Thursday, September 29, 2011

Worst to Best: The Films of John Carpenter

Well, October is here, so to celebrate Halloween season -- and who here doesn't want to do that? -- I decided to put together a retrospective on the career of John Carpenter.  Carpenter, of course, directed the film version of Stephen King's Christine, but more importantly, he's one of the major figures of horror film during its '70s/'80s renaissance.

He's also one of my favorite directors, and I try my best to never let Halloween season -- which is also scary movie season in the Burnette household -- pass by without spinning a few Carpenter flicks through the DVD player.  During October of 2010, I sat down and watched the entire John Carpenter canon chronologically.  That was a blast, and I plan to do it again next year (and possibly to write a series of reviews for this blog).

This year, however, I felt like doing a basic worst-to-best listing of Carpenter's films.  This is, obviously, just one dude's opinion, and what I find to be weak sauce others may well find to be manna, and vice versa.  That's fine by me; I'd be glad to hear dissenting opinions on the matter.

So, let's get started, shall we?  In the eyes of one B. Burnette, what is THE worst John Carpenter movie of them all?

#23:  Pro-Life (2006)
Yep, it's definitely Pro-Life at the bottom of the Carpenter barrel.. 

This episode from the second season of the Showtime series is poorly-acted (Ron Perlman merely sleepwalks through the role in what you can only assume was a defensive action), has terrible special effects, is ham-handedly on-the-nose in terms of its subject matter, and is also -- worst of all -- incredibly boring.  The screenplay utterly fails to capitalize on any of its admittedly-interesting ideas, and what could have been a solid little supernatural siege flick ends up being a fairly dreadful exercise in how not to do horror.

Carpenter didn't write it, but he also does nothing to elevate the material; there may as well be a flashing sign onscreen the entire time saying "I hated doing this! -- J. Carpenter."

#22:  Escape From L.A.  (1996)
I know, I know; people love Snake Plissken.  You can even find devoted fans who adore this movie. 

Well, I ain't one of 'em.  I wanted to love this pointless sequel; I was there on opening night at the Bama 6 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, grinning and ready for a good time.  Instead, I got Escape From L.A., and rarely have I walked out of a movie more disappointed.  I've seen worse movies; MANY worse, in fact ... but few of them were movies that I expected much out of.

I will admit that the climax, in which Snake Plissken essentially destroys the entire planet's computer network, thereby throwing it into a second stone age of sorts, is highly satisfying, and something I love to reference any time there's computer trouble at work.  The fact that nobody ever knows what the fuck I am talking about is incidental to my enjoyment, but it's also telling: in the grand scheme of things, almost nobody gives a crap about this turkey.  Its greatest sin is that it's too much a retread of the first film, and that in being that, it never once manages to do anything -- and I mean anything -- better than the original film did. 

A giant missed opportunity.

#21:  Village of the Damned  (1995)
I don't hate this movie the way I hate Pro-Life and Escape From L.A., which means we've started to see the light at the end of the tunnel, and are headed toward goodness.  We're not quite there yet, though.  I like Christopher Reeve in this movie, and there are a few scenes that work fairly well, but there is really nothing here to recommend. That's especially true if you've ever seen the original Village of the Damned, to which this version cannot hold a candle.

In a perfect world, this remake would have turned out as well as Carpenter's other remake (hint: you'll read about that MUCH later), but that definitely did not happen.

#20:  Body Bags  (1993)

 If I understand this correctly, Body Bags was a pilot shot for Showtime as the first episode of a potential anthology series.  Showtime passed on the series (though they would, about ten years later, do two seasons' worth of a similar horror anthology, Masters of Horror), and instead aired the completed pilot as a standalone movie.  It's easy to see why Showtime declined to take the concept to series: none of the three stories presented here works particularly well.

However, the overall concept -- a horror anthology hosted by a guy examining corpses in a morgue to see what tales they might have to tell -- is pretty solid, and John Carpenter has a ball playing the host.  And there are random moments that work pretty well, so this is by no means a wash if you're a serious fan either of Carpenter or of horror in general.

Of the three segments, Carpenter directed the first two: "The Gas Station" and "Hair."  Carpenter's talents are on display here, as are his weaknesses.  The first half or so of "The Gas Station" is actually quite good, with Carpenter building more suspense out of the simple setup -- a new overnight gas station cashier finds herself growing increasingly paranoid as his first shift progresses -- than he ought to have been able to do.  While this particular short is in setup mode, it's great; but as soon as the killer arrives, it falls apart, and falls apart utterly.

"Hair" is a more balanced story, involving Stacy Keach -- who is great -- putting himself through the emotional wringer over his receding hairline.  He goes to a doctor (David Warner) who promises an overnight cure, and delivers: Keach wakes up with a hilariously awesome head of hair the next day.  In so doing, things go ... in an unexpected direction.  If you're disturbed by the notion of a foreign hair on your tongue, this might not be a movie for you.  Bonus points for appearances by the super-hot Sheena Easton and the similarly super-hot Debby Harry.

The final segment of the film is "Eyes," which is directed by Tobe Hooper and stars Mark Hamill (!) and Twiggy (!!).  It's highly predictable, but features an enthusiastic performance from Hamill.

All things considered, this is an extremely minor entry in Carpenter's canon, but one that isn't without its merits.

#19:  Memoirs of an Invisible Man  (1992)
Not by any means a good movie, I still enjoy it to a mild degree.  Its biggest sin is two-fold: it casts Chevy Chase in a serious role, and yet then tries on occasion to be whimsically funny.  For the record, I think Chase was decent in the role, and that if everyone involved had just committed to making a straightforward thriller, he might have done quite well and ended up with a different career.  It's also tempting to think Carpenter's career might not have slumped so badly afterward, but those are pointless wishes; we're stuck with what we're stuck with.  And I think that, far from being a disaster, what we're stuck with is a misfire that isn't as bad as its reputation, but isn't very good either.

#18:  Ghosts of Mars  (2001)
Alright, now we're getting somewhere. 

Look, can I be honest?  

I like this movie.  Yeah, it's cheesy.  So what?  I like the cast ... even Ice Cube, who appears to be stoned approximately to 197% of capacity for most of the film; and especially Natasha Henstridge, who is rather good at playing a take-charge badass.  The aliens -- which inhabit human bodies and then do messed-up body-mod things to them -- are disappointing, but they don't kill the movie for me, and the Reavers in Firefly appear to have sprung from the same idea-well.

Finally: I dig the score, which is so far the last one Carpenter has done, and was at that time his best in over ten years.

#17:  Vampires  (1998)
I didn't like this movie much when it came out, but I wasn't a huge Carpenter buff then, and I was expecting something really scary.  I didn't get it, and it frustrated me.  Something about the movie stuck with me, though -- there I am saying that again -- and years later when I rewatched it, I got it: this was Carpenter finally getting to make his western.  I remember thinking when I first saw it that it would have much better with Kurt Russell instead of James Woods, but I've changed my mind on that: the whole point of that character is that he's a colossal prick, and Russell would not have been able to do that anywhere near as well as Woods did. 

As with the aliens in Ghosts of Mars, the vampires here are a letdown; I'd say it's more severely disappointing here than in Ghosts of Mars, in fact.  But there's a bizarre sweetness to the subplot of fat Baldwin and the hooker that makes up for it.  Not a great film, but not a bad one, either.

I've never seen the direct-to-video sequel Vampires: Los Muertos, which was not made by Carpenter, but I kinda want to: it apparently stars Jon Bon Jovi.  Excellent!  Less excellent (presumably): a third sequel, this one a completely unrelated fauxquel called Vampires: The Turning.  It's apparently got lots of martial arts in it, to which I say boo.

#16:  Cigarette Burns  (2005)

I'm tempted to write this one off and slot it a couple places further down on the list, but I just can't do it.  I like the idea of the movie -- this, like Pro-Life, was an episode of Masters of Horror (from its first season) -- and there are a couple of scenes that are thoroughly expert.  While I would by no means say it is classic Carpenter, it definitely demonstrated that he still had good work left in him. 

I do sorta wish he and the screenwriters had opted not to show any footage from the movie-within-the-movie, as there is no way for it to avoid being disappointing ... but I guess there was almost no way to do it otherwise.

#15: The Ward  (2010)

I've only seen it once, so maybe I'm being a little hasty here, but ... I really liked this movie.  I found myself hooked by it right off the bat, and while I must admit that I began experiencing a severe case of oh-no syndrome once the big "scare" scenes began, the resolution of it all worked for me completely.  I'm looking forward to going back and watching it again to see how it all plays on the second go-round.  The acting here is probably the most consistently good Carpenter has had in one of his films since ... well, since at least In the Mouth of Madness, and maybe even farther back than that. Amber Heard, Jared Harris, Danielle Pannabaker, Mamie Gummer, and Mika Boorem (whom you might remember as the little girl from Hearts In Atlantis) are all very good in their roles.

It's not a major return to form, and it's certainly not good enough to wipe away some of the mediocrity of the past two decades, but it's good enough that I sincerely hope Carpenter will make something else soon.  And it's certainly better than the other chicks-in-a-psych ward movie that I saw this year, the offensively awful Sucker Punch.

#14: Dark Star  (1974)
In some ways even more ponderous than 2001: A Space Odyssey (which is one of my favorite movies, by the way, so don't you Kubrickphiles go deluging me with well-crafted hate-mail), this flick is in some ways more enjoyable in the thinking about it than it is in the actual experiencing of it.  And yet, thinking about it can be awfully amusing.  That beach-ball of an alien, for instance, or the obstinate talking bomb, or the "surfing" scene at the end, or the country music.  Because it can make me chuckle when I'm not even watching it, it rates this high on the list, even if it frequently makes me yawn when I'm actually watching it.

#13: In the Mouth of Madness  (1995)
It doesn't entirely work.  For one thing, it looks cheap as hell, especially the "special" effects toward the end.  But it's creepy as hell, and Carpenter had the sense to cast Sam Neill in a leading-man role, and those things count for a lot.  As with The Thing, I still, despite multiple viewings, do not have any idea what is actually going on at the end of the movie.  And as with that movie, that's a good thing.

Stephen King fans will probably be amused by "Sutter Cane," the bestselling novelist whose latest tale of the uncanny is a real doozy.  H.P. Lovecraft fans will probably also see some familiar things, and rejoice in them.

#12: Someone's Watching Me!  (1978)
Ever heard of this movie?  Well, if so, you're better-informed than the average bear.  This was a made-for-television film Carpenter made shortly before he made Halloween, and it's interesting if for no other reason than the similarities it shares stylistically with that movie; in some ways, it feels like a run-up to Halloween.

But it's interesting for plenty of reasons apart from that: it's genuinely tense, the story is involving, and Carpenter is doing a very passable Hitchcock imitation.  The ending is a bit weak, but all in all, this is a minor gem.

#11: Elvis  (1979)
Another made-for-teevee flick, this one made after Halloween.  I'd be a liar if I said it all works; it doesn't.  In its first few acts, the movie bounces around from one scene to the next with no real flow or consistency, like a poorly-edited mix tape.  But even in those scenes, Kurt Russell is magic as Elvis.  The lip-syncing is perpetually out-of-sync, which is troubling, but it almost doesn't matter; Russell doesn't always sound much like Elvis, and that too is troubling at times.  But he moves like Elvis, and his energy is a good replica of Elvis's energy, and at some point the movie calms down and becomes more evenly-paced, more reflective, and heartbreakingly somber.

Lest you think the material seems like an odd fit for Carpenter, I'd remind you to consider how many of his movies deal with isolated loners who nevertheless find themselves having to deal with the outside world, which represents threats of one variety or another.  Good stuff.

#10: The Fog  (1980)
 I'll say it right up front: the end of this movie doesn't work.  Once they get in the church at the end, it just stops working.  Up until that point, though, it's pretty damn great.  The fog effects remain convincing; the ghosts remain creepy; the score remains evocative; the cinematography remains beautiful.  There are several quality jump moments, several more quality creep moments, and if you watch this movie once every October, I say good on ya, mate.

#9: They Live  (1988)

Here's another one where the end doesn't entirely work; are we spotting a trend here?  But you've got to love a movie that stars Rowdy Roddy Piper in its lead role; and a good movie that stars him in its lead role seems almost like a minor miracle.  Truth is, he's quite charismatic, and I'm a little surprised he didn't go on to have a better career in Hollywood as a result.  Seems like somebody ought to have put that fella to better use; and who knows, it may yet happen. 

I know a lot of people hate the alley fight between Piper and Keith David, but those people are nuts; that's one of the best fight scenes in Hollywood history, and so what if it does drag the movie to a grinding halt?!?  Schindler's List excepted, I can't think of too many movies I wouldn't happily see dragged to a grinding halt if they had that awesome a fistfight in the middle of the second act.  Fine by me. 

I also like Carpenter's bluesy score here, and the alien stuff is paranoid leftist fun, which sounds like a contradiction of some sort, but isn't.

#8: Christine  (1983)
#8  Christine  (1983)
This one has grown on me over time.  The novel is not one of my favorites by King; I like it just fine, it just isn't beloved to me.  As such, I don't much mind that the movie gets relatively little of it onscreen.  I also don't mind that the acting is uneven at best. 

Why don't I mind?  Well, the music is great, for one thing: both the source music (composed of great '50s rock) and the score, which is one of Carpenter's very best.  The cinematography is gorgeous, the special effects still look great even today, and the tone is chilly enough that I find the movie just haunted enough to work as a horror flick.  It's not scary; it's not even creepy.  But it's definitely got that hard-to-define chill that good movies of the genre sometimes have. 

Also, let me state for the record: I don't care that the dude playing high-school bully Buddy Repperton (a) appears to be 47 years old, (b) looks amazingly like Diet John Travolta, (c) can't act, and (d) can't act.  Why don't I care?  Because he has great, great hair, and is somehow still menacing despite all of these things working against him; but mostly it's the hair, which I would kill multiple people to possess.

By the way, everything from here on out on this little list is pretty much gold.

#7: Escape From New York  (1981)
Well, it's just plain fun, isn't it?  It's preposterous, it's hogwash, it's silly; but it's also a freakin' blast, still, after all these years.  And you know what?  I thought Snake Plissken would be taller, too.

From the great supporting cast (Isaac Hayes, Donald Pleasance doing a hideous American accent, Harry Dean Stanton, Adrienne Barbeau, Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine) to the terrific Carpenter score to the gleefully precise Clint Eastwood impersonation by Kurt Russell, this one is a keeper all the way.  Get that Escape From L.A. shit out of here!

#6: Assault On Precinct 13  (1976)
The acting is frequently awful.  This should matter, and doesn't.  The villains -- who may or may not be motivated in some obscure way by barely-referenced science-fiction elements -- do not behave like humans behave, even crazed ones.  This also should matter, and doesn't; it may even be part of the point of the movie.  Everyone always talks about the ice-cream-truck sequence, and guess what?  They should talk about it; it's righteously horrifying.  I love the camaraderie that develops between the guard and the prisoner, and I love who walks out of the movie alive, as well as how they do the walking. 

The score is repetitive as hell, and guess what else?  If I'd written a couple of themes that cool, I'd repeat them over and over again, too.  I actually liked the remake pretty well, but the original has some kiss of magic that the remake never even got close to attaining, despite the presence of the great Fishburne.

#5: Big Trouble In Little China  (1986)
Even more fun than Escape From New York, if you can believe that.  You'd have to have been a madman to take $25 million worth of 1986 money and use it to make this movie, and thank God John Carpenter was a madman around about that time. 

In a better version of this world, the movie would have been a gigantic success, and would have (a) catapulted Kurt Russell to Harrison Ford-like levels of superstardom, (b) kicked off a franchise that Carpenter and Russell would have pleased to revisit once every three or four years for the next couple of decades, and (c) given Carpenter all the clout he needed to just keep making whatever types of movies he felt like making.  None of that happened, of course, and we are all the poorer for it... 

...although we did get the next movie as a result, so it's not all bad news, I guess.

Son of  a bitch must pay...

#4: Prince of Darkness  (1987)
I'd never seen this movie until last year.  I'd never heard much of anything good about it, so I didn't feel much of a need to make it a higher priority.  Plus, how good could it be co-starring Alice Cooper as a homeless zombie? 

Turns out: pretty damn good. 

Now, granted: I've only seen it once, so maybe my opinion of it will wither a bit once I watch it again (which I plan to do as part of the old 2011 Halloween scary movie season fun).  The guy playing the lead role is a complete stiff, and one with an atrocious '80s mustache.  But the tension of the movie, combined with the excellent score by Carpenter and those super-creepy video-like dream sequences, have stuck with me for almost a year now, and that counts for something. 

By the way: the final shot is a doozy, and it made me think that Christopher Nolan might have had it in the back of his mind somewhere when he was making Inception (a movie even greater than this one, which is pretty doggone great).

#3: Starman  (1984)
Maybe it's the sentimental side of me coming out, but this is a movie I've loved for the better part of thirty years now.  Jeff Bridges and Karen Allen are just terrific in it, and goodness me, Karen Allen here is about as adorable as women get.  You couldn't see it, but I paused for some mental creepy-old-man time there; oh yes I did.

The story is sweet and romantic in a creepy sort of way.  The movie looks great, and while some of the special effects have aged poorly, I think this is still perhaps the best of the heirs to the throne of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial

Maybe Carpenter felt constrained or something by it, I don't know; but despite the three fine flicks he made right after this one, a part of me wishes he would have made some more movies like this one.  I still crack up when I think of the Starman saying the word "gas."

#2: Halloween  (1978)
There's really no point in me saying much of anything about this one, as it has all been said by people way smarter and funnier than I am. 

So what I'll restrict myself to saying is this: there have been scarier movies come out since, and there have been gorier movies come out since, and there have been creepier movies come out since, and there have been many better movies come out since ... but there has never been another movie that captured that mildly-scared feeling of excitement that always accompanied the holiday for me as a kid, or that quite managed to make me almost imagine I could the contradictory sensations of a slight chill in my arms mixed with the warmth of my breath bouncing back onto my face as it hit some cheap plastic mask.  I didn't see this movie until I was nearly out of college, and yet it still brought all those feelings rolling back; and it still does, every time. 

There's got to be some magic in that, and if you've noticed me using that word more than once in this essay, well, I'm okay with that.

(By the way, a side-note: I briefly considered including both Halloween II and Halloween III: Season of the Witch on this list.  Carpenter didn't direct either of them, but he produced and scored both, and co-wrote one of them, so they can sorta be considered to be Carpenter films.  However, it's only a sorta ... and since I've never seen Halloween III and couldn't find the time to do so before writing this, I decided against it.)

#1: The Thing  (1982)
Is there any doubt that this is Carpenter's best movie?  I think that the consensus would have had it as Halloween for quite some time, but that time seems to have passed.  I still love the '50s original, and this remake had the good sense to be vastly different in some ways while retaining so much of the tone that made the original so thrilling.  Amongst other joys, I love the cast here, and I honestly can't say that the practical effects have ever been matched.  The locations are just stunning, and the cinematography is the best Carpenter ever had (which is saying something).  I'm so-so on Ennio Morricone's score; I wish Carpenter had had a chance to score it himself, although Morricone does nothing at all to hurt the film.  There is some of the best canine acting you will ever see; Kurt Russell has a killer beard; Wilford Brimley, distressingly, has no mustache.

I don't know, man; there's just not much of anything to dislike here.


What more is there to say?

Only this: there are plenty of directors who have done better work on a consistent basis, and there are plenty of directors who have had careers even longer and more distinguished.  I myself wouldn't place Carpenter in the same ranks as my three favorite directors (Spielberg, Hitchcock, and Kubrick); nowhere even close, really.  However, as a body of work, I think Carpenter's is unique in its tone; nobody else has made movies that feel quite like his, and around this time very year, I start to yearn for some time spent soaking in that tone.

I know I'm not the only one, so by all means, hit up the comments section and tell me what your favorite Carpenter flicks are.


  1. awesome list, i am just catching up with the carpenter movies that i missed during my teens - i agree on 'in the mouth of darkness', its pretty good, 'prince of darkness' is also surprisingly good. i still have some flics i have to see like 'starman', 'big trouble in little china' and assault on precinct 13', looking forward to it.

    also, i might be the only person apart from you that liked 'ghosts of mars'. i actually liked it for him to make a movie that looks like a standard eighties flic. loved the soundtrack.

  2. Those are three good ones you haven't seen yet; I envy you getting to see them for the first time!

    Yeah, you know, "Ghosts of Mars" is fun. I guess I have to classify it as a guilty pleasure, but that's okay by me.

    Thanks for reading!

  3. my pleasure! its the best (and most complete) list of carpenter i've found so far :)

  4. Can't argue with this list, although I'm pleasantly surprised to see Prince of Darkness rated so highly. I like that one, as well.

    Have you seen Halloween III? Guilty pleasure, for me. I have a soft spot for terrible movies, it sometimes seems to me...

    Hence my enduring love of Ghosts of Mars. Which one day I'd like to write a book-length review of. That film is compulsively watchable, just for the amount of times the p.o.v. changes with the wind. Flashbacks within flashbacks that meander to other flashbacks... such fun.

    I kind of like "Cigarette Burns." Right up til the end, that is, where, as you correctly point out, some of the punch of the haunted-movie is removed by showing scenes from it that look like a standard video from early 90s alt-rock MTV.

    Carpenter's run from Halloween through In the Mouth of Madness (which is really watchable but still makes little sense to me; it feels like it just stops rather than ends properly) is amazing.

    1. I have indeed seen "Halloween III" (although I hadn't when I wrote this article). It's a terrible movie, but I kinda love it. If nothing else, the score is just awesome.

      If you write a book-length review of "Ghosts of Mars," you can go ahead and consider one copy sold.

      Have you seen "The Ward"?

    2. Interesting how you call Halloween III a "terrible movie". It's awesome actually. Whereas Halloween II is the biggest load of stinking shit out there. Still each to his own. Halloween belongs at 1, whereas 'The Thing' belongs at 20.

    3. Thanks for reading, Jamie! If nothing else, I definitely love the score to Halloween III. Which reminds me, I still haven't bought that CD. Need to make that happen at some point soon.

  5. Not yet! It's moving up the Netflix queue, though.

  6. Okay, just wanted to double back on this one, as Dawn and I watched both The Ward and The Fog on our honeymoon. (And it wasn't even my idea!)

    I was pleasantly surprised by The Ward. I didn't like the very-very-last scene, which was kind of silly, but it didn't undo the rest of the movie for me. Like you say, when compared to Sucker Punch, it's Citizen Kane. (Tho if SP had come out when I was 12, I have to admit, 12-year-old-Bryan would be think it was the Greatest Thing He'd Ever Seen.) Like you say, not a total return to form but pretty good and just good to see him not sucking up the joint. Still pulling for you, JC - don't pull an Oliver Stone!!

    And The Fog - exactly, that ending is just, yaaaaarrrg. But a very atmospheric (forgive the pun) flick. Perhaps a few too many Adrienne-Barbeau-yelling-to-her-son over the radio moments, but hardly enough to detract from the film's quality. And it showcased a different side of JC's film-score skills. (As did The Ward, come to think of it - if JC did indeed score The Ward.)

    I'm surprised more isn't made of Janet Leigh and Jamie Lee Curtis being the in the same movie, though it's entirely possible much has been made of it and I've just never read or seen it.

    That reminds me - I wanted to google the Loomis family. I saw the name in the crew-credits, and Nancy Loomis is of course in both The Fog and Halloween. (And Dr. Loomis needs no introduction here, naturally.) Family friends? Work friends? Both? Google me this, Mister Google...

    1. I think the Leigh/Curtis connection was a prominent part of the marketing of "The Fog" back in the day, but I can't really say for sure. It's a good movie; great Halloween-season viewing, and sure, the ending sucks, but that's okay; I forgive it.

      Glad you liked "The Ward"! I thought it was a solid b-movie. Carpenter did not score the movie himself, by the way. I can't remember who did, and am too lazy to look it up, but I liked the music; the main theme was good.

      Nancy Loomis is also in "Assault on Precinct 13," I think. She couldn't act for shit, but she sure was hot, in that naughty-librarian type of way. Which, frankly, is one of the BEST ways.

    2. Sloppy of me Re; The Ward score!

      Apparently Nancy Kyes aka Loomis is some kind of sculptress now. The same google search let me know she was in Halloween III as Tom Atkins' ex-wife, as well.

  7. I love "The Thing"... but think it's funny how seriously Carpenter takes it (based on the commentary track on the DVD).

    But, I can't make myself finish "Vampires".

    1. "The Thing" is definitely a movie that takes itself seriously, although there is a generous smattering of dark humor that pops up here and there. I always laugh during that scene where the guys are tied to the couch and one of them, revealed to be an alien, starts transforming; they freak out in a realistic, yet amusing, way.

      I can sympathize on the subject of "Vampires." A lot of Carpenter's movies are movies that I like -- or even love -- in spite of there being tons of reasons why I shouldn't. Not unlike a lot of the James Bond movies in that regard.

      Ever seen "Prince of Darkness"? I'd be curious to know what you think about that one.

  8. I agree with about 80% of your ranking. Big Trouble in Little China is sublime.

    1. It sure is! Glad we mostly see eye to eye. 80% is pretty good, really!

      Thanks for reading!

  9. Finally got my wife to watch Big Trouble In Little China with me last weekend. It's been my favorite film since I was a little kid. I must have gone through 3 VCRs while playing my taped from HBO VHS copy over and over again, the Blu-ray is amazing. I'd rank BTILC first and then The Thing second. ;) I'm actually wearing my "Lo Pan's High Cuisine" t-shirt as I type this comment!

    1. I've got the Blu-ray, but I haven't watched it yet; been saving it to do a Carpenter-thon at some point, possibly around Halloween this year. The movie is a huge amount of fun, no doubt.

      Did your wife enjoy the movie?

  10. Bryant you might enjoy this book coming out:

    Late to the party on this post. I'd go with Thing 1 and Big 2 but other than that I like some Carpenter stuff way more than you do. I thought although the acting was a little wonky but I thought Cigarette Burns was brilliant. I wish they had added another 20 minutes it would have been an excellent movie. Probably the best horror movie of that year.
    In the Mouth of Madness is one of my top 10 horror flicks. The lady on the bike is one of the spookiest shots ever. No punches are pulled on the ending either!
    I read Christine when I was 15 or so and thought it was just ok then I listened to it a year or two ago and I loved it, it shot up on my SK list after that. The movie was casted perfectly, even the old guy that sells him the car but it is a really stale movie.
    I've never seen Dark Star thought I was watching it at one point but I was actually watching Life Force.
    I love the music in Prince of Darkness, a movie I enjoyed way more the older I was. I think it's a classic. Same with They Live.
    I've never seen Vampires but I've heard the book by John Steakley is awesome. As well as his other book Armor.

    It's a shame he doesn't make movies much anymore, his work was truly ahead of his time.

    1. You're right; it is a shame. I even liked "The Ward," which is by no means a great movie, but was certainly worth my time.

      Thanks for the link to that article! I had not heard of that book before, but I will absolutely be buying it when it comes out.

  11. Your top 10 is spot on, and placing THE THING at number 1 confirms the fact that it has grown in popularity over the years, and has become a true sci-fi classic. The incredibly gruesome special effects are a wonder in pre-computerized movie-making. And ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK is definitely a top ten pick just for one outstanding feature...Adrienne Barbeau's cleavage!

    1. That was indeed an admirable cleavage.

      Looking back over that top ten, I gotta say -- man, that's an impressive set of movies. I think most directors would give their right eye to have a top ten as good.

  12. My advice: give In the Mouth of Madness another spin. Because, #13? Below Someone's Watching Me? Below Elvis: The Movie?? Below The Fog??? While I'd stack Big Trouble against The Thing for #1 and definitely have They Live in the top five (WHO hates the fight scene? I'm pretty sure everybody loves it), you make good arguments for their placement. But I'm actually pulling you over and asking to see your Carpenter Fan Card with Madness ranked so low. Especially considering what a huge Stephen King fan you are, I'm honestly kind of shocked. Everything that's great about a Carpenter movie (except maybe a flying sword fight in mid-air) can be found in that film. Please consider giving it another shot if you ever decide to update this list!

    1. Hmm. I'll stand by my rankings. I like "In the Mouth of Madness" a lot, but it feels excessively low-budget, which hurts the movie a bit for me, especially toward the end. It;s also got one of my least favorite Carpenter scores.

      I'd keep those other movies you mention ahead of it for the following reasons:

      "Someone's Watching Me" -- this is a very underrated movie, in my opinion, and I'm not sure I have it ranked highly enough here. The acting is terrific, Carpenter's command of the mise en scene (a term I dislike intensely but will use here nevertheless) is as strong as in virtually any of his films, and the story is strong.

      "Elvis" -- it's a bit disjointed in places, especially in the first half, but the darkness inherent in the second half is extremely effective, and gives the movie real resonance for me. Plus, Kurt is awesome; not to mention the music!

      "The Fog" -- I don't think the third act works at all, but those first two acts are magic. It's got a great Carpenter score, lovely cinematography, great performances, etc.

      So I still have to give them all the edge!

    2. I watched "In the Mouth of Madness" again a few weeks ago, and I do think I have to agree with you that it's better than I gave it credit for being when I wrote this post years ago. I'm still not sure I'd bump it up all that much, but I do think I like it better now than "The Fog," and maybe better than "Elvis." I continue to think "Someone's Watching Me!" is criminally underrated, though.

  13. I watched "Dark Star" tonight for the first time in a while, and enjoyed it. Considering the fact that it is essentially just a student film (which is to say that it is essentially an amateur film), I think it works fairly well.

    The scene with the beachball alien goes on a bit too long, especially the elevator shaft section. I mean, who's even using the elevator? Why is it going anywhere at all?

    It's a funny movie, at least at times; and what makes its humor work (when it does work) is the fact that the actors all take it seriously. O'Bannon as Pinback has a few moments when he seems almost too self-aware, but mostly, we're allowed to stand outside what's going on and laugh AT it rather than with it.

    To some degree, this mirrors the stance Kubrick took in "2001" (a movie that very obviously influenced "Dark Star"). We're standing outside most of the events of that movie, too. And while the space-trucker aesthetic and the rampantly weird humanity seems to be a mild repudiation of Kubrick, the two movies end up with having some commonalities.

    I see more of O'Bannon in the movie than of Carpenter, but Carpenter's fuck-the-system sense of ethics is certainly on display right here at the outset of his career. And I really like the song "Benson, Arizona," which is certainly the most effective country-and-western song ever written for a sci-fi film. Take that, "Firefly"!

  14. I rewatched "Assault on Precinct 13" tonight, and I think it might have it ranked a little too far up on this list. That's not to suggest it isn't a worthy movie; it is, and though I still have a few problems with it here and there, it remains a highly entertaining piece of work nearly forty years later.

    But better than "Escape from New York," "They Live," and "Christine"?!?

    I'm pretty sure 2015 Bryant disagrees with 2011 Bryant about that.

  15. Regarding "Someone's Watching Me!" (which I rewatched tonight):

    I have to say, I really like this movie a lot. It's by no means perfect -- some of the plotting is weak, to say the least -- but given the fact that it was apparently filmed in something less than ten days, it's really quite good.

    My favorite element? Lauren Hutton. Some reviewers seem to feel that she's irritating in the degree to which she is a wisecracking and feisty protagonist, but that's what I like so much about both the performance and the character. She's funny, she's charming, she's beautiful; she's scared by what is happening to her, but she also has a majorly fierce streak to her that means when she comes home (spoilers ahead!) at the end of the movie and finds that the stalker is hiding somewhere inside, she doesn't run away. Okay, to be fair, she does TRY to run away; but when -- in one those aforementioned bits of weak plotting -- she discovers she can't, she goads the man into showing himself so that she can try to fight back against him.

    For network television in the late seventies, it ain't bad.

    I'd also totally forgotten that Adrienne Barbeau plays a lesbian. I cannot imagine this was a common thing for 1978 tv programming. Pretty cool!

    Well worth a look if you've never seen it, and probably worth a revisit if you haven't.

  16. I love this list, and agree with pretty much the entire ordering though I admit I haven't seen ALL the films listed (Cigarette Burns, Elvis, Someone's Watching Me and Dark Star).

    I would definitely put The Thing at #1... NO CONTEST. It has been not just one of my favorite horror/sci-fi movies of all time but one of my favorite movies of all time (I would put it in my top-ten movies to take to a desert island along with Shawshank, Godfather, Princess Bride, 12 Monkeys, LOTR and some others).

    I would have Halloween and #2 and Prince of Darkness at #3, though I was sorely tempted to put Prince of Darkness at #2 just because it freaked the hell out of me when I first watched it as a kid and I still love it now. But it is hard to argue that Halloween isn't the better movie.

    Have you seen The Thing prequel? I actually thought it was pretty great. If you watch The Thing prequel and The Thing back-to-back it is pretty amazing how consistent the movies are, not just in atmosphere but in the actual sets, backgrounds, etc.

    Anyways, great list!

    1. I did see the prequel. I didn't hate it, but it didn't do much for me; too much CGI, too little willingness to really go for the throat. Not awful, though, by any means.

      You should definitely check out those four Carpenter movies you haven't seen. They are all well worth seeing.

      I give a big thumbs-up to any Carpenter fan who even considers putting "Prince of Darkness" that high. Man, I love that flick. Got to see it on the big screen a couple of years ago; that movie fares very well in a cinema.

  17. I rewatched "Prince of Darkness" today. When and if I revise this list, I think I may move it all the way up to #2. It seems better every time I watch it.

    For example, I had the pleasure of seeing it on a big screen last year, and boy does it work that way. The movie looks terrific, and Carpenter's direction is about as assured as it had ever been.

    More than that, it's creepy, and tense, and thoughtful. Jameson Parker's performance has grown on me quite a bit, and I also REALLY like Lisa Blount. But really, the whole cast is great; Donald Pleasance is even better here than in "Halloween," Victor Wong is wonderful, Dennis Dun is fun, and so forth.

    I need to do a proper series of John Carpenter movie reviews.

    1. I approve such a bold re-ranking of "Prince of Darkness!"

      What a crazy and genuinely unsettling movie. Everything you said and then some.

      I occasionally toy with the idea of doing a Carpenter Worst-to-Best, but I'm not sure my own list would be different enough or my insights so-original-they-MUST-be-expressed-damn-the-torpedoes to justify it. I'd rather just read this one.

      We watched "Starman," sheesh, 3 or 4 years ago now (that went by quick) and I remember thinking you were right to place it so prominently. It's a really different film for him, but it feels very much at home in his filmography.

      I think since leaving my original comments, I've watched "Ghosts of Mars" maybe 5 or 6 more times. What the hell is it with that movie?

    2. I need to get that on Blu-ray. I've been trying to convert to Blu on his movies a bit at a time, mostly around Halloween every year; this year I went with "Body Bags" and "Village of the Damned," but I think next year is going to be "Ghosts of Mars" for sure.

      His movies do seem to age surprisingly well. I'm not sure why that is, but I'm sure I'm eventually going to try to figure it out in long-form blog posts.

  18. I rewatched "Cigarette Burns" a few days ago. It totally holds up, provided you bear in mind that it was an episode of early-'00s television. You feel the (lack of a) budget at times, and there's some gratuitous nudity that feels a bit icky -- it's the week of the Harvey Weinstein implosion in Hollywood as I write this, so I'm scared to even admit that I am aware naked women have breasts and such -- but on the whole, this is good stuff. And seeing the few clips of "La Fin Absolue Du Monde" didn't bother me at all here; Carpenter stays on the right side of not showing much.