By Daniel Dockery
John Carpenter is my favorite director.
I first saw Halloween when I was in fourth grade. The black VHS box with the picture of the knife beside the pumpkin cast a shadow over the rest of my family’s tape cabinet. Before I even saw the movie, it haunted me. Most of the VHS tapes that we owned bore lazy, perfunctory designs on their covers. “Here’s Will Smith holding a gun.” “Here’s Pierce Brosnan…holding a gun.” But Halloween sang a mysterious song to me. There was no word of mouth for it. The kids at my elementary school were not parading through the halls, trumpeting praise for a moody, holiday-themed slasher flick. It was just the box. Before I even convinced my mother to let me watch the movie, I had memorized the plot synopsis on the back cover. I then recited that synopsis to a teacher, who looked at me like I’d suddenly conjured dynamite in my hands.
But that’s where it started. And it only grew as I watched films like The Thing, and Big Trouble In Little China, and They Live. Honestly, I believe that there is something to enjoy in every John Carpenter film. Even Ghosts of Mars, which is one of the only movies to perfectly replicate the feeling you get when you enter a conversation with a group of people that were just making fun of you before you got there. “Heh, heh. He likes John Carpenter, does he? Shh, shh. He’s coming over. Don’t say anything.”
So, to celebrate the immense talent that is John Carpenter, I decided to quickly write about four of his films that don’t get the love or recognition that they deserve.
Matt and Jeff Hardy. Hamburgers and buns. John Carpenter and Kurt Russell. These are the teams that define humanity. Thousands of years from now, when aliens sift through the wreckage of humanity, they will look at Escape from New York, The Thing, Big Trouble In Little China, and Escape from LA as an example of the good that can come when you pair the right two people together. And hopefully, they’ll cast their thousand eyes upon Elvis, too, which is the first Carpenter/Russell collaboration. The film came soon after Presley’s death, but Carpenter’s movie refuses to linger on the lurid aspects that had begun to dominate the legacy of The King. Instead, Carpenter focuses on Elvis’ intense charisma, and Russell is more than up for the task of displaying Elvis as less of a tragic figure, and more of a man with too much personality for his body.
Christine is one of the best Stephen King adaptations out there, ranking up there with Cujo and The Mist for me. The story of a terrible relationship between a boy and his car sounds like something that would doom itself to the Mystery Science Theater treatment, but Carpenter directs the hell out of this thing. The car is a fetishized instrument of destruction, ripping its way through the movie like the shark in JAWS. And the fact that “Christine” isn’t listed whenever horror websites do their semi-regular BEST SLASHER VILLAINS EVER articles is a crime against cinema, cinema journalism, and listicles.
John Carpenter as the Crypt Keeper? Why is this not the most famous movie ever? Body Bags isn’t great. In the grand scheme of Carpenter, it sits in the lower middle, better than Village of the Damned and Memoirs of an Invisible Man, but below Prince of Darkness and Starman. But if you ever want to settle in for the evening with a goofy, macabre horror film, look no further than Body Bags. Also, Spider-Man/The Evil Dead director Sam Raimi makes a cameo as a dead body. Look, just go watch it right now, okay? This list will be here when you get back, I swear.
In the Mouth of Madness
Sadly, when people talk about the definitive works of John Carpenter, they usually stop around They Live, and forget that there are a whole two plus decades of movies and TV movies left. And in those two plus decades lies In the Mouth of Madness, which sits alongside Wes Craven’s New Nightmare and Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce in the annals of Masterpieces That Get Overshadowed By Other Masterpieces From The Same Horror Director. In the Mouth of Madness has only gotten better and more refreshing with age, and after you finish it, you’ll find yourself quoting it ceaselessly. I have two types of friends: Friends that are just okay, and friends that truly appreciate it when I say “Did I ever tell you my favorite color was blue?”