10. Prince of Darkness
A group of quantum physics students investigate a mysterious cylinder of liquid that has been found in a monastery.
I love this film. As well as having a fantastic cast (Carpenter regular Donald Pleasance returns and is always welcome, but this time we get Alice Cooper and his bunch of the zombie homeless. Both actors are on top form here and are a huge part of why I love this movie). I also love that this film is based on quite an abstract notion: the cylinder is actually Satan in liquid form. I also love the links between the ancient and modern computerised age in the film. Far out, dark as Hell (pun not intended) and a fantastic couple of hours.
9. They Live
A drifter discovers that sunglasses he had stumbled upon allow him to see who people really are with some people being shown to be aliens who are members of the ruling class. The sunglasses also allow him to see the true meaning behind different kinds of advertising and how they coerce people into conforming and consuming to name but two.
The film made after Prince of Darkness features another terrific cast with wrestling legend Roddy Piper playing the drifter (who doesn’t have a name which suggests that he symbolises a kind of everyman figure) with great support from Keith David (reappearing after his turn in Carpenter’s The Thing from 1982) and Meg Foster. This film refuses to be categorised in any one genre and contains action, horror, sci-fi and comedy and does all of them brilliantly well. This also has one of the best and funniest fight scenes in film history. Roddy is trying to convince Keith David to put on the sunglasses he wears to see what he says. Hilarity ensues.
A brilliant film that is rife with allegories regarding what it says about society and especially American society in the late 80s and Reagan era. They Live also gave birth to a plethora of Film Studies essays and conspiracy theories as to what it all means. In other words, it inspired conversation which is a great thing.
8. Big Trouble in Little China
Possibly the noisiest film I’ve ever seen. A box office bomb, this was then a huge hit on home video which was another reason why that medium was so fantastic and a breath of fresh air. Kirk Russell plays another brilliantly drawn Carpenter character- truck driver Jack Burton finds himself doing battle with an ancient Chinese sorcerer. He’s a great action hero but also funny as hell (Burton not the sorcerer).
The special effects in Big Trouble in Little China have aged brilliantly well (unlike the CGI in Escape From LA which Carpenter made in the 90s). That this wasn’t a huge hit when shown on the big screen is criminal. It was made to be seen at the cinema. Such are the mysteries of life.
Jeff Bridges plays an alien who takes on the identity of a Wisconsin man who has just died and kidnaps his widow. Or is it a kidnapping?
There are more questions to be asked about the film and not just its characters. Is Starman a science fiction film or a love story? Both. And it works fantastically as both. Bridges was even nominated for an Oscar for his role. Imagine that- a Carpenter film being lauded by the Academy.
If your heart doesn’t melt during the scene involving the deer, you don’t have a heart. For some reason this movie appears to be playing almost everyday on a different cable channel here in the UK. I’m not complaining.
6. Escape From New York
Carpenter’s big set piece movie. New York is now one huge prison which is (supposedly) impossible to escape. Donald Pleasance’s President has crash-landed there after Air Force One has been hijacked and so someone needs to go into New York to rescue him.
Step forward Snake Plissken, one of the best anti-heroes in film history. He was a war hero until he robbed a bank but was caught by the law doing so. If he successfully springs the President from New York, he will be given a Presidential pardon regarding his bank robbery charges and prison sentence.
The sets are magnificent. And we get Isaac Hayes and Lee Van Cleef alongside regulars Russell, Pleasance and Adrienne Barbeau to make for a fantastic cast. Keep an eye out for Russell’s first wife Season Hubley in a small role.
We also get one of the best Carpenter soundtracks ever. All killer, no filler- every track is amazing. Tracks like the title theme and Engulfed Cathedral are amongst some of the best music JC has ever recorded (which is really something as he’s as great a composer and musician as he is a film director).
5. The Thing
Carpenter’s remake of The Thing From Another World is a rare thing- a remake better than the original. The Thing is a film of pure suspense, has an amazing all-male ensemble cast, peerless direction and genre-defining special effects and designs thanks to Rob Bottin and Mike Ploog. Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack is orchestral in places but also discordant and abstract in others and perfectly matches the action. The Thing was hated by critics on its original release but was still a hit at the box office even though the friendlier extraterrestrial of E.T. was bringing in major bucks for Steven Spielberg.
But there’s also a sly strain of humour at play within the film. I guess you could call it gallows humour as events become so surreal and dark that they become blackly humourous.
History judges every movie and The Thing has now taken its place in the vanguard of the very best horror/science fiction films ever made. In fact, whenever there’s a Top 10 Greatest Horror Films list and The Thing isn’t in there, I always think there’s something wrong. The Thing has now been seen as just as good as the very best of Carpenter’s canon alongside bonafide classics such as Halloween and Assault on Precinct 13. And rightly so.
4. Someone’s Watching Me!
Many people still don’t know about the TV movie Carpenter made just before he started work on Halloween although a Blu-Ray release by Scream Factory has meant that more people can now enjoy this gem. I actually caught it on TV in the mid-80s and then saw it again years later in Australia where I was surprised that it had been released on home video there.
Lauren Hutton proves to be a fantastic lead as her character Leigh, a TV director finds herself being stalked after moving into a high-rise apartment building in Los Angeles. Anonymous disturbing phone calls and strange incidents such as the lights in her apartment dimming of their own accord convince Leigh that, as the title states, someone is watching her. Can Leigh and her friend Sophie (who happens to be a lesbian. I love that this character trait is handled in just a couple of lines of dialogue like it’s really no big deal. If this TV movie was remade today, references to her sexual orientation would be made endlessly and monotonously) find out who this nutjob is?
There is so much suspense within this gem that you won’t have any fingernails left at the end of it. Watch out for the scene where Leigh has to hide under a grate whilst her stalker is stood above her. Also, watch for the scene in which Sophie ventures into the apartment where they think Leigh’s stalker lives whilst Leigh watches proceedings through a telescope.
Not only is Someone’s Watching Me! one of the best TV movies I’ve ever seen, in my humble opinion it’s one of the best entries in Carpenter’s filmography. Yes, it’s that great.
3. The Fog
I remember seeing the poster for The Fog outside my local cinema in 1980 as we drove past in the family car. I was 5 years old. The poster alone was enough to give me nightmares. It would be a good few years until I got to see the film on home video and I absolutely loved it. I also remember when I was at university watching it on my portable TV (the screen was just a bit bigger than a postage stamp) as it was being shown on TV. I was snug in bed as a thunderstorm roared outside my window. It’s funny the film viewings that stick in your memory as some of the best.
Antonio Bay’s centenary is ruined as zombie leper pirates take their revenge for wrongs done to them when the town was founded. A cracking cast (Jamie Lee Curtis is fresh from Halloween and stars with her real-life mom Janet Leigh along with John Houseman, Hal Holbrook and Tom ‘The Man’ Atkins) is complimented by Dean Cundey’s usual gorgeous photography, a great screenplay (the dialogue between Janet Leigh and her assistant played by Nancy Loomis is hilariously funny) and one of JC’s best soundtracks- electro baroque and music that actually sounds like the fog is a living, breathing and malignant entity.
With the film’s release date looming, Carpenter saw an early cut and decided that it didn’t work. And so he wrote new, nastier scenes and shot them very quickly. The Fog still met it’s release date. These new scenes were nastier in tone and more graphic because Carpenter and producer Debra Hill felt that Cronenberg’s Scanners which had just been released had upped the ante when it came to what horror fans expected from their fare. It certainly worked. The Fog is a terrific film.
2. Assault on Precinct 13
The skeleton staff at a local police station that is closing down find that they are under siege by a local gang who have declared a ‘cholo’ (which means ‘to the death’) after the police killed several of their brethren. But all of this is after three death row prisoners are put into cells in the station as they have to stop over so one of the prisoners can receive medical assistance on their way to the state prison. One of these criminals is the notorious Napoleon Wilson. Police and criminals have to combine forces to make sure they all make it through the night and fight off the gang’s advances.
Assault was inspired by Rio Bravo directed by JC’s hero Howard Hawks and Night of the Living Dead. The character of Leigh is a classic strong Hawksian woman and the gang members do resemble the zombies surrounding the farmhouse in Night. The dialogue for Assault is definitely pure Hawks in places but also pure Carpenter. Napoleon Wilson is a classic Carpenter anti-hero just as Snake Plissken is. He also has great chemistry with Leigh who finally provides him with the cigarette that he keeps asking other characters for throughout the film’s course. She even has a light too. Check out what happens when she lights his cigarette for him. It might as well be post-coital.
Assault is a perfect film. Carpenter’s direction and framing are extraordinary. Check out how he takes advantage of the aspect ratio he uses for the film (2:35:1 if you’re interested). Exemplary performances bring Carpenter’s fantastic characters to life. I love how there is so much that is kept from the audience who are left to come up with their own theories. It’s almost like Carpenter warrants us with a modicum of intelligence. How did Napoleon Wilson get his name? (My own interpretation- watch him break the gang member’s arm. Napoleon had one arm and so maybe this is one of his favourite moves). What did Ethan Bishop carve into the desk as a child that he whispers to Leigh but we’re not privy to? These characters have a backstory and history which isn’t overshared and overanalysed. I love that.
Assault also has one of the greatest soundtracks ever composed. If you think you don’t know it, you’ll know it when you hear it. It’s well known in its original form but has also been sampled extensively. It’s a minimalist masterpiece and is perfect for the film.
And if all of this isn’t enough, the film also contains one of the most shocking scenes in cinema history. The ‘girl with the ice cream’ scene came to the attention of the MPAA who ordered that Carpenter excise some or all of this scene to reduce its shock value. As was the practice of the day, especially with low-budget productions, he simply told the board that he had complied with their stipulations but he didn’t and the film was released with the scene still intact.
What can I say about my second favourite film of all time? (Taxi Driver occupies the top spot if you’re interested). I first watched Halloween in a format that was the exact opposite of how it was made to be watched. I watched it in a faded pan and scan print. And it still worked its magic!
After killing his sister in 1963, Micheal Myers escapes from his mental hospital some years later and heads home to try and kill Laurie Strode and anyone else who gets in his way.
A critic wrote that ‘Halloween is to horror as sugar is to gratification’. This is spot-on. When I first saw the film in 1987 even though it was a sub-optimal print the film still worked brilliantly and I found that it stayed with me and had a haunting quality (pun not intended). A big part of that is the music score. There’s a story that Carpenter tells in which he showed Halloween without the music to studio bosses as the score hadn’t been recorded yet. They all told him after the screening that his film was pretty good. He then showed them Halloween but with the iconic score in place. Everyone raved that he had made a masterpiece. Music is so important for a film especially if you have a classic score like the sinister piano and synth score that is Halloween. It’s irregular time signature is off-kilter and completely unsettling. In the early reels of the film it’s the sound of impending doom. When death comes to Haddonfield, it’s the perfect soundtrack to the carnage.
Shooting the film in Panavision was also an important ingredient to the film’s haunting quality. The images linger with you and Jamie Lee Curtis’ androgynous face in close-up as shot through the cinematic prism of Panavision is iconic as is the rest of the film. The fact that the locales for the film are suburban and not in some castle in Transylvania meant that the horror was everywhere and in surroundings that audiences were familiar with. Some of the horrific action within the film also takes place during the day meaning that we aren’t safe at any time of the day or night.
There’s also the realisation within the film that Michael Myers isn’t human and a seemingly unstoppable force of nature that makes the film so memorable and horrific. The scene in which Myers literally springs back to life as Laurie is catching her breath after seemingly killing him is possibly the scariest moment I’ve ever seen in a horror film. Look out for the audience reaction video of this scene on YouTube which was recorded in a cinema during the film’s original release. The audience screams en masse as Michael’s torso mechanically rises up.
Halloween was so iconic that it gave birth to a whole new horror genre- the slasher film. Whilst some slasher films are very good, none of them are as good as the original Halloween. Halloween is a bona fide classic and like The Thing, regularly appears in the lists of the Greatest Horror Films Ever Made. Halloween stands shoulder to shoulder with other iconic horror films such as the Exorcist, Night of the Living Dead and Psycho. And long may it reign.