The American film director, John Howard Carpenter was born in New York on January 16, 1948. As well as making successful thrillers he is creator of both Science-fiction and Horror film classics.
It was Carpenter who’s Halloween character, Michael Myers spawned a franchise, and anti-hero Snake Plissken became a cult character.
John Carpenter has always been a film-making influential anomaly, a film-maker, writer producer and musician that has both box office indiefilm success and mainstream. Interchanging between them both. He’s managed to make B-films that are far from cheap, they have been high concepts with lofty production values and stories that are also thought provoking. He has stayed on the fringe of Hollywood, to ensure that his stories are portrayed the way he envisages them. While sometimes the aesthetics maybe criticised the compelling stories are always the driving force and why he’s has stood the test of time.
Of course there are many great Carpenter films including, Prince of Darkness (1987) and Escape from New York (1981) to name a few, but below are my thoughts on my personal favourites.
They Live (1988)
Humanlike, skeleton looking, extraterrestrial’s have taken over the Earth and walk among us, but are cloaked by a transmitter that makes ‘them’ appear like us. A drifter discovers a pair of sunglasses that allows him to see what is being hidden.
Halloween’s (1978) horror legend writer/director John Carpenter does his best with a limited budget. The film for the most part has an urban realistic look, due to the on location shots, however, at times it appears very cheap and lacks the production values of The Thing (1982) or The Fog (1980). In true Carpenter tradition there’s a heart pumping and relentless score.
Amongst all the 80’s cheese there is a fantastic story based on Ray Nelson’s short story. They Live themes reflects consumerism, class and corruption to name a few. Underneath, Carpenter’s bland screenplay lay a fear that we are not in control and our society is led by ‘them’, echoing Invasion of the Body Snatchers and ‘V’. To join them would be to give I and we would benefit but we’ll pay a greater price. They Live is high concept sci-fi with great ideas, the sunglasses touch is genius, that’s original and allows some great visuals and interesting moments. There’s also the intriguing secret society aspect and space travel.
Suffering from the 80’s macho testerone Roddy Piper is entertaining as the lead but he’s no great actor, lucky there’s the likes of Meg Foster and Keith David to gives the film some weight and there are some good performances from the supporting cast.
Carpenter though a simple story immerses the viewer in the conspiracy and connects us with the heroes search for the truth which has a fantastic, un-Hollywood brave and downbeat ending. In addition, the effects are of the time but are still effective, there are some stand out set-ups, the supermarket, the underground segment and the discovery of the sunglasses. I’m hesitant to use the word, but They Live is cool.
With so many remakes in recent years They Live would benefit from a serious and heavier version. That said, taken at face value it’s a great fun ride, with one-liners, action and aliens.
The Thing (1982)
An atmospheric understated sci-fi at it best. I’ll never understand how Carpenter lost the lustre in some of the other film he made, nevertheless, his Thing is one of his best movies and also once of the best sci-fi movies ever. Despite being based on the same source material (before remakes were popular) the thing has a look and feel of it’s own and is very different from its 50’s counterpart.
The isolated setting, the astounding cinematography and scenery creates intrigue; drawing you in from the very beginning. It’s a perfect horror/sci-fi cocktail of Ennio Morricone’s haunting foreboding score, Rob Bottin and Stan Winston (dog effect) benchmark practical effects (which are unsurpassed) Carpenters claustrophobic set ups and Bill Lancaster screenplay.
It’s rare that every single actor is exceptional and supplied with effective dialogue. All the cast from Kurt Russell to Wilford Brimley as Blair are all captivating, great casting by Anita Dann. The characters have their own issues and as the paranoia sets in relationships are forged and other broken, building to a bold and satisfying conclusion.
This is more than just a cult film with a ‘monster’ hiding in warm places surrounded by snow, it’s a finely tuned science fiction horror masterpiece.
The Fog (1980)
A fog containing zombie-like ghosts seeking revenge on the 100th anniversary of their deaths besieges a small California seaside town. Halloween’s (1978) horror creative duo John Carpenter and Debra Hill reunite with Jamie Lee Curtis (in a smaller role) for this effective ghost tale.
Adrienne Barbeau’s character Stevie Wayne is centre to this horror chiller, even though she spends most of her time held-up in a lighthouse, transmitting her radio show. Carpenter’s The Fog is more about the story than central characters. The cast appear to get equal screen time, including Janet Leigh (Curtis’ mother) of Psycho (1960), Tom Atkins notable The Howling (1981) star and George ‘Buck’ Flower of They Live (1988) to name a few. Veteran actor Hal Holbrook gives a fine performance as the guilt-ridden priest Malone.
Despite the dated smoke machine-like fog the silent ‘zombie’ ghosts, brandishing blades, with their glowing eyes are eerily effective heightened by an accompanying typical Carpenter pulsing score.
There are a few effective kills but like most good horrors some of these happen off screen. It’s mostly shot on location this adds a realistic atmosphere of dread to the proceedings. There are some cheap ‘jump’ scares in there but what’s noteworthy of The Fog is it’s set ups, the spooky opening, the creepy gallon and the paranormal effects on the cars and electricity of the town. The Fog appears to be a series of great idea’s brought together with a single horror tale as its backbone.
It’s not perfect, but The Fog’s absorption makes it entertaining nonetheless. Perfect on a dark night.
What make this different to many other babysitter stalker films is the production value, Carpenters direction and score that reeks of dread. Perfect leads include, heavy weight Donald Pleasence and ever reliable Jamie Lee Curtis as they try to out wit an escaped psychotic murderer.
Halloween is a well produced basic, yet essential horror that contains very little nudity or blood for this type of genre. What maybe a little tame for gore hungry audiences of today, it still remains defining archetype horror film, as without the masked Michael Myers there wouldn’t be many of the horror’s there are on your shelf right now.
A must see for any horror fan.
Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
An everyday Truck driver Jack Burton gets caught up in a centuries-old mystical battle in Chinatown and must rescue his pal’s fiancée.
Made the same year as a flurry of fantasy adventure films, including the The Golden Child, Flight of the Navigator, Howard the Duck and Labyrinth to name a few, Gary Goldman’s & David Z. Weinstein’s Big Trouble in Little China screenplay is rich and director John Carpenter unknowingly creates a rounded personification of an 80’s adventure film.
The leads are perfectly cast, a young Kim Cattrall’s delivers a defining comedy performance and Kurt Russell is perfect as the All-American beer drinking reluctant hero. A make-up enhanced James Hong is outstanding as mystical evil Lo Pan, the rest of the supporting cast is full of familiar faces.
Although the special effects are of their time, some of the makeup effects hold up well. Veteran cinematographer Dean Cundey’s show all gritty, sweat of this pure piece of entertainment fun. There’s fantastically dressed sets, great costumes and neon lighting. Director Carpenter delivers outlandish set pieces, some great action scenes, magic and sword fights. Packed with comedy moments, one-liners and dark, creepy supernatural Chinese spirits.
Big Trouble in Little China packs a lot punch for a film that didn’t do big box office bucks but found an audience on VHS. It’s a fantasy adventure that’s production values add to Big Trouble’s charm.