I was reading an article in a film magazine the other day entitled 'Great writer/Directors' "Excellent" I thought, particularly when i saw that the first edition was talking about one of my personal favourite directors. Then my heart sank when I saw one of the opening lines…..."Oh, John Carpenter. What went wrong? He's not that good any more is he?"
Give me strength, or to be more precise, give the man a break.
It has been something of a bugbear of mine for some time that even at the 'height of his fame' Carpenter never quite achieved the level of reverence that his work should have done. Here in the UK and other parts of Europe he is regarded as something of an auteur - it seems that in the States he is generally regarded as that guy that made one or two decent slasher films then went on to produce movies that started with "John Carpenter's….." A case in point is the first movie in my favourite 5 list below, Assault on Precinct 13, which bombed on it's release in the USA but went onto to great success a year later this side of the pond. As a matter of fact, it wasn't the only movie to struggle on it's initial release, more were to follow in the same vein. Even the success of Halloween, which is arguably his most important movie in terms of impact on not just the horror genre but on cinema as a whole, still didn't guarantee him the status other directors have enjoyed.
I haven't researched the total amount of money his films have grossed over the years. Nor am I able to quantify his impact on modern culture, for me it is immeasurable. Yes, some of his later films may not contain the quality of his 'classics', but he he is still producing some interesting and varied work, never afraid to pursue his art. If you must criticise people, criticise those who want to play safe, to cater to the greater masses. John Carpenter can never be criticised for that.
So, here it is. My personal favourite 5 films from one of America's foremost directors.
1) ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (1976)
Yes I know. Those of you that know this 70's classic will be immediately asking just what this movie doing on a sci-fi/fantasy/horror blog. Well it's my favourite Carpenter movie by a mile. It's my blog, my rules. So there.
'Well you took your sweet time getting here……"
It's a film that didn't do particularly well commercially or with the critics, which we'll see is a running theme for this list. The plot of the movie is basic and takes place over just a few hours ( A classic Carpenter modus operandi) and has periods where little is happening or even said. It is what Carpenter does with the material, the creation of near unbearable atmosphere and tension, great action sequences and a simply stunning example of ensemble acting that makes this a movie classic.
The story begins with 3 separate story strands on a Saturday afternoon in LA that will eventually come together to form the tension filled second half of the movie. The first part features Lieutenant Ethan Bishop, played by the always excellent Austin Stoker, who has just undertaken a new assignment after receiving his promotion. He has been given the seemingly innocuous task of commanding an old police precinct (Anderson) during it's final hours before it is closed forever. The station is manned by a skeleton staff composed of another officer and two civilian secretaries.
Meanwhile, a Los Angeles street gang called 'Street Thunder', who recently have had six of their members slain by the local police after recently acquiring a huge cache of automatic weapons. Vowing revenge they decide to drive around the streets looking for people to kill. Quite clearly, these are not nice people…..One of the gang shoots and kills a little girl and the driver of an ice-cream truck. The girl's father, in a helpless rage pursues the gang in turn shoots the gang member, whose fellow gang members chase the man into the Anderson precinct. The staff try to ascertain his problem, but by now he is in a catatonic state of shock, he is unable to explain to anybody what has happened to him.
The 3rd strand meanwhile sees a prison bus stopping at the Police station in order to get medical assistance for one of the three prisoners being transported to Death Row at the state prison.
What then follows for the remainder of the movie is a classic siege scenario as what seems like hundreds of gang members have surrounded the station, cut off the power and now intend to kill everyone inside, forcing the few police and convicts to work together in order to live.
The true genius in this film is Carpenters ability to turn what, is on the face of it, a standard urban cop thriller and give it the essential spirit of a classic horror movie. That is why this film in this list.
A fab short trailer for Assault on Precinct 13
2) THE THING (1982)
Quite simply, a film now regarded as as science fiction/horror classic, though at the time of release was another critical and commercial flop (so once again, to those who are quick to dismiss his later films, beware). It is another of Carpenters films that has a magnificent ensemble cast of familiar, but in this case not overly well-known, character actors. It has a great location, elements of true emotional tension and horror. Oh, it also has one of the finest and unsettling climaxes that you could ever imagine, an ending that has also courted controversy and deliberation amongst fans as to who is actually 'The Thing'.
In this vastly superior version of the 1951 original the story begins with a terrified Siberian Husky running across the frozen That subsequent night at the American facility, the dog mutates into the Thing, and the American team realise what really happened to the other camp as they see that the Thing has the ability to transform into anything it kills. For the rest of the movie the men fight an ever horrific battle against the monster, whilst at the same time trying to work out which one of their own ever decreasing team is the Thing in disguise.
Blessed with a budget that reflected the success of films like Halloween and Escape from New York, the film boasts a plethora of wondrously gory special effects. These in turn become gorier and gorier as the story progresses, the scene when the Thing appears from a dying mans chest and bites off the hands off the doctors arms has particularly gone down in horror folklore.
However, 'conventional' critics at the time tended to focus heavily on these gory issues and completely ignored the clever pacing of the story and the claustrophobic atmosphere of suspicion and despair the men find themselves in. As a consequence The Thing suffered at the box office in competition with Spielberg's E.T (god help the taste of the general public) and it wasn't until a few years later that the film began to acquire its true status as an stunning piece of cinema.
Looking back now with the benefit of time its clear to see that the movie is still visually and musically excellent (a fine score by none other the Ennio Morricone) and the much vaunted special effects still look reasonably fresh…….oh, and the feeling of paranoia, that you can't trust people who may not be as they appear still resonates from the actors. As for the debate about the ending, specifically who of the survivors is actually infected…….hmmm.
The Cinematic trailer for The Thing
3) ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981)
The first of the two films in this list to feature the delicious Adrienne Barbeau, who for the few of you that don't know, was the then wife of John Carpenter. The lucky, lucky man. The movie also contains something of a stellar cast, which considering the budget available ( only around 6 million dollars) says everything about the reputation Carpenter was starting to accumulate after the worldwide success of Halloween. Major names such as Donald Pleasence, Earnest Borgnine, Lee Van Cleef, Harry Dean Stanton all strut their fine stuff. Add to that, Kurt Russell ( already an established Disney actor), Isaac Hayes and the delicious Adrienne and you have a fine ensemble cast that project the fairly straightforward plot into the realms of classic status.
Adrienne 'Delicious' Barbeau.
Made in 1981, Carpenter set the film 16 years in the future to 1997, a dystopian imagining where by this time crime has spiralled out of control, the prisons had become overflowing and now New York City is a maximum security prison where all prisoners are placed, with no chance of release. Here they are left to their own devices, which since its conversion 9 years before has now become a place of nightmarish proportions. No police or civilians are allowed to set foot on Manhattan as an enormous containment wall surrounds the island, and mines have been placed on all the bridges and tunnels treading to the prison colony.
The story begins on board Air force one, on which the US President is on his way to international peace summit with a cassette tape the holds the essential information for the proposed treaty. Unluckily for him however, the plane has been hijacked by terrorists and is forced to crash onto the island. However, luckily for him, he is the President so gets first dibs on the escape pod which is jettisoned from the plane and disappears into the depths of the prison streets.
The Police chief (played by the always excellent Lee Van Cleef) offers a deal to an ex special forces soldier who has now become a criminal, "Snake" Plissken , played by Kurt Russell (making his second appearance on this list). The deal is simple; If he manages against the odds to rescue the president and retrieves the cassette tape within 24 hours, Plissken will receive a full pardon. Snake reluctantly agrees to attempt the rescue after he has been injected with microscopic explosives that will rupture inside him. The explosives can only be deactivated in the final 15 minutes before they explode, thus ensuring that Snake does not abandon his mission and decide to 'leg it'. If he returns with the President and the tape in time for the summit then he will be spared. The fact that no-one has ever set foot in the prison, or escaped from it is just a minor inconvenience...
"Just call me Snake"
The film is a tour-de-force of acting, plot rhythm and excitement. Yes the special effects aren't amazing. the computer graphics in particular haven't aged well. However, the atmosphere and raw emotion created by Carpenter and his ensemble of actors, together with the synthesiser soundtrack more make up for any shortcomings. Indeed, the film location (a burnt out area of St Louis acting as the Manhattan prison) serves as an extra character, providing a claustrophobic sense of city desolation.
The movie trailer for Escape from New York
4) HALLOWEEN (1978)
One of those few movies that has morphed from being just a film in itself and worked its way into not only being a seminal example of the horror slasher genre, but has also become part of of wider cultural and public consciousness.
The production of the film has itself gone down in movie folklore as It was made on a shoestring budget of only $320,000 and shot over just 28 days in 1978. In fact, the money to make the film was so tight that the main female lead (Jamie Lee-Curtis) was only paid $8000. There wasn't even enough money to buy a real mask for the Michael Myers character so instead a cheap William Shatner mask was purchased for a dollar and a film assistant was put to work with some left- over false hair and white spray paint to make a few adjustments. The money saving didn't stop there as the fake paper leaves used to simulate the late Autumn falling leaves had to be collected by one of Carpenter's minions after each shot in order to be re-used later in the movie.
At the last count, the film has so far grossed over $70 million worldwide.
"I'm a bit bonkers I am"…..
The film begins on Halloween in a small Illinois town in 1963. A young boy, Michael Myers, witnesses his older teenage sister, and her boyfriend kissing in the living room. After seeing the two teenagers sneak up to his sisters bedroom he puts on a clown mask, takes a butcher knife out of the kitchen, and waits until the boy leaves before entering her room and stabs her over and over again until she falls down dead. He then walks downstairs and wanders outside, with the knife still in his hand. Michael's parents, who have just arrived home, pull off the clown mask that Michael is wearing, to reveal the angelic looking face of the young boy.
This opening scene is a masterpiece of film-making. Designed to look like a continuing single, tracking, point of view shot that serves to only very slowly make the audience aware that something terrible is about to happen. The final horror is on seeing the boy's face for the first time after he has butchered his sister. It is not the face of a monster. Watch the entire opening scene below if you don't believe me!
The stunning opening scene, in all its glory.
Some 15 Fifteen years later on the day before Halloween, Michael's Psychiatrist Dr. Samuel Loomis (a masterful performance from Donald Pleasence), arrives at the sanitarium in which Michael has been institutionalised. However, Michael has managed to escape, stealing a car then murders a trucker and stealing his uniform and heads for his hometown with the Doctor in pursuit . On reaching the town Michael breaks into a small store and steals a Halloween mask, a rope and a knife.
The following Halloween day, a young high school student Laurie Strode (played by Jamie Lee- Curtis) continually sees the mask-wearing Michael around town, but nobody believes her. Then later at her house she sees Michael outside in the yard, staring into her room. Laurie is starting to become frightened.
That night, Laurie is babysitting a young boy while at the same time her friend is doing the same with a young girl. When her friend gets a call from her boyfriend to go and collect him to brings the girl to the house where Laurie is babysitting. But on her way to pick up her boyfriend her friend is killed by Michael, who was hiding in the back of her car. Meanwhile back at the original house another couple of Laurie's friends sneak in and head to the bedroom, where they have sex. While downstairs, the boy is skewered on the wall with a kitchen knife, then Michael strangles Lynda with a telephone cord as she talks on the phone with Laurie. Feeling worried, Laurie heads over to the house to investigate…….
Perhaps my favourite scene from the movie.
It is a truly seminal film which provided the blueprint for numerous copycat slasher movies, which in turn became gorier and gorier as the years progressed ( not necessarily always a bad thing!). However, I feel the last word on the power of Carpenter's filming is that contrary to popular belief (and the conservative film critics), the level of blood and gore in this film is remarkably low. In fact he only blood seen is when Judith Myers is killed, on the body of the man Michael killed for his clothes and on Laurie's hand and arm after escaping from Michael. It is actually the emotional power of the casts performances that drives the film - Curtis is especially convincing as the scream queen turned plucky survivor ( strong women being a recurring theme in many of Carpenters' films. The music too once again adds to the various scenes that at times almost suffocate the viewer with an ever increasing panic. A masterpiece.
5) THE FOG
"Almost midnight. Enough time for one more story. One more story before midnight, just to keep us warm. In five minutes, it'll be the 21st of April. One hundred years ago on the 21st of April, out in the waters around Spivey Point, a small clipper ship drew toward land. Suddenly, out of the night, the fog rolled in. For a moment, they could see nothing, not a foot ahead of them. And then, they saw a light. My God, it was a fire burning on the shore. Strong enough to penetrate the swirling mist. They steered a course toward the light. But it was a campfire, like this one. The ship crashed against the rocks. The hull sheared in two. The mast snapped like a twig.And the wreckage sank with all the men aboard. At the bottom of the sea lay the Elizabeth Dane with her crew, their lungs filled with saltwater, their eyes open and staring into the darkness." ……………….
The Fog tells the story of an abnormal, luminous fog that rolls in over a small coastal town in California, bringing with it the vengeful ghosts of sailors who died in a shipwreck of the coast exactly 100 years earlier. It's not a perfect film by any means, there are numerous weaknesses and flaws, possible due to the over ambitious aims not being able to deal with another limited budget. Indeed, Carpenter himself regards is as one of his more imperfect productions, but it is film that has a special place in my heart, and not just because it once again features Adrienne Barbeau - I 'm not an obsessive you know………
Adrienne Barbeau, still being delicious
The movie was made just after the huge success of Halloween and is one of the rare occurrences from this list of being a commercial success at the time of it's release, despite the problematic shooting and subsequent re-shooting of a number of scenes.
It begins with a simple lovely scene of an old sea-dog trying, and succeeding, in frightening the bejoopers out of some local kids with a creepy fireside story.
We then hear that the town, Antonio bay is about to come together to celebrate the centenary of it's formation. While the townsfolk prepare to celebrate, strange events are taking place in the area as objects suddenly move by themselves, television sets turn themselves on, petrol stations apparently come to life, and all the public telephones (remember them?) suddenly ring all at the same time.
We learn that 100, the wealthy leper Blake bought a ship to transport his companions from a leper colony to California to build a town for them to live in for a better existence. However, while crossing a fog in a dangerous part of the coast, they were purposely misguided by the village campfire onshore, navigating the course of the vessel toward the firelight and smashing it against the rocks and killing all on board. The Fog is bringing the spirits of Blake and his crew to kill the residents…….
The fabulous opening scene to the movie - a perfect example of how a simple scene set up can be just as atmospheric as any moment of 'slash horror'
The Fog is a brave and ambitious attempt to manipulate story and character by running simultaneously a number of separate story lines which succeeds in making us relate to the residents of the coastal town by witnessing a real sense of community. All these strands are connected by Adrienne Barbeau's character as the late night voice on the local radio 9 and what a smooth sultry voice it is too), while playing playing her selections of easy Jazz. Indeed, this movie is another example of an excellent acting ensemble - Hal Holbrook is especially convincing as the priest tortured by the things he learns about his town. Visually too the film is stunning, in no small part aided by the skillful cinematography perfectly capturing the beauty and essence go the Californian coastline.
The music of John Carpenter
An often overlooked contribution to his movies is the music that Carpenter (the vast majority of which he wrote himself) provides for each production. Forced to write his own synthesiser music due to budgetary constraints in his first few movies Carpenter quickly realised the importance that music can provide. He's never content to let musical score simply accompany a film to fill the odd silence and occasionally add something to the overall effect. Instead the music often acts as a principle character in the story.
The likes of Assault on Precinct 13 ( the music written in a staggering three day period), Halloween ( where perhaps he created arguably his most iconic piece of movie soundtrack) and Escape from New York would be far the poorer if Carpenter hadn't taken real care and passion to intimately wed the music to the cinematography itself. There are times, particularly in films such as Halloween when the musical score seems to be pushing the action along rather than the opposite way round. Moreover, as the music selection clip below shows, much of his music stands on its own merits as listenable in its own right.
A selection of music from his films……love it.
John Carpenter - Full filmography (Thanks to http://uk.movies.yahoo.com)