Rightfully labeling the greatest genre director of all time is a bit like trying to pin a slimy tail on an invible donkey: it’s about as close to imposble as one can imagine. While many will argue for the greats of yesteryear: Terence Fisher, Alfred Hitchcock, William Castle, Tod Browning, others will de with more contemporary selections: Wes Craven, David Cronenberg, Tobe Hooper, George Romero.
For my money, I rely on the great John Carpenter, who’s had a hand in some of the most monumental horror offerings produced in the last three decades. Whether expanding on Bob Clark’s slasher vion and creating the iconic Michael Myers, or redefining the ghost story under the mask of a dense fog bank, Carpenter has cemented himself as a true (get ready for the cliché) master of horror.
Given the man’s impresve body of work, narrowing his catalog down to a mere five “best” films is a challenge. However, rest assured, I’m up for it!
05. In The Mouth Of Madness: Many critics conder this to be Carpenter’s last great horror effort. I would point directly at John’s 2005 “Masters of Horror” installment “Cigarette Burns” and politely inform them they’re dead wrong.
Just the same, the brilliance of “In the Mouth of Madness” is practically palpable; this is indeed a stellar feature, filled with complexities that stray from Carpenter’s typical work. The story follows John Trent, an insurance investigator who’s on the hunt for the popular author Sutter Cane, who’s mysteriously gone misng. Interestingly enough, a string of violent riots have begun to erupt that directly coincide with Cane’s disappearance, and the further Trent digs for the truth, the deeper he’s sucked into the world of Sutter Cane and the mysterious town of Hobb’s End.
There are some clasc Carpenter shots in store for fans, and some specific cinematography that will likely conjure some feelings of nostalgia. Lead actor Sam Neill adds an extra dimenon to the film, as his portrayal of John Trent is both convincing and chilling. Plenty of twists and turns will ensure viewers pay close attention to the unraveling story, and a bleak finale feels extremely rewarding after such a mind bending picture.
This isn’t Carpenter’s finest work, but it is an awesome piece of art that proves Carpenter has a few tricks up his sleeves.
04. Christine: “Christine” isn’t just a tale of haunting posseson, it’s a character study centered on the limitations of youth, the stress of peer pressure and the general conflicts we face prior to adulthood. Between Stephen King’s spectacular source material and Carpenter’s vibrant vion, this film earns tremendous acclaim from me; enough so to slide into the fourth potion on this list.
If you’re somehow unfamiliar with this tale, allow me to bring you up to speed (pun intended) extremely briefly.
Arnie Cunningham is a geek of unrivaled proportions; Dennis Guilder is a popular jock with a down-to-earth attitude. Guilder’s got a soft spot for Arnie, who he’s taken under his wing, but it’s nowhere near as soft as the spot Arnie develops for a beat up ’58 Plymouth Fury that’s already been dubbed Christine. There’s only one major problem here: Christine carries an ancient malevolence with it that blurs the lines between mple ghostly posseson and pure unadulterated evil.
It’s not long before Arnie manages to restore Christine (with a little supernatural help), but oddly enough, as the car changes, so does Arnie. Gone is the fragile wimp the high school bullies have grown accustomed to targeting, in his place is an edgy, angry, borderline psychotic young man who’s slowly being taken over by the powers that rede in every nook and cranny Christine has to offer.
This feature isn’t just effective in representing a “killer car”, it’s remarkably loyal to teenage angst; Arnie, Dennis, and the leading young lady in the center of the madness, Leigh, are all portrayed with startling realism. King set the tone in his original novel, and screenwriter Bill Phillips does a stellar job of transferring that humanity to the screen. Keith Gordon, John Stockwell and Alexandra Paul are perfectly cast as our central trio of characters and despite the gorgeous car on display they really do steal the show. From dialogue to “natural” responses and reactions, you can’t ask for superior performances; these three are absolutely perfect.
03. The Fog: I doubt I’ll ever understand the panning this ghost story garnered from so many critics (not every critic I might add, as plenty did enjoyed this timeless gem) upon initial release. It’s not a flawless piece of cinema, there’s no denying that, but it is effectively frightening, and it offers more replay value than 99 percent of milarly structured features.
Carpenter’s account of a betrayed leper colony who return 100 years after their demise, under the façade of a dense fog bank, to claim revenge on the coastal town of Antonio Bay is terrifying for a number of reasons.
First and foremost, the film’s atmosphere is remarkable; viewers are sucked into the quiet, yet personal streets of the peaceful Antonio Bay, chewed up by the hideous secrets lurking just off the bluff, and spit out by the shame that this immaculate community was built upon. Carpenter’s score mirrors the visual anxiety manufactured in this spooky treasure wonderfully, and his script offers a quality of beautifully mplistic integrity.This film will be a favorite of mine until my bones finally rest x feet beneath the soil’s surface… or perhaps, get caught up in the terror of that hauntingly illuminated fog…
02. The Thing: I’ll shoot you all straight: my number one and number two picks find themselves in a dead heat. I can’t pick a true favorite between the two, because in my opinion, they’re arguably the two greatest horror films ever made (Bob Clark’s “Black Christmas”, Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”, Ridley Scott’s “Alien” and Stephen Spielberg’s “Jaws” are all worthy contenders for that title as well).
What I will say is this: Carpenter’s reimagining of “The Thing from Another World” is everything a “reboot” should be. “The Thing” expands on Christian Nyby’s 1951 feature (which, for the record is a superb film!) by further exploring back-plot, thoroughly developing characters, and extending the viewer’s encounters with these shape shifting aliens.
Rob Bottin’s special effects aren’t just incredible, they are unquestionably some of the best effects work in cinematic history. Carpenter draws some unsettling performances from his all-male ensemble (particularly from Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley and Thomas Waites), and cinematographer (as well as frequent Carpenter collaborator) Dean Cundey creates a very real sense of claustrophobia that is still, to this day, nearly unparalleled.
To sum it up, technically, “The Thing” is a valid masterpiece.
01. Halloween: If “The Thing” reding at number two didn’t give away this obvious choice for number one, you might want to do a little John Carpenter research, as this selection should have been a no-brainer.
“Halloween” may have taken numerous technical cues from Bob Clark’s (who I’ve now mentioned multiple times, which is more than deserving) chilling slasher “Black Christmas”, but it took off commercially in a completely different direction, terrifying moviegoers by the thousands. A near micro-budget of a film, “Halloween” defied the mainstream odds and eventually grossed $60 million worldwide (that’s the equivalent of over $200 million today) after being shot on a meager $320,000 budget.
And believe me when I say there was a reason for the unexpected theatrical clamor. “Halloween” is a cut-and-dried horror yarn that just so happens to be absolutely paralyzing.
Sweet, safe suburban America, where citizens obey the law, the neighbor walks the dog, the paperboy delivers early and the mailman always smiles. But in Haddonfield, Illinois, the babytters aren’t safe, because a faceless menace has an appetite for murder, a disregard for justification and a complete lack of conscience. The disruption of comfort is the worst kind of fear that exists. As susceptible humans, we must have a safe-zone, a place where all things mean something, where all things make sense, and the menace is the misng.
But a ngle stone can shatter a glass house. John Carpenter proved it when he tore comfortable middle class Americans from their perceived perches of safety. He ruined homes. He turned a walk home from school into a terrifying test of mental fortitude and cardiovascular endurance. He made an icon of a faceless shape. He made history, and “Halloween” just made number one.