Veteran horror and science fiction director John Carpenter’s long-awaited comeback The Ward is out on DVD and Blu-ray this week.
To celebrate, we’ve picked out his five best films. Some diehard fans will bemoan the lack of The Fog, Escape from New York or Dark Star; all three deserve honourable mention, though it’s the nature of these cult movies to divide opinion.
1. Halloween (1978)
Who could argue against this as Carpenter’s best film? And that signature synth score! Taking cues from Italian master Dario Argento, though Carpenter didn’t invent the slasher flick with this near-flawless tale of festive suburban mass murder, he did bring it into the Hollywood mainstream.
Spawning eight sequels, a (terrible) Rob Zombie remake and a sequel to that, Halloween inspired hundreds of rip-offs and is strong contender for title of greatest horror movie ever made.
2. The Thing (1982)
“You’ve gotta be fucking kiddin’ me,” shouts one of the eventual victims of this memorable alien Arctic menace as his possessed colleague’s disembodied head sprouts legs and scuttles about the place. With The Thing, Carpenter helped usher in the era of the fantastical gore we’d soon grow to love in the eighties ‘video nasty’ boom.
A minimalist score from Ennio Morricone and a typically gruff turn from Kurt Russell complete the scene perfectly. A non-Carpenter prequel is due in cinemas later this year: needless to say, these are huge shoes, nay, snow boots, to fill.
3. Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
Much is made of Carpenter’s horror movie credentials, though the key to his success in that field could be seen in this earlier crime pic. Carpenter demonstrates an unsurpassed ability to crank up the tension using skilful camera work, spare musical accompaniment and sudden, short, sharp shocks of brutal violence (this film’s opening scene, involving child murder by an ice cream van still shocks today).
This modern day (or seventies, at least) thriller about a lone cop and antihero prisoner besieged in a police station by a marauding gang was loosely based on the great Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo; it is just as accomplished as Carpenter’s favourite director’s work.
4. They Live (1988)
The rule goes that when you combine a professional wrestler with an action director trying his hand at comedy, you get The Tooth Fairy, right? Wrong. In this tongue-firmly-in-cheek sci-fi romp, former WWF wrestler and star of the brilliantly silly Hell Comes to Frogtown, Rowdy Roddy Piper, plays a small town drifter who stumbles upon some special shades revealing the world to be actually ruled by capitalist aliens in disguise.
He decides to “chew gum and kick ass”, which means the most ridiculous fight scene in film history (with none other than The Thing‘s Keith David; spoofed hilariously in South Park episode Cripplefight), ample one-liners aimed at crusty extraterrestrials and more conspiracy theory than David Icke’s bookcase. Inspired lunacy.
5. Prince of Darkness (1987)
This underrated occult zombie classic sees Carpenter reunited with Donald Pleasance as a priest faced with “pure evil” (to quote his Halloween character). Pleasance’s priest joins a group of scientists researching paranormal phenomena when the devil-possessed homeless and none other than Old Nick himself throw a spanner in the works.
Carpenter’s extremely eighties horror has its flaws, though you can forgive cardboard characters and cheesy dialogue in return for incredible claustrophobia, nicely gory deaths and genuinely terrifying images that stay with you long after viewing. Oh, and Alice Cooper is a hoot with his ingenious use of a bicycle.
What’s your favourite John Carpenter film? Let us know below…
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Watch the trailer for The Ward…