The Essentials: 7 Great John Carpenter Movies

The Essentials: 7 Great John Carpenter Movies

This week, “The Fog,” filmmaker John Carpenter‘s 1980 chiller about a fog that rolls into a sleepy seaside community carrying with it ghostly visitors, will be re-released on Blu-ray and DVD by Shout Factory, complete with a host of all new special features (including a wonderful, retrospective conversation with Jamie Lee Curtis that doesn’t just cover her collaborations with Carpenter but goes on to include a frank discussion of most of her genre work from that period). With its pristine picture quality and sound, it goes a long way in reminding you what a skilled technician and artist Carpenter truly is, able to conjure forth visions of nightmarish clarity, nearly out of thin air. This is a director capable of keeping you up at night, but one who isn’t interested in a cheap scare. When asked to give advice to young filmmakers, he said, simply, “Play for history if possible.” That’s certainly what Carpenter has tried to do; and to celebrate this recent release we’ve decided to run down seven of his most essential films. Frequent collaborator Kurt Russell has said of his friend that he “sees the world slightly askew.” As a Russell character in a John Carpenter movie would say: no shit.

Carpenter was born in New York state and grew up in Kentucky, where he would first watch the Western and science fiction movies that would prove to be so influential later in life. While attending the University of Southern California’s Cinema School, he became well known as an obvious talent (as recounted in Jason Zinoman‘s essential horror history “Shock Value“). He claims that he got into movies because he wanted to make westerns, but thanks to the success of “Halloween,” was stuck mostly in the horror genre (although thematically and visually he would return to the western as a source of inspiration and influence). On a purely visual level, he’s almost unparalleled in the world of horror; the widescreen framing, often broken up into comic book-style panels, is a Carpenter trademark that serves to make his work elegantly unnerving. 

If you’re looking for a place to start or a couple of movies you might have missed out on, here are seven essential films from the Carpenter canon you have to watch.

Assault on Precinct 13” (1976)
Following “Dark Star,” a goofy sci-fi romp co-conceived by future “Alien” screenwriter Dan O’Bannon (their fallout would become the stuff of legend), Carpenter was approached to make a low budget genre movie. Having just sold the screenplay the investor wanted to do, “The Eyes of Laura Mars,” to Columbia, Carpenter decided to write an old fashioned “siege” movie, in the style of his hero Howard Hawks‘ beloved western “Rio Bravo.” But he cannily updated it, relocating the setting to the modern day inner city (to quote one of the movie’s title cards, “a Los Angeles ghetto”), with a police station serving as a stand-in for a besieged mission setting, and a multi-culti crew of gang bangers, hell bent on revenge after the police kill a half dozen of their own, replacing the prototypical Indians (“with touches of ‘Night of the Living Dead‘ and exploitation movies of the time,” Carpenter would later admit). For all intents and purposes, “Assault on Precinct 13” was John Carpenter’s first real movie; and as such it’s a stunner. The movie has an mesmerizing effect that borders on the hypnotic. This is true right from the very beginning, with Carpenter’s percussive, synth-laden score washing over you, bringing with it both anxiety and dread. The images that follow, of the gang bangers riding around Los Angeles on the prowl, is striking due mainly to its simplicity and realism: it could be your street they’re driving down. Carpenter’s love of luxuriously widescreen photography (35 mm Panavision) is already very much in play, and he shoots the arid Los Angeles inner city like he was lensing a desolate border town in an old western. The director’s preoccupation with an almost apocalyptic gloom is also fully accounted for, with the entire movie staged as the beginnings of an all out war against cultured civilization and the forces of anarchical lawlessness. This all culminates in the moment, a sequence so shocking Carpenter says that he wouldn’t have included it if he was making the movie today. In this scene, a young girl, complete with blonde, braided hair the color of sunshine, stops for ice cream at an ice cream truck. She walks away, and the gang members overtake the truck. She realizes she was mistakenly given the wrong flavor, and when she returns to exchange it, one of them shoots her dead. This is all explicitly depicted, with the kind of frankness that makes your jaw hinge open. The fact that the murder is witnessed by the little girl’s father, who then follows the ice cream truck and becomes an integral part of the melee, makes things even more heartbreaking. Censors threatened to give the movie an X-rating, but Carpenter simply removed the sequence during a review, slipping it back into the film after it had secured an R. “Assault on Precinct 13” has a number of flourishes that would become Carpenter hallmarks: Darwin Joston‘s Napoleon Wilson would become the prototypical wise-ass Carpenter antihero (“I don’t sit in chairs as well as I used to”); long, unbroken takes meant to establish mood and atmosphere (the movie seems to have had a profound effect on Nicolas Winding Refn); a playful tweaking of cultural (or counter cultural) iconography (one of the gang members looks like a dirty hoodrat version of Che Guevara); and a knowing exploitation of what middle class white people are deathly afraid of (in this case the violence lurking in the inner city). When “Assault on Precinct 13” was released, it was met with critical and commercial indifference, even though the film played at Cannes, where the director of the festival called it “astonishing” (George A. Romero, who was attending the festival with “Martin,” became an early, vocal supporter). In time, it would become a bona-fide cult sensation, but initially it was largely ignored.    

Halloween” (1978)
After a festival screening of “Assault on Precinct 13,” John Carpenter was approached by a pair of producers, Irwin Yablans and Moustapha Akkad, who asked if the filmmaker was interested in directing a cheapie horror movie about babysitters getting murdered. With a budget of $300,000 (peanuts, but nearly three times what he had for “Assault on Precinct 13”), Carpenter deferred much of his pay and instead insisted that every dollar be accounted for on the screen, which included shooting the movie in anamorphic widescreen (costly, but inherently powerful). What could have been just another horror film instead because a zeitgeist-capturing game changer; the kind of movie that is still endlessly analyzed and studied today (in addition to being a beloved favorite of slumber parties everywhere). Part of what made “Halloween” so special was the craftsmanship and attention to detail: the long, unbroken Panaglide shots (see test footage here) that compounded and amplified the otherworldly tension (beginning with the prologue, a sequence that seemed like one take but was in fact three, cannily spliced together), the editing that suggested terror was lurking in every shadow or around every corner, and Carpenter’s musical score, which added a terrifying dimension while being starkly simplistic. This was all anchored by a lead performance by Jamie Lee Curtis, whose amateurishness in the role doesn’t detract from her power but intensifies it further. This is a real girl who is really being terrorized by a faceless specter. The fact that Curtis was the daughter of Janet Leigh, who starred in Alfred Hitchcock‘s original “Psycho,” added a meta-textual knowingness that suited the movie’s decidedly postmodern approach to the genre. “Halloween” felt like a line in the sand, with every horror movie afterwards (and there were many, including countless sequels and remakes attached to the “Halloween” brand) being compared to it in some way, either creatively or financially (for a while it was the most profitable independent movie ever) or artistically. It’s a movie that every horror filmmaker, seems to be inspired by, but that none have ever been able to top.      

The Fog” (1980)
Carpenter’s follow-up to “Halloween” ended up being one of his most difficult, both creatively and personally, as he dealt with both an incomprehensible first cut that required more than a third of the film to be entirely reshot and the dissolution of his relationship with producer and co-writer Debra Hill, who had been a huge part of the success of “Halloween” and would continue to be a strong creative voice in many of his subsequent films. Instead, Carpenter was falling in love with Adrienne Barbeau, whom he cast in “The Fog” as Stevie Wayne, the owner of a radio station in the sleepy seaside hamlet of Antonio Bay, on the night that a ghostly haze rolls into town, carrying with it murderous spirits hell bent on revenge. Assuming a similar dynamic to that of his “Assault on Precinct 13,” “The Fog” is the closest Carpenter has come to mimicking Robert Altman, with a collection of interlacing stories, including the tale of a young girl (Jamie Lee Curtis) who gets picked up by a hitchhiker (Tom Atkins) and subsequently stranded in the sleepy town, with Barbeau’s doomed DJ (perched atop her evocative lighthouse radio station), and a priest (Hal Holbrook), who is dealing with the sins of the past in an effort to save his future. “The Fog” is, above all else, a mood piece, with the titular meteorological anomaly beautifully brought to the screen in big, milky clouds that Carpenter and his cinematographer Dean Cundey light from behind for maximum scariness; the killer pirates (leprosy victims murdered by the town’s forefathers) taking on a raggedy fairy tale quality which, coupled with the fog, gives off the impression that they’ve stepped out of your nightmares and into real life. “The Fog” isn’t completely successful—the mixture of creaky ghost story spookiness, exemplified by the film’s opening, in which John Houseman literally tells a ghost story for about five minutes, with splatter movie violence, is often times uneasy. But it is still really, really scary and truly influential—French electronic duo Justice seem to have designed their whole live stage show based on the last five minutes of the movie (complete with the light-up cross), and Sony, in their infinite wisdom, decided to remake the movie in 2005 as a bloody teen horror movie starring a pair of quickly forgotten television actors and with none of the original’s wit, humor or heart.       

Escape From New York” (1981)
As explained by a robotic female voice during the opening moments of the movie, “Escape from New York” takes place in a dystopian future where, following a 400% rise in crime by the year 1988, “the once-great city of New York has become the one maximum security prison for the entire country. There are no guards inside the island; only prisoners and the worlds they have made. The rules are simple: once you go in, you don’t come out.” It’s in this sooty tomorrowland that we meet Snake Plissken, played by frequent Carpenter fave Kurt Russell, who is imprisoned for a bank robbery (a sequence ultimately cut out of the movie but serving as one of history’s more memorable deleted scenes) and tasked with retrieving the President of the United States (Dr. Loomis himself, Donald Pleasence) after Air Force One crashes on the deadly island (as part of a terrorist plot), whose urban jungle landscape has mutated into a fearsome, burnt-out wasteland, ruled by warlords like the The Duke (Isaac Hayes, his velvety voice bottomed-out into a gritty snarl). Snake’s utter indifference (he’s been injected with a tiny bomb), plus the enormity of the situation outside of New York (the entire world teeters on the brink of a global war, if a doodad the president is carrying doesn’t reach its destination), adds for an endlessly exciting adventure. Carpenter’s vision of New York City (actually a post-riot St. Louis) is certainly bleak but it’s not colorless or humor-free; there are a number of flourishes that border on the downright whimsical (things like Ernest Borgnine‘s Cabbie character and the streak of “Dr. Strangelove“-style satire). In fact, the director brought on old pal Nick Castle, who played “The Shape” in “Halloween,” to rewrite his original draft, which Carpenter found too serious and straightforward, with an eye towards making it weirder and more esoteric. Castle (and Carpenter) succeeded, tenfold. “Escape from New York” was Carpenter’s first large scale production, at least compared to his earlier films, with a budget of more than $6 million (five times what he had for “The Fog”), and his ingenuity shines through in every sequence. Unburdened by prototypical visual effects, the movie feels damningly real, with some of his sharpest, most stark widescreen cinematography, full of deep blacks and otherworldly lens flares (this kind of ethereal nighttime photography would become a Carpenter hallmark). Carpenter’s cast, too, totally shines, with Lee Van Cleef, Harry Dean Stanton, Tom Atkins, and Adrienne Barbeau putting in fine supporting performances, along with the larger roles essayed by Pleasence and Hayes. Of course it’s Russell’s Snake Plisskin, a tattooed, one-eyed, walking “fuck you,” that would serve to be a bona fide cinematic icon, the kind of delicious anti-hero adored and endlessly quoted (“I don’t give a fuck about your war“) by fans of a certain shade of low budget, high concept genre cinema. “He has no higher cause or sense of righteousness,” Carpenter would later say. When Russell and Carpenter would revisit this particular world, for 1997’s “Escape from L.A.,” the results weren’t as rewarding. While the film has a certain amount of goofball charm, it’s largely undone by cripplingly awful visual effects (including a number of primitive computer-generated effects), the lack of a cohesive backstory, and the feeling like everyone involved was striving to recapture lighting in a bottle, without noticing the bottle had already cracked. Plans for a third film, “Escape from Earth,” were quietly shuttered after the commercial and critical failure of ‘L.A.’ Still, a grizzled old Snake Plissken, finally the age of the Western heroes Russell was emulating, might be a complete and total blast. Is it too early to suggest a Kickstarter campaign?        

The Thing” (1982)
The summer of 1982 is the stuff of legend, if you’re a fan of quality big budget studio genre movies, taking on the mythical quality of the Summer of Love or The Year We Made Contact in the mind of most film fanatics. This single sunshiney season gave us “Poltergeist,” “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” “The Road Warrior,” “E.T.,” “Conan the Barbarian,” “TRON,” “Blade Runner,” and “Rocky III.” Oh, and “The Thing.” Carpenter finally intersected with his longtime hero Howard Hawks when he remade the director’s 1951 sci-fi classic “The Thing From Another World” (a movie that one of the babysitters is watching in “Halloween”) as “The Thing,” an altogether different beast that hedged closer to the original John W. Campbell short story and featured cutting-edge effects by the wizardly Rob Bottin and Stan Winston. “The Thing” once again stars Kurt Russell, this time as a helicopter pilot stationed at a desolate arctic research station who comes in contact with a deadly, shape-shifting alien who is able to duplicate human form almost perfectly. While most of the attention “The Thing” received was due to its shocking visual effects, including a sequence when a member of the team who has been replaced by “The Thing” turns into a giant monster, his head popping off his body, sprouting legs, and scuttling away, but even more overwhelming than the film’s gory monster effects was the inherent palpable sense of claustrophobia and paranoia. Brilliantly constructed, “The Thing” was Carpenter’s first big studio movie, with the director relinquishing much of the one-man-band- style control he had doggedly maintained throughout his earlier films (it was based on a script by Bill Lancaster and featured a score by Ennio Morricone) and embracing the technology and shooting schedule that the money afforded. Instead of being hailed, as it should have, as a visionary, nearly apocalyptic landmark, it was met with a hostile response from both audiences and critics, who took the film to task for its excessive, overtly grotesque special effects. Critic David Ansen famously wrote in Newsweek (in a review called “Frozen Slime”) that, “John Carpenter blows it.” Even genre critics, who you’d think would be sympathetic, were withering, with sci-fi magazine Starlog taking the director to task and suggesting he’d be better off directing automobile accidents than movies. Russell seemed to acknowledge early on that “people aren’t going to appreciate this for 20 years,” due to the movie’s effects, but the reaction to the movie seemed to deeply affect Carpenter, even though the movie’s failure to connect with audiences had less to do with Carpenter’s pitch black worldview and more with the cinematic climate: audiences were loving the feel-good fuzziness of “E.T.;” they weren’t interested in a dread-filled character piece with an alien this horrifyingly violent (Carpenter reacted by making a sweetly nuanced riff on “E.T.,” “Starman“). Thankfully, “The Thing” has gone on to become a major cult film, accepted by the cultural mainstream as a true achievement in the genre: an artful, scary-as-hell meditation on man’s inherent loneliness and the dark corners of the human psyche, dramatized by Carpenter’s note-perfect direction that favored characterization expressed by action rather than dialogue and cluttered, comic book-style framing.

Big Trouble in Little China” (1986)
“Who is Jack Burton?” crowed the ads for “Big Trouble In Little China,” mistakenly selling this rare Carpenter blockbuster, produced for major studio 20th Century Fox, as a heroic star vehicle for the forever-underestimated Kurt Russell. The truth was, not a single person within the narrative cares about this white interloper, a commentary on the genre that might have been a generation too early. The story follows an ages-old conflict between warring factions of superpowered Chinese warriors utilizing magic (the darkest kind!) to hold dominion over the planet, thanks to the exoticism of two green-eyed girls (just go with it). Into this mess walks urban cowboy Burton, a truck driver who crashes this mystical Eastern throwdown like John Wayne mistakenly falling ass-backwards into “The Chinese Connection” and attempting to tough-guy his way out. Burton is clever and eager enough to assist the good guys, entering their territory in disguise, or freeing captured prisoners. But he’s also pigheaded enough to accidentally knock himself out as the climactic battle rages on around him, before getting pinned underneath increasingly heavy objects. ‘Big Trouble’ might be Carpenter at his campiest, funniest best, a hodgepodge of genre ideas that still somehow feels as fresh today as it was when it first flopped in the eighties. Much of that comes from Carpenter’s frequent collaborator Russell, who could always be trusted to be loose, charismatic, and dangerous in their joint ventures and who here showcases an affable vulnerability even when he’s attempting to be the hero. With Burton’s smarmy sarcasm and bloated sense of self-worth, Russell’s mixture of alpha male aggression and almost absurd boobery lets the film get away with its increasingly-outlandish storyline and its artful visual effects, composed via optical effects and make up augmentation, has aged gracefully over the years.

They Live” (1988)
Only John Carpenter could turn a movie whose plot goofily hinges on a pair of magical sunglasses (that expose the alien menace lying just beneath the surface of everyday life, in black-and-white for some reason) into a stone cold classic, one whose imagery has been appropriated by both Barack Obama‘s 2008 presidential campaign and American skateboard culture and deemed worthy of both an entire book-length dissection by acclaimed novelist Jonathan Lethem as well as a shot-for-shot remake on acclaimed animated television series “South Park.” Weirdly, it seems that “They Live,” a low budget B-movie takedown of Reagan-era politics starring a non-professional actor (wrestler “RowdyRoddy Piper) and pleasurably lo-fi visuals straight out of a fifties sci-fi movie, would go on to become Carpenter’s second most influential movie of his career after “Halloween.” Part of what makes “They Live” so much fun is how on-the-nose it is; it’s rare to see a movie of Carpenter’s this uninterested in nuance. And it’s kind of liberating. There is nothing subtle about “They Live,” from the evil alien menace being a stand in for the Republican party, to the epic fight sequence between Piper and “The Thing” alum Keith David that seems to go on forever, to the surprisingly effective lead performance by Piper (who fits perfectly into the Carpenter “fuck you” hero mold and ad-libbed immortal lines like “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and I’m all out of bubblegum”), to the ghoulish design of the aliens, who are straight out of a Saturday matinee shocker. One of the great moments on the recent “They Live” Blu-ray, also produced by Shout Factory, is when an interviewer asks Carpenter if there was every any consideration given to cutting down the seemingly endless fight sequence between David and Piper. Carpenter’s face curls into a snarl and he says, with mock incredulity, “Fuck no.” The sequence in the film when Piper puts on the sunglasses and the “real” world is revealed—”composed with the serene assurance of Hitchcock or Kubrick” according to Lethem—is the source of much of the film’s influential power. The black-and-white signage that says “OBEY” was appropriated first by street artist Shepard Fairey for his own campaign and later for Obama’s initial presidential run; replicas of the sunglasses (embossed with the film’s memorable logo) are sold on fashion websites; and a lone man, awash in a sea of bullshit, has become a striking metaphor for being halfway aware of what was happening while Reagan pushed his dangerous economic and social agendas. On that same Blu-ray interview, Carpenter said, “I would like to point out that I think that the eighties have never ended. They’re still with us today. We’ve never repudiated this Reganomics idea. They’re still here. And they’re still among us.” In other words: they live.    

There are a number of notable Carpenter movies that narrowly missed the cut, among them his TV movie with Russell, “Elvis,” which seems as ambitious and arty today as it was in 1979; Carpenter’s lone Stephen King adaptation “Christine” (1983) alters many of the specifics from the novel, anthropomorphizing the villainous car, while maintaining its charming coming-of-age tone (it’s also one of Carpenter’s most elegantly shot movies, which is saying something); and “Starman” (1984) is the director’s most emotionally affecting movie, anchored by a pair of brilliant, heartbreaking performances by Jeff Bridges (who was nominated for an Oscar for the part) and Karen Allen. “Starman” shows you how Carpenter is capable of making you cry just as easily as he can make you scream. Also of note are his two episodes of the Showtime series “Masters of Horror,” “Cigarette Burns” and (particularly) “Pro-Life.” These late career highlights showcased that Carpenter is still very much in tune with what’s funny and spooky and is capable of work just as good as some of his older stuff. Those episodes were scary good. with Gabe Toro

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Ryan Gowland

Nice work, Dave and Gabe. I love Carpenter and completely agree with your list. I think the female voice in "Escape" is actually Curtis, by the way, and there is a great blog piece about "The Thing" that details how Carpenter was able to make the changes he wanted due to a break in filming and seeing an early cut. After that, he reshot tons of footage, altering the deaths of Bennings and Fuchs and changing the movie into the classic it is today.


I completely agree with this list. Thanks for writing such an excellent piece on his best films. :)


Hopefully PRINCE OF DARKNESS will be revisited as one of Carpenter's most intriguing efforts after the Scream Factory release hits this September. It may not be his "best" film — it's hampered greatly by a reduced budget — but it showcases his admiration for Lovecraft/E.C. Comics/Hammer flicks in the most stylized, gleefully bizarre package. Also, Donald Pleasance screaming about faith while Egg Shen from BIG TROUBLE screams about science is a total delight.

DARKNESS, while fitting snugly between THE THING & IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS in Carpenter's "Apocalypse Trilogy," works as part of a killer '80s Lovecraft triple feature with Tobe Hooper's LIFEFORCE & Stuart Gordon's FROM BEYOND.


Great list. Saw "Dark Star" recently. Not his best, but I'm glad it got mentioned.


Good list — I bet it was a "pain" to choose only 7 titles.

cory everett

I'd probably swap "The Fog" for "In The Mouth Of Madness" but otherwise agree.

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