John Carpenter is a bona fide Master of Horror, a true renaissance artist, and a hero of our beloved genre. Next to Alfred Hitchcock, Carpenter may be the most influential cinematic fear practitioner in history. While his movie output slowed to a crawl in the 1990s, he remains active in horror as a synthesizer musician of unusual talent, and a producer of many films (including some of the most prominent adaptations of his work).
Today is John Carpenter’s 69th Birthday, so it seemed like the perfect opportunity to count down his Top 10 most significant contributions to horror cinema. Obviously, my personal preferences play a part, so you may or disagree with what I consider to be his best offerings. Still, there’s simply no understating Carpenter’s contributions to horror. Things just wouldn’t be the same without him!
All of us here at Horror Freak News wish John Carpenter a happy birthday, with many more to come!
Official Synopsis: On a cold Halloween night in 1963, six year old Michael Myers brutally murdered his 17-year-old sister, Judith. He was sentenced and locked away for 15 years. But on October 30, 1978, while being transferred for a court date, a 21-year-old Michael Myers steals a car and escapes Smith’s Grove. He returns to his quiet hometown of Haddonfield, Illinois, where he looks for his next victims.
John Carpenter’s Halloween instantly became the gold standard by which all future slasher movies would be judged. Michael Myers remains one of horror’s elite boogeymen, influencing legions of less impressive iterations. Halloween cemented Jamie Lee Curtis’s status as a Scream Queen and an actress with the skills to pay the bills. To this day, Halloween is a favorite among long-time and recent Horror Freaks alike.
The Fog (1980)
Official Synopsis: Legend says that Antonio Bay was built in 1880 with blood money obtained from shipwrecked lepers, which no one believes. On the eve of the town’s centennial, many plan to attend the celebrations, including the murdered lepers.
Carpenter took the haunted house horror trope to grand new levels by creating a chilling tale about a haunted town. The story of an army of ghost descending on a coastal community with a dark past remains chilling and engrossing. The subtexts of exclusion and financial manipulation feels somehow relevant again as we prepare for a transition of power in America. The sins of the fathers will be visited upon the sons. The Fog is also notable for featuring mother and daughter Janet Leigh and Jamie Lee Curtis in the same film.
Escape from New York (1981)
Official Synopsis: In 1997, when the U.S. president crashes into Manhattan, now a giant maximum security prison, a convicted bank robber is sent in to rescue him.
John Carpenter’s first foray into dystopia was a huge success, thanks in no small part to Kurt Russell’s epic portrayal of one-eyed Snake Plissken. (Isaac Hayes is pretty damn awesome too!) The idea of the entire island of Manhattan being transformed into a maximum security prison is both terrifying and compelling. Carpenter recently sued the pants of Luc Besson for excessively borrowing elements of EfNY for 2012’s Lockout; a judge agreed that Besson was, indeed, more than just unoriginal. EfNY spawned a decent sequel, 1996’s Escape from L.A., which upped the campiness and special FX. It’s nonetheless an irreverent and entertaining romp.
The Thing (1982)
Official Synopsis: It’s the first week of winter in 1982. An American Research Base is greeted by an alien force, that can assimilate anything it touches. It’s up to the members to stay alive, and be sure of who is human, and who has become one of the Things.
The next time you hear someone complaining about how they hate Hollywood horror remakes, simply respond: “Really? You hate The Thing?” Then drop your mic and leave a fool speechless. What many consider to be Carpenter’s greatest achievement is a remake of 1951’s The Thing from Another World (based on the novella Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell, Jr.). The Thing remains an exemplar of practical FX, with scenes of gore and viscera that still turn jaded 21st Century stomachs. As with Escape from New York, Kurt Russell was an invaluable asset as R.J. MacReady.
Official Synopsis: A nerdish boy buys a strange car with an evil mind of its own and his nature starts to change to reflect it.
While rarely regarded as one of Carpenter’s best, Christine is both a unique and compelling entry in his cannon, and one of the truest adaptations of a Stephen King novel ever made. In many ways, I consider Christine a sister to Carrie, as both deal with the catastrophic consequences of high school bullying and feature teens who explode after being pushed too far. If you’ve never given this one serious consideration, do yourself a favor and give it a whirl ASAP.
Official Synopsis: An alien takes the form of a young widow’s husband and asks her to drive him from Wisconsin to Arizona. The government tries to stop them.
Don’t hate me for including this unabashedly romantic action tear-jerker that isn’t even a horror movie! Starman is more than just an anomaly in Carpenter’s filmography, it’s an engrossing and bizarre upending of established sci-fi tropes. Never has sex with an alien been portrayed with such genuine sincerity; it’s a scene of two beings actually making love (as opposed to fucking). And I guarantee you’ve never seen Jeff Bridges quite like this. Okay, I’ve got a soft spot for Starman that may not be shared by my fellow Horror Freaks. I always appreciated that Carpenter took a break from scaring the shit out of me and, instead, inspired me to dream of finding a soulmate. Ravage me if you must!
Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
Official Synopsis: An All-American trucker gets dragged into a centuries-old mystical battle in Chinatown.
Carpenter and Russell make for a dynamic duo once again in the infectious and exhilarating Big Trouble in Little China. While definitely a treat for Horror Freaks, BTiLC is also a treat for fans of action, strange creatures, and side-splitting comedy. The breakneck pacing and mind-boggling beasties make Big Trouble in Little China an enduring classic. Rumors of a remake staring and produced by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (reteaming with San Andreas director Brad Peyton) have been circulating for over a year with little apparent movement.
They Live (1988)
Official Synopsis: A drifter discovers a pair of sunglasses that allow him to wake up to the fact that aliens have taken over the Earth.
I discussed this film at length in an article exploring its renewed relevance, as the themes explored in the film have proven alarmingly accurate in our increasingly dystopian society: They Live is definitely a time-capsule of the 1980s, but it was so ahead of its time, it can feels like prophecy come true. It’s a testament to the genius of John Carpenter, as well as the serious issues of mass media manipulation that has turned huge factions of society into steeple. Misleading media is even been seen as a factor in the recent Presidential election. And, of course, The Live is an awesome memorial to “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, a pro-wrestler-turned-actor who was lovingly reviled; Piper passed away in 2015. (https://horrorfreaknews.com/ahead-time-incredibly-relevant-live)
In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
Official Synopsis: An insurance investigator begins discovering that the impact a horror writer’s books have on his fans is more than inspirational.
In the Mouth of Madness, inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft, is Carpenter’s most nuanced and mind-bending cinematic achievement. It’s a film that obliterates barriers between dimensions, pulling back a daunting curtain for a hideous reveal. Sam Neill is brilliant as John Trent, a man whose psyche is pushed beyond its metaphysical breaking point—with shocking results.
Cigarette Burns (2005)
Official Synopsis: With a torrid past that haunts him, a movie theatre owner is hired to search for the only existing print of a film so notorious that its single screening caused the viewers to become homicidally insane.
John Carpenter’s contributions to the Showtime series Master of Horror, specifically the episode Cigarette Burns, are among the best of the batch. Staring a pre-Walking Dead Norman Reedus, it’s the tale of the hunt for a film so dangerous, simply watching it will drive a viewer to madness. In addition to being a sensationally engrossing story, it’s a metaphor for the effects of violence in cinema and an ongoing debate regarding art’s ability to both soothe and devastate souls.
What do you consider John Carpenter’s greatest horror movies? Did your favorites make the list? Sound off in the Comments section!