Born in upstate NY in 1948, John Carpenter would go on to become not only one of the foremost directors of horror films of his generation, but a producer, screenwriter and composer, as well. His first film, the amusing sci-fi thriller Dark Star (’74), had shown how very effective he could be even on a limited budget, while his second, Assault on Precinct 13 (’76), had been a remarkably tense urban-crime wringer that was more than a little in debt to, of all things, the seminal 1968 zombie film Night of the Living Dead. But it was with his smash hit of 1978, Halloween, that the ball really started to get rolling for the now-legendary filmmaker; a modern-day horror classic that has spawned a seemingly endless raft of sequels that show no sign of abatement. In today’s Shocktober column, I would like to take a quick look at five of Carpenter’s films that might make for perfect at-home watching fare during this creepiest of all holiday seasons. Personally, I enjoyed every one of these five delicious entertainments: 

The Fog John Carpenter horror film reviewhorror film reviewsTHE FOG (1980)

Two years after John Carpenter stunned the world with the enormous financial success of 1978’s Halloween – to this day, one of the most lucrative independent films ever made ($50 million made on a $320,000 investment!) – the writer/director/composer switched gears a bit and, along with co-writer Debra Hill, delivered a comparatively restrained but nonetheless highly effective ghost story: The Fog. As most of the world by now knows, this film tells the story of the small town of Antonio Bay, in northern CA, on the occasion of its 100th anniversary, when the vengeful spirits of a century-old shipwreck roll in, shrouded by a weirdly glowing and unnatural fog. Viewers who go into this movie expecting to see rotting pirate zombies or leprous cadavers may be in for a disappointment, as Carpenter and Hill here seem to follow the Val Lewton credo that the viewer’s imagination will supply images far scarier than anything a filmmaker can put on screen. Still, it is remarkable how much bang Carpenter & Co. get from their simple images of swirling mist and ghostly, shadowy forms carrying scythes and grappling hooks. What the picture boasts more than anything is a genuinely creepy atmosphere of escalating menace, skillfully abetted by sharp direction and a wonderful score. A cast of real pros adds immensely to the fun, including John Houseman (who tells one helluva campfire story!), Hal Holbrook, Tom Atkins and what almost seems, in retrospect, a quartet of the horror genre’s finest actresses: Janet Leigh, Jamie Lee Curtis, Halloween‘s Nancy Loomis and, especially, Adrienne Barbeau. Filmed largely at Point Reyes Station and Inverness, CA, The Fog looks both quaint and picturesque; a charming backdrop for the decidedly unholy and supernatural mishegas that ultimately transpires. My psychotronic guru, Rob, tells me, by the way, that the 2005 remake of The Fog is quite lame and one to seriously avoid. Stay away from that Fog; do enter this one!

John Carpenter horror film review Prince of Darknesshorror film reviewsPRINCE OF DARKNESS (1987)

John Carpenter, having previously tackled such disparate topics as the serial killer (Halloween), aliens of all stripes (Dark Star, The Thing, Starman), ghostly pirates (The Fog) and a killer car (Christine) – not to mention the sci-fi/fantasy action/adventure film (Escape From New York, Big Trouble In Little China) – next tackled, in 1987’s Prince of Darkness, two film genres in one: the devil triumphant and the rampaging zombie. In this picture, the living essence of Old Scratch himself is discovered in a glowing canister in the basement of a 400-year-old decrepit church, somewhere in the wilds of L.A., and when a crusty physics professor and a team of gung-ho students investigate … well, let’s just say that all hell almost literally busts loose! Into this combined-genre film writer/director Carpenter manages to work in a revisionist Christian theology, a physics-based theory of evil, lots and lots of yucky insects, AND sweet Alice Cooper himself as a vicious, satanic cat’s-paw. The film grows increasingly intense as the students fall one by one to demonic possession (usually by the medium of some kind of devilish projectile vomit!). It is well acted, beautifully shot, and delivers effective shocks and suspense, well abetted by a throbbing and ominous synth score (Carpenter again). By the film’s end, some questions do seem to remain unresolved: How DID that satanic goop actually escape from its confinement, after 7 million years? Just what IS the meaning of those messages from the future? And just what WILL the cops think about all the bloody carnage that they find? Despite these unsatisfied plot points, Prince of Darkness surely deserves a higher rating than the “Bomb” that the wet-blanket editors at Maltinville have chosen to give it. Much higher. It is an intelligent and at times quite gripping shocker; one helluva ride!

horror film reviewsTHEY LIVE (1988)

John Carpenter horror film review They LiveJust recently, I had the pleasure of seeing a movie that I had wanted to see ever since its initial release in 1988, John Carpenter’s satirical sci-fi horror outing They Live. This is the film in which the late Roddy Piper stars as a drifter who comes into L.A. and gets a construction job. He befriends another worker, a black man (Keith David) who brings him to an outdoor soup kitchen. Nearby is a church that doubles as the HQ of a group of revolutionaries who are trying to spread the word that mankind is being manipulated and ruled by a group of outsiders, and, long story short, Piper later finds, in that church, a pair of sunglasses that, when put on, allows him to see all the subliminal advertising beneath the surface of our everyday reality. And even worse, he is now able to see that many of the folks walking the streets are, in reality, skull-faced aliens who are intent on conquering our fair planet! The first half of They Live is a very suspenseful 45 minutes indeed, while the second half turns much more action packed, as Piper and his buddy grab guns and proceed to blow things apart at the cable TV station where the aliens have set up a base. The film grows wackier and more outlandish as it proceeds, and contains one of the longest fight scenes in screen history; a completely over-the-top slugfest between Piper and David as Piper tries to get the other to try on those darn sunglasses. And They Live also contains one of the greatest lines in cinema history, as well. When Piper first gets wind of the alien presence, he grabs a shotgun, walks into a bank with his shades on, sees all the aliens about him and declares, “I’ve come here to chew bubble gum and kick ass, and I’m all out of bubble gum!” You’ve gotta love it! Actors Meg Foster and Raymond St. Jacques add their talents to the proceedings, and the film, which I recorded off of HBO, looks just great in high def. All in all, great fun. So glad that I was finally able to catch up with this one!

horror film reviewsIN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS (1994)

John Carpenter horror film review In the Mouth of MadnessIn John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness (1987), Satan is revealed to be alive and well, although entombed in a canister in the basement of an L.A. church. In the director’s They Live (1988), hideous aliens are shown to be living in our midst, only visible via special lenses. And in Carpenter’s 1994 offering, In the Mouth of Madness, the paranoia quotient is, remarkably, ratcheted up yet again. Here, tentacled monstrosities from another dimension, clearly patterned on the Elder Gods of H.P. Lovecraft‘s Cthulhu Mythos, seek to sow insanity amongst humankind as a means of abetting their arrival. Whew! In the film, Sam Neill (truly excellent here) plays John Trent, a hard-bitten freelance insurance investigator who is hired by the Arcane publishing firm to track down a Stephen King-like author named Sutter Cane, whose books have begun to cause his readers to go mad. Trent and Cane’s editor, Linda (the lovely Julie Carmen), track the missing author to a town in New Hampshire that was previously thought merely one of the author’s fictional constructs, leading to one of the townspeople uttering what is perhaps the film’s most famous line: “Reality isn’t what it used to be.” A seeming mashup of Lovecraft’s 1936 novella At the Mountains of Madness and Jonathan Carroll‘s brilliant 1980 fantasy/horror novel The Land of Laughs (in which famous children’s author Marshall France’s fictional works strangely come to life), Carpenter’s film is easily one of the more challenging in his oeuvre, and one of his eeriest. It is not a film that allows for easy analysis and explication, and will likely leave many shaking their head in bewilderment. Those with an affinity for Lovecraft’s work, and the concept of malignant entities trying to reassert themselves in our world, may have an easier time of it, but even they might require a repeat viewing to help all the pieces fall into place. “Lived any good books lately?” the trailer for the film teasingly inquired; sometimes, it seems, reality is not only stranger than fiction … it is CAUSED by fiction! In all, some very impressive work here by screenwriter Michael De Luca and Mr. Carpenter, in a film loaded with jolts and shivers.

horror film reviewsGHOSTS OF MARS (2001)

Ghosts of Mars John Carpenter horror film reviewWell, this is a John Carpenter film that does not have a very good reputation, to say the least; the Maltin book says that it is “routine, predictable and dull,” and even my DVD Delirium 2 reference book, which has a higher degree of tolerance for these kind of genre films, has nothing nice to say about it. But you know what? I enjoyed it, and I suppose that’s all that matters, right? In this film, mankind has almost finished terraforming Mars by the year 2176, and there are primitive settlements and mining operations all around the planet. A matriarchy is in control of the government, and the Martian Police Force is comprised mainly of women, it seems. Now, a dangerous criminal needs to be transported from where he has been captured in one of those mining settlements, but when the police force gets there to deliver him by train, it finds all the miners dead and decapitated. Long story short: An archaeological dig has released the spirit ghosts of the planet, which have proceeded to possess the bodies of various Earth settlers, turning them into homicidal ghouls who look like members of the rock group Kiss! Yes, it’s a pretty wacky conceit on which to hinge a film, and to the picture’s detriment (it was co-written by Carpenter), we never do find out what those spirits are, or how they were imprisoned in their cavern. Still, as I say, the film was a lot of fun for me. It stars Natasha Henstridge as one of the cops, the great Pam Grier as her superior (Pam, sadly, gets killed off and beheaded pretty early on), Ice Cube as the main criminal (his acting style is not exactly Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, to say the least), Jason Statham as another cop, Joanna Cassidy as a scientist, and Rosemary Forsyth. The film is presented in a very unusual manner, with flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks … as a matter of fact, there must be almost a good dozen such interlocking flashbacks to be had here, with practically every character in the cast telling his or her remembered story. And you thought the Humphrey Bogart film Passage to Marseilles had a lot of flashbacks, with only three! The action in the film’s final half is fairly relentless, and the FX are cheesily endearing. Some have complained that this film is basically just a rehash of Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13, which itself was a rehash of sorts of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (a group of people barricades themselves in a building to ward off nasty attackers), and I suppose that this is true, but still, Ghosts of Mars is done on such a pulp/comic book level that it was hard for me to complain. Who could possibly be unhappy at the sight of Pam Grier in a leather trenchcoat talking tough, or with Natasha kicking ass on Martian ghouls? In all, great mindless entertainment; nothing serious, but a nice way to spend 90 minutes. And again, this film looks just great in high def and widescreen.

Anyway, folks, there you have it … a quintet of pretty terrific John Carpenter films to curl up with on a stormy October night! I hope you get to enjoy these as much as I did!


  • Sandy Ferber

    SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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