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A Definitive Ranking of John Carpenter’s Films!

John Carpenter's 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.

Grade: B

john carpenter films

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.

Grade: B

john carpenter films

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.

Grade: B

john carpenter films

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.

Grade: B

john carpenter films

6. Starman (1984)

Like ElvisStarman 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.

Grade: B+

john carpenter films

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  • 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


  • 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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