As legendary cult director John Carpenter turns 69, VHS Revival looks back at five of his best.
Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
What better place to begin than with Carpenter’s original cult classic? A bleak ode to Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo, Assault of Precinct 13 is a precursor to the dystopian pictures that would follow, the tale of a soon-to-be defunct precinct put under siege by a group of heavily-armed gangbangers in the Wild West of South Central Los Angeles.
The movie is very much cowboys at high noon, but also pays due homage to George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, as a group of cultural opposites team-up to protect their fateful territory. Carpenter blurs the lines of not only black and white, but of our perceptions of good and bad, as cops and criminals ditch their societal roles for stripped-down characteristics that see them sink or swim as a consequence.
The film is both wonderfully simple and devastatingly violent – a scene in which a child is shot dead at close range proving particularly unsettling – and Carpenter’s sense of pacing helps to produce a low-budget triumph of startling potency. The film also gives us the director’s first iconic hero in Wilson, a coolly subversive blueprint for some of the filmmaker’s more memorable protagonists.
Carpenter was always at his best when backed into a financial corner, and some of his later, bigger budget offerings were something of a letdown. But this is the great man at his most resourceful. Armed with a Steadicam and a cast of relative unknowns he would rely on his technical mastery and musical intuition to establish a mounting sense of dread that is as potent in the drab palettes of the daytime as it is in the dead of night.
Take the scene where an oblivious Nancy (Annie Brackett) flirts while our monster’s mask dissolves in and out of darkness, or the close-up of a sobbing Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) as an emotionally detached Michael sits up in the background, triggering the first urgent notes of Carpenter’s blood-curdling original score.
Of course, every great slasher needs an iconic killer, and there is none more memorable than the ghost-faced Myers, a largely docile brute whose giant, dead eyes ooze detachment. There are some classic boogeymen in the horror lexicon, but who else can go from childlike inquisitiveness to animalistic brutality with such a sharp and devastating turn?
Pessimistic about the shoddy array of potential masks at his disposal, Carpenter would cut holes in the eyes of a William Shatner mask and spray it white in order to define his most iconic creation.
It’s amazing what poverty can do for human ingenuity.
The Fog (1980)
Perhaps sensing that the iconic Myers would be a hard act to follow in terms of creating an emblematic threat, Carpenter chose to disguise his next lurking horror behind a cloud of drifting fog, as a gaggle of ethereal pirates terrorise the secluded residents of Antonio Bay, seeking revenge for past discrepancies.
Perhaps not as visceral as its seasonal predecessor, the movie relies on a stylish, slow-building tension, utilising the kind of eerie, minimalist score the director is so adept at producing, while the creaking sound design helps to maintain a breathless sense of foreboding as our cast of characters meet their demise.
Like Myers before them, there is something of the omnipotent about The Fog’s invisible antagonists, and a futility for our victims that becomes all the more excruciating because of the film’s driftwood pacing. For most director’s, it would be nigh-on impossible to follow the likes of Halloween, but Carpenter managed it with typical aplomb.
Escape from New York (1981)
Kurt Russell’s Snake Plissken is perhaps Carpenter’s most iconic character, a growling cynic with little time for authority and a nihilistic aura that hints at a beleaguered past of government betrayal. So well-defined and worthy of our respect is the legendary Snake, that he would go on to influence one of the world’s best-loved video game franchises, his image and persona as potent and relatable as ever.
Escape from New York features one of the all-time great movie set-ups as our unwilling protagonist is plunged into the city of New York, now a maximum security prison governed by its own rules. After the president crash-lands in Manhattan, Plissken is released from prison with the condition that he retrieve the nation’s leader in time to deliver a war-preventing speech, and is secretly implanted with a microscopic device set to detonate within 24 hours, a dastardly trick which proves all the motivation our self-serving antihero needs.
The movie is a stunning dystopian spectacle which still impresses almost forty years later, a testament to the director’s resourcefulness and creativity, while the synth-heavy soundtrack proves one of his best and most endurable. The movie also features some of Carpenter’s most memorable characters, from the draconian, jive-talking Duke, to Donald Pleasence’s heartless president, to snivelling gang slave and former deserter Brain. Then we have the eye patch sporting, no-nonsense Snake, the kind of legend whose name is uttered with great reverence by those who presumed him dead, and who contrives to deliver one of cinemas most satisfying pay-offs.
The Thing (1982)
A remake of 1951’s Cold War sci-fi vehicle The Thing from Another World, Carpenter’s vastly superior effort is arguably his greatest ever achievement. Set in a secluded research outpost somewhere in the Antarctic, it is the story of a team of scientists set upon by a parasitic alien entity, whose shape-shifting capabilities plunge the entire crew into a state of erosive paranoia.
Compared to the director’s previous features, The Thing has a relatively big budget, and Carpenter makes every dollar count as replicated crew members morph and melt into a plethora of surreal horror creations, a mixture of bravura special effects and the director’s legendary resourcefulness culminating in a breathtaking Grand Guignol of masterful pacing. The director was even able to collaborate with legendary film Composer Ennio Morricone, who produced one of his most memorable pieces for the movie, a sparsely bleak Carpenter-esque theme which throbs with a quietly insidious sense of foreboding.
It is these factors, along with a tightly-plotted screenplay and fine central performances, that elevates the movie above much of what Carpenter had and would produce. Along with Halloween, it is perhaps the director’s most accomplished work to date, and a true genre masterpiece.