After a decade long respite, the greatly venerated John Carpenter has climbed back into the director's chair with the new horror feature THE WARD. The flick opened in limited release last week, and expands into even more cities this Friday. Considering this, we thought it'd be a perfect time to assess the Carp's work. Or rather, we're more interested in celebrating the films Johnny admirably nailed, as opposed to the ones he may have mis-measured the level on (which, let's face it, has become more frequent with each passing year). The dude's been kicking around for roughly four decades though, so I guess it's only due to the law of averages that the man trip up now and again. Can't fault him there. Still, we're here to remind you of the good times, the gory times, the ghoulish and ghastly times. Here now is ten of some of the scariest moments found in the work of John Carpenter!
WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW!
#10. BODY BAGS (1993) - THE GAS STATION
In 1993, when the horror genre was a sad, bloodless vessel of itself, the legendary Tobe Hooper hooked up with our boy Johnny on a three-part horror anthology called BODY BAGS. Largely a miss, panned by most, I contend the first segment of the three, THE GAS STATION, is vintage Carpenter. A simple set-up, minimal characters, one location...and suspense you can cut with a f*ckin' butcher knife. For the uninitiated, the first and most effective portion of the film revolves around Anne, a gas station attendant on her first day. Or night, rather. When Bill (Robert Carradine), Anne's shift predecessor, takes off for the night, the poor girl is wracked with twisted run-ins and off-putting encounters. Now, for the first half or so, the segment plays like your typical cheesy "Tales From The Crypt" fare. It isn't until the last 10 minutes or so that Carp's deft hand flexes its muscle and gives us tension we hardened-horror-heads need.
#9. IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS (1994) - BIKER ON THE ROAD AT NIGHT
In what can be construed as Carpenter riffing on Lynch, the surreally chilling highway segment of IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS is one of the filmmakers' standout pieces of direction. When Julie Carmen exhaustedly drives down a deserted stretch of road, at night, with Sam Neil semi-somnolent in the passenger seat, she eerily passes by a teenager riding a bicycle. Moments later, the car passes another rider, this time an old man with white hair traveling the opposite direction. Soon after, the same stranger appears again, this time smashing into the car. When Carmen and Neil try to help, the stranger silently gets up, hops on the bike and creepily peddles away into the blackness. Everything in this sequence is masterfully crafted; the impeccable focus-shifts, the angles and appearance of the old man, the lingering din of spinning spokes, the low howl of the wind...all of it create this dreamlike, borderline nightmarish quality.
#8. PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1987) - ALICE COOPER IMAPLES INVALID
Ozzy Osbourne may technically be the Prince of Darkness, but in the hands of John Carpenter, it's all about the Coop. You know the deal, in the shamefully overlooked 1987 great PRINCE OF DARKNESS, Cooper plays leader to ring of baleful homeless folk; an evil cabal of minions charged with the task of keeping the church from exposure. And in what particularly unnerving confrontation, Carpenter deftly builds not only an original fatality, but a true sense of dread in the lead up. It's not a cheap 80s slasher kill...Carpenter doesn't it really play it for laughs. In a dingily atmospheric alley, Alice Cooper suddenly saunters out from the dark shadows, picks up the back-half of bicycle frame, slugs his way toward our victim. As the victim tries to escape the other direction, the horde of homeless henchmen close in. A palpable sense of suspense follows suit, until Cooper finally jousts the Richard Belzer lookalike plum in the gut. The kicker...the way the victim bends back, leaks fanglike blood from his mouth, then falls forward into the light, fully impaled on the bike frame. Poetry.
#7. CHRISTINE (1983) - MOOCHIE GETS CRUSHED AGAINST BRICK WALL
In a perfect matrimony of the macabre, preeminent horror scribe Stephen King matched wits with John Carpenter on the 1983 tale of automotive terror, CHRISTINE. Many things about the movie work well, but for my money, one of the most frightening moments in the film - or any Carpenter film - is the scene where Moochie Wells meets his savage demise. Again, Carp demonstrates his knack for suspense...this time in a slowly mounted bout of anticipatory alarm. The scene starts out soothing enough, with the aurally pleasing Thurston Harris' "Little Bitty Pretty One" lulling us into a false sense of the serene. And it's coming from Christine. Soon, an expertly crafted chase scene through a narrow alleyway follows suit; the iconic tracking shot of the Moochie sprinting for his life, Carpenter and Alan Howarth's moody score punctuating the scene...and of course, the final claustrophobic collision...all of these things coalesce as one of Carpenter's most memorable fatalities.
#6. CIGARETTE BURNS (2005)
Those of the opinion that Johnny C. has creatively burned out need look no further than "Cigarette Burns," the exquisite episode of "Masters Of Horror" he directed in 2005. Not only is it one most terrifying entries in the entire series, it once again proves all Carpenter needs is a good script and some of the premiere FX men in the biz to make a quality flick. And here he does it in shorthand! Now, I could cite any number of grisly offerings here - a juicy two-chop decollation, brutal eyeball impalements, raw human innards being fed through a movie projector, etc. - but truth be told, the most petrifying thing about the episode is the premise. It's about a theater programmer hired to track down a rare film print. One of a kind. Thing is, this isn't an ordinary film. In fact, it's sinister messages work on such a subliminal level that irreparable damage is done to any viewer. Violent, psychotic, utterly chaotic damage! In short, you begin living the horrors of the movie. A deeply disturbing return to form for the Carpenter!
#5. THE THING (1982) - THE ENDING
Because fear of the unknown is such a universal emotion, John Carpenter's paralyzing ambiguity to close out THE THING still resonates nearly 30 years later. The mystery surrounding who of the two remaining survivors - Childs or MacReady - is actually the shape-shifting alien who's been subsuming and decimating the outpost squad - is really where most of the terror drevies from. Even more unsettling, Childs and MacReady are willing to sit there and possibly freeze to death than object themselves to the horrors of the Thing. What works so well is we the audience can sense the impending lack of narrative closure, at the same time, we can identify with the situation of the two leads. I mean, what would you do if you we're left out in the cold, possibly staring down a murderous E.T., all connection to the outside world cutoff? When the camera slowly pans up to the sky, the ominous thud of Ennio Morricone's monastic score wells up, and the credits roll, the viewer is left utterly entranced. Soul crushed. Deflated.
#4. THE FOG (1980) - THE ENDING
Could THE FOG be Carpenter's most underrated horror film? F*ck this movie rocks! And like his best, it's not easy singling out a definitive most horrifying moment. That said, I've always found the ending to the film to one of the major strengths of the film. Aside from Hal Holbrook's fine Kristofferson 'stache, the whole crescendo of violence - what with Adrienne Barbeau getting accosted by a throng of putrescent ghost-zombies, Holbrook exchanging energy with a red-eyed ghoul (Blake)...then of course, when everything seems to resolve in schmaltzy Hollywood fashion, the fog-jinnis comeback and serve blasphemous retribution - all of it equates to what a horror film ending should be. When Holbrook gets iced in the final frames, it comes so unexpectedly the first time you see it that you can't really help but admire with each successive screening. No sell outs, no trite pat-wrap-ups. Pure anarchic punk rock baby!
#3. HALLOWEEN (1978) - MICHAEL MYER'S FACE APPEARS FROM THE BLACKNESS
Let's be honest, I could have cited any number of scary stints in either HALLOWEEN or THE THING...in fact I could have dedicated this entire Top Ten to either film. So, in the name of adjudication, I submit one of the most hair-raising, spine-tingling moments in the film occurs late, in about the third reel. It's the shot where Laurie, now ambling hysterically around her house in the darkness, stops for a second to gather her bearings. Suddenly, the ethereal glint of Michael Myers' mask appears from the blackness behind her. It's like a phantom suddenly registering on the human visible spectrum; it just appears out of thin air. It's a scary enough image on its own, but when you consider the emotion of Laurie at that moment, perhaps reveling in a false sense of safety, the shot becomes that much more mortifying. Props to the ingenuity of Carpenter and his team, as it was apparently really easy to achieve this effect. All they did was add a dimmer switch to the light and slowly illuminate the mask when it was time. Myers did not walk into the frame, he was standing there the whole time.
#2. THE THING (1982) - BLOOD TEST
In Carpenter's tour-de-force remake of Howard Hawks' THE THING, there's one sequence I think we can all agree sets the all time bar of suspense. The blood test scene. So much of the success THE THING has to do with paranoia, and the inability to trust your supposed fellow scientist, despite how much you may want to. So when MacReady goes down the line, taking blood from each man and prodding the samples with a hot piece of iron...a disconcerting whodunit element slowly unfolds into one of the most wildly profligate monster-mutations we've ever had the fortune to lay eyes on. Also, using Garry as a red-herring culprit, our attention is temporarily diverted away from MacReady sampling Fuchs' dish. We're lulled for a split second, and in that second, WHAM...Fuchs' human form gorily morphs into a heinous extraterrestrial beast. The FX work by a young Rob Bottin and his crew is second to nothing in the world, and is really only rivaled by other work featured in this very movie...the gnarly crab head scene comes to mind.
#1. HALLOWEEN (1978) - MICHAEL MYER'S SITS UP IN BACKGROUND
Simplicity seemed to be Johnny's best friend on what has proven to be his magnum opus, the 1978 slasher paradigm HALLOWEEN. Due to budgetary constraints, there's nothing terribly complex about the methods employed to induce bona fide fright, just good old fashioned ingenuity and attention to detail. Take a fairly late scene in the film, where Laurie comes face-to-mask with her sadistic sibling. After hiding in and being confronted by Myers in the closet, she coat hangers the fucker in the eye and lopes a butcher knife through his gut. Thinking she's won - exhausted, traumatized - she takes a ill-advised moment to relax. And then it happens. In the background, slightly out of focus, we see Myers spring up from his supinated position and immediately cock his head in the direction of Laurie. The way it's angled, the abrupt musical cue, the lifeless body language of Nick Castle...the way he stiffly rises, arms at his side, chin high to the air...it's an indelible shot that ranks among Carpenter's bloodcurdling finest!