A lot of directors or producers have cameos in their films. Some, like Clint Eastwood, direct and compose scores for their films. John Carpenter has served as writer, director, actor, editor, and composer of the score in a number of films. Maintaining control of a vision from beginning to end doesn’t work that well for many directors. As a viewer you wish some of those powerhouse Hollywood directors would let someone else edit their works. Not so for Carpenter. You can come in on the middle of a Carpenter movie, past or current, and you know it was made by John Carpenter. His signature style is truly his own. And who else bills his movies under his own name–John Carpenter’s They Live, John Carpenter’s Vampires, etc.?
Carpenter is a genre bender–one film can be billed under several categories, from action-adventure, to sci-fi, horror, fantasy, and thriller. Most of his films fall in all of these categories to some extent. You’ll know his films through a dark thread of chills, a thumping baseline of a guitar or synthesizer, and a rebel or outcast lead character just trying to get by but being threatened by something, usually something otherworldly.
My first Carpenter movie was The Fog, back in 1980. Because of the rating, my older brother and sister and their friends rolled me up in a sleeping bag and smuggled me in the back of our parents’ Ford pickup into a two-movie drive-in showing. I remember The Fog was just plain spooky and as the sky got darker and the shocks came out of nowhere there was no chance I was going to get any sleep that night. Years later I rented it and re-rented it and to this day love the ghost story that is the backbone of the picture. And Carpenter’s now former wife and then-mega TV and pin-up star Adrienne Barbeau played sultry Stevie Wayne. Working alone at a lighthouse radio station, she encounters a strange fog bank inching ever closer into Antonio Bay. The Fog itself becomes a character, a breathing, classic villain in its own right. The Fog was remade in 2005 with Tom Welling (Smallville), Maggie Grace (Lost), and this time Selma Blair (Hellboy) as Stevie Wayne. It’s a great remake with its own twists and turns–both versions of The Fog are a lot of fun.
In 1981 we got to see our first taste of a “modern” dystopian vision of future in movies–a vision that to this day has been copied again and again– in Escape from New York. Carpenter brought together a low-budget production but with a creative team whose work still stands the test of time, including Kurt Russell, Adrienne Barbeau, Donald Pleasance, Jamie Lee Curtis, co-writer Nick Castle and Carpenter’s longtime collaborator, producer Debra Hill. All of these individuals would work in more than one Carpenter picture. Russell plays anti-hero Snake Plissken. Plissken is why we like Russell to this day and think Russell is just plain cool. Convicted bank robber Plissken takes on a suicide mission to rescue the downed-flight of the President of the United States in future Manhattan, which has become a free-for-all maximum security prison. New York was a major hit and its low budget but high box office gross vastly surpassed a certain box office flop with a similar dark vision of the future: Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner. Plissken would return in 1996’s Escape from L.A., which unfortunately doesn’t rise to the level of New York. Russell would return in a similar role in 1986’s now-cult classic, Big Trouble in Little China. A bizarre story of a trucker in Chinatown–today what stands out is how much fun co-star Kim Cattrall is to watch early on in her career.
In the past ten years I caught up on Carpenter’s films and was amazed by his 1976 low-budget Assault on Precinct 13, a remake of sorts of the old John Wayne/Dean Martin classic western Rio Bravo. Here you won’t recognize any big-named actors but the story and setting feels gritty and real. A psychotic gang of killers tries to bust one of its own out of an understaffed local jail. Precinct 13, too, would be remade, in 2005 with Ethan Hawke and Laurence Fishburne, and although not as good, again, even remade Carpenter stories stand the test of time. Watch the original, and you’ll never again go back to the ice cream man when he gets your order wrong.
And who hasn’t seen 1978’s Halloween? Carpenter created the definitive Halloween holiday thriller with Michael Myers and summer camp-defining gotchas. And it set Jamie Lee Curtis on her long and successful career path. Carpenter’s primarily horror-genre films are classics: in 1982, The Thing (itself a remake and I have to admit I like the original better because Stan Winston’s special effects here were just too over the top), an alien film set in the arctic; in 1983, Stephen King’s Christine, a fun romp about a guy and his car and their mutual (!) obsessive relationship with each other; and several other films including the popular John Carpenter’s Vampires, starring James Woods as a kick-butt vampire hunter out for revenge.
In 1992 Carpenter directed a more mainstream film, Memoirs of an Invisible Man, starring Chevy Chase and Darryl Hannah, Sam Neill and Michael McKean. The film is classic science fiction from beginning to end, with Chase as a businessman in the wrong place at the wrong time who becomes invisible, and Hannah stars as his girlfriend. Carpenter showcases Chase’s humor and a simple film concept resulted in a fun chase/thriller. It was the first time i n over a decade that we got to see Chase as the classic leading man we saw him play in Foul Play and Seems Like Old Times (both co-starring Goldie Hawn, who is now married to Kurt Russell). Until his role in Chuck last year, it was the last time we got to see Chase performing in a non-comedic role.
Two other Carpenter films rise about the rest in terms of textured storytelling, depth and intrigue in the sci-fi and fantasy realms.
First, in Prince of Darkness, Jameson Parker (Simon and Simon) and Donald Pleasance lead a great character ensemble of experts trying to stop the devil from breaking into our world via an old church and a creepy and scary hellmouth of green plasma. Alice Cooper has a cameo as a zombie drawn to the churchsite. Parker is superb and the jolts are perfectly timed. A creepy, dark, fantasy-horror film.
Finally, probably tied with The Fog my favorite Carpenter film is They Live. Professional wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, in an incredibly underplayed performance, stars as a loner trying to keep to himself. He is thrown into the middle of a waking up-to-reality by a group of grassroots rebels who discover that the wealthier elements of society are actually hideous aliens in cloaked bodies, attempting to keep us asleep through subliminal messages in our advertising. When our hero discovers special sunglasses and later contact lenses that show the true world, we soon learn the secret behind the plot and why this is a classic sci-fi film. They Live also has the best of Carpenter’s soundtracks–including the repetitive theme of our hero, following him and leading us through Piper’s dark discoveries. And just like Steve McQueen’s Bullitt is known for its famous San Francisco car chase, here They Live has a standout best fight scene, a hilariously choreographed, iconic, hand-to-hand fight scene between Piper and co-star Keith David that stretches in excess of 15 screen minutes.
Carpenter’s horror film The Ward premiered last year and he has several Halloween themed projects in the works.