Top 10 John Carpenter Films

Top 10 John Carpenter Films

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.

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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.

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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.

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7. Starman

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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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1. Halloween

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.

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Top 10 John Waters Movies

Top 10 John Waters Movies

I love that as I progress through this Top 10, the more I write on the films. I tried to keep each description down to a couple of succinct sentences but trying to do that with masterpieces like Pink Flamingos, Polyester and Female Trouble was impossible.

John Waters isn’t just a brilliant film director, screenwriter and all-round legend, he’s a guiding light for anyone who is passionate about true cult cinema, underground culture and anything that is on the margins of culture. My love of Waters began with Hairspray and developed from there. I read Shock Value that had just been republished, then Crackpot. In those dark days, there was no Scala cinema in my town to show his films. However, his earlier films appeared in a VHS box set in the early ’90s that I quickly bought and devoured. All of the films within had been cut by the BBFC but it was better than nothing. As time went on and common sense prevailed, the films became available uncut and all was right with the world.

I have a lot to thank John Waters for. Just as David Bowie was a figure of inspiration for all of the weirdos, freaks and individuals who dared to be different, John Waters is the same kind of figure but just working in a different medium. He’s also one of the greatest living film directors today. I’m so glad he’s returning to direction and that his next project will be an adaptation of his great first novel, Liarmouth. His absence has been greatly felt.

Here’s my Top 10. Please feel free to let me know what yours are.

10. Cry Baby

A bigger budget, a huge ensemble cast (Traci Lords! Iggy Pop! Johnny Depp!) but no adverse effect on the film. It’s a terrific romp and with one of the funniest opening credit sequences in film history.

9. Pecker

Adult, mature Waters. But again, this doesn’t affect the content. This film showcases just how far Waters had progressed as both a filmmaker and as a screenwriter. And it’s just as funny and perceptive as ever.

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8. Cecil B. Demented

Waters’ views on the kind of mainstream cinema that is made to be shown in suburban cineplexes. Riotously funny but largely ignored on its release (I wonder why) this is like a manifesto for fans and makers of underground films.

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7. Serial Mom

A loving mother is also a serial killer. Funny as hell, a cameo from L7 (as a band called ‘Camel Lips’) and a great time capsule of everything great about the mid-90s. How Kathleen Turner wasn’t nominated for an Oscar for her performance I don’t know. Her performance is one of the best I’ve ever seen in ANY film.

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6. Hairspray

John Waters’ PG-rated racial segregation comedy. Yes, really. This was my introduction to Waters’ movies as my friend and I used to watch this and dance along to it in my front room. Hairspray also introduced the gorgeous Ricki Lake to the world. And any film starring Deborah Harry is high art to me. Divine’s last movie before his death. One of the greatest losses to the film world EVER.

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5. Desperate Living

The early Waters movie that didn’t star Divine (he was starring in the stage play The Neon Woman and so couldn’t appear). Because of this Desperate Living is like the underdog of the early Waters movies which makes me root for it more. There’s so much to love here. This was released in 1977 during the apex of punk. In fact, overseas this film was renamed ‘Punk Story’. Waters’ films have always been punk and contributed to the formation of the movement in the US and UK.

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4. Multiple Maniacs

Multiple Maniacs reminds me of Night of the Living Dead. Both were shot in black and white and when they were both restored (by the ever-excellent Criterion in both cases) we could suddenly see how gorgeous they looked. A touring freakshow, a sequence depicting the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and a giant lobster. You’ll find out what a rosary job is by watching this film. And there’s a character who may or may not have been involved in what happened on Cielo Drive on a certain night in 1969. Essential Waters. This was also the film that unleashed Edith Massey onto the world. The world was/is a much better place because of this.

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3. Pink Flamingos

The World’s Filthiest Person now finds she has challengers to her title. Big mistake. The conclusion to this film made sure that it would go down in cinema history. It worked. This film takes full advantage of the fact that this is Waters’ first film is shot in colour. The colour palate is off the scale, especially Raymond and Connie Marbles’ hair and Divine’s wardrobe. This film is all killer, no filler. It’s also endlessly quotable. Pink Flamingos will make you want to lick your enemies’ furniture and sneer at central heating. When I started my degree in Film Studies at university we had to write an essay on a film that depicted societal issues. I wrote an essay on Pink Flamingos and talked about competition and family values. I got a pretty good grade too.

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2. Polyester

Waters’ film was shot in Odorama but Polyester is a masterpiece whether you see it with the Odorama cards or not. Former teen idol and homosexual Tab Hunter was lured in to star with Divine in this melodrama riposte/Douglas Sirk from Hell movie. Again, this movie is all killer, no filler. Your jaw will be aching at the end of this movie from laughing so much. The character Lulu Fishpaw is one of my favourites from all of Waters’ films. Whether sees displaying her report card that is full of F’s (‘they changed the grading system. F is for fantastic!’), getting knocked up by her punk rocker boyfriend Bobo (real-life punk rocker Stiv Bators) or learning all about her cervix in sex education class, she is iconic and has a Farrah Fawcett hairstyle to boot. Again Polyester is endlessly quotable with lines such as ‘At first I thought he was walking the dog. Then I realised it was his date!’ A masterpiece.

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1 Female Trouble

This film chronicles the life of Divine’s Dawn Davenport who works her way up the crime ladder and finally gets what she sees as the pinnacle achievement in her chosen occupation of criminal- the electric chair which is to her like an actor getting an Oscar for their achievements. One of the funniest films ever made, this film also possesses laser precision when it comes to its observations on celebrity, fame, infamy and true crime. Waters is a true crime aficionado himself and attended several prominent trials for cases that fired his imagination. Female Trouble is the product of these experiences and more. The film is even dedicated to Tex Watson although after his friendship with Patricia Krenwinkle (whom he believes to be fully rehabilitated and should be released), he says he would never have done that now. You think you’ve seen it all with this film but then you see Divine with a mohawk, on a trampoline and then fellating a fish. Female Trouble isn’t just a film, it’s a state of mind. This film sorts out the true cult cinema fans from the try-hard pretenders. This is my third favourite film of all time. Long may it reign.

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