John Carpenter’s 1978 classic Halloween ends in a frenetic struggle to survive against a knife-wielding maniac, but it takes its time getting there. After a shocking opening, the film builds tension a little bit at a time as unwitting babysitter Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) first starts to suspect something might be up when she sees a strange figure in the distance. It’s an exercise in how to create suspense, and few do that better than John Carpenter, who grew up a movie-obsessed kid haunting the downtown theaters of Bowling Green, Kentucky, where his father worked as a music professor, then moved to L.A. to make movies himself.
Carpenter’s name has become synonymous with horror, and rightly so. There are few, if any, directors who’ve exerted as much influence on the genre in the last four decades. Carpenter’s worked across other genres as well, but, as this ranking of his films reveals, he tends to rely on the same tools and return to a handful of venerable themes regardless of the sort of movie he’s making. He usually includes his name as a possessive in his movies’ full titles for a reason: John Carpenter makes John Carpenter films. (Though, for the sake of brevity, we’ve just gone with the core titles below. So, The Fog, rather than John Carpenter’s The Fog.)
For a while, it was too easy to take Carpenter for granted. He returned year after year with a new film, most of which tended to be underrated at the time, if not outright rejected. And his movies often suffered when shown on television in the pre-letterboxing era (even if the electronic scores he created for most of them still sounded great). Few directors use every inch of a wide-screen frame quite as well as Carpenter. Shown in pan-and-scan, his films could look sloppy, even incoherent. Letterboxed, they make sense again. But the generation that grew up watching his movies has helped lead an overdue reassessment: Now, with Carpenter showing little interest in returning to filmmaking, even the lesser efforts look better.
For Vulture’s overview of Carpenter’s career, we decided to focus on the features Carpenter directed, including a couple of TV movies; we left out his episodic TV work. We also skipped over projects Carpenter produced and wrote but did not direct, so no Halloween sequels, no HBO Westerns, no Black Moon Rising — just top-to-bottom John Carpenter films, of which there are many, and almost all are worth your time.
20. Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992)
The only Carpenter film that could have been made by virtually anyone, Memoirs of an Invisible Man began as a passion project for star Chevy Chase, who spent years developing it. It’s easy to see why, at least in theory. As a not-so-hard-working San Francisco financier who’s accidentally turned invisible, Chase gets to crack wise but also gets to play the romantic lead in a thriller that pits his characters against a rogue CIA agent (Sam Neill, who at least seems to be having fun). It could have been Fletch but with a science-fiction twist. But Chase comes off as boorish and the surprisingly inert film leans hard on some primitive-CGI effects that never quite work (unless you’re wowed by a floating toothbrush brushing invisible teeth).
19. Ghosts of Mars (2001)
A loose rewrite of Carpenter’s own Assault on Precinct 13 (itself a loose rewrite of Rio Bravo), Ghosts of Mars moves the action to the Red Planet, where a police officer (Natasha Henstridge) is forced to team up with a notorious outlaw (Ice Cube) in order to survive waves of attacks from possessed miners. Cube’s fun and the world of the film has some intriguing details, but the action is weirdly lifeless and the budgetary limitations sometimes make it feel like a ’90s CD-ROM game. The film flopped, leading Carpenter to take some time off.
18. The Ward (2010)
Carpenter returned, nine years and a couple of Masters of Horror episodes later, with the claustrophobic thriller The Ward, starring Amber Heard as a troubled inmate in an Oregon psychiatric institute. The film features a great supporting cast that includes Danielle Panabaker, Mamie Gummer, and Jared Harris, but it doesn’t really develop a spark until the last act, which builds to a shrug of a twist ending. Carpenter, who now enjoys playing video games and touring with his music, hasn’t shown much interest in directing a film since, ending his career with a good-enough footnote — at least for now.
17. Vampires (1998)
Carpenter loves Westerns, and he’s folded elements of the genre into many of his films, but he’s never directed a proper Western himself. This 1998 film starring James Woods as a vampire slayer pursuing some especially nasty bloodsuckers through the American Southwest is probably the closest he’ll come. That’s kind of a shame, since it’s a deeply unpleasant film that, unlike even his bloodiest efforts, plays like it’s in love with violence for its own sake.
16. Village of the Damned (1995)
Vampires was hailed by some as a comeback at the end of what had been rough ’90s for Carpenter, but some of the films he made that decade have come to look better over time now that Carpenter has become less easy to take for granted (and at least one deserves to be considered among Carpenter’s best; more on that later). There’s nothing essential about this adaptation of the John Wyndham novel The Midwich Cuckoos, which had been previously adapted, chillingly well, as Village of the Damned, in 1960. But Carpenter makes the most of an eerie, misty Northern California atmosphere in a story of a small town that becomes home to a bunch of creepy, mind-controlling children. (Bonus: It co-stars Christopher Reeve and Mark Hamill, making it rare team-up of Superman and Luke Skywalker.)
15. Escape From L.A. (1996)
Carpenter revisited the post-apocalyptic world of his earlier Escape From New York with this West Coast sequel that sends Kurt Russell’s Snake Plissken into an equally devastated Los Angeles in search of the president’s daughter. The humor is broad, the effects occasionally janky, and nobody needed to see Snake surf. But Russell clearly enjoys playing the Über-macho hero and supporting turns from Steve Buscemi and others make it work better than an unnecessary sequel should.
14. Someone’s Watching Me! (1978)
A TV movie that aired on NBC while Halloween was still in theaters, Someone’s Watching Me! finds Carpenter exploring some of the same tricks and ideas on a smaller scale. Lauren Hutton plays a TV news director who moves into an L.A. high-rise, where she’s tormented by an unseen observer in a nearby building. A riff on Rear Window in particular and Hitchcockian themes in general, it squeezes the most from its made-for-TV limitations and features both some genuinely scary moments and an enlightened-for-the-era depiction of a lesbian character played by Adrienne Barbeau (who’d marry Carpenter the following year).
13. Elvis (1979)
Carpenter first worked with his frequent leading man Kurt Russell on this two-part made-for-TV Elvis Presley biopic that follows its subject from the cradle to not quite the grave. Carpenter and Russell have too much affection for Presley to spend too much time on the uglier sides of his life, but that approach felt right for the time. Presley had only been dead two years when it aired, his messy final years having played out in tabloids and in troubling concert appearances. Made with affection and driven by Russell’s vital performance, it served as a reminder of why Elvis mattered in the first place and became a ratings smash.
12. Prince of Darkness (1987)
The kind of fascinating mess that only a great filmmaker could create, Prince of Darkness found Carpenter returning to low-budget filmmaking after some up-and-down years working for major studios. A claustrophobic thriller mixing theoretical physics and Satanism, it reteams Carpenter with Halloween’s Donald Pleasence, who plays a priest in possession of a cylinder that may contain the “Anti-God” — and which may usher in the end of the world. The middle part of what would come to be known as Carpenter’s “Apocalypse Trilogy” — sandwiched by The Thing and In the Mouth of Madness — Prince of Darkness skillfully combines a spooky atmosphere with big ideas and unnerving visuals without making a whole lot of sense. Inspired by British writer Nigel Kneale (who created the character of Professor Quatermass, used horror and science fiction to explore cosmic themes, and worked on the story for the Carpenter-produced Halloween III: Season of the Witch), it plays at times like a confusingly translated European horror film. But for Carpenter converts, the confusion is a feature, not a bug. This shouldn’t be anyone’s first Carpenter film, but it’s easy to see why it’s some fans’ favorite.
11. Christine (1983)
10. Starman (1984)
After the frosty reception that greeted The Thing in 1982, Carpenter took on a few studio jobs directing films developed by others. But, Memoirs of an Invisible Man aside, Carpenter didn’t leave his signature touches behind when he took on work-for-hire projects. Christine, the story of a killer car and the misfit teen (Keith Gordon) it seduces, couldn’t have been the easiest Stephen King novel to adapt. Making a haunted hotel scary is a lot easier than doing the same with a vintage Plymouth Fury. But Carpenter makes it work, creating some inspired images, like a burning car pursuing a helpless victim, without losing the heart of King’s story about a troubled kid who’s finally pushed too far.
Released the following year, Starman is the closest Carpenter has ever come to directing a Spielbergian blockbuster, a kind of romantic E.T. that uses the story of a stranded extraterrestrial to explore loss and examine what it means to be human. Jeff Bridges, in an Oscar-nominated performance, plays an alien who assumes the form of a recently deceased man when he crashes to Earth, much to the surprise of the man’s widow (Karen Allen). Carpenter never came close again to directing as nakedly emotional a film as Starman, but the ease with which Starman folds a moving love story into its Hitchcockian man-on-the-run plot suggests he could have had a second act making crowd-pleasing blockbusters for grown-ups.
9. The Fog (1980)
Of course, a shift into blockbuster filmmaking would have likely meant abandoning horror and all the personal obsessions and stylistic touches that the genre allowed him to explore, all of which are on full display in The Fog, Carpenter’s first theatrical film after the breakout success of Halloween. Set in a coastal California town that becomes host to strange death and mysterious weather patterns, it begins as an eerie ghost story before ratcheting up the tension to an almost unbearable degree. Then it unfortunately falls apart in the third act, a section of the film heavily altered in reshoots that Carpenter instigated when he felt the initial cut didn’t work — reshoots that also upped the gore quotient. Was he right? Or was this a failure of nerve on Carpenter’s part? That’s the question that lingers over a fascinating movie that plays like one Carpenter’s very best films, a tribute to every spooky story, scary movie, and horror comic that kept him awake as a kid. Still, the redone finale isn’t terrible, just a comedown from what’s come before. Yet The Fog remains one of the most fascinating films of his career.
8. Dark Star (1974)
Carpenter started film school at USC in 1969, where he directed the short film “Captain Voyeur” and co-wrote, edited, and composed the music for “The Resurrection of Broncho Billy,” which won the Academy Award for Best Short Subject in 1970. But the most enduring project to come out of his film-school days would be the blackly comic science-fiction film Dark Star. Carpenter’s first feature began as a student project co-written by Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon, who plays one of a group of astronauts 20 years into a tedious mission in deep space eliminating “unstable” planets to make colonization easier. Everyone gets bored, short-tempered, and a little crazy even before the ship starts to malfunction (a basic setup O’Bannon would revisit with his Alien screenplay a few years later). A countercultural gloss on 2001: A Space Odyssey (with an ending inspired by Dr. Strangelove), it features little of the Carpenter style but much of the Carpenter attitude, particularly a distrust of authority and a confidence that every system breaks down in time. It came and went in 1974, but became a midnight-movie fixture in the years that followed.
7. Escape From New York (1981)
Those same elements can be found in abundance in Carpenter’s dystopian classic Escape From New York, in which soldier/criminal/world’s toughest man Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) finds himself conscripted to rescue the president of the United States from the bowels of America’s toughest prison: Manhattan, now a walled-in ruin of its former self overrun by the convicts who’ve been exiled within it. Russell plays Plissken as a sneering antihero fueled by contempt, testosterone, and an instinct to survive — an even thornier, post-cataclysmic version of one of Clint Eastwood’s Western heroes. He inhabits a world in which his inability to trust anyone serves him well: a near-future New York that looks like the logical endpoint of the grungy, neglected Manhattan of the 1970s. It’s such a fascinating world, Russell’s performance as Plissken such a fun take on movie machismo, and a supporting cast, including Adrienne Barbeau, Ernest Borgnine, Lee Van Cleef, Isaac Hayes, and Harry Dean Stanton, so perfectly cast that it rarely matters that the story is pretty secondary.
6. Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
Russell’s performance as Snake Plissken sometimes comes this close to tipping over into parody in Escape From New York (and would go all the way into it in Escape From L.A.). As Big Trouble in Little China hero Jack Burton, Russell would show no such restraint. A kind of low-IQ cross between John Wayne and Elvis Presley, Burton is a swaggering, macho truck driver too dumb to realize he’s in over his head when he stumbles into an adventure in San Francisco’s Chinatown, because what problem can’t be solved by a white guy with big muscles and great hair? A tribute to kung fu movies filled with over-the-top action, strange creatures, and hallucinatory special effects, it’s the goofiest film Carpenter ever made and one of his most entertaining. It’s also an example of how limiting labels can be. Carpenter’s a horror-movie director whose filmography includes science fiction, an intense crime movie (more on that below), and this purely entertaining, genre-defying East-meets-West action film. If it had found a larger audience at the time instead of becoming a classic years later — a pattern Carpenter’s films often fell into — different sorts of opportunities might have opened up for him.
5. In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
Where The Thing and Prince of Darkness, this movie’s companion pieces in Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy, had walked up to the edge of the end of the world, In the Mouth of Madness opens with it in full swing. Scripted by Michael De Luca, the film follows insurance investigator John Trent (Sam Neill) as he searches for Sutter Cane (Jürgen Prochnow), a best-selling horror author who’s disappeared — and whose books seems to have the power to drive their readers mad. Packed with references to H.P. Lovecraft, a Carpenter favorite, the film explores the Lovecraftian notion of a world beneath the world we know, as Trent slowly realizes Cane’s fiction might have begun to creep into the real world — and that he might also be a part of it a story. With some notable exceptions, Carpenter’s reputation as a horror filmmaker depends more on suspense that builds slowly into unbearable tension rather than gore. In the Mouth of Madness is no exception, piling one unsettling moment after another until the world starts to spin out of control. And then the world does spin out of control. Carpenter’s last great film is nothing less than a plunge into how horror works and how ideas and stories reshape reality.
4. Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
1974’s Dark Star would have survived as one of the great midnight movies of the 1970s even if Carpenter never made another movie. But the Carpenter sensibility didn’t really emerge until his second feature, Assault on Precinct 13, where it can be found fully formed. Set in a soon-to-close Los Angeles police station, the film finds a handful of cops and criminals forced to team up when they’re cut off from the rest of the world and surrounded by members of a vicious gang. Though neither Western nor horror movie, it’s inspired in equal parts by Howard Hawks’s Rio Bravo and George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. The protagonists — who include Carpenter’s first great sneering tough guy, Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston) — bond while working for a greater goal, a classic Hawks trope, and their opponents are portrayed as a silent, unrelenting horde. It also features an early moment involving an ice-cream truck that confirmed Carpenter as a director willing to shatter expectations created by the restraint other films. He didn’t set out to make movies that made viewers comfortable.
3. They Live (1988)
A strong distrust of authority runs through Carpenter’s films, but they’re rarely overtly political — with one exception. Politics are front and center in the allegorical science-fiction film They Live, in which Roddy Piper plays a homeless drifter who discovers a pair of sunglasses that reveal the world around him is filled with alien-planted subliminal messages commanding humans to consume and conform. Armed with the ability to see the truth, he goes about trying to wake others to the truth of alien domination. It’s an unsubtle but highly effective attack on Reagan-era consumerism and the growing divide between the haves and have-nots created by the economic policies of the 1980s. It’s also, for all its righteous anger, one of Carpenter’s funniest films, filled with quotable lines and notable for a street fight between Piper and co-star Keith David that just goes on and on.
2. Halloween (1978)
Forget, for a moment, the sequels and remakes and the many lesser slasher films that followed after it became a surprise success and just consider the 1978 film Halloween. A thriller of Hitchcockian precision set in humble, everyday surroundings, it turned an ordinary American suburb into a place of unspeakable dread by letting loose a masked killer in the midst of Halloween revels. Carpenter’s use of the Steadicam gives the movie a dreamlike quality while Jamie Lee Curtis, in her film debut, keeps it grounded in the fears of an intrepid but overwhelmed teen who unexpectedly finds herself fighting for her life against a seemingly unstoppable monster. When the mask comes off, it’s one of the horror genre’s most mysterious moments. The face of evil looks just like an ordinary, unremarkable guy. Then, in defeat, he finds away to fade into the night and kill again. The nightmare never really ends. No place, not even a quiet suburb, is safe. It’s the perfect horror movie, the standard many have aspired to reach while realizing they never could.
1. The Thing (1982)
What if you made your masterpiece and everyone hated it? Released two weeks after E.T., a much gentler movie about contact with alien life, The Thing follows the arrival of an alien that can assume any form drive the residents of a remote Antarctic research station to the brink of madness. A remake of a film produced (and by most accounts, more or less directed) by Howard Hawks, it finds Carpenter channeling his idol. But it’s as much a subversion of Hawks as a tribute to him. Where Hawks loved stories about tough characters who bond to work toward a greater good, Carpenter’s film creates a terrifying scenario in which trust has become impossible. Russell stars again as helicopter pilot R.J. MacReady, whose patience looks like it began wearing thing long before an alien shows up. As the killings start and the paranoia spreads, MacReady does his best to control the situation, then to contain it even at the cost of his own life, as the it becomes clear the peril could spread beyond the station.
It’s a sustained exercise in mounting terror, punctuated by bursts of gore from special-effects master Rob Bottin, who creates images that blend alien and Earthly biology — a human twisted and transformed into a strange, spiderlike creature, for one — so perverse that the mind wants to reject what it’s seeing. Also doing some rejecting: critics and moviegoers, most of whom were repelled by a movie they felt went too far. (After a certain point it plays like a science-fiction variation on Assualt on Precinct 13’s ice-cream truck moment writ large and bloody and repeated over and over again.) But a cult following quickly emerged, and in time that cult has grown into a wider appreciation of a disturbing, unsparing excursion into terror that only one filmmaker could have created.