The 5 Best (And 1 Worst) Films Of John Carpenter!!!

John_Carpenter_Banner_11_25_12

I’m a writer/director guy. Meaning, moreso than who starred in any given film, I plan my trip to the theater based on who wrote and/or directed it. When I become invested in someone’s creative output, I’ll often follow their “voice” through all kinds of highs and lows, which means finding things to love in their lesser projects. I understand why the public at large doesn’t have the time or inclination to subscribe to this practice (though many more people seem capable of forging this kind of unbreakable alliance with sports teams), but I honestly think it’s an interesting – and compassionate – way to watch films (or listen to music).

Every career has peaks and valleys. In some careers the valleys are more severe and in others the peaks are more triumphant, but they exist. They’re unavoidable from both creative and commercial standpoints. I think it would be fun to examine this from time to time on BD (even though some of the most exciting voices in horror need another film or two under their belt to qualify), with the amount of “Bests” and “Worsts” varying each time.

First up? John Carpenter. I feel like he’s the perfect starting point. Not only does he have a large output, but he’s had one of the more interesting careers in horror, full of ups and downs (and the occasional creative triumph that he was punished for professionally).

Head inside for the 5 Best (And 1 Worst) Films Of John Carpenter.

1: THE THING

No surprise here, most Carpenter fans I talk to have either this or Halloween at the top of their list. For me, The Thing just has a better replay value. It’s an incredibly assured film, expertly paced with a perfectly dour tonal pitch. Carpenter has made several classics, but none quite as perfectly balanced. It was also his first foray into big-budget (at the time $10M was a lot for a horror film) studio filmmaking. Famously, The Thing tanked at the box office. In an alternate universe where this film was a hit, Carpenter’s post 1982 career-trajectory looks quite a bit different.

2: HALLOWEEN

Halloween has had the biggest cultural impact out of any film in Carpenter’s filmography. Without it, the slasher genre as we know and love it today wouldn’t exist (and if it did, it wouldn’t be the same – there certainly wouldn’t be a Friday The 13th). Aside from its massive popularity, Halloween is another near-perfect film. On only his third feature (after Dark Star and Assault On Precinct 13), Carpenter had mastered a sense of restraint that eludes most horror filmmakers to this day. I’m not just talking about the largely bloodless nature of the film – the decision to simply not explain how or why Michael Myers became evil incarnate is a master stroke. He just is, which is scarier than any cause and effect scenario.

3: BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA

Initially I put Big Trouble In Little China at number four, just under Escape From New York. But, as good as Escape is, I simply don’t reach for my copy of it nearly as much as I reach for this one. China is just too much fun. It feels huge, has a great villain in Lo Pan and is more fun than the last two Indiana Jones films combined. It also plays out a neat reversal on the hero/sidekick dynamic, with Kurt Russell’s Jack Burton being way more ineffectual than Dennis Dun’s Wang Chi despite his leading man status and placement. You can really feel Carpenter spreading his wings here but, much like The Thing, his ambition went unrewarded financially.

4: ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK

Escape From New York gave birth to Carpenter’s most iconic anti-hero in Kurt Russell’s Snake Plissken in addition to an entertainingly menacing and apocalyptic vision of New York City. This film, along with They Live, really hammers home Carpenter’s mistrust of authority and actually feels a bit dangerous at times. It certainly doesn’t play it safe when it comes to its characters.

5: IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS

I know a lot of people would put They Live in this spot but, truth be told, that film only works for me in fits and starts (not that it doesn’t have some brilliant moments). Dark Star and Assault On Precinct 13 might be “cooler” contenders as well, but there’s something relentlessly entertaining about In The Mouth Of Madness. It has a great madcap energy, some genuinely freaky images, a great villain in Jurgen Prochnow’s Sutter Cane and a deliciously unhinged performance by Sam Neill at its center. From opening to closing credits, it’s every bit as alive as some of Carpenter’s more traditionally well regarded works.

The Worst

GHOSTS OF MARS

It’s not like the five movies above are the only great Carpenter films. The tender Starman is surprisingly great and They Live works as an entertaining political statement while The Fog, Christine and Prince Of Darkness are all rock solid horror films.

While Vampires and Escape From L.A. were fairly flawed, they actually have their moments. But I can’t really say the same for Ghosts Of Mars. The red planet might be our closest neighbor, but you’d have to travel light years beyond it to find a universe in which this film actually works.

The Ward is something of an improvement, but I can’t help but agree with the general consensus that Carpenter probably feels discouraged with the film business (and with making movies in general). I can’t say I blame him, he’s made more great films than most “name” directors but has rarely attained anything resembling their commercial success. Here’s hoping he gets back in the saddle and, afforded the opportunity, makes another great film. I know he’s got at least one left in him.

What are your favorite (and least favorite) John Carpenter films?

 
  • divisionbell

    Man I absolutely agree with this list. Thanks for calling out the wonderful Big Trouble in Little China. It’s too bad he just doesn’t seem to knock them out of the park like he used to. The Fog is still one of the most enjoying campfire/ghost tales I’ve seen on film. Prince of Darkness also deserves some love for just being outt here and it’s wonderful atmostphere and tone (plus a perfect soundtrack).

    • Slampig

      I agree with this list pretty much. I actually really enjoy Ghosts, even if it is a remake of Assault on Precinct 13, which is also pretty darn good. I think my least favorite would be Starman, just not really into it all that much. Also on my least favorites I would have to put in the invisible man film with Chevy Chase, only thing I remember about that is Chevy Chase and that clown hasn’t been funny since Caddyshack…

    • lordrib

      I love this list.

      As soon as I read the title I thought to myself: GHOSTS OF MARS better be the “WORST”, and it was! So smiles all around! This gives me more ammunition to use against my friend ‘K’ who still holds onto his original statement from 2001, which was “Ghosts of Mars was good.” And after 11 years I think we can all agree it was never …”good”… Never GOOD K!

      Also I loved Mouth of Madness. For some reason Sam Neill and horror has always worked for me. He should do more.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000031803851 Gavin Dobbs

    Do you read Sutter Cane?

    • Darkness69

      He sees you. HE SEES YOU.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000031803851 Gavin Dobbs

        You want some too buddy!?

  • The-Hitchhiking-Ghost

    I would replace In The Mouth of Madness with just about any of the other classics you mentioned. Any true Carpenter fan would say this list is pretty much spot-on.

  • Evil_Flip

    Personally I think Prince of darkness is my favorite as it’s very simple and yet very effective (also when I was a kid I had the same dream).
    I got Ghosts of mars a few years back because it was the only Carpenter I didn’t have. But when I saw it I thought it stunk so much I brought it back to the shop to exchange it for something else. Later on, I felt that I (as a carpenter fan) should still own it (even if it were only to support JC), so I re-bought it. and now, for some reason, I love the movie. Sure IceCube sucks, but it’s just cheesy fun. And having Pam Grier and Jason Statum in one movie just blows out the badassmeter (not forgetting Peter Jason, Joanna Cassidy, Natasha Henstridge and Robert Carradine). So sure it’s JC’s worst, but it’s still pretty great. and it’s the closest to Escape from part 3 we’ll ever get (Escape from Mars?!). Not to mention that (next to Tron 2) this has the coolest soundtrack ever.

  • undertaker78

    My list would be:
    1) The Thing
    2) Halloween
    3) The Fog
    4) They Live
    5) Prince of Darkness

  • Grime

    The Fog should replace Escape from NY on this list. Not that it deserves to be on this list or anything, but I’m surprised JC’s Vampires doesn’t get more love. It’s great when they pull vampires out of the houses with the truck.

  • The Wolfman

    John Carpenter is one of the few directors where it’s shorter to name his sub-par movies than to highlight his best. I commend your choices and your spirits, but do also love They Live and Prince of Darkness.

  • doomas10

    JC is one of my top three directors. I grew up with his films and he is the only who has scared me most with his work. When I saw the fog I was terrified (simply because I live in a small sea town with a lighthouse) and Halloween and The thing were just experiences out of this world. For me, every single movie of carpenter is above average with the exception of Children of the damned and Ghosts of Mars (although the latter has a killer soundtrack!? and works awesome as a comedy!) . JC rules. Would love to sit down and have a chat with him.

  • horror_geek1331

    1)Halloween
    2)The Fog
    3)The Thing
    4)They Live
    5)Prince of Darkness

    Worst goes to Vampires with Village of the Damned on its heels. I love JC but I have a hard time watching either of those.

  • but-sir-the-piranha

    Sorry They Live HAS to be on this list, in my opinion. I would replace Ghosts Of Mars with Assault On Precinct 13 with the worst. I actually thought the remake of Assault… was better then the original. I think if Ghosts Of Mars had a better budget you would’ve had a film you could take more seriously. The concept is awesome in my opinion. The gore factor I thought was WAY cool too. Lastly as doomas10 stated, great soundtrack/score, ANTHRAX!!!

  • Bleak

    Ummm… worst Carpenter has got to be the remake of VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED, folks. How can it not be? I mean, most people completely forget about it because it is so bad.

    • evenscarier

      That, or the Ward.

  • Aaron Emery

    I have to (shamefully) admit to liking Ghosts of Mars. While its by no means a good film and doesn’t reach Carpenter’s standards in the least, I still find it to be a fun movie. The worst for me would be a tie between The Ward and Village of the Damned.

  • manorbeast

    Even though it’s not a feature film, I thought Carpenter’s “Cigarette Burns” from the first season of Masters of Horror was the best work he’d done in years.

    • Aaron Emery

      Yes! Cigarette Burns was my favorite MOH episode!

    • DisturbedPixie

      It’s one of the better ones at least ( I loved Deer Woman, Jenifer, and Incident on and Off,) but Pro-life is one of the worst Master of Horror episodes. I just stopped caring about him after that one. I don’t know if he tried to make it so cheezy and ridiculous that it was funny at times, but it was. The characters made such unbelievable choices and the demon was such a pansy. Then I look at The Ward poster on netflix everyday, and I just can’t accept him as one of the best. Of course The Thing is an absolute classic, and Halloween is iconic, but the rest to me is a whole lot of blah, and many of them aren’t even horror films. I personally look forward more to the next James Wan film more.

  • djblack1313

    THE FOG is my all time favorite Carpenter film. no question about it. HALLOWEEN & THE THING tied for 2nd place. i actually found GHOSTS OF MARS kinda enjoyable. i think ESCAPE FROM L.A. was pretty bad.

  • djblack1313

    oh, Carpenter & Aja are my favorite directors! :)

  • late2myownFUNeral

    There should be a special mention for “Cigarette Burns”

  • Beanis

    Thank you for not forgetting In the Mouth of Madness. Although not at the top of my list (that’s Halloween and The Thing fighting for number 1), it is his last great film. Also, Christine is in the top 5 for me.

  • Norberto-Aguiar

    In my opinion the list of his best…(in specific order)
    1.Halloween
    2.The Thing
    3.In The Mouth Of Madness
    4.They Live
    5.The Fog
    6.Christine
    7.Big Trouble In Little China
    8.Prince Of Darkness
    9.Cigarette Burns
    10.Escape From New York

    Carpenters worst
    1.Ghosts Of Mars
    2.Escape From LA
    3.Memoirs Of An Invisible Man
    3.The Ward

    All his other films kind of float right in the middle, there are qualities I really love about them and certian aspects I really dislike about them.

  • AfterTheAsylum

    1) In The Mouth Of Madness
    2) The Thing
    3) They Live

    The rest of his films I can take or leave, but no Halloween for me; it just thoroughly bores me. I do respect its place in the genre and how influential it was, though.

  • LazyZombie

    Best:

    1. Halloween and The Thing (Tied)
    2. Starman
    3. The Fog
    4. Big Trouble In Little China
    5. Escape From New York

    Worst:

    1. Village of the Damned
    2. Ghost of Mars – It’s bad, but I’ll still watch it.

    I know I’m probably in the minority, but I liked The Ward. I don’t see why people hated it so much.

  • Zombie-Killa

    I actually loved Escape From L.A (yes, I’m going to be that guy). It’s trash, but it’s enjoyable trash. I also didn’t hate The Ward that much, but the final twist was fucking awful.

    Good list, but I would still put Halloween at #1. It’s a timeless classic, but The Thing strays too far into cult favorite territory for my taste.

    And The Fog is one of my favorites, but for some strange reason, I always think about the remake, when I remember The Fog. Man, what a shit film.

  • mattster

    I haven’t seen all of his movies so I can’t say anything about the list of best, but I never disliked Ghosts of Mars nor understood all the hate. I remember hating Vampires though and would drop that as my least favorite of what I’ve seen.

  • BenTramer

    Best:

    1. The Thing
    2. Halloween
    3. EFNY
    4. Assault On Precinct 13
    5. The Fog

    Honorable mentions: They Live, Big Trouble

    Worst: Anything from Village of the Damned through the Ward. He’s been on a losing streak for years :-(.

  • VictorCrowley

    I guess I’m the oddball. I’d go with:

    Halloween
    Vampires (c’mon, James Woods is the SHIT)
    Christine
    The Ward (yep, I said it)

    Least would be what I’ve seen from Escape From LA. Kurt Russel makes my stomach turn enough as it is, and the shallow script for the film was just blah.

  • http://www.facebook.com/wagnerfilm Martin Wagner

    I would actually put Village of the Damned as his worst. Cheesy as it is, Ghosts of Mars does have its mindless entertainment value.

  • TRS66

    I’m the same when I go to see a movie I see it for the writer and/or director however John Carpenter is one of my least favourite horror directors. The reason being is that all his film trail on about nothing for too long. I like The Thing and They Live was good but I really don’t understand why his films are ment to be classics Halloween was a good film but has anyone noticed how much of it is pointless? Most of the movie is just Jamie Lee Curtis and her friends making there way round town for an hour before they start to get killed off, anyone feel the same?

  • Darkness69

    I’d put In The Mouth Of Madness on the top spot, simply because it’s just so goddamn brilliant! When I saw the intro for the news, I even thought you put it like that too, Evan! Alas… Also, They Live deserves a place on this list. Kudos for writing!

  • Mr.Mirage

    In The Mouth Of Madness bears something in common with another film, The Lawnmower Man. Other than the title of the second film, neither was written by Stephen King, and yet both are more true to his writing style than, well, anything with the tagline “based on a… (fill in the blank) by Stephen King.” It captures that strange, surreal feeling in a King novel that suggests this kind of evil exists, and is just sitting there in the dark waiting for you to fall asleep. (Lawnmower reads like his paranoid fantasies about The Shop… and did it as well as he did in Firestarter.)

    Both Escape films have Kurt Russell in them, and while I too look to the writer/director, seeing certain names working with the director more than once is always telling. (Johnny Depp and… see? Although those two need a break from each other, IMHO never again would be fine.) As I tend to see some series/sequels as part of a story arc, then seeing Snake Plissken running amok regardless of the focus will always catch my attention, unless ….

    It is Jack Burton. Possibly the single greatest team up of writer/director and talent in Carpenter’s career, Big Trouble In Little China is a great comic book movie before they started making comic book movies, and I wish Mark Millar would pick it up and start a decent series around it.

    The Thing. Saw it at the theater, loved it, still do.

    Cigarette Burns was a slap in the face. Remember that Carpenter guy? Remember how good he used to be? Whatever happened to him? Spot check other directors in the genre and see how many have fallen so far. Sadly, though, I do not blame Carpenter but his fans. Look at the list of classics and see how many bombed.

  • shane13

    It’s a good list. I would juggle Halloween and The Thing back and forth depending on my mood. I’d kick Escape From New York and In The Mouth Of Madness off the list though and replace them with Prince Of Darkness and Christine. I’ll keep the others in my John Carpenter library because even my least favorite is still pretty cool, but I remember walking out of theaters after mouth of madness wondering “what the hell is that?” I’ve since seen it many times and have a much higher appreciation of the film. To this day I still quote lines from Christine and I haven’t seen it since I was a teenager. That movie impacted me. Prince of Darkness I can repeatedly over and over again all day long, and I have. I’m with the article and really want Mr. Carpenter to make another film. He’s a film maker that I always want to see more from. I wish he’d just make movies all the time!

  • John Marrone

    ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13

  • Skullbone

    Well my favorite of his flicks is most certainly The Thing..such a cool cool movie. In the Mouth of Madness is criminally under appreciated. As for his worse? I never saw Ghost of Mars so can’t comment, but I think Escape from LA was pretty bad.

  • VictorCrowley

    @TRS66

    I think Halloween is revered more for the effect it had on audiences of that particular time. I see your point about the script, but back then, people were too busy captivated by all the creepiness and suspense. Good story with a tense build up, then horrific climax with an ending no one saw coming in that day and age.

    The movie hasn’t aged well and comes off extremely dated now days. With audiences being much more desensitized by all the over the top gore and ‘one final scares’ we’ve seen for 20+ years, it’s much easier to sit back and point out all it’s flaws.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ryan.henry.543 Ryan Henry

    I dig all his movies!!!!

  • TrackRecord162

    Although not horror, Starman is a really good film and deserves to be in the top 5 at least.

  • cid

    ‘Ghosts of Mars’ is far superior to ‘The Ward’. It’s a fantastic genre blending experience that I wouldn’t hesitate to include in a top 10.

  • Chris Crum

    I really don’t think Ghosts of Mars is the absolute piece of shit everyone makes it out to be. Not among his best by any means, but better than Village of the Damned or The Ward. Hell, I think I might actually like it better than Vampires at this point.