In honor of our upcoming staff pick screening of THEY LIVE, we're revisiting director John Carpenter's filmography! Join Milwaukee Film staff members Dana, Tom, and Joe as they share their thoughts on a selection of the prolific auteur's films. Read on for their picks and don't miss THEY LIVE at The Oriental Theatre Friday, September 13!
Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
Assault on Precinct 13 (the original, I’m no heathen) is one of the most brutal movies you’ll ever see. It’s a Western, set on the south side of Los Angeles, in an abandoned police station. If you’re tempted to root for the bad guys, a gang avenging the death of one of their members at the hands of the LAPD, that impulse is quickly extinguished when one of the gang members, from an ice cream truck, calmly shoots a child in the face. And it just gets more stressful from there! Carpenter is, of course, a master director, but he is equally gifted at scoring his own films, and Assault has my all-time favorite film jam. Try getting that “dun dun dun-dun dun” out of your head any time soon.
I first watched Halloween when I was a young teenager; a time when horror movies were not at all part of my media diet. What I remember most about this initial viewing was the feelings I had for the rest of the night - namely, an overwhelming sense of terror and “oh my god, someone’s behind me and they’re going to murder me, aren’t they?” Naturally, I didn’t particularly care for this feeling at first. Who wants to feel like they’re being watched and about to be murdered? I know I don’t. Over the next few days, however, I started to appreciate that it was able to provoke such a strong reaction in me. No other film I had seen up until this point was able to dig its claws (or kitchen knife as the case may be) into me this same way, so I knew it was something special. Today, I see this as the perfect archetype for slasher films in the way that it establishes and develops its characters with each scene constantly moving the action forward. Halloween sparked my love of horror films and no October 31st has been complete without a viewing of it since.
Someone's Watching Me! (1978)
TV movies immediately get the label of “not worth watching,” but in the 70s, that was not always the truth! Case in point: 1978’s Someone’s Watching Me!, directed by Carpenter immediately before Halloween and starring the luminous, gap-toothed Lauren Hutton, is a superb little thriller about a woman being stalked by an unknown man. The police can’t - or won’t - do anything, so Leigh is on her own to solve the case and save her own life. She’s her own Final Girl.
The Fog (1980)
The Fog sounds silly - a killer fog brings dead pirates to shore? - but it’s as scary and electrifying as anything in Carpenter’s catalogue. Adrienne Barbeau gives the best performance of her career (and that’s saying something) as a badass radio DJ who must save her son (and the town) from the incoming threat, and Jamie Lee Curtis and Tom Atkins are also both wonderful in a parallel story. And when you think it’s over… it’s got one more scare in store for you (a good one, too). It’s almost hard to fathom what a good run Carpenter was on at this point - Halloween, The Fog, Escape from New York, The Thing, and Christine, all veritable classics, all in a row. Your fave could never.
The Thing (1982)
As soon as I started putting this list together, I was compelled to revisit The Thing once again. The special effects here not only hold up, but they remain the gold standard for all practical effects work. Much like Halloween, Carpenter takes a very simple horror premise and story and turns it into a classic through the sheer greatness of his filmmaking. There are few directors within the horror genre that would’ve been able to achieve these kind of results, and that’s part of what makes Carpenter and his films special to me.
Prince of Darkness (1987)
For my money, the most underrated entry in Carpenter’s oeuvre is this Lovecraftian siege picture set in a monastery. This movie’s got everything: green Satan goo, Alice Cooper leading a homeless zombie brigade, mirrors that allow for interdimensional travel, pulsating clumps of worms, sweaty Donald Pleasence. It’s a kitchen sink approach and an homage to the British sci-fi films of his youth (going so far as to take his writing credit under the nom de plume Martin Quatermass). Your mileage may vary (I think potentially along the lines of one’s religious background?), but the cumulative effect is a beautiful stress/bliss melange for Carpenter fans.
While many cast aspersions on late-period Carpenter (aka the “I’d rather watch basketball and play video games” era, which honestly, same) - the man could (and can) still craft a sequence that induces dread like no other. Any film that posits Daniel Baldwin and James Woods as bad-ass vampire hunters has its work cut out for it in terms of building believable tension, but the sequence in which our heroes (?) are ripped to shreds by the film’s big bad Valek does just that. Placing this scene directly after a sequence that proved the efficiency of the vampire hunters proves effective, raising the stakes and making the danger feel potentially insurmountable
The Ward (2010)
A little endorsement for The Ward, as of now Carpenter’s last (and, I fear, final, although I desperately want him to come out of retirement for a new Halloween) theatrical project. I had only heard disparaging words about the film, but it’s a fast-paced, feminist (!) thriller about young women trying to escape a dangerous 1960s asylum. Sure, it’s a little stupid (more stupid than if Carpenter had written the script himself, that’s for sure), but Amber Heard gives a great, almost Greta Gerwig-esque performance, and the themes of vulnerability and trauma are een more resonant today than 9 years ago. Pair it with Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane for a twisty double-feature.
Thanks to Dana, Tom, and Joe for taking the time to participate! For more Carpenter goodness, make sure to see They Live Friday, Septmber 13 - 9:30 PM at the Oriental Theatre. TICKETS AVAILABLE HERE.