July 7, 2011

MRQE Rewind: The Legacy of John Carpenter

A modern renaissance man as we know it, John Carpenter directed, wrote the screenplays, and composed some truly groundbreaking soundtracks for most of his movies. Although The Ward, his new offering, has gotten pretty dismal reviews so far (MRQE Metric: 36, at time of printing), Carpenter’s cinematic legacy is well worth exploring with this list of his most popular movies in order of ratings. The self-proclaimed "master of terror" created the "slasher" genre as we know it with Halloween, flirted with science-fiction with They Live and Dark Star, and kicked ass with action-adventure classics Escape from New York and Big Trouble in Little China. Kurt Russell fans rejoice, as he is featured in three of the following movies…

Prince of Darkness (1987) -- MRQE Metric: 59

You just never know what you’ll find in an abandoned Los Angeles church basement… Just ask Father Loomis (Donald Pleasance) when he discovers a cylinder containing a swirling, green liquid that turns out to be Satan’s son evil spirit. With the help of a group of graduate students and scientists, Loomis must stop the Anti-God from crossing over to our dimension by using wall mirrors as portals. Little by little, the evil being possesses members of the group and reveals his true self, a gruesomely disfigured being with powers of telekinesis and rejuvenation. Also make sure to watch out for Alice Cooper in the role of a possessed homeless man!

They Live (1988) -- MRQE Metric: 63

When out-of-luck construction worker drifter John Nada (played by professional Canadian Wrestler Roddy Piper!) finds and wears a pair of magic sunglasses, he discovers that they reveal the true identity of local politicians as zombie-like aliens. Yes, Republican aliens have taken over planet earth and are bombarding unsuspecting, ordinary citizens with subliminal messages transmitted through television, magazines, posters, and movies. Soon Nada joins Frank Armitage (Keith David)’s resistance forces to help get rid of the pesky invaders. If you skip over the rather obvious political metaphor, They Live makes for a quite a fun watch, a bit like watching a good episode of the original V television series (1983).

Christine (1983) -- MRQE Metric: 66

The last thing you would expect is for a red and white 1958 Plymouth Fury to turn into a senseless killing machine. Unfortunately, for high school geek Arnie Cunningham, his new ride turns out to be possessed by the devil and intent on slaughtering everyone that gets in her (it’s?) or Arnie’s way. Soon, Arnie’s friends and girlfriend come to the conclusion that the only way of saving their friend is to get rid of the seemingly unstoppable demonic vehicle. As in Halloween, Carpenter favors a typical suburban landscape that is anything but normal in this faithful adaptation of the Stephen King best-seller.

Dark Star (1974) -- MRQE Metric: 68

A clever, low-budget parody of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dark Star follows a crew of four neurotic astronauts and the cryogenically frozen corpse of their Commander on their assignment to destroy unstable planets in colonizable star systems. As their mission reaches its end, the crew must deal with personality struggles, a runaway inflatable pet alien, system malfunctions, and an artificially-intelligent warhead on a self-destructive course of action. The emphasis here is on dark humor as Lt. Doolittle must engage in philosophical debates with the suicidal device in order to change its mind. Dark Star is also notable for introducing us to John Carpenter’s talents as a composer and his trademark sparse electronic soundscapes.

The Fog (1980) -- MRQE Metric: 70

Following the phenomenal box-office success of Halloween, director John Carpenter decided to focus on a more old-fashioned ghost story for his second independent horror film. When Father Malone finds an old journal in the study of his church, he uncovers the sinister origins of his hometown of Antonio Bay as the founders of the city deliberately sank a ship with a group of lepers onboard. Cue the Centenary of the small sea town and the perfect opportunity for the zombie-like ghost pirates to rise from the sea, armed with hooks and swords, and carry out their revenge under cover of an eerie fog. Interestingly, the movie features mother and daughter duo Janet Leigh and Jamie Lee Curtis in the roles of a councilwoman and a young hitchhiker.

Big Trouble in Little China (1986) -- MRQE Metric: 71

In a far cry from her role of Samantha in the Sex and the City, Kim Cattrall stars as lawyer Gracie Law, the romantic interest for macho truck driver Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) in this unpretentious and fun action caper. When Burton agrees to pick up his best friend’s fiancĂ©e, Miao Yin, at the San Francisco airport, he witnesses a gang kidnapping her. Following a lengthy chase sequence, Burton finds himself deep beneath San Francisco's Chinatown and must face up to the evil Lo Pan, a 2000-year-old sorcerer who rules over his supernatural cohorts with an iron fist, in order to rescue Miao Yin.

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) -- MRQE Metric: 71

Largely unnoticed when it first came out in 1976, Assault on Precinct 13 is the second full-length directorial effort from John Carpenter and solidified his reputation as a unique, promising filmmaker. This tense action thriller portrays the battle for survival of a group of police officers and ordinary citizens trapped in an abandoned Police Precinct building in Los Angeles as they fend off the unwanted attention of the vengeful, murderous Street Thunder gang. An undeniable testimony to Carpenter’s genius as a composer is the fact that the main theme from the movie has been sampled by artists including Afrika Bambaataa on “Bambaataa’s Theme” and Bomb the Bass’ “Megablast”, amongst others.

Escape from New York (1981) -- MRQE Metric: 75

Carpenter’s personal spin on the Watergate scandal, Escape from New York stars two of Carpenter’s long time favorite actors, Donald Pleasance as the United States President and Kurt Russell as the iconic fugitive criminal Snake Plissken. Ironically, mostly shot in St. Louis, Carpenter’s dystopian and violent action-adventure flick is set in 1997 New York, where Manhattan has been turned into a giant maximum security prison. When the National Liberation Front of America hijacks Air Force One, police officer Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) forces Plissken to undergo a suicide recognition mission to infiltrate the city and rescue the President from the revolutionary organization.

Halloween (1978) -- MRQE Metric: 81

John Carpenter proved that less is more by filming the best (in my opinion) horror movie ever, on a shoestring budget of $325,000. Carpenter puts the emphasis on building tension with dark lighting, long steady-cam shots, and a famously creepy synthesizer theme tune instead of dishing out unnecessary gory moments. On Halloween night 1963, young Michael Meyers murders his sister and escapes fifteen years later from Smith's Grove sanitarium to come home and murder again. The film made a star out of Jamie Lee Curtis and invented the slasher movie, subsequently spawning many inferior sequels and remakes. My favorite part of the whole movie: Michael Myers mask was in fact a cheap, customized William Shatner mask from Star Trek, found at a local costume store!

The Thing (1982) -- MRQE Metric: 84

John Carpenter's The Thing is both a remake of Howard Hawks' 1951 film of the same name and a re-adaptation of the John W. Campbell Jr. story "Who Goes There?" Antarctica Winter 1982: After finding an abandoned Norwegian outpost, ex-Army helicopter pilot Macready (Kurt Russell) and his crew must face off to a monstrous shape-shifting alien which has the ability to assume the identify of any living thing it comes into contact with. This chilling (if you’ll pardon the pun) horror sci-fi classic features one of the most iconic and gory moment in cinema history with the classic defibrillator scene in which Dr. Cooper loses both arms to an abdomen/giant mouth. The Thing was the first installment of what John Carpenter calls his Apocalyptic Trilogy, to be followed by Prince of Darkness and In the Mouth of Madness.


  1. For me, best Carpenter's films are Assault on Precinct 13, The Thing and Prince of Darkness; Dark Star and Halloween are also excellent movies...

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