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.
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.