John Carpenter is one of the finest directors we've ever seen, embarking on one of the greatest decade-plus runs - from ‘76’s Assault on Precinct 13, all the way up to ‘88’s They Live - in not only genre pictures, but all of cinema itself. By the time that streak fizzled out in ‘92 – with the Chevy Chase-starring Memoirs of an Invisible Man – Carpenter already had a marvelous body of work that could be the envy of any filmmaker.
Nowadays, Carpenter seems content to play video games, write records of Lost Themes, and tour with his kid and band playing new tunes, all while scenes from his classics are projected behind him. The man's earned his status as an icon, and has parlayed that image into a second career as a geek rock star.
Today, Carpenter celebrates his 70th birthday, and to commemorate the occasion, I slapped together this list of my five favorite of his films. Feel free to share yours in the comments, and fire up a Carpenter production today, so that you can pay tribute to the one true Horror Master...
#5. In the Mouth of Madness  (w. Michael De Luca)
By '94, the apocalypse was not a new subject for Carpenter – a filmmaker who'd been envisioning the way our world ends in such vivid detail that it became a defining triptych of his filmography. His take on Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby (The Thing) saw the seed of destruction being sown by a form-warping alien, worming its way into human hosts as a body horror parasite. Prince of Darkness found scientists trapping the essence of an Anti-God in a towering cylinder. While slightly more fantastical than its predecessors, Carpenter’s final film in his “Apocalypse Trilogy” envisions a prophet being made out of a pulp horror author, as the insane become the majority and canonize their new Saint of the Bitter End. The inmates have taken over the asylum, only the reach of their lunacy stretches beyond padded walls, engulfing the very fabric of what we know to be “reality”.
In the Mouth of Madness earns the distinction of being the final John Carpenter movie that actually attempts to tackle a broad “big idea”. It’s his “point of no return“ picture; acting as a divider between the acidic, headier work that peppered his best years and the minimalist craft showcases that came after. What if religious texts like the Bible gained all of their power from the herd who read and believed in them? And what if a populist novelist was able to tap into this hive-mind consciousness, to the point that his reality becomes interchangeable with our own tangible existence? That’s bold, crazy shit to pack into a ninety-minute, low-budget horror picture. Granted, all of this is handled with the subtlety of a jackhammer (a newscaster actually announces the film’s themes over the airways early on). However, Carpenter was never an artist known for delicacy (They Live, anyone?); instead staking his claim as a first-class rebel stylist.
#4. Prince of Darkness  (w. "Martin Quatermass")
To call Prince of Darkness a “lesser” work seems like a dismissive classification. But the truth is, Carpenter’s blend of science and religion lends the film a kind a ponderous air when held up to the simplistic conceits of suburban terror and claustrophobic alien horror. As his camera lazily drifts about the hallways of a drab inner-city church, the story taking its time to arrive at a gory, surreal climax, Prince of Darkness might feel like a slight disappointment, stuck on the tail end of the director’s monumental run. However, upon closer inspection, one finds a masterclass in formalistic approach, complete with what might be Carpenter’s greatest “harbinger of doom” ending. Combined with the same siege staging as Assault on Precinct, Prince of Darkness becomes a downright terrifying tale of the Antichrist come to Earth. Yes, the movie never reaches the dizzying heights of the most famous entries in his storied filmography, but there's plenty great here to savor.
Much like Halloween, Carpenter establishes the mood of Prince of Darkness from the opening frame. Using an overly extended credits sequence, the director intercuts seemingly disparate imagery. A priest lies on his deathbed, a tiny chest balanced on his stomach. A sunny college campus is populated by students and their professors. Ants scurry and bunch on a mound of dirt in the grass. Sunlight streaks through the clouds, basting them a urine yellow. Scoring it all with his usual mix of throbbing synths, Carpenter yet again finds the mundane to be menacing; only instead of a residential street in Illinois, a college classroom suddenly feels filled with nefarious elements. However, it isn’t until we’re introduced to Donald Pleasence’s disgraced priest that we know just how hopeless Prince of Darkness is, climaxing in inter-dimensional conflict, where the living dead overrun this religious laboratory, threatening to open a gateway into oblivion. It's almost like an American Fulci film, full of portent, gore and wild stylistic flourishes.
#3. Assault On Precinct 13  (w. John Carpenter)
Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo is almost always the first film critics and cinephiles use when analyzing Carpenter’s brilliant, blistering solo feature debut Assault on Precinct 13. Yet to simply describe the film in such reductive, point-of-reference language seems to obfuscate the most triumphant reason to celebrate this minimalist action yarn: it was the announcement of a fresh, formalist voice in the world of genre filmmaking. Carpenter may be dealing in ’50s Western tropes, but he’s also leaving calling cards in nearly every frame; auteurist fingerprints that we recognize now like crime scene data. Before Halloween became the “most successful independent film of all time!” there was this gritty ditty - a siege picture that first introduced the director’s love of synth-scored anamorphic photography and his fear of faceless, invading danger.
Beginning in the claustrophobic corridors of a “Los Angeles ghetto” at 3:10 on a Saturday morning, Carpenter is dabbling more in war picture than he is the Old West. It’s a vibe George Romero would borrow and use in Dawn of the Dead two years later. The streets of American cities are no longer safe for anyone to walk, except for those who have formed militant gangs. They creep in the shadows, wearing berets and ski caps, clutching large caliber weapons. The night is hot, so sweat greases their brown skin. Faceless police cry out from high above, sending the guerillas scrambling until they are gunned down with shotguns, not a bullet fired back in response. Carpenter is working in an almost “pure cinema” headspace, setting the tone with five minutes of screen time and zero expositional dialogue. Once we're actually holed up in the titular station with the cops, crooks, and administrative aids all battling for their lives against this urban assault, it's as gloriously tense as anything we've ever witnessed.
#2. Escape From New York  (w. Nick Castle & John Carpenter)
While their numerous collaborations (The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China) have yielded icons in their own right, John Carpenter and Kurt Russell crafted the ultimate anti-establishment badass in Escape From New York's Snake Plissken. When called in to save the President (Donald Pleasence) from the titular island prison, Hauk (Lee Can Cleef) narrates Snake's accomplishments like he's reading a criminal's jacket: “American, Lieutenant, Special Forces Unit Black Light. Two Purple Hearts: Leningrad and Siberia. Youngest man to be decorated by the President.” But Plissken's greatest accomplishment in these bombed out United States is also the one that got him locked away: robbing the Federal Reserve Depository. In Carpenter's vision of a fascist America, taking money from the Man is an act of pure nobility. Never anything less than a soldier, Snake takes the mission (mostly against his will), and his mere appearance in New York causes people to consider the numerous rumors of his death.
John Carpenter wrote Escape from New York in '74 as a response to Watergate, and Snake is essentially his Man With No Name - a spaghetti Western outlaw who rolls into town with a bounty, and by God he's going to earn his money that night. Russell is full of John Wayne swagger, while every alley of the continuously darkened NYC is drenched in shadow and punk rock ambiance. When he finally finds the President, it's revealed that he's little more than an empty shirt, whose rescue is required by his country to reassert their status as a dominant power (almost entirely to their own people). Through this dystopian vision, Carpenter was channeling a howl of primal discontent regarding a corrupt, post-Vietnam United States. At one point, Season Hubley's blank victim says the same thing that everyone else does when first encountering Snake: "I thought you were dead". "I am," he says in response, and it's tough not to wonder if this is how Carpenter envisioned the whole of America following a war they didn't ask for (or understand), and the lies told to try and cover its severity up.
#1. Halloween  (w. Debra Hill & John Carpenter)
It was a neighborhood party that several houses on my block hosted every year. Per usual, my parents signed up for the "after party" portion - cocktails and finger foods for the tipsy adults who'd just made stops to each other home for a different course. My mom and dad made a big bowl of popcorn, plopped me on their bed, and switched on public access television to keep me busy, while the smell of "funny cigarettes" wafted up into their room from the shindig below. Upon turning on the TV, there was this strange pumpkin, and ominous, echoing piano music that instantly caught my attention. In the very first scene, I watched through a killer's eyes as he ascended the stairs - having already picked out the kitchen's biggest butcher's knife - and then stabbed a pretty, young, topless girl several times (her boobs were blurred, much to my disappointment). The synth shrieks made me jump out from under the covers, spilling my popcorn as I dashed under the bed. But I couldn't take my eyes off the tiny set for the next ninety minutes, impatiently cursing the local car dealership commercials whenever they interrupted the suspense.
Carpenter's Halloween made me fall in love with cinema. Starting then (I think I was ten or so), I became a video store rat, gobbling up whatever my parents would let me rent from the mom and pop boutique at the bottom of the hill. Yet as I grew to appreciate the craft of filmmaking, Halloween took on a whole other life. Learning how Carpenter and cinematographer Dean Cundey pulled off those Steadicam shots, and essentially replicated an Illinois suburb in Los Angeles with little more than hand-painted "fall" leaves gave me a new appreciation for lo-fi aesthetics, and how the greatest auteurs took a dollar and made it five. Beyond any of that, Halloween has remained one of the scariest motion pictures I've ever seen - the creeping invasion of pure, unknowable evil representing what we'll all have to face one day: an inevitable demise (though hopefully not at the hands of a masked maniac). No matter how many bad sequels and worse remakes there are - though I'm still pulling for David Gordon Green and Danny McBride's newest installment to be great - nothing can ever dull the edge of Carpenter's genre redefining masterwork. If he'd never made another great movie again, we'd still have Halloween, which changed horror as we know it.