. It’s okay, though, because unlike, say, Brian De Palma, whose films more or less came packaged with “NO. 1 HITCHCOCK FAN” lobby cards, Carpenter leans more into his own style here. Watching this, which he not only helmed but also wrote (as part of the first quarter of his decade-long creative stretch), you’re seeing Carpenter sharpening his style in ways that would turn obsidian by Halloween. It’s great stuff.
The Antihero: There aren’t any real anti-heroes in this film as Carpenter keeps things pretty straightforward with regards to good and evil, right or wrong. What this film does have is a strong female lead in Hutton’s Leigh Michaels, whose confidence, resourcefulness, and straight-up resilience were becoming more and more of a hallmark with Carpenter’s female leads. Of course, that’s all without mentioning Barbeau’s Sophie, Michaels’ even edgier colleague and pal, whose then-unorthodox lesbian backstory must have really sent a few TV dinners flying into the air around living rooms across America.
Key Scene: There aren’t any clips out there, unfortunately, which isn’t too shocking given that the film was out of print for so many years. But, there’s this old promo, and in it you can see a glimpse of the film’s nail-biter of a climax.
Yo, Adrienne! This film marked the beginning of a nice, fruitful relationship between Carpenter and the great Adrienne Barbeau — literally. The two would wed a year after this production and go on to work together on two more films: 1980’s The Fog and 1981’s Escape from New York. Although Jamie Lee would be dubbed the Scream Queen, Barbeau was easily the Genre Queen as her filmography reads like the shelf of a die-hard horror and sci-fi scholar. Carpenter and Barbeau were a match made in … hell.
A Late Halloween Treat: Talk about blind luck for NBC. Although Someone’s Watching Me! was filmed immediately prior to Halloween, it had the good fortune of following his spooky blockbuster hit a month later on November 29, 1978, and they certainly used his credo to their benefit. You have to remember, Halloween was a total phenomenon, shattering records at the box office as this little independent film that could. So yeah, they’d be fucking idiots not to capitalize on that success.
Final Transmission: Hitchcock allusions aside, Someone’s Watching Me! is the work of a young filmmaker on the cusp of greatness, and you can feel that energy decades later. Let’s not forget, this was a Wednesday night TV movie, and yet it’s still a legitimately chilling thriller. From beginning to end, you’re never really confident anyone’s going to make it out alive, particularly Hutton, who despite her smarts and wits, always manages to be two steps behind her assailant. But, it’s more than just thrills and chills, it’s also a very progressive film, from Barbeau’s aforementioned narrative to the inherent feminist themes that define Hutton’s character. These prescient accoutrements are made all the more effective by its ending, which, like Halloween, sticks with you long after the credits roll. Damn, it must have been a real pisser to have caught this back in ’78.
05. Starman (1984)
Runtime: 1 hr. 55 min.
Press Release: Starman, an alien that comes to Earth, takes the form of a dead guy who looks startlingly like a young Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski, and must be transported from Wisconsin to Arizona for a pickup while evading the feds and learning about love. So E.T. two years later, but decently so.
Cast: Jeff Bridges, Karen Allen, Charles Martin Smith, Buck Flower
Soundtrack: John sat this one out and let Oscar-winning composer and songwriter Jack Nitzche have the honors. From the guy who gave the world “Up Where We Belong” came an echo-y, digitally choral space score. It’s a little sappy, but it’s nice in the film.
Carpenter’s World: One could argue that this is barely within Carpenter’s world. It’s the film that feels least like the rest of his work. It avoids heavy potboiler or effects elements, and Carpenter, who usually is more involved in his movies, solely directed here. He came to the project after years of development and other hands messing around with this concept. Carpenter finally directed the project after something like four directors walked and/or didn’t pitch the film in a way that Columbia Pictures liked.
The Antihero: The alien, Starman, could be seen as more of a total neutral figure. Starman’s kind of like a lost angel, confused, but capable of bringing out the good in people. Guh, when do we get back to the fun and nasty Carpenter stuff?
Key Scene: Carpenter was looking to shed his genre name in 1984, and he felt like Starman could be a kinder and more sympathetic project to help him evolve away from crawly things and creepy characters. So he gave in a little here, telling a space alien weeper. With Starman, Carpenter set out to make a road movie, not unlike It Happened One Night, about strange and interesting characters. That’s when the film is at its best, letting Bridges interact curiously with humans. There’s captivating truth in him just trying to pass with a good-old boy by tasting a cigarette. Gross for him. Fascinating for us to watch.
Carpenter’s Oscar?: Starman has the distinction of being Carpenter’s only movie to ever get an Oscar nomination. Jeff Bridges got a best actor nomination for his curious, innocent, and somewhat bird-like Starman. Seriously, the coolest actor in the biz studied ornithology, apparently, because Bridges figured this alien wouldn’t behave naturally or human. He is an alien, after all. It was a smooth move and an interesting series of tics. It’s a fascinating performance from Bridges, who probably played to Academy voters’ heartstrings.
That Damned E.T.: All told, the development and production for Starman lasted about five years at Columbia pictures. Michael Douglas, who already had a Best Picture Oscar for producing One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, had a deal with Columbia and insisted that the studio purchase Bruce Evans and Raynold Gideon’s script for Starman, a big sell about an alien coming to Earth. At that same time, the studio optioned something from Steven Spielberg called Night Skies, which was also about an alien coming to Earth. You know where this is going. Tons of directors (Adrian Lyne, John Badham, Mark Rydell) and writers hopped on and off of Starman, but Columbia stuck with it feeling that Starman had potential for finding an adult audience, and they dropped Spielberg’s more Mickey Mouse fare. In 1982, Night Skies was released by Universal, except now it was called E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, and, well … whoops. Still, Starman eventually landed for a holiday 1984 release, and it was a big hit. Not an E.T.-sized hit, but you get the idea.
Final Transmission: It may be John Carpenter’s least Carpenter-esque film, but Starman holds up as a good-natured road movie with genre elements.
04. Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
Runtime: 1 hr. 31 min.
Press Release: A recently shut down police precinct is under attack by a ruthless L.A. street gang. Lieutenant Ethan Bishop must join forces with prisoner Napoleon Wilson to save everyone inside.
Cast: Austin Stoker, Darwin Joston, Laurie Zimmer, Charles Cyphers, Nancy Loomis
Soundtrack: What a soundtrack. While his next couple of movies would be built around a piano-led score, Carpenter’s Assault score hits us with synthesizers and drum machines as soon as the blood-red opening credits appear on the screen. This style would come to define the director’s work in the early ‘80s (Halloween II, Escape from New York, The Thing, Christine), and sure does beat the guitar-based scores.
Carpenter’s World: We are in South Central, more specifically the closed-down Precinct 13. The neighborhoods are empty due to the heavy crime in the area. Well, nearly empty. The deadly gang Street Thunder silently roams the streets to test out recently acquired guns. While most of the action will take place at the aforementioned police station, it’s the unspeakable events that occur in the eerily empty, sunlit streets that take us there.
The Antihero: The great, amazing, awesome, cool, cunning, deadpan Darwin Joston plays Napoleon Wilson, a character who was on his way to death row before his bus needed to make a stop at the precinct thanks to a sick prisoner. Joston (seriously, I don’t know if his given name is cooler or his character’s) owns the role with his recurring request for cigarettes (“Got a smoke?”), flirting with station secretary Leigh (Zimmer), and becoming one of the definitive antiheroes in Carpenter’s catalog. He popped up in The Fog a few years later but never had a role as meaty as this one, dying of leukemia in 1998. Long live Darwin Joston.
Key Scene: “I wanted vanilla twist.”
Assault on Rio Bravo: Carpenter’s love of westerns is never more evident than it is in Assault. His most specific inspiration comes from Howard Hawk’s Rio Bravo, in which an officer must protect prisoners from an invading gang. It’s a loose adaptation, but Assault’s Wilson is as close to a cowboy as you’re going to find in 1970s Los Angeles. There’s even a scene where one man throws another man a gun just in time to blow away the bad guys!
Zombi: Street Thunder is one of the most vicious gangs to grace our screens. What separates them from many of their ‘70s counterparts (ex. The Warriors) is their total lack of identity. They roam the streets, they attack with great stealth when needed, and when they decide to attack it’s with little to no fear at all. If someone is gunned down, it’s next man up without hesitation. The case has been made many times that Assault is actually more of a zombie movie than it is a western, even featuring an African-American lead as its hero, akin to George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.
Final Transmission: Carpenter created a classic with a budget of only $100,000. To this day, many people believe that Halloween was his debut, and while it is responsible for The Career That Michael Myers Built, the director already had one masterwork tucked away. Assault operates on so many levels in such a constricted space that it’s remarkable that it works as well as it does. But the intensity is never softened by the smooth-talking Napoleon, the early tragedy doesn’t stop us from cheering later on, and Assault on Precinct 13 holds up nearly 40 years later.
03. Escape From New York (1981)
Runtime: 1 hr. 39 min.
Press Release: In post-WWIII 1997, in an America where the crime rate has gone up 400%, the entirety of Manhattan has been transformed into a maximum security prison riddled with murderous gangs. When the President’s plane crashes downtown, the authorities send newly arrived prisoner and former Special Forces war hero and bona fide badass Snake Plissken on a suicide mission to rescue him. He’s got 24 hours to bring the Prez and a cassette tape MacGuffin back, or else they’ll detonate the timed explosives they’ve injected in his neck.
Cast: Kurt Russell, Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, Donald Pleasence, Isaac Hayes, Harry Dean Stanton, Adrienne Barbeau, Season Hubley, Tom Atkins
Soundtrack: Mostly it’s like the Halloween score moved into the big city, bought some bitchin’ new synthesizers, started smoking, and stopped shaving its armpits. It rules, especially when The Duke arrives and it suddenly sounds like a 1981 version of LCD Soundsystem covering “Gimme Some Lovin’”. This is easily the best Carpenter soundtrack for doin’ it.
Carpenter’s World: It didn’t invent the post-apocalyptic hellscape, but Escape From New York sure inspired every cheap-o post-apocalyptic hellscape picture to follow it. It’s a kill-or-be-killed world of garbage and garbage people where bridges are lined with mines and you can practically smell the rat droppings. It’s like The Warriors’ grittier brother, smothered in iron-deficient poop and other dark hues, bitchin’ lens flares, sillier gangs, and gang leaders who hang chandeliers on the hoods of their Caddys. It doesn’t do any favors for East St. Louis, where most of it was filmed.
The Antihero: A man of few words. A man with an eye patch. A man who never tells you what happened to his eye because he’s a man of few words. A hero, meh, but only because his hand is forced. Otherwise, he’s only in it for himself and doesn’t give a shit about saving you or the world. He exudes surly machismo without always flapping his yap, and everybody knows his name. Maybe that’s because that name is Snake Fucking Plissken, a guy who’d rather be alone with his cigarettes and will only drive a baseball bat full of nails into your skull if he has to. Effortlessly cool and not immortal like that shabby future Snake Plissken that surfs.
When James Cameron Didn’t Suck: Check out all those badass buildings in the background as the helicopter flies over “Central Park” (actually San Fernando, California). Those matte paintings that make this futuristic toilet of New York look believable? They’re all the work of lil’ James Cameron. Stay gold, Jim.
Keeping It in the Family: Welcome back, Donald Pleasence, who never drops his British accent when playing the President of the United States, plus keep an ear out for an uncredited Jamie Lee Curtis doling out the opening narration.
Final Transmission: Often imitated, never duplicated, Escape from New York still kicks ass. And as Carpenter’s first full-fledged action picture, it proves he doesn’t need a Bogeyman to ratchet up the suspense. With its handy 24-hour countdown device, it burns at the speed of a smoldering cigar laced with gunpowder as it charges across town, rarely taking a breath for silly things like storytelling or character development. The supporting cast is superb, especially a giddy Ernest Borgnine (probably masturbating in that cab), a seedy Isaac Hayes, and Donald Pleasence getting some machine gun comeuppance on his captor. Plus, there’s an early sketch of a Thunderdome. It’s all meaty fun. A pure B-movie elevated to an A+ by Carpenter’s still-sharp focus, throbbing pacing, and lean, clean direction.
02. The Thing (1982)
Runtime: 1 hr. 49 min.
Press Release: A team of researchers based in Antarctica uncover a shape-shifting alien that would wipe out mankind if it leaves the frozen tundra. With a murderous extraterrestrial that could look like anything (or anyone), who to trust becomes not just a question of character but of survival.
Cast: Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, Richard Dysart, Keith David
Soundtrack: Creepy strings, eerie synths, and nervous disharmonies send shivers down the spine. The soundtrack was a collaboration between John Carpenter and Italian composer Ennio Morricone, who didn’t share a language. Carpenter claims to have urged Morricone toward the minimalist direction, but it isn’t just the space between the notes that gives you the creeps. Like the movie itself, the score does anything but provide comfort or familiarity; when it’s active, layers of violins and upright basses clash like a mind being split in two, and the haunted orchestra is given room to breathe fear into the film.
Carpenter’s World: Antarctica is an ice world, thousands of miles of nothing but snow and slush. If that doesn’t feel claustrophobic, remember there are only two bases that sustain human life on the continent, one of which gets wiped out before the film even starts. The world of The Thing is the American base, hundreds of miles from human contact; the four walls of the camp can’t hold much more than paranoia.
The Antihero: Kurt Russell is MacReady, the closest we can come to a badass in a world where no one feels like they are who they say they are. He leads the way when it’s time to test blood and see if anyone is the shapeshifter, but to make matters worse (or better for horror fans), we never find out much history about any characters and their lives before The Thing. MacReady might know if his longtime campmates are good and trustworthy folk, but all we know is someone isn’t who they say they are.
The Thing, or Something Else?: In the novella the film is based on, Who Goes There?, the alien has a “true shape”: a blue-topped creature with three red eyes. Carpenter avoids giving it a true form to allow for infinite possibilities. According to the DVD, creature designer Rob Bottin approached the director with the idea that every shape The Thing takes could be any number of other alien species that have been wiped out on other planets before its visit to Earth.
Burn It: The opening title shot wasn’t done with computer animation like you’d see today; Carpenter had to prove resourceful to get that look. He had an animation cell of the logo placed behind a fish tank filled with smoke, covered the tank with a garbage bag, and filmed the garbage bag burning. Sometimes, if you want to make a word burn onto the screen, you have to use fire.
Final Transmission: Along with Alien, this film will be remembered for its mastery of the sci-fi horror genre. The special effects, relying on stop-motion animation and live-action puppets, still stand as horrifying today. Few film moments pack as much nightmare fuel as watching the head of a man pull itself off and scurry away. Rather than bank on cheap scares and quick twists, it relies on the atonal soundtrack, some limited narration, and an unsettling antagonist to shake the viewer into an unwinnable psychological battle. Frozen beneath the ice, The Thing has a legacy of not just a great Carpenter film, but an all-time classic.
01. Halloween (1978)
Runtime: a lean and mean 91 minutes
Press Release: Six-year-old Michael Myers inexplicably murders his sister on Halloween night in 1963. Fifteen years later, he escapes a mental institution to shed more blood in his hometown, this time targeting a group of teenage babysitters. His psychiatrist pursues him in an attempt to stop a force that he views as nothing more than “purely and simply evil.”
Cast: Donald Pleasance, Jamie Lee Curtis, P.J. Soles, Nancy Loomis, Charles Cyphers, John Michael Graham, Brian Andrews, Kyle Richards, Nick Castle, Tony Moran
Soundtrack: This may have been the first of many times Blue Öyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper” was put to good use in the horror movie, but Halloween will always be remembered for Carpenter’s minimalist synth and piano score. Every last composition is a body bag full of dread, from the plunky yet pummeling title track to the descending scale of “Laurie’s Theme”. Any time I throw on the record, I have to look over my shoulder to make sure Michael Myers isn’t standing behind me.
Carpenter’s World: Carpenter and Debra Hill set the movie in Illinois, named the town after the New Jersey borough where Hill grew up, and filmed the thing in California (the palmetto bushes give it away). But none of that matters, as Haddonfield could be any small town in America. The production team accomplished this by drenching the frame in seasonal details common to everywhere during the Season of the Witch — paper leaves, jack o’ lanterns, the works. The result is a place that’s instantly unremarkable, thus instantly relatable, thus instantly scary.
The Antihero: Donald Pleasance’s iconic Dr. Loomis isn’t exactly an antihero, but as the film (and the series as a whole) progresses, he grows more and more obsessive, appearing not as concerned with saving the people of Haddonfield as he is with destroying an unstoppable force of nature.
Where’s Michael? I’m surprised there hasn’t been a BuzzFeed article called “11 Halloween Shots Where You Never Noticed Michael Myers.” Carpenter’s greatest weapon is his use of periphery, and it probably took me 15 viewings to notice every time the director filmed Myers lurking in the background. Most notable is where Loomis meets Sheriff Brackett in front of the hardware store. Myers’ station wagon pulls into the rear of the frame, then takes a left turn, crossing directly behind Loomis and out of the shot. You can’t even see him pulling up in the full-screen version, which made the widescreen DVD release extra frightening back in the 2000s.
“Lying Out There Like a Killer in the Sun”: That Springsteen lyric has always scared me because it’s always reminded me of Michael Myers. For over half of the movie, we see him stalking people in broad daylight, something that hadn’t been done too much in a horror movie up to that point. It isn’t even done that much now.
Final Transmission: In all fairness, 1974’s Black Christmas kick-started many of the horror devices that Halloween often gets credit for — the slasher film, the faceless murderer, the killer POV, etc. But Halloween’s importance has little to do with its revolutionary filming techniques — after all, Carpenter was borrowing heavily from Hitchcock — and more to do with the idea of making inexplicable violence relatable to audiences worldwide. Its simplicity and ubiquitous setting (a mundane small town rather than a summer camp or sorority house) places you in the blood-soaked shoes of Myers’ victims. He could be anywhere. Anywhere. He wasn’t born in a haunted house. He was born on the street where you live.