John Carpenter remains one of Hollywood’s most influential writers/directors/producers, making films that transcend their respective genres and deliver the kind of sublime entertainment that audiences desperately need these days. Carpenter’s images are always unique and ambitious; bursting with creativity, innovative ideas, fascinating characters and complex worlds. While many of his concepts failed, especially later efforts (i.e. Ghosts of Mars and Vampires), it’s hard to name another director who enjoyed the kind of sustained success that Carpenter enjoyed throughout his early career, beginning with the incredible Assault on Compound 13 in 1976.
If you’re unfamiliar with the man, here are five of his most essential works that everyone should probably see. Then, when you’re ready to move on, check out his remaining work and enjoy more of this incredible director’s wild creativity.
The Thing (1982)
John Carpenter’s genius is on full display in this terrifying, grotesque, and darkly humorous sci-fi horror classic about a group of scientists battling a shape-shifting alien in a remote Antarctic outpost. Both suspenseful and revolting – thanks to a multitude of sensational practical effects – The thing presents itself as monumental cinema, a film that eliminates all calls for crowd-pleasing entertainment and instead offers enough existential dread to make sure you walk away wondering about the meaning of life itself.
The thing rocks you, shocks you, then slaps you with heavy nihilism covered in buckets of blood and gore. It’s a hellish cinematic experience you won’t soon forget, and it stars the ever-charismatic Kurt Russell as a bonus! There’s also the bonus of seeing Quaker Oats favorite guy Wilford Brimley go crazy. Seriously, this film has it all and remains the most absorbing film of Carpenter’s illustrious career.
Halloween can move along at a slow pace through its first hour, in which Michael Myers – the man, the myth, the legend – cruises around Haddonfield in a jaw-dropping break, but when our masked ‘form’ ends up murdering The hell of a bunch of horny babysitters (and their dope boyfriends) — including charming girl-next-door Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) — classic Carpenter slasher gets into a gear another world that leaves you biting your nails like popcorn.
Not really. Halloween is still scary (and weird) as hell, despite being released in 1978.
Countless sequels and knockoffs have diluted the picture’s impact over the years, but the grandfather of all slashers remains the best of the bunch, if only for its minimalist qualities — that iconic score, the characters and setup simplistic, macabre fatalities. To underscore the creep factor, Myers’ intentions are never fully explained – “He’s pure evil,” shouts Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence) over and over to anyone within earshot. The killer comes to town, murders people, and disappears without a trace – he’s like the Boogieman, just trickier. He often positions the corpses of his victims as ritual offerings on beds, arranges them in cupboards or hides them in shadows from which they spring at the opportune moment to scare the bejesus of unsuspecting passers-by like workers in a demented funhouse .
Halloween is an absolutely brilliant piece of American cinema, and proof that sometimes less is definitely more.
The novelty of Christina lies in its concept – the idea that man’s best friend (his car) could ultimately lead to his downfall. In this case, lovable young nerd Arnie Cunningham (Keith Gordon) buys a 1958 Plymouth Fury and quickly succumbs to its otherworldly charm. Literally. The car, you see, has an evil spirit of its own; the one who seduces Arnie and, like some kind of demented bumblebee, changes his life for the better. At least at the start. Over time, Christine and Arnie become increasingly attached and unstable, leading the car-crossed lovers (thank you!) to wage war on local bullies, unsuspecting girlfriends, and even Arnie’s best friend, Dennis. (John Stockwell). People are crushed, burned, crushed and nearly suffocated in a film that both thrills and terrifies – the image of Christine slowly pursuing a victim as she is engulfed in flames is pure horror cinema at its finest .
Yet, for all its slow suspense and brutality, Christina fumbles the ball en route to perfection. The actors who carry the load are not up to the challenge and often flounder in the big dramatic moments. We never bond enough with Arnie to care about his sudden character change later on, and the overbearing Stephen King-isms — that is, one-dimensional bullies, sexually frustrated men, and stoked plot points. by cocaine – feel more coerced than necessary.
So why include Christina on this list? Because, for all its flaws, silly performances, and corny effects, Christina stay pure, pure John Carpenter. Much of his work was intended as simple B-movie entertainment filled with clunky dialogue and stilted direction. Christina embraces its genre trappings and offers everything one could ask for – well-staged sets, real scares and a wicked soundtrack – but tackles an indelible message that takes aim at America’s thirst for some products: in a world dominated by consumerism, you get what you pay for.
Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
John Carpenter liked to branch out into different genres, offering tastes of star man and the underrated Memoirs of an Invisible Man Therefore. Big problem in little China sees the maestro testing his comedic chops, and by God, he delivers one of the most entertaining (and oddly engaging) movies ever assembled.
Re-teaming with Kurt Russell for the fourth time in just under a decade, Carpenter mixes fantasy, action, comedy and horror in an enigmatic adventure that confused audiences upon release but has since (like most Carpenter productions) gained a cult following. Well Named. From beginning to end, China dazzles with its unique set design and costumes, colorful characters (Russell has fun playing Jack Burton, a big-hearted John Wayne guy with enough machismo to power a dozen action movies) and moving sets . It’s not as cool today as it was when I was a kid, but Big problem in little China still packs enough action, romance, horror, and goofy laughs to make for incredible B-movie entertainment that requires, no requests to do with a big bowl of popcorn. Seriously, this is the type of film that’s missing in today’s market.*
At the very least, it’s one of the few images where Kim Cattrall is actually tolerable, if not entirely likable.
Escape from New York (1981)
Dark, dark and violent, Escape from New York stands as one of John Carpenter’s most enduring films thanks to its wonderful visuals, unique characters, and incredible world-building (for its relatively small production).
Yet what makes this Carpenter entry pop is Kurt Russell’s terrific turn as the gruff, eyepatch-wearing Snake Plissken – the toughest of badass and one of the greatest heroes. of action to adorn the screen. The man is of the no-frills variety. He doesn’t take orders from anyone, doesn’t care for anyone, and only goes on a suicidal mission to save the President (Donald Pleasence) when his own ass is at stake.
While the moody dystopian visuals haven’t aged well, there’s a certain charm to it. the New York one sumptuous matte paintings, meticulously crafted sets, chandelier-covered cars, and dense urban streets dotted with spiked heads, violent mobs, and armored station wagons. Plus, you get an amazing cast that includes Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, and Harry Dean Stanton. What’s not to like?
It may not come across as some of the finest works of the genre, but Escape from New York always delights as a backlash to big-budget fare and demonstrates Carpenter’s incredible talent for B-movie cinema. Just ignore the overproduced sequel and you’ll be fine.
*To be fair, the incredible Everything everywhere all at once gave me heavy Big problem in little China vibes. More of this, please.