It’s real hard to think of another director who’s contributed as much to genre filmmaking, on the whole, as John Carpenter. From effectively pioneering the slasher flick with Halloween to creating an alien monster in the Thing that's still more terrifying than most all that’ve come after it, the man’s left an undeniably lasting stamp on horror, sci-fi and straight-up action. From where I’m sitting, specifically, it says a lot that at least one of his movies has been relevant to so many theme weeks on this site. Twist endings, political satire and, now, aliens… his body of work's wide enough to cover it all.
Thus, in honor of this latest Carpenter remake, I figured the time was right to look at some of the man's work. Read on as we discuss one lesser-known offering, one controversial slight misfire and one unquestionable classic...
Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) Dir. John Carpenter
This was Carpenter’s “first real movie,” a self-described exploitation flick that’s likely best suited to late night screenings at a grindhouse theater. Well, at least, it probably shouldn’t be watched on the kind of worn VHS I rented from a tape store however many years ago. I don’t know, I feel like a lot of the man’s movies would actually benefit from a remake, since his ideas were often bigger than his budgets and the FX of their time could handle. Granted, I haven’t actually seen that ’05 remake with Ethan Hawke and Laurence Fishburn, so my argument’s missing a big chunk of its equation. Then again, the Nest was supposed to be loose remake, too, so maybe my thinking’s actually not too far off.
Carpenter was heavily influenced by Howard Hawks and, while that link would be made concrete when he remade the Thing from Another World a few years later, it’s still present here (albeit in a more conceptual form.) By his own admission, this is a mash-up of Rio Bravo and Night of the Living Dead, with the old West action recast into downtown LA and the zombies replaced with an evil biker gang. Of course, the bikers act like zombies anyway, with enough common sense lacking in their onslaught that you’re honestly pulled out of the story some. I can’t vouch for whether the remakes, both official and spiritual, improved on the idea, but I walked away from this thinking that, even with the wall-to-wall gunfire, such a badass concept wasn’t realized as well as it could’ve been.
That aside, the part where the gang kills a kid out of the back of an ice cream truck is notably harsh.
Escape from New York (1982) Dir. John Carpenter
I’m risking some serious backlash by saying this, but I think this would also benefit from a remake.
Again, you’ve got a phenomenal premise. New York’s a walled-off prison island ruled by criminals! Air Force One crash lands in NY and a mysterious outlaw’s brought in to rescue him! That all immediately seizes your imagination like a bear trap. However, I still can’t get over how often Snake gets his ass kicked in this. You’ve got to make your hero an underdog, of course, but it sure feels like Snake doesn’t actually do that many badass things for the amount of times supporting characters say he’s a badass. Yeah, crushing the tape at the end and essentially dooming the entire world is a hell of final hand, but him telling people to either “Call me, Snake” or “Call me, Plisskin” seem like the only other card in his deck.
Again, this also has had something a spiritual remake already in the Vertigo comic, DMZ, and as much as Kurt Russell’s the man, I really haven’t been opposed to the talks of a “re-imagining” whenever they get periodically brought up.
Big Trouble in Little China (1986) Dir. John Carpenter
Now this, without qualification, is Carpenter’s best flick. It’s just… just… perfect. Equal parts Wuxia swashbuckler and red meat 80s macho 80, it gifted the two-fisted, truck-driving philosopher Jack Burton to the world and, as far as I can see, the world has never been the same since. This marked the end of Russell's time as Carpenter’s cinematic alter ego and, even though Burton’s a dude you’re supposed to laugh at, I find him to be a much better badass than Snake.
Go on and start a battle thread in the forum if you disagree.
I haven’t taken enough time to compliment Carpenter’s minimalist synth scores because, well... their awesomely atmospheric quality should be a given. It speaks to the man's unique voice that not only can you a movie's "like a Carpenter flick," you can also say a soundtrack's "like a Carpenter score." Following that, Big Trouble deserves all the credit it can get for charging the man’s band, the Coupe de Villes, into the MTV universe. As if you needed any explanation for why the promo below is so rad, here's a further nugget of info - - that's the original Michael Myers there on the keyboard!