Spare him the “King of Horror” compliments. At the end of the day, John Carpenter is just as willing to sit himself down, play video games, and collect another residual just as any of us would, given the trailblazing career he has sustained throughout the late ’70s and onward. Ever since his debut, 1974’s
Dark Star, Carpenter established his filmic outlook as laidback, cynical, yet never willing to flinch in response to his dire, lethal creations of horror that often threaten to broaden into a cosmic realm of being. But what makes his films resonate to this day? Is it the political commentary — from the clearly prevalent kind of They Live to the slyer gender politics of 1983’s Christine? What today’s Writer’s Room staff can mutually agree on is that the man can scare the pants off any viewer, regardless of whether the horror comes from beneath the ice or next door. These writers each put into words what makes their presented film of Carpenter’s their ultimate favorite of his.
Austin Jaye, Blogger
When Artie Cunningham (Keith Gordon) finds
Christine — the titular vehicle of John Carpenter’s 1983 adaptation of Stephen King’s perversely grisly novel — he has already been savagely bullied alongside his friend Dennis (John Stockwell). Immediately, he is put under Christine’s influence upon buying her — a 1958 Plymouth Fury that has seen far better days — so much so that it bewilders not only John but also his parents, who go as far as to refuse to allow Artie to park the car in their garage.
What is within Christine that has won Artie over? Is it the opportunity to win over the high school crowds and bullies that have alienated him or simply the chance to renovate the car so that it pertains to his liking? How likely is it that the car herself is alive, having cursed its previous occupants and being directly responsible for the deaths of various folks? Turns out it’s just as likely for Artie to make a dramatic transformation alongside Christine, adopting a nauseatingly arrogant and overtly brutish exterior that alienates the wrong people, who all just happen to end up in Christine’s deadly path. If King wrote the original novel as if to provide open disdain for ’50s nostalgia, Carpenter directs
Christine as if masculinity itself is the catalyst for the toxicity of that very period. Like the car herself, it’s a lean, mean, dangerous machine of a picture directed with a deceptively sleek design, keeping hidden the blazingly repressed urge and capability to destroy underneath its crimson hood. Are you man enough to open it?
John Marsaglia, Blogger
In the Mouth of Madness (1994):
If John Carpenter’s filmography is anything, it’s a model of consistency within genre films. What has allowed Carpenter to remain an influential voice for nearly five decades is his ever-evolving career due in part to a willingness to adapt to the industry’s growing trends, both from an artistic and a technological standpoint. Carpenter’s 1994 film,
In the Mouth of Madness, serves as the conclusion of his “Apocalypse Trilogy” and showcases an all-time great filmmaker displaying an ability to adapt to updated conventions while staying true to form.
In the Mouth of Madness is a showcase for the battles of reality versus fiction, and art versus madness. Sam Neil (1993’s Jurassic Park) delivers a gleefully extravagant performance as John Trent, an insurance investigator commissioned by the publishing house of best-selling author Sutter Cane after Cane’s sudden disappearance. The film follows Trent as he soon faces the realization that the fictional world of Sutter Cane may be real and that within it lies the same horrors and evils as have read by millions. While not adapted from an H.P. Lovecraft work, Madness is as Lovecraftian as you can get. Multi-legged monsters, infected people, and a sense of isolated terror are all there in Carpenter’s third apocalyptic film. Madness checks all the boxes and raises them to heights not seen since The Thing.
Carpenter embraces the meta aspect of a story within a story plotline to success. At times, the plot seems convoluted, only for a new wrinkle to soon be added to the story’s fabric. The mental light bulbs are going on and off at a frantic pace. In a somewhat messy and scattered way, it all comes together in harmony, making
In the Mouth of Madness one of Carpenter’s most underrated films in his storied career.
Penny Folger, Blogger
Assault on Precinct 13 (1976):
It’s difficult to pick just one Carpenter film — he’s one of my favorite directors of the past 50 years — but
Assault on Precinct 13 really sticks with me because for a film that’s about a dormant police station invasion, it has a lot of heart.
Not only is it a nod to
Rio Bravo, which I wound up watching when I wrote a longer piece about Assault when it screened at the Frida last January, but it also pays homage to my favorite genre: film noir! This appears in the relations between the sexes, involving two actors I wish had had longer careers: the late Darwin Joston and Laurie Zimmer. There is some flirtatious cigarette play between them, and Zimmer is even a little reminiscent of Lauren Bacall. Carpenter himself noted that the women in this movie might have walked straight out of 1946’s The Big Sleep.
But the overall heart I mention comes not only in the appeal of its actors but also in the coming together of people from different classes and stations in life, who bond regardless of whether they would have been diametrically opposed in peacetime. I feel like we need more people coming together despite class, political stances, or outside labels in these very divisive modern times. So, a film that suggested, 47 years ago, that we are all just humans trying to survive and that its best to look out for each other really feels ahead of its time. There’s a humanity that seeps through all the action and makes this movie one of my favorites in the long list of great films John Carpenter made.
Reggie Peralta, Blog Editor
The Thing (1982):
No list of John Carpenter’s best movies would be complete without
The Thing (nor would any list of the most Lovecraftian horror movies, which is why I included it in .) A perennial favorite here at The Frida, we’ve played it countless times over the years and it’s easy to see why. From the ominous, bass-driven theme that opens the film, there is an overwhelming sense of dread that pervades it (a description that, coincidentally, can also be applied to Hammer Horror’s one I wrote for the blog , a movie that Carpenter would go on to cite as a direct inspiration for Quatermass and the Pit Prince of Darkness.)
Set in the remote wastes of Antarctica, one can’t help but feel a profound hopelessness at the fact that the characters are effectively on their own against this inhuman enemy. MacReady (played by Kurt Russell), of course, ranks as one of Carpenter’s greatest heroes, but it speaks volumes about the story that it’s not his heroism that viewers most remember but rather the insidious acts and nature of the titular creature. The fact that the special effects used to realize the Thing still hold up four decades later is another testament to the movie’s enduring appeal. After all, how many movies that are as utterly hopeless as
The Thing keep bringing people back again and again to feel that impending sense of doom all over again?