Rating: The Good – 78.6 Genre: Action Duration: 91 mins Director: John Carpenter Stars: Austin Stoker, Darwin Joston, Laurie Zimmer
John Carpenter’s second outing as director is a tour de force in atmosphere generation as he gives the story of a recently decommissioned police station which is under siege by a marauding gang an almost apocalyptic tone. By not giving the gang members any lines and by focusing the action on the co-operating occupants of the police station (prisoners and police alike), Carpenter quite ingeniously imbued the former with a zombie-like quality which makes them all the scarier. This Carpenter film more than any other reveals the great director’s influences from Hawk’s Rio Bravo to Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and the good news is that Assault on Precinct 13 is easily worthy of being mentioned alongside these two classics.
There are no big names on show just some solid acting talent whose quirky and fleshed out performances are as important to the movie’s success as anything else. Austin Stoker makes for an enjoyable lead as the officer in charge of the deserted precinct and Laurie Zimmer scores well as the tough female lead typical to other Carpenter films. As good as they are, however, everyone takes a back seat to Darwin Joston’s Napoleon Wilson who eats up Carpenter’s bad-ass dialogue and spits it in the face of authority with a care-free smile. He more than anyone else embodies the hypnotic grittiness of the movie as he presents us with what surely must be one of the most iconic anti-heroes.
Assault on Precinct 13 is a triumph of independent cinema and defined by that foreboding sense of momentum which Carpenter sews so seamlessly into all his movies. From the opening credits when yet another legendary Carpenter score begins to resonate with whatever recesses of the mind its composer seems to have a direct line to, you’ll know you’re in for something different.
Rating: The Good – 67.7 Genre: Horror Duration: 99 mins Director: John Carpenter Stars: Christopher Reeve, Kirstie Alley, Mark Hamill
The residents of a small town are all rendered unconscious by a mysterious force only to wake up seemingly unharmed. However, it’s not long before they realise that the womenfolk were impregnated during the event. Even more shockingly, when the children do arrive, they rapidly develop and seem to gravitate towards each other for reasons that seem worse than sinister.
Okay, so it’s not as good as the original, it has some seriously laughable creature effects, and it kind of looks like a TV movie, but John Carpenter’s Village of the Damned can be an interesting and even enjoyable watch for several reasons. Firstly, the slow, tempered style that defines all of Carpenter’s movies is there in spades and, as such, the shocks never come when you expect them. This keeps you on edge throughout and when the shocks do come, they’re paired with Carpenter’s trademark piercing sound effects so you get that great startle response every time. Carpenter has always been the undisputed master at evoking said response and for that reason alone, Village of the Damned is good value. But the movie also gives us one of Carpenter’s best scores (co-written with Dave Davies) and combined with that final shot we get a classic Carpenter ending reminiscent of The Thing.
There’s a lot to be said for how Carpenter handles his actors too. The casting in Carpenter’s Village of the Damned is peculiar given that we have three of the most type-cast actors in the business (Christopher Reeve, Kirstie Alley, and Mark Hamill) all holding major parts and all eschewing any residue of those career-defining roles. Such a feat is not only a testament to the acting ability of the actors but also to the way in which Carpenter introduces and continues to use their characters throughout the picture.
John Wyndham’s story survives the switch to an American small town setting and it’s is given time to breathe (with a few leaps here and there). Moreover, the children often (but not always) reach the levels of creepiness experienced in the book not to mention the original movie adaptation. Of course, the production values aren’t amazing but that is where a maverick like Carpenter found himself if he wanted to make films his own way. Once accepted, Village of the Damned is a fun movie and if nothing else, a chance to visit the John Carpenter dimension one more time where everything is just a little off-kilter.
Rating: The Good – 77.9 Genre: Horror Duration: 91 mins Director: John Carpenter Stars: Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasence, Tony Moran
The teen slasher movie which (along with the earlier Black Christmas) defined the genre, sees Jamie Lee Curtis fleeing for her life against knife-wielding maniac Michael Myers. Donald Pleasence scores well as the psychiatrist who takes it upon himself to track down the escaped mental patient who he believes is an incarnation of pure evil. In Halloween, John Carpenter expands on what Black Christmas gave us to establish the formula for most (if not all) of the 80’s slasher films and in reality those imitations never came close to the quality of this film. Carpenter was also intelligent enough to give the horror a tint of the supernatural with the resulting ambiguity significantly heightening the sense of terror. And not content with creating one of the all time great horror stories, he goes and gives us one of the genre’s best and most distinctive scores. A genuine classic.
Kurt Russell is back as Snake Plissken 16 years after the original only this time L.A. is the penal fortress and instead of the President he needs to recover a doomsday weapon. John Carpenter and co-writer Russell were having a lot of fun with this one and they really quite bravely used it as a means of poking fun at the nature of sequels and at Hollywood blockbusters in general. Escape From L.A. pushes the boundaries of satire to their limits (to the point where some people didn’t realise the film was a satire!) as Snake takes on a South American drug lord in a series of set-piece scenes each more mad-cap than the last. The dialogue is as cool as ever, the wit is razor-sharp, that iconic score is back (if not slightly re-imagined), and there’s a host of great actors from Pam Grier to Steve Buscemi on show. What more could you ask for? How about one of the great sci-fi endings? Okay, you got it!
Rating: The Good – 78.2 Genre: Horror Duration: 89 mins Director: John Carpenter Stars: Adrienne Barbeau, Jamie Lee Curtis, Janet Leigh
A classic ghost story about a town which, on its hundred year anniversary, is visited by the specter of a ship and its crew who were murdered by the town’s founders a century earlier. Director John Carpenter’s perfectly paced chiller has yet to be matched in the sense of sinister momentum it generates from the first reel to the close. The scares are actually basic enough but with Carpenter’s unorthodox and unsettling style and a variety of interesting characters on show the movie really does take on a life of its own and, as such, it has gone down as one of the most compelling horror movies of the last 30 years. Jamie Lee Curtis heads the cast as the hitchhiker passing through the sleepy coastal town just as things start to get strange and she adds a playful tone to the earlier sequences. The remainder of the cast is a who’s who of Carpenter regulars with the exception of the very first “scream queen” and Jamie’s mother, Janet Leigh, who puts in an excellent turn as the town’s mother figure.
Rating: The Good – 74.3 Genre: Science Fiction Duration: 98 mins Director: John Carpenter Stars: Natasha Henstridge, Ice Cube, Pam Grier
This John Carpenter sci-fi/horror/western about a police officer (Natasha Henstridge) and a dangerous prisoner (Ice Cube) trying to escape a terraformed Martian town as it becomes overrun by spirit-like aliens is a tongue-in-cheek heavy metal opera. Just like said music, everything about this movie screams mock-rebellion. Women run the show, aliens are ghosts, their language is a ferocious scream, the good guys are criminals and like that music, if you’re not a fan of Carpenter you just won’t get it. Thus, Ghosts of Mars has the semblance of rebellion but it’s not really that dangerous and Carpenter has a ball with it. The more technical aspects to the film such as the visual effects, make-up, and fight choreography are tinted with this light hearted sarcasm. Once you accept all this, however, you can really start to enjoy it. The patient start uses a series of dissolve-cuts to tell the back story as quickly as possible without feeling rushed but as the action moves through the gears, Carpenter’s utterly superb heavy metal soundtrack kicks in and sweeps you forward until the end. As with many of Carpenter’s films, the Rio Bravo theme is present and there’s plenty of innovative and over the top violence on show to keep most horror fans happy. There’s a great supporting cast on hand too (e.g., Pam Grier, Jason Statham, Joanna Cassidy) to deliver some outstanding and cheesy lines alike. And on top of all that, we have that wonderfully thunderous opening inspired in part by the opening to Bad Day at Black Rock (confirmed to this author by the director himself). Don’t approach this on the basis of what some of the critics have said and certainly don’t approach this as you would a typical science fiction/horror movie. This is John Carpenter – a director who has spent his career subverting conventions in the most entertaining ways possible (even if what he’s subverting is subversion!). That’s why he’s so damned important to the medium.
Rating: The Good – 74.1 Genre: Action, Horror Duration: 108 mins Director: John Carpenter Stars: James Woods, Daniel Baldwin, Sheryl Lee
John Carpenter finally gets around to the vampire theme and doesn’t disappoint as he crafts one of the tighter and more memorable vampire movies. That weird species of Carpenter-bashing movie cynic jumped all over this one as evidence that he was on the slide but there’s very little about Vampires that doesn’t work. James Woods is terrifically nasty as the leader of a Church-sponsored unit of bad-ass vampire slayers and even Daniel Baldwin finds a role that he is perfect for (and was perfect in). OK, the vampire make-up effects are slightly cheesy but that was always an endearing aspect to this low-budget auteur’s films. On the other hand, the special effects work nicely and so does Carpenter’s nifty action choreography and western laden score. Great fun.
Rating: The Good – 67.8 Genre: Comedy Duration: 99 mins Director: John Carpenter Stars: Chevy Chase, Daryl Hannah, Sam Neill
Probably the least John Carpenter-like John Carpenter film, Memoirs of an Invisible Man is a highly enjoyable re-telling of an old fable. Chevy Chase stars as a slightly world-weary executive who nips out of a boring science seminar into an adjoining office to sleep off a hangover. Unfortunately, whilst sleeping the building is evacuated when a physics experiment goes haywire rendering him and the building invisible. It’s not long before nasty government agent, Sam Neill and his band of specialists find out about him and set about capturing him for their own nefarious purposes. Memoirs of an Invisible Man is a witty and easy going movie that explores the concept of invisibility in some neat and memorable little ways. Chase narrates us through the film in an old-fashioned 50’s noir style that is both eminently comfortable and amusing. His dry wit is still very much present but he appropriately plays the role at a more sedate level to tie in with his character’s increasing disillusionment with life and feelings of anonymity that predate his accident. Daryl Hannah is great as his love-interest and the two of them do the invisibility thing very well even when the audience is allowed to see Chase. Sam Neil is a terrific baddie and the always funny Michael McKean is on hand for some support in the light comedy department. A last word should go to Carpenter who shows that he is as comfortable with the more mainstream action comedy genre as he is within his preferred sub-genres. He allows this one to play just right and like most of his catalogue, Memoirs has been shamefully underrated over the years.
Rating: The Good – 76 Genre: Action, Science Fiction Duration: 93 mins Director: John Carpenter Stars: Roddy Piper, Keith David, Meg Foster
“Brother, life’s a bitch. And she’s back in heat.” For a director who never played by the rules, thematically or even stylistically speaking, a film about aliens masquerading as humans who occupy society’s ruling class by persuading its human underclass not to question their station but to obey is perhaps Carpenter’s most personal film. It’s certainly one of his best and that’s saying something. Casting a WWF wrestler Roddy Piper as the central character, Carpenter signals from the beginning the unorthodoxy that would to define this film in both execution and story. Piper plays an unemployed drifter who arrives in a new city looking for work only to find himself living on the outskirts of town in a homeless shelter. Things get freaky when he discovers a box full of sunglasses that allow him to see the world as it really is and with it, the true nature of society’s elite.
Piper is surprisingly good and he is well supported by the perennially cool Keith David. In fact, the two make one of the more enjoyable on-screen partnerships as their relationship twists and turns in amusing fashion culminating in the longest fist (foot, knee, head, elbow) fight to ever grace the screen. It’s a terrific piece of action cinema which makes splendid use of their two large frames and even larger personalities. The action in general is handled with ease by the great Carpenter with plenty of original sequences thrown in for good measure. In fact, forget about the fist fight, the bank sequence alone makes They Live worth watching!
They Live is an outrageously funny film that doesn’t just preach rebellion, it is rebellion. Yes, it’s a primal scream at the money culture of the mid-80’s but given that it’s the scream of a man who wouldn’t break a sweat to slay his mortal enemy, there’s a patience running through it which makes it much more reflexive than most anti-establishment movies. This has been a feature of many Carpenter films and one that makes him eminently unpredictable and relatively bulletproof to counter-attack and indeed criticism (which is perhaps why his critics seem to try harder than most). So don’t waste time trying to predict what will happen or even framing this as an outright anti-establishment film. Instead just sit back, switch the sarcasm centre of your brain to “max”, and absorb one immortal line after another….. “I am here to chew bubblegum and kick ass…and I’m all out of bubblegum.” Legendary.
While Stephen King has never had a problem with making the idea of possessed machinery scary, the task of doing so in a film might seem foolhardy for anyone to even attempt. However, as John Carpenter had already scared a generation of horror fans with dehumanised gang members, knife wielding mental patients, and ghost pirates, the master of horror seemed the very man to bring the tale of a possessed 1958 Plymouth Fury to the big screen and do it justice. And through a combination of his unorthodox directorial style (such as his penchant for keeping the camera on actors a good 10-15 seconds after most directors would’ve yelled “cut”) and some decent performances from his young cast, he manages to do just that – even while removing some of the scarier elements from the book and building the scares solely around the car. Keith Gordon is perfectly sinister in the lead role of the teenager who becomes obsessed with the demonic car. John Stockwell is up and down as his jock friend and Alexandra Paul is decent as the girlfriend. Harry Dean Stanton and Robert Prosky do their usual bit of show-stealing as the more cynical grownups. However, the real star of the show is Carpenter’s electronic score, parts of which brilliantly double as sound effects at crucial junctures. Like all Carpenter’s films, Christine is more sinister than out-and-out shocking so be prepared for a more slow burning type of horror.
Rating: The Good – 78.1 Genre: Horror Duration: 102 mins Director: John Carpenter Stars: Donald Pleasence, Lisa Blount, Jameson Parker
A wildly original sci-fi horror from the master of horror John Carpenter, The Prince of Darkness approaches the subject of good vs evil from the point of view of science fiction. The result is a breath of fresh air for a somewhat jaded genre and another opportunity for Carpenter to revisit the apocalyptic theme (this being the second of his trilogy on said theme). The story centres on the discovery of a strange physics defying substance in the secret catacombs of a city church by a senior priest (played with gusto by Donald Pleasence). As the city and world beyond it begins showing signs of unnaturalness, the priest enlists the help of a metaphysics professor, his team of doctoral students, and a bunch of other scientists from anthropology, chemistry, and linguistics departments to investigate the substance. As everyone up sticks for a weekend field trip to the church, they are slowly surrounded and besieged by an army of homeless people who seem possessed by something altogether evil (and who are also led by the nonetheless recognisable face of Alice Cooper).
The premise is bizarre by mainstream standards but seems perfectly conventional from the point of view of the great John Carpenter. Yet it’s the originality which chiefly makes the film so engaging. Outside of the great Pleasence, the cast are relatively unknown (though fans of the director will recognise many of his regulars) but they each handle their parts well with nobody letting the side down. John Carpenter was always one of the true masters at generating a sense of cinematic momentum, and outside of Assault on Precinct 13, Prince of Darkness is the clearest demonstration of this. Thus, this film hits the ground already in motion and it emanates a thick and heavy atmosphere as it builds through those early sequences. Plenty of time is dedicated to the set-up as Carpenter introduces the various characters and counter-points the horror that is on its way with the friendly interactions of the scientists as they go about their respective tasks. The framing of his exterior shots in these early scenes is stirring and combined with the seemingly ever-present low-humming score (also one of his best), the momentum is almost imperceptibly shifted through the gears. When the action does get going, there is the usual controlled balance between striking but sparingly used gore and piercing sound effects, a balance that has become yet another trademark of Carpenter’s films. The special effects hold their own to this day and though some have questioned the use of a florescent green substance to represent the essence of evil, it does tie in with the science fiction angle in a very Carpenter-esque style.
There are some problems with Prince of Darkness but in a low-budget film as ambitious as this where Carpenter is attempting to explore the philosophical overlap between religion and science yet also tell a scary story, that was somewhat inevitable. Thus, in order to move the action along, the scientists were perhaps too quick to accept the supernatural explanation when they were there to offer an objective analysis in the first place. Furthermore, the characters were left relatively undeveloped and instead of seeing each of them behave differently to the threat (like in Carpenter’s The Thing) they all behaved rather uniformly. This is a shame because, with a more integrated cast of characters, Prince of Darkness could have risen closer to the level of the greatest of all Carpenter films. Those issues aside, Prince of Darkness remains a fresh take on an old story and combined with Carpenter’s talent for creating a skewed sense of reality, the end result is still a terrifically atmospheric horror vehicle.
John Carpenter’s (partly) tongue-in-cheek, seminal sci-fi classic is set in the not too distant future (in fact it’s come and gone) when New York has been turned into an island prison run by the inmates and plagued by all sorts of horrors such as marauding gangs of underground cannibals and people with awful fashion sense. Kurt Russell plays the iconic Snake Plissken, war hero turned criminal, who is given the opportunity to escape life on the island if he rescues the President whose plane has just crash landed there.
Punk sci-fi might seem dated now but it was in movies like this and Mad Max where it crept into our subconscious. Carpenter was always an expert at giving his films an off-kilter feel and this is wonderfully realised here. The extraordinary set-design along with the miniature modelling and matte painting of New York all combine to feed this sense of other-worldliness and the result is a film unlike anything we’ve seen before or since. The film also plays well on cinematic stereotypes with Russell’s performance in particular being a delicious nod to those conventions that are closest to our hearts. There are many straight-up funny moments thanks primarily to Plissken’s no-nonsense/no-patience demeanour but Donald Pleasance and the great Ernest Borgnine are also a howl. The support players in general are brilliant and how great was it to see Lee van Cleef given another dose of scenery to chew on?
Escape from New York is classic Carpenter. The palpable attitude, the way it all plays out so unorthodoxly, according to its own rules. It’s much more than a movie built around a great antihero as the film’s architecture reflects Snake’s personality on a grander scale. In the same way that there are superhero movies, Escape From New York is an antihero movie. In fact, it’s *the* antihero movie. Critics of this movie almost invariably bemoan the absence of the formulaic signature gloss of modern Hollywood pictures, claiming there are too many moments and incidents irrelevant to the plot (talk about not getting the point and behaving like a child watching a cartoon!). These are the concerns of the movie-going consumer zombie who (by lining up for one Hollywood dross-fest after another) is responsible for the decline of the industry into remake purgatory and reboot hell. The simple fact is that movies, at their essence, are about imagination and originality and Escape from New York is a testament to that ideal.