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A Definitive Ranking of John Carpenter’s Films!

John Carpenter's Films

A few months ago I watched Ghosts of Mars for the first time and mentioned that I hadn’t seen about half of legendary horror director John Carpenter’s filmography. I caught a lot of flack for that in the comments so I decided to take it upon myself to do my duty as a horror fan and watch all of his films, including re-watching some of the ones I hadn’t seen in a while (and yes, I bought them all). It certainly made me realize that growing up in the late 70s and early 80s must have been wonderful (I was born in ’89) because Carpenter was on a hot streak that few directors have been able to match, delivering a top notch film nearly every year. That being said, someone has to compare them to each other and rank them,* and it might as well be me!

*Obviously no one has to rank them, but I wanted to.

Related Post: Ranking All 26 of Wes Craven’s Films!


24. Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992)

Good Lord, what happened here? A lot, apparently. It’s no wonder Carpenter opted to leave his name off of the film’s title (the film is just called Memoirs of an Invisible Man as opposed to John Carpenter’s Memoirs of an Invisible Man). The special effects are spectacular, but the rest of the film is an incoherent bore. The behind-the-scenes drama (original director Ivan Reitman clashed with actor Chevy Chase over the tone of the film, leading to Reitman departing the project and Carpenter being brought in) shows on screen, with everyone in front of and behind the camera seemingly devoid of passion. It lacks a memorable score and has no emotional core (the romance between Chase and Hannah has its moments, but doesn’t ring true). It would be something if the film was bad and entertaining, but it’s not, which brings me to the next film on this list.

Grade: D-

john carpenter films


23. Ghosts of Mars (2001)

I’ve already established that Ghosts of Mars is not a good movie, but it’s so laughably bad that you can’t help but at least be entertained by it. Originally planned to be the third Escape From…… film (aptly titled Escape From Mars), Carpenter changed the film to Ghosts of Mars at the request of the studio when Escape From L.A. failed to make a desirable amount of money at the box office. The dialogue is laughable, the flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks are silly and the sets look like they belong in a high school theater production. It’s not a total loss though. Carpenter’s collaboration with Anthrax for the film’s heavy metal score is a new and inspired direction for the director/composer.

Grade: D

john carpenter films


22. Escape From L.A. (1996)

Carpenter’s long-in-development sequel the his critically acclaimed Escape From New York was a complete shift in tone from its predecessor. Essentially a remake of that film, Escape From L.A. is campy, mindless fun. It’s also a sloppily edited film that doesn’t work as a satire of the action genre. Russell is the main draw here, and supporting turns from Steve Buscemi, Bruce Campbell and Pam Grier are entertaining distractions, but it’s mind-boggling that a film with a $50 million budget in 1996 can have effects that look this bad (just watch the surfing scene and tell me it’s not bad). Still, the film has its supporters (even Carpenter prefers it to Escape From New York) and remains one of the director’s more passionate efforts.

Grade: C-

john carpenter films


21. Dark Star (1974)

Carpenter’s directorial debut Dark Star is not an overtly bad film. It is just very much a student film and it shows. Written by Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon (of Alien fame) while attending the University of Souther California, the kooky sci-fi comedy succeeds in many areas. From an alien shaped like a beach ball (the MVP of the film) to a bomb that keeps trying to deploy without receiving an order to, Dark Star has several laugh-out-loud moments and its low budget effects are part of it’s charm. That charm can’t prevent the film from being far too long and drawn out, even with it’s brief 83-minute runtime. It has a tendency to feel like a short film stretched out to feature length.

Grade: C
john carpenter films

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49 Comments
  • Rafael Fernandez

    I have to say, although I haven’t seen many of Carpenter’s more obscure films, I pretty much agree with the rankings – with the exception of Vampires. I remember seeing Vampires on its initial release and being profoundly disappointed. In fact all through the 90’s and 2000s I questioned how the man who made “The Thing” could make so many awful movies also.

    In the special features for Ghosts of Mars Carpenter said that he wasn’t happy with his first cut of the film and so re-edited a lot of it. Or words to that effect. That’s why there are so many of the flashbacks-within-flashbacks. At least “Doom” did “Ghosts of Mars” right.

    And kudos for purchasing the movies to make your article.

  • Jimmy Cthulhuhan

    Deja vu…

    “Is Vampires ranked too high?” WAY too high, his worst imo. Woods saved it? Hs failed tryhard “coolness” is just embarassing (I do like him in other things though). And let’s not speak of the fruity lead vampire… god I hate that movie. I get depressed knowing that I own it (on VHS).

    Dont agree with most of these, but so it goes… my unpopular opinion, I think Prince of Darkness was his best.

    • What can I say? I had a lot of fun with Vampires. Granted, I just watched it for the first time after years of hearing how bad it was, so maybe that helped me.

      One question though: why use the word “fruity” as a negative to describe Valek? The word has a negative connotation on its own, but I’m curious.

      • Jimmy Cthulhuhan

        >_< Well, pardon my insensitivity, didnt mean THAT, just that he's corny as hell. Old-timey Dracula-type in modern times feels like somethin out of a straight up comedy. I know the movie was trying to be a lil funny, but it wasnt.

  • Matt

    Trace, thanks for sharing your opinions on how you would rank Carpenter’s films. Personally, I would strongly disagree with your placement of many of the films. That, however, would be my opinion on the quality of the films. If you asked 100 different people to rank them, you’d likely get 100 different responses. I appreciated reading your thoughts.

    (P.S. – I also really enjoyed Vampires.)

    • Feel free to share your ranking! I love discussing things like this with readers and getting their opinions.

      • Matt

        OK, you asked for it! –

        1. Halloween
        2. Escape from New York
        3. The Fog
        4. Big Trouble in Little China
        5. They Live
        6. The Thing
        7. Starman
        8. Assault on Precinct 13
        9. Christine
        10. Vampires
        11. Village of the Damned
        12. Escape from L.A.
        13. Elvis
        14. Prince of Darkness
        15. Hair (Body Bags)
        16. Someone’s Watching Me!
        17. Pro-Life (Masters of Horror)
        18. Ghosts of Mars
        19. The Gas Station (Body Bags)
        20. In the Mouth of Madness
        21. Dark Star
        22. Cigarette Burns (Masters of Horror)
        23. Memoirs of an Invisible Man
        ??. The Ward – can’t rank it, have not seen it.

        • A very respectable ranking. Interesting that you have In the Mouth of Madness so low and Village of the Damned so high, but it’s a solid list!

          • Matt

            I “didn’t get” In the Mouth of Madness, and I found the children in Village of the Damned to be wonderfully creepy!

          • I can certainly understand that!

  • Overton Green

    Pretty solid list. Only thing I would change is 1 & 2. I feel Halloween is just by far his best film. I give Halloween the edge if nothing more than because it’s original work and not a remake like The Thing.

    I just feel the reach and game changing nature that was Halloween, on top of being the highest grossing independent film for over two decades until The Blair Witch Project vaults it to the #1 slot.

    Halloween gave birth to the slasher film craze of the 80s. Having been born in the 70s I wouldn’t have experienced the joy of being a horror fan and watching so many slashers in the 80s if not for Halloween.

    It has to be #1.

    • Totally understandable position. It was a tough choice for me to make!

      • gabriel

        this list you made is really great. I could never decide because they are all so good

      • Overton Green

        It is a hard choice. The Thing is a great film and while Halloween is pure brilliance because Carpenter tried so many things with the film that just worked. You could tell he was working hard to create a suspenseful, and scary film.

        The buildup of dread he was able to create in The Thing is still unmatched and he was truly at the peek of his powers, and he hasn’t crafted anything that comes close to it since.

        It’s probably unfair saying that. When you create back to back classics it’s hard to keep topping yourself.

        Most film makers go an entire career and never produce anything that comes close to a definitive classic.

        The fact that we are able to have a debate about two films at the pinnacle of their sub genre is a credit to John Carpenter’s legacy in the horror genre and his greatness when he was at his peek.

  • Bob Marshall

    I can agree that I think Escape From New York is overrated but no way should it be below the pile of crap that is Vampires.

    Also the Gas Station segment from Body Bags should be higher, that segment is brilliant I don’t agree with your assessment in it.

    • 21/24 ain’t bad though!

    • gabriel

      I love the host from body bags that drinks formaldehyde martinis.

  • Justin

    I agree wholeheartedly with the Top 5 in that order and then it varies from then on, but I REALLY love these lists and the time you take with your justifications – Thanks Trace!

  • HatchetDrive

    Pretty good list here but The Fog definitely needs to be in the Top 5. I would swap it with ‘They Live’

    • WOLF

      Same here.

    • HereWeGoYo

      Yep.

  • J Jett

    THE FOG is my #1 fave Carpenter film (and is in my top 5 favorite films ever) followed by THE THING & HALLOWEEN I & II.

    • You could possibly consider Halloween II a Carpenter film since he co-wrote it, but Rick Rosenthal directed it. =)

      • Overton Green

        Didn’t Carpenter do the direction on all the reshoots? I am pretty sure he directed some of the film but didn’t want any credit for doing so since he didn’t believe in the film.

      • J Jett

        oops! you’re right Trace. my bad. i don’t know why i was thinking H2 was directed by Carpenter. lol.

    • gabriel

      I could never decide something like this. These films are just too orgasmic to rank.

    • Judge Satchmo

      I’m glad to see the Fog getting so much love. I realize there are plenty of better horror movies in regards to quality, but I’ll be damned if it’s not my personal favorite. Though to be clear I consider the Thing to be sci-fi, and in this mans opinion, John Carpenter’s masterpiece. When it come to perfect movies the Thing is second only to Jaws (again, in this man’s opinion)

      • J Jett

        thanx Judge! 🙂

  • Blade4693

    Yeah I have not seen the majority of his films lol but I do love Halloween, The Thing, and Big Trouble. I believe I saw Vampires as a kid once or twice but am not sure.

  • fannypack aficionado

    So glad to see The Thing top Halloween. It’s a razor-thin margin, though.

  • Flu-Like Symptoms

    Vampires is honestly the only other Carpenter film besides Halloween that I really like enough to re-watch from time to time. I guess never being a fan of From Dusk Till Dawn opened the door for me to be impressed. James Woods is awesome and Thomas Ian Griffith shines in the only other role I’ve seen him in besides Sensei Kreese’s buddy in one of the old Karate Kid sequels.

    Not surprised to see The Thing hugging that top spot on a Carpenter’s best-of list, as it’s become quite trendy to do so these days. I didn’t find The Ward to be nearly as bad as what I read prior to seeing it. Not sure what people were expecting. Honestly, if someone had never seen a Carpenter film prior to spending years on the net reading about what a revered (sometimes worshiped) legend he is, I’d imagine they’d be disappointed more often than not when they got around to checking a few of them out. I’ve been around since the 80’s and was introduced to Carpenter’s work when he was still carving that niche that would carry him well into the twilight of his career and I still find a lot of his films to be underwhelming at best. That said, I’d sit through The Ward again five times before soldiering through Village of the Damned a second time.

    I’m not afraid to say it’s Halloween all the way for me. It is the apex of everything Carpenter is known for.

    • Well I certainly didn’t put The Thing at the top to be trendy. But I rewatched both films and The Thing just barely topped Halloween. It was by a hair. Interesting input on Vampires though!

      • Flu-Like Symptoms

        Didn’t say you did. Just saying it has become a trend that people do this, meaning it is occurring more and more these days. Regarding Vampires, while watching it I’ve often said to myself “I just can’t grasp why most people don’t like this.” It’s a freakin’ hoot.

  • gary41172

    1. Halloween
    2.The Fog
    3. The Thing
    4. Christine
    5. They Live
    6. Prince Of Darkness
    7. Starman
    8. Assault on Precinct 13
    9. In The Mouth Of Madness
    10. Escape From New York
    11. Village of the Damned
    12. Escape from L.A.
    13. Village Of The Damned
    14. Pro-Life
    15. Cigarette Burns
    16. Big Trouble In Little China
    17. The Ward
    18. Vampires
    19. Hair
    20. The Gas Station
    21. Elvis
    22. Dark Star
    23. Memoirs of an Invisible Man
    24. Someone’s Watching Me

  • MacReady

    1. The Thing
    2. Halloween
    3. The Fog
    4. Escape From New York
    5. Big Trouble in Little China
    6. Prince of Darkness
    7. They Live
    8. Escape from LA
    9. In the Mouth of Madness
    10. Assault on Precinct 13
    11. The rest….

  • lonestarr357

    Memoirs of an Invisible Man lacks a memorable score…’

    And that’s where you lost me. Shirley Walker’s score is terrific. Pity we don’t have too many like it these days.

  • SVSLee

    My rankings…1 – Halloween, 2 – The Thing, 3 – Prince of Darkness, 4 – The Fog, 5 – In the Mouth of Madness, 6 – Escape From New York, 7 – Assault on Precinct 13, 8 Escape from L.A, 9 – The Ward.

    Not seen the rest. Of the ones I’ve seen, I’ve loved them all except for The Ward.

  • Graham

    I love The Fog, and am a little surprised that you call it cheesy. While it definitely doesn’t take itself too seriously, I think cheesy implies that its silly, or that it overreaches in terms of what it tries to accomplish. I’d simply say that it’s classic – it doesn’t deliver anything we haven’t seen before, but it does it so well. It’s moody, atmospheric, and just a little surreal – like a nightmare. I’d have bumped it up to at least the top 5. But thanks for this list – a nice overview of Carpenter’s work. I’ll definitely be checking some of these out!

  • gary41172

    Haha sorry, I do, don’t I. lmao Oops 🙂 let me change that!

  • Jon =Nilsen

    Thanks for the article. Always interesting to read anything on Carpenter. That said I think your list should be more like this:

    1. Halloween [by sheer fact it was genre defining]
    2. The Thing
    3. The Fog
    4. Big Trouble In Little China
    5. In The Mouth Of Madness
    6. Christine
    7. Escape From New York
    8. They Live
    9. Assault on Precinct 13
    10. Prince Of Darkness
    11. Vampires
    12. Starman
    13. Village of the Damned
    14. Cigarette Burns
    15. Escape from L.A
    16. Memoirs of an Invisible Man
    17. The Ward
    18. Someone’s Watching Me
    19. Hair
    20. The Gas Station
    21. Elvis
    22. Dark Star
    23. Ghosts of Mars
    24. Pro-Life

  • HereWeGoYo

    I agree for the most part. As someone else mentioned I’d have “The Fog” in my top 5 rather than “They Live”. Tbh all I wanted to see was “The Thing” at #1 and I’m satisfied. Then again I can’t really say I have a problem with anyone ranking “Halloween” as #1.

  • AgileBear

    One’s I have SEEN:
    1) The Thing (Folks its not even close. Thing wins by a very big margin)
    2) Big Trouble in Lil China
    3) Halloween (barely behind Big Trouble)
    4) The Fog
    5) Christine
    6) Escape from NY (barely behind Christine)
    7) They Live
    8) Starman
    9) Prince of Darkness
    10) Assault on Precinct 13
    11) Body Bags – Gas Station
    12) Escape from LA
    I’m soon gonna watch Vampires, In the Mouth of Madness and the rest of Body Bags

  • Geistwandler

    Can’t agree more with your Top 3!

  • chien_clean

    The Fog has not aged well. I watched it recently and it felt corny and not scary at all.

    • I actually liked it more watching it now than I did when I first saw it, but I definitely don’t think it’s perfect.

  • Alex Harbie

    Maybe it’s just me, but I never found The Thing fascinating, don’t get me wrong, it’s a good film, but in no way does that human dynamic in Halloween get overshadowed by a creature feature, albeit an good one.

  • Sasha Kozak

    Good post! Glad to see his masters of horror episodes get some love. I found Masters of horror to be a great show, not perfect but very enjoyable, wish it was still around!

    Hard to beat The Thing and Halloween. I also enjoyed They Live, The Fog, Body bags and the masters of horror episodes a ton to.

  • jaz h

    thanks for that! great article! a few quibbles, but that’s not germaine!

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