Everyone loves John Carpenter – a master of horror, suspense, action, science fiction and more, and the creator of some of the most iconic characters in film history. As a big fan of his work, it was an almost unenviable task to pick the top five films from Carpenter's career. But after thinking long and hard I whittled it down to these five choices, in no particular order ...
Escape From New York
Easily my favourite film that John Carpenter has made, it has all the tropes of a classic western as the lone gunslinger form the wrong side of the tracks has to save the damsel – or, in this case, US President – in distress. Escape From New York is a very unique proposition, with Kurt Russell in phenomenal form as Snake Plissken, easily one of the best cult action heroes of all time. Plissken is a perfect anti-hero reluctantly working for "the man" but ultimately guided by his own code of morals. The post-apocalyptic world created by Carpenter feels very realistic and unlike some of his contemporaries, there is nothing glamourous about the world he creates. Post-apocalyptic New York is a dirty, grimy and utterly dangerous place. However, for me it is the little details that make this such a believable world, such as the throwaway line at the beginning of the film that Lee Van Cleef's Bob Hauk mentions to Plissken, about flying the Gullfire over Leningrad during the war. It provides some minor exposition for later in the film, but also contextualises the world as one in which the US and Russia had been at war, built without ever having to go into all the details, as though it is just assumed knowledge of the world around them. Donald Pleasance is brilliantly slimy as the President (who is inexplicably English), Van Cleef is great as Hauk, and Isaac Hayes is amazingly campy as The Duke of New York complete with chandeliers attached to his car bonnet. The ridiculous elements like that counterbalance the grimy aesthetic, which makes for a really out there, but entirely engrossing world. As is a staple of the best Carpenter movies, the soundtrack is dark, synth-heavy affair which adds an atmospheric edge to proceedings, and when coupled with the iconic Jamie-Lee Curtis-voiced intro sequence, creates something truly special.
Big Trouble in Little China
Just to get this out of the way, form the off, Big Trouble in little China is completely bonkers, but that is what makes it so enjoyable. This film has absolutely everything, ninjas, 80s special effects, exploding buildings, Kurt Russell doing his best John Wayne impression, a young Kim Cattrall as a sassy reporter, plus several other Carpenter regulars playing it straight despite the ludicrously over-the-top story going on around them. James Hong's turn as David Lo Pan is both flamboyant and menacing throughout, and provides a lovely antagonist for Russell's Jack Burton. A feast of martial arts action, worth a comedic twist, and its tongue firmly lodged in its cheek. Just remember, it's all in the reflexes.
Another Kurt Russell collaboration (with Carpenter regular Keith David also featuring heavily), and arguably the second most well-known of Carpenter's films, The Thing is an absolute masterclass on many levels. A quasi-remake of the Christian Nyby/Howard Hawkes classic The Thing From Another World, Carpenter’s adaptation is a completely different beast despite retaining many of the tenets of its predecessor. The remote snowy setting and the mixture of the Ennio Morriconne soundtrack fleshed out with distinctive Carpenter synths makes for an eerie and tense atmosphere. The suspense card is played slowly and deliberately, before all hell breaks loose with some of the best practical effects work I've ever seen. This should have been the break out hit for Carpenter, but sadly it was released on the same day as ET: The Extraterrestrial, and that version of alien life was perhaps somewhat more palatable to the masses than that of The Thing. However, this film is still revered for its bold storytelling and tense jump scares which still stand up today. If you're not sold on this as a modern horror classic after the scene with the blood testing by flamethrower, then there will be no convincing you. Russell is once again excellent here as McCready, and his flamethrower-based no-nonsense approach only serves to ramp up the tension throughout.
We Sleep, They Live. The cult film that launched a number of memes, They Live is arguably Carpenter's most political film. They Live uses an alien invasion, happening right under our noses to take a shot at the 1980s consumer culture, which is just as relevant today as it was when the film was released. Form WWE and WCW superstar the late- "Rowdy" Roddy Piper stars as John Nada, a drifter who gets a job on a construction site, only to stumble upon the conspiracy of the aliens who enslaved the human race. I know it sounds high concept, but this film is multi-layered, exploring a number of themes on a philosophical level including the human tendency towards consumption. Piper is fantastic, despite this being his first major leading role, and his fight scene with Keith David is one of the longest, most realistic, and most brutal physical confrontations you will even see committed to film. A greatly underrated, but well-loved film and perhaps showcases Carpenter at his artistic best.
What list of films directed by John Carpenter would be complete without the inclusion of one of the most iconic characters in the history of the horror genre? Halloween and Michael Myers redefined the horror genre creating a news dynamic, and a new aesthetic which continue to inspire filmmakers to this day. The story may seem familiar now, but a star-making turn for Jamie Lee Curtis as well as a scenery chewing performance from Donald Pleasance help support the creation of one of horrors most enduring monsters. Michael Myers is Halloween, and his mask (an old William Shatner/Captain Kirk latex mask turned inside-out and painted white) knife and boiler suit are unmistakable. This still stands up alongside any slasher movie of the era, or since because Carpenter was smart with his ambitions, only showing as much as was necessary, instead letting the audience's imagination do the work that his modest budget perhaps could not. Halloween is one of the most important horror films of the 1980s, and I would of course be remiss not to mention the soundtrack, which in itself has taken on a life of its own and is instantly recognisable, another classically simple Carpenter move to create something unique and utterly brilliant.
Of course, I could only pick five, but I should also reserve special mention for Christine, Ghosts of Mars (for purely comedic reasons), The Fog, Prince of Darkness, Escape From LA and Village of the Damned – all of which were in consideration for this, but I feel these five films are the best work Carpenter put out, and represent the legendary director at the height of his creative powers.
Disagree? Have your say below on what you consider to be John Carpenter's Top 5 Films – what should have made the cut, and why?