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John Carpenter: Art-House Cowboy

January 2, 2010

To my mind, John Carpenter is one of the greats of late 20th century cinema. He’s a cowboy boot-wearing auteur, mustachioed genius who
writes, directs, and scores many of the soundtracks to his own films. Films which have, since the mid-70s, explored the middle-ground between European Art House and American Western traditions. Okay, he’s made some stinkers (Ghosts of Mars, Escape From LA), but even those have remained true to his singular cinematic vision; in which the existential tough guy battles with themes of hidden identity, isolation and paranoia, and kicks butt while he does it. As the hero of They Live! proclaims – “I came here to kick ass and chew bubble gum, and I’m all out of bubble gum”.
Despite such an achievement, Carpenter’s films have largely remained the territory of teenagers and fanboys (I’ll bet Quentin Tarantino has the whole lot on Blu-Ray). The marketing strategy has always fallen short of, or willfully ignored the maker’s artistic vision. So to help Carpenter’s films realise their full potential as art-house classics, I’ve decided to design a box set of my favorite of them. Here’s a quick run-down of my top five, each with a selection of promotional artwork…

Halloween (1978)
The movie that defined the rules of the slasher genre (don’t have sex, don’t go outside/into the basement alone, never assume you’re the monster is dead, even when you’ve shot him repeatedly), and spawned many inferior sequels and copy-cat titles, Halloween is held in almost universally high regard for its slow-burning tension and a soundtrack second only to Jaws for its hummable sense of dread. America’s favourite holiday turns sour when escaped mentalist Michael Myers heads back to the suburban neighborhood of his youth.

They Live!
I’ll be the first to admit this is not the finest of Carpenter’s works. It’s badly acted, badly scripted, very silly, has a throwaway ending that suggests the producers ran out of cash half way through. But this is also Carpenter’s most political film, with a plot that involves the consumerist-brainwashing of society by a hidden Masonic alien race. Starring American “Sports Entertainment” wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, the film makes amends for wooden acting and
ropey characterisation with some spectacularly choreographed extended fight scenes, as recently praised by director of The Wrestler Darren Aronofsky.

Escape From New York (1981)
The second of Carpenter’s films to star Kurt Russell, Escape From New York is a futuristic (1997!) cyber-punk fantasy in which our hero, one-man army Snake Plissken, must rescue the president (Donald Plenence, seemingly still under contract after Halloween) from Isaac Hayes’ gang lord of New York, now a maximum security prison with only one way in, and no way out… Basically, when I was 8, I wanted to be Snake Plissken.

Assault on Precinct 13
Though this was Carpenter’s first Hollywood movie, it appears retrospecively to be possibly the most art-house of his works. Inspired by the zombie hoards of George A. Romero’s Night of The Living Dead, wave after wave of drone-like LA street gangsters attack an isolated police precinct the night before it is due to be closed,
as the few remaining civillians and officers barricade themselves inside. Three years later, Walter Hill’s The Warriors arguably upped the stylistic street-punk-ante, but failed to maintain the creeping dread of this classic.

The Thing
Kurt Russell returns in what is possibly Carpenter’s finest film, a remake of the 1951 pulp sci-fi movie The Thing From Another World. An alien creature escapes its icy tomb to infiltrate an arctic research base, disguised as one of the crew’s dogs. This might sound like a ridiculous premise, but to his credit, Carpenter plays it straight from start to finish. In the original story the crew work together to defeat the beast, while in Carpenter’s remake they turn on each other as paranoia spreads like a virus. The award-winning special effects hold nothing back, and Kurt Russell just about proves that he can act afterall.

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