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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
20. The Ward (2010)
I will go on record as saying that Carpenter’s latest offering, 2011’s The Ward, is not that bad. It’s not even a bad film. It’s just a painfully generic one. Kristen (Amber Heard) is sent to a mental institution in 1967 after she burns down a farm house and is stalked by the ghost of a former patient. Carpenter’s direction is competent, if wholly unremarkable, and the cast of leading ladies (which include Danielle Panabaker, Lyndsy Fonseca and Mamie Gummer) all play their parts respectably. Unfortunately, Carpenter’s over-reliance on jump scares and a pedestrian script with a laughable twist (did screenwriters Michael and Shawn Rasmussen even see Identity before writing it?) make it a middling effort from Carpenter. It’s nice to see Carpenter make a film, especially after such a long absence from the industry (it was his first film since 2001’s Ghosts of Mars), but he was going through the motions with The Ward.
19. “The Gas Station” (Body Bags Segment) (1993)
It’s a shame that Body Bags never took off (it was meant to be Showtime’s answer to HBO’s Tales From the Crypt), because it sure is enjoyable. There’s nothing about “The Gas Station” that is terrible, it’s just rather forgettable. A college student takes a job as a gas station attendant the same night that a serial killer escapes from a mental institution and is eventually caught in a deadly game of cat-and-mouse in order to survive the night. “The Gas Station” features enjoyable cameos from Wes Craven and Sam Raimi, and shows Carpenter at his most playful, but there is nothing here that we haven’t seen before.
18. Village of the Damned (1995)
We all know the story behind Village of the Damned. Carpenter agreed to make it as a contractual obligation to Universal Studios so that he could direct the remake of Creature From the Black Lagoon. That remake never came to fruition, which makes the mediocrity of Village of the Damned even more disappointing. The first half of the film is actually pretty great, with a small town experiencing a mass blackout that leaves several women mysteriously pregnant. After all of them give birth at the same time, the children grow up to be little douchebags with psychic powers. It’s once the children grow up that the film loses its way. You almost wish that the film was about 20 minutes longer so as to give you more time with the little brats, but the last act of the film is rushed. Village of the Damned boasts a fantastic score from Carpenter and several disturbing set pieces (Kirstie Alley’s self-dissection remains a highlight, even if it is far too tame), but you can’t help but feel like Carpenter just wasn’t interested in this one since he was trying to get it out of the way in order to move on to his passion project.
17. Elvis (1979)
You wouldn’t have expected the Master of Horror to direct a three-hour TV movie about Elvis Presley, but he did. In his first partnership with Kurt Russell, Carpenter delves into the life of Presley from childhood up until the years before his death. You wouldn’t know it was a Carpenter film just from watching it, as many of his trademark filming techniques are not present in it, but Russell’s performance elevates Elvis above its television limitations. Presley fans will probably enjoy this one more than I did though, as I found the three-hour runtime to be a bit excessive.
16. “Hair” (Body Bags Segment) (1993)
It is said that Carpenter and Body Bags co-director Tobe Hooper fought over which one got to direct “Hair”, and it’s not hard to see why. Arguably the best segment in Body Bags, “Hair” follows Richard Coberts, a balding man (Stacy Keach) as he seeks out an experimental treatment to help him grow his hair back. That treatment does give him hair, but the “hair” turns out to be little alien snakes that feast on his brain. The segment is played almost entirely for camp, and embraces the ridiculousness of its premise (Richard’s wife’s sexual reaction to his new head of hair is appropriately over-the-top). For being a television movie, the effects are impressive. Keach also delivers a wonderfully committed performance as a vain man desperate to look beautiful.
15. In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
This seems to be one of Carpenter’s more polarizing films. There is a lot to like about Carpenter’s love letter to H.P. Lovecraft, but it’s also incoherently plotted to the point where not even the actors knew what was happening in the film. In the Mouth of Madness tells the tale of insurance investigator John Trent (Sam Neill) as he tries to locate renowned horror novelist (who supposedly outsells Stephen King) Sutter Cane, who has recently disappeared after finishing his new book In the Mouth of Madness. Trent’s investigation leads him to the fictional town of Hobb’s End, which is where many of Cane’s books are set. The film has plenty of sufficiently creepy moments, as well as some spectacular creature design for a film with such a low budget for a studio film ($8 million). Michael De Luca’s script is the weak link in the film. The idea of a writer’s fictional work changing reality is an inspired one, but the script really only works on a surface level, failing to delve deeply enough into the mythology it introduces.
14. Someone’s Watching Me! (TV Movie) (1978)
Right before he made Halloween, Carpenter made a TV movie (it aired on NBC) that is way better than it has any right to be. With plenty of homages to Hitchcock’s Rear Window, Carpenter crafts a taut, suspenseful thriller with a superb leading lady (Lauren Hutton). After Leigh Michaels (Hutton) moves to Los Angeles to start a career directing live television, she beings receiving disturbing phone calls and packages from a non-existent company called Excursions Unlimited. She eventually learns that a man in the building across the street from her has been keeping a close eye on her, with the sole purpose of killing her. Performances are strong across the board and Carpenter employs several camera tricks (especially during the climax) that put his creativity on full display. And while it’s not really relevant to the quality of the film, it is refreshing to see such a positive representation of a lesbian character in Adrienne Barbeau’s Sophie. To think this aired on network television in 1978 is quite surprising.
13. Prince of Darkness (1987)
A critical flop upon its initial release, Prince of Darkness has become one of Carpenter’s most loved films among his fans. The plot, about the impending arrival of Satan via a cylinder of green goo, is incredibly dumb. There is a romance shoehorned into the film between Jameson Parker’s and Lisa Blount’s characters which would hold more weight if the two actors had any chemistry, but they don’t. I may sound like I’m bashing the film, but there really is a lot to like about Prince of Darkness. Carpenter takes everything a bit too seriously but he fills the film with plenty of surrealist imagery (hope you like ants) and tons of wonderful makeup effects (especially on Susan Blanchard’s Kelly) that make the film worth watching. Donald Pleasance and Victor Wong ham it up, but they just add to the film’s appeal. Prince of Darkness may not be a masterpiece, but it’s certainly one of Carpenter’s more interesting experiments.
12. “Cigarette Burns” (Masters of Horror Segment) (2005)
“Cigarette Burns” works as a spiritual sequel to In the Mouth of Madness. In the episode, a man (The Walking Dead‘s Norman Reedus) searches for the last surviving print of a rare film that supposedly drives anyone who sees it insane. It’s a slow burn film with plenty of haunting imagery (that wingless angel is quite affecting), but it has a tendency to get bogged down in protracted dialogue in which characters go on about how dangerous the film is. That being said, the finale is a breathtaking gorefest that works as the perfect capper to the mounting dread has been building for the past hour.
11. Escape From New York (1981)
Here’s my one really controversial ranking. A few months ago I chastised a commenter on Bloody-Disgusting for not loving Halloween because they has seen many films do the same thing but better. This is of course because that commenter had just seen Halloween after seeing so many of its imitators over the years. It’s a lamentable situation, but after watching Escape From New York for the first time, I now understand how that person feels, so my foot has been firmly planted in my mouth. There have been countless films that ripped off Escape From New York, and I saw many of them before I actually saw Escape From New York. Suffice it to say I was not entirely blown away by it. The premise sees the Manhattan turned into a maximum-security prison surrounded by 50-foot containment walls. When Air Force One crashes onto the island, the government sends criminal Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell, having a ball here) into the prison in order to retrieve the President. The only catch is that he is injected with explosives that will destroy his carotid arteries within 22 hours, so he’s in a bit of a time crunch. This has all the makings of an exciting, suspenseful film. Carpenter’s score is fantastic and the performances (specifically from Russell and Ernest Borgnine as Cabbie) are charismatic, but there was an energy lacking here that is palpable in some of Carpenter’s other films.
10. Vampires (1998)
Vampires is a movie that would have had a better reception had it come out before From Dusk Till Dawn as opposed to two years after it. After all, once you’ve seen one vampire Western you’ve seen them all, right? I jest, because Vampires is one of Carpenter’s best films. Once again, he seems to be fully invested in the film, despite it being a major studio release (his next effort would be Ghosts of Mars, which would turn him off of directing for another nine years). It is an action packed, incredibly gory romp with its tongue planted firmly in cheek. As with Prince of Darkness, there is a budding romance (this time between Daniel Baldwin and Sheryl Lee) that feels shoehorned into the plot and doesn’t work at all, but every time James Woods is on screen Vampires just works. His charisma livens up the film in its few dead spots.
9. “Pro-Life” (Masters of Horror Segment) (2007)
Ranking Carpenter’s second Masters of Horror entry above the first may inspire riots in the comments, but “Pro-Life” is a fun, ooey-gooey body horror film that features a badass Ron Perlman shooting up a hospital in an attempt to prevent his daughter’s abortion. What’s not to love? Those expecting a comprehensive study of the morality of abortion will no doubt be disappointed with “Pro-Life”, as it deals with the issue on a surface level only. It is a straightforward film without the depth of “Cigarette Burns” but it works as a schlocky B-movie. Carpenter even homages his own work (The Thing) in the climax of the film, which is so bonkers that it has to be seen to be believed.
8. Christine (1983)
Stephen King adaptations were all the rage in the 80s, and it was up to Carpenter to turn an admittedly silly tale about a murderous 1958 Plymouth Fury into an actually scary movie. The film sacrifices Christine’s backstory from the novel (in the novel she is possessed by her previous owner; in the film she is simply evil from the get-go) in order to focus more on Keith Gordon’s character. Your liking of Christine will ultimately hinge on whether or not you find the idea of a killer car scary or not. Christine is not exactly terrifying, but Carpenter does manage to eke out a few suspenseful set pieces with the titular car (the climactic battle in the garage being one of them). His direction is solid, as are the performances. It may not fully overcome it’s ridiculous premise but Carpenter manages to use the theme of teenage angst to the film’s benefit, making for a not-very-scary but still compelling film.
7. The Fog (1980)
Carpenter’s second collaboration with Jamie Lee Curtis and his then-wife Adrienne Barbeau (in her feature film debut) received a lukewarm reception upon its initial release but has since been reappraised as one of his best works. Notable for the extensive amount of re-shoots it had to endure before its release, The Fog works surprisingly well for being a cheesy a ghost story. It is light on gore but features quite a few effective scares and a strong performance from Barbeau. The other characters don’t make much of an impression (Curtis barely registers), but The Fog is at its heart a movie about a mother trying to save her son. This gives the film emotional heft not seen in many horror films at the time. The Fog is really a showcase for Carpenter though, who gives the film one of his best scores and a chilling atmosphere.
6. Starman (1984)
Like Elvis, Starman isn’t a movie you would expect to be directed by horror master John Carpenter, but his touch is all over the thing. Essentially a road trip romance, Starman boasts layered performances from Karen Allen and Jeff Bridges (in an Oscar-nominated role) that elevate its sometime goofy script. It is a sweet film that never feels pretentious, completely sucking you into the unlikely romance that unfolds on screen. It’s one of those movies that you just sort of want to hug. Starman is a rare case in which Carpenter did not handle the music, but don’t let that cloud your judgment. Jack Nitzsche’s score is instantly recognizable and adds necessary emotional depth to the proceedings.
5. Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
A taut, exciting thriller, Assault on Precinct 13 is an early entry in Carpenter’s filmography that showed the world how wonderful he as at building suspense. While I unfortunately saw the remake first, the original makes me appreciate it in a whole new way (I’m a huge fan of the remake). Carpenter’s synth score is great and his set pieces are wonderful. Austin Stoker makes for a compelling protagonist but the totally badass Laurie Zimmer is the real star of the show here. The first half of the film is a slow buildup filled with character development that leads into the frenetic violence of the second half. Assault on Precinct 13 ranks as one of Carpenter’s best films. It’s riveting stuff.
4. They Live (1988)
I always avoided watching They Live because I had just assumed it was just a standard “guy’s guy movie.” How naive was I? They Live is a glorious science fiction horror film that works both as a political satire and as pure 1950s-style entertainment. In the film, a drifter (Roddy Piper) finds magic sunglasses that reveal to him that the elite class is actually a bunch of aliens using subliminal messaging in the media to manipulate humans into obeying the status quo and reproducing. Piper’s limited acting range only makes him more endearing and Keith David (reuniting with Carpenter for the first time since The Thing six years prior) is an excellent foil for him. Meg Foster makes the most of her handful of scenes as well. The social commentary littered throughout the film is more relevant today than it probably was in 1988. Really though, They Live is just a ton of fun. It’s got one of the best fight scenes ever put on film, a witty sense of humor and a taut 94-minute runtime. You can’t go wrong with They Live.
3. Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
Big Trouble in Little China is John Carpenter’s most entertaining film. The special effects extravaganza reunites Carpenter with Kurt Russel once again in a plot that surrounds an evil Chinese emperor (James Hong) kidnap and attempt to sacrifice a green-eyed beauty (Suzee Pai) in order to break a centuries-old curse put on him. It’s a witty and hilarious film that homages and subverts the kung-fu B-movies and classic Westerns that inspired it. Filled with memorable characters (Russell’s Jack Burton and Kim Cattrall’s Gracie Law being the highlights) and an overall sense of fun, Big Trouble in Little China is Carpenter at his best. Shockingly, the film was a flop upon its original release and didn’t find a sizable cult following until it was released on video. The failure of the film caused Carpenter to return to indie-filmmaking, as its reception disillusioned him with Hollywood. It’s a good thing it has been reappraised though, as it’s a film you could watch over and over and never get bored with. There is so much joy in the film that it’s hard to resist. Everyone should watch this movie at least once in their life. Also, I think I’m going to start entering rooms like Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall) from now on.
2. Halloween (1978)
Is there a slasher film better than Halloween? The answer is no. While it wasn’t the first slasher to exist (Black Christmas did many of the same things just as well as Halloween, but it didn’t have the same commercial reach), Halloween is a masterpiece. It set the standard for all slasher films that came after it. Dozens of films would go on to imitate it (looking at you, Friday the 13th). There are still films that try to replicate Halloween‘s success today. The beauty of the film lies in its simplicity. This is a story about an escaped mental patient that stalks babysitters. Nothing more, nothing less. It’s a masterclass in suspense that sees Carpenter at the top of his game. It could be argued that he would never make a horror film as terrifying as Halloween ever again (more on that in a bit). From the shots of Michael Myers standing in the background to his gradual appearance behind Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), Halloween is filled with clever tricks that enhance the sheer terror it creates. One can’t mention Halloween without discussing Carpenter’s score. A few straightforward piano keys and an iconic and terrifying theme was born. Halloween is one of the greatest films ever made, horror or otherwise.
1. The Thing (1982)
This one was a tough call to make. The slasher sub-genre is my personal favorite, and Halloween is a masterpiece, but The Thing is simply perfect. Like so many films in Carpenter’s oeuvre, it received a chilly reception upon its initial release but has since been reappraised as one of the greatest sci-fi films of all time. The whole film is an exercise in mounting dread, and Carpenter pulls it off with aplomb (the blood test scene is discussed frequently, and for good reason). All of the pieces of the film come together seamlessly. The Thing has it all: Ennio Morricone’s haunting score, Dean Cundey’s gorgeous cinematography, Rob Bottin’s outstanding creature effects (the aforementioned blood test scene, the defibrillator scene, the dog scene, and so much more), and committed performances from every actor. Carpenter has never been better than he was here. The Thing rightfully earns its place at the top of this list.
How would you rank all of John Carpenter’s films (if you’ve seen them all)? Do you hate my placement of Escape From New York? Is Vampires ranked too high? Should Halloween and The Thing be switched? Let me know in the comments below or shoot me a Tweet!