When it comes to the horror genre, director John Carpenter is more on point than the tip of Michael Myer’s kitchen knife. Yet his repertoire of films is an eclectic collection of sci-fi, action, satire, political parody and of course horror, many of which have achieved cult status over the years.
Touted as the ‘master of horror’, Carpenter received commercial acclaim with the 1978 iconic slasher film Halloween. A director and a composer, Carpenter is known for using his own music to amplify the ambient horror and suspense. Heavy use of synths is synonymous with ominous foreboding in John Carpenter’s films. Add to that wide frame shots with looming foregrounds, retina scarring visuals and subjective POV using Steadicam to created immersive experiences of a bone-chilling kind and there is no doubt John Carpenter has a killer instinct for horror (pun completely intended).
As the filmmaker turns 73 years old on 16th January, we revisited his body of work. Below is your guide to a John Carpenter binge marathon ranked in order of greatness.
John Carpenter’s 10 best films ranked from worst to best:
10. Christine (1983)
Long before, Toyota’s self-driving cars were a conceivable possibility, Stephen King and John Carpenter’s combined sensibilities envisioned a bright red 1958 Plymouth Fury speeding down dark roads to run down her victims.
Based on Stephen King’s book by the same name, the story is framed around the adage “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” except this women is a gleaming hulk of steel and chrome on wheels, named Christine. Arnie Cunningham (Keith Gordon) a bullied, nerdy teenager who buys an old Plymouth and names her Christine develops an eerie obsession with fixing the car.
The vintage vehicle which has a conscious presence within it reciprocates said obsession like a maniac lover. Anyone standing in the way of Arnie and Christine is roadkill (quite literally). In this classic killer-car subgenre of horror, Christine is on a killing rampage, with her unsupervised engine growling into the action of its own accord and her headlights blazing with murderous rage as she runs down her victims one by one.
9. In The Mouth of Madness (1995)
This H.P Lovecraft inspired slow-burn suspense is the concluding piece in John Carpenter’s ‘Apocalypse Trilogy’, the other two being The Thing and Prince of Darkness. While The Thing and Prince of Darkness attribute its apocalyptic horror to extraterrestrial and infernal origins, respectively the source of the dystopian doomsday in The Mouth of Madness is a flesh and blood man.
A best selling horror-author called Sutter Cane to be exact, whose books seem to have the ability to drive its readers to insanity, fueling an epidemic of delusional schizophrenia. When Sutter Cane goes missing, an insurance investigator John Trent (Sam Neill) is hired to track down the best selling novelist only to find himself in a nightmarish parallel reality conjured from the writer’s pages.
As the line between reality and fiction blurs in a twisted vicarious God-complex, Carpenter empowers Sutter Cane with the agency to warp the reality of the collective conscience of his readers. One wonders if Sutter Cane is the fictional counterpart of John Carpenter himself. If so, are the nightmares this movie inevitably gives you a part of your reality or a product of Carpenter’s fiction?
8. Prince Of Darkness (1987)
The second instalment of Carpenter’s ‘Apocalypse Trilogy; juxtaposes conceptual physics with satanism and delivers it through the hand of a priest.
If there ever was an amalgamation of science, faith and satanism to create a perfect concoction of apocalyptic doom, this film is it. In Halloween, Donald Pleasence validated the presence of evil in human form. In Prince of Darkness, he plays a priest in possession of a cylinder containing an infernal evil he calls the ‘anti-god’.
As a group of academics congregate to examine this satanic anomaly, unfettered horror is unleashed with grotesque visuals. Carpenter conjures the bone-chilling atmosphere of sheers terror in a film that is bound to be a haunting nightmare for days after viewing.
7. Big Trouble In Little China (1986)
In this east-meets-west genre-defying film, Carpenter teams up with Kurt Russel to create the reluctant hero Jack Burton. Jack is a lumbering block of testosterone and very few grey cells, who is drawn in by his friend Wang to go pick up his fiancee at the airport.
In a weird mishap, Wang’s fiance is abducted by a gang. What follows is encounters with a mystical oriental man, Kung fu-panda-esque action, spoofy magic gimmicks, a riot of laughter and Jack floundering his way through a rescue mission. Action, comedy, supernatural element, racial stereotypes, you name it and this film has it. Its entertainment in a takeaway box. Doesn’t taste the same when left to sit overnight.
6. The Fog (1980)
Vengeance is often the goading factor for the villains in Carpenter’s films, take the street gang in Assault on Precinct 13, the inmates in Escape from New York as prime examples. The supernatural antagonists in The Fog are no exception to this recurring motivating factor. While the town of Antonio Bay celebrates its 100th anniversary, it is oblivious to the dark history of its founding.
The pillars of town’s foundation were built on the metaphoric graves of a leper colony massacred by the founders. The ghosts return to claim six lives in revenge in a haze of paranormal activity and an uncharacteristic fog rolling into town. Despite frantic disclaimers on-air about an eerie fog by radio host Stevie Wayne (played by Adrienne Barbeau) the celebrations end in a bloodbath, that will satiate the appetite for blood lust of even the most avid Tarantino fan. Carpenter accentuates the creepiness of his paranormal happenstance with wide-frame shots of fog rolling in ominously, which is bound to send a chill down the spine.
5. Escape From New York (1981)
In this ingenious satirical, dystopian action film the island of Manhattan is a super-prison where the incarcerated are holding the president of the United States hostage, in their warped walled-off society. Kurt Russell collaborating with Carpenter again plays the anti-hero Snake Plissken, dripping machismo and scorn in equal parts as he tries to rescue the president while navigating the twisted society of this dystopian prison and its inmates.
Carpenter’s anti-establishment subtext is insinuated by adding agency to those incarcerated by the government and their mirror-image society.
4. Assault On Precinct 13 (1976)
While Dark Star introduced Carpenter’s directorial acumen to the world, it wasn’t until his second directorial venture Assault On Precinct 13 that Carpenter’s bravura as a director was staunchly established.
A precinct is on the verge of closing down when the cops inside get entrapped by a howling mob of vengeful street gang members seeking to retaliate for the massacre of gang members by the LAPD. With the gang members baying for blood the tension and suspense mounts as the people inside the precinct try to outlive the night’s imminent threat and terror.
The masculine congregation of bravado bonding over victimhood and survival instinct is certainly a homage to Carpenter’s idol Howard Hawk’s trope and is reused by Carpenter in The Thing with an all-male crew under attack.
3. They Live (1988)
Loosely disguised as sci-fi, They Live is replete with anti-establishment political allegory. A commentary on the Reagan-era of consumerism and economic divide viewed through the lens of conspiracy theorists’ manifesto.
They Live attributes the downfall of humanity to the subliminal messages by invading aliens. In the backdrop of a not-so dystopian world of class inequality where the chasm between the haves and have nots has increased exponentially, Nada (played by Roddy Piper) is a drifter plagued by poverty who still believes in the system and the power of hard work for social mobility. He is disillusioned of his naive optimism when he puts on a strange sunglass and witnesses that the world is subjugated by aliens who command humanity through reinforced messaging on billboards and even currency.
Words like ‘Obey’, ‘Marry’ and ‘Reproduce’ appear in the messages instilling subconscious conformity in the human society through repeated exposure. Carpenter thereby places the onus of social constructs on the hypothetical of alien domination, although the takeaway from this film is far more profound allegorically than literally.
2. The Thing (1982)
The Thing is a hybridisation of horror and sci-fi and an exercise in gruesome visual effects courtesy special effects maestro Rob Bottin. In a cinematic perversion of biology, The Thing has severed heads sprouting legs and antenna, canine transmutations and defibrillators sinking into tangible thoracic cavities. The plot is fairly simple, an Antarctic research outpost is infiltrated by a parasitic alien life form that inhabits and imitates its human hosts.
Paranoia ensues as the crew tries to determine who is human while fending of visceral slimy tentacles. While the film failed to impress critics and had a tepid box office response it has developed an accelerating cult status over the years. Although its onslaught of gore and monstrosity which exceeds Frankestenian proportions are more palpable on an empty stomach. (Also it reduces the possibility of regurgitating a bowl of spaghetti for those predisposed to a gag reflex).
The grim and grotesque morbidity of Carpenter’s alien is in sharp contrast to Speilberg’s affable extraterrestrial in E.T. which released two weeks prior to the release of The Thing and may have contributed substantially to audience and critics prejudice alike. However, the real terror of The Thing surpasses its gruesome graphics and lies in the ability of the monster to take the form of humans, hiding indiscernibly in plain sight. The monster could be anyone, a familiar face, a friend, a colleague. And this plays right into the paranoia of the era.
1. Halloween (1978)
What’s more terrifying than a grotesque monster? The perverted psyche of the human conscience shrouded in obscurity of the shadows or masked beneath a generic face. Add to that the background of the suburban USA, with its tepid and mundane life a far cry from the anticipation of horror and a coherent perspective of fear is established.
Evil can be anyone and anywhere—even a six-year-old murdering child. Released in 1978, it spawned over a decade of emulations and sequels, but none came close to the blood-curdling anticipatory suspense of Hitchcockian proportions that is the true horror of Halloween. Although pegged as a slasher movie Halloween is sparsely scant in gore with a relatively low body count (a fact overtly compensated for by its sequel, but that’s a story for another day).
Carpenter’s use of Steadicam and subjective POV enhances the immersive viewing experience, thereby making the jack-in-the-box scares all too real. The widescreen frames with artistic use of foreground are used to create an omnipresent looming threat of terror even in the daylight shots. In a display of prurient voyeurism, the film opens with a subjection POV of six-year-old Michael Myer as he watches his sister retreat up the stirs for a quickie with her boyfriend and subsequently stabs her to death with a kitchen knife on Halloween night in 1963. The film doesn’t offer up any explanation or preamble for Michael’s murderous instincts. The only attempt at analysis is by way of Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance), Michael’s doctor at the asylum where he spends the next fifteen years of his life until he breaks out of there in 1978 and returns to his hometown of Haddonfield, Illinois on Halloween night to recreate his prepubescent murder on unsuspecting teenage babysitters.
In an attempt to decode the horror of Michael Loomis clarifies, “I met him 15 years ago. I was told there was nothing left. No reason, no conscience, no understanding in even the most rudimentary sense of life or death, of good or evil, right or wrong. I met this six-year-old child with this blank, pale, emotionless face, and…the blackest eyes. The Devil’s eyes. I spent eight years trying to reach him, and then another seven trying to keep him locked up because I realised that what was living behind that boy’s eyes was purely and simply evil.”
The use of the subjective camera as Michael stalks Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her friends Annie and Lynda, as they innocuously discuss boys and sexual escapades, elevates the slow-burning suspense. It also allows for Carpenter to hid Michael in the shadows right until the climax. On the rare occasions that Michael is visible, he is wearing a white Captain Kirk mask. This allows Carpenter to defer the unveiling of the true horror – the face behind the mask, the face of evil is that of an unassuming ordinary-looking man that one would give a second glance to on a busy sidewalk.
While the film ends on a cryptic note without revealing the motivation behind Michael’s murder spree, an allusion to conservative sexual politics offers up a plausible alternative. After all, all of Michael’s victims (Judith, Annie and Lynda) are sexually active while the vestal virgin Laurie is spared.