4. Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
Remade not so long ago with all of the convolution one has come to expect from modern thrillers, the original is instead another shining example of Carpenter’s then-flair for simplicity, ruthlessness and lean narratives. Carpenter shocked contemporary audiences (and it still packs quite a punch now) by having a little girl gunned down next to an ice cream truck in the build up to what becomes an embattled siege of a soon to be decommissioned police station (the eponymous precinct). The skeleton staff have to join forces with the soon to be transported prisoners in a do or die last stand against the marauding gang members, who descend on the precinct in waves that increasingly outnumber those who are trying to hold their ground and preserve their lives. Far less concerned than the slicker but bizarrely more cumbersome remake with morality, motivation and right/wrong, Assault… is instead a brutal, propulsive survival film, but with the protagonists (of sorts) battling humans rather than the hostile elements.
At least with this one Carpenter didn’t spoil it by remaking or sequelising it – that ignominy falls instead on Jean-François Richet who would go on to somewhat “un-blot” his copy book with Mesrine a few years later. If you haven’t seen Assault…. yet, please do so. It is one of those films that gets under your skin and thrills and chills in equal measure. If for no other reason, check it out for the scene when one character uses the bars of his prison cell to genuinely dis-arm an enemy. Ow.
5. The Fog (1980)
Not to be confused with the more recent Stephen King adaptation, The Mist, or the recent remake of The Fog starring that guy from Smallville, Carpenter’s The Fog has a few elements that date it a little, but it is still atmospheric, scintillating stuff. We open on a small coastal town, deep into the night. The camera moves from one part of the town to another and we feel instantly and utterly unsettled, bells, car horns and other dissonant, ambient noises echoing through the stillness.
It turns out to be the town’s centennial and assorted festivities are planned. Unfortunately for the modern-day residents, the town turns out to have been founded by a group of people who had lit fires to deliberately wreck an incoming ship which was loaded with gold. They plundered the gold and used it to build the town. The crew of that ship, who all died when it sank, have now returned within an encroaching fog, to reclaim the gold that was taken from them and avenge themselves on the town that so cruelly killed them.
Much like The Mist, The Fog builds up tension with a seemingly malevolent pea-souper, before eventually bringing something out of the fog/mist. With Carpenter’s film though, we’re not dealing with hysterical end-of-the-world religious zealots, but instead the collective guilt of a town and the burden of a shameful legacy of murder, theft and greed. Inevitably, given the era when the film was made and Carpenter’s typical but regrettable budgetary constraints, the special effects for the zombies who appear from the fog are a little disappointing, but their relentlessness is still affecting and disturbing. Although this is not “top tier” Carpenter, there is no shame in that, given the high-water mark he created for himself.
6. They Live (1988)
This final selection may disappoint some who were expecting either Dark Star (sorry, haven’t seen it) or Big Trouble in Little China (a bit too silly for my tastes and takes second prize in the “Something in small Oriental location” category to the sensationally under-appreciated Showdown in Little Tokyo – yes I know that one’s not Carpenter, but I like it). By all means make your case below in our comments section, that’s what it’s there for.
They Live is an oddity, but a hugely enjoyable one. WWF (as it was then) wrestler, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper plays a nonchalant drifter who finds a pair of shades that when worn enable him to see the aliens that have begun to take over the world. These skeletal figures have infiltrated media and government are using advertising and TV broadcasts to subdue the population with subliminal messages about submitting to authority and abandoning creativity and imagination.
Two sequences remain embedded in ones consciousness long after the film finishes. Firstly, Piper’s absurdly protracted fist-fight with Keith David which just goes on and on but with creativity, inventiveness and a semi-realistic escalating weariness on the part of both of them, until Piper is finally able to put glasses on David and open his eyes to the reality of what is going on around them. The second is a sequence where Piper walks into a bank which is chock-full of aliens (though only he realises them to be such – to everyone else they seem like normal citizens) and utters the immortal line, “I have come here to chew bubble gum and kick ass and I’m all out of bubble gum”. Splendid, spendid line amidst a strange but weirdly compelling film.