The 80s was the most fruitful era of Carpenter’s career and produced many of his greatest and most iconic films. His first great film of the 80s was Escape from New York, a dystopian science fiction nightmare. It features Kurt Russell as the legendary ex-soldier “Snake” Plisskin. Plisskin is tasked with locating and rescuing the President of the United States after his plane was shot down over Manhattan Island. The only problem is that Manhattan has been transformed into a gigantic prison. It’s a race against the clock to find the President before he, or Plisskin, is killed by the island’s savage inhabitants.
In 1996 John Carpenter revived one of his most famous and enduring characters, “Snake” Plissken, for Escape from L.A. This time, he is blackmailed by the corrupt government to retrieve a doomsday device from the city of Los Angeles, part of a giant new superprison. In this sequel to Escape from New York, Carpenter turns up the action, humor, and suspense with one of his tightest and most entertaining films. Even though it received lukewarm attention from critics, it has gone on to become a definitive cult classic.
Adapted from the novel by Stephen King, Christine is, in a nutshell, about a killer car. The film follows Arnie Cunningham, a high school nerd, who buys a used red-and-white 1958 Plymouth Fury. Originally in a bad state of repair, Arnie fixes her up, naming her “Christine.” But suddenly various people in Arnie’s life start dying. Soon, he realizes that the car has come to life and is in fact evil. The plot is admittedly hokey, but Carpenter pulls it off with great effects and some decent performances from the actors.
John Carpenter has never been a stranger to the weird and unusual, and this has never been more apparent than in his bizarre classic They Live. It takes us into a world just like our own where the earth is ruled and controlled by aliens who subconsciously brainwash the remaining humans into complacency. Their plot is revealed by a drifter named “Nada” who discovers a pair of sunglasses that lets him see through the aliens’ subliminal messages. A devastating piece of social commentary on the culture of conspicuous consumption, They Live is a classic in every sense of the world.
A remake of Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another World, Carpenter’s The Thing is a triumph of special effects wizardry. Once again starring Kurt Russell, we find our hero working at an Antarctic research station when they are attacked by a strange alien life form. The alien is a parasite that assimilates other organisms and mimics them. It isn’t long before people start dying at the base. But who can they trust? All of them are possible victims and could be the terrible Thing in hiding. The Thing was truly Carpenter at the height of his power.
Heavily inspired by the work of H. P. Lovecraft, In the Mouth of Madness is one of Carpenter’s darkest and most sinister films. The plot concerns private investigator John Trent (Sam Neill) on the search for horror novelist Sutter Cane. His search takes him to a strange town full of bizarre people holding a terrifying, and potentially world-ending secret. It’s up to Trent to stop the evils in the town before they turn him mad. Light on gore but filled with an overpowering atmosphere, In the Mouth of Madness is Carpenter’s unsung classic.
Inspired by Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo and George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, Assault on Precinct 13 is the film that established Carpenter as a director. It follows a group of people, including police officers, criminals, and civilians, trapped inside a police station by a gang. Having sworn revenge against the police for an earlier shootout that killed many of their members, the gang has sworn to kill everybody inside. A masterwork of suspense, Carpenter creates a claustrophobic world of cramped rooms and tight corridors where the protagonists must fight off certain death for as long as they can…
Widely considered to be one of the greatest horror films of all time, Halloween is the film responsible for the creation of the slasher genre. The film follows a young teenager named Laurie Strode who becomes the target of escaped homicide mental patient Michael Myers. It was one of the first times that such a psychopathic killer had been depicted on film. The film is an incredible construct of tension, but it is Michael Myers himself who steals the show. The iconic picture of Myers in his Halloween mask has become one of the most enduring and terrifying images in film history.
An energetic thrill ride, Big Trouble in Little China is some of the most fun that you will ever have at the movies. Once again teaming up with Kurt Russell, Carpenter tells the story of truck driver Jack Burton. A mean old cuss, Burton is drawn into a dangerous plot to help his friend Wang Chi save his green-eyed girlfriend from the Chinese underworld of San Francisco. It’s a thrilling mix of street smarts and Chinese mysticism as the forces of darkness combine to thwart our heroes.
While Carpenter’s most famous films inhabit the horror, suspense, and action genres, he was more than capable of directing powerful straightforward dramas. One of the finest examples is his film Starman. It features Jeff Bridges as an alien who came to earth after receiving an invitation on the Voyager 2 space probe. After crashing to earth, he finds himself drawn to the recently widowed Jenny Hayden. Soon, she helps him escape from the government and authorities in an attempt to return him to a drop zone where he will be picked up by another ship. A charming film, it boasts a powerful early performance by Bridges and showcases the emotional depths of Carpenter’s skills.