The Top Ten John Carpenter Movies (So Far)

John Carpenter is considered by many to be a “Master of Horror,” but that’s not really fair. He is a master of horror, but he’s a master of action, comedy and sci-fi too. And drama. And westerns, although he’s never technically made one. The fact remains that although John Carpenter doesn’t get much respect from the Academy Awards (not after his Oscar-winning short The Resurrection of Bronco Billy, anyway), he’s crafted more classic films than most “great” directors ever muster. In fact, he’s even made enough of them to fill a whole top ten list, and then some. Here, then, is that list: The Top Ten John Carpenter Movies (So Far). And don't forget to check out The Ward, out today!


 

10. IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS (1994)

 

Arguably John Carpenter’s last great film – although The Ward comes pretty close – this H.P. Lovecraft-inspired journey into insanity boasts some of Carpenter’s best scares, including a shockingly suspenseful attack by an axe-wielding maniac and a disturbing look at a town gone truly mad. Carpenter’s Memoirs of an Invisible Man co-star Sam Neill stars as an insurance investigator hired to locate the world’s best-selling horror novelist, Sutter Cane, who has disappeared just prior to the release of his eagerly awaited new book. Neill tracks Cane down to the supposedly fictional community of Hobb’s End, where Cane’s writing has begun to warp reality itself into his own version of hell. Not Carpenter’s best work – the pacing drags at times, and not all of the cast brings their “A” game – but the horror master has some exciting things to say about the power of horror as a genre, and the power of fiction to distort what we call “the real world.” Oh, and look for a young Hayden Christensen in his first film role…


9. CHRISTINE (1983)

 

As far as early Stephen King adaptations go, Carrie and The Shining get most of the credit but John Carpenter’s adaptation of Christine is a pitch-perfect film in its own right. Lots of people have a love affair with their first car, but future film and television director Keith Gordon takes it a little too far when he buys a beat up 1958 Plymouth Fury and becomes obsessed with it. The catch is that the car becomes obsessed with him too, and lashes out in a jealous rage against his girlfriend and a group of bullies who foolishly vandalize the haunted automobile. The special effects are still mind-blowing to this day – the scene in which Christine repairs itself looks better than ever – but the heart of the story, about a teenager who goes bad when he falls in love with the wrong girl (who just happens to be a car), is so universal that, unlike Carrie, the movie has hasn’t aged at all either. Classic car… Classic film.


8. ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (1976)

 

John Carpenter’s first big feature film was this western-influenced siege picture about a run-down police precinct that is “assaulted,” if you will, on the last night before it closes. Armed with only a few guns and a skeleton crew of mostly secretarial staff, they find themselves on the bad side of a gang of heavily armed hooligans seeking revenge. Carpenter’s uncluttered visual style gives Assault on Precinct 13 an old-fashioned cinematic feel and keeps the potentially chaotic action clear in every single shot, but it’s his dramatic choices that make the film so memorable, like the mass murderer who teams up with the noble sheriff to save the day, or the still unbelievable murder of a small child which sets the whole story in motion. John Carpenter still hasn’t made that western he always wanted to, but with Assault on Precinct 13 he came damned close.


7. DARK STAR (1974)

 

Originally a student film that Carpenter expanded to feature length, Dark Star is the low-low-budget science fiction classic that depicts space travel as a grueling road trip with a passive-aggressive crew of jerks. The men of the Dark Star are all emotionally drained bastards who have come to hate their solitary existence (a freak accident which destroyed the ship’s entire supply of toilet paper doesn’t help), which consists of finding unstable planets and blowing them up for some reason. The sequence Carpenter added for theaters depicts one of the crew members facing off against a mean-spirited alien creature – who looks like a red beach ball with feet – which would later be co-writer Dan O’Bannon’s inspiration for Ridley Scott’s Alien. The ending, in which one of the artificially intelligent bombs has to take a crash course in philosophy so it won’t blow up the ship, is one of Carpenter’s cleverest, even Monty Python-esque scenes. Despite the budgetary constraints, Dark Star remains one of the smartest sci-fi comedies ever produced.


6. PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1987)

 

What if evil itself took physical form? What if religion and science were one and the same? What if Alice Cooper impaled a guy on a bicycle? These questions are all answered in John Carpenter’s classic spook story Prince of Darkness, a smart and genuinely terrifying take on the classic old genre cliché of scientists called in to investigate a haunted house. In the basement of a dilapidated church, a priest played by Donald Pleasance finds the devil himself confined in a jar, but when the experts arrive to examine the phenomenon Hell itself is unleashed upon the Earth. Innovative suspense sequences and an ending that raises more questions than it answers create the perfectly terrifying impression that the universe makes perfect sense, but that we’ll still never be able to understand it. That’s one scary thought, right there. Scary movie, too. Prince of Darkness is considered by some to be a “bad” John Carpenter movie. We felt the same way until we watched it again recently, but we couldn’t have been more wrong. Prince of Darkness gets better with age.


5. ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981)

 

John Carpenter re-invented the anti-hero with the iconic Snake Plissken, played (as most of Carpenter’s best protagonists are) by Kurt Russell. The star was still trying to shake his old goodie-goodie Disney image when Carpenter cast him in Escape from New York, and it’s one of the most successful career transitions in the history of film. Russell plays war hero-turned-wanted criminal Plissken, a raspy voiced, one-eyed meanie who’s shanghaied into saving the president of the United States (Donald Pleasance again) when Air Force One crash lands into New York City, which in the far-flung future of 1997 has been converted into a self-contained prison where the inmates run wild, undeterred by guards unless they try to escape. Unlike most anti-heroes, who are at worst tortured souls with an open mind about murder, Snake Plissken is so self-absorbed that he won’t even lift a finger to stop a violent rape, and somehow we love him for it. He’s a dick but he’s unflinchingly committed to his cause: himself. Great action sequences, the wonderful Isaac Hayes as the Duke of New York (“A-Number One!”) and a groundbreaking electronic score make Escape from New York a sci-fi classic. The jokey but underrated sequel Escape from L.A. was released in 1996, and has apparently yet to find its audience.


4. THE THING (1982)

 

There’s a filmmaking axiom that says, “Show, Don’t Tell.” But that flies right in the face of the standard horror rule of thumb that says that everything’s scarier when left off-screen. John Carpenter gave that second rule the middle finger with The Thing, his exceptional remake of the Howard Hawks/Christian Nyby sci-fi cassic The Thing from Another World. A group of men at an Antarctic outpost are besieged by an alien presence that can take the form of anyone it kills, and for that matter any other organism it’s run into on its intergalactic travels. Kurt Russell again headlines a stellar cast including Keith David and Wilford Brimley, who all swiftly buckle under the paranoid strain of their unbelievable circumstances. But it’s Rob Bottin’s spectacular practical effects that steal the movie, showing – not telling – some of the most terrifying monsters ever created for the screen. If you’ve seen it, you know all about the rib cage. If you don’t, you’re in for one scary treat. Lambasted upon its original release (it also opened against E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial and Blade Runner, limiting its audience), it has since been acknowledged as one of the best horror movies ever made.


3. BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986)

 

Carpenter’s funniest movie also happens to be his best action film, and his most creative original work to date. Kurt Russell stars as a stereotypical 1980s action hero – muscle-bound bravado, one-liners and all – who winds up completely out of his element when an ancient undead Chinese sorcerer kidnaps his best friend’s girlfriend. Russell and company, including the Dennis Dunn and Victor Wong (both never better), wage battle against an army of kung fu masters, otherworldly monsters and the human personifications of rain, thunder and lightning (the direct inspiration for Raiden in Mortal Kombat), and Kim Cattrall is foxier than ever. The most remarkable thing is that Kurt Russell never once realizes that he’s the comic relief sidekick in his own movie: the heroic Dennis Dun is the center of the plot, while Russell finds himself incapacitated during almost every action sequence. Hilarious, exciting and unforgettable, Big Trouble in Little China is one of the best movies to ever defy a genre description.


2. HALLOWEEN (1978)

 

The film that pretty much changed horror forever, John Carpenter’s classic Slasher Halloween hasn’t lost its edge in over 30 years. A little boy born without a soul, metaphorically speaking, kills his sister in cold blood and escapes from a mental institution 15 years later to finish what he started. A great cast of believable young babysitters including P.J. Soles, Nancy Loomis and of course Jamie Lee Curtis fall victim to the silent killer in one expertly crafted suspense sequence after another. The film is like Michael Myers himself: a shark, gliding from one killing to another with deadly precision. Devoid of unnecessary subtext but full of believable characters, Halloween remains the zenith of the Slasher genre, and arguably the best horror movie of all time.


1. THEY LIVE (1988)

In a slightly controversial choice, we submit that They Live is, in fact, John Carpenter’s best film. The director’s most ambitious and political film, They Live remains one of the finest indictments of Reagan’s America ever filmed. That it’s also a kick-ass action movie about an alien invasion is just icing on an already moist and delicious cake. Wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper plays one of the countless unemployed individuals wallowing in poverty while the rich – though in the minority – wallow in excess. It turns out that the upper class has conspired – with aliens – to brainwash the masses into accepting a lesser fate through the use of subliminal messaging in such capitalist endeavors as the mass media and advertising. Piper discovers a pair of sunglasses, manufactured by a rebellious underdog group, which allows the wearer to see the world in black and white, literally, for what it really is. Stripped of their carefully crafted pleasing veneer, billboards are shown to read things like “OBEY” and “MARRY AND REPRODUCE,” and the people behind it all, stripped of their sympathetic exteriors, are revealed to be monsters with no agenda beyond the subjugation of the working class. The elongated fight scene between Piper and co-star Keith David is so protracted that when taken out of context on YouTube it’s outright comical, but as a part of a whole it’s a brilliant metaphor for how difficult it is to make people see the world from a different perspective. As smart as science fiction gets, and just as fun, They Live is John Carpenter’s best film.

 

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Masters of Horror: Cigarette Burns (2005), Escape from L.A. (1996), Starman (1984), The Fog (1980) and Elvis (1979)

DISHONORABLE MENTIONS: Masters of Horror: Pro-Life (2006) and Village of the Damned (1995)

JUST MENTIONS: Ghosts of Mars (2001), Vampires (1998), Body Bags (1993) and Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992)