Premise first: There are a million cinematic genres out there just waiting for you to find them. Within those genres are countless films ranging from atrocious to (hopefully) all time great. We care at OGR (not much, but whatever), so since 2012 we have been occasionally highlighting a different genre and identifying which films in your respective genre are;
The GOOD: 8 / 10 and above
They might not all be great, but we wholeheartedly recommend that you check these out, as they represent some of the best the genre has to offer.
The (NOT) BAD: 6.5 / 10 to 7.5 / 10
These films might have a few flaws and probably won’t blow you away, but they aren’t terrible, boast at least a few decent moments and who knows there might just find a gem or two in here that works better for you.
The UGLY: 6 / 10 and below
Films that are ordinary at best, and worse… not much joy to be found here I’m afraid.
For the most part I will let the full reviews in the links tell the story. Feel free to let me know what I missed or which of your favourites is ranked too low.
John Carpenter arrived as a no-name in a film industry that at the time refused to take chances. Within a decade he had reinvented tired genres, handed careers to Kurt Russell and Jamie Lee Curtis and shown that low budget did not have to mean low inspiration.
Then, like one of those bugs who crawls off to die after having mated, Carpenter’s career abruptly died. It’s just that no-one told him…
Consider this; a long, long, loooong time ago, the phrase ‘John Carpenter Presents’ meant something. It was a sure fire sign that regardless of all else, HE was involved in a meaningful way.
Except one day having John Carpenter involved lost any positive connotations, they were replaced with a sense of inevitable disappointment and an indication that what you were about to see – if you were foolish enough to make a sepia tinged rental purchase – wouldn’t be a patch on the stuff crafted in those glory years.
Compiling and separating this list was actually disturbingly easy. As a film lover I have seen almost everything Carpenter has ever made (for the record I left off Memoirs of an Invisible Man and Christine as I haven’t seen them, couldn’t track them down, and ultimately grew more depressed the longer this marathon went on).
Separating them into categories based upon quality merely involved starting at his earlier stuff and working backwards, drawing a line periodically to represent the declining quality. It’s actually eerie just how linear and chronological the move from high to low quality is…
(Oh, and while I’m here, can we just pretend there’s an indulgent ‘John Carpenter Presents…’ preceding all of these titles?)
When he was good he was very, very good – but strangely rarely Great. Still, at his peak Carpenter could make low budget look big budget. He could add simple but ingenious ideas and flourishes to elevate an otherwise bland sequence, and above all he recognised the power and value of a charismatic leading character.
Jackie Chan used to say ‘never cross a room in a boring way’, Carpenter used this adage to make the otherwise banal, better.
I would argue it lacks punch now. The constantly standing about ominously, the shuffling along slowly behind the pursued, the perfunctory kills, all seem slow and formulaic now. But this had a pretty big say in structuring the formula in the first place.
Until Halloween horror movies were – frankly – not that scary. Carpenter put a young attractive (sic) girl in peril, with a large faceless, emotionless killer looming large. Guys wanted to help. Girls wanted to cover their eyes. Parents wanted to check on the kids again.
And everyone wanted to watch this film again. And again.
Better Title: “John Carpenter Presents: How Slasher films will look from now on.”
The Thing 1982
Big Trouble… Is the easiest to watch, but The Thing is hands down Carpenter’s masterpiece. A gorgeous slow burn of a first hour explodes in a hail of body parts and flailing limbs, with the special effects a standout to this day.
The film is full of savvy moves; setting it in a remote place where no help is forthcoming, not unveiling the threat for a long time, (and when they do you still have no idea who it is) and having a cast full of actors occupying (at the time) the same tier of relevance and suspicion, so no one could look on and say ‘well Tom Cruise ain’t dying that’s for sure’ with any assurance.
Not a straight horror like Halloween, not a pure action like Escape from New York, not a larger than life character driven flick like Big Trouble; The Thing is none of those things and all of them, and the best film John Carpenter ever did – and ever will – make.
Better Title: “John Carpenter Presents: The pinnacle of pre-CGI low budget effects.”
At this point with Halloween and The Thing Carpenter could do no wrong (it wouldn’t last). In almost any other pair of hands this would have been a ridiculous mess, but this take of a brash truck driver taking on Chinese gangsters, magic and monsters in and under Chinatown is to this day a must watch and insanely entertaining.
How entertaining? Well the old chick (Kim Cattrall) from Sex and the City is in it and I can still watch it without fast forwarding.
Proof that the ‘B’ in B-movie needn’t stand for bland, boring or Been there before…
Better Title: “John Carpenter Presents: A film that would never be green lit today.”
Sadly after this film the only tolerable Carpenter film released was the middling They Live. So the career of an upstart that began in 1978 effectively fizzled within a decade.
For a while even the less than stellar was worth checking out. Noble and earnest failures can have value if you look hard enough. Just try a few things here and there, produce a giggle or gasp on occasion and we’ll look the other way at logic gaps or weak spots. For a while we’ll look the other way.
Escape from New York 1981
I’ve said before that while the character of a Snake Plissken is timeless his film hasn’t aged nearly as well (it was with great restraint that I omitted the Kurt Russell / Goldie Hawn comparison).
Essentially a premise lacking a purpose and a plot, Escape from New York finds one eyed loner Snake taking on the imprisoned population of an entire city to rescue the President of the United States. Now that sounds cool, but the reality is that the only genuinely cool thing here is Snake himself…
Still, an awesome central character can go a long way.
Better Title: “John Carpenter Presents: A hero without a story.”
They Live 1988
One of those rare efforts where you really feel a bigger budget and some Hollywood intervention would have helped.
In this case though the balls out braggadocio of WWF (at the time) Rowdy Roddy Piper and the magnetic presence of Keith David carry the day, despite the C Grade special effects and clumsy ‘social commentary’ message (maybe Carpenter read some misguided Romero reviews?).
The line “I came here to kick-ass and chew bubblegum… and I’m all out of bubblegum” has become famous, and – a quarter century later – you mention ‘best fist fights’ and the alley scene between Piper and David jumps straight to mind…
The scarcity in this category shows that Carpenter’s career is pretty much feast or famine.
Better Title: “John Carpenter Presents: I came here to kill time and end my career.”
At some point credits in the bank run out. Goodwill and some quick thinking can buy some time. Eventually though, patience and tolerance needs tangible rewards, otherwise; Cheques start getting bounced.
Prince of Darkness 1987
The first Carpenter F minus, but a long way from being the last. The personification of pure evil is in a big tube of Ghostbusters goo. It summons more nastiness, in the form of bugs and other creepy crawlies and Alice Cooper, but fuck me is this entirely all too boring and pointless.
The only sequence I can remember is a guy being pulled through a wall – and I can’t remember the context around it…
…Nor will I ever seek out this context.
Better Title: “John Carpenter Presents: Evil tube of Goo represents the expiration of inspiration.”
Eerily similar to Ghosts of Mars, Carpenter assembled his own crazy dream team of the faded and flawed and has them feign shock at the horde of white haired English kids all of whom were born at the same time.
By the time these Joffrey looking clones start ordering people to do harmful things to themselves, you are ready to do yourself damage if it means ending your contact with this film…
The Simpsons and others have sent up the original film with hilarious results, however this film doesn’t need satirising. In fact such is the level of unintentional comedy that it would be unlikely the funniest comedy writers on the planet could best the laugh quantum available here.
Better Title: “John Carpenter Presents: Kids make Has-Beens do the darndest things”
Escape from L.A. 1996
When escaping New York Snake Plissken was the coolest cat going around, fleeing L.A. Proves far more troublesome.
Now he’s a try hard, H.O.R.S.E. playing, sewer surfing douche, splitting time with a bunch of overacting B actors who aren’t helped by the lousy material, Bruce Campbell, Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda and poor old Pam Grier among them (Grier especially is owed an apology note from Carpenter).
Plissken might have escaped the Big Apple, but the city of Angels bested him. No one could escape this derivative drivel.
Better Title: “You never thought we could use Snake Plissken worse did you?”
In theory this sounds OK. Let the guy known for elevating material above genres and budgets loose on one of the most fail-safe characters in film (even at this pre-Twilight time).
You already know that Carpenter will throw a bunch of broad characters in there. Only you don’t think that JC will stoop to such a formulaic and bland plot where these characters must wallow in ineptitude. And yet, that’s what happens.
James Woods deserved better. Hell even whatever Baldwin brother who conned his way into the cast deserved better. We DEFINITELY deserved better.
Better Title: “John Carpenter Presents: The only vampire film in 25 years NOT to turn a profit.”
Ghosts of Mars 2001
Take a bunch of Hollywood’s most desperate – Ice Cube was perhaps the biggest ‘star’ when this was released – whack them on some of the cheapest sets in film, have a bunch of guys wearing Alice Cooper makeup assail them in what is allegedly ‘ferocious waves’, but in reality looks like the same half dozen guys running about half heartedly; repeat for 80 excruciating minutes.
Amazingly Cube and Jason Statham went on to have solid acting careers – you could argue equally effective albeit down differing paths – and who would kid themselves into thinking Natasha Henstridge was on the rise?
I guess it’s because absolutely no one saw it.
Nope, this film was a tiny pothole for all involved, all careers continued on to their intended fate; some up, some down. Carpenter however, haven’t long since hit rock bottom, maintained his horizontal line.
But make no mistake, this is some abominable shit which put the career of one J Carpenter on pause for the better part of a decade…
Better Title: “John Carpenter Presents: An experiment in seeing how insanely and misguidedly loyal John Carpenter fans are.”
The Ward 2010
…And he returned with this.
In high school one of my classmates was a famously reluctant public speaker. In one assignment he finished his speech with ‘and last but not final’, to the guffaws of the entire class and the instant reddening of his cheeks. He meant of course ‘last but not least’.
Well this ends differently to both, for The Ward is Carpenter’s ‘last and (most probably’ least’. A patently disgusting effort that cribs from 57 other terrible ‘young girls being terrorised’ flicks, ironically 57 other films that wouldn’t exist without Carpenter’s Halloween…
… Call it full circle, call it destiny, call it hakuna matata. Whichever way you call it, it’s probably best that Mr. John Carpenter call it a day. Actually it would have been best twenty years ago, but better much, much too late than never right?
Better Title: “John Carpenter Presents: The End.”
Hopefully nothing. I am happy for the classics to continue their useful lives in the medium of entertainment. New formats tend to weed out the weak.
If the film is strong and has merit it will continue on being adapted and released to new generations in new ways. (Example: I have owned Tremors on VHS, DVD and blu-Ray. So far…)
If no market exists the film will (usually rightfully) die a natural death.
I assume that most of the ‘Good’ and ‘(not) Bad’ titles above will be Carpenter’s legacy. His ‘Best of’ that will be passed from father to son and discovered by new adventurous movie lovers as they seek out momentary distractions, alternatives to Transformers 14: Bile of the Ignorant.
The rest might leave a nasty taste in your mouth now, and they should. But even the strongest pain is temporary. Just remember to never watch them again and you’ll be fine.