John Carpenter is one of the undisputed masters of horror. He has made some of the most important genre films ever released. His storied career spans the course of multiple decades. Movies like Halloween, The Thing, Escape From New York, and The Fog are incredibly influential and frequently lauded as classics. But Carpenter has made as many divisive pictures as features that were universally praised.
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Some took years to find a larger audience and some never found their audience at all. Whatever the case may be, Carpenter always brings something to the table. There’s not an overtly bad film in his body of work, despite some frequent cries to the contrary. The features we’ll be looking at here never had the audience of Halloween. Many still have plenty of detractors even now. Some just go over people’s heads, others aren’t what the audience was expecting. Whatever the case may be, here are the five most underrated movies from director John Carpenter.
John Carpenter’s Cigarette Burns was his first of two episodes for the Showtime series Masters of Horror. It’s a little unclear, I’ll admit, whether or not this counts as a feature given that it is technically an episode of a series. But it is just long enough to meet feature length requirements and certainly maintains a full story. In a way, it’s about the power a film can have over its audience. A man is hired to track down a print of one of the rarest, most infamous horror pictures ever. It was played only once and everyone in the theater either began committing murder or killed themselves. It’s surprising territory for Carpenter. Subversive and subtle, drawn-out and gory, it almost feels more like a Clive Barker story. Not that Carpenter hasn’t handled these themes before—we’ll get to that—but this was a different approach from his typically broader style. His second Masters of Horror effort is also worth a look.
Vampires is definitely one of Carpenter’s most underrated films. While it was very successful when it was first released, it has not met with much critical acclaim and most of the director’s fans seem to have ignored it. This is unfortunate because there’s a lot to love in Vampires. Loosely based on the novel Vampire$ by John Steakley, it’s about hired guns that track and kill vampires. James Woods is great playing against type as the Eastwood-esque action hero Jack Crow. It’s overly-macho and gory to a surprising degree, as vampire movies are generally fairly tame in that department. And while it’s not as deep as The Thing it is nonetheless immensely entertaining.
Village of the Damned
Carpenter’s second remake is certainly not as loved as his first, and while it’s far from the director’s best movie, that doesn’t make it bad. The atmosphere is great, the children are spooky and Christopher Reeve is strong and believable as the heroic lead. Some fans have complained that the interesting side characters aren’t given enough to do, but the focus is really on the children themselves. Others have suggested that the pacing is weird, but there’s a lot to fit in. This film is strongest at the beginning, just before the children are born, and at the end when everyone is well aware of what they can do. It also boasts one of Carpenter’s most incredible scores, which is even more underrated than the film itself.
Prince of Darkness
Prince of Darkness is just one of those movies that gets better and better every time you watch it. It has echoes of early Carpenter films like Assault on Precinct 13, as it is about a bunch of people in an isolated location terrorized by outside forces. The best thing about this movie is just how far out there it’s willing to go. It basically rewrites Christian mythology to say that Jesus was actually an alien sent to warn humanity of a cosmic, evil force that had landed on the planet before it had even begun to form life. This force, a sort of distilled essence of Satan, is now hidden beneath an old church. Here, we have major theological discussions of God and the Devil examined in terms of theoretical physics. The concept is incredible and the movie packs plenty of scares, as well as genuinely funny moments of levity. It’s a great possession picture and one of the weirder Biblical horror titles you’re apt to find. In spite of that, it never seems to come up when the conversation turns to the director’s great works.
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In the Mouth of Madness
Like Prince of Darkness, there’s something new to admire about In the Mouth of Madness every time you watch it. Sam Neill stars as a man hired to track down the latest manuscript of bestselling author Sutter Cane, who has recently gone missing. He is aided in the search by Cane’s publicist. Things take a bizarre turn pretty quickly as they find themselves in a town that supposedly only exists in Cane’s books and even meet characters from the author’s stories. The movie constantly questions what is real and what isn’t and always keeps you guessing as it unravels toward the end. While Sutter Cane is clearly a riff on Stephen King, the books themselves are definitely more Lovecraft-based and the creature effects are competently handled by KNB. This one is definitely open to interpretation and that’s a large part of what makes it so watchable. Definitely overlooked.