Throughout his career, as a celebrated writer, director, and composer, John Carpenter has pushed the limits of genre storytelling. In his movies, he gleefully doesn't worry about the audience's delicate sensibilities. Let's look back and rank all of the feature films from this underrated filmmaker.
21. 'Dark Star' (1974)
As a short student film, "Dark Star" might have been charming–goofy, irreverent, knowing, and full of the kind of humor only a dorm room full of pot smoke could have conjured up. But stretched out, into feature-length form, everything becomes lamer, more tired, more shopworn. (Carpenter would later lament the film's expansion into a full-blown movie.) Nowadays the film is perhaps best noted as a collaboration between Carpenter and fellow USC student Dan O'Bannon, who would larger go on to help reinvent the sci-fi genre with his work co-writing "Alien."
20. 'Ghosts of Mars' (2001)
What makes "Ghosts of Mars" even sadder, beyond being a generally pretty crummy movie, is that it was Carpenter's last stab at the kind of big budget entertainment he was regularly responsible for early in his career. (He would follow it up with "The Ward," produced on a shoestring budget and barely released theatrically.) "Ghosts of Mars" is an attempt to recapture some of the adventurous sci-fi fun of "Escape from New York," except with a much lamer cast (Natasha Henstridge?!?) and much dumber execution. Hauntingly dull.
19. 'Children of the Damned' (1995)
This fairly high profile remake, an assignment by Universal that was supposed to result in Carpenter's long-in-development "Creature from the Black Lagoon" finally getting greenlit, is listless to the point of inertia. Ostensibly a remake of the 1960 film and a new adaptation of the source material (by British author John Wyndham), "Children of the Damned" is saddled with a charmisa-free cast led by Christopher Reeve and Kirstie Alley (you can't make this stuff up) and jumped-up effects by ILM that adds visual clutter but no real pizzazz.
18. 'Somebody's Watching Me' (1978)
It's fascinating that in between his breakout "Assault on Precinct 13" and genuine zeitgeist-capturing phenomenon "Halloween," he cranked out this bland TV thriller. (It aired the same year "Halloween" was released theatrically.) It was Carpenter's attempt at updating Hitchcock's "Rear Window" for late-'70s audiences, but it just doesn't work. Carpenter's love of widescreen compositions (his insistence on using anamorphic lenses on earlier projects helped them stand out) is neutered by the boxy TV format, and Lauren Hutton's performance is hardly engaging; a curio for Carpenter die-hards only.
17. 'The Ward' (2010)
The road to hell is paved with good intentions ... and "The Ward." A return to the kind of low budget filmmaking Carpenter made early in his career, this misfire has a solid central concept (ghost in a female psychiatric facility), terrific cast (including Amber Heard), and terrific atmosphere. But it's largely undone by the cheapness of its production design, the weak-tea score by Mark Killan, and a twist ending so bad it will make you want to scream.
16. 'Escape from L.A.' (1996)
Carpenter's only sequel (if you don't count the scenes he directed for "Halloween II") is an intentionally daffy follow-up to his more morose "Escape from New York." This time, Kurt Russell's one-eyed outlaw is sent to the island of Los Angeles and tasked with tracking down the President's daughter, who has shacked up with a nefarious villain. From there, the story is almost exactly replicated, beat for beat, from the original movie -- which certainly doesn't do this film any favors. (Also, the early CGI effects, like that wave Snake surfs, are some of the worst ever committed to film.
15. 'Vampires' (1998)
Carpenter has always been fascinated by westerns, but the closest he ever got to making one was probably "Vampires." This meh entry is a so-so outing that features James Woods as a sarcastic, church-approved vampire hunter in the American southwest. There are a couple of nifty set pieces and a truly astounding amount of blood here, but re-watching the film only highlights its numerous pacing issues and poor casting.
14. 'Memoirs of an Invisible Man' (1992)
One of the few films not prefixed by a "John Carpenter's" credit (supposedly due to Warner Bros' tight control over the material), "Memoirs of an Invisible Man" is still (at times) a rollicking, entertaining little movie that stands apart from Carpenter's main body of work for being almost wholly comedic. Unsurprisingly, Chevy Chase -- whose behavior scared away original director Ivan Reitman -- is the least compelling part of what is otherwise a solid romp.
12. 'In the Mouth of Madness' (1995)
A late-era Carpenter masterpiece, "In the Mouth of Madness" borrows heavily from the works of both King and H.P. Lovecraft, to tell the story of an insurance investigator (Sam Neill) who is on the hunt for an elusive author. As his hunt goes along, it gets scarier and more surreal. And it's that ambiguity that probably turned people off when it was initially released, but is one of the film's biggest assets. It's a story that constantly shifts and changes and each time you watch it you can get something new out of it.
11. 'Elvis' (1979)
Mostly notable for being the first collaboration between Carpenter and his frequent leading man Kurt Russell, "Elvis" is a wildly ambitious television movie that aired on ABC the year after "Halloween" made Carpenter a sensation.
10. 'The Fog' (1980)
One of Carpenter's most ambitious early projects, "The Fog" is a character study, ghost story, and -- thanks to some last-minute reshoots -- slasher movie, about a small coastal town that's enveloped by some very nasty fog. Jamie Lee Curtis, her mom Janet Leigh, and Adrienne Barbeau (who Carpenter was falling in love with at the time), are the doomed townsfolk forced to combat the ghost-filled fog (the fog's backstory is straight out of a Stephen King novel and is delicious). They're the ones who make this story really pop.
9. 'Assault on Precinct 13' (1978)
Carpenter's breakthrough film is a chilly, unnerving urban western that features one of the most shocking on-screen child deaths of all time. (Remember, kids: Be careful when ordering ice cream!) "Assault on Precinct 13" also features some of the most memorable music in Carpenter's entire career (and his career making music for his films cannot be overstated).
8. 'Prince of Darkness' (1987)
One of Carpenter's best, scariest and, oddly, most under-appreciated movies, "Prince of Darkness" is a bone-chilling oddity. A priest (frequent Carpenter confederate Donald Pleasence) recruits a group of graduate students to investigate a vile hidden underneath an abandoned church. This vile, it turns out, is Satan in liquid form. From that zany plot spins out some of his most memorable set pieces and music. If you've never seen it, it's absolutely stunning -- an exercise in sustained terror that few (including Carpenter) have ever topped.
7. 'Escape from New York' (1981)
With "Escape from New York," Carpenter created one of his most lasting icons in Snake Plisskin, a surly convict who is tasked with retrieving the president from the futuristic, war-torn prison island of Manhattan. This is a movie full of big ideas and set pieces, and the fact that it was made on a Roger Corman-sized budget seems almost impossible.
6. 'Christine' (1983)
Carpenter has always insisted that he took this adaptation of the Stephen King evil car novel as a "job," following the disastrous response to his big budget studio project "The Thing." But it's still labeled "John Carpenter's 'Christine,' which implies that he was happy with the result. And looking back on the film, it's nearly perfect. It's arguably Carpenter's most beautifully shot movie, its representation of teen angst is wonderfully defined, and there's all sorts of little details (like the trick photography when the evil car repairs itself) that you can just get lost in.
5. 'They Live' (1988)
Disgustingly, the alt-right has been trying to recast "They Live" as an anti-Semitic screed, even though it very clearly is a satire of Reagan-era consumerism and yuppie culture. (Carpenter recently took to Twitter defending himself; he didn't need to.) The dearly departed "Rowdy" Roddy Piper plays a drifter name Nada who, with the help of magic sunglasses, discovers a sinister alien conspiracy. Keith David is his partner in crime. Yes, it's kitschy and fun but it's also pretty profound.
4. 'Starman' (1984)
When Carpenter made this underrated sci-fi drama, he was still, very much, in damage control mode following "The Thing." If people found "The Thing" to be nasty and nihilistic, he was going to make something that was really, really sweet. And he did. "Starman" might have the greatest performance in any Carpenter movie ever, this time by Jeff Bridges (who would be nominated for an Oscar for his role), as a nebulous spaceman who appears before a grieving widow (Karen Allen) in the form of her dead husband.
3. 'Big Trouble in Little China' (1986)
Carpenter was clearly ahead of his time when he made "Big Trouble in Little China," a movie that combines chop socky martial arts with ancient mysticism and some very goofy jokes. It features Kurt Russell at his most charismatic and a crackerjack script by W.D. Richter, who Carpenter had worked with on "The Thing." Without Carpenter's visionary commitment to the material, it would have been an indecipherable mess. As it stands, it's a classic.
2. 'Halloween' (1978)
The movie that would forever link the words "John Carpenter" with the sensation of being so scared that you think you might pee yourself. "Halloween" is an undisputed champion, a film that spawned an entire sub-genre of gore-soaked copycats and an entire franchise that is still chugging along today. It's delightfully free of subtext; the text is too busy scaring you. Carpenter's elegant direction (he insisted on anamorphic lenses) elevates what could have been hacky genre stuff. As it stands, it's an unforgettable work of horror.
1. 'The Thing' (1982)
It seems weird to award this the #1 slot, considering how many Carpenter cornerstones its actually missing -- the score was composed by legendary Ennio Morricone and not Carpenter himself, it's a remake, and it was, upon initial commercial release, a bona fide bomb. But there are just as many hallmarks nestled inside "The Thing" -- the lead performance by Kurt Russell, a cynical worldview (Carpenter counts this as part of his unofficial "apocalypse trilogy"), and sequences so scary you'll stay up for a week. Also, it's impeccably done, perhaps the finest bit of out-and-out cinematic craftsmanship in Carpenter's entire career, and the characterizations, defined as much by physicality as dialogue, are jaw dropping. Like "Halloween" it was hugely influential -- everything from the Season 1 "X-Files" episode "Ice" to Quentin Tarantino's "The Hateful Eight" (which used large, unused chunks of Morricone's score) -- have taken their cues from Carpenter's wintery masterpiece.