(continued from John Carpenter: An Appreciation Part One)
A remake of the 1951 Christian Nyby film (and a more faithful adaptation of the short story that inspired it), 1982’s The Thing was Carpenter’s first studio film (Universal Pictures). An American scientific expedition in Antarctica encounters a lethal alien organism that can take on any appearance. Featuring ground-breaking special effects by Rob Bottin, this film did decent (but disappointing) box office business due to mainly the presence of a family friendly alien (E.T., ironically released by the same studio a few weeks before), but has become a cult favorite over the years. Followed by an inferior prequel 29 years later.
1984’s Starman is another studio film (this time from Columbia Pictures), which Carpenter agreed to direct because it was the opposite of The Thing and he wanted to continue to work in Hollywood. This Michael Douglas production features Jeff Bridges as an extra-terrestrial who visits Earth and takes on the form of a woman’s (a terrific Karen Allen) recently deceased husband. Starman is not just a sci-fi love story but also a road movie, with the Starman slowly learning along the way what it is to be human. Although not a big hit, the film did earn Carpenter the best reviews of his career and a third Oscar nomination for Jeff Bridges.
Best described as a kung fu western action comedy, 1986’s Big Trouble In Little China stars Kurt Russell as a truck driver who must help his friend rescue his bride-to-be from an evil spirit trying to become human again. Another cult favorite, this film was made by 20th Century Fox but flopped because they didn’t know how to promote it (it was definitely a film that was ahead of its time). One of the interesting things about this film is that Russell’s Jack Burton is actually the sidekick throughout the film rather than the main hero. Carpenter scored the film and even performed the theme song himself.
The last good movie Carpenter has made (to date) would be 1988’s They Live. Pro wrestler Roddy Piper stars as a drifter who stumbles upon a special pair of sunglasses that reveal the subliminal messaging that’s controlling the United States of America and much more. Filled with memorable dialogue (“I have come here to chew bubble gum and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubble gum.”) and featuring the longest fight in cinematic history (famously parodied on South Park in the infamous “cripple fight” episode), this film is not only a hoot from beginning to end, but also an indictment of Ronald Reagan’s America. It’s also startling to see how much things haven’t changed since the film was first released.
These eight John Carpenter films are special, and it’s a shame that it’s been roughly 25 years since his last good film was released. The closest he’s come to regaining his old form would be with the two episodes of the TV show Masters of Horror that he directed several years ago. I, like many of his fans, am hoping he’s got one or two good movies left in him. Until then, happy 65th birthday, John Carpenter!