Staff Selects: John Carpenter

During a long career, John Carpenter has established himself as one of the greatest directors of horror and science fiction. Here we highlight some of our favorite films of his.

Halloween (1978)

“[Horror] never dies. It just keeps getting reinvented and it always will. Horror is a universal language; we’re all afraid. We’re born afraid, we’re afraid of all things: death, disfigurement, loss of a loved one. Everything I’m afraid of, you’re afraid of and vice versa. So everybody feels fear and suspense.”

Perhaps none of master-of-horror John Carpenter’s films capture his belief in the reinvention of horror more potently than Halloween. Yes, The Thing was a remake in a sense and was subsequently remade, but few franchises have ever had such a convoluted history of sequels and reboots interspersed with each other as Halloween. Though many of the later iterations miss the mark, the concept remains enduring and is continually reinvented because the original got to the root of what is scary. 

One of those films I put off seeing for a shamefully long time, it was just last year at a midnight showing when I finally got around to Halloween. Though horror and I rarely get along, especially when the horror takes the form of a slasher movie, Halloween was entrancing. A slow moving villain without much of a discernible motivation wouldn’t normally seem terribly frightening, and a handful of downright hilarious moments at the beginning had me nearly convinced it would be an example of horror that didn’t stand the test of time, but the tension is masterfully built and the sinister score elevated in every scene. The final result remains the kind of hair raising experience that serves as the perfect accompaniment to any October 31st. – Henry Baime

The Fog (1980)

“There are two different stories in horror: internal and external. In external horror films, the evil comes from the outside, the other tribe, this thing in the darkness that we don’t understand. Internal is the human heart.” – John Carpenter

The Fog is perhaps the purest distillation of the essence of horror storytelling to come from the mind of John Carpenter, the darkness lurking within the soul projected as an external threat. It’s a parabolic fire-side ghost story that sees the sins of the forefathers passed onto the kin, the wickedness of man manifest through vengeful spirits of the past come to claim bloody reparation. As the titular fog shrouds a small coastal town, the intonation of Carpenter’s magnificent synth-driven score suspends the atmosphere in the uncomfortable space between dream and nightmare. The mood is supplemented by some of Dean Cundey’s finest work to date, the prolific cinematographer the perfect partner for Carpenter to work with to bring the monsters out of the mist.

Whilst rarely atop most ranked John Carpenter lists, The Fog is absolutely worthy of the esteem lauded upon some of his more famous works. If it has so far passed you by, I heartily recommend giving it a shot. I suggest giving wide berth to the 2005 remake, however. It’s a punishment undeserved, no matter how great the inter-generational transgressions. – Chris Barnes

In the Mouth of Madness (1995)

Surprisingly, I’m not much of a John Carpenter fan, though admittedly I’ve yet to explore a large portion of his catalog. Lauded classics like Halloween and The Thing don’t do much for me, so it’d be easy to claim Escape from New York or Assault on Precinct 13 as my favorite Carpenter (even though I’m relatively tepid on those two as well). However, even as a non-horror aficionado, I can’t make this characteristically flippant move in good conscience, because I genuinely love In the Mouth of Madness.

It came out on VHS in 1995 right as my interest in film began to flourish, and I distinctly remember showing it to all my friends when I eventually owned it on DVD in that old paper case with the plastic clasp. It may have even been my first experience with metafiction in general, and the concept of a self-referential narrative was mind-blowing to an adolescent Kern. Combine that with imagery and concepts reminiscent of H.P. Lovecraft and Stephen King in equal measure, and you’ve got a spine-tingling, heady, and unhinged horror film.

Does it hold up? Frankly, I couldn’t say. Though I revisited it a few years back and found it just as effective as it was 25 years ago, it’s one of those films I watched so many times in my youth that it not only plays to that mid-90s nostalgia factor, but seems intrinsically perfect because it’s just how I remember it. Sam Neill is brilliant, violently vacillating between calm and frantic, Jurgen Prochnow is terrifying as the infamous Sutter Cane, and the ending is absolutely unforgettable. In the Mouth of Madness is one of Carpenter’s most underseen, and in my opinion, it deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as his more popular horror staples. – Kern Wheeling

The Thing (1982)

It was hated, hated by fans. I lost a job, people hated me, they thought I was … horrible, violent—and I was. But now here we are 31 years later, and here you are filling the theater.

Go ahead and try to guess what film this is speaking of? The late great Roger Ebert once called it, “a great barf-bag movie“. I’ll wait…saying that it’s John Carpenter’s best film wouldn’t be much of a hint, because the self-proclaimed “Master of Horror” has had one of the most envious filmographies in cinematic history. You can survey a sample group of 10 strangers, and odds are that that between them, there will be three or four different proclamations of which is Carpenter’s best film. With films like They Live, Escape from New York, The Fog, Vampires, Prince of Darkness, In the Mouth of Madness, and a little seasonal gem called, Halloween, it’s no easy feat to pick a favourite from one of the GOATs. Times up! It’s none other than what is to me, tied for the best sci-fi horror film ever filmed, 1982’s The Thing

Whether it be the top tier practical effects and makeup from Rob Bottin and Stan Winston that are still rarely rivaled today, the societal relevance of 80’s McCarthyism, the claustrophobic horror, a severely underrated Ennio Morricone synth score, or the iconic duo of RJ MacReady and Childs. The Thing is undoubtedly my favorite of Carpenter’s illustrious repertoire. To be clear, The Thing was not a remake, more so an independent adaptation of John W. Campbell Jr.’s 1938 story, “Who Goes There?“. What I enjoy so much about the film is its central theme of identity. Imagining an extraterrestrial lifeform capable of adapting to its environment, learning from its surroundings, and perfectly managing to morph into anything it consumes, is pure nightmare fuel. It’s no surprise that attaching a Red Scare agenda of communist invasion fear, matches so well. The one thing that we humans should always have control and pride over is that of our very own identity and how we choose to present ourselves to the world around us. The thought of something that can become you, but stronger, faster, better, and devoid of all our human flaws, is a sentiment seen more recently with talk of artificial intelligence. The fear of losing the one thing we have is completely and utterly catastrophic. Although not part of Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy, They Live matches alongside The Thing in showcasing the horrors of our identities being unknowingly taken by body snatching doppelgangers and beyond that, the existential disturbance that questions if our consumerist society even notices.

Mistrust, fear-mongering, ambiguity, pent up claustrophobic tension, and mutually assured destruction, ring any bells? The fear of the other and the essence of an unclear enemy only further amplifies the already drastic anxiety and danger. Carpenter’s foray into studio films shape-shifts into the Cold War arms race and gun pointing of Reagan’s aggressively escalating presidency. The affinity for animosity is only rampantly increased by the simple factor of an all male cast, exemplifying America’s gun-ho macho Rambo stance. What makes it all the more iconic and memorable is how the film successfully depicts how easily we humans are to pass blame, point fingers, and depict our own personal biases. Released in 1982, The Thing, depicts a post-Vietnam America that is a little unsteady and not necessarily the pure hero it once believed itself to be. It’s ironic that while the direct threat is otherworldly, the paranoia that gradually creeps amongst the group of testosterone filled scientists is so clearly against the man standing to each of their sides. Like a successful spy, the thing slips into our world, assimilates to our culture, collects what it needs, and turns us against one another just prior to sneaking off unnoticed. By the time you fully grasp what occurred, your finger comes off the big red button: the world is set ablaze like the Antarctic outpost, and you sit across your enemy and/or possible ally still unsure of who’s the true enemy. So, “Why don’t we just… wait here for a little while… see what happens?” – Lee

Staff Selects

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