Top to Bottom: The Films of John Carpenter

John Carpenter is one of my favorite directors out there. He has entertained me for my entire life and he deserves all the praise he has ever gotten. Since it is his birthday, I thought that I would rank all of his films and give a bit of commentary about the film or memories I have watching them.

The Thing is in my top 5 movies of all time. I absolutely LOVE this film. The first time I watched the film I was about 11 years old. This was before the internet so I really had no idea what I was getting myself into. The film goes fairly normal until the dog's head splits open. I had never seen anything like that before but I couldn't look away. The rest of the film was watched with eyes glued on the screen, dumbfounded by what I was seeing. For weeks after my first viewing, I would not stop talking about this film. Anyone who would listen, and many more who really didn't want to, got an earful of what I thought about the film. I actually got a bunch of people to watch the film and some liked it. I am a firm believer that every filmmaker has at least one masterpiece in them and this is Carpenter's masterpiece.

My first exposure to Escape from New York was back during the vhs days. My mother and I watched the film because she liked Kurt Russell and I loved dystopian future films (still do). We both were floored by how good this film was. It was so good that she bought me the special edition #laserdisc that was released before the sequel, Escape from L.A. was released. Still own that laserdisc to this day. Both films hold a special place in my heart.

I didn't see Assault on Precinct 13 until it was released on DVD. This is the first film from Carpenter that feels like a film by him. From the score to his masterful use of the "scope" format, Carpenter really made his name known here. Needless to say but I love this film. It is a lot of fun and feels like many of the films that came before it while feeling new at the same time. Even though the film was released more than 40 years ago, it still feels relevant and timeless.

Halloween is one of the best horror films as well as being one of the best slasher films ever made. The film is incredibly well made especially given the film's meger $320,000 budget. The film is still scary and captures not only the holiday so well but also the look and feel of the midwest, even though the film was shot in California.

They Live gave us one of the best movie lines ever: "I came here to chew bubble gum and kick ass and I'm all out of bubble gum." Lots of people know that line but most have no idea where it came from. Just like how most people can't tell you what movie the song "Zip-a-Dee-doo-dah" came from or that the song whistled by Darryl Hannah in Kill Bill didn't originate in that film. They know the words but that can't sing the song. They Live is a great film that serves as a satire on Reagan-era America. A piece of satire as relevant today as it was in 1988. Shit, now we have dipshits who promote gambling to kids on YouTube and get away with it. We nee Carpenter back to wake people up to the shit that is happening nowadays. THEY LIVE, WE SLEEP!

Before I watched Prince of Darkness for the first time, everyone was telling me how scary the film was. Now keep in mind that I was eleven when I first saw Prince of Darkness and the people who were telling me it was scary were the same age as me so our views were a bit skewed. Most of all, we were just happy to be watching an R-rated film in the first place. Plus, we didn't have the number of horror film viewings under our belts like we do now. Hell, any horror film we watched back then had the potential to be the scariest film we had ever seen. Needless to say but Prince of Darkness was not the scariest film I had ever seen but it did offer me something that I had never seen before: the explanation of God and the Devil through science. The film is beautifully shot and has a score to die for. I love the film's slow pace as it makes the scares more successful. Carpenter isn't throwing scares at you every five seconds. He lets them build and then gets you. This would be the last film that Donald Pleasance and John Carpenter made together, and while that is sad, it is a great film to go out on.

I don't have much connection Starman as I do with most of Carpenter’s other films because I only saw this for the first time about a month ago. This is the Carpenter film, outside of Elvis but that wasn't his doing, that doesn't really feel like a Carpenter film. It has almost none of the hallmarks that make Carpenter's films his own, but you know it is a Carpenter film just by watching it. I think that is because of his shooting the film in scope as opposed to another director who might have shot the same film flat. Carpenter shoots his films very wide and uses the entire frame. He is among a handful of directors working today who really know how to use the scope frame. The next time you watch a Carpenter film use the zoom function that is on your DVD or blu-ray player. Zoom in just once and you will see how much information you lose. Directors today center the image too much, not using the frame for what it was intended for.

After spending some time in TV land, Carpenter returns to the genre that loves him best with The Fog. This is a really fun ghost flick that captures "telling a ghost story" really well. There are great genuine scares here with the cast all being fair game. Carpenter also uses darkness better than almost any director out there. This is a great return to form for Carpenter after the lackluster Elvis (1979)

Christine, the film that Carpenter took on after the box office disappointment of The Thing, never really gets the love it deserves. The film is a slower burn than I think people were expecting and the car really isn't scary. What is scary is the obsession that the main character gets over this car. The film is kind of a demented love story between man and car. Actually, it is more of an abusive relationship with the car being the aggressor. Christine is the one film made during the Golden Years of Carpenter (1974-1988) that gets overlooked or talked down to. I really like the film and think that people should give the film a second look.

In the Mouth of Madness is the last classic that Carpenter would make. The film is classic Carpenter, from the expert framing (in his beloved 2.35:1 aspect ratio) to the rousing score to the bleak as hell ending, In the Mouth of Madness is the film that fans of Carpenter can truly say came from the master. It also feels like the last film where Carpenter fully committed to it. Every film after this feels like Carpenter was a director for hire.

Body Bags was supposed to be a new start. Showtime wanted their own anthology series like HBO had with Tales from the Crypt. In order to do this Showtime knew to needed to get a master of horror and they found two. John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper signed on to make a pilot movie consisting of three short stories, two directed by Carpenter and one by Hooper. The result was a TV movie called Body Bags and featured Carpenter has the Crypt Keeper like host, The Coroner. Carpenter is great here as the host. He is funny and engaging. The shorts are kind of a mixed bag. The first story is a slasher movie, the second story is a satire on the hair loss companies of the 80s and 90s, and the last story is "organ transplant gone wrong" story. All of them are watchable but they leave something to be desired. The film is still fun though and that is worth checking out.

Dark Star is a film that many would find more enjoyable if they were high and I can't disagree with them. There is really no plot to speak of, just a group of space truckers tasked with destroying planets with giant bombs. Carpenter has described the film as "Waiting for Gadot in Space". While many find the film boring and uneventful, I like the film. It is funny, always interesting, and has an ending that fits well inside the Carpenter mold. I think that people should give the film a second chance.

The first time I watched Big Trouble in Little China was when I was a kid. I was over at a friend's house. We were over there to go swimming in their indoor pool but I caught a glimpse of the movie his family and it was Big Trouble in Little China. All of a sudden I didn't want to go swimming anymore. I sat with my friend's family, watching the film while my friends went swimming. Every time I watch the film I remember this story and always have the same thought: It was worth it.

Memoirs of an Invisible Man is the only feature film that Carpenter has made that doesn't feature "John Carpenter's" above the title because he doesn't feel the film stood up to his high standards. There was a lot of studio interference and Carpenter did not get along with star Chevy Chase. The film does feel like a Carpenter flick but you get where he is coming from. The film could have been better than it is if the studio had backed Carpenter. The film did have some firsts when it comes to the film's CGI. The film was a trailblazer when it comes to the pre-motion capture done on film. When you find out how they did some of the stuff that was pulled off with this film you wonder why Carpenter wasn't held in a higher regard. He was the one who came up with the scenarios in which the effects would be used and really pushed the effects guys to do new things. Carpenter needed more recognition for this film. Still, the film is worth a look. It isn't the worst film that Carpenter has ever made.

Ghosts of Mars is a film that I actually find to be a lot of fun despite some very glaring flaws. The film employs a flashback structure to tell its story which I think is a bad idea. We already know how the story is going to end from the very start. I don't mind flashback structured films but here is is lazy and very annoying.The flashback structure poses a problem in the storytelling and this isn't a small problem either. The story also employs a multiple viewpoint structure. The story will play and then shift over to another character's point of view of the thing we just saw. We have seen this done before in films like Jackie Brown and the Ocean's films so it isn't a new thing. The problem is you can't (or shouldn't) have a flashback structured film as well as a multiple POV film because the character telling the story would have no way of knowing the other POVs. She would know her own version but not any other's. These two problems don't (surprisingly) take away from the film as it is just goofy enough to be fun. You got Jason Statham trying to get laid through the whole film, a villain named Big Daddy Mars, and Ice Cube being the most Ice Cube he can be. All of this is presented without a wink or a nod and the film is better for it. Be sure to check this film out but go in with the mindset that this isn't a very good film but it is fun.

Carpenter's first foray into the made for TV landscape with this thriller about a woman who is being stalked by someone. This was a TV Movie of the Week and has many of the markings of a Carpenter film. This is a fun little thriller

Escape from LA is the only John Carpenter film I have ever seen in the theater. My mom and I went as we were huge fans of Escape from New York. We liked the film but I have always felt like this was a missed opportunity. Sure, we get another film with Snake Plissken, but something feels off. Could it be the fact that action scenes involving cars, motorcycles, and horses don't have the power to them because none of these vehicles are going more than 10 miles an hour? Could it be the lackluster villain? Could it be the satire that isn't always on point? I think that it is all of these things put together. I like the film for the most part but these things always bug me. An appearance from Pam Grier makes up for a bit of the problems, so there's that. I will always remember seeing the film with my mom and that is more important than whether the film is good or not.

Cigarette Burns is the first of two episodes of Masters of Horror that John Carpenter would make and it is the best of the two episodes. The episode centers around a man, played by Norman Reedus of Walking Dead fame, who is hired by a man who collects everything film, to find and secure the only known print of a film that played once and made everyone who watched it go crazy and kill each other. This is a great premise that is ruined early in the episode as we are shown something that would have been better off being shown later in the episode. The fact that we are actually shown some of the film is also a misstep. By showing us some of the film we are actually losing the suspense that the episode builds throughout its 50 minute run time. The footage from the film could never live up to what the episode tells us so why show it? Leave it to the characters' reaction and the impact would have been so much greater. Still, the episode is pretty good and Carpenter does lend some of his known flairs to it. The episode does feel like Carpenter was at the helm and the "lost film" angle makes for an interesting center to the film.

I haven't seen Vampires for a long time now and when watching it this time I noticed some things that I don't think I noticed before: The first 20 minutes are pure Carpenter. The opening scenes establish the characters, the villain, and the world they inhabit. These scenes are scary, gory, inventive, and serve the film as a whole. They harken back to the Carpenter of old and are a welcome return to form. The characters are surprisingly misogynistic. There is a prostitute that is bit by the main vampire and we learn that she can see what he sees. This leads our "heroes" to keep the girl around so that they can use her to find the bad guy. Problem lies in the fact that they use and abuse this poor girl. They kick her around and beat her up. This left a sour taste in my mouth and really didn't care if these so called "heroes" lived or died. Worst of all, one of these "heroes" claims to have fallen in love with her. Just doesn't compute with me. The main villain, played by Thomas Ian Griffith, isn't much of a villain. He doesn't do very much and doesn't seem to pose very much of a threat. Griffith is a good actor who has played better villains in the past, so why is he so under utilized here? Seems like such a waste. This is one of Carpenter's weakest scores. The main theme is pretty good but the rest of the score feels by the numbers, much like the film. Needless to say but I am not the biggest fan of Vampires. It is apparent that Carpenter really didn't care very much about the film either. 

Pro-Life, the second of two episodes Carpenter director for Masters of Horror. This episode, while containing more of a Carpenter feel, just isn't all that great. The acting is ok, the action is stilted and stale, and the "shocking" material wasn't even shocking when the episode aired. The gore is very nicely done and there is an Assault on Precinct 13/The Thing vibe going and that can't all be bad. I wish that Carpenter had selected another script to make instead of this one. It just doesn't do anything that we haven't see before only not as good as others have done.

This is one of the films that most consider to be Carpenter's worst films. However, I never really thought that. I don't hate the film, I just think that it is average at best. The film is well made, has some really good scenes, and is never boring. The film is a bit of a letdown especially following In the Mouth of Madness. The film isn't one that I revisit often, but it isn't one that I will turn off if I come across it on TV. Carpenter has made better, but he has also made worse. Village of the Damned marks the beginning of the downward slope of Carpenter's career.

The second TV movie that Carpenter made. While the subject matter is interesting and Russell gives a really good performance, the film fails to shine. This film did introduce Carpenter to Russell and we all know how that turned out.

The last film that John Carpenter ever directed. I started doing this marathon a month ago and I wasn't sure how it was going to end. I knew I would grow more appreciation for the films of his I already love, but I was a bit skeptical about the films of his I hadn't seen. There was a reason I hadn't seen them yet and The Ward is the last of Carpenter's films I hadn't seen. The Ward is bland and somewhat boring. Amber Heard is one of the blandest actors I have ever seen. She also is a husband beater who steals from children with cancer and shits in people's beds for which she blames the dogs. I was hoping that Carpenter would have been able to get something out of her but he didn't. This is also the first of his films, since Elvis, that doesn't feel like a Carpenter film. It doesn't seem like he brought anything to the film outside of his use of the widescreen frame. Everything feels like any other supernatural horror film and that is not a good thing. I wish that Carpenter had stopped directing after Ghosts of Mars because that film felt like a Carpenter film.

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