Halloween 2018: The Horror of John Carpenter

Sometimes it’s hard for me to define the idea of “favorite”.

Any day of the week I could claim that John Carpenter is my favorite director. He directed my favorite movie – Big Trouble in Little China – and is responsible for many other films that I consider “must-haves” and have bought multiple times in various formats. Movies that I can’t say I like because I adore them. I watch them annually (or more) and devour each minute because, in my eyes, they’re cinematic perfection.

I don’t feel this way about all of Carpenter’s films, though, which is what drove me to write this post.

There are a few films in the Carpenter library that, for one reason or another, don’t work for me. I don’t consider most of them bad by any stretch, they just don’t connect with me the way the ones I love do. And I can’t think of another director whose work I’m so divided about. For example – I’ll watch Escape from New York any time. It’s excellent. But I find Ghosts of Mars to be so bad that I can’t even get through the whole thing for my occasional “It can’t be that bad” revisit.

What I’m going to do today is run down John Carpenter’s horror films and how I feel about them and maybe why some seem so perfect and others seem far from it. Obviously I could write entire articles about each movie regardless of how I view them, so I’ll keep these brief. Also, I’m not covering everything Carpenter has directed – just his theatrical horror releases. They Live isn’t included because to me it’s science fiction with horror elements. The Thing, on the other hand, is the inverse of that.

Your opinion may differ. If so, I encourage you to start a website and write a post about John Carpenter. I’ll read it. I promise.

Halloween (1978) – For me this is the standard by which all “slasher” flicks will be judged. It pits the perfect cast against an antagonist who combines the right amount of mystery, intimidation, and “otherness”. The Halloween setting just adds to its appeal.

Even this early Carpenter’s talent for setting a mood is evident. His specificity of vision is also something that sets Halloween apart. The movie has a crisp, professional look that I love.

For more on Halloween, check out episode 234 of the Needless Things Podcast.

LAST TIME WATCHED – A few weeks ago

VERDICT – Carpenter perfection

The Fog (1980) – I haven’t given The Fog as many chances as some other movies I haven’t loved. The few times that I’ve watched it I simply haven’t been able to get into the plot.

I’ll go ahead and say this – I don’t think it’s the movie, I think it’s me.

The cast is solid – Adrienne Barbeau, Tom Atkins, Jamie Lee Curtis, Janet Leigh, and Hal Holbrook is literally a list of reasons why I would watch any movie. Plus, having spent much of my life on the coast of North Carolina, I have a fondness for coastal settings. I should love this film, but I never have.

Thanks to Shout Factory’s insane annual Shocktober sale, I’ll be giving it another shot soon. Their excellent steelbook reissue is part of the sale, so I added it to the cart, fully believing that this will be the year I learn to love The Fog.

LAST TIME WATCHED – Probably a couple of years ago

VERDICT – Time to try again

The Thing (1982) – This is one of those films that I didn’t love the first time I saw; as is the case with many of my favorites. Now I consider it to be one of the greatest horror films of all time.

I probably won’t mention Carpenter’s style very much from here on out, because you can just assume that it’s excellent. All of his movies have that clean, professional feel where the action is easy to follow and it’s very clear where the viewer’s attention is meant to be centered.

Once again Carpenter has assembled an incredible cast and within the first few scenes of the movie the audience recognizes each of these unfortunate souls for their specific traits. Quick, strong characterization is one of the director’s many talents, and is important to the intense momentum of this plot.

The isolation is a huge factor and Carpenter uses it in every shot. Interiors feel cramped and claustrophobic, while exteriors are pure desolation.

The creatures – created by master Rob Bottin – make every other nightmarish creature pale in comparison. To this day I have not seen designs as terrifying and unnerving.

For more on The Thing, check out our Needless Commentary!


VERDICT – Carpenter perfection

Christine (1983) – If you’ve been following Needless Things since the Blogger days (or, less likely, the MySpace days) you know I love Stephen King. I can say without any indecision whatsoever that he’s my favorite author and perhaps even my choice for most important pop culture creator of my lifetime.

Christine is not one of my favorite King works, and Carpenter’s film doesn’t fare much better.

It’s well done, but I just can’t get invested in the killer car thing. I’m not a gearhead at all and I honestly don’t attach any particular significance to automobiles other than they get me where I need to go faster than my feet would. Where JAWS managed to scare me even though the solution is “don’t go in the ocean”, I couldn’t suspend my disbelief for Christine to the point where getting away from a car seemed impossible.

Not to be too harsh, but I don’t care for the cast, either. They all just seem a little off somehow and lack the charm of the teen characters of other films from the time.

LAST TIME WATCHED – Earlier this year

VERDICT – Not for me

Prince of Darkness (1987) – This was another one that I didn’t appreciate at first. When I was younger, I didn’t like the bleak stuff and Prince of Darkness (and The Thing, now that I think of it) certainly fit the bill. I don’t necessarily love such grim endings even now, but I tend to be able to enjoy the journeys to get there a bit more.

This one provides a heck of a journey. It combines Lovecraftian themes, the apocalypse, crazy cults, and even some zombie-like imagery to create a unique tale of doom.

The cast of not-household-names (to me, anyway) led by Donald Pleasance and Victor Wong do a fantastic job of conveying the elevating tension.

This movie shares some similarities with The Thing beyond the grim endings (although later in life I’ve come to see that one as a happy ending considering the fact that Mac and Childs likely saved humanity). Both present “base under siege” stories that could have easily been classic Doctor Who tales. They’re also all about creating tension using human fallacies.

LAST TIME WATCHED – Last Halloween season

VERDICT – It doesn’t match the perfection of Carpenter’s best, but it’s a damned intriguing and spooky film

In the Mouth of Madness (1994) – I love Sam Neill and I love Sam Neill having the opportunity to do weird and crazy shit.

It’s worth noting that this was the first John Carpenter film I saw in the theater.

I did not understand what the heck was going on the first time I saw this movie, and I still really don’t. But it’s a disturbing, weird, entertaining ride that feels sort of like John Carpenter doing Stuart Gordon. I realize that’s mostly because of the Lovecraft connection, but it’s always sat in my head that way.

It was only in the last few years that I learned that some fans connect The Thing, Prince of Darkness, and In the Mouth of Madness as a supposed “Apocalypse Trilogy”; a thematic lineage and not a narrative one. It makes a whole lot of sense because they all deal with threats from outside of our Earth-based reality.

I’ll admit that for me this is a tough watch that I have to be in the right mood for, but it’s a worthy film when that mood is upon me.

LAST TIME WATCHED – It’s been a while

VERDICT – Shout Factory released one of their fancy Blu-rays in July, I haven’t ordered it yet, but I will

Village of the Damned (1995) – It’s funny – this movie feels older to me than the previous entry. Off the top of my head I would’ve said this was early 90s and In the Mouth of Madness was maybe ’98 or so.

I didn’t like this initially, but only because it creeped me out so much. Mind control is one of the things that truly disturbs me. It’s up there with grey aliens and tooth-related horror.

Christopher Reeve and Kirstie Alley are fun to watch, and I’ll always be happy to see as much of Linda Kozlowski as I can. And we can’t forget action ninja hunk Michael Paré or Mark Hamill as a reverend!

Carpenter brought an entertaining cast and a chilling concept with this remake, but it drags in the middle and doesn’t deliver the same kind of tension as his greatest hits.

LAST TIME WATCHED – Probably a couple of years ago

VERDICT – The flick has grown on me, but it’s hardly definitive or essential Carpenter

Vampires (1998) – Thanks to a lack of interest on my part in Village of the Damned upon its initial release, this was the second John Carpenter movie I saw in the theater.

This is another instance where it’s not the film, it’s me. There’s just something that doesn’t sit right with me about this movie. I didn’t care for it back then and my opinion has only slightly improved. I don’t want to say too much here because it’s been a few years since I last gave it a chance and I don’t want to feel like a big idiot when I watch it again for being too harsh about it.

Looking at the Wikipedia page to refresh my memory, it seems like James Woods was heading up a fairly weak cast. I remember thinking it looked less like a film and more like a TV show, too.

LAST TIME WATCHED – It might have been a decade

VERDICT – If I can watch it for free this Halloween season, I will and I’ll update you guys

Ghosts of Mars (2001) – John Carpenter + Ice Cube + Natasha Henstridge + Jason Statham + Clea DuVall + Pam Grier should = INCREDIBLE.

Sadly, it did not.

Ghosts of Mars is a bad movie. I don’t like it and I’ve never met anyone that claims to like it.

Of course, I’m sure some loony is going to pop out of the woodwork now that I’ve said this, but whatever. They can start their own website, etc.

I’d love to say this movie suffered from the recency of the similar and much better Pitch Black, but even without David Twohy’s stylish little thriller this would’ve been a dud. Terrible dialogue, ugly sets, and a strange sort of pointlessness keep it from being even a casual recommendation. This isn’t a “Well, if you love John Carpenter you sort of have to watch it” thing. I wouldn’t recommend this one to anybody.

Note – apparently Ghosts of Mars began life as Escape from Mars and was going to feature our old pal Snake Plisskin rather than the even more ridiculously named Desolation Williams. I think I’m glad that didn’t happen.

LAST TIME WATCHED – Sometime last year

VERDICT – PASS, but I’m sure I’ll give it another shot someday; heck, it might even be a future Needless Commentary

The Ward (2010) – As long as you don’t take this film as a clinical treatise on mental health issues (and I can’t imagine why anyone would), it’s a darn good flick.

Don’t get me wrong – this isn’t Carpenter’s grand return to the genre or anything. But it’s a tight, effective little piece that develops its story quite well. I enjoyed the performances, and while I saw the end coming from a mile away, I thought the journey to get there was well worth my time.

This is stripped-down, intimate John Carpenter, and I dig it for that. We see him using his familiar cinematic tools in a single setting with a very different cast of characters than he’s ever had before.

LAST TIME WATCHED – Last Halloween season

VERDICT – I’d be lying if I said it’s the Carpenter return I wanted, but it’s a good watch and I’ll buy it if Shout Factory does their thing with it

He’s had his ups and downs, and Hollywood hasn’t always (ever) been as kind to him as it should have been, but John Carpenter is beyond a shadow of a doubt a unique and brilliant visionary. He brought the touch of an auteur to genre filmmaking with an unmistakable style and a passion for film that showed in every shot.

At 70 – still a vital and productive age, as evidenced by my own parents – Carpenter seems to have focused his attention on music. His albums Lost Themes, Lost Themes II, and Anthology: Movie Themes 1974-1988 are excellent collections that will be loved by fans of his film scores. The latter release features re-recordings of his best-known themes.Carpenter album

Additionally, if you enjoy Carpenter’s synth-driven sounds, check out the compilation Carpenter from Retro Promenade. It features songs inspired by John Carpenter’s films and is a wonderful tribute to his style. Plus a pretty darn good addition to your Halloween playlist.

Share your favorite Carpenter films in the comments below or over in the Needless Things Podcast Facebook Group!

You can follow Dave as Phantom Troublemaker on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram for all the best pop culture commentary!

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