It's the first week of the new year and we're kicking it off big. I'm going to start a month-long look at the realm of horror directing. First with a few editions looking at my favorite horror directors, and then some general looks at this aspect of horror.
But this week is all about John Carpenter. Maybe Carpenter doesn't work as much and some of his newer films are..not that great (although I happen to be one of the few that liked his Masters of Horror episode), but that doesn't change the fact he's one of the best this industry has ever seen. Here's what I wrote about him back in 2009 when I listed my favorite horror directors:
The man is a legend. He's made some of the greatest horror films of all time and some cult classics in other genres too. Everyone knows who he is and his influence is felt on all slasher films thanks to Halloween as well as his action films and post-apocalyptic movies. He's able to make you afraid of the dark (as Michael Myers struck at night) as well as make you paranoid around your fellow human beings (both in They Live and The Thing). He can adapt Stephen King or faithfully create a tribute to the works of Lovecraft. John Carpenter is the greatest horror director past or present. You may disagree, but I think his movies speak for themselves.
I stand by that. His movies really do speak for themselves and he has one of the most impressive resumes in film. So now I'm going to list my favorite ten movies in his filmography.
#10: Vampires (1998)
A lot of people don't like Vampires. I'm not sure why. Maybe it's because it has Daniel Baldwin. Maybe it's because it doesn't quite live up to the standards of Carpenter's best films. But it does have James Woods as a vampire hunter and that's all you needed to sell me on the movie. James Woods isn't anyone I'd call a great actor, but he is a lot of fun to watch and putting him in the role of a smart-ass killer of the undead is an automatic win as far as I'm concerned.
There are some purists that say the film is nothing like the book and I can't comment because I haven't read it. But I will say that this movie is a lot of fun and I enjoyed it immensely when I first saw it. B-movies have their place too, and this knows exactly what it is. It's a big dumb action-horror movie with a lot of one-liners and copious amounts of gore. It also stars James Woods as a vampire hunter. I feel like I can't stress this point enough.
#9: Prince of Darkness (1987)
Like most of John Carpenter's work in the 1980's, this was solid. It was a lot better once it got to the climax but it's very good when that happens. Here's the gist: The Anti-Christ has been on Earth for years, trapped inside a large container of Hi-C Ecto-Cooler (that's totally what it looks like). It begins possessing a team of scientists to manipulate them into releasing his father, the devil. It also controls a group of homeless crazy people (including Alice Cooper, for some reason) to do its bidding.
If it weren't for the craziness that happens later I think I would hate this, or at least make fun of it. There's only so many serious discussions on the nature of religion and metaphysics that I can take before I start to throw things at my TV. But the end if suitably chaotic, Donald Pleasance is awesome as always and you can't fault Carpenter's direction or creepy imagery. It's the weakest of his Apocalypse trilogy, but still a strong film.
#8: Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
This is one weird movie. I first saw it when I was a kid and it really is like one giant cartoon. You have the goofy hero fighting against insurmountable forces and a supernatural villain. I thought Lo Pan was the coolest villain ever because he could shoot lasers and had all kinds of mystical powers. It was as close as I'd get to a live-action superhero for years. He was the first "cool" villain for me.
But we're stuck following the adventures of Jack Burton. I've never read any interviews where Sam Raimi or Bruce Campbell mention this film as an influence, but I definitely see some similarities between Jack and Ash. I haven't seen this movie as often as I would like, and that may be why it's not ranked higher, but I do enjoy it. It's a shame that it wasn't a hit at the box office, because I feel like this could have been a character that could have thrived in his own franchise.
#7: Christine (1983)
This is one of those horror movies that I think gets better with every watch. There's nothing particularly scary about a killer car (unless of course, you're being hunted by one), but I always find something new to enjoy every time I watch it. I think, in this case, I actually like the film more than I do the book. There are the great special effects in which Christine re-assembles herself. There's the psychological horror film of a young man being slowly possessed. There's the surprisingly stellar supporting cast, including Roberts Blossom.
I also feel like Carpenter's direction is some of his best here. He takes some of his more ambitious shots and the car chase scenes are almost perfect. It's a thrill to watch a flaming Christine chasing after her next target no matter how many times I've seen it. There's just something about Christine that I enjoy every time I watch it. Maybe that 1958 Plymouth Fury has a grip on me too. It also has one of the best taglines ever: "Body by Plymouth. Soul by Satan". Awesome.
#6: Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
This is an action thriller, but I think that's just a disguise of what it really is. It's a horror film. Okay, maybe not in the strictest sense of the word, but it certainly has elements of one. The easiest movie to compare it to is Night of the Living Dead. A small group of people are trapped in one location against an overwhelming threat trying to survive the night. This gang that terrorizes the titular precinct isn't really different than a horde of zombies, outside of being somewhat smarter. If you kill one, another two are ready to replace him.
It's also a Western set in an urban area. The outlaws are making one big siege on the sheriff and he has to deputize some people quick. It takes its influence from several genres and is marketed as an action movie. The fact that it also works as an action movie is only a testament to how good it really is. The excellent performance of Darwin Joston is just icing on the cake. This is a movie that should be seen by any fan of film.
#5: Escape From New York (1981)
Even though it causes me unending shame to do so, I have to confess something. It was only somewhat recently that I actually had a chance to watch Escape From New York. I'm kicking myself every day that I never saw this movie sooner. I don't even have a reason, it just didn't happen. But now I have seen it, and I immediately fell in love with it in the first ten minutes or so.
Mainly this movie is great due to the performance of Kurt Russell. Sure, Donald Pleasance and Issac Hayes are good too, but this is Russell's movie from frame one. I also love that in the three different Carpenter films I've seen him in, he plays three completely different characters. R.J. MacReady is different from Snake Plissken and both are very different from Jack Burton. In this one he's an asshole, but he's a very likable one. Just don't mention that you thought he was dead. He's been getting that a lot.
#4: In The Mouth of Madness (1995)
Do you read Sutter Cane? Out of all the filmmakers to attempt Lovecraft or have a film influenced by him, I think only two have really nailed it. The first is Stuart Gordon and the second is John Carpenter. It's funny, because In The Mouth of Madness isn't actually based on any of the man's works, just the mood and style. Carpenter manages to nail that with a movie that is so absolutely insane I'm surprised a semi-major studio like New Line Cinema (at the time it wasn't as big as it would be) would release it.
I could attempt to describe the story to you, but there's really no point. This is a movie that has to be seen to be believed. This is the kind of film that is an experience into not just one man's psychosis, but the entire world going mad and reality changing in ways that if it happened in your every day life, you would instantly go insane. Since this is an archetype of Lovecraftian horror, I think Carpenter pretty much got it right on.
#3: They Live (1988)
At this point it's going to be hard to talk about these films because I've said everything I needed to say before. If you've seen it, you know why They Live is great. It's a completely unique sci-fi film with a lot of cool twists and turns. It's hard to believe that out of all the wrestlers to make films in Hollywood, Roddy Piper is the one that was the most successful. Before you mention The Rock, I should point out that They Live is an iconic movie and The Rock's movies have been decent at best. He makes a lot of money, but I doubt anything he's done will be as remembered twenty years from now as much as They Live is remembered and adored today.
But this is a role that Piper was made for. It's not a well-rounded character, but it's not meant to be. He's an every-man that comes out of nowhere looking for work, and stumbles into the knowledge that there has been an alien takeover. He's an action star who accidentally fell into a sci-fi movie. So he does what any action star would do: he picks up a gun and starts blowing the alien menace away.
Oh, there was also a fight or something in it. You've probably heard of it.
#2: The Thing (1982)
If you show up in the comments and tell me that this is better than my #1 choice (which you've probably guessed by now), I'm not really going to argue with you. It's every bit as good as my #1, I just personally prefer that to this. It's one of the best remakes ever made, possibly the best depending on my mood. Considering the original film is actually quite good, and most people these days are even aware it exists, that says a lot.
The pairing of Carpenter and Russell is going to go down as one of the best director/actor combinations of all time I think. Sure, most people might think of De Niro and Scorsese or (god forbid) Depp and Burton, but I think these two working together hasn't produced a bad film yet. When you throw in a solid supporting cast (including Keith David and, of all people, WIlford Brimley) and special effects that put many of today's Hollywood films to shame, and you just have a great, great movie. And to think, critics actually didn't like this when it was first released!
#1: Halloween (1978)
One of my favorite moments of 2012 was the opportunity to see this movie in theaters. It came out before I was born, so I've never ever had the chance. I still paid the full ticket price to see a movie that I've not only seen at least a hundred times, but own on blu-ray already. I can't say I would ever do that with any other re-release except maybe Robocop. Halloween is one of my favorite movies of all time and it is definitely my favorite horror film ever. There is not a single moment in this film that I dislike, even when I'm in a total funk.
I could actually tell you why, but it's not going to translate unless you see it. It's what horror is supposed to be. It's a movie with one of the scariest horror villains ever. It not only sets things in motion for the slasher boom of the 80s, but it's also an homage to the Universal horror that came before it. Michael Myers stalks around just like Dracula would. And just like Dracula, he doesn't even seem real. Michael Myers is just a man, but the point of the movie is that John Carpenter's direction and story (as well as the performance of Donald Pleasance as Dr. Loomis) make him into something more. He becomes The Shape, an evil force that terrorizes for one night and then is gone after leaving his mark. What better night for evil to roam free than Halloween?