Recently, I got tickets for John Carpenter’s upcoming Anthology Tour (I’m beyond excited) and it seemed like the perfect moment to finally tackle this list. I have had this list on my mind for years now, but something always seemed to come up.
I wouldn’t say I’m his biggest fan but I’m certainly up there. I’ve rewatched many of his films countless times, I listen to his music on a regular basis, and I buy a lot of tie-in comic books. I am even working on collecting several out-of-print novelizations of his movies. I love anything related to John Carpenter.
Even as a child, I noticed all Carpenter movies have memorable endings. They always left me satisfied and with a big smile on my face. So, doing this list is the most fun I’ve had with writing an article. I rewatched each ending and watched several of his movies again. But don’t take this list too seriously — it is just my homage to my favorite director (and not my last article in honor of him).
A Special Mention Goes To:
Even though this is a Top Ten list, I had to mention John Carpenter’s Starman. This film has touched many people’s hearts and it’s easy to see why. It’s different from his other eighties (80’s?) classics because it’s a romantic film (even with its science-fiction sensibilities). It’s undoubtedly Carpenter’s sweetest film and any true romantic will be swept by the film’s moving climax.
In Starman, an alien lands in the house of a recently widowed woman, Jenny (Karen Allen), and takes the shape of her deceased husband, Scott (Jeff Bridges). He has a limited lifespan on earth and must arrive to a rendezvous point where his fellow aliens will take him back to their home-world. He asks Jenny for help, but she is reluctant at first. She eventually agrees and they spend the rest of the film avoiding the government while they attempt to get to the rendezvous.
#10: Village of the Damned
John Carpenter’s remake of the 1960’s science-fiction thriller Village of the Damned is generally regarded as one of his worst films. And while I do consider it one of his lesser works, I also think it has a lot to offer. There are many great performances, particularly from its lead Christopher Reeve (this was his last walking performance before the accident that left him paralyzed). It shows John Carpenter’s strength as a genre filmmaker, particularly in the realm of suspense and atmosphere. This is especially evident in the revision of the original film’s ending, which was revamped in a more suspenseful way.
The film is about a mysterious event that causes the population of a quiet little coastal town in Midwich, California to faint for six hours. When they wake up, ten of the women are pregnant. The pregnancies lead to one stillborn and nine children (five boys and four girls). All of these children have the same physical characteristics: white hair, pale skin and cobalt eyes. They also share the same psychic powers which they use against anyone they feel provoked or threatened by.
We later discover the children are alien lifeforms. In order to stop them and save the town, Reeve’s character Dr. Chaffee decides to blow them up by hiding a bomb in his bag. Armed with the knowledge the children can read minds, he uses a meditative trick to block his thoughts. The leader of the alien-children, Mara (a fantastic cold performance by Lindsey Haun), notices his suspicious behavior and attempts to read his mind. She discovers it’s blocked by an image of a wall.
In the film’s nail-biting climax, we listen to the sound of a ticking bomb as the children try to break Reeve’s character. Due to the minimalistic soundtrack the entire sequence is fantastic. This ending is pure Carpenter gold.
#9: The Fog
This Carpenter film is a ghostly horror film and has amassed many fans over the years. And this is despite the mixed reviews it initially received during at its original release. This seems to be a common fate for many Carpenter classics.
A small coastal town is beset by supernatural occurrences as they are about to celebrate their 100th anniversary. When the clock reaches midnight, a thick fog descends on the town. In this fog are apparitions of pirates who are seeking vengeance on the descendants of those who had murdered them in the past.
The ending is quite memorable due to its stark brutality. After the heroes of the film have seemingly defeated the ghosts, Father Malone (the late great Hal Holbrook) returns to his church. He is wondering why the ghosts didn’t take the lives of all the descendants — since this includes him too. Just as he says this, the fog begins to billow under the church doors. Just as he turns around to face the ghosts, we see one of the ghosts, Blake, sweep his blade towards to the Father and the screen turns black.
It’s a delicious, and darkly comedic end to the atmospheric delight that is John Carpenter’s The Fog.
#8: Assault on Precinct 13
Assault on Precinct 13 was the film that cemented John Carpenter as a filmmaker. Initially perceived as a low-budget exploitation thriller, it would become a giant cult classic. The film is filled with glorious moments and performances, too many for me to go over in detail. But strangely it’s the touching ending that truly puts a smile on your face.
After narrowly surviving the murderous horde, the police officers on scene grab Napoleon. Throughout the film you are kept wondering about Napoleon’s true nature — is he just a merciless murderer or is he worth saving? His heroics during the film proves there is a good man inside him, he just doesn’t care for authority.
Bishop angrily pushes the police officers away from Napoleon. The two men look at each other, an obvious bond has grown between them, with a deep and intimate respect. The silence is broken by Bishop who says, ”It would be a privilege if you’d walk outside with me.” We see that Napoleon is touched by this gesture and all he can muster in reply is, ”I know it would.” They smile, make some macho comments and then walk out the precinct. All with Carpenter’s infamous theme song playing in the background.
The original Halloween opens with a little boy in a trance holding a kitchen knife, there is a teenage girl dead in her room. This is our first introduction to one of the scariest villains of cinema history: Michael Myers.
Fifteen years later, Myers has grown up inside a sanitarium, but he escapes on Halloween night. He then proceeds to continue the bloody reign he started as a boy. Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence), his psychiatrist, tried in vain to help him find some semblance of humanity. Yet, he infamously admits to the local Sheriff Leigh Brackett (Carpenter regular Charles Cyphers): ”I spend eight years trying to reach him, and then another seven trying to keep him locked up, because I realized that what was living behind that boy’s eyes was purely and simply… evil.”
Myers puts all his murderous attention to teenager Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis). Just as he’s about to suffocate her, Loomis comes to the rescue and shoots him six times. Myers falls down from a balcony, seemingly to his death. When he goes to the balcony to check on Myers’ body, it’s gone.
It seems like a typical slasher ending but what makes this ending different is the reaction of Dr. Loomis. He isn’t even surprised, you can see that he’s scared because he realizes that his suspicions were right all along: Michael isn’t human, he’s a force of pure evil.
#6: Prince of Darkness
This was the first film I ever wrote about for MovieBabble. Unsurprisingly, it is on this list! And I highly suggest watching the film for yourself — it is the only way you will understand the brilliant madness of Prince of Darkness.
Throughout the film, the scientists and the priest are all having the same dream. A darkly figure emerges from the entrance of the church, a broadcasted voice from 1999 warns them, ”This is not a dream.” The scientists postulate that the dream was sent to them from the future by using tachyon signals. The message is to warn them about Satan’s mission to release the Anti-God from the mysterious cylinder found in the decrepit church.
The strange and mysterious ending happens after Catherine (Lisa Blount) sacrifices herself to save our world. Brian (Jameson Parker), whose was Catherine’s lover, begins having the recurring dream again. But this time it’s a little different — this time the darkly figure that comes out of the church looks like Catherine! When Brian wakes up, he looks toward the mirror (which has been established as a possible vessel to another world). He slowly walks towards it, reaches out a hand, and we expect his hand to go through it and grasp Catherine’s hand in the other dimension. And just as he’s about to touch it, the screen goes black.
Even though I normally loath cliffhanger endings, this is one of the few exceptions. The ending fits perfectly with the film’s tone, as well as raises a lot of interesting questions. Has Catherine become the embodiment of the Anti-God? Is the last vision a more hopeful vision of the future? Has Catherine found a way to signal Brian so he can release her from the other dimension?
Prince of Darkness was a movie all about mixing scientific and religious ideas. The ending is one that keeps viewers guessing and wondering.
#5: Escape from New York
In 1981, the world was introduced to Snake Plissken, a hero to anti-authoritarians everywhere in John Carpenter’s classic post –apocalyptic thriller Escape from New York. It was the film that immediately made Kurt Russell one of the coolest men on the planet which he still — and became one of Carpenter’s most beloved films.
Meanwhile in 1997, there’s a growing tension between NATO and the USSR (yes this film was made before the fall of the Berlin Wall). The American president (Donald Pleasence) travels to a peace summit through Air Force One, hoping to broker a peace agreement by sharing the secret of Nuclear Fusion which is contained in a small tape cassette — yes this film was made when people still used those things. But on the way to the peace summit, the plane is hijacked and the President is forced to escape in an escape-pod which makes an Emergency landing in New York, where the president is then kidnapped by gangster known as the The Duke (Isaac Hayes).
As time is running out and tensions between the great nations are starting to escalate, a government commissioner known as Bob Hauk (Lee van Cleef) approaches a former special-forces soldier turned criminal named Snake Plissken (Russell of course) who was about to be sent to New York city, to retrieve the president in 22 hours. He reluctantly accepts but in order to motivate Snake even further, they’ve injected a micro-explosive in his body that will explode if he doesn’t finish the mission in time.
The premise is delightfully pulp material and it’s a testament to the talent involved that it somehow never feels like a cheap outlandish B-movie.
But let’s focus on the simple but grand ending of Escape from New York. Needless to say, Snake is successful saving the president and therefore his life in the process. Unfortunately, to make this happen Snake had to lose a lot of friends along the way, such as Brain (the late great Harry Dean Stanton), Maggie (Carpenter’s former wife Adrienne Barbeau) and Cabbie (the late great Ernest Borgnine). When Snake presses this fact to the President, that so many had to die in order for him live, it’s obvious that the President doesn’t care. It’s another example of another authority leader who only really cares about himself.
Snake is offered by Hauk to join the military again, as they share a common history but Snake is not interested. As he walks away, the President addresses the nation as well as the USSR and NATO on Live television. As an encouragement for peace he plays the tape but instead of hearing the secrets of Nuclear Fusion, the jazzy music belonging to Cabbie plays instead. An ode to probably the most innocent and loveable character of the film.
The last shot shows Snake holding the real tape, having obviously switched it before, destroying it — and thereby possibly instigating World War 3 — and walking away. Despite knowing the danger he’s putting the entire world in, the cynic within all of us completely understands his actions.
#4: The Thing
While his other films found mostly fame in the cult section of cinema, John Carpenter’s The Thing has now been universally praised as a bona fide science-fiction/horror classic by critics and audience all over. This hasn’t been always the case however as it was critically panned upon its release. Roger Ebert singled this film out as being nothing more than a ”barf-bag” movie, a ”a gross out movie in which teenagers can dare one another to watch the screen.”
But The Thing would eventually be regarded as his best film and from a purely technical and aesthetic viewpoint, it probably is. While it’s often considered a classic for its shockingly gruesome practical effects, it’s the unrelenting tension and suspense driving the plot that truly makes this film special.
The plot, if that even needs explaining, is about a group of antarctic researchers who come across an alien-organism in their camp. This alien is a parasitic creature that can assimilate any form of life and any person in the camp might be infected. This causes paranoia among the group. Eventually they realize that they cannot let this ”thing” reach civilized world as it could perhaps assimilate the whole human population in a matter of weeks. They decide to destroy the entire camp, knowing that they will probably die in the process.
The ending is infamous, with the seemingly last survivor Macready (Russell) draped in a blanket, sitting by the fiery wreckage of the camp drinking a bottle of scotch. He’s worn out as his final confrontation with The Thing cost him all his strength. Suddenly Childs (the almost as cool Keith David) appears before him, having apparently survived.
Macready naturally worries that he might have been assimilated but when Childs tries to reassure him, Macready says it doesn’t matter:
”’if we got any surprises for each other, I don’t think we’re in much shape to do anything about it.”
”Well,” says Childs then, ”what do we do?”
”Why don’t we wait here for a little while…” says Macready, ”see what happens.”
After Macready shares the bottle of scotch to Childs, there’s a moment of uneasy laughter between them. They know they won’t make it and they realize too that at any moment, one of them could turn against one another. There are endless theories about the ending but the ambiguity makes it strong. Similar to the ending of Prince of Darkness, it keeps you thinking instead of hanging.
#3: In the Mouth of Madness
In the Mouth of Madness is often hailed as the last great Carpenter film, something I deeply disagree with- as my love for Escape from L.A. will surely make clear. It’s certainly one of his most underrated films.
The film is certainly aided by a fantastic central performance of Sam Neill, who gives the perfect blend of ham and seriousness as his character descends into madness. In the beginning of the film, John Trent (Neil) is in a psychiatric ward telling his story to Dr. Wrenn (David Warner).
John Trent was an insurance-investigator tasked by a publishing agency to find a missing author named Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow). Cane’s literary work has been known to have a psychological effect on the less stable reader, such as mood swings, hallucinations to even violent psychotic breakdowns. Trent being the everlasting skeptic, doesn’t take any of it seriously and even thinks that Cane’s disappearance is part of some elaborate publicity stunt engineered by the publishing agency.
Eventually he finds the whereabouts of Cane in a town called Hobbs End which seems haunted by supernatural forces. Trent at first dismisses any of these unexplained occurrences but as his perception of reality continuous to be assaulted, he inevitably descends into madness.
It’s hard to explain the ending without going too deep into the film’s themes. It’s one of those films that’s easier to understand after multiple viewings.
Cane’s writings have apparently been inspired by ancient dark forces, who wanted to reclaim earth for themselves again. But in order for this to happen, they needed enough people to believe in them, as it is their only way of breaching our reality. Trent turns out to be nothing more than a character of one of Cane’s novels and the purpose of his character was to unwillingly bring forth the apocalypse by bringing the new manuscript to the Publishing agency.
At the end of the film, Trent wakes up his psychiatric ward, discovering himself to be all alone. He sees evidence of gory carnage everywhere. The outside world seems desolate, the radio talks about the appearances of monsters and the rising tide of suicide and murder. Eventually Trent comes across a cinema and sees that a new film has been released called In the Mouth of Madness — directed by John Carpenter no less!
He goes inside with a bucket of popcorn and walks in during middle of the film’s screening. Seeing himself on screen and the events preceding this moment, he begins to laugh hysterically. His laughter becomes disturbingly uproarious, the laughter of a madmen, until he starts to cry, mournfully mumbling ”oh my god…”
The ending is Trent’s darkly revelation that he’s nothing more than a fictional character. He never had any agency, he was nothing more than a puppet.
This ending is both terrifying in its direction but also in its existential meaning. Carpenter rightfully saw that the true terror of the story lies not within the end of the world, but more within our fragile grip of reality. The rock ‘n’ roll theme composed by Carpenter himself perfectly begins and bookends the films.
#2: They Live
John Carpenter’s They Live has become a darling for conspiracy theorists everywhere. Both the left and the right perceive They Live to be a metaphor for their beliefs, for the need of seeing through the lies and manipulation of opposing political forces. And that’s the enduring strength of They Live, a film that works on many levels and has become a cultural icon of political awareness. We have all seen art works of famous politicians transformed as the aliens from They Live, telling us to ”obey.”
A hulking blue-collar worker known as John Nada (the late great Roddy Piper) discovers that society is secretly being controlled by nefarious alien race. He discovers this by getting his hands onto some special sunglasses which reveals the subliminal messages of the aliens around them as well as well as making him see which humans are really aliens in disguise. When the authorities discover that he can ”see” he’s hunted down by government death-squads.
Nada convinces another blue-collar worker, Frank (Keith David), to help him on his mission to stop the aliens — this after he engaged him in a hilarious lengthy streetfight. After narrowly escaping death several times, they manage to reach the aliens command center and decide to destroy the alien transmitter which blocks people from seeing the aliens in their midst.
In the end both Frank and Nada are gunned down but Nada manages to destroy the transmitter, dying with a victorious middle-finger against the aliens. We then see an awakening in America, as the aliens in society are revealed to them — from a newscaster, a bar-patron to even a movie-critic (who coincidentally is telling the world that the films of George A. Romero and John Carpenter are too violent).
The film ends on a hilarious note with a woman having sex on top of some guy, her eyes closed as she’s focusing on the sensation. When she opens her eyes and faces her lover, she suddenly looks scared.
”Hey what’s wrong baby?” asks her lover, his face now of an alien.
The great thing about this ending is even though Carpenter proclaims the film to be a documentary, he obviously doesn’t take the silly premise too seriously. And that’s what we all should do. The underlying message certainly has merit but it’s still a satire. It’s still a movie where a wrestler turned actor says the infamous line: ”I’ve come here to chew bubblegum and kick-ass. And I’m all outta bubblegum…” It’s still a delightful product of the eighties.
#1: Escape from L.A.
A lot of people hate this film, believing it to be a bloated and expensive rehash of the original. From that perspective, looking at the low-budget origins of Escape from New York, with its dark and gritty cinematography, to the big-budget Escape from LA, which is much more colorful in lighting and tone, I can kind of see where they are coming from. The film is closer to being a remake than a sequel.
But there lies the rub, the film knows it’s an expensive rehash of the original, it knows it’s just a Hollywood product, it’s just banking on the fame of the original which was an independent production. Carpenter knows all this. Carpenter knew what he was doing and took the opportunity to make a big-budget parody on Hollywood sequels.
But it isn’t just Hollywood that’s getting slammed by Carpenter, it’s America itself, the corruption within the nation’s soul. This is also what makes the social commentary of Escape from LA so enduringly relevant, especially with the presence of its lead villain, The President (played by the late great Cliff Robertson), who unlike his cinematic predecessor, is a fanatic evangelist who in the world of EFLA turned America into a theocratic hellhole.
We should know all this by now, we should move on from these failed dreams which has led to so much misery, but as Snake Plissken makes so bountiful clear in Escape from LA: ”the more things change, the more things stay the same” — an obvious reference to the film also recycling a lot of elements of the original film.
So then we come to the glorious cynical ending to Escape from LA, Where Snake Plissken has a choice between destroying all electronic activity on earth, essentially putting mankind back into the stone-age or letting things continue as they are. What does Snake do? You can guess: he pushes that MacGuffin button and all the world’s technology is destroyed in an instant.
Our last shot is of Snake Plissken in the darkness, lighting a cigarette with lit match, taking a slow drag, enjoying it, then observing the burned match. Then he suddenly looks at the camera with your typical cold Plissken glare and he blows out the match — the screen goes black and hear a soft chuckle from Snake as he says the greatest last line of any movie: ”welcome to the human race.”
It’s not just in my opinion the best Carpenter ending, it’s one of the most bad-ass endings of all time. To defend my position even more, let me give you the words of the greatest authority of all: ”Escape from LA is better than the first movie. Ten times better. It’s got a lot more to it.” Yup, those are the words of Carpenter himself.
And I hope he’s right about the film’s status in the future: ”people didn’t want to see Escape that time but they really didn’t want to see The Thing… You just wait. You’ve got to give me a little while. People will say, you know, what was wrong with me?”
Thank you for reading! What are you thoughts on John Carpenter and some of his endings? Comment down below!
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I don’t think the ending of “Prince of Darkness” was ambiguous. I believe that the guy just wanted his girlfriend back, that the dream/transmission merely gave him ideas, and basically it’s back to the anti-God situation, just with a new model.
I think the endings are the weakest part of Carpenters movies. So very often (as in EFNY) he just seems to run out of money. Necessity is the mother of creativity though, and yes, it actually worked for films like The Thing. Kudos for the mention of Prince of Darkness, its a great movie, one of my favourite Carpenter flicks and yeah, great ending- up there with The Thing in my book.
Amazing list. It was great that you included “Starman”. I’ve seen around 50 of Jeff Bridges’s works, and “Starman” is easily in my Top 3 along with “Arlington Road” and “The Fisher King”.
Nine of these were spot on (well 10 if you count Starman). Good work
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