Much like a Ramones T-Shirt used to be a good indicator that some random person is probably cool to talk to on the street, love of John Carpenter movies were one of the things that I came to use as a bar for commonality among potential friends. If they liked John Carpenter, I knew they would share a similar a taste in rapid paced story telling, DIY aesthetic, and dark humor. There was common ground, whether we agreed on which of his movies was at the top of the list and which ones don't quite hit the mark.
In honor of today being John Carpenter's Birthday, here are my top five favorites of his movies:
5: Christine: I know that this pick probably doesn't make a lot of "best of" lists, but to me it was the best "straight up" adaptation of a Stephen King novel. (The Shining being more of a Kubrick film than King adaptation.) It captures the pulpy one-night read thrill of King's earlier novels. The tongue-tied nerd to belligerent delinquent transformation that Carpenter gets out of actor Keith Gordon is terrific.
4: Prince of Darkness: Carpenter's mixture of weird religious apocalypse imagery and inevitability of entropy is one of the all-time great hang-over movies. (The kind of movie you want to have on when you have sunk into what feels like irreparable physical disrepair and want your media to reflect the rest of the world plunging into the same abysmal state for no reason other than spite) Basically, there is a lot to chew on philosophically here, and when you get bored with chewing deep dark thoughts, Alice Cooper stabs a dude with a bicycle to make you giggle.
3: Halloween: Besides being inspirational as a low budget effort willed into existence through willpower and thrift, Halloween is one of the first movies that I see as an indictment of modern parental skills. Every adult in the movie fails miserably, leaving their kids to suffer the bloody consequences of their failure. I was never super into slasher movies, perhaps because this movie did it best. Halloween also had the best soundtrack and movie poster that Carpenter ever had going for him.
2: They Live: It's a real shame that Carpenter never made more movies with Roddy Piper. The idea of casting one of the greatest wrestling heels of all time as a drifter turned hero is pretty brilliant. If the role had been played by Kurt Russell or similar "name" star, the movie would lose the impact of its anti-consumerism message, but by casting someone who made a career out of being an outsider as the protagonist the audience is almost forced to see things from an outside the box perspective. Also, love the small bit part by Sy Richardson as the leader of the underground. He was Samuel L Jackson before Mr. Jackson deservedly hit it big.
1: Escape From New York: Beyond being my favorite Carpenter movie, Escape from New York will consistently make my top five movies of all time. I think this movie set the bar for what an action flick should be: Fast ridiculous and bloody. While I feel a lot Carpenter's movies have a strong element of social commentary through allegory, which is something I like quite a bit, I think that Escape is more of a tour through a world where everyone has failed to heed all of the allegories of the past. Our heroes are actually jerks, our leaders are revealed as petty and self-important, and our society is always just one step away from warlordism and anarchy.
Honorable Mention: I do like The Thing. I know its an absolute favorite of a lot of my friends. I just think that I would rather watch these movies most days if I was cruising a video store in the old days. Think I'm wrong?: Well, make your own damn list!