Happy Birthday John Carpenter: Recognizing Carpenter’s 5 Best Films of All Time!
Happy birthday, John! You’re an inspiration to all of us, and we wanted to take a moment to honor you on this fine day!
The Top 5 John Carpenter Films
Written by: Wayne C. Rogers
I managed to talk Matt Molgaard into letting me do a Top 5 List of John Carpenter’s best films because of time constraints I’m facing with other projects. I figured I could fit in a short list this weekend and still get my other writing done. I’ve since discovered that even a short list is going to take more time than I expected because I tend to be rather wordy in my articles.
As D.S. Ullery wrote in his Wes Craven film list, this is all subjective. Every John Carpenter fan is going to have his favorite films with some being rated higher than others. So, read this with an opened mind. Let me add that John Carpenter is certainly one of the greatest directors in the horror genre, though he’s had as many clunkers as he has bona fide hits. It should also be noted that a lot of his movies that behaved poorly at the Box Office later became cult classics amongst the fans. The Thing and Big Trouble in Little China are two that come immediately to mind.
So often with Carpenter’s films it’s the music that elevates his movies to a much higher level of entertainment. The two most important things about Carpenter’s music are that you instantly recognize the electronic score once it’s heard, and his music always sets the mood perfectly for each upcoming scene. A perfect example of this is Halloween. When the final cut of the film was finished, the movie fell flat on its face. It wasn’t frightening or scary. Then, Carpenter added his soundtrack to it, and you had a totally different film. The music helped to made it one of the most horrifying films in cinematic history. It’s kind of like the shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho. The scene didn’t feel right until Hitch added violins over it, and then it was terrifying and people would take a shower for months after seeing the movie.
Carpenter got his start in Hollywood with Dark Star in 1974, a low budget movie that he co-wrote with Dan O’Bannon (Alien) and then directed. He later did Assault on Precinct 13 in 1976. Carpenter followed it in early 1978 with the TV movie, Someone’s Watching Me!. His next gig came late 1978. It was a small, independent film that would change the course of horror movies in Hollywood and create the “slasher” genre. The movie was Halloween, and the rest as they say is history. This is the film that put Carpenter on the map. He made it for $320,000 and the film grossed 65 million dollars worldwide. It set the standards for future slasher films (and there would be many) and pawned several sequels over the next thirty-plus years.
After Halloween, John Carpenter was able to write his own ticket for a period of time.
Carpenter’s next project was in 1979. It was a TV movie titled, Elvis, and starred an actor by the name of Kurt Russell. They soon liked and respected each other. This would eventually lead them to doing four more films together.
1980, however, was the year of The Fog, Carpenter’s first million-dollar movie. This was the film he disliked after the final cut, thinking it wasn’t scary enough. He reshot various parts of the movie, added his music, and had a relative hit on his hands. Though The Fog didn’t do as well as Halloween, it still made the studios money, which is pretty much what they interested in. After all making movies is a business.
Escape from New York (starring Kurt Russell as Snake Plissken) appeared in 1981. In 1982, The Thing, hit the theaters to mixed reviews and didn’t do the kind business everyone was hoping for. Christine (adapted from Stephen King’s novel) was Carpenter’s next film in 1983 with Starman following in 1984. In some ways Big Trouble in Little China in 1986 was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Though the movie was good, it failed miserably at the Box Office. After that, Carpenter had trouble getting his films financed. He had to start doing low budget movies again like Prince of Darkness in 1987 and They Live in 1988.
The nineties weren’t much better for Carpenter. Movies that should’ve done well turned into critical failures and financial flops at the Box Office like Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992), In the Mouth of Madness (1994), Village of the Damned (1995) and Vampires in 1996. I saw all of those at the theater and remember very little about them other than James Woods being in Vampires and spouting his smart aleck remarks every time he shot one with a crossbow.
The new century also wasn’t much better for John Carpenter. He only did the Ghosts of Mars in 2001, and then went into semi-retirement. He did do a few episodes for the Master of Horror series on television, but that was about it.
You know, even at 65, all John Carpenter needs is one movie that makes a bundle of money, and then Hollywood will once again be knocking at his door. He has the knowledge and skills to do it. All it takes is the right script and some financing. Hollywood loves a comeback, and I would certainly like to see John Carpenter’s last film be one that knocks the ball right out of the park, not Ghosts of Mars.
Interviews with John Carpenter by Mick Garris can be found on FEAR.net. In fact, Mick has interviewed all the great horror directors in the film industry that are still alive: Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper, Sam Raimi, Frank Darabont, and George Romero. Mick Garris has himself been interviewed by others. Check out these fantastic discussions between the true masters of horror. These interviews are free at FEAR.net. I heard that Mick was also planning to do some interviews this year. God bless him!
Now, let’s go to my list of John Carpenter’s Top Five movies.
5) Christine (1983)
I remember the movie version of Christine coming out within a month of the novel being published in the fall of 1983. I had just started managing a bookstore in Beaufort, North Carolina and wanted to get in as many copies of Stephen King’s book as the owner would allow me to buy. Then, the film was suddenly out at the theaters, and that certainly helped to sell the hardcover novel.
I enjoyed the novel and the film, wondering to myself how all the special effects with the 1958 Plymouth Fury had been done.
As most Stephen King and John Carpenter fans know by now, the story deals with a high school nerd who gets picked on by everybody, except his best friend, who happens to be a jock. The nerd, Arnie Cunningham, happens upon a rust bucket for sale called Christine. He buys the car, rents a spot in a garage, and slowly repairs and remodels her to showroom perfection. Of course, Christine happens to be possessed by an evil spirit. Whenever someone threatens her or Arnie, she goes after them with a vengeance that knows no bounds. Over a period of time, Arnie’s personality and appearance begin to change as Christine has a rather unusual effect on him. He becomes more confident, arrogant, and ready to take on anybody who gets in his way, much like the car. When gang members, who have it in for Arnie, attack Christine, she goes after them like a bitch from hell, picking each one off in a very creative way. It isn’t long before the police zero in on Arnie and the car, but they can’t build a case against the boy because his alibi is rock solid.
There’s a lot more that happens, but you have to read the book or watch the DVD to find out what it is.
Like I said, I enjoyed the movie, the actors (Keith Gordon, John Stockwell, and the great Robert Prosky and Harry Dean Stanton), the special effects, the red Plymouth Fury, and the music. It was a very well made movie and should’ve done better at the Box Office. Of course, the movie came out a couple of weeks before Christmas. That may have affected the lack of a viewing audience. I bet if the film had been released a few weeks before Halloween (no pun intended), it would have done a lot better.
If you don’t already own it, get a copy of the Special Edition. This has a really good commentary with John Carpenter and Keith Gordon on it, a gazillion deleted scenes and three documentaries on the making of the movie. The special features alone are worth the price of the movie.
4) Escape from New York (1981)
To my knowledge, though Kurt Russell had been acting for nearly twenty years, this was his first action film with him in the lead. In fact, he did such a remarkable job with the character of Snake Plissken that I began to see him as an action star. As good as Escape from New York is, it’s really Kurt Russell who makes the movie. He does his best imitation of Clint Eastwood and manages to carry it off to great success.
The futuristic film is about a Special Forces soldier who’s now a robber. He’s been caught and sentenced to prison. At the last moment, he’s offered one chance to avoid prison. All he has to do is fly into New York City at night inside a glider and rescue the President of the United States. You see New York City has been transformed into a giant prison with the worst criminals alive being sent there. They now have the President, whose plane crashed and left him stranded. Plissken has to get him back from the criminals in one piece and only has twenty-four hours to do in.
This film is filled with a ton of fantastic actors from Ernest Borgnine, Lee Van Cleef, Donald Pleasence, Isaac Hayes, Harry Dean Stanton, and Carpenter’s wife at the time, the sexy Adrienne Barbeau. All of them made this movie work, but especially Kurt Russell. He had the weight of the film on his shoulders and put everything he had into the role of Snake. Kurt Russell is definitely the reason Escape from New York is such a famous cult classic today.
Once again, if you don’t own it, go buy the Special 2-disc Collector’s Edition. The second disc has a ton of featurettes and documentaries on the film and its actors, plus deleted scenes and more.
Here’s a piece of trivia for the die-hard fans. Kurt Russell’s wife at the time was Season Hubley. She has a small part in the film as the woman who gets dragged down into the floor hole by the night crawlers, while Kurt shoots the daylights out of them with his machine gun.
3) Halloween (1978)
This was the movie that started it all for John Carpenter and the “slasher” genre. Nothing like it had ever been done before. It was a wonder girls continued to babysit after the film came out. This was also the movie that introduced the lovely and talented Jamie Lee Curtis to the world. Jamie is the daughter of Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis. Janet Leigh was the actress in the famous shower scene of Hitchcock’s Psycho.
As everyone should know by now, Halloween is the story of a babysitter doing her job in the old house where Michael Meyers once lived and where he murdered his sister on Halloween night fifteen years before. Good ‘ol Michael was then sent to a mental institution where he was locked up safely away. Tonight, however, is when he finally escapes and returns to his hometown. As Thomas Wolfe once wrote, “You can’t go home.” Michael doesn’t know this. Anyway, the director of the institution (Donald Pleasence) tracks him back to the town where he grew up. Unfortunately, the masked man is once again trying to terrorize the town by killing as many innocent people as possible, but focusing the majority of his attention on Jamie Lee Curtis. If Michael had gone back to shake hands and hug the good citizens, things might have turned out different, but then there wouldn’t have been seven sequels.
Of course, the musical soundtrack played a large part in making this film a success. The Halloween theme even had a life of its own. You can’t hear this music anywhere and not know what it represents. I mean if I walked into my apartment and heard this music playing, I’d run like hell. It’s like the opening theme to Jaws. When you hear it, you know a damn shark is about to bite you in the ass, even if you’re not in the water.
For a great commentary with John Carpenter and Jamie Lee Curtis, get the 2-disc set of Halloween: The 25th Anniversary Edition. There are featurettes on the making of the movie, how it changed Hollywood and the film industry, John Carpenter, and much, much more.
2) The Thing (1982)
All of you already know my thoughts on The Thing from the recent review I wrote a couple of weeks ago. If it wasn’t for one other film, this would definitely hold the chosen spot in my humble opinion. Few horror movies are as scary as John Carpenter’s The Thing. I remember when I first saw it at the theater. Once the movie was over, I immediately snuck back into the theater to see it again. I was broke after I’d purchased the first ticket and some popcorn and a soda. But, there was no way I was going home without seeing the movie again. Needless to say, I marked the Antarctic off my list of places to visit before dying. I had no desire to run into the thing, looking for a lift to Calgary.
The storyline, based on John w. Campbell’s short story, was absolutely great. John Carpenter’s version was actually closer to the story than the 1951 film with James Arness as the creature. The Thing was a shape shifter, not a tall guy in facial makeup. Also, John Carpenter’s movie had a great cast of actors who proved more than worthy of the challenge they faced (Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, Keith David, Donald Moffat, Richard Masur Charles Hallahan, and Richard Dysart). The isolated settings in deep snow and below-zero temperatures were perfect, and the special effects by Stan Winston and Rob Bottin blew me away. I’ll never forget the scene where the creature turned into the head of one of the station’s scientists, developed crab-like legs, and attempted to escape Kurt Russell’s flame thrower. That was totally awesome. I mean the special effects for the entire movie were unbelievable and this was way before computer generated effects.
It should be noted that the film didn’t do quite as badly as the studio’s wanted everyone to believe. True, the film wasn’t the blockbuster like E.T. was, but it still made money with its worldwide grosses. My guess is that it broke even. It was on the top 10-list of highest grossing movies for the first three weeks of its release, and Kurt Russell in the documentary even says the movie made money. Still, it should have made at least ten times what it cost, but E. T. was the big boy that summer.
Here’s some more movie trivia. While Carpenter was in post production of The Thing, Universal Studios offered him the opportunity to direct Stephen King’s Firestarter. Carpenter was going to have Bill Lancaster (he wrote the script for The Thing) write the screenplay and have Bill’s father, the famous Burt Lancaster, start as Rainbird. Because The Thing proved to be a disappointment at the Box Office, the offer was withdrawn. I never really liked Mark Lester’s version of Firestarter and have wondered what the movie would have been like if Carpenter had directed it.
Be sure to get the Collector’s Edition DVD of this movie for its special documentaries. The Making of The Thing is nearly an hour-and-a-half long. Like some of the other John Carpenter DVDs I’ve written about in this article, the documentary is certainly worth the price of the film, and you can find great deals on Amazon.
1) Starman (1984)
Well, Starman is the big enchilada of John Carpenter’s list of film in my opinion. Though it’s not a horror movie, it is science fiction. It’s also a romantic love story. I can hear all the horror fans out there going, “Oh my God!” This is the only film by Carpenter that was ever nominated for an Academy Award. If you don’t know about this movie, or have never seen it, I urge you to rent the film from Netflix or to buy it on DVD. This was one of the best films out in 1984. Jeff Bridges as the lost alien played the role to sheer perfection and stole the hearts of the audience.
This is the tale of an alien who got off course and landed in the field beside Karen Allen’s (Raiders of the Lost Ark and Animal House) home. She’s a widow, and her husband has just died. To make things easier for her so she won’t be as afraid, the alien assumes the body of her dead husband (Jeff Bridges). The alien then has her drive him (it?) across country to the rendezvous location where the mother ship will pick him up. I should point out that they are being chased by government scientists and agents who want to capture the alien for rude, crude and socially unacceptable experiments. During the course of their trip, Allen’s character eventually stops being afraid of the alien and actually starts to fall in love with him. Keep in mind that she’s seeing her husband here, plus the alien does save her life at least once. The ending is a real tearjerker.
I kid you not on the quality of this film.
Jeff Bridges should have won the Academy Award that year for the humanity and sensitivity he brought to the main character. That he didn’t was a big letdown for all his fans as well as fans of the film. This movie is fabulous, and I suggest you have a box of Kleenexes beside your chair when you watch it. If John Carpenter had continued to make films of this caliber, he would have become as big as Steven Spielberg. In fact, one might consider Starman to be John Carpenter’s version of E.T., but without the children. Because Carpenter is so well known for his horror and science fiction films, it’s difficult to believe he did this movie. This is the film that should have netted him an Oscar for Best Director. This was the movie that proved how great a director John Carpenter actually is, and it is (with obvious pride on my part) number one on my list of his best films.
Fabulous article, Wayne. I think your assertion that ‘Starman’ is Carpenter’s crowning achievement is an intriguing one. I agree that Bridges should have been taken more seriously when it came to ‘awards season’, but I’d argue that it’s Carpenter’s flimsiest celluoid concoction, exhibiting very little of the director’s personality or generally nihiliistic sensibilities; to my mind it’s akin to his effort to embrace the mainstream with his ‘Memoirs Of An Invisible man’ adaptation; both movies are hobbled by an attempt by the director to break free of his fundamentally grim concerns, in the interest of commerce.
I beg to differ.I see Starman as a rich film that mines legitimate emotional depths as it plausibly forces us to look into a mirror as to how we might actually address the arrival of extrateresstral life, even after we sent our invitation soaring across the galaxy. You regard the film as an attempt to break free of his fundamentally grim concerns in the name of commerce, but I don’t think so. I see it as a rewarding attempt to expand his artistic boundaries into areas he had yet to explore on film. Carpenter had done a science fiction comedy and a science fiction horror film..now he wanted to introduce the elements of love and it’s natural offspring, hope. I think he succeeded brilliantly.
Outstanding article, Wayne! I’m so psyched that someone else agrees that Starman represents Carpenter’s best work. I feel exactly the same way for essentially the same reasons you’ve stated here. As much as I loved E.T. – which was (and still is ) quite a bit- I’ve always felt Starman did an even better job exploring the concept of an extraterrestrial visitor to Earth interacting with human beings. The inclusion of the Voyager probe as a plot point was a moment of genius .
The only capacity in which I disagree with your list is with Christine. I love that movie and, if I were writing a top ten list, it would be on there as number six or seven. But I’d personally place at number five Assault on Precinct 13, which has always astonished me in how it overcomes a very dated, low budget feel to evolve into an energized, often scary, edge of your seat action-thriller by the final scene. I also would place The Thing at three and Halloween at number two. But again, just my opinion.
Otherwise, I agree with your list note for note. And although I was aware that Carpenter had lost Firestarter because of the poor box office on The Thing, I never realized that Burt Lancaster had been considered for the role of Rainbird. That would have been an interesting film indeed.
Well done, sir!
Carpenter’s ‘Firestarter’ is one of those projects I dearly wish he had on his filmography as a director (Burt Lancaster as ‘Rainbird’ would have been inspired casting); it’s right up there with the post-apocalyptic flick he was attached to at one time, ‘Pincushion’. But then he had ‘doll-face’ Cher attached as the star. I can only speculate that that was one of the reasons the movie deal disintegrated (I’m sure there would have been a remix of ‘If Could Turn Back Time’ staining the end credits). It might also have been due to the thematic content, which is very similar to ‘Escape From New York’- lead character has to deliver a cure for the disease that has ravaged America within a 72 hour period or the last vestiges of mankind will die. I would have loved to have seen what the dystopian landscape of Nevada would have looked like through Carpenter’s eyes. Ah well, in an alternate universe…you know the rest.
James, I feel you on that. One of the of the most painful retroactive bits of information I discovered as a horror fan was that Wes Craven had approached both Robert Englund and New Line Cinema with an idea for an intense psychological horror thriller that would have told the full story of the child murders Fred Krueger committed when he was active as the Springwood Slasher. The film Craven was planning would have been both a horror movie and a police procedural..a non-supernatural suspense thriller following Krueger’s reign of terrror from its beginnng to his eventually being murdered after he walked on a technicality. No dream murders, no scarred face. Just a plausible account of a particularly nasty serial killer at work in a small American town. Englund was fully on board and wanted desperately to do that film (I learned all this from an interview Englund gave to a magazine, in fact) .
Instead, New Line opted to make Freddy Vs. Jason and Craven moved on. Oh, what might have been
I’m a big Burt Lancaster fan from way back. It would have been fun to see him play Rainbird verses the way George C. Scott developed the character in the Lester movie.
I agree. I think Scott was certainly the best thing in that awful movie.
Love the article, Wayne! Despite his rollercoaster ride as a director, he is still my favorite, and the only thing I would change is Attack on Precinct 13’s place. It’s my number one. Thanks for this!!!!
Another that surprises me is just how many female fans John Carpenter has when compared to the male. It’s probably close to being equal. As I get older, I’m finding that more ladies are interested in the horror genre than ever before. We certainly need more female directors in the horror genre. Those who have done films are every bit as good as the guys. We just need more of them.
I didn’t know that statistic! Well, I agree that it would be great to have more women directors in the horror genre. Stereotypes should go by the wayside.
I agree with the picks for Christine and Starman. I loved both of those films.
Great review of a talented man’s work.
Let’s hope John Carpenter comes back for a least one more movie.
The Lester film was alright, but it was not perfect, But I have to correct you on this…, Burt Lancaster was not going to star as Rainbird, He was going to play Cap Hollister, and Carpenter had approached to Darwin Joston of playing Rainbird, and I got a chance to read Bill Lancaster’s script and it was really good, and way better than the movie, it was an origin story in a timeline setting, but there was a departure (of course, like a Stephen King adaptation would have), Bill had Dr. Wanless and John Rainbird replaced with a female antagonist named Dr. Roberta Rahv. A weak departure, But I didn’t mind it, though the script was good, but I would want to read Bill Phillip’s draft of Firestarter.
Although, Darwin’s performance as Rainbird would’ve been really perfect and great but that would’ve been a miscasting, because if you are casting a character who is a assassin and a exterminator who is a native american by the way, it should’ve gone to Will Sampson, you look at Sampson and he’s Rainbird. It’s fucking perfect