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You are not brought upon this world to get it!

John Carpenter 
Ranked

For anyone’s formative film viewing experience during the 1980s, certain directors held undeniable, persuasive genre (SF/fantasy/horror genre) cachet. James Cameron. Ridley Scott (when he was tackling genre). Joe Dante. David Cronenberg. John Carpenter. Thanks to Halloween, Carpenter’s name became synonymous with horror, but he made relatively few undiluted movies in that vein (the aforementioned, The Fog, Christine, Prince of Darkness (although it has an SF/fantasy streak), In the Mouth of Madness, The Ward). Certainly, the pictures that cemented my appreciation for his work – Dark Star, The Thing – had only a foot or not at all in that mode.

Carpenter flirted with the mainstream after delivering one of the biggest indie films of all time (that would be Halloween again), directing pictures for major studios over a five-year stretch during the 1980s that proved rocky for all concerned, even if it resulted in two all-time classics (both, tellingly, commercial failures). In some ways, his subsequent retreat to low-budget fare was a shrewd move, but it was also couched in the necessity of faltering big studio relationships.

After that change, things arguably just weren’t the same. Perhaps he no longer had the same drive. Perhaps all those hours playing video games became a priority. But whether he was working for the big guns or making movies for peanuts, the results tended to be patchy (there is one glorious exception during the 1990s, briefly succeeding in arresting the inexorable slide). Carpenter occasionally discusses directing another movie, but he now seems much more comfortable focussing on his musical groove, releasing Lost Themes albums and offering his services to the moribund Halloween revival (anything to keep him in smokes). Maybe his semi-retirement isn’t such a bad thing; one always hopes a director will go out on a high, but it so rarely happens. Spoilers follow.

23. Masters of Horror: John Carpenter’s Pro-Life
(2006)

Horrifyingly bad. To such an extent, Carpenter’s ’90s output almost seems like glory days in comparison. This anthology show’s Season Two episode came off the back of the well-received Cigarette Burns (many citing that one as the highlight of the first season), and Carpenter reteamed with the episode’s writers, Drew McWeeny (aspirant screenwriter, ex of Ain’t It Cool News and HitFix, and about as popular these days as Harry Knowles… well, maybe not quite that popular) and Rebecca Swan (formerly Scott). That first outing may have been a case, to a greater or less extent, of “write what you know”, as whatever it was they set out to achieve with Pro-Life ­– and isn’t entirely clear, beyond a rather crass, adolescent twist along the lines of “Even God wouldn’t be pro-life if it was the devil’s baby” – they reveal that, in terms of social and political acuteness, they’re bungling oafs.

Ron Perlman’s God-fearing dad shows up at an abortion clinic with his sons in tow, demanding the return of his fifteen-year-old daughter. He proceeds to take extreme measures with the staff, urged on to protect the baby by the voice of God (actually the voice of a demon that impregnated her). His grim behaviour includes blowing various heads off and a particularly repulsive “abortion” performed on a male doctor. The commentary is both in your face and crudely garbled, so bone-headed is the characterisation and dialogue; if you thought the likes of The Screwfly Solution and Homecoming (both from Joe Dante) weren’t exactly subtle, this plumbs a whole new trench of ineptitude.

The worst of it is Carpenter, though. He’s working with cinematographer Attila Szalay again, and Cigarette Burns did look pretty good. This suggests scarcely any industry professionals were involved at all, boasting wooden performances (even Perlman doesn’t come out unscathed), risible staging and editing, and laughable special effects. I suppose something sharper, more barbed and more satirical might have emerged from the basic idea (at one point, recounting her impregnation via flashback, the daughter comments that she was in the backyard sitting on a swing “and that’s when things started to get weird” as the ground opened up beneath her). Pro-Life is enough to swear you off it entirely, though.

*No Stars*

22. Masters of Horror: John Carpenter’s Cigarette Burns
(2005)

It’s been suggested that McWeeny and Swan’s teleplay for Cigarette Burns is indebted to a number of prior diabolical celluloid works, Theodore Roszak’s Flicker among them. Certainly, that’s the one that immediately came to mind. And it may well have appealed to Carpenter as something of a thematic kin to his earlier diabolical literature pic, In the Mouth of Madness (with which it shares a protagonist troubled by hallucinatory images as his quest progresses). If only it was up to the quality of either of those.

Which isn’t to say that, for a late-period Carpenter, it isn’t more technically accomplished than you’d expect. He’s working with cinematographer Attila Szalay and composer (and son) Cody Carpenter, and conjures an effective air of foreboding as The Walking Dead’s Norman Reedus is engaged to track down a rare and dreadful – and presumed destroyed – film for a typically eccentric Udo Kier. All well and good, particularly the tales of explosions of violence at the picture’s – La Fin Absolute du Monde – sole screening.

But McWeeny and Swan have no discernible idea of how to create a breadcrumb trail for this elusive prize. Very little legwork is required of Reedus, haunted by the spectre of his dead junkie wife and hassled by her vengeful father, before he learns the filmmaker’s widow had it in her possession all along. More damagingly, the power behind the film is disappointingly excessive in its scrappy recourse to the supernatural: an angel, now de-winged and kept as a memento by Kier, was sacrificed as part of the film, a production of evil itself (“The producers of this film produced many other things: chaos, sorrow, suffering, famine”): “It’s not a movie, however, It’s a preview. It’s the coming attraction of the soul”.

Cigarette Burns may have embarked with an emphasis on atmosphere, but it soon detours into the personal predilections of the writers; “I’ve seen extreme gore, and it never made me crazy or violent” attests Reedus’ McWeeny and Swan surrogate, and the duo then attempt to prove it by including a snuff filmmaker decapitating a victim in front of Norman, a butler gouging out his own eyes, and Kier feeding his intestines into his movie projector. The sum, then, rather reduces Carpenter’s cachet, as he has generally tended towards suggestion rather than gross out in his career. A sterling premise, but ultimately a missed opportunity.


21. Body Bags
(1993)

More than a decade before he served as a gun for hire on Masters of Horror, Carpenter lodged a bid to trigger his own anthology series, in conjunction with by that point also-ran Tobe Hooper. Body Bags is a crashing disappointment, configured as it is around standard devices and tropes of such half-hour weird/grotesque/twist tales. Carpenter inevitably comes equipped, if you can call it that, with Gary Kibbe, so Body Bags’ visuals are entirely lifeless. On top of which, John decides now is the time to unleash the full measure of his acting persona on the world, in the form of his crypt keeper/morgue attendant/body bag occupant.

The tales, relating to a serial killer at a gas station, a magic hair implant and an eye transplant, feature a smattering of notable faces (Mark Hamill, Stacy Keach, David Warner, Sheena Easton, Twiggy, Deborah Harry, along with cameos from Wes Craven, Sam Raimi and Roger Corman), but the proceedings are desperately uninspired. Anyone might think the director was thinking of packing it all in…


20. Vampires
(1998)

James Woods at his most irredeemably scummy, whereby he’s all attitude and absent redeeming glimmer, but still supposed to be the hero. Vampires finds Carpenter all the worse for embracing his vamp hunter crew’s hard-man swagger while completely failing to bring any style or savvy to the table in his tussle with the vampire lore.

his came out in the same year as Blade, while Buffy the Vampire Slayer was offering a new quip-smart take on the small screen. Carpenter’s is old and enfeebled by comparison, Peckinpah without any chutzpah, somehow convincing himself that a clumsy rawk soundtrack, the dependably atrocious cinematography of Gary Kibbe and some indifferently lanky guy dressed as a goth (Thomas Ian Griffith) will see him through. Only Sheryl Lee emerges with any credibility, and you rather wish, for her sake, she’d steered clear of such faux-testosterone-fuelled nonsense.


19. Ghosts of Mars
(2001)

Ghosts of Mars might have been pretty good. Sometimes touted as a prospective third Snake Plissken tale (you can see readily see Ice Cube’s character as a swap-in) and possessed of a truly impressive/ridiculous structure (a flashback within a flashback within a flashback, at one point), it’s hobbled quite resoundingly by all the bugbears of later Carpenter fare and then some. The movie looks horribly flat (Kibbe), it sounds rank (Carpenter rawking out), the acting’s pretty meh (the Stath, just because he’s the Stath, and Joanna Cassidy excepted).

Oh, and the villains are a bunch of entirely underwhelming, glam-rock goth-punk spooks. Ghosts of Mars resembles a particularly bad ’80s Mad Max rip-off staged in an abandoned quarry, but lacking the scrappy gusto that might come with such contemporary shamelessness. The movie’s reception was decidedly frosty, with the consequence that it would be almost a decade before the director returned to the big screen…


18. Escape from L.A.
(1996)

Oh dear. Everyone in their right mind wanted an Escape from New York sequel, but when it finally came about, its director didn’t seem to care anymore. If Kurt Russell had been sensible, he’d have ghost directed Escape from L.A. way he did Tombstone. Unfortunately, the finished movie, which is more remake than sequel – although that doesn’t mean a remake isn’t in ongoing development hell, and long may it stay that way – is apparently made with studied disinterest, and as much visual flair as a TV movie.

Carpenter turns the material slack and flabby, and DP Kibbe ensures the images are devoid of texture or depth. The costumes are awful and the political commentary facile. There are a couple of likeable moments here and there – Bruce Campbell as the Surgeon General of Beverly Hills – but this really sealed the deal on the growing view that Carpenter had lost his touch. That he still claims Escape from L.A. is better than the original tells you quite how much.


17. Village of the Damned
(1995)

Perhaps a legitimate new version of John Wyndham’s novel could have been made, even if it’s hard to see how it would have bettered the 1961 film, less still offered a valid reason for its existence. Carpenter’s did neither of those things, offering instead an inert, sub X-Files, inverted take on Indigo children. Shorn of the original’s chilly atmosphere, there’s something faintly ridiculous about this coterie of infants marching about in blonde wigs, terrorising a small town.

There are several interesting genre faces in the cast (Christopher Reeve, Mark Hamill) but zero interesting roles (albeit, credit to the lead kids Thomas Dekker – later of The Sarah Connor Chronicles – and Lindsay Haun for giving solid performances). There’s no dread, tension or polish here (guess who’s the DP), and very little mystery (utilising the Grey alien as a visual template is both cynical and unimaginative). Not actually dreadful, then, but dull and disengaged. It’s perhaps a shame Carpenter opted to make this one, rather than holding out for The Creature from the Black Lagoon.


16. The Ward
(2010)

Is it likely Carpenter will direct again? I’d lay odds against it (although, there was a recent quote suggesting he might consider a third Snake Plissken… but didn’t he already use his plot for that on Ghosts of Mars?) If that’s it, then this is his last movie. He made The Ward after almost a decade away from the silver screen, and it was duly met with profound disinterest. The feature came subsequent to his director-for-hire duties on Masters of Horror and follows something of that model (no score, no scripting).

He thus finds himself knocking about in the low-budget arena that would also lead to a Joe Dante picture a few years later (Burying the Ex); in both cases, once brand filmmakers aren’t quite to put their signature on the material. Given Carpenter’s fare in the preceding two decades, though, that’s not altogether a bad thing. Alleged spousal abuser Amber Heard is merely adequate as the mental ward patient caught in an institutional “Who wouldn’t have thunk it?” plot twist. Functionally, The Ward does the job, but there’s a dearth of personality involved.


15. Elvis
(1979)

Carpenter, hungry for experience, pounces on the opportunity to tackle an atypical genre in a strictly of-the-week TV movie. Elvis’ claim to fame, however, is the director’s first fruitful collaboration with the future Snake Plissken/Roy Macready/Jack Burton. Russell makes a good fit for the King, and Carpenter fashions the proceedings with due diligence, but there’s little that’s identifiable Carpenter-esque in the mix. Added to which, the biopic is operating at its most sprawling and literal throughout Elvis’ three-hour running time. No turkey, but you won’t be calling it a sausage either.


14. Someone’s Watching Me!
(1978)

In the same year as his most famous stalk and slasher, Carpenter delivered a plain stalker. Just for TV, mind, and one doing said stalking at a distance, in the Rear Window mode. As a result, Halloween, Someone’s Watching Me! and The Eyes of Laura Mars (directed by Irvin Kershner) form something of a loose trilogy of predatory psychos, albeit this is, by some distance, the most innocuous. TV director Lauren Hutton moves into a high rise and quickly finds herself on the receiving end of persistent pest phone calls and prank presents.

As a jobbing director (of his own screenplay-cum-teleplay), banking the experience (see also Elvis), Carpenter does an efficient, fairly inconspicuous job, absent as he is a signature theme or insistent tracking shots. Lightly engaging, the movie is perhaps most noteworthy for his first teaming with future wife Adrienne Barbeau.


13. The Fog
(1980)

A movie of incredibly atmospherically-lit shots – courtesy of maestro DP Dean Cundey – rather than any sense of a coherent whole. Perhaps it’s unsurprising then, that Carpenter thought he had a disaster on his hands after viewing The Fog’s first assembly, lost his nerve and threw in a splatter of uncharacteristic gore and cheap shock moments. In contrast to Halloween, where the simple premise has a certain elegance, Carpenter never finds a way to introduce a crucial sense of escalation here.

The idea of deadly returning mariners is a solid one, their visualisation decent, but aside from the winning Barbeau as the local lighthouse DJ, none of the characters are terribly engaging, nor their situations (Tom Atkins bedding Jamie Lee Curtis is also rather icky). Carpenter needed to spend more time working out how to make his core-concept campfire horror as dreadful, uncanny and spinetingling as it ought to have been.


12. Christine
(1983)

A retreat from the box-office belly up of The Thing and an attempted course correction, Christine found Carpenter apparently falling in line with every other director, horror or otherwise, of the era, by selecting a prime Stephen King novel to adapt (De Palma, Kubrick, Romero and Cronenberg had all gone there already). But by this point, early successes were giving way to a less-than-rigorous, cash-in approach (only the non-horror Stand by Me would earn any accolades during the second half of the ’80s).

Perhaps the best way to describe Christine is serviceable. Carpenter, working from Bill Phillips’ screenplay, makes his star car an effective-enough character and coaxes a strong performance from Keith Gordon as loser-turned-psycho Arnie, at least until the automobile goes full throttle and the plot shifts gear and focus onto the hero and his girl. The biggest problem with the adaptation, however, is that it isn’t scary, something the director himself admitted. Christine is a polished production, but not one that lingers on in the mind.


11. Memoirs of an Invisible Man
(1992)

Carpenter was lured back to big-studio productions by this baffling-on-paper, effects-heavy production. Chevy Chase as a Cary Grant leading man in a science-fiction thriller romance? How did Warner Bros ever think they’d make back their investment? It seems Memoirs of an Invisible Man was initially conceived with comedy in mind (Ivan Reitman was involved at one stage), but Chase’s directive for an exploration of “the loneliness of inevitability” was duly relayed to less-than-impressed screenwriter William Goldman.

The romance (with Daryl Hannah) is a fizzle, while Chase is naked (but fortunately immaterial) without his deadpan putdowns. And yet... Carpenter has a decent DP on his team (William A Fraker), the score (from Shirley Walker) is solid, the villain (Sam Neill) fun, and the effects solid (or rather, the opposite thereof). The thriller side unfolds reasonably efficiently, and if the movie never quite coalesces its disparate elements and competing demands, this isn’t at all a dislikeable affair. I’d almost argue it’s underrated. Almost.


10. Prince of Darkness
(1987)

Martin Quatermass? Carpenter returns to the base-under-siege template that served him so well for Assault on Precinct 13 – and which could also be seen in various forms through The Fog, Escape from New York and The Thing – throwing in a bagful of Lovecraft (including a decidedly gnostic anti-God), a nod to Nigel Kneale’s alien mythology oeuvre (highlighted by the director’s screenwriting pseudonym), and a proudly bargain-basement budget. The results are, then, expectedly mixed. The director’s nursing some big ideas here, but also a cast that – the reliable Donald Pleasance aside – simply aren’t up to snuff. One might almost think he was purposefully employing cardboard players.

Prince of Darkness was also his first collaboration with deadly DP Gary Kibbe, although their least proficient endeavours were yet to come; there at least some notable moments to be found here, particularly in the visualisation of the message from the future and the realm of the anti-God. A superior version of this movie likely exists in the memory, rather than the slightly unflattering truth of revisiting it – it is thus probably the ripest of his pictures for a remake – but Prince of Darkness is also a justifiable choice as a post-studio movies palate cleanser. If he’d been sensible, Carpenter would have made sure to surround himself with hungry talent, so to make the most of the low-budget experience. Instead, Prince of Darkness would lead to a new normal of mediocre output.


9. Starman
(1984)

Atypical excursion into sci-fi romance that proves surprisingly successful. The screenplay, nursing the old “What if Voyager II’s mission were real, and it really led to real alien contact?” idea, isn’t all that, but the performances from Jeff Bridges and Karen Allen, the former as an alien inhabiting the cloned form of the latter’s grieving widow’s deceased hubby, give Starman a major boost. Jack Nietzsche’s score, meanwhile, compels you with every repetitive swelling note to submit to their burgeoning love. Charles Martin Smith is also present as a kindly astrophysicist, but mostly this road movie is about Carpenter taking a back seat to his leads doing their thing, and the result is as upbeat as his earlier The Thing is bleak.


8. Halloween
(1978)

Is it fair that Halloween remains the director’s most legendary movie, since he has made at least half a dozen better ones? Possibly not, given there’s an undeniably/intentionally rudimentary quality to its conception and motivation that makes it too easy to reduce Carpenter to the characterisation of a horrormeister or one-trick pony. He was – I’m assuming he’s hung up his viewfinder for good – far from that.

Nevertheless, the minimalism on display in Halloween enables him to showcase two signature moves from his arsenal, ones undeniably present in his very best work. Foremost are his chops as a composer, creating unnerving, driving electronica that carries you along helplessly wherever he’s bent on heading. The other does much the same: his use of Steadicam (or Panaglide), frequently designed as POV but as often utilised to ascribe mood, tension or creeping dread. Not an awful lot happens between Michael Myers’ breakout and the last twenty minutes, but Carpenter has the confidence to know that doesn’t matter. It helps too that he has DP Dean Cundey, making this look great on a budget of next to nothing, and Donald Pleasance, lurking in the bushes and acting almost as mental as the nutter he’s trying to catch/put down, along for the ride.


7. They Live!
(1988)

You can find plenty of proponents of the idea Carpenter was making an actual exposé here, of aliens among us and/or the Elite feeding off worthless brainwashed cattle, but as valid as such interpretations are, I do tend towards the more prosaic reading that he was simply talking about ’80s greed – “yuppies and unrestrained capitalism” – set as this explicitly is among the homeless and itinerant.

The reason They Live! holds such cachet is that its presentation of subliminal control and programming remains so potent. The signs instructing “OBEY” and “MONEY IS GOD”, and the sunglasses enabling a stark vision of the truth (and, of course, the fight between Roddy Piper and Keith David, as the former tries to persuade the latter to don a pair) strikes a chord with anyone of even a nominally conspiratorial – read: balanced – disposition. It’s become catnip for anyone of profile – some would say limited hangouts – in the alternative moment to invoke, your Ickes and Joneses, but that should do nothing to lessen its value. They Live! is rough and ready, much like Prince of Darkness, and it lacks subtlety of both performance and craft, but for once during this first flush of later period Carpenter, it feels as if that suits the material.


6. Assault on Precinct 13
(1976)

Carpenter’s sophomore effort and a complete switch of genre from Dark Star’s existential sci-fi stoner antics. Spartan in its Howard Hawks-inspired setup – a police station under siege amid an ironically isolated urban jungle, rather than an outpost in the Wild West – and limited in flair from its performances (which are necessarily serviceable), Assault on Precinct 13 serves as a first-rate instruction in the director’s facility with tension and atmospherics.

Everything here is pared down and efficient, from the – possibly career best – insistent, catchy score, to the relentless attack waves on the all-but-abandoned station. Carpenter would hone this lean format with future efforts, and he’d bring in some superior players to inhabit his archetypes, but there’s a purity of form and content to Assault on Precinct 13 that makes it possibly the best primer of a director at the peak of his powers.


5. In the Mouth of Madness
(1994)

Carpenter’s last great shout. And in all fairness, his right-hand DP Gary Kibbe’s work is just fine throughout this Lovecraft love-in, an inventive, self-reflexive picture that stands apart from the otherwise mostly tired and tiresome output of the director during the 1990s. Sam Neill’s insurance investigator is assigned to locate the Stephen King-esque author Sutter Cane, leading him to the Nigel Kneale-esque town of Hobb’s End and the increasingly unsettling blurring of authorial fiction and reality.

Neill’s never been better as a lead, New Line President of Production Michael De Luca’s screenplay is surprising, clever, witty and – despite all the homaging – original. The “Reality is not what it used to be” and “believing-makes-it-so” premise takes on a horror hue here (a blue one), but at its core, it is surely a simple reflection of the power of the prevailing paradigm. In the Mouth of Madness is very nearly in Carpenter’s first rank/tier. The only element letting the side down slightly is his preference for a Metallica-tinged rawwk score.


4. Dark Star 
(1974)

Bombed out in space with a spaced-out bomb. Carpenter wouldn’t pursue the overtly comedic again for another twelve years, but then, this was the only time he’d collaborate with Dan O’Bannon (working in multiple capacities, including model maker and screenwriter). O’Bannon’s brightest star here is performative, however, as his portrayal of beleaguered malcontent Pinback is easily the highlight of Carpenter’s used-future flick. Indeed, for all that Dark Star is a comedy, it has the leap on both Lucas – the patented Star Wars used-future – and Sir Ridders – O’Bannon’s Alien screenplay revisits a non-human passenger aboard a spaceship and continues the blue-collar worker vibe present here; the prevailing feature of space travel is boredom and petty work-place squabbling (later the signature premise for Red Dwarf). And like everyday life, the only way to survive the grind is to get above it all (Andreijah Pahich’s Talby).

Carpenter and O’Bannon engineered the flipside of 2001: A Space Odyssey’s gleaming evolution, a no-budget grime-bucket vision of tomorrow, but one with every ounce as much philosophical enquiry (albeit, the existential conversations with the sentient bomb really prefigure Douglas Adams). Highlights are Pinback’s expletive-filled diary entry and his battle with a beachball alien, a creature just as persistent and potentially deadly as the xenomorph. And a marvel of design work (drumming its claws, indeed). This may not be the Carpenter pose of greatest renown – that would be born with his subsequent feature – but it’s a unique gem, and it’s something of a shame the clash of egos prevented director and co-writer from collaborating again.


3. Escape from New York
(1981)

Hugely influential, sporting a simple-yet-irresistible premise – New York turned into a lawless prison state, as a metaphor for, you know, America – and a just-the-right-side-of-parody, Eastwood-influenced, eye-patched, adult lead-making turn from Kurt Russell as Snake Plissken, Escape from New York is the stuff cult movies are made from. It was fairly low budget, but it looks great, for the most part, since all it needed was night shoots, urban decay and Dean Cundey lensing. And an ensemble of cult actors – Lee van Cleef, Harry Dean Stanton, Donald Pleasance, Isaac Hayes, Ernest Borgnine – to add flavour.

The ticking clock ensures Carpenter has a ready-made tension device, and once Plissken is deposited in the lion’s den, he doesn’t let up. This was the director’s ticket to major studio pictures (but was financed by indie Avco Embassy), and he’d plug away with the big guns for much of the next decade, to mixed results. You thought Snake was dead? He’d have been better off that way than gracing a sequel…


2. Big Trouble in Little China
(1986)

I’m a reasonable guy, but I’m having a very unreasonable day.” Makes you wish Carpenter and Russell had collaborated on more comedy-thriller… ghost stories (and no, I’m not counting Escape from L.A. as a comedy, however laughable it may be). There’s a certain Zen indiscipline to Big Trouble in Little China’s freewheeling flair, but that entirely suits the laissez-faire, magpie plundering of WD Richter’s screenplay, too self-referential and spoofy to justify the pacing of a Raiders of the Lost Ark, but happily – gleefully, even – grabbing DNA from any and every forebear in the genre going (including Fu Manchu, but careful to homage rather than witlessly stereotype, albeit that entire area is a minefield).

Russell’s John Wayne swagger, even as Jack Burton is continually dim-watt and inept in response to each appalling new encounter, is a joy to behold, and there’s magnificent support from Kim Cattrall, Victor Wong and particularly James Hong as David Lo Pan (his dirty old man, Albert Steptoe-esque incarnation is especially alarming/hilarious). Richter’s work here is altogether more successful than his earlier (and even cultier) genre grab-bag The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. The score is occasionally a little too insistent, but the over enthusiasm is supremely infectious. If Big Trouble in Little China represented the abrupt end to Carpenter’s courtship by the major studios, he went out on a creative high. You were born ready for this movie. And the Dwayne Johnson sequel cannot be delayed long enough (yes, there’s a lot of that with prospective Carpenter remakes).


1. The Thing
(1982)

Carpenter’s masterpiece, a remake – it’s okay to redo Hawks, just don’t redo Carpenter – so consummate, it’s now the first thought any will have on the subject. Who knows what might have come of the director’s career, had it been a hit (the same might be said of Sir Ridders and Blade Runner, in a way). Certainly, the failure wounded Carpenter, and he retreated to the safer territory of Stephen King and genre switch ups, before calling time on studio fare (momentarily) after another bruising failure (above).

The great achievement of The Thing, beyond its pervasive claustrophobia, paranoia and Lovecraftian horror (effects courtesy of Rob Bottin, and still absolutely staggering) is a feeling of authenticity of environment relatively foreign to Carpenter’s milieu (but see Assault on Precinct 13). The British Columbia location footage, mixed with interiors shot on refrigerated sound stages, lends itself to remoteness and isolation; not for nothing has Carpenter included this in his unofficial “end of the world” trilogy. Like Alien, The Thing was criticised at the time for insufficient attention to character, but the chances are that, if you’ve seen it enough times (as I have), each character is more than efficiently illustrated, just not so much that the essential theme, of possession and replication, can’t apply to anyone, even Macready (Russell).

The ending is justifiably famous, and if the film’s failure means we were lucky not to have a sequel sully it – although, we did get a belated, instantly dismissed prequel, and the counter argument is Blade Runner 2049 – it carries with it a curiously upbeat nihilism borne of self-sacrifice for the greater good. The broader theme, of pod people taking over, is an evergreen, but in a world where the population bends the knee to whichever absurd new edicts are issued, no matter how inimical or totalitarian, one can only assume they long since did. It’s notable too that The Thing saw Carpenter throw out much of Morricone’s score, and as reluctant as I am to admit it, his own oppressive, propelling pulse is exactly what was required. The best ever remake? Yeah, I think it probably is.


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The Doors (1991) (SPOILERS) Oliver Stone’s mammoth, mythologising paean to Jim Morrison is as much about seeing himself in the self-styled, self-destructive rebel figurehead, and I suspect it’s this lack of distance that rather quickly leads to The Doors becoming a turgid bore. It’s strange – people are , you know, films equally so – but I’d hitherto considered the epic opus patchy but worthwhile, a take that disintegrated on this viewing. The picture’s populated with all the stars it could possibly wish for, tremendous visuals (courtesy of DP Robert Richardson) and its director operating at the height of his powers, but his vision, or the incoherence thereof, is the movie’s undoing. The Doors is an indulgent, sprawling mess, with no internal glue to hold it together dramatically. “Jim gets fat and dies” isn’t really a riveting narrative through line.

Did you not just hand over a chicken to someone?

The Father (2020) (SPOILERS) I was in no great rush to see The Father , expecting it to be it to be something of an ordeal in the manner of that lavishly overpraised euthanasia-fest Amour. As with the previous Oscars, though, the Best Picture nominee I saw last turned out to be the best of the bunch. In that case, Parasite , its very title beckoning the psychic global warfare sprouting shoots around it, would win the top prize. The Father , in a year of disappointing nominees, had to settle for Best Actor. Ant’s good, naturally, but I was most impressed with the unpandering manner in which Florian Zeller and Christopher Hampton approached material that might easily render one highly unstuck.

I can do in two weeks what you can only wish to do in twenty years.

Wrath of Man (2021) (SPOILERS) Guy Ritchie’s stripped-down remake of Le Convoyeur (or Cash Truck , also the working title for this movie) feels like an intentional acceleration in the opposite direction to 2019’s return-to-form The Gentleman , his best movie in years. Ritchie seems to want to prove he can make a straight thriller, devoid of his characteristic winks, nods, playfulness and outright broad (read: often extremely crude) sense of humour. Even King Arthur: Legend of the Sword has its fair share of laughs. Wrath of Man is determinedly grim, though, almost Jacobean in its doom-laden trajectory, and Ritchie casts his movie accordingly, opting for more restrained performers, less likely to summon more flamboyant reflexes.

So the devil's child will rise from the world of politics.

The Omen (1976) (SPOILERS) The coming of the Antichrist is an evergreen; his incarnation, or the reveal thereof, is always just round the corner, and he can always be definitively identified in any given age through a spot of judiciously subjective interpretation of The Book of Revelation , or Nostradamus. Probably nothing did more for the subject in the current era, in terms of making it part of popular culture, than The Omen . That’s irrespective of the movie’s quality, of course. Which, it has to be admitted, is not on the same level as earlier demonic forebears Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist .

Fifty medications didn’t work because I’m really a reincarnated Russian blacksmith?

Infinite (2021) (SPOILERS) It’s as if Mark Wahlberg, his lined visage increasingly resembling a perplexed potato, learned nothing from the blank ignominy of his “performances” in previous big-budget sci-fi spectacles Planet of the Apes and, er, Max Payne . And maybe include The Happening in that too ( Transformers doesn’t count, since even all-round reprobate Shia La Boeuf made no visible dent on their appeal either way). As such, pairing him with the blandest of journeyman action directors on Infinite was never going to seem like a sterling idea, particularly with a concept so far removed from of either’s wheelhouse.

You got any Boom Boom Lemon?

Kate (2021) (SPOILERS) The dying protagonist subgenre is a difficult one to get right. The customary approach is one of world-weary resignation on the part of the poisoned or terminally ill party that sweetens the pill, suggesting they’re being done something of a favour. It’s also a smart idea to give them some sort of motive force, in order to see them through the proceedings before they kark it. Such as a mystery to solve; there’s a good reason D.O.A. is generally seen as a touchstone in fare of this ilk. Kate fumbles on both counts, leaving the viewer with a rather icky poisoning – you don’t want to be too distracted by that sort of thing, not least because suspension of disbelief that the already superheroic protagonist can function at all evaporates – and a lead character with the slenderest of relatability working for her. Most damningly, however, is a revenge plot that’s really rather limp.

Five people make a conspiracy, right?

Snake Eyes (1998) (SPOILERS) The best De Palma movies offer a synthesis of plot and aesthetic, such that the director’s meticulously crafted shots and set pieces are underpinned by a solid foundation. That isn’t to say, however, that there isn’t a sheer pleasure to be had from the simple act of observing, from De Palma movies where there isn’t really a whole lot more than the seduction of sound, image and movement. Snake Eyes has the intention to be both scrupulously written and beautifully composed, coming after a decade when the director was – mostly – exploring his oeuvre more commercially than before, which most often meant working from others’ material. If it ultimately collapses in upon itself, then, it nevertheless delivers a ream of positives in both departments along the way.