John Carpenter has created some of the most terrifying movie monsters in the history of cinema, but he’s also managed to make films that are moving emotionally, and he has continually defied what audiences have expected from self-aware genre films. What’s more, he could achieve all of this on a miniscule budget, with casts comprised primarily of unestablished actors. In fact, he helped to establish some performers, including Jamie Lee Curtis.
He’s also always been a filmmaker who works effectively (although unfortunately, not always profitably) at any scale of production, whether it’s low-budget thrillers or big budgeted Hollywood fantasy films. It’s a shame that much of his work has failed to captivate the audience that it deserves, although he has enjoyed a few notable commercial successes.
Carpenter is perhaps thought of primarily for his contributions to the horror genre because he achieved the pinnacle of his commercial and critical success with horror movies in the 70’s and 80’s. Particularly in 1978, when Carpenter had his biggest success and ushered in a new boogeyman for children to fear in the dark; Halloween was a mainstream success, thanks at least in part to Roger Ebert for endorsing the film, and it solidified Carpenter as a master horror artist.
Following the success of Halloween, Carpenter had several other hits and fan favorites in the horror genre. The Fog (1980) brings something new to be scared of in the mist when a mysterious fog descends upon a coastal California town. Turns out the fog is, mysteriously, a manifestation of the ghosts of a group of lepers who were sent to a watery grave by the town’s local government, 100 years ago. And, turns out, the town’s centennial is coming up, and the leper pirate ghosts want to take revenge by killing the townsfolk cause they uh. Well. OK, so that aspect of the story doesn’t entirely make sense. What the ghosts hope to accomplish by killing the modern day (and innocent) townsfolk is sort of ambiguous. The whole film was a tad confusing. Nevertheless, Ebert recognized the film’s merits, and it’s still held in high regard by horror enthusiasts.
In 1982, The Thing scared movie goers with a shape-shifting alien that invades a research facility in Antarctica. The special effects for the film were outstanding, but for whatever reason, film didn’t draw well at the box office. Not long after, he would direct The Stephen King story Christine (1983) about a homicidal vintage car. There is an inherent incredulousness to the story: a young, impotent nerd (Keith Gordon) is transformed into a virile greaser because of his demonic car. But just as King handled the idea successfully in the novel, Carpenter makes a film that is scary and effective, no matter how far-fetched the premise is.
Throughout the 80’s, John Carpenter had several other major genre hits and cult classics brought to the big screen. Box-office successes like Escape from New York (1981) and Starman (1984) showcase Carpenter’s familiarity within the science fiction genre. Even his comedic undertakings generally featured multiple genre aspects. They Live (1988) features wrestling superstar Roddy ‘Rowdy’ Piper chasing down aliens, and Kurt Russell battles ancient supernatural forces in Big Trouble in Little China (1986).
Then the 90’s hit, and Carpenter suffered a series of failures, both commercially and critically, throughout most of the decade. Misguided choices like Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992) with Chevy Chase, Escape from L.A., (1996) Vampires (1998) and Ghosts of Mars (2001), all turned Carpenter into a financing nightmare.
While this took a bit of a toll on his professional career, his credibility with fans and movie experts is still very much alive and well. He also gave a terrific interview on El Rey Network, during which filmmaker Robert Rodriguez discussed the degree to which Carpenter influenced his work (more information here). The interview demonstrated that, even though he’s not an active filmmaker currently, Carpenter’s fingerprints are still all over Hollywood’s current crop of horror undertakings.
During the first decade of the 2000’s, he worked on two episodes of the horror series Masters of Horror — ‘Cigarette Burns’ (2005) and ‘Pro-Life’ — (2006) – and released the horror film The Ward. The ‘Cigarette Burns’ horror short stars Boondock Saints and The Walking Dead actor Norman Reedus as a bankrupted movie theater owner Kirby Sweetman. Kirby is hired by an eccentric film collector to find the only copy of a film that caused mass hysteria and bloodshed in the only theater it was ever shown in.The next year Carpenter came back to the Masters of Horror again with ‘Pro-Life’. This story trapped a young pregnant girl inside an abortion clinic with armed pro-Life fanatics outside and demonic secrets within her.
The Ward (2011) was Carpenter’s return to big screen horror, but the comeback was far from stellar. The story focuses on a young woman in a mental institution who is haunted by ghosts and visions. Fans and critics mostly panned it as too unoriginal.
While he has had great success in the horror genre, John Carpenter has also left his mark in science fiction, action, thrillers, comedies and movie soundtracks, making him an amazing all-around genre artist – not just the guy who forever associated these sounds with abject terror.
Mistaken for Strangers was supposed to be a rock documentary about the popular band ‘The National’ as they embarked on their 2010 tour, but it turned out to be something much more original and stirring. Filmed by Tom Bernenger, the younger brother of ‘The National’s’ lead singer Matt Berninger, as he is invited to come on tour with the band and work as a roadie for them, Mistaken for strangers is more a film about sibling rivalry and self discovery than a music documentary. It not only shows the not particularly exciting off stage antics of a rock/indie band, but it shows how brotherly love and patience can be tested by jealousy and being in close proximity to one another.
Lovelace is the story of Linda Lovelace, the woman who starred in the 1972 porn classic Deep Throat, which was one of the first porn films to gain popularity with the mainstream public. Shortly after leaving the porn industry, Linda went on to campaign against the porn industry and become an advocate for women’s rights and Lovelace outlines the reasons why.
Inside Llewyn Davis comes at a time when piracy and the internet are making it harder than ever for musicians to make money out of their music. People are buying music less and less from shops and getting everything online at a cheaper rate. With this and the still recent financial crisis in mind, this film about a struggling musician is a story bound to strike a chord with many people. Llewyn’s efforts to get himself heard has the potential to resonate with any person who has struggled to find work in a changing marketplace.
Bernie is the true story of Assistant Funeral Director Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), who after confessing to the crime of murdering his friend and employer Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) and concealing it for months, received the support of almost the whole town of Carthage, Texas. Their wish for Bernie to be found innocent was so strong that the District Attorney actually had to have the trial moved to another town in order to ensure a fair trial.
Beautiful Creatures is a romantic fantasy film centred around a small town character who falls in love with a mysterious stranger who has supernatural powers. Sound familiar? It’s impossible not to draw comparisons between this and Twilight, as the central story is almost the same, just with the genders being reversed. The supernatural character is the girl, and she is a witch or ‘caster’, rather than a vampire.
Captain Phillips is the story of an ordinary man who finds himself caught up in extraordinary circumstances. Based on real events that took place in 2009 when an American cargo ship was hijacked by Somali pirates and the Captain was held hostage for days at sea, Captain Phillips is a gripping thriller that successfully manages to maintain tension throughout. That is an impressive feat considering a large portion of the film is set in the confined space of a small lifeboat.
Blackfish is a documentary about the captive killer whale Tilikum, who has a proven track record of killing people. During a performance at Seaworld Orlando in 2010, he grabbed his trainer during a performance and killed her. The tragic event got media attention worldwide as it made people question not only the moral debate of keeping whales in captivity, but also the safety of the humans working with them. Can any amount of training prepare someone for what to do when a killer whale does something unexpected?
A Field in England grabbed headlines when it was revealed it was to be launched simultaneously across a number of mediums, including cinemas,Film4 tv channel, and DVD. This innovative release method ensured the film got wide publicity, as this was the first time in the UK a film had used this experimental release method. The film itself is also extremely experimental, blending 17th century civil war history, with hallucinogenic drug taking. It is also shot in black and white, giving a surreal effect, which adds to the film’s overall bizarreness. This movie feels more like a piece of art than a film, but it was so weird, it merits discussion.
Ruby Sparks is a romantic comedy which also has a fantasy element to the plot that gives it an interesting likeable edge over other films in that genre. Most romantic comedies contain an unintentional fantasy element, as they never seem to show a relationship that could be real, only an idealised version of the perfect romance. In contrast, the actual relationship in Ruby Sparks is very real and shows a couple struggling to make their relationship work. The fantasy element here comes from the fact that the woman in the relationship starts off as a figment of the man’s imagination. He accidentally conjures his dream girl to life only to find the relationship they begin is far from perfect .