Welcome to Psycho Drive-In’s 31 Days of Schlocktober celebration! This year we’ve decided to present the ABCs of Horror, with entries every day this month providing Director information, Best-of lists, Genre overviews, and Reviews of films and franchises, all in alphabetical order! Today brings us C is for Carpenter! John Carpenter is my other favourite director — my other other favourite is Hayao Miyazaki but he’s not known for his horror films — but even as a fan I have to admit that some of his films have been somewhat less than good; indeed, some of them have been somewhat worse than terrible. Some time around the end of the 80’s and the beginning of the 90’s something strange and unusual happened and John Carpenter lost whatever made him a great director; by the late 90’s it seemed as if he’d lost whatever made him a competent director. That’s why you won’t see much discussion of his later films here. I’d rather focus on Carpenter’s strengths, the films that made him my other favourite director in the first place. That said, some of those wonderful films won’t make it into the list because as much as I love it I can’t argue that Big Trouble in Little China is a horror movie. Anyway. These are my top John Carpenter horror films. The Night HE Came Home! I am sort of doing these in chronological order but it’s a happy coincidence that the first film in the list is also my favourite. I don’t mean my favourite John Carpenter film — although it is that — but perhaps my favourite film ever. Except for My Neighbour Totoro. I’ve gone off piste again, haven’t I? What’s funny to me now is that I didn’t see Halloween for the first time until 1995 or so; I’d seen some of Carpenter’s other films — the aforementioned Big Trouble in Little China was in frequent rotation among my friends — but I had a teenage horror phase — it’s still going — during which I tracked down and watched as many horror films as I could — how many normal people have seen The Asphyx? — and one of those taped-from-late-night-BBC2 films was Carpenter’s 1978 slasher classic. I remember to this day watching Halloween and a switch being flipped in my head and knowing I would never see a better film. I have been in love with it ever since. When we get to “H” in a few days I will go into much more detail about this beautiful film but for now let’s say that if you only watch one John Carpenter movie, make it Halloween. Hey Sweden! Throughout Halloween we see snippets of Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another World being shown on television. I like to think that this was foreshadowing and that Carpenter knew all along that one day he would be directing one of the few good movie remakes. I cannot believe that anyone reading Psycho Drive-In has not seen — or at least heard of — The Thing, so huge and important it seems now. It has amazing special effects from Rob Bottin — with a little help from Stan Winston — excellent performances, and a palpable sense of isolation and paranoia. Carpenter has often spoken about creative struggles with his films but The Thing — like Halloween and Assault on Precinct 13 — shows him in full control and getting everything spot on. It is a near perfect film and stands up much better than Spielberg’s Space Jesus — which trampled it at the box office — does today. Everyone has a favourite — or most memorable — scene in The Thing and one sign of its quality is that there are so many from which to choose. For me it’s when the alien first changes on screen and all the dogs start going nuts and try to bite their way out of their cage and then it starts spraying them with its weird alien juices. It eats and assimilates its way through the human cast in ever more graphic and brutal ways from then on but it’s those poor, panicked animals that disturb me the most. Shudder. Say “Goodbye” to Classical Reality There’s a strange bit in Assault On Precinct 13 in which the gang members conduct some sort of blood ritual; it’s odd because it’s not developed further and nothing of significance comes of it but it’s also effective for the same reasons. What is the gang doing with that bowl of blood? Why are they so quiet? Why are they being so weird? The film doesn’t answer those questions and that invites speculation, just as some of Michael Myers’ eerie non-hostile behaviour in Halloween does; there is a sense of the unknowable, perhaps even supernatural, lurking just beyond our perception. 1987’s Prince Of Darkness also features a disused public building under siege by odd, creepy vagrants although this time the supernatural elements are overt; perhaps that’s why the later film doesn’t work as well as its predecessor but even so it remains interesting. Interesting, but not good, as such; Carpenter’s slide begins around here as he attempts to merge religious superstition and theoretical science in a sort of homage to the Quatermass stories and ends up with a bit of a jumble. It’s also one of those films where the supporting cast — Donald Pleasance! Victor Wong! — outshine a forgettable lead — some bloke! — thus robbing the narrative of some of its drama. The Pacific Rim effect, I call it. All that said, Prince of Darkness has stuck with me for years and has made it on to this list despite its many flaws and that’s because it has heaps of atmosphere. Somehow, against all the odds, Carpenter manages to make a film in which Donald Pleasance and Victor Wong — and some bloke — are stuffed into a cellar and shout at a vat of green jelly for an hour and a half and still manages to make it feel creepy and strange and wrong. There’s an apocalyptic bleakness to the film that punches through the silliness and the cheapness and the confused script — just as the film’s video messages punch their way through time from the future — and makes it much more memorable than it has any right to be. This Is a Rotten Way to End It Around the same time that I went mad for horror films I was also introduced to the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game and I fell in love with that too; I started devouring as much of HP Lovecraft’s fiction as I could in order to use it as inspiration for my games and when I ran out of original texts I started to look at pastiches, homages, and adaptations, only to find that almost all of them — the film adaptations in particular — were terrible. I do think that a film adaptation of Lovecraft’s work that is both faithful and good is possible — and there have been some strong attempts; ask me in the comments — but until that comes along we have Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness. It’s not a direct adaptation of any of Lovecraft’s stories but the inspirations are clear; perhaps too clear as the film becomes a bit of a hunt for eldritch Easter eggs at times, although there is fun to be had in that if one knows one’s Pickmans from one’s Whateleys. Like Prince of Darkness it is a bit of a mess but in this case the relative incoherence seems to be deliberate, or at least plays into the film’s themes of, er, madness. The bleakness that seems to flow through so many of Carpenter’s films is in full force here but by the end of the film, when all is lost — er, SPOILER — it’s almost uplifting; in The Call of Cthulhu, Lovecraft writes of humanity’s end: “The time would be easy to know, for then mankind would have become as the Great Old Ones; free and wild and beyond good and evil, with laws and morals thrown aside and all men shouting and killing and revelling in joy.” In the Mouth of Madness gives us a glimpse of this future and delivers — er, SPOILER, again — something of a happy ending. Twisted, oh yes, and dark, but happy nonetheless. In the Mouth of Madness is a bonkers film — and it is perhaps a bad one — but it is also great fun and I love it. You Gotta Be Fucking Kidding I left some of Carpenter’s horror films out. Some I left out because they’re awful, everyone knows they’re awful, and we need not speak of them, but what of the others? Why didn’t I pick The Fog? In truth, I haven’t seen it in years but I remember not liking it much and thinking the ending was all wrong; perhaps I should give it another try, but Carpenter himself says it’s a bit of a failure, so maybe not. What about They Live? It’s a great film and I could talk about how prescient and clever it is, how Carpenter didn’t create the lead role for Kurt Russell but it’s clear that it’s supposed to be him, and how the ending is a bit naff, but I’m not sure it’s a horror film as such. Ask me again next week and I’d probably count it but it’ll be too late by then. Vampires? From Dusk Till Dawn and Near Dark are both better entries in the bloodsuckers and dustbowls sub-genre. Sorry. Vampires is an unimaginative Dracula pastiche that relies on the viewer falling for that James-Woods-is-America’s-greatest-living-actor thing film buffs were chucking about in the late 90’s. Cigarette Burns, that was good wasn’t it? No, no it wasn’t. It’s got a better reputation than it deserves because it’s nowhere near as bad as Escape from LA or Ghosts of Mars — it still hurts to type that title — and people were relieved. And The Ward? Not bad at all. A solid three stars I’d say but there’s not a hint of Carpenter DNA in there. I was pleased that he’d remembered how to make a decent film but he hasn’t yet remembered how to make a decent John Carpenter film. Will it come back to him? I hope so but even if it doesn’t — he seems to be in semi-retirement nowadays — John Carpenter has given us some biting science fiction satires, a couple of superb action films, and at least two of the best horror films ever made — one of which defined a sub-genre — and it seems churlish to demand more from him, although a man would have to be some kind of fool to say no to one last Kurt Russell collaboration. See larger image Halloween: The Complete Collection (Limited Deluxe Edition) [Blu-ray] New From: $279.95 USD In Stock Share this:TweetShare on TumblrLike this:Like Loading... Related 2 Responses Tak Hallus October 4, 2014 Thank you for a fine article! The Thing is possibly the best movie ever made. I quite enjoyed Escape from L.A. I felt I got the joke… perhaps it’s because I’m well acquainted with that awful city. Speaking of Miyazaki, have you watched Future Boy Conan? Log in to Reply Kelvin Green October 4, 2014 Thank you for reading! I have never been to LA so perhaps the joke is wasted on me! I’ve not seen Future Boy Conan as it’s somewhat difficult to get here. One day! Log in to Reply Leave a Reply Cancel ReplyYou must be logged in to post a comment.