Ever since bursting onto the scene in 1976 with his first full length feature, Assault on Precinct 13, John Carpenter has forged an enviable filmography with heights that rate among rarest brilliance and that encompasses many genres, but each instilled with his trademark taut direction and, of course, synthesized rock soundtrack. He is a stalwart of horror cinema, a science fiction genius and a great conveyor of human drama, and his legacy will last for a long, long time.
Naming his top 10 films in order is solely opinion, but here is my crack at it:
10. The Fog (1980)
A classically told, and genuinely frightening ghost story starring the perfect trinity of female leads in Adrienne Barbeau, Jamie Lee Curtis and Janet Leigh. The Fog oozes with atmosphere, class and was an early indicator of Carpenter’s directorial skill.
9. Dark Star (1974)
A student film eventually extended and released theatrically, Dark Star is highly respected as one of the funniest sci-fi spoofs of the 70’s/80’s and has enough wit and intelligence to incite a brilliant post-viewing discussion.
8. Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
One of my favorite guilty pleasure movies of all time, Big Trouble in Little China is about as much fun as you can have with the action genre with its deft mix of comedy, thrills and outstanding special effects. Jack Burton is one of the best characters Carpenter has created, and there are far worse things on the eye than Kim Cattrall in her prime.
7. Starman (1984)
If it wasn’t for that pesky Steven Spielberg, Carpenter would have been offered far more projects such as this, as it soon became remarkably clear that he had the ability to merge heartfelt human interaction and elements of science fictions like few other people in the industry. Featuring outstanding performances from Jeff Bridges and the beautiful Karen Allen, Starman has never recieved the recognition it deserves, but is finally available on Blu-ray ready to be experienced by a brand new audience.
6. They Live (1988)
An absolute cult treat starring professional wrestler Roddy Piper and the ever-cool Keith David, They Live remains one of the most re-watchable movies around, with the seemingly never-ending alleyway brawl the indisputable highlight. This is also the great man’s most political moment, but its safe to say he had me with the infamous “bubblegum” line.
5. Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
Coated in suspense, taboo-breaking violence and cool dialogue, Assault on Precinct 13 is an absolute cracker of a debut feature, and showcased some of the many tools at the maestros disposal.
4. Escape from New York (1981)
The first collaboration between Carpenter and Kurt Russell – a partnership to match it with Scorsese/De Niro and Ford/Wayne – Escape from New York also features iconic actors Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, Donald Pleasence and Harry Dean Stanton and is undeniably one of the most ambitious and brilliantly executed cult films of the 80’s.
3. Christine (1983)
Some may be opposed to Christine being in my top 5, but to those people I say this: watch it again. Christine isn’t just an automobile-focused horror film, it is a moving coming of age story and a slice of classic American film-making that stays with the viewer long after the DVD has been removed from the tray.
2. Halloween (1978)
Carpenter + Jamie Lee Curtis + a synthesizer +a nameless villain wearing an inside-out William Shatner mask = the definitive slasher film. There is a babysitter, an all American neighborhood, a killer o on the loose and a psychologist determined to track him down… this is as pure as a horror movie can be, and world renowned for a reason.
1. The Thing (1982)
The better alien movie released in 1982 (yes, I’m looking at you, E.T.), The Thing is a terrifying, one-of-a-kind examination of paranoia in its many guises. From the moment we see a group of Norwegian scientists chasing a dog across the vast expanses of Antarctica, to that ending that encapsulates the prior events perfectly, we are completely enthralled, shocked and amazed. Rob Bottin’s physical effects do deserve a lot of the credit, but they would be nothing if the ensemble cast didn’t perform their roles with such precision, or Ennio Morricone’s score wasn’t so perfectly suited. Needless to say, if you haven’t seen The Thing, do so now.