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Ranking John Carpenter’s Movies From Worst to Best (#8 – 4)

October 30, 2020 | Posted by Bryan Kristopowitz
Halloween Image Credit: Compass International Pictures

The John Carpenter Movie Countdown: #8-#4

Before I get into week four of the five week John Carpenter Movie Countdown, I thought it would be cool to mention that Carpenter has a new album coming out next year, February 5th, 2021 to be exact. The album, Lost Themes III: Alive After Death once again has Carpenter along with his son Cody and his godson Daniel Davies essentially creating themes to movies that don’t exist. The album will be released by Sacred Bones Records, the outfit that also released Lost Themes, Lost Themes II, and Anthology: Movie Themes 1974-1998. A single from the Lost Themes III album was recently released, and to say that it’s goddamn awesome would be a serious understatement. When you hear it, you wish you could also see the movie that it could have been the theme to. The new single, “Weeping Ghost,” can be heard below:

Am I right? Awesome as hell.

Lost Themes III will also apparently include two songs that Carpenter and company released over the summer, “Skeleton,” which you can hear here, and “Unclean Spirit,” which you can hear here. Both of these songs are awesome, too. Man, is Lost Themes III: Alive After Death shaping up to be a must own and must listen or what?

And so, without any further what have you, let’s continue the countdown. What appears in spots 8 through 4?

The John Carpenter Movie Countdown: #8-#4


8- Escape from New York: Escape from New York is Carpenter’s second science fiction movie (Dark Star was the first), his second collaboration with star Kurt Russell (they did Elvis together back in 1978), and it’s the first of two movies featuring the ultimate movie badass Snake Plissken. Escape from New York has a dynamite cast (Russell, Lee Van Cleef as Bob Hauk, the head of the United States Police Force, Ernest “Ernie” Borgnine as the goofy Cabbie, Donald Pleasance as the President of the United States, Harry Dean Stanton as Snake’s old buddy Brain, Adrienne Barbeau as Brain’s girlfriend Maggie, Isaac Hayes as the bad guy The Duke, as well as both Tom Atkins, Charles Cyphers, and the immortal Frank Doubleday), a terrific story (Snake Plissken has to rescue the President after his plane goes down inside the maximum security prison once known as New York City), and a real sense of dread. New York is not a fun place to be at all, and it’s a place that anyone would want to escape from. More sci-fi thriller than straight up action movie, EFNY certainly kicks ass in the action set piece department, but the overall mood of the movie is what makes it rewatchable. Well, that and Russell as Snake Plissken. You don’t get much cooler than Snake Plissken. EFNY also features a great score from Carpenter and Alan Howarth (this is the first of seven soundtrack collaborations with Howarth). With such a cool character and dystopian future world to explore, it’s amazing to think that it took Carpenter, producer Debra Hill, and Kurt Russell fifteen years to do a sequel.

“Call me Snake.”

“The name’s Plissken.”


7-Big Trouble in Little China: Big Trouble in Little China is Carpenter’s fourth movie with star Kurt Russell and his love letter/homage (well, in a way) to Chinese fantasy/kung fu cinema. It’s also a tremendous mashup of genres in general as it’s an action movie, a fantasy movie, a horror movie (a little. Look at the monsters), and a comedy. Little China also moves at breakneck speed, with characters unloading massive amounts of dialogue in an attempt to explain all of the necessary backstories and old legends and whatnot that make up the plot (Kim Cattrall has so much dialogue at times I’m amazed she managed to remember it all and keep it straight). There’s just so much going on in this movie that it’s hard to describe accurately. It’s something you just have to see in order to fully absorb it. Russell is great as blowhard non-hero Jack Burton (he’s basically doing John Wayne as a bit of a moron), Cattrall is hilarious as Gracie Law, and Dennis Dun kicks ass as Wang, the real hero of the movie. And who could forget Victor Wong as Egg Shen, Carter Wong, Peter Kwong, and James Pax as the 3 storms, and James Hong as David Lo Pan? They’re all brilliant in their own way, especially Victor Wong and James Hong. Big Trouble in Little China is also one of the most quotable movies of all time. I mean, be honest with yourself, how many times have you said, totally out of the blue, “It’s all in the reflexes”? Or “Sonofabitch must pay!” Or “I’m a reasonable guy, but I’ve just experienced some very unreasonable things”? Or “You know what ol’ Jack Burton says at a time like this? Who? Jack Burton! Me! Ol’ Jack always says what the hell.” And, of course, the immortal “Hollow? Hollow. Fuck it.” That’s just a few of the things people always quote from this movie. Just a great, great movie.


6-Halloween: Halloween is Carpenter’s first major hit and is probably the movie he’s most known for. It’s also the movie that essentially started the full on slasher movie movement (it wasn’t the first slasher movie, but it’s the one that created the basic formula that countless others riffed off of. Friday the 13th is probably the most famous). I first saw this movie on home video, and while I liked it and appreciated what it was, I didn’t find it particularly scary. The iconic “Theme from Halloween” was scary, sure, but the movie, on television, wasn’t scary. I initially found the Carpenter produced Halloween II scarier. But then I saw Halloween on the big screen as part of one of those Fathom Events things (the very long gone Monsters HD channel was behind that Fathom Event presentation) and, holy shit, the movie was terrifying. Seeing it on that gigantic screen, as Carpenter intended, with his precise framing and everything else, the movie was unsettling as hell. Even though I knew everything that happened in the movie, it was suddenly a whole new experience. I still get chills thinking about Michael Myers/The Shape, appearing at the top of the stairs. Donald Pleasance, in his first collaboration with Carpenter, does a great job as Loomis, the doctor desperately looking for his escaped mental patient Michael Myers, and Jamie Lee Curtis is iconic as Laurie Strode, the girl that Myers fixates on. A great exercise in dread and suspense, Halloween is a horror classic and something that tons of people watch yearly right around its namesake holiday. They also watch the sequels, too (Carpenter has been involved in four of them, five if you count the upcoming Halloween Kills).


5-Vampires: Vampires is Carpenter’s last major hit (it opened at #1 at the box office when it came out in the fall of 1998) and the closest thing to a western that he’s directed to date. Featuring an absolutely ferocious performance by James Woods as Jack Crow, the leader of a Vatican backed vampire killing crew, Vampires is a badass, rough as fuck action horror flick that has Crow, after losing most of his team to an attack by master vampire Valek (Thomas Ian Griffith), trying to put together a new team while chasing Valek all across the southwestern United States. Valek is looking for an old Catholic artifact that, when used in a weird beard ritual, will allow Valek to walk in the sunlight, making him unstoppable. Crow’s new team includes Daniel Baldwin’s Montoya, Sheryl Lee’s hooker turned vampire victim turned vampire psychic Katrina, and Tim Guinee’s meek-at-first Father Adam. Chock full of gore, general nastiness, a bad attitude, and Carpenter’s best overall score, Vampires is a movie that grabs you by the throat and never let’s go. There’s just so much great stuff in this movie, so much badassness, it’s a classic through and through. Vampires spawned two sequels: Vampires: Los Muertos, directed by Carpenter friend Tommy Lee Wallace and starring Bon Jovi (it’s pretty good as its own thing, a little slow but it has its moments. It shouldn’t be the first sequel to Vampires, though. The world would be better off with a Carpenter directed, Woods starring sequel), and Vampires: The Turning, directed by Marty Weiss, which is better than it has any right to be.


4- Escape from L.A.: Escape from L.A. is Carpenter’s fifth and, so far, final collaboration with Kurt Russell, and is the only sequel Carpenter has directed. The movie came out at the tail end of the 1996 summer movie season and, despite a decent advertising scheme (I saw commercials constantly for this movie during the summer of 1996) it didn’t do very well at the box office. I’ve never understood why. It’s Carpenter’s biggest movie (I believe the budget for the movie was like $50 million) and it shows as the movie is chock full of big action set pieces and CGI sequences (the sequence after the opening titles that sets up the plot, with LA destroyed, the submarine launch, the bit where Snake chases after villain Cuervo Jones’s motorcade in LA, the tsunami surfing sequence, the hang glider attack). The movie’s scope is also the most expansive thing Carpenter has done to date. Even if, by today’s standards, the CGI looks cheesy (and it does but since when is cheesy uncool?), the movie throughout looks big. But it’s also unequivocally a John Carpenter movie. It looks like a Carpenter movie. While a sequel to Escape from New York, EFLA is more a straight forward sci-fi action movie and is more viscerally exciting. It’s also one of Carpenter’s most political movies (the movie is an attack on both extreme right wing fascists and extreme left wing fascists). The movie is also Carpenter’s most tongue in check movie since maybe Dark Star or Big Trouble in Little China.There are the constant jokes about Snake being washed up and predictable, Snake being shorter than expected, the whole Surgeon General of Beverly Hills sequence with a brilliantly hammy Bruce Campbell, and the very quick sequence where we see Snake walking into Los Angeles. Listen to the words on the soundtrack (“Seems like we’ve been here before, it seems so familiar”). That’s because it is. On one level, EFLA is a goof on EFNY. It isn’t meant to be taken seriously. You can if you want but you don’t have to. The movie also features a top notch score from Carpenter and Shirley Walker (she also worked on his Memoirs of an Invisible Man) and one of the greatest movie endings of all time, with the hero Snake shutting down the entire world (or did he? Did he really shut it all down permanently? Remember what Pam Grier’s Hershe told Snake about the Plutoxin-7 virus). The movie is deeper and more intellectually interesting than people are willing to admit. It’s a fuller movie. It also has a great cast. Cliff Robertson as the religiously insane President of the United States, Stacy Keach as Malloy the somewhat crotchety henchman, Steve Buscemi as the slimy but hilarious Map to the Stars Edie, Peter Fonda as the hippie surfer that surfs with Snake, George Corraface as the bad guy Cuervo Jones (what leftist hero does he resemble in this movie?), Valerie Golino as Taslima, the mysterious woman Snake meets in LA, Pam Grier as Hershe. I love this movie. It’s still amazing 24 years later.

“I’m going to give you assholes a chance. Let’s play a little Bangkok rules. Nobody draws until this hits the ground. You ready? (BANG! BANG!) Draw.”

“Call me Snake.”

“The name’s Plissken.”


Next week: The Countdown Concludes! #3-#1!

There are only three movies left! Which of the three will be number one?


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