Horror Icon Mini-Marathon: JOHN CARPENTER

It goes without saying that John Carpenter, the composer, writer, and director of some of the most well-known and well-received films in the horror and science-fiction genres, is a horror icon. There is dispute, however, on which films people would consider to be included in his classic or iconic canon. Though “Halloween” and “The Thing” are readily mentioned, with occasional nods to “They Live” and “The Fog” included by real fans, often the rest of his body of work is overlooked or discounted. The focus of this column is on some of the more obscure and early work that is often absent from his list of great films.

Two of the films come very early in his career, after he graduated USC film school and was learning to make a living as a filmmaker. After completing “dark Star” and finding distribution for it (an impressive feat, considering its low budget, and the fact that it was a philosophical science-fiction comedy made as a college project), he set his sights on the big and small screens.

Both opportunities made themselves available, and between 1976 and 1978, he produced both “Assault On Precinct 13” and “Someone’s Watching Me.” Making a name for himself in both mediums, he continued on television with the 1979 movie “Elvis” and on the big screen with the film that would make him world-famous, “Halloween.”

For nearly a decade, he produced interesting and idiosyncratic films that heralded a strong new voice in the genre. Unfortunately, he was sometimes ahead of the curve with audiences, and his martial arts action-comedy “Big Trouble In Little China” ended up being his most expensive and least profitable film. Licking his wounds from the bad experience, Carpenter went off to make smaller, more personal movies with independent production companies, and that was where his impressive “Prince of Darkness” was made.

After that film’s release, he had some other mild successes with “They Live” and “In the Mouth of Madness,” but nearly everything else he made through the 90’s and into the new millennium cost more than it made and was generally uninspired.

With a lasting impression from his seminal works, and a few more obscure titles that are worth the hunt, John Carpenter has left a lasting legacy in the horror genre, and fans can only hope that they haven’t seen the last of his work.

Assault On Precinct 13

A brilliant and surprising urban nightmare based on the John Wayne film “Rio Bravo,” “Assault On Precinct 13” is both a great homage to the westerns of his childhood and a fascinating commentary on Carpenter’s own modern-day Los Angeles. With stunning action sequences (the storming of the station and the silencer-muted shootout are particularly impressive) and likeable if wooden characters, the movie is the epitome of late 70’s exploitation brilliance. This film, unlike so many similar releases, soars on the natural skill of the technicians involved, and would almost work perfectly as a silent film with orchestral accompaniment.
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Someone’s Watching Me

Carpenter’s first directing work on television (he had previously written the screenplay for “Zuma Beach”), “Someone’s Watching Me” is a fun reminder of the heyday of the made-for-TV movie of the 1970’s. Starring Lauren Hutton and future wife Adrienne Barbeau (who would also team up with him later on “The Fog” and “Escape From New York”), the story is a familiar one of a girl in the city finding herself in danger when a stalker attaches himself to her. Though there is no Carpenter score, he wrote and directed this film in the same year as “Halloween,” and the film stands as an interesting counterpoint to where Carpenter’s career could have ended up if his other films hadn’t found their intended audience.
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Prince of Darkness

A truly crazy film that has the courage to buy into its own ludicrous premise, “Prince of Darkness” follows a priest and several college science majors locking themselves into an old abandoned church to learn aobut a vat of ooze in the basement that might just be the physical embodiment of Satan on Earth. With creepy bug sequences, an unrelentingly haunting score, fun character performances (from Victor Wong and Peter Jason, among others), theories on Jesus’ alien origins, and disturbing allusions to the newly discovered AIDS epidemic, the movie has a little of everything. Carpenter’s skill as director keeps the film from overwhelming the audience by reminding us that we’re having fun, in the form of humorous asides and the appearance of rocker Alice Cooper as a zombified homeless man.
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Chris Vander Kaay and Kathleen Fernandez-Vander Kaay

Contributors

Chris Vander Kaay and Kathleen Fernandez-Vander Kaay are a husband and wife writing team who agree on almost everything except whether or not 28 Days Later should be considered a zombie movie. After years devoted to interviews, podcasts, and articles in which they championed the idea that the horror film genre should be taken seriously, they hope the idea is finally catching on.

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