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(Credit: Nathan Hartley Maas)

John Carpenter's five favourite films of all time

“There are a lot of movies that I don’t care about, especially not remakes.” – John Carpenter 

When we talk about the ‘cult film’, those midnight movies that gained more popularity with subcultural audiences than they ever did with critics, it’s hard to look past John Carpenter. Though instead of a particular film of his that gained cult popularity, it is the director himself who is the popular figure, with nearly each and every one of his films helping to define the cultural landscape of 1980s America. 

A modern horror icon, whose smart sense of tension helped to establish the slasher sub-genre of the 1980s with the iconic genre film Halloween, John Carpenter would go on to write, produce and direct some of the most influential films of the late 20th century. Creating cinematic gems, The Thing, Escape from New York and Big Trouble in Little China, John Carpenter was truly a voice of the revolutionary American youth. 

With a deep love of Westerns, the director himself is influenced by a broad range of cinema, commenting, “I have two different categories of favourite films”, separating each list by his “emotional favourites” defined by those which made his childhood, and his “mature favourites” which helped to form his cinematic craft. Rattling off his “emotional favourites”, Carpenter’s list is ridden with pulpy sci-fi classics, explaining: “When I was a kid, I loved The Curse of Frankenstein, The Creeping Unknown, X: The Unknown. I love Forbidden Planet, The Thing from Another World”.

Though, when it comes to John Carpenter’s list of “mature favourites”, his taste gets a little more eclectic, with 1939s Only Angels Have Wings, the first film in his top five. Directed by Howard Hawks, this romantic adventure starring Cary Grant and Jean Arthur, follows the manager of an air freight company who is forced to risk his pilots’ lives in order to win an important contract. In fact, Carpenter loves Hawks so much, crucially learning a great deal from him as a visionary filmmaker, that he also includes the director’s 1959 film Rio Bravo as the second film on his list. In the words of John Carpenter: “In Hawks’ world, Only Angels Have Wings and Rio Bravo are his visions of adventure stories with male groups, and men and women’s relationships, and life and death and danger. He’s developed that idea throughout his career. Those are just his beliefs”. 

Away from Howard Hawks and onto Orson Welles, as Carpenter notes the director’s 1941 classic Citizen Kane, often labelled the ‘greatest film of all time’, as number three on his list of favourites. “Citizen Kane is a great film. Like Hawks, this movie is a vision, primarily the director’s vision, of something that is whole and complete,” Carpenter notes on Welles’ classic following a publishing tycoon reflecting on the pitfalls of his life.

With an appreciation for classic cinema, John Carpenter also picks out Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 masterpiece Vertigo as one of his “mature favourites”, calling the film a “perfect nightmare”. Tracking the life of a former police detective juggling his own personal demons and his own obsessions with a beautiful woman, Carpenter expresses his love of Hitchcock’s film, commenting, “It’s a dream, and it’s stunning. It’s so dark and obsessive, and it came from this director who claimed to only want to entertain the audiences. But that’s not true; it’s a masterpiece”.

Take a look at the list of John Carpenter’s top five “mature favourites”, via Rotten Tomatoes, below:

John Carpenter five favourite films:

  • Only Angels Have Wings (Howard Hawks, 1939)
  • Rio Bravo (Howard Hawks, 1959)
  • Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)
  • Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)
  • Blow-Up (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966)

Michelangelo Antonioni, the director of The Passenger and L’Avventura, bookends the list with his 1966 film Blow-Up, a film concerning a fashion photographer who unknowingly captures a death on film following two lovers in a park. An expressive commentary on the line between art and reality, Blow-Up is Antonioni’s greatest work and the last of Carpenter’s top five films, noting that it “is a brilliant film. It’s kind of a perfect enigmatic example of a film. I just love that movie. I can’t get enough of it. It’s so strange!”.

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