My 10 favourite John Carpenter films

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To celebrate the 71st birthday of film director John Carpenter, here’s a list of what I think are his 10 best films.

10. Prince of Darkness (1987)
A group of post-grad students spend the night in an old church to investigate a mysterious cylinder which may contain the essence of Satan. As you’d imagine, things soon start to go wrong… It’s a film full of fascinating ideas and themes – real science, empiricism, religious mythology, dreams, time-travel, a cameo from Alice Cooper – but sadly not enough storytelling focus. The second half of the film gets quite intense and features some really out-there horror, but none of the characters is compelling enough for us to care.

9. Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
Carpenter’s love letter to kung-fu movies is a breathlessly directed comedy. It gets quite samey in the middle, but it’s often fun and is worth seeing for the amazing sets and Kurt Russell’s subversively inept action hero.

8. The Thing (1982)
A remake of a famous 50s B-movie, this has brilliantly bizarre monster make-up and special effects. It’s also tense and claustrophobic. Shame we don’t care more about the large cast of all-male characters, though.

7. Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
Carpenter’s first mainstream film. (He’d previously directed Dark Star (1975), a low-budget sci-fi comedy that spoofs 2001: A Space Odyssey but replaces the awe and wonder with mundanity.) It’s a Western-style siege plot, but the story plays out in a grimy, gritty, modern-day inner city. There’s bad dialogue and flat performances all over the place, but you’re pulled through by the amazing incidental music, the bursts of ultraviolence and the general sense of menace.

6. They Live (1988)
A sci-fi actioner about a man who uncovers an alien conspiracy in modern-day LA. The social satire is very good, as is the visual device of sunglasses allowing you to see the truth. Again, it’s a shame about the lacklustre characters. There’s also a punch-up that seems to last about half an hour.

5. Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992)
A sweet if overly lightweight Chevy Chase comedy-thriller. The story’s slight and predictable, but the special effects are wonderful. The film was made slightly before the digital revolution, so we get a fun mixture of practical and optical tricks – all inventive. (Sadly, nothing Carpenter’s done since this film is worth seeing. Especially bad are the cheesy Vampires (1998) and the dunderheaded Ghosts of Mars (2001).)

4. Starman (1984)
A very charming film about an alien (an endearingly childlike Jeff Bridges) stranded on Earth. It’s not just the story’s similarity to ET that makes you think of Steven Spielberg; it’s the sense of wonder too (and the presence of Raiders of the Lost Ark‘s Karen Allen, excellent as the widow who helps the alien get home).

3. Escape From New York (1981)
A brilliantly cynical sci-fi thriller set in a dystopian 1997. Kurt Russell plays former special forces soldier Snake Plissken (‘I heard you were dead…’), who’s coerced into a mission to rescue the US President (Donald Pleasance) when he crash-lands in a city-wide, lawless prison. Dark, twisted and a lot of fun. (Avoid the belated sequel, though.)

2. The Fog (1980)
A gorgeously atmospheric ghost story about a coastal town being terrorised by a century-old secret. There’s an ensemble cast of interesting characters and everything is so eerily evocative. Despite very little explicit horror – there’s almost no gore – it’s extremely scary and tense. Beautifully filmed too.

1. Halloween (1978)
This is a stripped-down, economical movie: trim, taut and terrifically constructed. For a film about a violent killer, there’s actually little gore on display; Halloween is more about tension and scares. In her first ever movie, Jamie Lee Curtis is very good as virginal lead character Laurie Strode; Donald Pleasance adds a bit of class as Michael’s manic psychiatrist, Dr Loomis; and the excellent incidental music (written by the director) is both creepy and catchy.

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