Wednesday, July 3, 2013

John Carpenter: My Top Ten Favorites

Right off the bat and without fear that I’ll sound like a nerdy fan boy, I’ve got to say that John Carpenter is a living legend, who has—since the late 70s—set the bar and created the template for all other filmmakers to follow. From the design of a horror movie, to the archetype of the bad-ass action hero, even including social commentary to a science fiction piece, Mr. Carpenter was the pioneer of those aspects.

Now, I admit, I haven’t seen every John Carpenter film that he’s directed, either due to not finding the film or not finding the time, so I can’t say that I’m an expert on his film compendium. But of the ones I have seen—and I have seen most of them—I’ve got to say that he’s a master of his craft.

So, without further ado, let me go over the films which I feel are his top ten.

Number 10: John Carpenter, after his success with arguably one of the best horror films in the 1970s, followed up that achievement with a made-for-television biopic, simply titled, Elvis, about one of the greatest entertainers of our time.

Prior to the DVD release a few years ago, the broadcast in 1979 was the only time I had seen this film. But Presley was, and still is, my very favorite music star from the 50s, 60s, and 70s. Sadly, this movie didn’t age well and is not as entertaining as I remembered it to be. It stars Kurt Russell as the music icon, rising from a teenager to the singing sensation he came to be. Some of the supporting cast members are Shelley Winters as Gladys Presley, Bing Russell (Kurt’s real-life dad) as Vernon Presley, Season Hubley (Kurt’s wife at the time) as Priscilla Presley, and Pat Hingle as Colonel Tom Parker.

The film is very interesting in the beginning as it shows how he made his first recording and becoming big, but the film starts to fall flat as it gets into his later life. The story stopped short of documenting his death and I think maybe that was the problem. It seems as if the movie maybe wanted to go to that part of his life, but decided to stop short of that chapter.

All in all, it’s still enjoyable to see Kurt Russell play a pretty good rendition of The King of Rock & Roll.

Number 9 on my list belongs to 1995’s Village of the Damned, a remake of the 1960 British film of the same name, starring Christopher Reeve as Dr. Alan Chaffee and Kirstie Alley as Dr. Susan Verner.

In this one, some alien-influenced incident happens in this small town that knocks everybody out momentarily, but strangely affects ten women of the town by leaving them pregnant. Nine months later, ten platinum-haired children are born and grow to be emotionless children with evil powers, using it against the adults of the town that get in their way.

The film is very entertaining, and if you can put aside that “Superman” is in the lead role, you can thoroughly enjoy it.

Number 8’s pick is 1996’s Escape From L.A. In this sequel to 1981’s Escape From New York (see number 4), Snake Plissken is once again called in—against his will—to go into a maximum security prison—Los Angeles—to retrieve something very important to the fate of the United States, as well as the world.

A lot more colorful and special effects-laden, this sequel is so entertaining and fun to watch, it almost feels like a parody of Carpenter’s 1981 film.

Kurt Russell is back and just as bad-ass as he was back in 1981 as he goes through this retread of the first film. You can almost see that Carpenter maybe wanted a chance to re-do the first film and this is what we got.

The film also stars Steve Buscemi as “Map to the Stars” Eddie, Stacy Keach as Commander Malloy, Peter Fonda as the burnt out surfer Pipeline, a nice cameo by Bruce Campbell as the Surgeon General of Beverly Hills, the late Cliff Robertson as the President of the United States, and the beautiful Pam Grier as Hershe. They’re definitely a star-studded cast that has a lot of fun in this one.

Number 7 on my list of favorite John Carpenter films is one I’ve seen maybe once or twice. 1993’s Body Bags is an anthology that (I think) went straight to video or only showed on one of the movie channels of its time. Anyway, it’s actually a difficult one to find on disc and believe me, I’ve been looking for a while. I remember catching it on Showtime and being intrigued with the concept of having some weird coroner introduce each story. It wasn’t until my second viewing that I realized it was Carpenter who played the cadaver-like guy in the morgue.

The film highlights three stories and I believe Carpenter only directed two of the stories, “The Gas Station” and “Hair” while Tobe Hooper directed the third story, “The Eye.” It’s funny, although I love all three tales, my favorite is the one that Hooper directs. “The Gas Station” is a story of Anne (Alex Datcher) and her first night as a service station clerk. Before her coworker, Bill (Robert Carradine), leaves, he tells her an escaped psycho is on the loose and advises her to stay locked in the booth. As you can imagine, this story is pretty suspense-filled.

In “Hair,” Richard (Stacy keach), is upset about how bald he is and wishes there was something he could do about it. He visits a seemingly disreputable doctor who offers him a scalp treatment he guarantees will work. After going through the procedure and taking off the bandages, Richards hair grows stunningly…but things go very wrong and very weird.

But my favorite of the stories, Brent Matthews (Mark Hamill) is a baseball player who gets in a car accident that leaves him without an eye. However, an experimental surgery to have an eye from a donor replace his damaged eye is done and completed successfully. But the donor of the eye turned out to be a serial killer and things get twisted in Matthew’s life as he sees flashes of the serial killer’s life and begins to be taken over by it.

Very good anthology and it’s a shame that it’s taken so long to get a special edition on Blu-Ray, but Scream! Factory finally announced we’ll be getting one soon!

Number 6, is 1988’s They Live, starring Roddy Piper and Keith David, an excellent sci-fi flick that makes you think long afterward about the social commentary the film subliminally suggests. But I like to watch this film for the concept and the idea of alien takeover.

The film has sort of a slow start as we see Piper’s character, Nada, getting a job doing some hard labor at a construction site and moving in to some homeless camp, but soon picks up when he sees some weird goings-on at the church across the way. He soon discovers these magical Wayfarers that, when worn, shows what’s really going on in the world. He picks up magazines and the pages are simple white pages with large words like “CONSUME” or “SLEEP” and other subliminal commands. He notices the billboards have the same messages and sees that there are futuristic aircraft patrolling the skies. The one big thing he discovers is that some people are not what they seem.

I don’t want to give too much away, because it’ll take away some of the surprise and shock you may feel when watching this film. The third act of the film is mainly a lot of action as the story gets into the climax, but the film, overall, doesn’t disappoint.

I wish Roddy Piper would’ve done more films because he was one hell of a leading man in this flick.

Number 5 is a moody piece from 1980 and one I watch annually around the Halloween season. The Fog is yet another nostalgic film I love, making me remember all the TV spots I had seen as a child and wishing I were able to see the movies advertised.

Finally, after a few years, I was able to rent this film on VHS and enjoyed it immensely. As Carpenter’s theatrical follow-up to Halloween, and if you try to compare it, it’s a little disappointing. But as a stand-alone film, it’s a brilliant ghost story with an excellent cast, led by the awesomely tough—and mustache-less—leading man, Tom Atkins.

The town of Antonio Bay is about to celebrate its centennial and when the clocks strike midnight—the witching hour—everything in town goes berserk. All the cars in town start honking their horns, public payphones ring, televisions turn on, and other paranormal activities occur. At the same time, the priest at the local church notices a stone that falls from the wall. When he goes to look at the hole left from the missing stone, he discovers an old diary left there by his grandfather. As he reads some of the entries, he learns that Antonio Bay has held a deep, dark secret.

The opening scene with John Houseman reciting the ghost story to the children was a nice touch and was a good introduction to the film. The stand-out to the film is the special effects, as well as the make-up effects, highlighted throughout. We all love Tom Atkins, and even though he’s missing his trademark ‘stache, he’s still the bad-ass we all know and love. But let’s not forget Adrienne Barbeau as the local radio disc jockey, looking as great as ever.

When I watched one of the behind-the-scenes featurettes about the work involved in getting the fog effects to work, I was amazed. With no CGI effects back in 1980, you can imagine the trouble they had in getting the fog to move and stay in frame back then. Some of the tricks they came up with will surprise you.

The Fog is a must for John Carpenter fans, and even if you aren’t, this flick is still scary and spooky. Do yourself a favor and watch it.

Number 4’s pick is 1981’s Escape From New York.

The story begins with a voiceover on how the country, in 1988, has gone to shit and decided to make the island of Manhattan a maximum security prison for undesirables to live on their own and survive in a place where there is no law and no rules.

Nine years later, in 1997, Air Force One is overtaken by a group of terrorists who take over the plane and is about to crash it to kill the president (played by Donald Pleasence), but he evades certain death by using an escape pod (does Air Force One really have an escape pod?) to get away. As luck would have it, the plane was flying over the air space of the New York prison and that’s where the president went down.

Kurt Russell plays Snake Plissken, a Eastwood-esque man-with-no-name type, who’s brought in, after being arrested for a bank robbery, to rescue the president and he reluctantly agrees. To make matters worse for Plissken, and unbeknownst to him, his carotid arteries are injected with microscopic pellets that’ll explode in 24 hours. He’s told that if he brings back the president alive, the pellets will be neutralized and he’s free to go.

Yes, this film is awesome, showing us that Kurt Russell is no softy from the Disney movies he'd been featured in, but a bad-ass that kicks ass. Plissken’s appearance is pretty cool, with his weathered leather jacket, fatigue pants, and the eye patch, looking like someone you don’t want to mess with. The movie features a well-rounded supporting cast, giving us some memorable scenes. The film features Lee Van Cleef as Hauk, Adrienne Barbeau as Maggie (you won’t forget that dress!), Harry Dean Stanton as “Brain,” Ernest Borgnine as “Cabbie,” and Isaac Hayes as the “Duke of New York.” With quite a few other Carpenter regulars (Charles Cyphers and Tom Atkins) and some character actors that really make this film enjoyable. One little complaint? When I finally watched this film after seeing the movie poster, I was a little let down that the Statue of Liberty’s head wasn’t crumbled on one of New York’s streets. In fact, we see it intact and never damaged throughout the movie. False advertising!

Number 3 is a favorite of mine of 1983, due to the work the film is adapted from, which is the novel, Christine, by Stephen King. Though it differs a little from the book, the overall idea is there and is yet another nostalgic outing from John Carpenter. Although it’s not the first movie about a vehicle terrorizing people, it’s probably the one movie people remember when asked about the subject matter.

The film stars Keith Gordon as Arnie Cunningham, your average nerd who is picked on in high school by the school bully, Buddy Repperton (William Ostrander), and doesn’t excel in much except getting good grades. But when one day, Arnie and his friend, Dennis (John Stockwell), pass an old lot that has a busted up rust bucket—a 1958 Plymouth Fury—for sale within the weeds of the property, Arnie tells his friend to pull over. He buys the car—which he’s told by the old man who owns it, George LeBay (Roberts Blossom), that her name is Christine—and tries to take it home to his angered parents, but instead has to rent a stall at the local junk yard to work on it.

Soon after, the car begins to look better, but so does Arnie, as he stops wearing glasses, starts to dress better, and starts to act like a douche bag. Along with all this, some find out, if you cross Arnie, Christine will become infuriated.

Again, Carpenter had some amazing talent working with him to make some of the special effects work. I still don’t understand how they were able to get some of those scenes to pan out, especially the way they were able to make it look like the car was able to retain its shape after being dented and wrecked. All of the action scenes were very memorable, especially the car driving down the road as it’s engulfed in fire. This movie is a must for all to see.

Number 2 on my list, and I’ll probably receive a bombardment of resent for choosing this film as my second favorite Carpenter film rather than first, but I admit that he left his mark in the film world with this one, especially in the horror genre part of it, when he directed the now-classic, 1978’s Halloween, starring Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode and Donald Pleasence as Dr. Sam Loomis. When I mentioned before that Carpenter set the bar for horror films, this is the one that many have imitated or have used as a template.

The film is full of suspense and there’s not much I can say about this film that everyone hasn’t commented on already. But I love watching it every year, especially in October when All Hallow’s Eve is just around the corner. It’s nostalgic and fun to watch, never getting old and scaring me to this day. You can see why this film set John Carpenter up as the go-to-director of the 80s, because he really delivered in this one.

Just some advice: if you’re going to rent or purchase this DVD or Blu-Ray, make sure you get the 1978 version and not the Rob Zombie remake. Zombie’s version is okay, but pales in comparison to John Carpenter’s classic film.

Number 1, for all intents and purposes, is what I think John Carpenter’s real masterpiece should be, and that’s The Thing from 1982.

I’ve actually read an article here and there where Carpenter actually feels the same way about this film, that it's his best work to date.

It broke new ground in practical horror effects that were just so off-the-way crazy, but was perfect in this flick, as it brought to life an organism that can imitate anything, yet transforms in a visceral and organic way. This film proves, without a doubt, that practical effects are the way to go. The prequel that was released in 2011 definitely proves that CGI doesn’t cut it when it comes to this type of sci-fi/horror film…or any other film for that matter.

Unfortunately, this film was released the same year as E.T. and audiences bought into the friendly alien from another world, rather than watch an evil one which kills and causes destruction.

When this film was released, I was around 11 years old. My parents didn’t take me to see movies that often—and they definitely wouldn’t take me to see an R-rated film—but I was still aware of the movie due to the headlines it made. It was mainly because of the gross and gory special effects, but it made me want to watch this movie even more than I had already wanted. It wasn’t until years later that I was able to rent it on VHS and enjoyed every second of it.

The cast was a great ensemble and acted this yarn out believably. You can definitely feel the tension and fright in the men as they realize that the Alien organism is on the loose and could’ve taken the form of any one of them. The “who’s-really-who” plot adds to the scares that we get in this film and having it set in an isolated part of the world where no one is able to reach outside of their realm for help is terrific.

Kurt Russell certainly shows us why Carpenter includes him in quite a few of his films as the leading man, because he fills that position nicely as he takes charge when the shit hits the fan.

One fun thing I suggest you do is to listen to the commentary between John Carpenter and Kurt Russell. You can tell these guys are good friends and love what they do.

Another interesting thing you can do is watch the 2011 version right before watching Carpenter’s version and decide which is better. My money’s on Carpenter’s film. But The Thing is definitely a fun movie to watch, especially if you decide to watch it during a cold winter night.

So there you have it, my little love letter to the Master of Horror himself, Mr. John Carpenter. One thing he mentioned in an interview or commentary when discussing Escape From New York was that he was toying with the idea of making another sequel called Escape From Earth. I actually tweeted to his Twitter account, asking if that will ever come to fruition. I was overjoyed that he actually responded to me (although, it could’ve been someone who takes care of his account), but then saddened when he responded that the movie will never happen. But it does anger me that we had a movie come out last year called Lockout that very well could’ve been a sequel to the Escape movies. And I know damn well that Mr. Carpenter would’ve made a much better film than that piece of crap.

I really do hope we get more from John Carpenter in the future because he is a brilliant director who has a résumé of great films that span over three decades.

I’ll leave you with this: the man deserves a lifetime achievement award in the Academy and a star on the Walk of Fame (if he doesn’t have one there already). He is my all-time favorite director and hope to meet him one day, just to shake his hand and tell him how great he made my experience growing up watching his films. He’s a legend—a living legend—and although those are my top ten favorite films of his, I adore them all and always enjoy a John Carpenter marathon, every year.

Thanks for reading!
You can reach me on Twitter: @CinemaBits!