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.
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