by John Kenneth Muir
It’s always a difficult task to weigh a director’s career output in terms of a mere top ten list, but much more so in the case of John Carpenter. The auteur and maverick has directed so many great films --- and in so many genres -- that often times it feels like comparing apples and oranges. For example, how does one choose between two legitimate masterpieces like The Thing (1982) and Halloween (1978)?
Below, I have endeavored to tally the top ten John Carpenter films as I view them right now, and the reasons behind those selections. Those who have read my book The Films of John Carpenter will note that I have re-jiggered the order some since that book was first published. This is because John Carpenter’s films are almost universally ahead of their time, and sometimes a “true” sense of a film’s value only becomes apparent on retrospect.
I’m certain some of my choices will be controversial, but let’s get started…
10. Ghosts of Mars (2001): Widely-panned by critics and audiences on release, Ghosts of Mars serves as a futuristic re-telling of the 1964 British classic Zulu, and -- in some ways -- even a science fiction version of Gunga Din (1939). A siege film and a “space” western, Ghosts of Mars also features stock Carpenter heroes such as the noble outlaw, and -- for the first time in the director’s catalog -- extends the concept of police/criminal “brotherhood” to a female character: Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge). Ghosts of Mars also serves as subtle jab at modern political correctness by featuring a bureaucratic Matriarchy on Mars, and subversively suggests drug use as the “antidote” for possession by malevolent entities. Those who count Ghosts of Mars a blind alley in terms of its influence on the genre should take a good hard look at the Reavers in Firefly (2002)/Serenity (2005), and at the final Orc battle in The Two Towers (2002).
9. Prince of Darkness (1987): The second movement of Carpenter’s “Apocalypse Trilogy” -- a cycle including The Thing and In The Mouth of Madness (1994 -- Prince of Darkness is elegantly lensed, suffused with a gloomy, unsettling vibe of cerebral terror, and punctuated with periodic jolts or "stingers" of extreme intensity. Prince of Darkness also features one of Carpenter’s most arresting and pulse-pounding scores. Beyond these commendable qualities, the film is an intelligent discussion of science as the new "faith," and an examination of a small, isolated population -- another alienated population (like the one in The Thing) -- searching for spiritual and emotional meaning in a world apparently devoid of it.
8. Dark Star (1975): This film’s low-budget, student-project origins take nothing away from the film’s artistic success because it is clear the filmmakers had both a creative strategy, and an example to follow. In short, Dark Star is the anti-2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). As a work of caustic 1970s art, it knowingly draws all the opposite conclusions about space travel, mankind, and man’s place or role in the universe. In so cleverly over-turning the 2001 apple cart, Dark Star not only lives up to its title, it remains one of the funniest science fiction films made in the 1970s. If 2001: A Space Odyssey is about man confronting his destiny in the stars, Dark Star is about mankind confronting the meaninglessness of existence itself.
7. The Fog (1980): What is the American Dream really built upon? John Carpenter’s poetic 1980 ghost story, The Fog suggests that a corrupt past can’t and won’t stay buried forever. Here, the ghosts of Antonio Boy -- who were ruthlessly murdered for their gold by six conspirators -- rise up on the town’s one hundredth anniversary to remind us, on the cusp of the patriotic 1980s, that the past isn’t always all it is cracked up to be. The Fog also boasts a literary approach to horror, and resurrects on-screen the lost art of oral storytelling, namely ghost story-telling. Filmed with a painter’s eye for the picturesque landscape and lyrical in tone and presentation, The Fog never ceases to impress.
6. Big Trouble in Little China (1986): This martial arts movie pastiche moves with breathtaking speed and ample good humor, and is buttressed by an unforgettable lead performance from Kurt Russell. But Big Trouble in Little China is also much cleverer than it gets credit for because it takes the long-standing cliché of American Exceptionalism and both questions and re-affirms it for the Age of Globalism. Jack Burton is a slow-witted, blustering blunderer, but when the chips are down, he’s just the guy you want on your side.
5. They Live (1988): During the Reagan Revolution, Carpenter looked around at 1980s America and saw “brain death,” and the fact that everyone, everywhere, was trying to “sell you something.” Accordingly, They Live is his caustic critique of conspicuous consumption and the Yuppie lifestyle. The film suggests that cadaverous aliens are “keeping us asleep” with television programming while simultaneously delivering messages that money is “God.” The film’s lead character is another great Carpenter anti-hero, one named Nada -- meaning he is literally worth “nothing” in the new corporate-controlled culture -- and the film’s blazing conclusion is literally an up-turned finger to the wealthy, cosseted Establishment.
4. Escape from New York (1981): John Carpenter imagines the future of America as a fascist police state in a brawny, imaginative, and scary adventure film with dystopian qualities. Fronted by the director’s most popular anti-hero, Snake Plissken (Russell again…), most of Escape from New York occurs during impenetrable night (like Halloween ), where dangerous, barely-human "Crazies" roam Manhattan's streets, burst out of floor boards and chase people down darkened alleys. The film is perpetually intense, and punctuated by great bursts of violence and rousing action. Even better, ESNY boasts a droll sense of humor about New York City, and re-purposes symbols like Broadway and the Statue of Liberty to suggest a world where freedom is lost.
3. Assault on Precinct 13 (1976): John Carpenter’s all-guns-blazing salute to director Howard Hawks features a “bromance” between a policeman and an outlaw, and even highlights an old-fashioned “Hawksian” woman; a character who sees beyond society’s conventions and can hold her own beside the film’s men. But Assault on Precinct 13 also thrives on its setting -- an isolated police station at night -- and on its ruthless, “faceless” brand of evil. Here, the attacking gang members keep coming, no matter what, and Carpenter plays no favorites in terms of victims. One scene involving a cute little girl and an ice cream truck remains unbelievably impactful, even today.
2. The Thing (1982): Also once derided by film critics and audiences, John Carpenter's The Thing is an ahead-of-its time masterpiece, one that pits alienated humankind against a cunning alien in a constant state of flux. Where man is fragile, the Thing is strong, able to re-shape its flesh and very tissue to fool its enemies. Bolstered by pioneering special effects and Carpenter's brilliant presentation of a claustrophobic, bleak setting, The Thing is one of the greatest horror films ever made. In ways discomforting and unsettling, the film seems to be about the frailty and fallibility of human flesh. Coming as it did at the dawn of the Age of AIDS, The Thing -- with its signature blood test sequence -- remembers that “the blood is the life”…and death, too.
1. Halloween (1978): John Carpenter’s Halloween endures as an unimpeachable artistic vision because of its one-of-a-kind villain: Michael Myers. Behind that white, blank, Rorschach Test of a mask, this “Shape” could reflect any audience or societal fear. Michael might be a developmentally-arrested kid, an embodiment of the out-of-control Id, or…The Boogeyman Himself. A meditation on un-classifiable “Evil” in a modern society that believes it can diagnose everything, Halloween remains unmatched in terms of slasher films, and is a worthy successor to Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960).
John Kenneth Muir blogs daily at Reflections on Cult Films and Classic Television, and is the author of The Films of John Carpenter, Horror Films FAQ, and Science Fiction and Fantasy Films of the 1970s.