John Carpenter: The Killer B’s, 1974-1982

For a brief but glorious period John Carpenter delivered an impressive series of B-movies which profoundly affected  the horror and science fiction genres in particular. With this mini-season we showcase six of the best of the director’s films from the period 1974-82.

Dark Star

John Carpenter | USA | 1974 | 83 minutes

Co-scripted by and featuring future Alien writer Dan O’Bannon this absurdist take on 2001 more than compensates in imagination and inventiveness what it lacks in a special effects budget. The plot sees the motley crew (the captain is dead and frozen in stasis, and there is a stowaway who no-one else has twigged is impersonating the actual crewman) 20 years into their mission of blowing up stars about to go supernova who then find themselves having to explain to one of their intelligent bombs that it was activated by accident.

Assault on Precinct 13

John Carpenter | USA | 1976 | 91 minutes

Carpenter’s avowed enthusiasm for the films of Howard Hawks is very much in evidence in this modern day re-imagining of Rio Bravo (Carpenter has also used the name of John Wayne’s character in Hawks’s film, John T. Chance, as a pseudonym) in which cops and their prisoner band together in defending the titular, about to be closed, police station against a vengeance-seeking gang. The recent remake lacks the original’s punch, most notably by excising the famous scene where a kid going to get an ice cream is shockingly gunned down, signalling that anything can happen.

Halloween

John Carpenter | USA | 1978 | 91 minutes

Sixteen years ago to the day the six-year old Michael Myers was sent to an asylum after killing his sister. Now he has come home to the sleepy town of Haddonfield to complete his murderous mission. Donald Pleasance and Jamie Lee Curtis star as the obsessive doctor hunting Michael and his ultimate target.

Still one of the most profitable films ever made on the basis of costs to box office, Halloween inevitably launched countless imitators and sequels, few of which could match up to it.

The Fog

John Carpenter | USA | 1980 | 89 minutes

Finding himself a hot property in the wake of Halloween, Carpenter quickly turned in another horror film – only to find that his backers felt it was not scary enough. While some judicious re-editing and shooting helped take care of this, The Fog arguably still works best in terms of atmosphere and mood.

Note that the film features a character named Dr Phibes in a nod to one of Vincent Price’s most famous roles.

Escape From New York

John Carpenter | USA | 1981 | 99 minutes

In the-then future 1997 New York has been turned into a giant prison. When the President’s plane goes down in the city, convicted bank robber “Snake” Plissken is called for and given an offer he cannot refuse: Go in, get the president, and get out — all within the 24 hours he has before the poison he’s been given kills him.

The Thing

John Carpenter | USA | 1982 | 109 minutes

The crew of an isolated research station in the Antarctic discover that a shape-changing, body-jumping alien is amongst them. Computer projections suggest that if they cannot stop it there and then humankind will become extinct within months.

Carpenter’s reworking of the Hawks/Nyby Thing from Another World features prosthetic effects work courtesy of Rob Bottin that remain impressive three decades on and can retrospectively be seen as one of the high points of the pre-CGI era. The film is notable for featuring no female characters at all, a point of departure from the Hawks original with its wisecracking, one of the boys, female character.