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The Movies Directed By John Carpenter, Ranked

The Boo Crew ranks the films of the greatest living Master of Horror.
John Carpenter Movies
By  · Published on January 16th, 2020

10. Christine (1983)


You’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone who ranks Christine at the top of a Carpenter list or at the top of a Stephen King adaptations list. It’s an imperfect film, but it’s an oddity that showcases some of the director’s best impulses when tackling one of King’s most curious stories. This is a film about a car that kills. Christine (the car) is a jealous vixen, possessive and not afraid to show it or to push her powers to the limits. It’s a bonkers concept straight from the b-movie novelties of any horror fan’s dreams. Among Carpenter’s myriad of skills was his ability to inject personality into his films, and that ability is on full display with this thrillingly fun ride. (Anna Swanson)

9. Prince of Darkness (1987)


If Someone’s Watching Me! is Carpenters most criminally under-seen, Prince of Darkness is his most criminally underrated. You can see why this film doesn’t work for other fans of Carpenter though. It’s a relatively slow-paced and bleak supernatural thriller that features a villain less tangible than the alien in The Thing and features none of Carpenter’s trademark humor. But it’s expertly cast, including Alice Cooper, Donald Pleasence and practically half the ensemble of Big Trouble in Little China, and features perhaps Carpenter’s most frightening image: the screaming face of a woman, caught on the wrong side of a murky black void to hell. All of Carpenter’s films linger in your imagination, but none do it more fatalistically than Prince of Darkness. (Jacob Trussell)

8. They Live (1988)

They Live

Either start watching They Live or start eating that trashcan. John Carpenter wants to tell you something. Your father is a chump. Your mother is a chump. All your brothers and sisters are chumps. Worst of all, you’re a chump. You spend your day chained to a desk dreaming about piloting some impossible yacht to some fantasy island. You feed yourself on hamburgers and Coca-Cola, and speed through a herd of traffic to make it home in time for Jeopardy. You end your night with eyes glued to an endless parade of commercials, and you think you’re happy. Nah, man. You’re a slave. A slave to a culture that’s bred you to give all your money and life force back into it . You gotta put on They Live. You gotta break their signal and open your eyes to the cage you’re living in. Accept Roddy Piper‘s fist. Let it smash into your face. Thank, you Rowdy, may I have another? God damn right you can. You’ll take as many wallops as required, or humanity is kaput. They’re the ones out there living. You’re asleep in the bed they made for you. Wake up, chump. (Brad Gullickson)

7. The Fog (1980)


Carpenter’s long been labeled a “master of horror,” and while true, it’s seemingly odd (but appreciated) that he’s only made a single film about the supernatural shenanigans of ghostly spirits. I imagine he might have made another if he hadn’t died in 1994 after the release of In the Mouth of Madness, perhaps even one set on another planet, but alas, we’ll never know. Anyway, The Fog sets up a terrific tale of spectral revenge and then brings a horror fan’s dream cast in to face it including Tom Atkins, Jamie Lee Curtis, Janet Leigh, Hal Holbrook, John Houseman, Charles Cyphers, Adrienne Barbeau, that woman who played Annie in Halloween, and more. It’s an atmospheric beauty that builds suspense and terror, makes time for personality and character, and features one of Carpenter’s most hauntingly intense scores. (Rob Hunter)

6. Halloween (1978)


Can you imagine what it would have been like to be at that very first Halloween screening? How did the audience react when the opening POV scene revealed that a child had just brutally stabbed someone to death? How many people felt the cold prickle of goosebumps when that piercing synthesizer kicked in on Carpenter’s famed theme? They definitely would have lost their minds when Michael slowly raises himself up in the film’s final climactic moment. That electricity, that “it” factor, Halloween still has. After 40 years, countless sequels and at least three franchise reboots, the original is still a stone-cold classic for a reason. It’s a perfectly paced 88 minutes of tension and release, beautifully shot by Carpenter’s go-to cinematographer Dean Cundey, and featuring a score that would forever be copied, but never repeated. What can I say, if you’ve never seen it, drop what you’re doing and rectify that. Like, right now. (Jacob Trussell)

5. Big Trouble in Little China (1986)


Here’s to the Army and Navy and all the battles they have won; here’s to America’s colors, the colors that never run. May the wings of liberty never lose a feather. Everybody relax, Jack Burton is here. Sure, he’s unconscious, and he just shot a hole in the roof, and all our heads are wet with rain, but the wannabe John Wayne is about as cute a hype-man as the real bad-ass in the room could possibly ever want in his corner. Wang Chi will save the day, but he’s fueled, or at least amused, by Burton’s bravado. Big Trouble in Little China is a goddamn delight. John Carpenter does his best to capture the Wuxia warriors of Hong Kong cinema, and he does so by taking a huge, steaming dump on classic cowboy machismo with Kurt Russell delivering the most confident dope to ever plod across the silver screen. Jack Burton is a legend, but for all the wrong reasons. It’s all in the reflexes. (Brad Gullickson)

4. Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)


Assault On Precinct 13 is essentially John Carpenter’s Night of the Living Dead — only it takes place in a police station as opposed to a farmhouse, and a violent street gang is favored to hordes of the undead. There are also strong elements of Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo, which is a film that Carpenter referenced numerous times throughout his career. That said, despite not being a horror movie, the film boasts more than its fair share of scary and suspenseful moments, including the murder of a young girl. Assault On Precinct 13 is a bona fide masterpiece, and the film’s only crime is that more kids didn’t get killed off. (Kieran Fisher)

3. Escape from New York (1981)


Escape From New York is a movie that possesses a pounding pulse, a propulsive beat that carries you from its first awesome moment to its last. The beat is both literal — Carpenter’s and Alan Howarth’s soundtrack is a kinetic undercurrent that moves the action seamlessly from one scene to the next — and metaphorical, as the dystopia, originally written as a response to Watergate, carries a defiant anti-authority streak through every shot and sequence. Kurt Russell’s Snake Plissken is a bad-ass of mythical proportions, a rebel who hisses his lines and is in a constant state of flexed muscles. Under a lesser director, Escape From New York’s elements, including the gruff action hero, the beeping sci-fi lights, and the Warriors aesthetic, would age into a bit of ‘80s curio. But with Carpenter’s sleek and assured direction and world-building so complete you can almost feel the chip in your neck yourself, there’s never any doubt about its status as a timeless classic. (Val Ettenhofer)

2. In the Mouth of Madness (1994)


The best cosmic horror film of all time, Cahiers du Cinéma list-maker, and the most fun you can have watching a man’s mind melt for 95 minutes, In The Mouth of Madness rips harder than a tear in the fabric of reality. Without giving anything away in the event that the uninitiated are reading, the film follows a freelance insurance investigator (Sam Neill) who has been hired to locate Sutter Cane, a massively popular horror novelist who has disappeared along with his latest manuscript. What follows is a love letter to H.P. Lovecraft and Stephen King that rounds out Carpenter’s apocalypse trilogy with a knowingly pulpy grin. One of the things I find so monstrously endearing about Carpenter is that he is a peerless master with a chip on his shoulder about the size of a dinner plate. Take a shot for every John Carpenter classic that was poorly received at the time of its release and I dare you to walk in a straight line. In the Mouth of Madness is a freaky, fun, and wildly captivating film that flubbed critically and financially because people weren’t ready to have their minds expanded to the indifferent chaos of the universe I guess. It’s a wildly good time; a gooey New England nightmare about the surreal power of the written word. Time to go read some Sutter Cane! (Meg Shields)

1. The Thing (1982)


Perhaps the best way to describe The Thing’s greatness is to address how much it was hated upon its initial release. This cold-as-ice sci-fi thriller lives up to its chilly premise with a narrative that wasn’t afraid to go nihilistic. When a parasitic alien virus is unleashed at a research station in Antarctica, it doesn’t take long for the team stationed there to turn on each other and to let distrust cloud whatever judgment they had. What unfolds is a genuinely terrifying testament to practical effects and ingenious storytelling. The Thing’s cult classic status and its reclamation as one of the best horror movies ever is a reminder that great films aren’t always appreciated in their time. Perhaps the lesson here is that with many a true masterpiece, there might be some initial audience bafflement. But Carpenter didn’t let that stop him from continuing to bring his vision to the big screen. He knew that sometimes you have to wait and see what happens. (Anna Swanson)

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Jacob Trussell is a writer based in New York City. His editorial work has been featured on the BBC, NPR, Rue Morgue Magazine, Film School Rejects, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the author of 'The Binge Watcher's Guide to The Twilight Zone' (Riverdale Avenue Books). Available to host your next spooky public access show. Find him on Twitter here: @JE_TRUSSELL (He/Him)