Start Here: A Guide to the Films of John Carpenter

     October 31, 2016


John Carpenter has a serious soft spot for assholes. His movies are often centered on truly ridiculous men who are too “charmingly” set in their ways to ever try to correct their sexist or racist flecks of behavior. Kurt Russell’s hero in The Thing tosses a glass of scotch into a tremendously helpful computer because it beats his unpracticed ass at computer chess. His breakout hit, Assault on Prectinct 13, is a harrowing escape thriller about a gang’s heroic attempt to break their leader out of jail. Both Escape from New York and Escape from L.A. tell of the courageous acts of a man who, if you were to be set on fire, wouldn’t even bother to empty his bladder on you out of mercy.


Image via Warner Bros.

There are plenty of reasons for this, including the provable fact that Carpenter is at least partially as prickly as these men of action. More pointedly, however, these are all men who would never, ever qualify as role models by the public census. Russell’s characters in at least five of Carpenter’s films were marked by a self-regard that was put upfront as to dissuade any ideas of sacrifice or compromise from figures with names like Snake Plisskin. Whether played by Russell or not, the Carpenter man never seeks and often rejects any attempts at easy moralizing, and that seems to strike at the heart of Carpenter’s perspective as an unabashedly political filmmaker.

Carpenter is often in the realm of the supernatural, in a world where uncanny beasts and other things not of this world roam and dominate at will. Chaos, violence, unending, abrasive noise, and impossible problems that require distinct, inventive solutions plague the worlds that Carpenter has created over the years. What the Carpenter heroes have in common is that thoughtfulness, that imaginative edge that allows them to think of a new escape route or an overdue cure. Carpenter identifies with these characters because his own job requires creativity in a similar way, with financial ruin substituting in for mortal ruin (in most cases). Where so many other directors want their reflections to be beloved, handsome, funny models that can be slapped on movie posters nationwide, Carpenter’s films are top-lined by characters of nasty experience and gruff wisdom, a pickled worldview and a basic belief in civilization and society.

For those who have never watched Carpenter’s work, any of the films below is worth checking out, but I’ve got everyone covered here. There are picks here for people just starting, for those who have seen his most famous works, and bonafide fans of the director who might have missed a hidden gem in his extensive filmography. Here are the six films of John Carpenter that anyone interested in his work should see:

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