8 Best John Carpenter Movies That Aren’t ‘Halloween’ or ‘The Thing’
What makes a great filmmaker? Is it a singularity of vision, characterized by bold camera movements, stylized writing and the intersection of similar themes across decades of work? Maybe it’s the mastery of genre — one genre, two genres, maybe several? John Charpentier is definitely a master of horror. But dive a little deeper into his filmography and you’ll find he even rises up about this lofty title.
His work is funny, incisive, sometimes more interested in ideas than in characters and sometimes the reverse. His camera is subtle, thanks in large part to his longtime cinematographer Dean Cundy. The color is not overly manipulated, the writing is simple and effective, and his scores, though often composed by him, rarely overshadow the on-screen action. Yet despite his restraint, he made all-time classics, and not just Halloween and The thing. John Carpenter is a master filmmaker because he can do anything and everything looks easy.
“Assault on Compound 13” (1976)
For readers looking for something to wow them: Carpenter has published his second feature film, Assault on compound 13, when he was only 28 years old. Shot over 20 fast-paced days, Carpenter worked on a shoestring budget of $100,000 and created a bedroom action piece with all the nastiness of 1970s grindhouse cinema.
A group of people are trapped in a police station by a sadistic street gang. They have a choice: fight them or die. Initially, Ward 13 received mixed reviews due to its brutality, but over the years it has become a cult classic and an early sign of Carpenter’s prowess as a director. It has also, no doubt, inspired countless other films like this, including 2021’s little-seen, but well-reviewed Policeman.
“The Fog” (1980)
Fog is exactly what it sounds like. A deadly fog sweeps across a small coastal town in Northern California. Residents must find out what’s causing it before it’s too late…
When Carpenter saw the rough rough cut of Fog, he thought he had disaster on his hands. So he came out and shot a campfire prologue with John Houseman and doubled the amount of gore. The result was sublime horror. Fog, As Assault on compound 13, uses the sparseness of its setting and photography to convey a sense of secluded dread. Even though viewers can’t see the monsters, that doesn’t make them any less scary.
“Escape from New York” (1981)
It’s 1997. All of New York City is a prison. Without exaggeration, this might be the coolest movie premise of all time. John Carpenter Escape from New York stars Kurt Russell as Snake Plissken, a former super-soldier turned convict who must travel to New York to rescue… the President of the United States.
Russell does his best Clint Eastwood like the surly, bony Plissken, and the performance (as well as his role two years earlier in Carpenter’s Elvis) helped propel him to stardom. This is the first collaboration between the actor and the director, but fortunately not the last. They would team up two years later to The thing and six years later for the next pick on the list.
“Big Trouble in Little China” (1986)
Known as the master of horror, Carpenter is also one of the funniest directors around, and Big problem in little China may be his best comedy. How to explain the plot? Kurt Russell’s truck is stolen by an ancient Chinese group hoping to revive the evil wizard Lo Pan (James Hong). Now, Burton is on a quest to get his truck back…and defeat evil, too.
Throughout his career, Carpenter loved poking fun at the American leader’s bravado (see: They live, In the mouth of madness). This satire is sharpest here, where Russell’s Jack Burton doesn’t realize he is the sidekick of his own story. He’s a fool! Once, he gets so excited to fight that he shoots at the ceiling and knocks himself out with the rocks from the ceiling. Years before Marvel Superheroes, Carpenter separated the unnecessary narcissism of white American male leads, drawing a bold italic underline beneath their arrogance. In Little China, he asks: who are really the heroes of our stories?
“Prince of Darkness” (1987)
One of Carpenter’s most overlooked films may be one of his best: Prince of Darkness. A team of graduate physics students are brought in to search for a mysterious glowing green cylinder in the basement of a church. Soon however, they discover the infernal evil lurking within.
Although underestimated in its time, Prince of Darkness garnered a cult following, with some even calling it Carpenter’s scariest film. (Yes, he was the man who made Halloween and The thing). The second half is not for the faint of heart, especially for people of deep Catholic backgrounds who may or may not fear the rise of Satan.
“They Live” (1988)
They live talks about many things: the police state, capitalist oppression, systematic tranquillization, etc. Moreover, it also features a professional wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper so that’s okay for that, which is good. Piper’s character, John Nada, puts on a pair of sunglasses that show her the world as it really is.
Computer billboards actually say “OBEY”. Another with a woman in a bathing suit says: “GET MARRIED AND REPRODUCE”. Oh, and the ruling class of the planet are all actually hideous aliens controlling the world in secret. Jhi live is perhaps Carpenter’s most outspoken political film, but it never loses its sense of humor, not when Piper and keith david fight for six uninterrupted minutesand certainly not when Piper walks into a bank with a shotgun and says, “I came here to chew gum and kick ass…and I’m out of gum.”
“In the Mouth of Madness” (1994)
When the world’s most famous horror writer (think Stephen King) vanishes into thin air, a brilliant insurance investigator (played by Sam Neil) is hired to find him. The investigator is skeptical that this isn’t just one big publicity stunt from the publishing house…until he visits the mysterious Hobb’s End.
Although billed as a horror movie, In the mouth of madness may secretly be one of Carpenter’s best comedies, in large part due to a performance by Neill reminiscent of Cary Grant in From North to Northwest. It is also undoubtedly Carpenter’s most meta movie. Spoiler: At the end, the character of Neill will see the film version of In the mouth of madness, and the poster says “Directed by John Carpenter”. In a film that begins with its end, In the mouth of madness somehow keeps viewers guessing from minute to minute.
“Escape Los Angeles” (1996)
Carpenter’s only sequel doesn’t have the precise focus of the original or the same commitment to its premise. It does not present the horrors of Prince of Darkness or the precise satire of They live Where big problem soon China. But he has one thing: Snake Plissken surfs with Pierre Fonda.
Roger Ebert gave Escape Los Angeles three and a half stars and wrote that the public could also enjoy it as a satire of the sequel genre or as the authentic article. Viewers can make up their own minds, but for what it’s worth: there’s a scene where Snake Plissken has to save his own life by hitting a half court. Four out of four stars.