Few directors have left as much of an impact on multiple different film genres than John Carpenter, who celebrates his 69th birthday today. The writer/director/composer is most often associated with horror, a genre he has no doubt helped define over the decades, but he's also incredibly accomplished in the realms of science fiction, action, fantasy, and humor.
What makes Carpenter such an icon in film is his diversity in not just subject matter, but also his varied filmmaking skills. The first three films he directed (Dark Star, Assault on Precinct 13, and Halloween) ran the gamut of science fiction, siege thriller, and horror, but he also wrote them and even composed their scores. Speaking to the diversity of his talents, despite not having directed a film since 2010's The Ward, Carpenter released two albums of original music (Lost Themes and Lost Themes II) and even went on a tour of sold out concerts in 2016, performing selected works from his soundtracks along with pieces from his albums.
Throughout his illustrious career, the filmmaker has given audiences certified masterpieces, so in honor of his birthday, let's take a look at his films that are just as effective in 2017 as they were when they were released! Let us know your favorite John Carpenter movie in the comments.
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Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
In 2017, the story of heroes and villains having to team up to stay alive feels like an overdone trope, but in 1976's Assault on Precinct 13, the idea felt fresh and the film is still incredibly compelling. During a prisoner transfer at, yup, Precinct 13, a police officer must defend his station from a gang outside who are dead set on killing the prisoner inside, but it's that killer who is the police officer's only hope at staying alive. The film is tense, riveting, and is a masterclass in low budget action filmmaking, creating a formula that is often imitated but never duplicated. Also, Carpenter's main theme is just one of many iconic theme songs he's created for his films.
Have you ever gotten the feeling that maybe a person you saw out in public who looked kind of creepy actually did have motives to kill you? Well, you can thank John Carpenter for that! Before Michael Myers became a cliche buffoon through a series of lackluster sequels, the killer (more commonly referred to as "The Shape") merely represented the dangerous unknown, the hidden terrors that could be lurking around your own neighborhood. Sure, the film was set on Halloween, but that was merely an excuse to make a guy in a jumpsuit wearing a William Shatner mask seem less strange, but the film is ultimately a reminder that maybe it is better to be wary of strangers, as they might have been kidnapped by the Cult of the Thorn and be the embodiment of a demonic entity who aims to kill his family members one by one.
[H/T YouTube/Miguel Olivas]
Escape from New York (1981)
Carpenter's first (of many) collaborations with Kurt Russell, Escape From New York featured the ex-soldier Snake Plissken infiltrating the island of Manhattan, which in 1997 was a maximum security wasteland. Much like how The Road Warrior (also released in 1981) set the standard for dystopic wastelands, Escape From New York cemented the idea of what would happen if society crumbled and criminals were left to run rampant, along with giving us Snake Plissken, one of cinema's biggest badasses. 15 years later, Russell and Carpenter would reunite for a sequel, Escape From L.A., which is a much campier version of a similar premise that's still quite entertaining.
The Thing (1982)
Carpenter followed up his sci-fi action film with his remake of The Thing From Another World, bringing in Kurt Russell once again as his leading man. During an Antarctic expedition, a team encounters a series of mysterious events that alerts them to the fact that an intergalactic threat has been unleashed and its biggest strength is its ability to replicate human beings almost identically. The team turns on one another in a paranoia-driven story, heightened to astounding levels thanks to special effects created by 21-year-old (!!!) Rob Bottin.
Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
Originally planned as a Western, Big Trouble in Little China was an opportunity for John Carpenter to showcase his skills in the realm of fantasy, action, adventure, and most importantly, humor. Russell shines as Jack Burton, a truck driver whose rig goes missing in the middle of a mystical battle in the underworld of San Francisco's Chinatown. Although his previous films had plenty of humorous moments, Big Trouble allowed Russell's charisma to shine and gave audiences an incredibly imaginative and exciting experience in ways few films have been able to do since.
Prince of Darkness (1987)
What better way to follow up the exciting action adventure romp of Big Trouble in Little China than with an H.P. Lovecraft inspired exploration of Satan and metaphysics? Prince of Darkness features a priest recruiting some top scientists in the world of physics to monitor an "ancient evil," which is just a big cylinder filled with green sludge. Contained within this cylinder are the elements required to bring about the apocalypse, which slowly happens as the researchers remain isolated within a church. The film is incredibly dark and explores very heavy ideas and themes while also being reminiscent of Assault on Precinct 13 in how it focuses on a group of characters in one location as the world literally turns to Hell around them.
They Live (1988)
Based on the short story "Eight O'Clock in the Morning," They Live shows a down-on-his-luck everyman (who is so normalized that he's never even given a name) who stumbles across a plot to brainwash human beings around the world. "Rowdy" Roddy Piper plays the lead role, who gives us the seminal quote "I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and I'm all out of bubblegum" as well as an incredible and unending street fight with Keith David. The film also manages to be a commentary on consumerism and, in themes more timely than ever, basically being told to keep your head down and go about your business while millionaires and politicians subliminally push their agendas to control the population. Here's hoping someone will come to our rescue in much the same way Rowdy Roddy did!