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Ranking John Carpenter's 5 Best Films

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.

Matt_Molgaard Thursday 6/30/2011 at 01:14 AM | 77871
Great list man, I feel bad that I haven't had the privilege to watch Christine or In the mouth of madness. Not to get off topic because trust me, I love the original Halloween but Black Christmas really did and does deserve more praise from horror fans. Carpenters remake of the Thing is awesome, especially the effects and muc score.
Sephit Thursday 6/30/2011 at 06:36 AM | 77886
Check them both out, they're surpringly AWESOME. Christine has that vintage feel to it as well, which hits the nostalgia nerve real hard - awesome stuff!
Matt_Molgaard Thursday 6/30/2011 at 02:06 PM | 77890
What about Big Trouble in Little China and Escape from New York? They should have ealy made the list.
Stilesp1985 Thursday 6/30/2011 at 05:41 PM | 77898
What about Big Trouble in Little China and Escape from New York? They should have ealy made the list.

Top 10? absolutely.

Top 5? No, can't make those maneuvers and feel honestly justified in doing so.

Big Trouble was a lot of fun, but wasn't a tremendously memorable film, and it's a little sloppy in spots.

Escape from New York is an awesome movie that I'll hold close to my heart forever, but I couldn't have rightfully placed it any higher than 6 due in most part to pacing issues.

Prince of Darkness, They Live, Star Man and Dark Star are also a few others I really, really enjoy, but those aren't deserving of top 5 placement either IMO.

EDIT: I'd also rank Cigarette Burns higher than Big Trouble, and extremely close to Escape...
Matt_Molgaard Thursday 6/30/2011 at 05:58 PM | 77899
I remember watching "In the Mouth of Madness"

when it first came out and thought man does this suck, it wasnt until a few years later that I rewatched on VHS (yes I still have those) and immediately changed my opinion of the flick.

It is def one of his better movies and I am not sure how I feel about the remake/reboot of "The Thing" , I have a thing against remakes as most horror/slasher fans do.

Time will tell ....
latingoddyss Thursday 6/30/2011 at 06:04 PM | 77900
shit I forgot about Starman, that is a great movie, but what pacing issues are in Escape?

I think anyone could ealy sub Escape or Big Trouble for the fog (Big Trouble is far more memorable,than the fog,to The general audience). Starman I couldn't rank higher than 6th. G.B. I would have to re watch, so I can't comment on it. Still a pretty strong list though.
Stilesp1985 Thursday 6/30/2011 at 06:25 PM | 77903
shit I forgot about Starman, that is a great movie, but what pacing issues are in Escape?

I think anyone could ealy sub Escape or Big Trouble for the fog (Big Trouble is far more memorable,than the fog,to The general audience). Starman I couldn't rank higher than 6th. G.B. I would have to re watch, so I can't comment on it. Still a pretty strong list though.

appreciate the inght. I've got to disagree with Big Trouble being more memorable than The Fog to the general audience though.

I think if you polled 1000 genre fans, at least 70% would favor The Fog over Big Trouble; it would certainly be closer factoring in Escape though.

Remember, not only did Big Trouble get SERIOUSLY panned by critics, it never really took off in a big way once it hit video, whereas people still celebrate April 21st as "The Fog Day" by viting the notorious lighthouse every year; Neither Escape nor Big Trouble have carried that kind of effect over the years.

latingoddyss: i think its so much more complex than John's traditional works that it almost requires a couple viewings to appreciate it for the genius it boasts.
Matt_Molgaard Thursday 6/30/2011 at 08:06 PM | 77911
@Matt - I would have to agree with you on the multiple viewing on some of his works, I do like Big Trouble, but I remember watch The Fog in 6th grade with about 12 girls at a slumber party and remembering it scared the hell out of me.


Then again you put that many 12 and 13 yr old girls together any horror movie will scare them.

latingoddyss Thursday 6/30/2011 at 08:28 PM | 77914
Man, i gotta say, this list almost dead on. except that big trouble in little china is in my opinion second only to halloween. course then again, when your brother has the box art to it tattooed on his back, you kind of have to love it, or else.

pantera11431 Thursday 6/30/2011 at 11:59 PM | 77927
I have to agree about Big Trouble in Little China being more memorable than The Fog. Sure the Fog was kinda cool but BTILC is a way more fun film to watch and I would rewatch it way before I would rewatch The Fog.
Sephit Friday 7/01/2011 at 12:44 AM | 77931
Good list.

I've never seen In The Mouth Of Madness, so until I do I'd put Prince Of Darkness in the fifth spot; always loved that one.

I'll have to check out the other someday.
gummi Friday 7/01/2011 at 01:26 AM | 77934
prince of darkness was awesome - no doubt. im a bit surprised how many seemed to thoroughly enjoy big trouble. it's a fun flick that i do enjoy, but it was IMO johns first serious trainwreck
Matt_Molgaard Friday 7/15/2011 at 01:15 AM | 78713
Great list, man. after 1 and 2 its really open for interpretation but i tend to agree with your choices, here.

btw, i appreciate you showing mad love to Bob Clark. I still say he started the sub-genre and i still conder Black Christmas to be my favorite horror film of all time, with Halloween coming in a close second.
AgnesItsMeBilly Friday 7/15/2011 at 02:57 AM | 78727