My first memory of a John Carpenter movie was when I was probably nine or ten. There was a display kiosk in a Best Buy boasting the crystal clear quality of DVD, and one of the films they used to show that was The Thing (1982) — specifically the scene where the Blair Monster’s tentacle grabs MacReady’s detonator, sucking it down into the icy floor. Needless to say, I needed to know more. Cut to my parents showing me their taped-from-the-local-channel copy of Carpenter’s classic and, even with all the grain and TV edits, it was unlike anything I had ever seen before.
That’s John Carpenter for you though. He takes familiar ideas, like a killer in a small town or an alien crashing on Earth, and (often with the help of Debra Hill) created these scary, exhilarating pictures. And while every career has peaks and valleys, with Carpenter and his creations, there’s no question that he is the reigning Master of Horror.
With careful consideration from The Boo Crew – Kieran Fisher, Meg Shields, Rob Hunter, Chris Coffel, Valerie Ettenhofer, Anna Swanson, Brad Gullickson, and yours truly – here’s our complete ranking of the movies of John Carpenter.
20. The Ward (2010)
This should come as no surprise. The Ward is notoriously everyone’s least favorite Carpenter film. Not necessarily because it’s an awful movie, it’s just perfectly pedestrian. Ever seen a horror movie set in a mental asylum, a patient butting heads with hospital officials? Then you’ve seen The Ward. And despite the always-welcome presence of Jared Harris and a creatively used ghoul, it simply doesn’t have the spark that even Carpenters other late-career offerings manage to conjure, especially in his Masters of Horror episodes. And while almost all of the problems stem from the formulaic mystery at the heart of the story, you’ve just got to wonder: what did John Carpenter see in this script? That said, there is one deliciously Fulci-esque moment with a withered dead hand, an ice pick, and an eyeball that’s right out of early 90s Italian horror. It’s worth the price of admission. (Jacob Trussell)
19. Vampires (1998)
For reasons I’ll never understand, Carpenter’s Vampires has always gotten a bad rap. Even on this very list, the one you’re reading right now, it came in at 19th, placing it second to last. I can assure you, dear reader, if it were up to me and me only, Vampires would be much higher. Why you ask? Well, because it rules. This is Carpenter’s western, the movie where he most taps into his hero, Howard Hawks. It also happens to be a brutally violent tale about vampires and the man the Catholic church raised to hunt them down. Yes, it stars James Woods and he’s an asshole, but that asshole knows how to kill vampires and he kills them good. Also, if it weren’t for this film we never would have gotten a sequel starring Jon Bon Jovi and a world without that movie is no world for me. Join Gene Siskel and I on the right side of history and appreciate Vampires for the terrific film that it is. (Chris Coffel)
18. Village of the Damned (1995)
I have a soft spot for Village of the Damned because it’s the first Carpenter I ever saw. But putting all sentiment aside – which I’m sure the film’s eerily emotionless children would approve of – even at his most phoned-in Carpenter still blows most folks out of the water. Like The Thing, Village of the Damned is a re-make a couple times removed. As with its predecessors, the 1995 film takes place in the sleepy town of Midwich, where one fateful morning, the entire population falls unconscious. After the blackout, ten women become pregnant, and unanimously (though not entirely consensually) choose to keep their babies. The children are born and it immediately becomes clear to the townsfolk, and the circling scientific community, that the kids are not alright. In fact they might not even be kids. What gave it away? Was it the glowing eyes and the way they keep making people kill themselves with their minds? Village of the Damned boasts a swift-moving plot, crunchy premise, and a big-name cast with the likes of Christopher Reeve (a modest but heroic doctor!), Kirstie Alley (a fashionable epidemiologist!), and Mark Hamill (a pro-kid killing priest!). Even though Carpenter’s attitude towards the film can best be described as a contractual obligation, it would be a mistake to dismiss this campy low-key gem. (Meg Shields)
17. Ghosts of Mars (2001)
By the time Carpenter got round to directing Ghosts of Mars, he was exhausted from spending years making movies that no one appreciated until years later. This was especially true in the 90s, which is regarded as the worst period of his career, despite having helmed some classics like In the Mouth of Madness. The turn of the new millennium didn’t change his fortunes at all, either. Ghosts of Mars ultimately bombed at the box office and drew the ire of critics and fans alike, so the director decided to enter semi-retirement and has only managed a single film since. Ghosts of Mars is a far cry from Carpenter’s best work, but it’s still watchable thanks to its B movie sensibilities and a likeable cast that includes Ice Cube, Natasha Henstridge, Pam Grier, and Jason Statham, who provides some comic relief as an inappropriate jackass. (Kieran Fisher)
16. Escape from L.A. (1996)
The ill-fated sequel to Escape from New York is an inferior retread of its predecessor, but there’s still some fun to be had watching Kurt Russell ride some waves alongside Peter Fonda, cross paths with a maniacal surgeon played by Bruce Campbell, and shoot some hoops. Calling the movie “good” would be a stretch, but it isn’t nearly as bad as people say it is. I unabashedly love this movie despite its flaws, and it would be higher up on this list if the rest of the Boo Crew shared my poor taste. (Kieran Fisher)
15. Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992)
After a four year hiatus from directing, largely due to disputes with producers and production companies, Carpenter jumped back into the saddle when Chevy Chase needed someone to helm his take on H.F. Saint’s 1987 novel. Chase stars as a financial analyst who is accidentally turned invisible when a lab technician spills coffee on a computer. It’s a goofy concept that should be a zany, off-the-wall comedy. Unfortunately, Chase was trying to expand his profile beyond that of “funny guy” and into something more serious, leaving the movie to get stuck somewhere in between. The special effects are stellar, and scenes with Chase and co-star Daryl Hannah are a pleasure to watch, but ultimately the film’s potential is squandered. (Chris Coffel)
14. Someone’s Watching Me! (1978)
While bloodless and relatively tame, this first foray into TV for Carpenter is the breeding ground for what he would master later that same year in Halloween. About a woman (Lauren Hutton) becoming increasingly threatened by a mysterious caller, Carpenter has a knack for predicting genre trends as Someone’s Watching Me! predates the more famous version of this type of story, When a Stranger Calls, by a full year. Make no mistake, this is still clearly a Made-For-TV movie, but Carpenter manages to fill the screen with taut tension and predatory cinematography, not at all unlike what you would see in the post-Halloween slasher boom. Hell, the final moments even foreshadow the hulking silent unease of Michael Myers as our heroine Leigh fights off her blue jumpsuit wearing stalker. But all of this would have been moot if it wasn’t for a sharp cast including Hutton, perfectly at ease brazenly picking up dudes in bars as she is putting her foot through glass windows, and Adrienne Barbeau in an early positive representation of a queer woman on network television that feels quietly daring for 1978. Someone’s Watching Me! is perhaps Carpenter’s most criminally under-seen film, and it just so happens to be one of his most formative. (Jacob Trussell)
13. Dark Star (1974)
It is something of a truism that all of Carpenter’s movies can be read as westerns and his feature film debut is no exception. Dark Star is like if someone hot-boxed Rio Bravo and shot it into space; a sci-fi stoner farce with a plot looser than a pair of relaxed-fit sweatpants. Dark Star follows a small group of deep space astronauts who roam the galaxy searching for unstable planets to blow up. While their mission is going swimmingly enough, uppity alien pets, bureaucratic runarounds, and general pettiness are taking their toll on the increasingly fraught crew. A member of the grand THX 1138 tradition of genre debuts that began life as student films, Dark Star not only announced Carpenter as a director, but as a composer, with the film’s modular synth-heavy theme hinting at electronica greatness to come. Carpenter co-wrote Dark Star with fellow student and future genre legend Dan O’Bannon (who in addition to writing duties starred, edited, and designed the film’s production and special effects). Dark Star’s influence on sci-fi is like the radiation of space, its reach permeating everything from Alien, to Star Wars, to Close Encounters of a Third Kind. And while Dark Star’s broad comedy was ill-received at the time (in part due to a misleading campaign that advertised the film as a clear cut satire of 2001: A Space Odyssey), I beg to fucking differ. Setting its impact on the genre aside, on its own terms, Dark Star is a coolly funny, irreverent 1970s snapshot that sticks the landing with one of the most joyfully absurd final acts in sci-fi. It’s so much more than a historical curiosity; seek it out. (Meg Shields)
12. Starman (1984)
Who knew the man responsible for some of horror’s greatest hits was such a romantic at heart? This sci-fi/romance — think E.T., but with the horizontal mambo — is a beautiful story of life, loss, and love, and it doesn’t get nearly the appreciation it deserves. Karen Allen plays a woman mourning the death of her husband, and when an alien entity visits it takes the form of the man unaware of the connection. Old love in a new body blossoms, and with the government hot on their tail the two form a connection that the audience soon shares. It’s a film about empathy, a human trait that humanity doesn’t display nearly enough of, and it’s a beautiful adventure. Jack Nitzsche’s score matches that beauty too, and the result is a film about an alien told with all the heart, warmth, and humor human talents can muster. (Rob Hunter)
11. Elvis (1979)
Shortly after completing Halloween, Carpenter wanted to prove he wasn’t a one-trick pony and try his hand at something more dramatic. The something dramatic in this case happened to be Elvis, a made-for-TV biopic about the life and career of the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley. The nearly three-hour film aired on ABC on February 11, 1979, less than four months after the theatrical release of Halloween, and was the sixth most-watched program of the week. It’s an enjoyable film that quickly zooms through the life of a musical icon, but it certainly feels a bit out of place when it comes to the rest of Carpenter’s filmography. That said, it’s a significant film in the director’s career because the titular role went to Kurt Russell. It what should be a surprise to no one, Russell gives a terrific performance, absolutely nailing Elvis. It was the first time the pair worked together, marking the start of a life-long friendship and one of the best director-actor combos genre cinema has ever seen. (Chris Coffel)