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Ranking John Carpenter’s Movies From Worst to Best (#3 – 1)

November 6, 2020 | Posted by Bryan Kristopowitz
They Live Roddy Piper

The John Carpenter Movie Countdown: #3-#1

JohnCarpenterDirector

Well, here it is, week five, the final week, of the John Carpenter Movie Countdown. It’s been fun taking a look at all of the movies John Carpenter directed and figuring out which one is the best. I may do one of these in the near future featuring the movies of George A. Romero. I know that there’s one more Romero movie out there that hasn’t been released, The Amusement Park, but it still might be worth doing anyway. We’ll see how things go.

Just in case you missed them, here are links to the first four weeks of the John Carpenter Movie Countdown:

Week 1
Week 2
Week 3
Week 4

And so, without any further what have you, let’s conclude the countdown. What appears in spots 3 through 1?

The John Carpenter Movie Countdown: #3-#1

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3- They Live: It’s been my experience that, when it comes to movies with an explicit political message, they usually don’t work out. More often than not, those movies end up being boring and preachy, even if you agree with the political message. If the political message is in the subtext of the movie, odds are better that the movie will work out because the political message is not the whole point of the movie. There’s something else going on. Carpenter’s They Live, which came out in 1988, is a perfect example of this. When I first saw the movie on cable (it was on The Movie Channel) I had no idea that it was a “message” movie. All I knew was that it was a movie starring WWF wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, and he was a homeless guy fighting secret aliens in Los Angeles. The fact that Piper was in the movie was what made it a must see. I didn’t realize that Carpenter was raging against the greed of the 1980’s until I was a teenager and paid attention to all of the dialogue. When Peter Jason’s Gilbert, one of the leaders of the underground resistance against the aliens, explains that the aliens are on Earth because “It’s in their best interests. They’re free enterprisers, and Earth is just another developing planet. Their Third World,” and when I heard what George “Buck” Flower’s Drifter character was saying towards the end of the movie, the message of the movie blew me away. How the hell did Carpenter get away with putting such a subversive message in the movie? It was at that moment that I understood what all of the sunglasses/black and white imagery/hidden subliminal messages were really all about. And on top of that, They Live was still a great sci-fi action movie that, if you didn’t “get” the political message, still worked as just a movie. Piper gives the performance of his movie acting career as John Nada, Keith David kicks ass as Nada’s buddy Frank, and Meg Foster’s ice blue eyes transfix the viewer. I was so goddamn bummed at the end of the movie when Foster’s Holly revealed who she really was. The big alley fist fight is still brutal as hell. And the music, Carpenter’s final collaboration with Alan Howarth, is one of Carpenter’s best scores. The opening theme is just terrific and moody as hell. Carpenter dabbled in a “political message” in 1996 with Escape from L.A., but he did it much, much better with The Live. Great stuff.

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2-The Thing: Carpenter’s The Thing, a remake of 1951’s The Thing from Another World, is one of the greatest sci-fi horror movies ever made. It features a great cast, with Kurt Russell starring in his third collaboration with Carpenter, along with Keith David, Wilford Brimley, T.K. Carter, David Clennon, Richard Dysart, Charles Hallahan, Peter Maloney, and several more. It’s incredibly claustrophobic, with the members of the U.S. Antarctic research station essentially locked into one complex with an alien that they can’t identify because it can mimic practically anything in order to avoid detection. They’re in goddamn Antarctica, it’s not like they can get away anytime they want. Once they realize what’s going on and after the alien starts picking off the team members one by one, the suspense is ratcheted up because who the hell is the Thing? On top of that, the practical special effects by Rob Bottin are a true thing of gory beauty. They’re consistently gross and unnerving, and we get to see the monster in all of its nasty glory. How many monster movies actually allow the audience to see the entire monster practically all of the time? And the ending? People still seem to be debating on who is the thing. An amazing achievement that wasn’t appreciated when it first came out (as Carpenter constantly notes, The Thing came out in the summer of 1982, the same summer as E.T., and audiences and critics were just not ready for something as bleak and terrifying as The Thing. They wanted something more uplifting). Home video and cable airings helped make the movie a cult hit and a true blue classic for Carpenter nerds, critics, and loads more. A masterpiece.

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1-Assault on Precinct 13: Assault on Precinct 13 was Carpenter’s second major theatrical release (it came out in 1976) and, for the most part, it was a hit in Europe but performed modestly in the United States. For whatever reason American audiences didn’t “get” it, at least not then. American audiences did eventually find the movie on cable and home video. I first saw it when I found it at a local Blockbuster Video. I really had no idea what to expect with the movie. It starts with a catchy as hell opening theme and a brutal scene where LA gang members are shot to death by police. The movie then slows down as it introduces the various characters (Lt. Ethan Bishop, as played by Austin Stoker, and infamous criminal Napoleon Wilson, as played by Darwin Joston, are the main two) and sets up the plot. A multi-racial street gang decides to attack an abandoned police station in order to kill everyone inside, especially a father (Martin West) who killed a gang leader in a shootout after that gang leader shot his young daughter (Kim Richards). Bishop, along with police secretary Leigh (Laurie Zimmer), Wilson, and fellow prisoner Wells (Tony Burton), band together to fend off the approaching gang (the gang will stop at nothing in order to get inside). Part modern western (Carpenter’s original title for the movie was Anderson Alamo), part thriller (the suspense in the first part of the movie is unbearable because you know something is going to happen but you don’t what it will be or when it will start. And the second half is an action masterclass, with some badass hand to hand fighting from Wilson, a great use of silencers when the gang shoots at the precinct, breaking all of the windows, but you don’t hear the gunshots, and some of the best suspense sequences of the late 1970’s), and part Night of the Living Dead homage (the gang members never say anything. And watch as they try to get into the precinct, coming through the windows only to be shot dead), Assault on Precinct 13 is a movie that pulls you in immediately and never lets go until it’s over. The ending of Precinct 13 is also one of the more uplifting Carpenter endings, with the two heroes leaving together, despite one being a cop and one being a criminal. Despite being a low budget affair (it cost around $100,000 to make), Carpenter gets the most out of everything he has at his disposal and makes the movie seem bigger than it really is. Everything we see in the movie is also so precise. Despite a few slow moments (I believe Carpenter said on the DVD commentary track that he would probably do things differently now if he made the movie today to speed up some sequences to get to the action faster), the movie has a tremendous payoff. I love Assault on Precinct 13.

“Pretty fancy, Wilson.”

“I have moments.”

**

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