Our Christmas gift to ourselves this year is a walk through the career of horror master John Carpenter. Yes, we did want to include Assault on Precinct 13 and Escape from New York. But we stayed strong, because we still had to sift through so many genre classics to determine which five would rise to the top.
5. The Fog (1980)
Stevie Wayne (director John Carpenter favorite, at least while they were married, Adrienne Barbeau) does an air shift from a studio in that old lighthouse out on Antonio Bay. But the fog rolling in off the bay is just too thick tonight. It’s as if she’s entirely alone in the world. Can anyone hear her? Will someone go check on her young son?
While a lot does not work in Carpenter’s pirate leper ghost story (leper pirates?!), his first theatrical release after Halloween does hit some of the right marks. The vulnerability of a radio DJ – totally isolated while simultaneously exposed – has never been more palpable than in this film.
Jamie Lee Curtis (another Carpenter favorite) joins her mom Janet Leigh and B-horror legend Tom Atkins to fill out the pool of leper pirate bait. While the film is hardly one of Carpenter’s best, his knack for framing, his voyeuristic camera, and his ability to generate scares with a meager budget are on full display.
4. They Live (1988)
More SciFi and action than horror, still John Carpenter’s vision of an elite class using tech to mollify and control the population of the US was eerily prescient. And horrifying.
At the time, though, it was just plain entertaining in a way that married Carpenter’s own iconic Escape from New York vibe with the SciFi horror miniseries of the day, V.
But mainly, it’s Rowdy Roddy Piper chewing bubble gum, and the 6 1/2 minute fight scene between Piper and undeniable badass Keith David that make this film as fun to watch today as it was when it was released.
3. In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
Sutter Cane may be awfully close to Stephen King, but John Carpenter’s cosmic horror is even more preoccupied by Lovecraft. The great Sam Neill leads a fun cast in a tale of madness as created by the written world.
What if those horror novels you read became reality? What if that sketchy writer with the maybe-too-vivid imagination was not just got to his own page, but god for real? This movie tackles that ripe premise while ladling love for both of the horror novelists who made New England the creepiest section of America.
2. Halloween (1978)
No film is more responsible for the explosion of teen slashers than John Carpenter’s babysitter butchering classic.
From the creepy opening piano notes to the disappearing body ending, this low budget surprise changed everything. Carpenter develops anxiety like nobody else, and plants it right in a wholesome Midwestern neighborhood. You don’t have to go camping or take a road trip or do anything at all – the boogeyman is right there at home.
Michael Myers – that hulking, unstoppable, blank menace – is scary. Pair that with the down-to-earth charm of lead Jamie Lee Curtis, who brought a little class and talent to the genre, and add the bellowing melodrama of horror veteran Donald Pleasance, and you’ve hit all the important notes. Just add John Carpenter’s spare score to ratchet up the anxiety. Perfect.
1. The Thing (1982)
John Carpenter’s remake of the 1951 SciFi flick The Thing from Another World concocts a thoroughly spectacular tale of icy isolation, contamination, and mutation.
A beard-tastic cast portrays a team of scientists on expedition in the Arctic who take in a dog. The dog is not a dog, though. Not really. And soon, in an isolated wasteland with barely enough interior room to hold all the facial hair, folks are getting jumpy because there’s no knowing who’s not really himself anymore.
This is an amped up body snatcher movie benefitting from some of Carpenter’s most cinema-fluent and crafty direction: wide shots when we need to see the vastness of the unruly wilds; tight shots to remind us of the close quarters with parasitic death inside.
The story remains taut, beginning to end, and there’s rarely any telling just who is and who is not infected by the last reel. You’re as baffled and confined as the scientists.