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Ranked: John Carpenter Films from Worst to Best

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Celebrating the horror legend's return to filmmaking, we rewatch Halloween, Escape From New York, and more.

John Carpenter's dark sci-fi/horror movies were crucial influences on many of today's leading directors, and a few have become pop-culture cornerstones, earning Carpenter a deserved cult following. But after a series of commercial and critical flops in the '90s, along with his growing disenchantment with the Hollywood system, Carpenter all but gave up on filmmaking. After a ten-year hiatus from the big screen, Carpenter will return this July with a new film, The Ward. In celebration of the master of horror's return, we've ranked all his films from worst to best.

 

17. Ghosts of Mars (2001)

In retrospect, it's not surprising that this movie preceded a ten-year break from filmmaking. Everything about Ghosts of Mars screams of creative fatigue. The sets look like sets; the roles seem to have been cast by lottery. The storyline itself, concerning a parasitic ghost presence on Mars, explicitly recycles much of Carpenter's previous material (a mysterious fog, spiritual possession, an invincible entity, a supernatural gang, and a police force's reliance on deviants to save their asses). Even the costume Ice Cube wears in the film looks strikingly similar to Snake Plissken's in the Escape movies. Carpenter recently told the AV Club that by the end of the project, he "was like a dead man." It shows.

 

16. The Fog (1980)

Following the commercial success of Halloween, Carpenter was given a one-million-dollar budget to produce an old-fashioned horror story about a town plagued by ghost fisherman. After filming, Carpenter viewed a rough cut and was completely unsatisfied, saying in a later interview, "I had a movie that didn't work, and I knew it in my heart." Despite subsequent re-shoots, the film still feels like a cut-up mess, and the unsympathetic flatness of its characters does nothing to alleviate the wreck. It also doesn't help that the ghosts look like badly tailored mummies.

 

15. Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992)

Perhaps the most uncharacteristic of Carpenter's films, Memoirs is far removed from the director's gritty style and sensibilities. That's probably unsurprising, as the movie was largely a vanity project for Chevy Chase, who was looking a more serious role. (And what's more serious than invisibility?) Carpenter signed on with little interest, telling an interviewer that "Warner Bros. is in the business of making audience-friendly, non-challenging movies." The results are about as engaging as you'd expect.

 

14. Dark Star (1974)

Carpenter's first feature began as a student film at USC, and it has some amateurish qualities, but that's not to say it's without merit. An offbeat parody of 2001, Dark Star was shot with a budget of $60,000, which makes its aesthetic achievements more impressive. Still, it's inevitably a hit-and-miss piece of work; screenwriter Dan O'Bannon would go on to write Alien, which borrows a lot of Dark Star's themes and tone while realizing their potential in a way no student film really could.

 

13. Village of the Damned (1995)

Not even a cast including Christopher Reeve, Kirstie Alley, and Mark Hamill can redeem Village of the Damned. Everyone in the titular village passes out one afternoon, with a few of its female inhabitants awakening hours later to discover they've been impregnated. Their children grow into what look like adolescent Andy Warhols but are in fact inhumane psychic monsters from another planet. Clumsily executed on many levels, Village might have fared better as a heavy-handed Lifetime movie. (Is abortion morally acceptable if you've been artificially inseminated by aliens?)

12. Starman (1984)

After the commercial disaster of The Thing (and the massive commercial success of Steven Spielberg's far cuter extra-terrestrial), Carpenter took on Starman to prove to audiences that he could make an alien movie that wouldn't scare the shit out of kids. Jeff Bridges gives an excellent performance as the visiting starman, which earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. But Bridges aside, Starman is kind of boring; a large part of the film is comprised of travel sequences in which the alien laments the shortcomings of the human race. And though Carpenter's signature Steadicam work is recognizable, the film's PG rating gives it a watered-down feel, out of sync with the director's gritty previous work.

 

11. In the Mouth of Madness (1995)

The third installment of what Carpenter deemed his Apocalypse Trilogy (films with overtly unhappy endings, even for him) is an homage to the writings of H.P. Lovecraft, exploring the theme of insanity prevalent throughout the writer's work. With that said, it's no surprise that halfway through watching this movie I always feel a little on edge, partly because the meta-narrative of the film is so convoluted I'm never quite sure what the fuck is going on. With ample scares and haunting imagery, and engaging performances from Sam Neill and Julie Carmen, Madness is definitely memorable, albeit a little muddled.

 

10. Escape From L.A. (1996)

After ten years of pre-production and script rewrites for this sequel to 1981's Escape From New York, the results are lackluster. Like many sequels, L.A. follows a plot too similar to its predecessor while upping the scale in a way that feels both forced and unnecessary. Still, it's fun to see Kurt Russell reprise his role as criminal/hero Snake Plissken, and there are enough over-the-top scenarios in the film to keep you thoroughly entertained. (One involves a gladiator-style basketball match where Plissken must score ten points in fifty seconds or face a firing squad.) But Carpenter himself described the script as "too light, too campy," and the movie plays mostly like a sillier version of its predecessor.

 

9. Christine (1983)

Adapted from Stephen King's novel, this horror film stars a 1958 Plymouth Fury with a thirst for blood. Carpenter struggled to infuse life into the cliched teenage characters found in many of King's novels (i.e., jocks who sleep in their letter jackets and nerds with taped, Buddy Holly glasses). The best thing Christine has going for it is the series of killing sprees conducted by the cherry-red vehicle, after which it returns to a nearby garage to fix itself; the effects still hold up today.

 

8. Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

Throughout his career, Carpenter frequently championed Howard Hawks, whose Westerns were a major influence on the director's work. Concerning a faceless gang's siege on an abandoned police station, Assault on Precinct 13 plays like a reinterpretation of Hawks' Rio Bravo. With his second feature after Dark Star, Carpenter started to build a reputation for lean and vicious genre filmmaking. While the plot is fairly straightforward, the film is fast-paced and exciting, and its violence remains startlingly remorseless; everyone from a little girl to the ice-cream man is a potential victim.

 

7. Vampires (1998)

Vampire movies are easy to get wrong, but Carpenter's version brings something new to the tired mythology, skillfully combining elements of the Gothic with Carpenter's interest in the American West. James Woods embodies the gunslinger archetype perfectly as Jack Crow, the leader of a Vatican-sanctioned crew of mercenaries who drive around the Mexican desert in Jeeps looking for vampire nests to slaughter. Filled with enough bullets and gore to appeal to action and horror fans alike, this film also features the kind of vampires without relationship problems or curfews, for which we should all be grateful.

6. Prince of Darkness (1987)

The second installment of Carpenter's Apocalypse Trilogy, Prince of Darkness takes a creative approach to a story of demonic possession by mixing in Carpenter's interest in theoretical physics. A group of scientists investigate a cylinder of mysterious green liquid found in the basement of an abandoned church; the goop turns out to be the father of Satan himself. Visually striking, the film looks like part Poltergeist, part Un Chien Andalou. (Crawling ants meet projectile vomiting.) It also features a brief cameo by Alice Cooper, who displays one of the most ingenious uses of a bicycle I've ever seen.

 

5. They Live (1988)

In 1988, few knew what to make of this dark sci-fi satire about a world of subliminal alien control visible only through special sunglasses. Recent critics have viewed it more favorably as a sharp, funny satire of '80s conservatism. Even its B-movie aesthetics look better than they did at the time. Regardless of how you feel about its politics, the film features one of the longest and most hilarious fight sequences in film history, along with the endlessly quotable line, "I've come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and I'm all out of bubblegum."


 
4. Big Trouble In Little China (1986)

Carpenter's genre-mashing reached its pinnacle with this epic action-adventure comedy. Take a dash of kung-fu and a sprinkle of urban gangster, add equal parts John Wayne and the Marx Brothers, and you'll have an idea of what to expect from this extravaganza. Kurt Russell again delivers a stellar performance, this time as Jack Burton, the all-American truck driver who talks big but generally falls on his ass when it comes to actual heroism. Dragged into an ancient battle beneath Chinatown, Burton enters a world of feuding demons, devils, gods, and martial artists, with a giant floating eyeball thrown in for good measure. If Big Trouble isn't Carpenter's very best movie, it's almost certainly his most fun.

 

3. Escape From New York (1981)

Carpenter's fifth feature has the kind of diabolical exploitation-film premise someone like Quentin Tarantino could only dream of making up. Set in a dystopic 1997, Escape finds Manhattan surrounded by a fifty-foot containment wall and used as a prison for the nation's most violent criminals. But when Air Force One crash-lands in the heart of the city, the government can only count on one man to bring back the President. Enter Snake Plissken, the recently captured war hero turned criminal who's as dangerous as he is expendable. Kurt Russell gave a career-defining performance as the one-eyed antihero, creating an urban Billy the Kid who audiences couldn't help but root for, and Carpenter managed to create a convincing future New York in all its gritty detail on a remarkably small budget.

 

2. Halloween (1978)

Ushering in the age of the slasher flick, Halloween did for babysitting what Psycho did for motel showers. Apart from its universally recognizable theme music (composed by Carpenter himself), Halloween features one of the most iconic villains in film history, Michael Myers, who embodies everything that goes bump in the night — a faceless terror who is as relentless as he is invincible. But what separates this film from the countless imitations that followed is the artistry behind the film's suspense. Carpenter's tracking shots and wide-angle lenses build a sense of impending doom from all directions; his deliberate pacing gradually builds tension to unbearable levels. Indebted to the Hitchcock ethos that less is more, Halloween is often scariest when it's not showing you something. Many directors have attempted sequels and remakes of this classic, but none have matched the craftsmanship of Carpenter's original.

 

1. The Thing (1982)

If Halloween was about faceless terror, Carpenter's remake of the 1951 B-movie The Thing From Another World aimed to give its villain the most terrifying face possible. Set in the secluded wasteland of the Antarctic, The Thing concerns a group of scientists who encounter an alien species capable of mimicking human form. The scientists realize that one or more of them may already be infected by the alien, resulting in an atmosphere of paranoia more dangerous than the monster itself. The Thing has no false notes. The plot is tight; the characters and setting create an gripping sense of hysteria and claustrophobia; and the revolutionary creature effects by Rob Bottin remain more convincing and inventive than any CGI could match. A commercial failure at the time, The Thing in all its pessimistic glory is now considered one of the greatest horror movies ever made. It's Carpenter's masterpiece.