Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Top 5 Movie Guide: John Carpenter

For this edition of the Top 5 Movie Guide, we take a look at some of our favorite films from director John Carpenter. Carpenter does not have a new film coming out this week (or this year, for that matter), so here's how we got to this selection: by chance we noticed that today is Roddy Piper's birthday. In the film world, Piper is most known for his performance in "They Live". And since Piper has done very little notable film work outside of that film, we thought we'd take a look at the other films its director, John Carpenter, has created over the years. It's a slightly different angle, but it was hard to pass up the chance of profiling one of the great sci-fi/horror directors around.


Carpenter was born in Carthage, New York, but moved to Bowling Green, Kentucky when his father became head of the music department at Western Kentucky University. He started making short films when he was only 14-years-old, and continued throughout college. He first attended Western Kentucky University, and later went on to study at USC's prestigious film school. While there, he wrote the short "The Resurrection of Broncho Billy" (1970). The film went on to win an Oscar for Best Live-Action Short.

Known as "The Master of Horror", John Carpenter is most notably remembered for many of his horror and sci-fi features, including early productions such as "Halloween" (1978), "The Fog" (1980), and "The Thing" (1982). He is credited for the invention of the "jump scare", something that is a horror cliche now, but was a powerful form of suspense originally. Carpenter achieved this by mixing intense musical cues with characters or objects moving quickly into frame, eliciting a shock reaction from audience members. And speaking of music, Carpenter also composes most of the scores in his own movies, using powerful yet simplistic synthesizer tones.

He has turned down directing a handful of notable projects over the years, including "Top Gun", "Fatal Attraction", and even "Zombieland". All of these would have surely helped with his popularity, but none really feel like Carpenter films. Knowing his preferred style, it doesn't feel like too much of a miss that he passed on any of them, unless they led to more opportunities to make what he actually wanted, of course.

Either way, John Carpenter has still provided a wide variety of films over the years, spanning multiple decades and genres. After the jump, check out which films made each of our lists!


Alex Schopp -
John Carpenter is one of my favorite directors. He's one of the few for which I've made efforts to familiarize myself with their entire filmography. I'm still two short on Carpenter, I think, but that should still give me a pretty good base to compose this list from.

     1. Halloween (1978)

This one is an easy choice for me. In my opinion, this is a near perfect horror film. I love the atmosphere so much, and even all these years later, it's still incredibly tense. With as little actual violence in the film, it's amazing that a slasher like this can still be as effective as it is. A lot of the credit surely has to go to the iconic musical score, which Carpenter also composed.
     2. The Thing (1982)
For a long time I felt like this film was under-appreciated. And while it very well still may be, I feel like I've detailed it a lot in these posts over recent(ish) months. Still, great atmosphere again, and as always needs mentioning, the practical effects in this film are second to none. You'll be hard pressed to find a better monster/alien movie than this.
     3. Escape from L.A. (1996)
I know most people will prefer the first film from this series, "Escape from New York", but for me, Kurt Russell's Snake Plissken is at his best in this film. I believe this is one of the greatest movie characters of all time, and I can't imagine it being anyone but Kurt Russell. This movie is incredibly cheesy, but it's the lovable type that you can't help but enjoy.
     4. Vampires (1998)
This movie hasn't aged as well as I'd like, but it's probably my most nostalgic selection on this list. I love the western vampire setting (we've seen it before and will see it again), and this might be some of the coolest work that James Woods has ever done.
     5. Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
So many films that I wanted to put in this spot, but we're bringing Kurt Russell back for round three. While Russell never falters in his more serious roles, a la "The Thing", the mix of comedy and action in this film may be the perfect venue for his personality. With a great mullet and plenty of cheesy exchanges, this "hero" enters a world that he has no business being in, making for some great movie moments. This is just fun action/comedy at its best.

Ben Foutch -
I was lucky enough to have developed an intense nostalgia towards a good majority of his films. The only problem is that there can't be more than five on this list! I sincerely hope the ones that didn't make the cut will show up on the other lists.

     1. The Thing (1982)

This is pretty much a perfect horror film. From the brooding pace, sense of paranoia, and unforgettable practical effects work, this is at the top of many Carpenter lists for good reason. It just rocks. My only gripe doesn't even have to do the the movie, but the original promotional art - LAME.
     2. In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
H.P. Lovecraft fans will surely find this twisted and surreal trip down the rabbit hole dementedly delightful. The narrative is a little confusing, which deters many, but is effective in bringing us down to the same perspective of the main character. It seems like a standard horror film on the surface (which is sort of the point), but if you dig deep enough, you'll surely be rewarded.
     3. Halloween (1978)
One of the best slasher films of all time and it boasts a lack of blood, contrary to what the genre began to flaunt, yet is still suspenseful and terrifying in equal measure. Plus, I challenge modern horror directors to get their priorities in order, and take the time to make as memorable of a music score as this one.
     4. Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
This is just good ole action/comedy fun. Visually inspired and genre defying, it never seems to take itself too seriously. Plus, taking the usual leading man/anti-hero (Kurt Russell) and making him the bumbling sidekick thrust into a world he doesn't understand allows for some equally tense and comedic moments, and is a nice change of pace.
     5. Prince of Darkness (1987)
A very personal film by Carpenter, and one that is equally as frustrating due to a severely sluggish pace. That being said, it's one of the most tense/moody films I've ever seen, and the science-meets-religion theme elevates what could have been a standard zombie/slasher setup into something more thought provoking. For those curious about Italian horror (at least from a 70's/80's perspective), but can't quite commit, this definitely captures some similar qualities.

Derek Clem -

     1. Escape from New York (1981)

The gritty dark tone always has me revisiting this movie. They don't make them like this anymore.
     2. They Live (1988)
Found this out last year: I'm watching this one day and my stepdad walks in the room. He asks "what are you watching?" I respond, "They Live! Ever seen it? It's great! Rowdy Roddy Piper's in it!" He replies, "Yeah, I'm in it." He had raised me since I was 7 years old, and only last year did I find that information out. The fight scene in this movie is of legend and it's hysterically quotable; you're in for a treat with this one.
     3. Escape from L.A. (1996)
I always loved that surfing seen. Nowadays it looks pretty bad. Plus I think everyone will find those plastic surgery addicts pretty interesting to look at. I know I did. Bruce Campbell anyone?
     4. Halloween (1978)
Not only did Carpenter direct this classic but he also composed the music. One of the most recognizable scores in cinema history and we have Carpenter to thank for that. I love it!
     5. Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
I think Kurt Russell's channeling of John Wayne alone is enough of a reason to watch this movie.

Nathan Hinds -
I've only seen seven of John Carpenter's films, but I've never been really impressed with them; they're very standard from what I've seen so far... That being said, there are still a couple others I'd like to give a chance down the road.

     1. The Thing (1982)

The film's good use of practical effects and a good performance by Kurt Russell make this the only John Carpenter film I really enjoy from start to finish.
     2. The Ward (2011)
I mentioned that "The Thing" was the only film that I liked from start to finish. Well this film had me interested for about the first hour or so but the ending was pretty standard. Still, if you want to pick a movie from 2011 that involves a bunch of girls in an institution, this is a far better option than the abysmal "Sucker Punch".
     3. Halloween (1978)
This is a film that I respect, but simply don't enjoy that much. The music is chilling, but I've never been that into slasher films. If you're into the genre though, this is one of the better ones.
     4. The Fog (1980)
Again I use the word standard. There's nothing to really rip this film for, but there's nothing that I think it does great either.
     5. Escape from New York (1981)
I'm not wild about this film as a whole, but it's not as bad as "Escape from LA". I will say the part with the "Crazies" is pretty good. I like the idea of this film, and wouldn't mind seeing it redone, I just don't care for Carpenter's style I guess.

Tracy Allison -

     1. Escape from New York (1981)

I love so many things about this movie. Amazing dystopian tone, with a badass anti-hero named Snake. How great that it was set in the future, but it's now our past (1997). This was my introduction to John Carpenter and his work with Kurt Russell. If you weren't in love with Kurt Russell before, you will be after this movie.
     2. Escape from L.A. (1996)
Russell reprises his role as Snake Plissken in this later sequel. I like the change of scenery to the West coast. And this movie, building on the legacy of the first, has a million great side characters just like the first movie. One of them is A.J. Langer and she joined this project having come off her stint in the popular, yet short-lived teen angst show, My So-Called Life. She was a style icon to young girls in the 90's and it was satisfying to see her in a role like this with her unusual style intact.
     3. They Live (1988)
I think it’s safe to say that John Carpenter likes to present the viewer with a world or situation that isn't as it seems, or involves some aspects of dystopia. This film has an interesting concept and serves as an allegory to the effect that advertising and subliminal messaging can have. This movie reminded me of Don DeLillo's White Noise in that way, but this movie wrapped it up in a sci-fi, cheesy effects package that still manages to be fun in spite of its somewhat serious message.
     4. The Thing (1982)
If you take a group of people, isolate them, put them around each other for months, and unleash a weird alien “thing”, you've got an eerie romp of a film. The visuals and effects in this movie make me a little squeamish, but I actually like that about it. These are early eighties effects which are my favorite effects, more stress was put on craftsmanship rather than cheesy computer images that went out of style so quickly.
     5. Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
Honestly, this movie gets a little too silly for me at times, but it’s fun nonetheless. If you like weird, cheesy 80's movies, this could be right up your alley. But, if you didn't watch it when you were young, this might just be one that you missed the boat on.

There we have it, folks. An interesting assortment this week, especially as we're detailing the films from a director and not an actor. Overall eleven different films appeared above, which is a hefty number when you consider it's eleven different directorial efforts that this group selected as one of his best. Even though some of the sentiments towards this particular director aren't very high, not many directors would land eleven of their films on a list like this.

There were six films that received multiple picks this week, though no film appeared on all five lists. That being said, there were three different films that were on four different lists: "The Thing", "Halloween", and "Big Trouble in Little China". Three different genres there, and the first two films listed are known as some of the very best from their respective genres. None of these films are probably as all-encompassing as many of the most-repeated films that appear on these lists, but there's no doubt that movie fans should find plenty of value in each of these.

Both of the Escape films, "Escape from New York" and "Escape from L.A.", earned three picks this week, and that also brings Kurt Russell's presence in this post up six more films (overall, he appeared in 15 of the 25 films above). Both of these movies have their highs and lows, but Russell's performance as the anti-hero, Snake Plissken, is one of the more memorable characters from any John Carpenter movie.

Rounding out the group, it was "They Live", which appeared on two lists. This has Carpenter's signature twist and cheesiness, but it's still a fun action film that manages to say a good deal about society and government. If you can appreciate the style, you'll enjoy this one plenty.

As always, we hope that each of these selections helps you to expand your knowledge and appreciation of some of the best films that John Carpenter has provided over the years, and guides you to better and more enjoyable all-around viewing experiences.

Happy watching!