When it comes to John Carpenter’s 1978 classic Halloween, there’s a frantic fight to the death, but it takes a while to get there. When Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) notices a mysterious creature lurking in the distance, she begins to think that something is amiss in the film’s narrative. After growing up in Bowling Green, Kentucky, where his father was a music professor and moving to Los Angeles to make movies, John Carpenter is one of the best at creating tension in films.
Rightly so, Carpenter’s name is synonymous with horror. The previous four decades have seen few directors who have had such a significant impact on the genre as Robert Altman. In addition to horror and science fiction, Carpenter has made films in various genres, but as this list of his works shows, he consistently uses the same tools and returns to the same themes, no matter what he’s working on. John Carpenter films are John Carpenter pictures for a reason, thus he always includes his name as a possessive in their complete names. ) (Although we’ve only used the essential titles below for the purpose of brevity. The Fog, not John Carpenter’s The Fog.)
Carpenter was taken for granted for a while, which made it easy to overlook him. Year after year, he would return with a new film, most of which were unappreciated or even openly rejected at the time. In the pre-letterboxing era, many of his films suffered when they were screened on television (even if the electronic scores he created for most of them still sounded great). A wide-screen frame is rarely used as effectively as in Carpenter’s films. If shown in pan-and-scan, his movies may appear sloppy and even incomprehensible. Letterboxed, they begin to make sense. While Carpenter’s films have long been regarded as masterpieces, a new generation of fans has helped bring forth a needed reconsideration.
Vulture decided to focus on Carpenter’s feature films, including a couple of TV movies; we omitted his episodic TV work from our assessment. As a result, no sequels to Halloween, no HBO Westerns, no Black Moon Rising — only top-to-bottom John Carpenter films, of which there are plenty and almost all are worth your time. Carpenter also produced and scripted projects but did not direct them.
20. Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992)
Memoirs of an Invisible Man, the only Carpenter picture that could have been made by anybody, began as a passion project for star Chevy Chase, who worked on it for years. At the very least, it’s understandable. Chase is given the opportunity to crack wise and play the romantic lead in a thriller that pits his characters against a renegade CIA agent in San Francisco (Sam Neill, who at least seems to be having fun). It was very possible that it was Fletch, but with a sci-fi twist. It’s a shame that Chase comes across as a dull schmuck, and the otherwise engaging picture relies heavily on some rudimentary CGI effects that never quite work.
19. Ghosts of Mars (2001)
It’s an unofficial remake of Carpenter’s Rio Bravo, which in turn is an unofficial rewrite of Assault on Precinct 13, except it’s set on Mars, where Natasha Henstridge plays an undercover cop who teams up with Ice Cube, a notorious outlaw, to fight off waves of demon-possessed miners. While Cube is entertaining and the world it takes place in is rich with interesting details, the action feels flat and lifeless at times due to the film’s tight budget. Carpenter took a break after the film’s failure.
18. The Ward (2010)
Amber Heard’s unhappy patient is played by Amber Heard in “The Ward,” an Oregon psychiatric hospital thriller that came out nine years and two Masters of Horror episodes later. Even though it has a superb supporting cast led by Danielle Panabaker, Mamie Gummer, and Jared Harris, the movie doesn’t really get going until the final act, which builds to a shrug of a twist ending. For the time being, Carpenter hasn’t shown much interest in directing a picture, preferring instead to play video games and tour with his band.
17. Vampires (1998)
Despite his passion for the genre, Carpenter has never really directed a Western, despite incorporating elements of the genre into numerous of his films. The closest he’ll get is probably in James Woods’ 1998 vampire slayer chase through the American Southwest, in which he plays a particularly wicked bloodsucker. As unfortunate as it may be for the fans of the director’s work, the film plays like it’s madly in love with bloodshed for the sake of bloodshed.
16. Village of the Damned (1995)
Carpenter’s comeback with Vampires was heralded by some, but some of his films from that decade have aged better now that it’s harder to dismiss him (and at least one of them deserves to be ranked among his greatest; more on that later). This adaptation of the John Wyndham classic The Midwich Cuckoos, which was originally adapted, chillingly effectively, as Village of the Damned, in 1960, has nothing vital to offer. The story of a small California community that is invaded by an unsettling horde of deranged youngsters, told by Carpenter, makes the most of the spooky, foggy setting. Added bonus: Christopher Reeve and Mark Hamill star, bringing Superman and Luke Skywalker together onscreen for the first time.)
15. Escape From L.A. (1996)
This sequel to Escape From New York reunites Kurt Russell’s Snake Plissken with the post-apocalyptic Los Angeles of Carpenter’s earlier Escape From New York, where Snake is searching for the president’s daughter. The humor is wide, the effects are a little sloppy, and Snake surfing was unnecessary.. But Russell clearly enjoys portraying the über-macho hero, and supporting roles from Steve Buscemi and others make it work better than a needless sequel.
14. Someone’s Watching Me! (1978)
Someone’s Watching Me!, an NBC TV movie that aired during the same time as Carpenter’s Halloween, explores some of the same tactics and ideas in a more intimate setting. While living in an L.A. high-rise, Lauren Hutton’s character is stalked by a shadowy figure in a neighboring building. Squeezing every last drop out of its made-for-TV constraints and riffing on Rear Window in particular and Hitchcockian themes, it offers some truly terrifying moments and an enlightened portrayal of an LGBT character performed by Adrienne Barbeau (who’d marry Carpenter the following year).
13. Elvis (1979)
For the first time, Carpenter collaborated with regular co-star Kurt Russell on this two-part made-for-television Elvis Presley biography, which covers the singer’s life from birth to… For the time being, it felt fitting for Carpenter and Russell to focus on the darker aspects of Presley’s life, even though they had a lot of love and respect for him. The show premiered just two years after Presley’s death, a time when tabloids and concert appearances had portrayed his final years in a gruesome light. Elvis Presley’s legacy was brought back to life by Russell’s important performance, which made it a ratings triumph.
12. Prince of Darkness (1987)
When it came to Prince of Darkness, Carpenter returned to low-budget filmmaking for the first time in years following a rocky period working for major companies. Criminology and Satanism are intertwined as the film stars Donald Pleasence as a priest who may have the “Anti-God” in his possession, which might bring the world to its knees. Located between The Thing and In the Mouth of Madness in Carpenter’s infamous “Apocalypse Trilogy,” the film Prince of Darkness masterfully blends fearsome atmosphere with large themes and disturbing imagery without making much sense. In some ways, it plays like a mistranslated European horror film, thanks to the influence of British writer Nigel Kneale (who created Professor Quatermass, explored cosmic themes through horror and science fiction, and worked on the story for the John Carpenter-produced Halloween III: Season of the Witch). Converts to Carpenter, on the other hand, see the ambiguity as an asset rather than a flaw. It’s easy to see why this is some fans’ favorite Carpenter film, but it shouldn’t be anyone’s first.
11. Christine (1983)
A few years after The Thing, Carpenter took on a few studio jobs directing films that had been written and directed by others. Except for Memoirs of an Invisible Man, Carpenter did not add his personal touch to any of his paid work. When it comes to adapting one of Stephen King’s most popular works, Christine couldn’t have been any more difficult than any other. Creating a spooky atmosphere in a haunted hotel is much easier than making a vintage Plymouth Fury terrifying. Without losing the heart of King’s story about a disturbed youngster who is finally pushed too far, Carpenter makes it work. He creates some great imagery, such as a burning car following a helpless victim.
A romantic E.T. that uses the story of a trapped extraterrestrial to address loss and what it means to be human, Starman is the closest Carpenter has ever gotten to filming a Spielbergian blockbuster. To the surprise of the widow of the recently deceased guy, Jeff Bridges, a nominated actor, plays an alien who takes on the form of the deceased man when he crashes to Earth (Karen Allen). As a director, no one has ever come close to Carpenter’s work in Starman, but his ability to seamlessly incorporate a touching love story into a Hitchcockian man on the run scenario implies that Carpenter could have had another career crafting crowd-pleaser blockbusters for adults.
9. The Fog (1980)
The Fog, Carpenter’s first feature-length picture since Halloween, is an excellent example of the horror filmmaker’s own obsessions and aesthetic touches that he was able to explore in the genre, all of which are on full show in the film. It begins as a creepy ghost story set in a coastal California hamlet plagued by unusual deaths and unexplained weather patterns before ramping up the suspense to almost unbearable levels. In the third act, however, the film breaks apart due to reshoots that Carpenter initiated when he felt the original cut didn’t work – reshoots that dramatically increased the gore quotient. This is a regrettable turn of events. It’s hard to tell. Or was it a case of a lack of nerve on the part of Carpenter? In an intriguing film that plays like one of Carpenter’s best, a tribute to every frightful story, movie, and horror comic that kept him up at night as a boy, that question lingers. It’s not bad, but it’s a bit of a letdown after all that’s gone before. However, The Fog is still one of his most intriguing films.
8. Dark Star (1974)
After graduating from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts in 1969, Carpenter went on to make the short film “Captain Voyeur,” as well as write, edit, and compose the music for “The Resurrection of Broncho Billy.” It would be Dark Star, a darkly comedic science-fiction film, that would be the most lasting of his film school projects. Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon, who plays one of a squad of astronauts 20 years into a lengthy mission in deep space eliminating “unstable” planets to make colonization easier, co-wrote Carpenter’s debut feature film as a student project. Boredom, frustration, and even delusions of grandeur begin to take hold even before the spacecraft begins to fail (something O’Bannon would later return in his Alien screenplay). 2001: A Space Odyssey (with a Dr. Strangelove-inspired ending) exhibits little of the Carpenter style, but much of the Carpenter mindset, such as a skepticism of authority and a belief that every system would eventually fail. In 1974, it was a one-off event, but in the years that followed, it became a midnight-movie staple.
7. Escape From New York (1981)
As in Carpenter’s dystopian classic Escape From New York, when Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) is sent to rescue the president from a walled-in wreck of Manhattan overrun by the convicts who’ve been exiled there, those same elements can be seen in plenty in Escape From New York. Russel portrays Plissken as an arrogant antihero driven by testosterone and a primal need to survive, much like Clint Eastwood’s Western hero in the aftermath of a terrible event. A near-future New York that resembles the grimy, neglected Manhattan of the 1970s serves him well as a setting for his reluctance to trust anyone. To be honest, the story is so secondary in comparison to the characters, the universe, and Russell’s humorous take on cinematic machismo as Plissken, as well as the impeccable casting of Adrienne Barbeau, Ernest Borgnine, Lee Van Cleef, Isaac Hayes, and Harry Dean Stanton.
6. Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
When Russell plays Snake Plissken in Escape From New York, the portrayal sometimes borders on parody (and would go all the way into it in Escape From L.A.). Russel would have no qualms about letting loose as Big Trouble in Little China hero Jack Burton. Because what problem can’t a white guy with huge biceps and gorgeous hair solve? A low-IQ cross between John Wayne and Elvis Presley, Burton plays a swaggering truck driver who is too dumb to know he’s in over his head in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Carpenter’s goofiest and most amusing picture to date, this homage to classic kung fu films features over-the-top action, bizarre animals, and surreal special effects. Another illustration of the limitations that come with using labels. A horror film filmmaker, Carpenter’s filmography encompasses science fiction, a dramatic crime thriller (more on that below), and this genre-defying East-meets-West action flick. Because Carpenter’s films tend to be classics decades after they’ve been released, this picture could have provided him with new opportunities if it had been more popular at the time.
5. In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
This film’s Apocalypse Trilogy counterparts, The Thing and Prince of Darkness, had gone up to the verge of the end of the world, In the Mouth of Madness opens with it already in motion.
On the trail of Sutter Cane (Jürgen Prochnow), a best-selling horror author who has vanished and whose books have the potential to drive their readers insane, is insurance investigator John Trent (Sam Neill). Lovecraftian concepts of a “world beneath the one we know” are explored in the film, as Trent discovers that Cane’s fiction may have started to creep into the real world—and that he may potentially be a part of it. For the most part, save from a few notable outliers, John Carpenter’s reputation as a horror filmmaker is built more on suspense than gore. One unpleasant moment piles on top of another until the world begins to spin out of control in In the Mouth of Madness. As a result, things begin to spiral out of control. This film is nothing less than a deep dive into the psychology of horror and the ways in which narratives and ideas influence our perceptions of the world around us.
4. Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
No matter what happened to Carpenter, 1974’s Dark Star would still be considered one of the best midnight pictures from that decade. But it wasn’t until his second film, Assault on Precinct 13, that the Carpenter sensibility was fully realized. When they’re cut off from the outside world and besieged by members of a deadly gang, a small group of officers and criminals are forced to work together. Though it’s not a Western or a horror film, Rio Bravo and Night of the Living Dead have a lot in common. For the first time, Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston), the first great sneering tough guy from Carpenter’s first great Hawks, is included in the film as a co-protagonist. A scene with an ice cream truck in the early going showed Carpenter as a director prepared to defy the restraints imposed by his predecessors’ works in the industry. The goal of his films was never to create a sense of familiarity for the audience.
3. They Live (1988)
Carpenter’s works are marked by a deep suspicion of authority, although they are almost never openly political, with one notable exception. This allegorical science-fiction film stars Roddy Piper as a homeless guy who discovers a pair of lenses that reveal the world around him is riddled with alien-planted subliminal messages demanding people to consume and comply. Armed with the capacity to perceive the truth, he sets out to awaken the rest of humanity to the reality of alien occupation and take action. While it’s not subtle, it’s an effective attack on Reagan-era materialism and the widening gap between the rich and poor that resulted from the 1980s’ economic policies. Although it’s loaded with justified rage, this is one of Carpenter’s funniest films, full of memorable quotes and a street battle between Piper and co-star Keith David that never ends.
2. Halloween (1978)
Think about Halloween for a second without the subsequent sequels, remakes, and lesser slasher films that followed following its stunning success. It was a Hitchcockian thriller set in an ordinary American suburb, where a masked killer was let loose during Halloween festivities, turning it into a place of unimaginable terror. With its surreal aspect and Jamie Lee Curtis’s debut performance, Carpenter’s picture focuses on the anxieties of an adventurous but overwhelmed youngster who unexpectedly finds herself fighting for her life against a seemingly unstoppable monster in the first half of the movie. The moment the mask is removed is one of the most enigmatic in the horror genre. Evil’s visage appears to be that of a normal, nondescript person. In defeat, he then devises a plan to disappear into the night and carry out another murder. It’s as if the nightmare will never end. There is no safe place, even in a quiet suburb. It’s the best horror film ever made, a benchmark that many aspired to meet but never could.
1. The Thing (1982)
Imagine making your masterpiece, only to discover that everyone else didn’t like it. The Thing recounts the advent of an alien that can take on any shape, driving the people of an isolated Antarctic research station to the verge of sanity just two weeks after E.T. The picture sees Carpenter channeling his hero Howard Hawks in this remake of a Howard Hawks production (which was, by most accounts, more or less directed). It’s a tribute to Hawks, but it’s also a subversion. Carpenter’s picture, on the other hand, depicts a nightmarish world in which trust has become impossible. Russell reprises his role as R.J. MacReady, a helicopter pilot whose tolerance appears to have begun to wane long before an alien arrives. If he can’t contain the problem, MacReady will risk his own life in an effort to keep it under control.
Rob Bottin’s special-effects mastery is on full display here, with pictures that merge alien and Earthly biology — a human twisted and converted into a bizarre, spiderlike creature, for example — so wicked that the mind wants to reject what it’s witnessing. Additionally, critics and spectators were among those who rejected the film because they felt it went too far. There are some moments that play like a science fiction version of Assault On Precinct 13’s ice-cream truck scene writ enormous and violent, repeated multiple times. In time, however, the film’s cult following grew into an appreciation for a terrible, unsparing adventure into fear that only one filmmaker could have crafted.