John Carpenter remains one of the most influential writers/directors/producers in Hollywood, crafting films that transcend their respective genres and deliver the type of sublime entertainment audiences are in dire need of in this day and age. Carpenter’s pictures are always unique and ambitious; bursting with creativity, novel ideas, fascinating characters, and intricate worlds. While many of his concepts faltered, particularly later efforts (i.e. Ghosts of Mars and Vampires), it’s hard to name another director who enjoyed the kind of sustained success Carpenter experienced throughout his early career, beginning with the incredible Assault on Precinct 13 in 1976.
If you’re not familiar with the man, here are five of his most essential works everyone should probably see. Then, when you’re ready to move on, check out his remaining oeuvre and enjoy more of this incredible director’s wild creativity.
The Thing (1982)
John Carpenter’s genius is on full display in this terrifying, grotesque, and darkly humorous sci-fi horror classic about a group of scientists battling a shape-shifting alien on a remote outpost in Antarctica. Equal parts suspenseful and revolting — thanks to a slew of sensational practical effects — The Thing stands as a monumental bit of cinema, a film that brushes off any and all calls for crowd-pleasing entertainment and instead delivers enough existential dread to ensure you walk away questioning the meaning of life itself.
The Thing rocks you, shocks you, and then slaps you in the face with heavy nihilism coated in buckets of blood and gore. It’s one helluva cinematic experience you’re not likely to forget, and it stars the always-charismatic Kurt Russell to boot! There’s also the bonus of seeing Wilford Brimley, everyone’s favorite Quaker Oats fella, go batshit crazy. Seriously, this movie has it all and remains the most absorbing film of Carpenter’s distinguished career.
Halloween may chug along at a slow pace for its first hour, during which Michael Myers — the man, the myth, the legend — cruises around Haddonfield in a kick-ass station wagon, but when our masked “shape” finally gets around to murdering the hell out of a group of horny babysitters (and their dopy boyfriends) — including lovable girl-next-door Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) — Carpenter’s classic slasher kicks into an otherworldly gear that leaves you chewing your nails like popcorn.
No, really. Halloween is still scary (and weird) as hell, despite releasing way back in 1978.
Countless sequels and knockoffs have diluted the pic’s impact over the years, but the granddaddy of all slashers remains the best of the bunch if only for its minimalistic qualities — that iconic score, the simplistic characters and setup, the grisly fatalities. To underline the creep factor, Myers’ intentions are never fully explained — “He’s pure evil,” Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence) cries time and again to anyone within earshot. The killer rides into town, murders some people, and vanishes without a trace — he’s like the Boogieman, just more cunning. He often positions his victims’ corpses like ritualistic offerings on beds, tucks them inside cabinets or hides them in shadows from which they spring at the opportune moment to scare the bejesus out of unsuspecting passerby like workers in a demented funhouse.
Halloween is an absolutely brilliant piece of American cinema, and proof that sometimes less is definitely more.
The novelty of Christine lies in its concept — the idea that man’s best friend (his car) could ultimately lead to his undoing. In this case, lovable young nerd Arnie Cunningham (Keith Gordon) purchases a 1958 Plymouth Fury and quickly succumbs to its otherworldly spell. Literally. The car, you see, has an evil mind of its own; one that seduces Arnie and, like some sort of demented Bumblebee, changes his life for the better. At least initially. As time goes on, Christine and Arnie become more attached and volatile, leading the car-crossed lovers (thank you!) to wage war on local bullies, unsuspecting girlfriends, and even Arnie’s best pal Dennis (John Stockwell). People are crushed, burned, run over, and nearly choked to death in a film that delights and terrifies in equal measure — the image of Christine slowly pursuing a victim whilst engulfed in flames is pure horror cinema at its finest.
Still, for all its slow-burning suspense and brutality, Christine fumbles the ball en route to perfection. The actors carrying the load aren’t up to the challenge and often flounder in the big dramatic moments. We never truly bond with Arnie enough to care much about his sudden change in character later on, and the heavy-handed Stephen King-isms — i.e. one-dimensional bullies, sexually frustrated men, and cocaine-fueled plot points — feel more forced than necessary.
So, why include Christine on this list? Because, for all of its blemishes, silly performances, and cheesy FX, Christine remains pure, unadulterated John Carpenter. Much of his work was designed as simple B-movie entertainment replete with clunky dialogue and stilted direction. Christine embraces its genre trappings and delivers everything one could ask for — well-staged set pieces, genuine scares, and a wicked soundtrack — but tacks on an indelible message that takes aim at America’s lust for products: in a world driven by consumerism, you get what you pay for.
Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
John Carpenter enjoyed branching out into different genres, delivering the likes of Starman and the underrated Memoirs of an Invisible Man as a result. Big Trouble in Little China sees the maestro testing his comedic chops, and by God does he deliver one of the most entertaining (and oddly appealing) films ever assembled.
Re-teaming with Kurt Russell for the fourth time in just under a decade, Carpenter blends fantasy, action, comedy, and horror into one enigmatic adventure that confused audiences upon its release but has since (like most Carpenter productions) gained a cult following. Rightfully so. From start to finish, China dazzles with its unique set design and costumes, colorful characters (Russell has a ball playing Jack Burton, a big-hearted John Wayne-type with enough machismo to fuel a dozen action flicks), and riotous set pieces. It’s not quite as cool today as it was when I was a kid, but Big Trouble in Little China still packs enough action, romance, horror, and goofy laughs to stand as an incredible bit of B-movie entertainment that requires, nay demands to be seen with a big ole bowl of popcorn. Seriously, this is the type of film lacking in today’s marketplace.*
At the very least, it’s one of the few pictures where Kim Cattrall is actually tolerable, if not outright likable.
Escape from New York (1981)
Dark, brooding, and violent, Escape from New York stands as one of John Carpenter’s most enduring films thanks to its wondrous visuals, unique characters and incredible (for its relatively modest production) world building.
Still, what makes this Carpenter entry pop is Kurt Russell’s terrific turn as the gruff, eyepatch-wearing Snake Plissken — the most badass of badasses, and one of the greatest action heroes to grace the screen. The man is of the no-nonsense variety. He takes orders from no one, cares little about anyone, and only embarks on a suicidal mission to rescue the President (Donald Pleasence) when his own ass is on the line.
While the moody dystopian visuals haven’t aged quite well, there’s a certain charm in New York’s lavish matte paintings, meticulously crafted sets, chandelier-clad cars, and dense city streets peppered with heads-on-spikes, violent mobs, and armor-toting station wagons. Plus, you get an incredible cast that includes Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, and Harry Dean Stanton. What’s not to love?
It may not pop like some of the more polished works in the genre, but Escape from New York still delights as a counterpunch to big-budget fare and demonstrates Carpenter’s incredible knack for B-movie cinema. Just ignore the overproduced sequel and you’ll be fine.
*To be fair, the incredible Everything Everywhere All at Once gave me heavy Big Trouble in Little China vibes. More of this, please.