Of course there are many great Carpenter films including, Prince of Darkness (1987) and Escape from New York (1981) to name a few, but below are my thoughts on my personal favourites.
They Live (1988)
Halloween's (1978) horror legend writer/director John Carpenter does his best with a limited budget. The film for the most part has an urban realistic look, due to the on location shots, however, at times it appears very cheap and lacks the production values of The Thing (1982) or The Fog (1980). In true Carpenter tradition there's a heart pumping and relentless score.
Amongst all the 80's cheese there is a fantastic story based on Ray Nelson's short story. They Live themes reflects consumerism, class and corruption to name a few. Underneath, Carpenter's bland screenplay lay a fear that we are not in control and our society is led by 'them', echoing Invasion of the Body Snatchers and 'V'. To join them would be to give I and we would benefit but we'll pay a greater price. They Live is high concept sci-fi with great ideas, the sunglasses touch is genius, that's original and allows some great visuals and interesting moments. There's also the intriguing secret society aspect and space travel.
Suffering from the 80's macho testerone Roddy Piper is entertaining as the lead but he's no great actor, lucky there's the likes of Meg Foster and Keith David to gives the film some weight and there are some good performances from the supporting cast.
Carpenter though a simple story immerses the viewer in the conspiracy and connects us with the heroes search for the truth which has a fantastic, un-Hollywood brave and downbeat ending. In addition, the effects are of the time but are still effective, there are some stand out set-ups, the supermarket, the underground segment and the discovery of the sunglasses. I'm hesitant to use the word, but They Live is cool.
With so many remakes in recent years They Live would benefit from a serious and heavier version. That said, taken at face value it's a great fun ride, with one-liners, action and aliens.
The Thing (1982)
The isolated setting, the astounding cinematography and scenery creates intrigue; drawing you in from the very beginning. It's a perfect horror/sci-fi cocktail of Ennio Morricone's haunting foreboding score, Rob Bottin and Stan Winston (dog effect) benchmark practical effects (which are unsurpassed) Carpenters claustrophobic set ups and Bill Lancaster screenplay.
It's rare that every single actor is exceptional and supplied with effective dialogue. All the cast from Kurt Russell to Wilford Brimley as Blair are all captivating, great casting by Anita Dann. The characters have their own issues and as the paranoia sets in relationships are forged and others broken, building to a bold and satisfying conclusion.
This is more than just a cult film with a 'monster' hiding in warm places surrounded by snow, it's a finely tuned science fiction horror masterpiece.
The Fog (1980)
Despite the dated smoke machine-like fog the silent 'zombie' ghosts, brandishing blades, with their glowing eyes are eerily effective heightened by an accompanying typical Carpenter pulsing score.
There are a few effective kills but like most good horrors some of these happen off screen. It's mostly shot on location this adds a realistic atmosphere of dread to the proceedings. There are some cheap 'jump' scares in there but what's noteworthy of The Fog is it's set ups, the spooky opening, the creepy gallon and the paranormal effects on the cars and electricity of the town. The Fog appears to be a series of great idea's brought together with a single horror tale as its backbone.
It's not perfect, but The Fog's absorption makes it entertaining nonetheless. Perfect on a dark night.
The leads are perfectly cast, a young Kim Cattrall's delivers a defining comedy performance and Kurt Russell is perfect as the All-American beer drinking reluctant hero. A make-up enhanced James Hong is outstanding as mystical evil Lo Pan, the rest of the supporting cast is full of familiar faces.
Although the special effects are of their time, some of the makeup effects hold up well. Veteran cinematographer Dean Cundey's show all gritty, sweat of this pure piece of entertainment fun. There's fantastically dressed sets, great costumes and neon lighting. Director Carpenter delivers outlandish set pieces, some great action scenes, magic and sword fights. Packed with comedy moments, one-liners and dark, creepy supernatural Chinese spirits.
Big Trouble in Little China packs a lot punch for a film that didn't do big box office bucks but found an audience on VHS. It's a fantasy adventure that's production values add to Big Trouble's charm.
The Ward (2010)
A group of in institutionalised young women become the focus of a ghost's revenge.
There's no doubt the John Carpenter can craft a fantastic film. The Ward is no exception with thrills, chill's and jump scares. The look is that of his early films like the Fog and The Thing as appose to the cheap look of the likes of (yet still excellent) They Live. of Mars.
Costume and character wise Laura-Leigh's Zoey is a little too much but she does her best under the circumstances. Susanna Burney as Nurse Lundt gives a fitting and menacing performance. The cast are more than adequate in fact, Amber Heard is perfect as the troubled girl Kristen and gives a fine performance.
There's great looking sets and costumes capturing the feel of the 1960s. The special effects, lighting and make up are expertly handled. Creeepy corridors, a morgue, cellar all add to the tension.
Here Carpenter hands over other duties too the crew to focus on directing. Mark Kilian's score is excellent and complements the build up to the horror moments. However, Michael Rasmussen & Shawn Rasmussen story twist lets the film down considerably as it's be done so many times before.
The twist aside, John Carpenter is on form with an effective chiller horror mystery.