by Jason F. Koenigsberg
John Carpenter is arguably the greatest director of the 1980’s. There I said it! But seriously, other than Steven Spielberg being the most obvious choice, and Oliver Stone who won two Best Director Oscars in that decade, John Carpenter between 1978 and 1988 may have had the best output from any other filmmaker. Only John Landis (1978’s National Lampoon’s Animal, House, 1980’s The Blues Brothers, 1988’s Coming to America) comes to mind as a possible rival to Carpenter as having a comparable output during those ten years.
But John Carpenter is especially prescient during the prime of his career and now decades later his work seems more valuable than when it was first released to the masses thirty plus years ago. Plus, since announcing his retirement from filmmaking to focus on his music career he has made more money now than he did when he was releasing a movie practically every other year throughout the 80’s and 90’s. That is because remaking John Carpenter’s classic films like Assault on Precinct 13, The Fog, and Rob Zombie’s infamous Halloween retread, put a lot of money in Carpenter’s bank account even though they were vastly inferior to his original creations.
Also, with the passing of his peers Wes Craven and more recently George A. Romero and Tobe Hooper, Carpenter is the only great horror auteur left. He is younger than all of those filmmakers and was no doubt heavily influenced by their work like Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and Craven’s The Last House on the Left (1972) before creating his own influential horror movies. It seems that John Carpenter is the only ‘Master of Horror’ still alive from an era that was no so long ago. Only David Cronenberg, the ‘Master of Venereal Horror’ remains alive and still working although it is doubtful that anyone will compare his recent films such as A Dangerous Method (2011), Cosmopolis (2012) and Map to the Stars (2014) to his earlier greats like Videodrome (1983), The Fly (1986) or Dead Ringers (1988). The same could be said for all of the other horror auteurs previously mentioned including John Carpenter. But unlike the other filmmakers, when Carpenter stopped making movies after Ghosts of Mars (2001) another film that joined a list of recent failures, something happened to his work where they gained more credit and praise than they received during their initial runs. Even his mid-level work such as The Fog (1980), Big Trouble in Little China (1986) and Prince of Darkness (1987) were being re-evaluated as genre classics and receiving anniversary special edition Bluray and DVD releases.
Suddenly Carpenter was earning respect that was long overdue and as if the whole film community, basically speaking the internet, were giving the great artist the credit he deserved back when most of mainstream America was obsessed with happy crowd pleasing Spielberg movies, Star Wars and prestige family stories like Ordinary People (1980) or historical epics like Dances with Wolves (1990). If you troll the internet and search movie websites such as this you are definitely going to find more praise and intellectual discussions about John Carpeneter’s various films such as The Thing (1982), Christine (1983) and They Live (1988) than you will E.T. (1982) which clobbered The Thing during the summer of 1982 at the box office, or most of the best picture winners from the late 1970’s through the early 1990’s.
With John Carpenter touring for a second time in as many years performing many of his horror themes that he has composed for his films, now is an ideal time to look at a retrospective of his influence on horror cinema and motion pictures overall. It is a travesty that he has never received an Academy Award nomination nor any legitimate accolades for his influence but sadly most award shows do not choose to honor films of the horror and suspense genre which is a real shame since those are the stories that helped build Hollywood into the empire that it is today. The closest he came to mainstream recognition was when he directed Jeff Bridges to a Best Actor Academy Award nomination for Starman (1984). John Carpenter did receive the Special Achievement in Filmmaking Award from Pan and Slam back in 2005, the year that saw two of his classic pictures Assault on Precinct 13 and The Fog receive the big studio treatment. Both were inferior and uninspired cash grabs that helped Carpenter not only earn a lot of money that year, but also made him look like a genius since his low budget original versions with lesser name actors remain the definitive versions.
Originally from Carthage, New York. John Carpenter went to USC film school and it was here in Los Angeles that he really made a name for himself. Right after he graduated from USC his feature film Dark Star (1974) debuted and was a modest hit on the indie circuit for a low brow B-movie. Like a lot of first feature films, it felt like a film directed by someone straight out of college but because of its writer Dan O’Bannon, Dark Star would become the blueprint for his next screenplay, Ridley Scott’s highly successful and influential science fiction/horror film Alien (1979). Dark Star‘s impact can also be seen on other sci-fi films from the twenty-first century like Danny Boyle’s Sunshine (2007) and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014). Not so bad for a schlocky B-picture.
His next film was another independent feature that gained an even larger cult following, a remake of Howard Hawks’ western Rio Bravo (1959) set in a rundown police station in urban Los Angeles as the cops and criminals must work together to survive the night as they combat a a dangerous gang trying to take over the precinct and kill one of the prisoners. This film of course is Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), one of the rawest, toughest and grittiest action thrillers of its time that plays exactly like the modern western Carpenter intended it to be. The film gained notoriety for an infamous moment where a little girl is murdered in cold blood, that nearly gave the film an X rating. Carpenter managed to fool the censors and kept the scene in and received an R, but it was a hit on the indie circuit and when John Carpenter had a bigger budget for his third feature film he wanted a big star. Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing both turned him down. Luckily, Donald Pleasance agreed to star as Dr. Loomis. The reason he did was because his daughter convinced him to sign on with John Carpenter because she was a huge fan of Assault on Precinct 13. Dr. Loomis of course was the lead role in a little horror movie called Halloween (1978), giving Donald Pleasance one of the biggest roles of his illustrious career and a whole new younger fanbase. Peter Cushing was raking in all the money from his Star Wars (1977) role so he did not miss out, but Christopher Lee expressed turning down Halloween as one of the biggest mistakes of his career.
Halloween was a viscerally frightening film. It took the slasher film places that it had not been with a supernatural element and elaborate point of view shots rarely seen in horror films. Heavily influenced by Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and owing a lot to previous genre exercises like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Black Christmas (1974), John Carpenter’s Halloween ushered in a new era of horror films obsessed with the slasher concept that would thrive throughout the entire decade of the 1980’s and then get a jump start with Wes Craven’s revisionist slasher movie Scream (1996) and all of the imitators that came after. If it were not for Halloween‘s massive success we would not have The Friday the 13th franchise, or Wes Craven’s masterpiece A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and its subsequent sequels. Halloween made all of those films possible and those are just the most successful slasher films from that period. This was the film that launched John Carpenter from the independent spectrum to a full blown Hollywood filmmaker and horror specialist. Despite the fact that some of John Carpenter’s best pictures were right around the corner, none of them had the huge financial success or cultural impact of Halloween. The movie is almost synonymous with the holiday it is named after.
He followed up Halloween with his first foray into studio filmmaking with Avco-Embassy Pictures green-lighting the small scale ghost story The Fog (1980). This reunited him with Jamie Lee Curtis who was the breakout star from Halloween and she got to work alongside her mother, the scream queen of the previous generation Janet Leigh, famous for her shower scene in Psycho. Carpenter purposefully did not cast them as mother and daughter which might have been a distraction to the story. He had a few Halloween and Assault on Precinct 13 alums star alongside some bigger name actors like the aforementioned Janet Leigh, as well as John Houseman and Hal Holbrook. The Fog was a moderate success, receiving mixed reviews and pulling in $20 million at the box office. Ironically the R-rating for The Fog may have hindered its success. Carpenter envisioned this as an old fashioned ghost story meant for children and adults, like the kind you would hear sitting around a campfire. But back then the studio wanted a more violent, R-rated film, so Carpenter and his producing partner Debra Hill added superfluous shots of gore to secure the R. This is unimaginable today. Nowadays a studio would likely force a filmmaker to do the opposite and cut violence and gore out to secure a PG-13 rating so that children can buy tickets to the movie and it would likely earn more at the box office. But times have changed and even though The Fog was originally viewed as one of Carpenter’s lesser efforts, as time has passed it has aged surprisingly well, like most of his other features and it’s influence can be seen in any horror film that relies too heavily on dry ice to muddle the images on screen and the big slasher hit I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) clearly looked to the pirate ghosts from The Fog as the inspiration for their killers wardrobe and weapon of choice.
After The Fog, Avco-Embassy still wanted to be in the John Carpenter business and were even willing to take a chance on a script he had that was not a horror film. In 1981 John Carpenter wrote, directed and scored as he usually does, a futuristic action picture called Escape from New York. This reunited Carpenter with his friend Kurt Russell after directing him in the TV biopic Elvis (1979). Russell would sort of become Carpenter’s De Niro as he would go on to star several more times in John Carpenter’s pictures. Escape from New York was the first time that the world really took notice of both as a mainstream actor with bonafide talent and drawing power. This was a bigger hit than The Fog and would eventually earn cult status among many as one of the best futuristic action thrillers with minimal effects and a rather low budget. It also reunited Carpenter with some more actors he previously worked with like Donald Pleasance, this time playing an unsavory President of the United States instead of the noble doctor from Halloween, and Adrienne Barbeau who was his wife at the time and also starred in The Fog. Plus Carpenter was now able to direct more of his childhood icons. Western veteran Lee Van Cleef was onboard, and so was Academy Award winner Ernest Borgnine, and musician Isaac Hayes. They all saddled up for what could have been a silly prison break movie, but instead was one of the more inventive, low budget, futuristic action thrillers of its era.
John Carpenter was really on a career high after Escape from New York, so much that Universal Pictures offered him an even bigger budget than he had ever received before to remake The Thing From Another World (1951). This was one of his favorite horror films growing up and he even used clips from it in Halloween as the movie the children Jamie Lee Curtis is babysitting are watching on TV. The result was phenomenal. John Carpenter had not only made his best movie to date, but The Thing has often been cited as the best film of his career and one of the best remakes of all time. Both of those high praises are no exaggeration. The Thing is really that great. It flopped during the summer of 1982 to another science fiction classic, Steven Spielberg’s E.T., in retrospect that should not come as a surprise. These two films could not be any more different, the only thing that they have in common is that there is an alien creature from another planet on Earth. John Carpenter took the ideas and concepts from the original Howard Hawks film and expanded and improved it in practically every way making the 1951 black and white film feel like a rough draft or a dry run of the 1982 film which feels like a genuine masterpiece of sci-fi horror cinema. John Carpenter basically made 12 Angry Men in Antartica with a supernatural twist. The gorgeous and eerie icy cinematography makes you feel alone and isolated. The haunting Ennio Morricone score creates suspense you can cut with a knife and Rob Bottin’s practical make-up effects hold up thirty-five years later as some of the best of all time. Plus, John Carpenter’s vision of The Thing has one of the bleakest ambiguous endings of all time. If all remakes were half as good as The Thing, nobody would be complaining that there are no original ideas in Hollywood. Plus, Kurt Russell was back again in front of the camera for John Carpenter and his MacReady is one of his very best performances.
So after The Thing flopped, John Carpenter had to suck it up and joined forces with the current Master of Horror in writing Stephen King. Their collaboration yielded one of the best horror movies of the vehicular manner with Christine (1983). Instead of a haunted house or evil creature, it is a car that is hell bent on creating death and destruction. A great performance from a young Keith Gordon and the usual wide shots and eerie synth score from John Carpenter, Christine is the filmmaker flexing his muscles and doing what he does best. It was a hit for Columbia and allowed John Carpenter to still have freedom within the studio system.
Perhaps still feeling spurned by the general public when The Thing flopped. Carpenter decided for his next movie that if the masses wanted a happy meal, he was going to give them a happy meal his way. The result was 1984’s Starman which gave Jeff Bridges one of the best leading roles of his career at that point and turned enough heads in the Academy that Bridges was nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role. Bridges lost to F. Murray Abraham and the Oscar powerhouse that was Amadeus, but in my humble opinion Bridges was the best of the nominees and should have won. Starman is the closest Carpenter came to emulating Spielberg’s style, it even starred Karen Allen as the female lead. Starman is his warmest, most touching and romantic film. Very much a product of its time and not timeless like Halloween, or The Thing, Starman has a special place in John Carpenter’s filmography because of its tenderness and the terrific performances. If he wanted to make movies like this more often he probably could have and it was a success with critics and audiences.
Next John Carpenter still wanted to challenge himself and keep his fans surprised. After making his most serious dramatic film, he went out and made the silliest movie of his career and reunited with his favorite leading man Kurt Russell for Big Trouble in Little China (1986). Obvious comparisons would be made to the very similar Eddie Murphy star vehicle The Golden Child released a few months later. Both are silly, supernatural, lighthearted adventure stories involving Asian mysticism and children. Neither are particularly great nor the strongest films of anyone involved. This might be the weakest movie in John Carpenter’s filmography thus far, yet somehow once again, it has aged very well. The audience that liked it as children seem to love it even more as adults. So much so that there has been long talk of remaking this lesser Carpenter picture with Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson in talks to star as the Kurt Russell role. When Carpenter tried to take a left turn and have some fun as a director he inadvertently made another cult classic that has been cherished for over three decades and grown in acclaim.
He followed Big Trouble in Little China up with another more typical Carpenter-style horror flick, the second chapter in his “Apocalypse Trilogy”, Prince of Darkness (1987). The first being John Carpenter’s The Thing and the third entry comes with 1995’s In the Mouth of Madness. His Prince of Darkness is the only film Carpenter made between 1978 and 1988 that feels wholly derivative and uninspired. I mean it takes place at a college with a lot of the supporting cast from Big Trouble in Little China taking on bigger roles and they find the ultimate evil in some tube in the basement filled with a green ooze. Maybe this film deserves some credit for possibly inspiring the origins for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but seriously the end of the world being brought about by a cylinder? Pretty nonsensical, but Prince of Darkness like all of Carpenter’s weaker efforts is not without its strength’s. The cinematography and Carpenters creepy score create an atmosphere of dread most other filmmakers could only wish they could create. Plus it has Alice Cooper in a minor role as a demented homeless man leading a gang against the students on campus. Like all of his other films, time has been exceedingly kind to Prince of Darkness as it has received numerous special edition DVD’s, Blurays and many re-evaluations by critics and fans alike online.
Prince of Darkness would underperform at the box office and so would his next film, the alien invasion/Reagan indictment masterpiece They Live (1988). Unlike some of his other misfires and mini hits throughout the 1980’s there was no mistaking that They Live was appreciated for its social commentary right from the get go. Not subtle but brilliantly savage casting WWF wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper in the leading role opposite Keith David who had a pivotal part in The Thing. Piper plays a drifter looking for work in the slums of Los Angeles and unwittingly stumbles upon a box of seemingly ordinary sunglasses that have a very special power. They allow the person wearing the sunglasses to see the real humans from the aliens that are taking over our planet and controlling us to obey, consume, reproduce, etc. They Live spawned a very influential art movement throughout the early twenty-first century that is still very common today. If you need further proof this far into the article that John Carpenter is an American treasure and his work should be cherished as such, you need only look at They Live to see his powerful impact on pop culture and the leftist movement. The message from They Live is as potent today during the Trump presidency and during the George W. Bush era as it was during the 1980’s under Ronald Reagan. They Live is Carpenter at his best. He combines humor, scares and political commentary that has proven to be more timeless than anyone in 1988 would have ever thought this seemingly silly low budget horror/sci-fi/comedy ever would have imagined.
After They Lived failed to perform at the box office, John Carpenter took a four year hiatus from making movies. Surely it was exhausting producing nearly a movie a year throughout the 1980’s and when they continually are derided by critics and yield diminishing returns from the box office, it had to take its toll on a hardworking director. Fortunately John Carpenter seems to be a very realistic and down to earth human being, not a stuck up and pretentious artist which he easily could be. Carpenter decided to go back and make a big budget Hollywood picture with a big star. Unfortunately the movie he made after taking almost four years off was the infamous flop Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992). This would be one of the rare occasions John Carpenter’s name did not appear above the title, as if he did not want to take any ownership over the final product. This is also the one film Carpenter has stated he regretted making and was only in it for the money. It marked the start of a dismal decade ahead for Carpenter and his relationship with both the big studios and audiences. Memoirs of an Invisible Man was even more detrimental to Chevy Chase’s career as a viable lead actor. It’s failure marked the beginning of the end for him as a marquee name. However, this movie is not without it’s strength’s. For one, the special effects were cutting edge for 1992. Chevy Chase’s performance is actually one of his better leading roles where he successfully combined his comedic timing with dramatic acting. Daryl Hannah was just fine as the female love interest and the biggest silver lining was Sam Neill as the villain. He was so good that Carpenter and Neill actually became friends and offered Sam Neill the lead in his next movie which would end up being the last truly great John Carpenter film, In the Mouth of Madness (1995).
Shot in 1994 and held back from release until February of 1995, In the Mouth of Madness, the third film of his ‘Apocalypse trilogy’, is a phenomenal horror movie. Call it a buried treasure, underrated, overlooked, this was John Carpenter at his finest with a talented cast, decent but not overbearing practical effects, and a horror film that delivers as much philosophy about the ideas of what makes something true if everyone believes it. The theological discussions after viewing this film are vast. Carpenter also successfully combined the public fanatical adoration for author Stephen King with H.P. Lovecraft-ian ideas and stories and created one of the finest horror movies of the decade. Few people saw it during it’s initial run, but once again, like many of Carpenter’s films that underperformed, the internet and time had been very kind to In the Mouth of Madness and it is slowly finding it’s audience. Everything works in this film and it even features one of Carpenter’s very best music scores with synthesizer and a heavy emphasis on electric guitar.
That good will John Carpenter earned from the few horror fans that saw and loved In the Mouth of Madness was quickly forgotten when a few months later in the spring of 1995 he released his ill-fated Village of the Damned remake. Probably most well known for being one of Christopher Reeve’s final theatrical releases as a leading man before he became paralyzed, nothing really worked or was particularly memorable from John Carpenter’s updated version. His signature synth score stood out and even somehow this mediocre horror film has maintained to grow a larger fanbase with special edition home video releases over the years. Village of the Damned is not a terrible film, just not nearly Carpenter directing at his A-game, not worthy of paying money to see, but not a complete waste, it was as if he was tired and just doing the same thing he had done the previous decade to a much lesser effect.
Then in 1996 John Carpenter directed his first sequel to one of his most beloved films Escape from New York. Remember he only produced and composed the score to a few of the Halloween sequels, never directed one. Kurt Russell was back as Snake Plissken in the long awaited and highly anticipated sequel Escape from L.A. Unfortunately, this film too went out with a whimper in the summer box office. Easy to understand when that summer computer effects had reached a new highpoint with record breaking blockbusters such as Twister, Independence Day and Mission: Impossible. Escape from L.A. did not have those films budgets so their CGI effects looked pretty bad even for 1996. What Escape from L.A. did have was great tongue in cheek humor, social commentary and an inexpensive but talented cast of Cliff Robertson, Steve Buscemi and Pam Grier giving some of their hammiest, scenery chewing performances supporting Kurt Russell’s return to one of his most famous roles. Once again Carpenter composed the score and even had some of the biggest names in 90’s hard rock such as Tool, White Zombie, and Stabbing Westward featured on the soundtrack. The oddest part about Escape from L.A. was how much the plot mimicked Escape from New York. It was clearly meant to be a sequel with references to the original, but the plot was almost a Xerox of the first film. Instead of rescuing the President, he is sent to get the President’s daughter out of a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles that is cut off from the rest of the United States. Obviously meant to be a social commentary, especially with the President as a conglomerate of Reagan and Jerry Falwell when he was sworn in for life and moved the capital to Lynchburg, Virginia. Escape from L.A. had some good ideas and was a lot of fun, but from the special effects that were so blatantly phony to the script that recycled every major plot point from the original, it once again seemed like John Carpenter did not have his heart into making this movie like he did on previous films.
Despite his movies from the 1990’s consistently underperforming at the US box office, many of them were big hits overseas. Carpenter once stated that they loved him everywhere else, but here in America he was a “bum”. His streak of flops would continue with John Carpenter’s Vampires (1998). Released on Halloween weekend, it seemed like an ideal horror movie for audiences to flock to. The problem was, his take on bloodsuckers was not nearly as dark, atmospheric, inventive, or just plain exciting as more recent vampire movies such as Francis Ford Coppola’s take on Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), Neil Jordan’s Interview with the Vampire (1994) and even Marvel’s superhero movie Blade (1998) was a much more entertaining film. Those three films all managed to create whole new worlds and Blade even served as a precursor to The Matrix (1999) and the Marvel Cinematic Universe that dominates movies today. John Carpenter finally made a horror movie about the most famous of all horror movie monsters with Vampires and it looked like the work of an old and tired man. The story about vampire hunters that work for the Vatican and slay the undead in the western deserts of the United States could have been entertaining, James Woods delivers his fast talking shtick as the lead hero, Sheryl Lee gets one of her biggest non-Twin Peaks movie roles, and Daniel Baldwin solidified himself as the worst of the Baldwin brothers with this film. Even if vampires were not such a popular movie trope during the 90’s John Carpenter’s Vampires still would have felt stale.
Carpenter took three years off before his next theatrical feature in August 2001 he released John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars. Here once again offered a lot of the qualities synonymous with a John Carpenter film, the cinematography, music score, stylized horror violence, and editing all looked like his earlier films. Even some of the scares were effective and thrilling. It just did not add up to being a complete picture worthy of his talents or anyone else in the cast which included Ice Cube, Natasha Henstridge, and Jason Statham.
After Ghosts of Mars inevitably tanked at the box office Carpenter announced his retirement from filmmaking to focus on his music. Since then his filmography has continued to thrive and movies that were once labeled as flops are now being seen as modern classics of the genre. He has composed several albums of instrumental songs that all sound as if they could have, or should have been, used as scores to any of his movies. He came back and directed two episodes of the Showtime series Masters of Horror in 2005 and 2006, and also directed one feature film The Ward (2010), however the less said about those, the better.
John Carpenter is younger than his peers Wes Craven, George A. Romero, and Tobe Hooper. He is still alive and well and about to embark on a North American tour of his music. While we still have him at our disposal, John Carpenter deserves all the love, admiration and recognition that he can possibly receive, that none of his counterparts in the horror auteur pantheon ever received (Wes Craven is the only other notable horror director to direct an Oscar nominated performance with Meryl Streep in Music of the Heart from 1999). Horror is a genre beloved by many movie audiences across the world. The thrill of fear and the human desire to be scared is one that will never go away. John Carpenter has done more for horror movies than almost anyone dead or alive so while he is alive he deserves all the credit in the world for creating movies that have lasted for over twenty, thirty or forty years and continue to shock and terrify audiences both new and old. John Carpenter is an American treasure and God Bless him for being alive to know his art and his talent have inspired so many and scared millions more.
John Carpenter’s films from Best to Worst:
- The Thing (1982)
- Halloween (1978)
- They Live (1988)
- Escape from New York (1981)
- In the Mouth of Madness (1995)
- Christine (1983)
- Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
- The Fog (1980)
- Starman (1984)
- Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992)
- Escape from L.A. (1996)
- Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
- Prince of Darkness (1987)
- Ghosts of Mars (2001)
- Dark Star (1974)
- Vampires (1998)
- Village of the Damned (1995)
- The Ward (2010)