Thursday, February 4, 2016

John Carpenter, part XXIX: John Carpenter

A few closing remarks before we get to the numbers:

Over the past four months, we've had the pleasure (and, sometimes, the pain) of taking the journey through my third favorite living director's entire filmography—along with some essential detours here and there, into his career as a writer and producer, too.  If we're missing some of the more ephemeral things that have his name on them, I think the world will keep turning.  (Or has it stopped spinning 'round, just waiting for my reviews of Zuma Beach, Better Late Than Never, Blood River, El Diablo, and Silent Predators?  The last one's about snakes that bite people!)  No: I think we've done what we set out to do.  Carpenter, we've noted previously, will in all likelihood never make another film.  And you know what?  That's okay too—the man has earned his golden years.

Of course, Jason Blum deserves to be hissed for passing on the horror project Carpenter brought to him in 2014.  And who knows?  Maybe one day we'll even get to see Dead Space: The Motion Picture, a gossamer non-production to which Carpenter has been "attached" mainly in the sense that he helped out with some of F.E.A.R. 3's cutscenes, so we know he has some vague connections in the gaming industry, and that he gave an interview once where he said doing it would be cool.  But hell: stranger things than that have happened in Hollywood, and God knows that the adaptation of the Alien-inspired shooter would be just about the perfect ending to a career that began forty years ago with Dark Star, the Alien before there even was Alien.

Meanwhile, Carpenter is still making music, even if he has quit making pictures.  Check out Lost Themes, if you haven't already.  It's fucking fantastic.  (And Lost Themes II is right around the corner.)

Above all, JC's left us with his legacy: the 21 films he directed, and a few more worth looking at that he scripted.  Without Carpenter, we don't have the slasher genre.  Without Carpenter, metafictional horror would be defined solely by Wes Craven, and while I know there's folks out there who'd be okay with that, I sure as heck ain't one of them.  Without Carpenter, we don't have quite as many old-fashioned ghost stories, punched up with new-fashioned gore and hints of social commentary.  Without Carpenter, we wouldn't know just how awesome the end of the world could really be.  Without Carpenter, we're missing some of cinema's signal triumphs.  Without Carpenter, the 80s just wouldn't be as cool.  And without Carpenter, the medium would be noticeably poorer.  We salute his merger of the classic and the modern: his inimitable style, forever unpretentious, almost always easy on the eyes (and, of course, the ears!).  God bless you, John.

So, without further ado, this is the list:


21. ELVIS (2/10)
20. VAMPIRES  (4/10)
19. GHOSTS OF MARS (4/10)
18b. CIGARETTE BURNS** (4/10) 
18. ESCAPE FROM L.A. (5/10)
17a. EYES OF LAURA MARS*  (5/10)
17. DARK STAR  (5.01/10)
16. BODY BAGS  (6/10)
15a. PRO-LIFE**  (6/10)
14. HALLOWEEN  (7/10)
13. STARMAN (7/10) 
10a. BLACK MOON RISING*  (7/10)
9. THE WARD (8/10)
7. THEY LIVE (8/10)
6. THE FOG  (8/10)
5a. HALLOWEEN II*  (9/10)
4. CHRISTINE  (10/10)
2. THE THING  (10/10)

Films marked with one asterisk (*) indicate projects which Carpenter helped write, but did not direct; films marked with two asterisks (**) indicate TV episodes.  And yes, in case you didn't figure it out before, I'm obviously not the biggest fan of the original Halloween.  Indeed, I might well be the smallest fan, given the outsized enthusiasm with which its other fans tend to embrace it.

But, like it or lump it, that's my list.  However, if you've got the time, you can find a few more goodies, after the jump.

First, no Carpenter retrospective could ever be called complete without taking stock of his extraordinary scores (often in collaboration with his super-talented musical partner, Alan Howarth).

Let's forget for a moment that Carpenter is probably the greatest motion picture composer short of John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, and maybe a few other classical film score composers; let's forget, too, that if Carpenter isn't the single greatest composer of electronic scores in the business, it's only because Daft Punk's sole data point of TRON: Legacy slightly edges out Carpenter's top effort, and as far as the depth and breadth of a career goes, it's not doing too much violence to the word "best" to just give him the title.  But, seriously, let's forget all that.  I just want to remind you that John Carpenter is, as far as I know, the only film director who's ever lived to actually be considered a genuinely important musician, and his impact on the world of electronic music is incalculable.  But, hey, incalculability aside, let's throw some more numbers around anyway, along with a little further commentary:


17. IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS (5/10) (with Jim Lang)
Madness is Carpenter's best movie, and it features his worst score.  How's that for justice?  In any event, it starts out with some bad butt-rock—and it does gets better from there, I suppose, but it would have to, right?  I can't say I really dislike the Madness score all that much (Carpenter's not about to make legitimately obnoxious music), but can you even imagine the power Madness could have had if it had been paired with one of Carpenter's best instead?
16. VAMPIRES (5/10)
Um, did Carpenter actually score this one?  Well, IMDB says he did, and I can remember absolutely nothing about it, good or bad.  It comes in at number 16 solely because I committed long ago to the notion that Madness was Carpenter's least effective score, and it would take more than what amounts to a memory of silence to change my mind.
15. ESCAPE FROM L.A. (6/10) (with Shirley Walker)
L.A. does pretty well (better than the movie itself, anyway) with a reorchestrated version of Carpenter and Alan Howarth's original theme from Escape From New York.  It's a little overwrought, but it's got a different texture to it (festooned with guitar stings, it's more rock than pure electronica), and I like it.  The overall soundscape, meanwhile, suffers a lot from some truly shitty rock music, but it's not fair to hold this against the score.
14. GHOSTS OF MARS (6/10) (with Anthrax)
Ghosts represents the only instance of Carpenter successfully merging metal with electronica, and, let's get real, it's still not all that successful. 
13. THEY LIVE  (6/10) (with Alan Howarth)
They Live has a score that's more appropriate than it is good.  It sets the mood successfully, and that's not nothing—hell, that's half the battle for a film score—but as an independent work, it's listenable, and deeply, deeply unmemorable.  I mean, I remember there's a harmonica in it, but that's about it.
12. BODY BAGS (6/10)
Speaking of unmemorable, I can't hum Body Bags' themes, but I vaguely recall that they were pretty good, not dissimilar to (a very understated) Halloween, and for "Gas Station," a short film set in Haddonfield, that's enough to do it for me.
11. DARK STAR (6/10)
Outside of the last twenty minutes, Dark Star's score is the best thing about it, and in many respects it announces Carpenter's talent far more clearly than the film itself does.
Village has a fucking amazing central theme, so why does it rank so low?  Because the central theme never shows up until the credits.  The rest of the score, like They Live, is mostly mood music.  It's better mood music, however—and, again, fucking amazing central theme.  The Village score is arguably Carpenter's most underappreciated work.
9. THE FOG (8/10)
Unlike most of Carpenter's better scores, The Fog doesn't have those hummable central melodies (or, in any event, melodies that stick right to the brain and force you to hum them).  But it evokes emotion as well as any of his greats, and at this point we've arrived at the scores that actively make the movies themselves better, often transforming films that would only be good into films that are great.
8a. THE THING (8/10) (by Ennio Morricone)
I know Ennio Morricone did it, but The Thing's score is so Carpenterian in tone and texture (while being very distinct from Morricone's usual work), that I find it a little difficult to believe that Carpenter did absolutely nothing, especially not when I know that Carpenter did write some tunes that weren't used.  Anyway, it's making this list mainly because, even if somebody else is responsible, it's a really good score that undergirds the paranoia of the piece.
8. BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (8/10) (with Alan Howarth)
Big Trouble is probably Carpenter's most understated score, which is an oddity amongst his collaborations with Alan Howarth, which tend to be loud and proud.  But as understated as it might be, it's still one of his best, full of neat little bits that drive this loopy adventure home.
7. HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH (8/10) (with Alan Howarth)
Speaking of loud and proud, Halloween III is actually, as I understand it, mostly a Howarth joint, rather than an equal effort between him and Carpenter.  I love it anyway.  I could listen to Howarth's electronic doom notes all day, and you definitely can't say it doesn't fit a film as goofily-serious as the incredibly goofy, incredibly serious Season of the Witch.
6. CHRISTINE (9/10) (with Alan Howarth)
Christine is Carpenter and Howarth's "least" score, but I only mean that in terms of quantity.  It consists, nearly exclusively, of a central theme, but this central theme is ridiculously good, capturing the hybrid tone of the film as perfectly as their score for Halloween III captures its.  However, it should be noted that I could be overrating Christine's soundscape, for it is also replete with 1950s hits, and whether Leigh likes it or not, God, I love rock and roll.
5. ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (9/10) (with Alan Howarth)
We're getting into the real all-time hits now.  I called it a "dirge" in my review, and that's still the best word I can think of to describe it.  Escape wouldn't even be that good a movie, if weren't for Carpenter and Howarth's score.
You could probably say the same thing about Assault on Precinct 13, which drives its tension with Carpenter's first unambiguously great piece of music.  Precinct 13, of course, establishes Carpenter's pattern of leaning heavily on a single theme, but Carpenter's movies are typically short enough to bear that burden, and rarely moreso than here.  Still, perhaps I should mention something I didn't mention in the review, which is that, at this early stage in his career, Carpenter may not have realized exactly what he had.  In Precinct 13, he has a marked tendency to cut his scenes without taking into account his music (or, more precisely, to write his music without fully taking into account the editing rhythm of his scenes)—so sometimes the score just hard stops into nothing.  Nevertheless, that theme is amazing, even if its presentation is a little scruffy.
3. HALLOWEEN II (10/10) (with Alan Howarth)
Essentially, the score for Halloween II is hardly distinct from the score for Halloween, but it does feature Alan Howarth reworking it a bit, making it a bit... dancier, perhaps.  I actually like them just about equally—and Halloween II's slightly jauntier tone fits the slightly jauntier mood of this balls-out slasher super-classic—but...
2. HALLOWEEN (10/10)
...Carpenter's solo theme for Halloween is absolutely priceless, one of the best single songs ever written, and deserves pride of place.
1. PRINCE OF DARKNESS (10/10) (with Alan Howarth)
But then there is Prince of Darkness, Carpenter and Howarth's electronic opera—and I mean that almost literally, the only distinction between this sound-driven masterpiece and an actual opera being that the two men wrote the score for the film, rather than the other way around.  Yet you could be fooled into believing that Darkness exists solely to provide a platform for this almost transcendent work, which marks Carpenter and Howarth's very finest hour and a half together in the realm of sound.


Long-time readers know I don't hold fast to strong versions of auteur theory, but for some directors, there's just no mistaking their pet themes and all their silly narrative peccadilloes, and with Carpenter—man—they are just right out there in the open: sleeping evils; apocalyptic endings; isolated communities in their uncanny, depopulated little worlds.  So, for a bit of fun, let's try to quantify the most Carpentery feature films of them all.  (And, for the purposes of fun, I'm including the two other Halloween films he wrote, but didn't direct; whereas I'm leaving out Body Bags, which was of course only an anthology film.)


20. ELVIS (5% Carpenter)
It's a fucking biopic, and a particularly hidebound example of the form, to boot.  Not Carpentery at all.
19. STARMAN (35% Carpenter)
Concerned primarily with a romance, and made with the avowed intention to try to be more like Steven Spielberg (which itself is strange, given that "romance" is usually the last thing any actual Spielberg movie is about), it's lucky that Starman is even as idiosyncratically Carpenter's as it is.  That's mainly because he relies as heavily upon Jack Nitzche's score as he would upon one of his own, and because of the truly grotesque metamorphosis of the Starman that opens up the film.
18. ESCAPE FROM L.A. (40% Carpenter)
It's a disaster of tone, and very few things could be less Carpentery than that.
17. SOMEONE'S WATCHING ME!  (40% Carpenter)
This one's really more like "De Palmian," right?
16. VAMPIRES (50% Carpenter)
The Western-ish setting and mood go a long way, but since when have Carpenter movies ever been this mean
The sci-fi underpinnings are there, as is the grab-bag of a plot, but ultimately, this one's better described as "Chasian."
14. THE THING  (65% Carpenter)
Sure, it's essentially a siege movie with a sci-fi twist, and it's a remake of a movie produced by Carpenter's own favorite director, Howard Hawks, but isn't The Thing a little too rigorous and sober-minded for JC?  Note that I bumped it up 5% thanks to that fucking terrible scene with Wilford Brimley and his flying fucking saucer.
13. THE WARD (65% Carpenter)
The Ward is Carpenter's only period piece, as long as we discount Elvis (and Christine, which technically takes place five years before its release), and that means it was never going to be totally Carpentery.  Plus, its reliance upon a bullshit twist ending (however enjoyable you find that twist ending) isn't really a Carpenter move either.  Yet there's something about the half-lark mood of The Ward that's right up his alley.  Maybe it's just that Yaron Orbach shoots it in a near-perfect imitation of Dean Cundey that makes me feel like The Ward's wholly of a piece with JC's Golden Age.
12. GHOSTS OF MARS (70% Carpenter)
A sleeping evil discovered in a siege scenario lifted staight out of an old, unreconstructed Western?  We're getting pretty seriously Carpentery now, but I was forced to dock points for two reasons: 1)the sophisticated narrative structure isn't very Carpentery; and 2)sucking isn't very Carpentery either.  I guess it's pretty Late Carpentery.
11. DARK STAR  (70% Carpenter)
Dark Star was Carpenter's first attempt at a small community isolated by science fiction circumstance; it would be pretty close to 100%, except the palpable rapport between the characters that would be felt no later than his very next film, Assault on Precinct 13, is undermined here by the fact that all the characters in Dark Star all hate each other.  However, it does touch on another of Carpenter's themes, that of the decay of civilization and the entropy that afflicts systems generally.
10. VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (70% Carpenter)
A remake of a Golden Age SF film is pretty Carpentery, and adding on a pseudo-apocalyptic ending is more Carpentery still.
9. CHRISTINE  (75% Carpenter)
Carpenter's best when he devotes himself to character and concept and iconic imagery, and Christine delivers.
8. IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS  (80% Carpenter)
Metafiction isn't really Carpenter's bag, but Sam Neill's noirish detective and his neo-screwball interactions with Julie Carmen's girl Friday put it up there, along with the mastery of mood Madness relies on to get its perception-wrecking points across.  Plus, there's a sleeping evil here, of sorts, although I reckon Sutter Cane just dreamed it up.  And obviously, the world actually ends in this conclusion to Carpenter's Apocalypse Trilogy, and that just cannot be overlooked.
7. THE FOG  (85% Carpenter)
The Fog is possibly Carpenter's all-time best effort at creating a believably weird community.
6. HALLOWEEN  (90% Carpenter)
Alongside efficient characterization, Halloween is Carpenter's first and purest exploration of the concept of the sleeping evil...
5b. HALLOWEEN II  (92% Carpenter)
...but Halloween II is a little sillier, which, let's face it, is a JC trademark, too.
Having gotten back into The X-Files, I think Chris Carter might actually owe Carpenter and Debra Hill some royalties for this film.  Carpenter didn't direct this one (nor Halloween II), but an unbelievably goofy plot melded to a serious (but not overly dour) mood is Carpenter right to the bone.  As is Tom Atkins having sex with a teenager.
5. ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (95% Carpenter)
Between its examination of American civilizational decay and the repackaging of conservative fears into a burly, awkward actioner, all of it driven by a pulsing, pounding, slightly sad score, we're approaching saturation levels of Carpenter.
4. ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13  (96% Carpenter)
Just like Escape From New York—only moreso.
3. THEY LIVE (97% Carpenter)
Probably no film epitomizes JC's politics as well as They Live, and not many of them so thoroughly epitomize "make-it-up-as-we-go-along plotting" either.  In fact, only the next two can be said to exceed They Live in that respect.  Oh, and is the action awkward?  You bet it is!
Ridiculous yet brilliant?  Now that's what Carpenter is all about.  It's only not 100% because it's maybe just a little too cunning and sly.
1. PRINCE OF DARKNESS  (100% Carpenter)
Hell, I've already made a list why this is the Ultimate Expression of the Things John Carpenter Likes, but the biggest reason is the union of sound and sight—with, if anything, the emphasis being placed on the sound rather than the sight.


And one more quick bonus list!  Ace cinematographer Dean Cundey was, for about a decade, Carpenter's single most essential collaborator not named "Howarth," and after they had their falling out, JC's films never looked quite as good.  Now, it's unclear what happened, although the gossip-monger in me wants to start a rumor about Cundey moving up the Hollywood ladder, using Zemeckis and the Back to the Future Trilogy as rungs as he climbed toward the pinnacle of Spielberg—only to be thrown over immediately for Janusz Kaminski, and relegated to doing shit like Garfield and Adam Sandler's Jack and Jill.  Well, whatever the cause of their friction, it's a real bummer they never got this band back together.


5. HALLOWEEN (9/10)
3. THE FOG (9/10)
2. HALLOWEEN II (10/10)
1. THE THING (10/10)


Well, I guess I could just go on doing this forever, but all good things must come to an end.  John Carpenter, you were—and you remain—the man.  Thanks for reading, everyone, and I'll welcome you just as sweetly to our next director retrospective series, this time focusing on an obscure little fellow by the name of Robert Zemeckis.


  1. I find it incredibly amusing that two of the greatest contributors to the modern horror genre (Carpenter and Craven) were also two of the silliest filmmakers to crash land on this planet.

    Thank you for this terrifyingly complete retrospective, venturing places I've never dared to go. I admire your perseverance, and these extra lists were delectable. Carpenter's music is so frequently undercooked and you paid it marvelous tribute.

    He's getting SO close to touring America with his Lost Themes II tour. Maybe your reviews earned enough good karma to tip the scales of probability in the right direction?

    1. They are pretty silly, ain't they? But at Carpenter's best, anyway, the silly and serious met as friends.

      Thanks for the kind words, Brennan! It was sometimes a slog, especially through the later years. That's how it's such a pity more people don't like The Ward--for them, it must seem like a solid two decades of crap. (Then again, a lot of people like "Cigarette Burns," and I cannot figure out why.)

      For the most part, though, it was an awful lot of fun, considering it represents about 58,000 words of effort (and who knows how many hours of watching movies, researching, and editing).

      But I think with Zemeckis I might stick to the canonical works, and not the apocrypha. Yeesh.

  2. You got some real commitment to go through all of Carpenter's films, I tip my hat to you.

    1. Thanks, Zach! Took a while, but it was worth it.