A long time ago there was a special time known as the 80's. This was an interesting time in pop culture history: Yuppies, MTV (when they played music videos), wonderful fashion choices and Reagan. This was also a golden age for Hollywood for one genre... horror, and the master of this realm was one John Carpenter. This genre landed squarely in my lap during this time as I entered my preteen/teen years, so this was awesome to an adolescent man.
I want to touch on Mr. Carpenter's work now before everything he ever has done gets remade and loses the joy that I found with these films in my youth. His 1970's offerings Assault on Precinct 13 and Halloween have already been reworked and are not bad remakes, so maybe there is some hope for what will be done in the future. Let me get into what we are here for though which is the mastery of what he did in the 80's. Sure, not all of these were box success stories, but several still have a great cult following and stand the test of time. One of the questions we like to ask here at Cinema Soapbox is "will you stop and watch this movie when channel surfing?" and the answer to most of these are a resounding yes. I even own many of these titles myself.
So the other night I was doing just that, a little channel browsing, and saw it on the guide... The Fog. I was lying there and saying out loud to my TV "Please, please, please... be the 1980 version!!" It was! After a sigh of relief, I settled in, and enjoyed being transported back to 11 years old again. That inspired me to write about how John Carpenter dominated the 1980's.
I limited this to the 80's, because while he established himself in the 1970's and was also hit or (big) miss in the 1990's, this decade was Carpenter at his absolute apex. One thing I want you to notice is that he composed all of the music for several of his films as well. I can point out a Carpenter movie by the score alone without ever seeing a frame of it.
The Fog (1980) Director, Writer, Composer
As I mentioned I was praying for the 1980 version of this movie because the 2005 version is an example of how not to do a remake (sorry about your career Tom Welling). The original stars Adrienne Barbeau (Carpenter's wife at the time in a role written for her) as Stevie Wayne, Jamie Lee Curtis (his muse from Halloween) as Elizabeth Solley, and Hal Holbrook as Father Malone. It also costars Janet Leigh, the real life mother of Jamie Lee Curtis and someone you may remember from the iconic shower scene from Psycho.
The film follows the story of a sleepy coastal town celebrating it's 100th anniversary as it's secrets are uncovered of what happened 100 years ago during the founding of the town. Those who were betrayed are now coming back in the fog at the witching hour of midnight and 1:00 am. The film does a good job of building tension and has nice visuals that assist. One of the best things about the film is the tone that gets set from the very beginning by a cameo from John Houseman telling a ghost story to a group of boys on a camping trip. I do recommend this film and please duck the remake.
Halloween II (1981) Writer
The story in this sequel picks up about 3 seconds from where the 1978 original Halloween leaves off, and once again stars Jamie Lee Curtis and Donald Pleasence. As you may have noticed Carpenter only wrote this movie. For some reason he was forced into writing it, but did not what to direct it again. His fear was that he would be making the same movie again, which is basically what happened with a higher body count. This may be the basis for the over use sequels that carries to this day, but this isn't a bad movie and is a decent continuation of the original.
Escape From New York (1981) Director, Writer, Composer
Now when I saw this for the first time I thought it was the greatest movie ever made! Disney kid Kurt Russell becomes the greatest anti-hero ever...Snake Plissken. With the eye patch, the tats, the hair, the hatred of all authority, Russell oozes loathing of anything trying to control him. Think Dirty Harry gone to the dark side. With a love for Sergio Leone westerns, Carpenter jumped at the chance to bring in Lee Van Cleef to play the "warden". Barbeau and Pleasence are back, along with long time character actor greats Harry Dean Stanton and Ernest Borgnine and even includes Isaac Hayes as the "Duke of New York."
The premise: In the year 1997, the President's plane crashes in New York City, which is now a maximum security prison sealed in by walls and mined bridges. Snake is "enlisted" to go in to the city and retrieve the President. Yes, it's as crazy sounding as it is awesome. Again, great imagery and action define this film and this may come as a shock, but I do believe that this is the one film which should be on the "best suited to remade" list. This is only because there is a dated feel to it now. Face it, 1997 came and went and New York has not become a prison... yet. There have been plenty of talk/rumor that this will happen, but nothing solid has happened yet. Please Hollywood, give it the respect it deserves when/if this does happen.
The Thing (1982) Director
Kurt Russell is back as anti-hero/functioning alcoholic MacReady along with WIlford Brimley and Keith David to round out a solid cast. The Plot: An isolated group of researchers in Antarctica come across and alien that over takes the identity of the living by creating clones after absorbing the original host, usually in a most violent manner. What is funny is this being one of Carpenter's highest rated movies on several horror/sci-fi top 10 lists, but it was a flop at the box office. It may have just been too much for the general movie-going audience at the time as the special effects are as gruesome as they are amazing for that era.
As I have mentioned, remakes as a part of this and I must give credit where it is due. You may not know that this is a remake itself of the 1951 classic The Thing From Another World which is excellent in it's own right. There is a 2011 prequel to this film which was not great, but I did enjoy how it honored the original in some ways. I think it lost it something by using too much CGI when the insane practical effects of the original are what makes it special. This is a must see by all... story, effects, tension... nothing is perfect but this is close.
Christine (1983) Director, Composer
John Carpenter meets Stephen King. Adapted from the novel, Christine stars Keith Gordon and Alexandra Paul and is about a nerdy guy who buys a cool car to impress his peers and get chicks. What can go wrong? Well, the car is possessed and is a murdering machine. To be honest, I had forgotten that Carpenter made this, but the movie is fine even if it does not have the same feel as the rest of his work. Nothing special but again not bad. No news on the remake front but I am sure it will happen one day and I'm sure the car, a 1958 Plymouth Fury, will be replaced by a 1970's muscle car since that is a requirement for all movies these days.
Starman (1984) Director
And now for something completely different. A love story about and alien being that comes to Earth and takes the form of a widowed woman's (Karen Allen) recently deceased husband. Jeff Bridges pulls this off masterfully as a naive alien discovering humanity, love and America. This garnered him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, which is also the only nod a Carpenter movie ever received from the Academy.
This also helped to launch Bridges to the A-List along with resetting Carpenter in Hollywood. After the box office bomb that The Thing was, Carpenter had to shake things up a bit if he was going to be welcome back in Hollywood. He did the exact opposite of what he had done in the past and it worked and received high praise for his ability to make a love story filled with hope. I am a little surprised that he did not go back to this a some point in his career as he did it so very well. There was probably just too much pressure to do what the world thinks he should do or maybe to just do what he truly loves.
Big Trouble in Little China (1986) Director, Composer
Don't be so fast to get back on the scary train yet though, because this may be my favorite film on this list. Carpenter does a comedy wrapped in action, myth, magic and a little scary just for fun. Russell is back one more time as Jack Burton, a man who lives by his own rules and principles, who shows up in Chinatown to see old friends and gets dragged into an ancient mystical battle between the forces of good and evil. Jack, at times, is as inept as he is great while trying to save his new green-eyed love Gracie (Kim Cattrall) with he help of his buddy Wang (Dennis Dun) and the old wise man Egg Shen (Victor Wong).
It is hard to describe this gem in a way that actually makes sense, but trust me on this...if you have not seen this one make a point to do so. It is packed full of quotes, action, machismo, and just stuff that will bring a smile to your face with how unreal it is. I don't know how this can be remade and still capture the same magic, but word around the campfire is that Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson is doing just that. After seeing Walking Tall, this makes me grumpy and very skeptical of what the outcome will be.
Prince of Darkness (1987) Director, Composer
Not only are we going back to the darkness, but to the very deep end of it. In my opinion, this one is the darkest of all the movies he has ever done and is hands down his darkest of the 80's. A research team staring Jameson Parker, along with a returning Pleasence and Victor Wong, are called upon to study a mysterious cylinder pulsating with energy in an abandoned church. Unbeknownst to them this object may contain The Devil himself and the experiment may lead to the destruction of all mankind. A nice little tidbit is the cameo by Alice Copper who is leading the homeless as they are being drawn to the church to assist on the side of evil. This one is out there a little bit and may be a little hard to watch which would make this one is the least likely to be remade, but who knows.
They Live (1988) Director, Writer, Composer
The final film on the list of how John Carpenter dominated the 80's is another little gem that not many people saw, but is quite fun. Staring wrestling great "Rowdy" Roddy Piper, Meg Foster and a back for more Keith David, this film is a fun attack on corporate brainwashing, aggressive capitalism and Reaganomics. Can you tell that Carpenter is not a fan of authority and loves the anti-hero? Piper's character fits into this perfectly as a drifter who stumbles across some special sunglasses the reveal the truth of what is going on in the world. Russell must have been tied up with something.
The Plot: We have been taken over by an alien race, that hides in plain sight, disguised as human and who can only be seen when the glasses are being worn. The best part of this movie is one the greatest fight scenes in cinema history between Piper and David. The very brutal fight lasts 5 minutes and 20 seconds and I remember thinking "Will this ever end?" after the 14th crotch shot. This does not have the volume of quotes as Big Trouble does, but it does have the best quote out of all the Carpenter movies... "I have come here to chew bubble gum and kick ass... and I'm all out of bubble gum." I have heard rumors of a remake, so check this one out now. It's a little goofy, but also a ton of fun.
John Carpenter has had a lasting impact on Hollywood simply by doing everything the way that he wanted. There aren't many people in the history of that town that can say that and his impact can still be seen in other directors to this day. Watch The Hateful Eight and tell me that you don't get a vibe from The Thing. I hope that one day he can reach back into his bag of tricks and give us special something one last time. Hey John, give Kurt and Jamie a call so they can be together in one of your flicks one last time: Michael Myers vs. Snake? What the hell!
Todd Reardon is a senior writer for Cinema Soapbox