John Carpenter is a goddamned genius. Throughout the late '70s and well into the '80s, the best B-movie director to ever live cranked out a startling number of classic films. Not everything he touched during that period turned to gold -- his adaptation of Stephen King's Christine is pretty mediocre, for example, though even that is an accomplishment considering the source material -- but for more than a decade he could do no wrong. His list of classics includes Halloween, The Thing, Escape from New York and Big Trouble in Little China, and that's just scratching the surface. Dig a little deeper and you'll find a collection of gems in the rough and forgotten films that, while they don't measure up to his best work, are still enjoyable, action-packed fun. One of those films, his debut Dark Star, is showing tonight at the Alamo Drafthouse as part of Jason Heller's Science Friction series. You should definitely go, and then catch up on the rest of his best overlooked material -- enough to keep your Carpenter queue on Netflix full.
If this movie suffers, it suffers mainly in that it is not nearly as fantastic as the Carpenter films that surrounded it, namelyHalloween
andEscape from New York
. Next to those instant classics, it's easy to forget this creepy ghost story about a coastal town that has a rough night when the spirits of some mistreated folks return a hundred years later for vengeance. It's a creepy, atmospheric spook story perfect for the season -- supposing you're not actually watchingHalloween
for the 5000th time instead, which is probably why this film is overlooked nowadays.4) Prince of Darkness
John Carpenter does zombies! And, being John Carpenter, he does them in his own unique way, cramming Satan, time travel, possession and quantum mechanics into the story for good measure. And Alice Cooper is the head of the zombies, because why not? The avalanche of ideas here is a big part of the draw, but also why it has slipped into obscurity -- it's a bit overstuffed, and not everything works. Still, it's an eerie, fun piece of work that isn't afraid to be completely insane, and like the films that bookend it --Big Trouble in Little China
, two of his undisputed best -- it gives a great sense of being bigger than the screen. In other words, it feels like there's more going on in the world than the film can show, which is not something most movies ever pull off.
Keep reading for more underrated and overlooked John Carpenter gems
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By the mid-'90s, film audiences and Hollywood had started to move on from Carpenter, but he wasn't finished yet by a long shot. The 1995 horror filmIn the Mouth of Madness
, about an insurance adjuster searching for a best-selling horror novelist who's gone missing, is the best Cthulhu mythos story ever made that makes no mention of Cthulhu or the mythos at all. It's also a little overly ambitious in a way that comes off as cheesy, which keeps the film from fulfilling its potential, but the parts that work are amazing. If he could have managed to keep it all together to that same level, this would be an all-time horror classic. As it is, it's an intriguing near-miss that's enjoyable for what works, even if it does all sort of fall apart by the end.2) Vampires
Like the John Steakley novel that it was adapted from, John Carpenter'sVampires
is an old-fashioned pulp adventure set in the modern day. James Woods headlines a cast of vaguely recognizable character actors (including a lesser Baldwin brother) in a story about professional vampire hunters. It's fun, it's dumb and it doesn't wear out its welcome, but somehow it sunk almost without a trace. Don't expect too much -- this is noBig Trouble in Little China
-- but when you need a good cheesy action movie with a little Carpenter flair,Vampires
will not disappoint.1) Ghosts of Mars
Carpenter entered the new millennium not with a bang, but with a whimper asGhosts of Mars
basically tanked at the box office and disappeared without a trace. It's a shame, though, because while the film is nowhere near his best work, it's a perfectly reasonable and entertaining sci-fi actioner with horror elements. A team of commandos goes to a remote mining outpost to transport a prisoner, and runs into some crazy-ass, zombie-like freaks -- colonists being possessed by the titular ghosts of Mars. The movie is kind of dumb, but then, so is most of Carpenter's work. This does take the dumbness a step further, but it has Pam Grier, Jason Statham, Natasha Henstridge and Ice Cube in the cast, so that sort of makes up for it. In all honesty, it often feels like Carpenter is giving maybe 75 percent effort here, but his 75 percent is a damn bit better than someone like Michael Bay at full capacity.
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Find me on Twitter, where I tweet about geeky stuff and waste an inordinate amount of time: @casciato.