Tomorrow (January 16, 2013) marks the 65th birthday of director John Carpenter. I’ve always found his work interesting. He writes, directs, produces, acts, and often composes the music to his films. His directorial output is largely hit-and-miss; eight of his first eleven features were terrific movies, while his last seven features have been disappointing. But despite this, those eight films that were good have gone on to become enduring classics (or cult classics, depending on who you speak to). The focus of this appreciation will only be on the good films that he directed: Dark Star, Assault On Precinct 13, Halloween, Escape From New York, The Thing, Starman, Big Trouble In Little China, and They Live.
Carpenter’s debut feature was 1974’s Dark Star. A black comedy version of 2001: A Space Odyssey, if you will. Basically, a group of astronauts travel around the universe destroying unstable planets that threaten future colonization. Carpenter co-wrote the script with Dan O’Bannon, who also appears in the film. O’Bannon felt that the alien “beach ball” character wasn’t threatening enough, so he later reworked the concept into a more serious and horrifying creation in 1979’s Alien. Dark Star is a blast; it’s funny, engaging, and on some levels philosophical. You’d think you’d have to be high in order to enjoy it, but you really don’t.
Carpenter’s follow-up feature was 1976’s Assault On Precinct 13: A terrific modern day (at that time) Western set in a closing police precinct. A police lieutenant must team up with a convicted killer to defend a defunct police station from a heavily-armed gang looking for the man who killed one of their members (who had killed the man’s daughter). Strong performances are derived from the cast (keep an eye out for Tony Burton from the Rocky films as a convict). An inferior remake with Ethan Hawke and Laurence Fishburne would be released in 2005.
Perhaps Carpenter’s most famous film is 1978’s Halloween. A psychiatric patient named Michael Myers escapes from a mental hospital and targets a teenage girl and her friends on All Hallow’s Eve. Although it was not the first slasher film, its box office success helped launch the genre and made Jamie Lee Curtis a star. Carpenter also wrote a memorable score, and his main theme is instantly recognizable to this day. An inferior remake would be released in 2007 (which itself had a just-as-awful sequel).
One of Carpenter’s best films is 1981’s Escape From New York. Kurt Russell stars as Snake Plissken, a war hero turned criminal who’s coerced into rescuing the President of the United States from the prison island known as New York City. Another cult favorite, this film helped launch Russell as an action star. Performances were top-notch, including Russell, Lee Van Cleef, Isaac Hayes, Harry Dean Stanton, Adrienne Barbeau, Ernest Borgnine, and Donald Pleasence. An inferior sequel, Escape From L.A., was released in 1996.
(To be concluded in: John Carpenter: An Appreciation Part Two)