From Assault On Precinct 13 via Halloween to The Thing, John Carpenter's iconic catalogue has captivated audiences and influenced fellow filmmakers for almost 50 years.
An uncompromising creator - often directing, writing, producing, scoring and starring in his own films - the master of horror's genre-hopping back catalogue also gives him just claim as the undisputed boss of the B-movie.
These are the essential John Carpenter films every self-respecting film lover needs to see.
Assault On Precinct 13 (1976)
When a bloodthirsty street gang attacks a defunct police precinct on the eve of its closure, its skeleton staff and a couple of criminals are forced to team up and fight to defend themselves from the violent onslaught.
In what would become a signature element of Carpenter’s finest films, Assault On Precinct 13 has a plot that could scarcely be leaner. Holed up in an isolated, soon-to-close police station, a handful of characters are forced to fight off wave after wave of heavily armed gang members.
Inspired by a love of westerns (Howard Hawks’ films in particular – the film is heavily influenced by Rio Bravo) and by George A. Romero’s 1969 Zombie classic Night of the Living Dead - Carpenter took that pared-down premise, a cast of relative unknowns and a meagre $100,000 budget, and created a tense, claustrophobic action thriller with a bracingly high body count and a menacing minimalist score.
Cleverly, Carpenter devoted a chunk of the film’s budget to high quality sound and film processing, ensuring that the finished Assault looked and sounded great. Interestingly, Assault On Precinct 13 initially failed to find critical acclaim in the US. However, we Brits loved it, starting a chain reaction of love around Europe that would eventually return to the States where it was rightly re-evaluated as the taut, nerve-wracking masterpiece it is.
15 years to the day after six-year-old Michael Myers savagely murdered his older sister on Halloween night, he escapes from a prison transport and returns to his home town of Haddonfield to rain terror upon its residents and one babysitter in particular.
Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974) may have sparked a filmic fascination with unhinged killers but John Carpenter’s Halloween put a V8 engine in the slasher movie bandwagon and created the genre’s first enduring icon - Michael Myers.
Myers (or The Shape as he’s known in the credits) is a fantastically frightening blank of a monster. Mute, seemingly supernatural in his ability to survive and topped off with a spray-painted, $1.98 William Shatner mask that’s recognisably human but utterly emotionless, his seeming lack of passion (and urgency) is his most unsettling quality.
Like Assault On Precinct 13 before it, Halloween’s premise could scarcely be simpler and once again, Carpenter creates a genre film that’s so much greater than the sum of its parts. Employing fantastic framing (Myers appearing from the shadows behind Jamie Lee Curtis’s resourceful babysitter Laurie Strode!) a keen awareness of space (Carpenter is a master at establishing the physical space in which his characters live and die) and an unflinching depiction of violence, Halloween drips with unsettling menace. Add Carpenter’s iconic piano theme – played in a destabilising 10/8 time signature – and it’s no wonder that 10 films and 43 years after Michael Myers first returned to Haddonfield, he’s still going and heading for not one but two more big-screen murder sprees.
The Fog (1980)
100 years after the greedy founders of the Californian coastal town of Antonio Bay deliberately sank a ship and plundered its gold, a mysterious glowing fog rolls in bringing the vengeful spirits of the sailors and passengers that died in the disaster.
Not unlike its rolling subject matter, supernatural horror The Fog is a bit slow for some – and has only truly found its status as a classic as an appreciation for Carpenter’s filmmaking has grown – but it’s another low-budget gem that shows the director’s style and favourite themes coalescing.
There’s the single, self-contained location – an isolated Cali coastal town established by opportunistic murderers in this case. A tense, nowhere-to-hide siege situation with a steadily increasing body count, a shocking and unapologetically dark ending, and a spookily sparse synth soundtrack from Carpenter that successfully crawls beneath your skin like so many ants looking for a way out. The Fog also sees Carpenter’s preference for shooting in widescreen – a choice that not only establishes space well, but also visually helps to hint at danger just outside of the frame.
Fun fact: Carpenter was inspired to write this cult classic when he was visiting Stonehenge with his producer, and then girlfriend, Debra Hill. They saw an eerie fog in the distance and the rest is history.
Escape from New York (1981)
In 1981’s idea of the near future (1997!) the entire island of Manhattan is a maximum security prison filled with the dregs of humanity. When Air Force One crash lands in the Rotten Apple, a convicted bank robber is given an ultimatum – rescue the President for a full pardon or die trying.
Co-written with Nick Castle (who, incidentally, played The Shape in 1978’s Halloween), the cynical, searing Escape from New York sprang from John Carpenter’s disillusionment with politicians following the 1974 Watergate scandal and President Nixon’s resignation.
Escape’s Snake Plissken is a classic John Carpenter hero; a blue-collar guy rising to the challenge in extraordinary circumstances.
And while Kurt Russell’s casting as the rough-edged and cynical Plissken seems like a no-brainer now, at the time of shooting the young actor was mostly known for starring in lightweight Disney films so was considered a risky pick.
Escape from New York was one of Carpenter’s relatively rare smash hits on its release. What’s more, it’s gone on to influence creators from Hideo Kojima – whose Metal Gear Solid videogames have an eyepatch-wearing hero called Snake – to sci-fi author William Gibson, and director J.J. Abrams who visually nodded to Escape’s poster with his shot of the Statue of Liberty’s head in the street, in Cloverfield. And then there’s Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises. An isolated Manhattan overrun by criminals? Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
The Thing (1982)
In the frozen expanse of Antarctica an isolated US research team is systematically hunted down by a shapeshifting alien that can hide in plain sight by adopting the appearance of its victims. Will the alien succeed in making it out to the wider world or can the increasingly paranoid researchers destroy the enemy lurking among them?
With Carpenter’s B-movie inventiveness in full effect, the film makes brilliant use of its single, isolated location, building tension beautifully before unleashing bursts of Rob Bottin’s spectacularly gross special effects that inexorably lead characters and audience alike to the edge of hysteria.
The Thing’s unbearably tense story of festering paranoia in the face of a mutating horror is now justly regarded as a stone-cold (very, very cold) horror classic.
Kurt Russell is, once again, perfect as a rough-tough everyman, R.J. MacReady, trying to make it through to the end credits alive; Dean Cundey’s widescreen cinematography makes the most of desolate exterior vistas and oppressive, shadow-filled interiors alike; and the practical, oozing alien effects have lost none of their power to shock in nearly 40 years.
As for the film's legacy – Quentin Tarantino has not only cited Carpenter’s film as an inspiration for Reservoir Dogs, but his similarly snowbound and suspicion-filled 2015 film The Hateful Eight not only stars Kurt Russell, but also sees composer Ennio Morricone repurposing elements of his unused score for The Thing.
Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
When overconfident truck driver Jack Burton agrees to help friend Wang Chi rescue his girlfriend from a Chinese street gang, little does he know they’re about to uncover a plot to break an ancient curse and revive a powerful ancient warrior wizard through human sacrifice.
Martial arts action comedy Big Trouble in Little China, is one of a handful of Carpenter’s films that allowed him to indulge his passion for Westerns (albeit in disguise).
Based on a script that was originally set in the Old West, the film sees repeat-collaborator Kurt Russell playing trucker Jack Burton – an unwittingly silly guy with John Wayne’s accent and swagger but with none of the abilities to back it up. Truth be told, Burton’s mate Wang is the real hero but nobody seems to have informed Jack of this and the resulting mismatch between his baseless confidence and poor follow through in the face of bizarre supernatural opponents is what makes Big Trouble such a laugh.
Making excellent use of a single location (again) and clearly relishing the opportunity to shoot visually amped martial arts action, Carpenter created what’s effectively a live-action cartoon – full of action, tons of fun and effortlessly entertaining. It’s no surprise, then, to learn that Taika Waititi has cited Big Trouble in Little China as an influence on the equally enjoyable Thor: Ragnarok.
They Live (1988)
A drifter called Nada discovers a pair of sunglasses whose lenses show the wearer that humanity is under subliminal control by a race of skull-faced aliens hiding their true appearance and intentions from the world. Nada begins to fight back, but with few people believing his story the aliens close ranks and try to shut him up for good.
John Carpenter isn’t above slipping political commentary into his accessible, action-driven films. They Live is perhaps his most explicitly political project – no mean feat considering it’s a paranoid sci-fi thriller about skull-faced aliens walking unseen among us.
With its twin themes of soulless consumer culture and the idea of a horrifying reality hidden from humanity’s view, They Live wasn’t just ahead of its time, it was a low-budget The Matrix a full decade before Neo swallowed the red pill.
In former wrestler Roddy Piper, Carpenter reaffirms his love of blue-collar characters who reluctantly stumble into heroism rather than charge towards it. And while Piper isn’t the world’s greatest actor he’s believable as an everyman who finally sees the world for what it is and comes out fighting. Talking of fighting, nudging They Live into ‘absolutely unmissable’ territory is its infamous fist fight between Piper’s Nada, and Keith David’s Frank. This bare knuckle brawl fully lasts five and half minutes and has to be seen to be believed. To quote Nada, "I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I'm all out of bubblegum."
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