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by Sean Axmaker
October 22, 2013 11:54 AM
23 Comments
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Why John Carpenter Is the Most Underrated Filmmaker Of Our Time

About a decade ago while I was attending the Vancouver International Film Festival, I ended the screening day over beers with a small group of critics. By the end of the evening, we came around to proclaiming John Carpenter the most underrated American filmmaker of our time. Here's a filmmaker who has made only one feature in the past decade, the low-budget "The Ward," yet his legacy is getting more respect than ever -- at least on home video. In 2013 alone, he's had six films debut on Blu-ray and one remastered in a gorgeous new edition, reason enough to revisit his legacy.

"Assault on Precinct 13" (Shout Factory, due November 19), Carpenter's first feature out of film school, is a siege thriller inspired by "Rio Bravo" that plays out like "Night of the Living Dead" (which Carpenter readily acknowledges in the disc supplements). He's very much the film aficionado sharing his love -- he's more at home referencing other movies than striking out into his own cinematic world -- but he brings a sturdy professionalism to the budget-starved production and an impressive storytelling intelligence to the script and direction (where actions speak louder than quips). And for all the exposition of the attack motivation, he turns his marauding street gang into an almost inexplicable force of single-minded purpose.

"Halloween."

All that potential blooms in "Halloween" (Anchor Bay). Working with writer-producer Debra Hill (who brings a playful authenticity to the girl talk interludes) and cinematographer Dean Cundey (who masters the darkness in the wide Panavision frame), Carpenter transforms an exploitation premise cooked up by the producer (masked killer on Halloween night) into an astonishingly accomplished horror film. Where other horror directors try to scare us with what lays just outside the frame, waiting to break in, Carpenter's horror emerges from within. The Golem-like Michael appears from the shadows like a ghost, the only defiance of natural law in a world that otherwise follows the rules, and Carpenter offers no explanation other than he's the bogeyman. It’s been on Blu-ray before, but this "35th Anniversary Edition" features a beautiful new HD transfer supervised by Cundey that embraces the muted autumnal colors (created out of springtime in suburban L.A.) and the details picked out of the shadows by Cundey's superb lighting and photography. There's also a reunion commentary track with Carpenter and star Jamie Lee Curtis talking over old times.

Where "Halloween" is schoolboy urban legend come to life, "The Fog" (Shout Factory) is a campfire tale. Carpenter and Debra Hill wanted to make an old-fashioned ghost story and Carpenter was eager to explore a larger canvas, incorporating more characters and storylines, crosscutting and weaving story arcs. At its best it is gorgeous; the fog takes over the screen like a creature in its own right and Cundey fills the Panavision frame with shadows and empty spaces "where evil can inhabit" (as he describes in a worthwhile accompanying video interview). At its worst, it's a soggy spook show with dialogue marking time between money shots, and some of the reasons can be found in the disc extras. Carpenter and Hill's commentary (carried over from the DVD) explains how they scrapped their original premise, an eerie mood piece with the fog as the killer, after a disastrous preview and shot new scenes with ghost pirates emerging from the mist.

After "graduating" to bigger productions and studio compromises, Carpenter returned to low-budget filmmaking in 1987 with "Prince of Darkness" (Shout Factory). Part siege thriller (a la "Precinct 13") and part metaphysical horror, the mix of quantum physics and Christian mythology pays tribute to British sci-fi scenarist Nigel Kneale, but the sensibility is all Carpenter. His images (otherworldly phenomenon created from clever, simple special effects) are unsettling and his ideas even more unnerving and, in an era where demons and devils were familiar horror movie threats, subversive. He never shies away from the toll it takes on characters trying to grapple with the power and the potential of such knowledge. Carpenter has a compassion for his characters that too many of his genre contemporaries lack.

In all of these films, Carpenter displays a classical sensibility missing from genre films then and now. His direction is clean and images designed with a clarity of narrative, always aware of the space within the frame and the geography outside of it. Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper made their bones by transgressing boundaries with a visceral bluntness that shatters any notion of normalcy, and the cascade of slasher films in the wake of "Halloween"'s wild success brought that bluntness to its lowest common denominator. Carpenter unleashes evil in the film universe much more insidiously. In film after film, it's not about what's outside trying to break in, but what's already inside, just waiting to emerge from within.

Head to the next page for a complete list of all Carpenter films on DVD and digital platforms.

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23 Comments

  • Brian W. Fairbanks | October 26, 2013 2:03 PMReply

    What I want to know is why has he only made one feature in the past decade?

  • Matt | October 24, 2013 8:44 AMReply

    How does one write an article about John Carpenter and not mention "The Thing"? Easily one of the greatest horror movies of all time.

  • Dean Treadway | October 23, 2013 5:50 PMReply

    He's great, for sure...but he hasn't really been working at the top of his game since THEY LIVE, and that was two decades ago. The article doesn't go very far in trying to convince us. And it displays a certain lack of knowledge of world cinema, or we'd be including in the discussion Mike Leigh, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, or about 30 other filmmakers who don't have huge cults swirling around them.

  • Gavin | October 23, 2013 5:23 PMReply

    I read that Carpenter was offered directing duties on Zombieland (2007). The Zombieland we got was pretty damn great, but I would have loved if Carpenter directed it, I think it would have been even better. You can see why in Big Trouble in Little China.

  • Gavin | October 23, 2013 5:21 PMReply

    Halloween is easily the great horror film of all time. The Thing is up there too. Fog is criminally underrated.

  • Colton | October 23, 2013 5:07 PMReply

    Maybe in the sense that he's not dead, I guess.

  • Colton | October 23, 2013 5:07 PMReply

    I love Carpenter, but I don't think he's of our time. He hasn't made a popular film since 1996...

  • Tom | October 23, 2013 11:34 AMReply

    Almost every movie of his upon release was derided by critics and most of the films failed at the Box Office.
    Halloween and The Thing were crucified.

  • Davide | October 23, 2013 10:39 AMReply

    I like Carpenter, but how exactly is he an underrated filmmaker?

  • John | October 23, 2013 10:02 AMReply

    I ve shown HALLOWEEN to a bunch of young students a few months ago.
    They were mesmerized by it,the object,the music.enjoyed it 10 times more than an actual film.

    They ended saying "amazing,but it's so cliché,so much classic effects and scenes;like seen and reseen in any horror /slasher movie'.

    They don't realize ALL the movies they've seen last 35 years where INSPIRED by HALLOWEEN.

  • Steven Millan | October 23, 2013 5:42 AMReply

    ...those two MASTERS OF HORROR episodes(it should have read)

  • Steven Millan | October 23, 2013 5:40 AMReply

    John Carpenter is an underrated filmmaker ?!?! (Rolls Eyes) John Carpenter is actually one of the most widely acclaimed modern filmmakers ever that's been behind classics such as THE THING,THEY LIVE,THE FOG,and ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK(and--yeah--HALLOWEEN),for just because he hasn't been productively active in the last 12 years(with only GHOSTS OF MARS,THE WARD,and those two MASTERS OF HORROR being his only film projects throughout that time period) doesn't make him underrated at all.

  • Ekkard Baeuerle | October 23, 2013 1:44 AMReply

    John Carpenter is one of the rare directors with a very personal style: An american style that seems to be honored more cheerfully overseas than by his own countrymen. He is a master of suspence and horror in its classic essential meaning... Carpenter is the founding father of popular slasher movies (Halloween) and maybe even gore movies (The Thing). He has always had a fascination with the western genre. You still can find this obsession in almost every one of his works. To me Carpenter is and always will be an american icon. Best wishes from Germany!
    War Movies: http://kriegsfilm.wordpress.com/

  • John | October 22, 2013 9:16 PMReply

    You forgot "Dark Star" - his student film. A very funny film that was way ahead of its time.

  • parsyeb | October 22, 2013 9:02 PMReply

    Give me a break. Carpenter hasn't made a vital film since Madness (which was over twenty years ago). His best thing since then was a 50 minute tv episode for Showtime.

    Set him against Abel Ferrara, who started making films around the same time. Abel gets better with every film and doesn't get half of them distributed. That sounds more like underrated to me.

  • Rogério Barbosa | October 22, 2013 5:36 PMReply

    John Carpenter was, is and always will be my favorite movie director. I absolutely love movies sind childhood and Carpenter was always special. I love other movies and other directors, but, like so many sports, Carpenter is my team of heart. Who else could create such an amazing film like Escape From New York ? - My Carpenter favorite.
    Many say that if he had more money to make his movies, he would be better than he is.
    He hadn´t and he´s the best, or for some, among the best. I guess that says everything

  • Wayward Visions | October 22, 2013 4:35 PMReply

    I'm so glad that Carpenter is finally getting the critical reevaluation he deserves. HALLOWEEN is clearly a classic, but THE FOG doesn't get the credit it deserves as an upending of American ghost stories, while THE THING and THEY LIVE are awesome science fiction, and PRINCE OF DARKNESS and IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS are under-appreciated horror gems.

    The only thing I would add is the political component to Carpenter's work, because his films almost all contain some level of ideology behind what they're doing. THE FOG is partially awesome because it pulls back the curtain on the notion of American exceptionalism, positing that you can never be truly great if you're founded on lies until there's a form of reparation or restitution; and THEY LIVE is excellent in the way it argues that all advertising and entertainment are forms of coercion, even reflecting the film's gaze back on its own audience in the way Carpenter has characters address others as audience surrogates.

  • Sean Axmaker | October 22, 2013 2:50 PMReply

    I would have loved to have gotten into "They Live" (which Shout Factory released in a terrific special edition last year) and "In the Mouth of Madness" (pretty bare-bones Blu-ray from Warner with week), but just didn't have the space. Along with "Prince of Darkness," they offer a most ingenious portrait of a nightmare reality hidden by myths and stories.

  • David Wilke | October 22, 2013 2:18 PMReply

    John Carpenter always has been and always will be my favorite director. Halloween is the first movie I remember seeing. I own his entire catalogue and consider his only weak movie to be Memoirs of an Invisible Man. Thank You John Carpenter for every scene you have ever given us and hope to see many more.

  • A.J. MacReady | October 22, 2013 5:39 PM

    Everything this good gentleman said = truth. (not a huge fan of Village either but there's more good stuff in that than any "failure" I can think of)

  • Visitor Q | October 22, 2013 1:34 PMReply

    Duddi is right, all of those are incredible movies. THE THING and HALLOWEEN put in him the list of great directors. Throw in ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and THEY LIVE for some extra fun.

    His two episodes from MASTERS OF HORROR are incredible as well, especially CIGARETTE BURNS, which might be the best episode of the short series.

  • DUDDI | October 22, 2013 1:01 PMReply

    You should, Chad !!! The man has brought us some of the finest movies of 80's... He has resurrected thriller-genre with Assault on Precinct 13... He has given the horror genre two great movies such as THE THING & HALLOWEEN and he has also delivered two of the best kick-ass movies like BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA & ESCAPE FROM L.A.... Now what more do you want ? ;-) ( I strongly recommend IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS & STARMAN)

  • Chad | October 22, 2013 12:33 PMReply

    I'm not convinced.