John Carpenter, one of the greatest living genre directors, turned seventy years old January 16th. His work has had a tremendous impact on horror, science fiction, and more for over forty years. He’s influenced everything from spirited indies to major tentpole blockbusters. There’s something about his style that feels so effortless that one simply can’t help but be inspired. To celebrate his birthday, we’re taking a look at some of the very best performances from his films. Some of them will be obvious, some, I hope, not so much.
Even though there are certain actors who are always associated with Carpenter, people tend to think of him as a cinematic director before really thinking of him as an actor’s director. It’s fair. He knows exactly where to put a camera and exactly how to use the frame. He does whatever he can to make sure that a movie is seamless on the technical level.
But even if it’s subtler than the likes of directors like Quentin Tarantino or Kevin Smith, Carpenter is equally stylistic when it comes to the performances he gets from his actors. There’s a certain rhythm to a John Carpenter film and these actors nail that, even while being able to deliver diverse and interesting performances that stand out on their own.
With that in mind, let’s take a look back at some of the performances in Carpenter’s filmography that really stand out.
Donald Pleasance in Halloween
Pleasance came in for four days for this movie, which he didn’t even really get. He didn’t totally understand the appeal—really, no one was sure if Halloween was going to work—and yet he took what he was given and turned in an all-time horror performance. Obsessive, but not cartoonish. Intense, yet understated. Loomis is the Greek Chorus of Halloween. He’s Cassandra personified, a character who sees exactly what is going to happen and yet is ultimately unable to prevent it. Pleasance was so good in the role that he became as tied to the franchise as Michael Myers himself.
Adrienne Barbeau still claims that this is her favorite out of any role she’s ever played. Stevie Wayne is a tough and capable heroine, all of which Barbeau can play with ease. What really sells the performance, though, is the fact that she does not have a single scene with any of the rest of the main cast and yet she feels completely central to the film. In many ways, The Fog is her movie, yet she’s almost putting on a one-woman show. Once she realizes and settles into her fate and her decision to stay where she is, we get to watch the transformation of a tongue-in-cheek radio DJ into a genuine, largely uncredited hero.
Karen Allen in Starman
Jeff Bridges seems to be doing the most acting with his bizarre take on an alien adjusting to human form for the first time. He puts a lot into thinking of what the alien would sound like when trying to comprehend and reinterpret human speech, and to his credit he kind of does sound like many of the artificial voices we have in any one of our devices today. But that whole movie belongs to Karen Allen and she knocks it out of the park. She has to play someone who starts off completely believably terrified of a creature that’s essentially wearing her dead husband’s skin and then has the even harder job of having to sell her actually falling in love with this thing. This is one of the hardest characters to pull off in any Carpenter film, yet Allen does it with wit, charm and genuine heart.
Sam Neill in In the Mouth of Madness
Sam Neill’s performance in In the Mouth of Madness just showcases why he’s one of the most underrated actors around. The film as a whole needs more love, but that’s neither here nor there. Neill has to play so many different things in this one character. He starts of kind of noir-ish, playing an insurance investigator who feels much more like a 1930s P.I., then has to transition into paranoia that mounts and mounts until he just buckles into genuine, scene-chewing insanity. It’s mesmerizing to watch and definitely warrants another look.
Kurt Russell in Escape from New York
In many ways, this film and even this character represent one of the things Carpenter has always been best at: genre-bending. Snake Plissken is a classic Western hero. He’s an old cowboy, an outlaw, and yet here we find him in the middle of this sci-fi landscape of dystopian New York. It’s the furthest thing from anywhere we’ve seen a character like this before and yet we don’t question it for a second. Snake is cold, tough and subtly manipulative. There’s something almost admirable to the fact that he doesn’t have an arc. Even after everything he goes through, he’s the exact same guy at the beginning as at the end.
Kurt Russell in Big Trouble in Little China
To really look at why Carpenter and Russell made such a great team, we have to look at these two performances side by side. They could not be more different. One of them is this hard-as-nails absolute badass and the other is someone who thinks he’s a hard-as-nails absolute badass and truly is not. Jack Burton is just a dude. He may think he’s the Great American Hero but the truth is that Wang and some of the other characters around him are doing a whole lot of the work. Plissken is pretty much devoid of any sense of humor, yet Burton really allows Russell to flex those comedy muscles in delightful, memorable and insanely quotable ways.
Keith Gordon in Christine
One of Carpenter’s most underrated films, it’s also one of the few that’s focused on a single character’s arc rather than an ensemble cast. Keith Gordon gives one of my favorite horror performances, playing what could easily have just been dismissed as a male version of Carrie. It’s another Stephen King story about a nerdy kid who gets even, but Arnie’s not simply concerned with striking back against his peers. Arnie’s lashing out at the whole world. It’s also about unhealthy young love and obsession. Arnie truly adores Christine and no one else can see what he sees, yet he just becomes so numb to everything else. To watch this kid go from charmingly pathetic to genuinely chilling can’t be understated. It’s fantastic and certainly a performance that warrants more recognition than it typically gets.