Some might scoff at my admiration for a director who has never received the appreciation he is due from the film community at large, though horror fans have always celebrated him as a true visionary. This is a guy who has provided numerous signature films in the genre, and in doing so he has provided us with several iconic characters who stand out in cinematic lore. Carpenter has also engineered some truly memorable scores, and should we give him extra credit for helping Kurt Russell make the leap from Disney to Snake Plissken? I think so.
I have honestly enjoyed all of John’s films going all the way back to Dark Star, a college film featuring the late, great Dan O’Bannon, another gifted filmmaker who never really found the reception his work merited. Let’s hope America finds a way to embrace Carpenter for who he is and what he has done within the motion picture industry before he leaves us as well. And while I’m wishing, I sure wouldn’t mind seeing Kurt and John work together once again before either of them calls it a career.
Every time I set out to compose one of these lists it proves difficult, but this was easily the toughest one yet. After some intense debate that took entirely too long (just ask Tony) I wound up with 9 films that I had a very hard time whittling down to 5, and ranking those 5 proved even more difficult. In the end, this is what I came up with, though I’m sure I got it wrong at some point. It was too hard not to.
It still baffles me that this wasn’t received better when it hit theaters in 1982. I know it was the summer of E.T. and the gore factor in The Thing is off the charts, but this is a landmark film that is ripe with atmosphere and intensity. Whether critics panned it or not, fans have always lauded it as one of the finest horror films ever, an argument I back with enthusiasm. It is utterly unique in a number of ways that extend far beyond Rob Bottin’s magical effects work, chiefly the claustrophobic introspection centered on an all-male ensemble cast stranded in Antarctica. It isn’t long before these unfortunate residents of a remote outpost discover that their ranks have been infiltrated by a shape-shifting alien monstrosity that can replace any of them. Before long, no one knows whether or not the man next to him is still human, and everyone is staring down a frigid doom that cannot be defeated. The setting is as much a part of the film as the throbbing score, and Kurt Russell sports cinema’s finest beard* as R.J. MacReady, a hero so believable and vulnerable that he seems as real as you or I. MacReady is a quick thinker with guts, and that’s really about it. At no point does he morph into some sort of action hero, he’s just a fairly smart guy in a hell of a pickle who isn’t welling to give up without a fight. The realistic way the characters behave is remarkable, and the way anxiety gives way to suspicion, anger, and fear keeps the film grounded while building unbelievable amounts of tension within the audience. Then the effects extravaganza begins, and these terrific actors make the most of the clever script as the inescapable horror stalks them through a bleak landscape of gusting wind and snowbound terror. The grim ending is a perfect epitaph to this somber piece that somehow becomes a rollicking good time fueled by fear and masterful direction. This is a movie that can stand proudly alongside genre masterpieces like The Exorcist or The Shining, and perhaps it should be noted that each of those films are revered for wonderful performances and stirring plots as well as gruesome setpieces and ghastly things that go bump in the night.
1n 1976, John shot Assault on Precinct 13 in 20 days. This was 2 years before he directed Halloween, and yet this might be his true masterpiece. It boasts his first fantastic score and clearly paves the way for the tense stories the director would share with us over the years. Though the budget may provide limitations and there are a few miscues along the way, it is impossible to ignore the ferocity of this loving ode to the westerns Carpenter treasured as a boy. One can see pieces of Snake Plissken in anti-hero Napoleon Wilson, expertly played by John’s one-time neighbor Darwin Joston, who is a perfect fit for a suave killer who is equal parts Doc Holliday and John Wayne. Some of Wilson’s dialogue is lifted directly from Once Upon a Time in the West**, a loving nod to my favorite western. Austin Stoker plays Bishop, a black cop who is given the assignment of presiding over a precinct that is being closed down, a precinct that for all intents and purposes has already closed. The assignment is clearly an insult, and Bishop’s superiors enjoy rubbing it in. Bishop doesn’t have long to stew, however, because things get out of hand shortly after he arrives. First, infamous killer Napoleon Wilson is transferred to the precinct by mistake shortly after the phone service is switched over to the new precinct. Then, a man who has unwittingly started a war with the local gang arrives in search of refuge and all hell breaks loose. The precinct is surrounded by the gang, who lay siege to the skeleton crew of cops and the desperate convicts inside, a divided band of rugged survivors cut off from any hope of rescue. Soon Bishop and Wilson are fighting side by side, and the raw action comes fast and furious as the body count grows. Assault tells a simple story, but it does so with vigor, and the end result is a riveting action film that clearly signified the arrival of a powerful director. Though this is one of his earliest and smaller efforts, Assault on Precinct 13 stands as one of Carpenter’s most significant contributions to the cinema. Truly gripping.
This film was regarded as a flop upon its initial release, though it has since gained a cult following due to its tremendous humor and flair. Big Trouble is easily Carpenter’s most entertaining film, and Kurt Russell has never been more likable. Jack Burton is a hilarious character, a fast-talking trucker who shows just how creative Carpenter and Russell were at their apex. Here is a film where the roles are essentially reversed. Jack Burton may be the main character, and he’s certainly a lovable loudmouth, but he clearly plays second fiddle to Dennis Dun in the sidekick role as Wang Chi. Confused? You shouldn’t be. Jack does all the talking and Wang does all the heavy lifting while Jack tries to get his bootknife out of its sheath. The story pits them against a powerful necromancer (Jack’s take on Lo Pan: “Tall guy, weird clothes. First you see him, then you don't.”) and three supernatural warriors, as well as legions of kung-fu cultists. Or something like that. The laughs are plentiful, the action is thrilling, and the movie never slows down. Throughout this goofy odyssey, Russell lights up the screen as Jack Burton, an egomaniac who constantly offers up gems like “When some wild-eyed, eight-foot-tall maniac grabs your neck, taps the back of your favorite head up against the barroom wall, and he looks you crooked in the eye and he asks you if ya paid your dues, you just stare that big sucker right back in the eye, and you remember what ol' Jack Burton always says at a time like that: ‘Have ya paid your dues, Jack?’ Yessir, the check is in the mail." Kim Catrall, James Hong, and Victor Wong are also on hand for a whimsical adventure with an absolute buffoon on center stage, which makes for a hell of a show. Big Trouble in Little China is an absolute blast, and Kurt Russell gives another unforgettable performance as one of the most unlikely heroes ever.
I honestly wanted to put Prince of Darkness here because it is a far more frightening film, but it doesn’t have the cultural significance of Carpenter’s smash hit on a shoestring budget. Halloween is a film that may have given birth to the so-called “slasher” films of the 70s and 80s, a craze that proved lucrative for the industry while inspiring pointed debate about motion picture violence. Jamie Lee Curtis became a star here, and the term “Scream Queen” became a badge of honor for the heroines in such pictures. Donald Pleasance excels in a role that both Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing would come to regret turning down, as the character of Loomis has become a fan favorite over the years. Simply put, this the story of the boogeyman, in this case a soulless psychopath named Michael Myers. Michael is a heartless murderer who stalks the night in a bleached William Shatner mask, silently pursuing and slaughtering innocent teens without any palpable emotion. His distance and his utter lack of humanity are what make Michael truly horrifying, and not once does he do anything that in any way complicates this frightening portrait of mindless evil. Curtis rises to the challenge as a babysitter with guts, but can she and Loomis hope to conquer a madman with no conscience and an insatiable appetite for murder? The score was an instant classic and the film put Carpenter on the map in a big way for good reason. One need only watch any other so-called slasher film to recognize Carpenter’s subtlety and precision at work in this tense little gem where every shot matters and the small budget yields several big scares.
Kurt Russell makes John Carpenter’s Top 5 for the third time in his signature role, the grizzled war vet who can’t be killed though everyone thinks he’s already dead. Yes, I’m talking about the one and only Snake Plissken. Snake is a joy to watch, and this film is so decidedly off-the-wall that one can’t help but enjoy the ride. In the near future (which just so happens to be our recent past) New York has become a lawless prison. Bridges are mined and rivers are patrolled by helicoptor. There’s only one way in, and there’s no way out. When the president crash lands in this savage wasteland, it’s up to one man to go in and get him out, but that one man doesn’t want any part of it. Only by injecting him with a terminal virus and promising him the cure if and when he completes his mission are the authorities able to convince Snake to take on the job. Nothing goes as planned, however, and in Carpenter’s hands this slick thrill ride becomes a grisly descent into a world gone mad. A number of stars take part in the decadent fun, including Donald Pleasance as the president, Lee Van Cleef as Snake’s cold-as-ice commanding officer, Isaac Hayes as the sadistic Duke of New York, and Harry Dean Stanton as Brain, a brilliant criminal who just might know the way out. As time runs out for Snake Plissken, audiences are treated to a delightfully dirty adventure that gave birth to a character like no other. Escape from New York benefits from another great performance from Russell and another great score, and few action films are as subversive and unpredictable.
Girl in "Chock Full O'Nuts": You're a cop!
Snake Plissken: I'm an asshole.
Other films considered:
Prince of Darkness
In the Mouth of Madness
*I have written numerous pieces wherein I referenced either The Thing or Kurt Russell’s performance, and I always note that as MacReady he sports the cinema’s finest beard of all time.
I am truly envious.
**If you pick up the wonderful special edition dvd of Once Upon a Time in the West, Carpenter offers up several terrific observations in the documentaries located in the special features section.
This Top 5 was previously published by RVA Magazine.