It is tempting to believe that at some point in the late 1980’s, a minion of Dr Evil’s travelled back in time and stole John Carpenter’s mojo. Up until that point he was in a purple patch of epic proportions, churning out horror films and action flicks of superb quality, breath-taking originality and trend-setting verve. Then it all seemed to go horribly, horribly wrong.
A recent informal straw poll via Twitter asked for suggestions as to which film from a John Carpenter box set should be watched as a matter of priority – scanning through the options, which were by no means exhaustive, gave plenty of food for thought – Escape from New York or Assault on Precinct 13? Halloween or The Thing? You see? He set the bar pretty high for himself, perhaps the only way was down.
Eventually, Carpenter’s output descended into Memoirs of an Invisible Man, Escape from LA and Ghosts of Mars and although 2010’s The Ward (which I confess to not having seen) was hoped to prove to be a return to form, it was by no means highly lauded.
Therefore, and with the risk of becoming misty-eyed and nostalgic, let us celebrate what Carpenter got right rather than trying to figure out what went wrong. Never say never, but it at least seems unlikely that Carpenter will ever again scale the dizzy heights of his heyday. Here are, for my money, six of his best (note: NOT his six best) from mid-70’s to mid-80’s. You may howl in disagreement (that’s what the comments section is for below), you may agree across the board (though I doubt it) but maybe you’ll at least dig one of these out and savour it again or for the first time.
1.The Thing (1982)
I still place this at the top of the Carpenter tree, but I would freely admit that it depends a little on what I have seen most recently. Long before CGI came along and made these sorts of creature effects clean and crisp, Rob Bottin gave us sensationally slimy, gruesome and effective practical effects that continue to hold up today. But this is far from a simple case of showing off special effects (which beset, for example, Carpenter’s Invisible Man effort), instead giving us an unbearably tense and claustrophobic tale of identity, paranoia and the quest for survival (whether terrestrial life form or not). Left open-ended and ambiguous (but with no conceivable scope for a sequel) in a way almost unimaginable in this age of franchises and pre-planned sequels, The Thing continues to feel fresh, original and energizing, despite itself being a remake of The Thing From Another World.
As tended to be the case around this time in Carpenter’s directorial output, Kurt Russell’s everyman approach helps to anchor the increasingly outlandish events that unfold as the science team at an Antarctic base are invaded by a shape-shifting alien that kills, mimics and moves on to the next victim. Who is “real”? How can anyone tell? A disarmingly simple scene set in a single room as each member of the team has their blood tested with a hot needle is up there with Alien’s chest-bursting sequence for tension, unease and “what’s going to happen next” anxiety; the scenes ably demonstrating either side of Hitchcock’s famous ‘Shock’ vs ‘Suspense’ argument. The isolation of the team and the bleak desolation of their surroundings prove to be an essential component of the ruthless atmosphere, which grips you and never lets up, all the way through the ambiguous and unsettling finale.
2. Escape from New York (1981)
It’s a doozy of a concept – in the near future the island of Manhattan has been converted into a walled maximum security prison into which is dumped the worst scum of humanity. The President crash lands inside and has to be rescued. Brilliant. Add in Kurt Russell as grizzled, one-eyed anti-hero Snake Plissken, blackmailed into rescuing a President he cares little if anything for and you have one of Carpenter’s best (as the title to this article suggests). Russell and Carpenter have been better, both together and apart, but this is outstanding stuff nonetheless. Manhattan has of course become an utter hell-hole, full of gangs, numberless threats to life and limb and in one standout scene, a sort of gladiatorial ring where Plissken has to fight an utter meat hook, armed with a baseball bat embedded with six-inch nails. It doesn’t end well.
Tone and atmosphere is everything here. Plissken is unremittingly dour and grumpy, reluctantly press-ganged into a mission he’d just as soon have skipped and the world of the prison is immaculately conceived and executed – dark, dirty, dangerous, corrupt, decrepit. The cast is fleshed out with real quality – Donald Pleasance, Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, Harry Dean Stanton – and Carpenter’s script is lean, economical, engaging and propulsive. Do not see Escape from LA, either before or after this; it was a horribly mis-judged and mishandled sequel and sullies this gritty masterpiece utterly unnecessarily.
3. Halloween (1978)
Did this create the slasher film? Some might say Psycho got there first, though the point is moot, as this is superlative, genre-defining, tension-ratcheting, horror film-making at its very finest. The staples of this sub-genre (stalk and slash) have now become so hackneyed that they are rarely played straight any more. Although we have had nasty reboots of the Halloween, Nightmare on Elm St and Friday the 13th franchises, they have not been especially successful, with the kudos and box office success tending to go to post-modern variations like Scream and (to a lesser extent) I Know What You Did Last Summer. Back then, this was all really fresh and so instead of dismissing it as clichéd, we must instead applaud it for creating a set of archetypes that have prevailed through the best part of three decades of subsequent film-making.
Michael Myers, relentlessly pursuing Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode, is a perfect killer (at least for the purposes of this sort of film). Wearing a blank mask (actually a William Shatner fancy-dress mask turned inside out), appearing entirely emotionless and unstoppable, he must have put a generation of people off babysitting. Yes, he is a “psycho”, yes he has escaped from a mental asylum, yes a psychiatrist is on his trail, yes he is armed with a great big knife (see how derivative this makes the appearance and characterisation of Jason Vorhees?), but it is all handled so well.
The tension is unremitting, the violence harsh and unforgiving, the story so ruthlessly confined and precise and the jumps and shocks so expertly set up and delivered. We know we are being played and watching it now, after so much more water has passed under this particular bridge, it is easier to see the jolts coming, but that should not detract from our appreciation of Carpenter’s craft in putting it together. Ideally, we could all unwatch every horror film made since and go back and see it fresh and be scared out of our wits again, but that is not an option. Instead, we must simply enjoy it for what it is, one of the finest horror films ever made.