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Directors Cuts: Top 5 John Carpenter Movies

Like Doug Benson, I also love movies. More than that, I love getting into specific filmmakers and seeing all I can of their work. A particular director’s oeuvre and growth and the like is something I find fascinating. And so, friends, this is where this series will come in. Each week-ish, I’m going to pick a different director, one who’s done multiple great works, and try to rank my top five favorite of their films. Note: For this I’ll only be looking at feature films. So ones that have done exceptional TV or short film work won’t get those taken into consideration. Also Note: These are simply my choices, my opinion. I’m not saying definitively the five are the best categorically, they’re just the best as far as I’m concerned.

I don’t want to give myself any breathing room, either, so to start with, I’ve chosen one of my very favorites, and one who has made no fewer than 8 movies I legitimately love and another 5 I think are quite good. That director is John Carpenter, a man who revolutionized sci-fi and horror and made a string of fantastic movies in a career that dates back 40 years. His work is some of the most iconic and indelible of the 1980s especially, and his films have become staples of double features and retrospectives. But which five would I consider his best? The top two are very easy; the other three have proven exceedingly difficult.

5) They Live (1988)
This is a movie that grows on you. At first, you might laugh off the weird tone, the highly political social commentary, Roddy Piper’s very Canadian accent, or that now-infamous 45 minute fight scene between Piper and Keith David which accomplishes little more narratively than making one guy put on a pair of sunglasses. But, after awhile you’ll start to realize Carpenter was actually way ahead of his satirical time and used that off-kilter humor to make his point more effectively. What if everybody in power was an alien overlord and what if only one unemployed day-laborer knew the truth? It’s a quiet invasion, and it’s underneath our very noses. Inspired a bit by one of Carpenter’s favorite writers, Nigel Kneale, They Live is a bit weird and a bit out-there but it’s certainly become one of his most iconic.

4) In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
The last of what I would consider Carpenter’s truly great films, In the Mouth of Madness is actually quite unlike a lot of his work. It’s dark and apocalyptic, sure, but it’s about psychological horror, about the loss of self and the loss of the mind, and it’s about big, hulking greater evil than anything we could possibly imagine. Written by Michael De Luca, the movie feels a lot more like a Stephen King novel than a John Carpenter movie, with a healthy amount of H.P. Lovecraft thrown in for good measure. The writer as both creator and destroyer is a really terrifying idea, especially if it becomes the all-encompassing behemoth of the end-times. This is the movie that should have rejuvenated his career following a few duffs, but it instead ushered in a few more just-okay to not-very-good films to round out the 1990s.

3) Escape from New York (1981)
This is a movie that started awesome but has become even more so as the years have gone on and the post-apocalyptic movie landscape had grown exponentially. This is a man-on-a-mission movie with a very definite ticking clock element and a setting straight out of hell, making it sort of a Heart of Even Darker Darkness. Kurt Russell’s Snake Plissken is the coolest mothereffer you’re ever likely to see onscreen, complete with eye patch and growly Clint Eastwood impression and his mission is to go into the island of Manhattan, which is now a cut-off prison colony, and retrieve the president of the United States whose plane went down in there. If Snake succeeds, he’ll go free. If he doesn’t, a thing in his neck will explode and he’ll be dead. But everybody thinks he’s dead already anyway. Just a super-badass sci-fi action movie, and a very, very influential one.

Now, those three were the hard ones to choose for me because I also love Assault on Precinct 13, The Fog, and Big Trouble in Little China almost equally as much. I’ll probably revise this list in a couple of years because even now I’m not super sure. BUT, as far as my top 2 are concerned, nothing’s ever changing, except maybe which order I put 1 and 2. Today, though, the order is this:

2) Halloween (1978)
I can’t get over how much I adore this movie. I think it does everything right. It’s the simplest of stories but done in the most artful way possible. We follow a bunch of teenage babysitters on Halloween night who are being stalked by an escaped mental patient in a mask for no apparent reason other than they’re there. And from that absurdly basic framework, Carpenter and co-writer/producer Debra Hill were able to instill a huge amount of character into the three girls and the two little kids, as well as the movie’s Ahab Dr. Loomis played with benevolent creepiness by the great Donald Pleasence. And that driving, haunting score will exist in your brain and bones until the end of your life. The sequels may have made Michael Myers a monster, but it was this movie that made him a legend.

1) The Thing (1982)
And while we’re on the subject of perfection, Carpenter’s best film is another example of just how immensely talented the man is. This is one of the most paranoid and unsettling movies you’re likely to watch, but it’s also a thrill-ride and a delightful gross-out at times. A group of men are stationed at a research facility on Antarctica and are introduced to an alien entity that takes over organisms and blends in perfectly. Anyone could be The Thing, and if it gets to a more populated area, everyone, everyTHING on Earth could be next. A stellar cast led by Kurt Russell again and Wilford Brimley make the implausible scenarios feel reel as tensions flair, and the utterly gorgeous effects work by the legendary Rob Bottin are still impressive even in the age of CGI, and moreso if you’ve seen the wholly unimpressive prequel/remake. It’s truly my favorite John Carpenter movie and one that I discover more things about each and every time I watch it.

And there we are. The first installment of Directors Cuts in the books. Do you think I did a good job? Did I completely get it wrong? Let me know in the comments below and I’ll try to do better next week.

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  1. dom says:

    Big Trouble in Little China should be on this list.

  2. matt says:

    No BigTrouble? I is sads

    • Piratey says:

      ^^Agreed. The only thing that really bothered me about this write up is the complete omission of his music scores that he wrote and composed.