Of all the superlatives one can lay at the feet of director John Carpenter, the thing that always sticks in my mind is the fact that Carpenter managed to end up with a phrase as broad as “the master of horror” indelibly associated with him. That is a really general statement, and yet horror film geeks know exactly who you’re talking about when the phrase “the master of horror” is mentioned. And it’s not George Romero, or Mario Bava. It’s not Tobe Hooper, or Wes Craven, or even the likes of James Wan. No, it’s John Carpenter—it’s even the guy’s Twitter handle! Talk about effective marketing, right?
And it’s funny, looking back at Carpenter’s generous feature film career, because although there’s obviously plenty of classic horror cinema represented, the director’s talents have actually been spread through quite a few genres over the years. Carpenter started his career in satirical science fiction comedy, in fact, before branching out into everything from crime dramas, to love stories, to martial arts action spectaculars. The horror genre may be the “home base” of Carpenter’s career, as we’re reminded with each of the endless string of modern Halloween sequels, but even the “master of horror” had a career far more eclectic than many realize.
It’s been 12 years since the master’s most recent feature film, and the last decade has seen the 74-year-old Carpenter increasingly focused on everything from musical composition and production to videogame fandom. But you always have to wonder if Carpenter believes he has one more feature left in him, and if with the closure of the original Halloween timeline in Halloween Ends, he might feel compelled to bless audiences with his cynical vision one last time. He keeps mentioning that prospective Dead Space movie, after all …
In honor of the master of horror, we recently rewatched every single theatrically released John Carpenter feature film, to assemble the following ranking. Consider it a guided tour of one of the most unique careers in Hollywood history.
Here’s every John Carpenter movie, ranked:
18. Ghosts of Mars (2001)
The absolute nadir of Carpenter’s career, this dreary amalgam of science fiction, horror and action tropes is sold by its fans—what few exist—as some kind of genre satire, but unlike Escape from L.A., it’s difficult to believe while watching that the director intended any kind of knowing parody. And even if he did, it wouldn’t excuse the film’s myriad failings, horrendous casting and depressingly shoddy production, which results in a visual style that suggests not an auteur making a subtle satire, but a tired director running out of both style and steam. It doesn’t matter how you approach Ghosts of Mars—as camp, as comedy, whatever—it’s still a slog to get through, even if it definitely will elicit the occasional guffaw of disbelief. How else could one react to a film told as one long flashback (for no narrative reason), while simultaneously containing multiple levels of flashbacks-within-flashbacks? Inception this ain’t.
Seemingly inspired by both westerns and classic zombie films, the latter of which inform many of the director’s films, Ghosts of Mars is extremely lazy and unambitious for what sounds like it would be a grand sci-fi spectacle. Almost all of the action takes place in a remote, squalid “mining outpost,” which is simply an excuse to use the same exceedingly unimpressive, generic sci-fi sets over and over again. Everything is grating, from the absurd costumes, to the crunching and out-of-place rock soundtrack, to the jaw-droppingly bad CGI action, to the committedly skeevy characterization of Jason Statham’s Sergeant Jericho. Opposing the ragtag band of Mars soldiers, meanwhile, we have a “villain” who speaks entirely in gibberish, and is never even given the courtesy of a name. In the end credits, he is dubbed “Big Daddy Mars.” Sounds like a compelling antagonist!
All of the worst traits and fascinations of late-career Carpenter are at their most deleterious in Ghosts of Mars, from the constant barrage of sexist characters, to his utter fixation on fades and schizophrenic editing, which first became a major problem in Vampires before reaching its zenith here. At one point, a character needs to walk from one end of a room to the other, a distance of maybe 15 feet, and Carpenter uses a fade to have them travel the distance rather than just showing it or cutting to them on the opposite side of the room. It’s sort of amazing that this was a film made at the end of Carpenter’s career, because it feels like something he might have shot when he was 13. Truly terrible, it needs to be seen only by film fans committed to critiquing every feature in the man’s career. Everyone else can safely ignore Ghosts of Mars.
17. Vampires (1998)
Vampires is considerably more technically proficient than Ghosts of Mars, but it suffers mightily in the department of characterization, while sadly also the most regressive and painfully misogynistic of all Carpenter’s features. The film makes up a little ground through some attractive cinematography, especially in its western landscapes and establishing shots, but after finishing Vampires it’s the atrocious action, embarrassing one-liners and reprehensible attitude toward women that will stick in the viewer’s mind.
In its opening moments, though, Vampires does seem to promise an action-horror allure that splits the difference between gritty and flashy. The initial sequence of vampire hunter Jack Crow (James Woods) and his crew of mercs clearing out an old farmhouse full of vampires by hooking them like fish and pulling them screaming out into the sunlight to be vaporized has a thrilling callousness to it, an attitude of almost bureaucratic professionalism applied to the battle between good and evil. The film immediately chooses to dynamite that dynamic, though, eliminating Crow’s entire crew in a motel massacre sequence that is frankly stunning in its almost total lack of coherent choreography and editing. This is the moment that Vampires sheds whatever bits might have been compelling, stranding us with both heroes and villains impossible to accept at face value. Make no mistake, this villain can speak, but in every other respect he’s just about as generic and uninteresting as “Big Daddy Mars.”
The far bigger problem, though, are characters such as Daniel Baldwin’s relentlessly pathetic and chauvinistic Tony Montoya, and Woods’ portrayal of grizzled vampire slayer Crow. In the 12 years that passed between Big Trouble in Little China and Vampires, it’s as if Carpenter is now unironically writing the very epitomes of the male jock hero he was once lampooning. Where we’re meant to understand that Big Trouble’s Jack Burton is a fool, blundering goodnaturedly into an adventure he doesn’t really understand, it feels like we’re supposed to find the character of Jack Crow cool as hell, as if Woods’ tight jeans (black tank top tucked into them) and abhorrent one-liners represent the peak of male bravura. Worse, it’s not just the characters who are constantly objectifying the few women in the film—Twin Peaks icon Sheryl Lee is done a grave disservice by the camera itself, which invites the audience eyeballs to graze on her body as she lies naked, tied to a bed by our protagonists. As a fan of Carpenter, it’s a tough film to watch, and I’m glad Vampires stands out as more of an outlier than a persistent theme in the man’s career.
16. Dark Star (1974)
Carpenter’s first feature film, Dark Star is an uneven, messy, but cinematically curious bit of ephemera, one that feels like a student art film primarily because that’s exactly how it began its life. Carpenter co-wrote with Dan O’Bannon, the writer of Alien and eventual writer-director of the immortal Return of the Living Dead, and some of O’Bannon’s wry humor can be felt in this tale of lazy, mentally addled long-haul space pilots as they suffer their way through an endless mission of destroying unnecessary or “unstable” planets. We can also palpably feel the crew’s debilitating boredom as they drift through space on a pointless quest, growing old as they listen to elevator music. It’s a slow, slow way to die.
Dark Star is at its best while exploring the philosophical confines of what feels like an experimental short film, as encapsulated by the redundancies and illogical nature of a system where the space pilots must debate with their own, A.I.-empowered and sentient bombs in order to convince the bombs to do their jobs. These strange discussions allow for rambling pontificating on the nature of free will and identity, contributing what are ultimately the signature sequences of Dark Star—men arguing with bombs about whether they should or shouldn’t explode. It’s as strange to see on screen as it sounds on the page.
Unfortunately, though, the film bogs down interminably in the second act, during a sequence involving a beachball-shaped alien creature on the loose in the ship, feeling for all intents and purposes like extra footage that was crammed into a short film to help it reach “feature length.” The end result is a film that feels stretched well past its breaking point, occasionally blessed with moments of imagination and a kooky sense of humor, but nowhere near ready to fill even 83 minutes of screentime. It absolutely feels like a first feature, albeit an admirable one.
15. The Ward (2010)
The Ward is Carpenter’s most recent feature film to date, and represented his Hollywood comeback after almost a decade, following the disaster that was Ghosts of Mars. And as a comeback, The Ward really isn’t bad—it proved he could still quite competently put a movie together, but it ultimately aspires to very little else, unless you want to give it a huge amount of credit for what turns out to be a deeply illogical twist in the final moments. It feels like a very “safe” attempt to get back on his feet, and honestly that’s fine. It’a also easy to appreciate that Carpenter thankfully dismisses the more problematic, misogynist elements of some of his later works, which is significant here given the film’s cast of young, attractive Hollywood starlets. With the One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest psych ward setting, The Ward easily could have descended into full-on “women in prison”-style exploitation, but this time around the director displays some welcome restraint in objectifying his cast.
As for the script, The Ward is for the most part a classic ghost story, fused with abusive psychological escape drama. It’s not particularly visually striking, but the worst excesses of Ghosts of Mars and its obsession with fades are toned down a bit here, and it does feature a character lineup of enjoyably kooky residents, each with their own tics, evocative of something like the mental hospital residents of A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. Getting on board with the protagonist played by Amber Heard, on the other hand, is a bit more difficult—we’re meant to empathize with her due to the mistreatment she perceives, but she’s simultaneously resistant to all genuine attempts to help her situation. How can one really be in the camp of a character delivering the line “there is no emotional trauma!” while she’s simultaneously weeping and flashing back to her memory loss from the day before? Even when she meets those genuinely attempting to help her, she shows little interest in self preservation.
And as for the big reveal … well, it’s some classic cheese, with implications that immediately introduce half a dozen paradoxes in the events we’ve already seen. At the end of the day, The Ward feels like a competent, low-budget potboiler, rather than the passionate return of an industry legend to the spotlight.
14. Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992)
In the 1980s, John Carpenter had produced an extremely impressive string of genre classics, though not all (such as The Thing) had been received as successes at the time. The 1990s, on the other hand, saw Carpenter initially trying to expand and seemingly shed his image as exclusively a horror filmmaker, resulting in one of the strangest projects of his career: 1992’s Memoirs of an Invisible Man.
This is a film uniquely adrift in terms of its tone, constantly at odds with itself over what exactly it’s supposed to be. In the 2000 book Which Lie Did I Tell? by screenwriter William Goldman, he writes that Memoirs of an Invisible Man had originally been developed as a vehicle for Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman, before Reitman bailed due to disagreements with notoriously difficult star Chevy Chase. It’s easy to imagine how this version of the film would have been a far more natural fit, combining some of the same smart aleck humor of Peter Venkman with a similar fusion of science fiction, comedy and even light horror. In the hands of John Carpenter, however, it feels like Memoirs of an Invisible Man is constantly being pulled in multiple ways at once. While Carpenter resists the imperative for the film to be scary or science fiction-driven, seemingly seeing it as more of a combination of drama, noir and romance, star Chevy Chase seems dead set against committing to any of the material in the script that was likely intended to be more overtly comedic.
This seeming clash between script, director and star leaves Memoirs of an Invisible Man in a strange, moribund place, stranded between distinct takes on the same material that probably could have been pulled off more effectively. The reliance on parodic, noir-style narration is an odd touch, and Chase’s Nick Halloway never quite manages to materialize into a relatable figure. The one person who does come off surprisingly well is Sam Neill as effectively dangerous-looking CIA agent David Jenkins, a performance that must have impressed Carpenter, given that he went on to cast Neill as his lead in In the Mouth of Madness two years later. Memoirs, on the other hand, has the distinction of feeling like perhaps the “least Carpenter” of any movie in the director’s filmography.
13. Escape from L.A. (1996)
It’s rare to find a film sequel that is simultaneously so similar, and so opposite its predecessor, but Escape from L.A. is that movie. Where Carpenter’s 1981 original is a brooding, moody piece of dystopian satire, one that gets by on tone and the undeniable star presence of Kurt Russell more than it does on actual action or setpieces, Escape from L.A. runs wild with every conceivable idea that passes through the head of its writer-director. Snake Plissken hasn’t changed, but the world around him has gotten orders of magnitude more absurd. What this yields is a relentlessly zany adventure, featuring a protagonist embodying the utter zenith of the badass cinematic antihero—he’s every Han Solo trope, except stretched well beyond the boundaries of any kind of reality. That character is turned loose in the least subtle social satire imaginable, and yet Escape from L.A. defies its crummy reputation by simultaneously being deliriously entertaining from start to finish. By this metric, at least, Escape from L.A. is a better film than it’s often portrayed.
As for the story, it’s literally Escape from New York all over again, as captured outlaw/legendary soldier Snake Plissken is given another suicide mission by the U.S. government, to infiltrate the penal colony of L.A. in a dystopian 2013, where all the undesirables are housed in a United States that has been overthrown by the religious far right. Kurt Russell is again the film’s biggest asset, as he oozes true movie star charisma. The fact that he manages to do that while dressed in a leather catsuit, looking like he’s holding out for the release of The Matrix in three years, is all the more impressive. There’s something gloriously stupid about the challenges he’s made to take on in this film, especially when he’s forced to dribble and shoot basketballs to save his life in the film’s crowning sequence.
Escape from L.A. is so aggressively absurd, in fact, that its proponents often claim the entire film is very much intended as parody of both American machismo and action cinema cliches. I can’t say for certain whether this is true—it certainly feels like Carpenter truly believes Snake is the coolest dude around—but whether or not the director intends it, the audience is still able to enjoy the film as parody, and it functions much better this way. The atrocious CGI, childish costuming and characters with names like “Cuervo Jones” only add to this effect, as does the absolutely breathless pace, which often sees elaborately detailed sets used for a single three minute scene before being immediately discarded. Never has it felt like Carpenter had more money to burn, and it makes perfect sense when you see that Escape from L.A. possessed the biggest budget of his career. Of all the movies in his filmography, this one feels the most deserving of the title “guilty pleasure.”
12. Village of the Damned (1995)
Although one typically thinks of John Carpenter in the context of original screenplays and story concepts, it’s not as if the guy was opposed to making a story that had been told before—The Thing is effectively a remake, after all, of Christian Nyby’s classic The Thing From Another World. But where The Thing is a clear Carpenter passion project, his 1995 remake of 1960 British horror flick Village of the Damned feels much more like cinematic mercenary work, with Carpenter basically shrugging his shoulders at subpar casting and a thoroughly conventional script, and electing to simply get the project done without investing his heart in it. Perhaps he was still disappointed at the time at the box office failure of In the Mouth of Madness a year earlier.
Regardless, this is a workmanlike effort all the way, and is arguably Carpenter’s most competently forgettable film. It benefits from the strength of its basic premise, which is as powerful and inexplicable as ever—the entire population of a town collapses one day, only to find that a handful of town women have suddenly become pregnant. When born, the silver-haired children are emotionally cold but hyper-intelligent, seeming to act as a hive organism before they start using their innate psychic powers to torture anyone who would stand in the way of their mysterious plans. The child casting is actually one of the film’s stronger aspects, and there’s some effective cinematography and imagery of the group of kids marching in lockstep, highlighting the budding humanity and individualism of David, the only one of the children without a “partner.”
Unfortunately, the film is let down by much of its starring cast, particularly Christopher Reeve as the primary protagonist. He’s still operating in full-on Superman mode, and his moralizing feels stiff, wooden and unrealistic throughout. Mark Hamill is wasted as the wild-eyed town preacher, a character that could have been utilized more heavily to illustrate the human side of evil. Likewise, the “horror” sequences of the kids using their powers to force townsfolk to destroy themselves have a tendency to come off as silly rather than scary. All in all, Village of the Damned just feels short, tidy and perfunctory—it’s perfectly watchable, but has no particular interest in exploring any ethically gray territory. Carpenter punched in, got the job done, and punched out.
11. Christine (1983)
Christine certainly doesn’t feel like one of John Carpenter’s bigger or more ambitious films, but it’s a more than competent Stephen King adaptation all the same. Tidy and self-assured, it has all the King hallmarks one expects—the psychotic high school bullies, the classic rock ‘n roll music—punched up with some fantastic (but sparingly used) practical effects and a few flourishes of classic Carpenter electronic musical scoring. It’s not quite as likely to leave a lasting impression as some of the director’s other works of the era, but it’s a very easy watch.
Our characters in Christine are essentially a menagerie of greasy, surly high school weirdos, with the nebbish Arnie as our unlikely leading man. To the very last person, everyone on screen in Christine is terminally horny—even the old man who sells them the car—and their conversational patter abounds with what can only be described as raunchy “locker room talk.” Perhaps it’s this overall attitude that is to blame for everyone seemingly not noticing when Arnie acquires the junker of a car and begins to undergo radical personality changes.
What follows is a story about temptation and empowerment, and Arnie does become effectively creepy as Christine comes to dominate his psyche. There are some excellent conversational scenes featuring Arnie and his friends, cruising the interstate late at night, which illustrate the dangerous fatalism he’s acquired from his prized possession Christine. In the end, it’s a sick little love story, but not between man and woman.
10. Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
It’s sort of strange in retrospect that John Carpenter never directed a proper “zombie movie,” considering how often the films of his career are deeply informed by them. Numerous Carpenter projects could be described as “basically a zombie movie, except…”, such as The Fog and Ghosts of Mars, in which the zombies are more or less just replaced by angry spirits, or Prince of Darkness, which has another layer of dreamy mysticism infused in it from start to finish. But none of his films are more of a zombie movie analog than Assault on Precinct 13, a Night of the Living Dead tribute in which the undead have been supplanted by bullet-spraying gang soldiers, but the racial tension remains just the same.
This is a gritty, take-no-prisoners action drama, standing apart from even Carpenter’s more overt horror films in its unflinching and disturbingly direct depiction of wanton violence. The early scene in which a little girl is graphically shot dead while standing at an ice cream truck is genuinely shocking for how callously cruel and uncaring it is—her death means absolutely nothing to the criminal who blows her way on a whim, and it quickly establishes that our villains are little more than zombie-like beasts, bereft of humanity. When they lay siege to a decommissioned LAPD office operating with a tiny skeleton crew, the desperation in the air becomes palpable quickly.
It may not quite have the elemental fear of his follow-up Halloween, but Assault on Precinct 13 is in fact the more complex film, an early testament in Carpenter’s career to his skill with composition (visual and musical) and biting criticism of “modern life.”
9. Starman (1984)
John Carpenter’s Starman is one of those movies that is inextricably linked to another, similar film of the era that would go on to much greater pop cultural impact—in this case, Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Initially developed alongside Spielberg’s Night Skies (which would become E.T.) at Columbia, it was a film that was seen very differently by various writers, producers and would-be directors. Some envisioned Starman as a family drama, others as hard sci-fi spectacle. The eventual release of E.T. threw a spanner in the works for the Starman script, as it was also about a friendly alien who comes to Earth and is taken in by a supportive human presence. Enter, John Carpenter of all people, whose vision for Starman focused more on its dramatic and romantic aspects, and the bond that develops between a woman and an alien (who happens to look just like her dead husband) as they travel across the country on the run from the U.S. government. It’s safe to say this is about as different a take on alien life from Carpenter’s 1982 masterpiece The Thing as is possible.
Even with that in mind, though, you can’t really fail to note the Amblin-esque feel—this film is Carpenter at his most Spielbergian, something particularly inescapable during a sweeping close-up of the face of Karen Allen, who had starred in Raiders of the Lost Ark only three years earlier. And yet, there’s trademark Carpenter to spare here as well, particularly in the genuinely horrific transformation of the alien presence into an adult Jeff Bridges, which briefly calls to mind the body horror of The Thing. There’s also a certain wryness to the film, a bit of Carpenter’s own brand of cynicism, perfectly captured in the opening sequences of an alien being invited to visit Earth by the Voyager space probe, only to be immediately shot down upon his arrival.
All in all, Starman is a strange and individualistic beast. It can be slow and meandering, slightly stilted but quite sentimental all the same. The budget for explosions, inexplicably, is far bigger than you would likely expect. But thanks to the keen performance of Jeff Bridges in particular, who never truly grows “too human,” and does an excellent job of portraying a detached alien consciousness, Starman is memorably eccentric.
8. Escape from New York (1981)
In Escape from New York, John Carpenter creates a whole lot of atmosphere with a minimum of actual resources and setpieces. It’s a testament to how effectively he sets the scene, and chooses a perfect leading man for the job, that viewers often remember Escape from New York as being a bigger, bolder film than it truly is.
In reality, Escape from New York is really pretty modest—certainly nothing like the completely over-the-top ludicrousness that permeates every moment of sequel Escape from L.A., which was made with a much bigger budget and much less restraint. Here, the city is shrouded by night through the entire runtime, and we really only get a suggestion of what kind of urban deathmaze NYC has become since the dystopian government roped it off and turned it into the country’s biggest free-range prison. The use of NYC landmarks is minimal, and there’s not even that much action to speak of, save for some underground fighting pits in which the grizzled Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) does battle with professional wrestler Ox Baker. Even the film’s big conclusion essentially consists of a couple of cars driving slowly across a bridge, which isn’t exactly “white knuckle.”
Where the film shines is in its setting and its characters, having assembled an all-timer cast of character actors to do the job, from Tom Atkins and the squirrelly Harry Dean Stanton to Donald Pleasence, Ernest Borgnine, Lee Van Cleef and Isaac Hayes as antagonist “The Duke.” But none of it would work without Russell, who makes his Snake Plissken into perhaps the ultimate cinematic antihero. His sneer and utter disdain for the powers that be turn an underwritten character into a cultural icon, with characterization coming largely not from his own mouth but from the way the world so often reacts in awe or disgust of his legend. Few movie characters have ever been so perfectly suited to anchor the story they’re in.
7. The Fog (1980)
If you’re a horror fan, it’s hard not to love the basic premise of The Fog, with its billowing clouds of white vapor that bring swift death along with them. John Carpenter’s follow-up to Halloween had a somewhat larger budget to work with, and the practical effects look great as a result, although it wasn’t as successful at the box office. Regardless, The Fog is a superior film from a production standpoint, reuniting Carpenter with Jamie Lee Curtis, albeit in a less important role. It concerns a Californian coastal town that is celebrating its 100th anniversary when dark secrets from the 1800s begin to emerge. Turns out that the “city fathers” committed some pretty serious crimes against humanity, and now a crew of restless revenants has returned to dish out some much-deserved revenge. Caught up in the madness is Adrienne Barbeau, Carpenter’s wife of the time, debuting on screen in the role that would make her a scream queen figure for decades. There’s simply a great sense of atmosphere in The Fog, especially in the dense, otherworldly way that the glowing banks of fog move throughout town, amplified by a signature John Carpenter synth soundtrack. Anyone who knows Carpenter would be able to pick out his unique style immediately in this one.
It’s also another entry in the director’s history of “basically a zombie movie, except for ____” films, with the caveat here being that the zombie-esque antagonists are technically ghosts. No matter, they’re effectively chilling no matter what we’re calling them. Of note: Carpenter completists will appreciate the presence here of actress Nancy Loomis in another Halloween follow-up, having played Laurie Strode’s best friend Annie two years earlier.
6. In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
There’s a strong case to be made for In the Mouth of Madness as potentially the last great film of Carpenter’s career, to be mentioned in the same breath as his better-known gems. Certainly, most horror geeks would agree it’s the best of his 1990s output. This is a strange, delirious odyssey—uneven without a doubt, but visually inspired and anchored by a strong central performance from an actor who seems to understand exactly what is needed of him.
That performance comes courtesy of Sam Neill, one year removed from the biggest starring role of his life in Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, and thus likely at the peak of his fame in the eyes of American audiences. He’s playing John Trent, a no-nonsense freelance insurance investigator who is hired by a book publisher to look into the apparent disappearance of bestselling horror author Sutter Cane, who the film dutifully informs us “outsells Stephen King,” so you know he’s clearly a big deal. Cane’s novels have been a pop-cultural sensation, with rumors that they’ve even affected the mental state of “less stable readers.” Trent is tasked with tracking down Cane for purely economic reasons—the manuscript for his newest work is late, and time is money. It jibes perfectly with the skeptical, rather dismissive energy that Neill gives to Trent—he distrusts everyone around him, assuming duplicity exists in every soul, and it’s just a matter of ferreting it out. An early scene illustrates Trent’s ability to force a confession from an oily businessman, but what use will his cynical, smarmy talents be when put up against supernatural evil for which there is no earthly explanation? What if Trent is not the master of his own destiny?
Stephen King may be the horror author overtly namechecked, but In the Mouth of Madness is much more directly Carpenter’s tribute to the pioneering weird fiction of author H.P. Lovecraft, to the point that the film is almost a collage of Lovecraft’s greatest hits—interdimensional elder gods, parallel dimensions and Things Too Horrible to Describe. There’s no overt Cthulhu appearance, but there might as well be, as Sutter Cane presents like one of the romanticized pop culture representations of Lovecraft as tortured genius (in addition to counter-criticism of his racist writings) that have become more common in the last few decades as the writer’s works have steadily been absorbed into the mainstream. Carpenter’s tribute seems to presage the mainstreaming of weird fiction and cosmic horror itself, and you have to wonder what the director thinks today of the visibility of Lovecraft as a genre, and indeed a verb, almost 30 years later.
5. They Live (1988)
Like most of John Carpenter’s movies, They Live can be read however one pleases—they are, after all, mostly about pleasing you. A sharp commentary on consumerism carved gleefully with a dull knife, or maybe something closer to a concerned embrace of the bourgeois joys inherent in dumb violence, or maybe just a weird-ass sci-fi action movie with a weird-ass leading man: They Live is, almost inherently, a joy to watch. It’s as if Carpenter’s tapped into some sort of primordially aligned pleasure axis along your spine, giving you the tingles as he balances insight and idiocy throughout his tale about a drifter (“Rowdy” Roddy Piper) who, with the help of magic sunglasses, discovers that the rich and powerful are just as grotesque as he’d always assumed. Every one of Carpenter’s odd plot choices click into place as if preordained, so that when Piper’s in a completely pointless, six-minute fight scene with Keith David, one can’t help but love that Carpenter’s in on the punchline with all of us, which just happens to be that there is no punchline. The fight scene exists for its own sake—as maybe much of They Live does. Carpenter’s a goddamn genius. —Dom Sinacola
4. Prince of Darkness (1987)
I’m prepared to make a case for Prince of Darkness as John Carpenter’s most underrated film, at least among a rank-and-file film viewership. There’s no doubt that this movie does possess a certain cult among the director’s fandom, and a distinct species of horror geek in particular, but it simultaneously deserves a wider critical reappraisal. As part two of what is sometimes referred to as the director’s “apocalypse trilogy,” along with The Thing and In the Mouth of Madness, it treads some similar ideological ground, but never in his career does Carpenter weave such a tapestry of sorrow and hopelessness as he does here. To immerse yourself in Prince of Darkness is to feel mankind’s utter insignificance in an incomprehensibly vast, cold and bleak universe, and to simultaneously be certain that we probably don’t have what it takes to survive it.
The plot of Prince of Darkness, what little there really is, concerns the long-hidden basement of a Catholic parish in L.A., where we’re told a luminescent canister of swirling green ooze had been safeguarded by mystics for hundreds or thousands of years. What’s inside? Nothing less than the distilled essence of Satan himself, but Prince of Darkness is by no means content to stop there. In this universe, even the ultimate evil of Satan is only the scion of an original source of all darkness and entropy, and that ur-evil is now hungrily crouched on the doorstep of our reality, ready to step through the veil. It’s up to a handful of research students (and Donald Pleasence!) to stand in its way, as the presence of pure evil begins its inevitable corruption. What follows is one part The Thing and another part Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond, gleefully untethered from even an iota of “hey, will people think this is too weird?” restraint.
The result is perhaps the perfect amalgam of random Carpenter trademarks and elements, from the synth-y score to the reappearing cast members from Halloween and Big Trouble in Little China. It’s a wildly creative exploration of concepts of liquid reality and dreams vs. waking life, far ahead of its time in some of its recurring elements such as the “transmissions from the future.” These dream sequences, shot with a grainy VHS camcorder aesthetic, feel like a foundational text for the concept of found footage horror, the kind of lo-fi realistic imagery that would totally reshape the genre two decades later. The audience, meanwhile, is likely to find itself in breathless, uncomfortable silence throughout—Prince of Darkness holds the viewer rapt, equal parts confused and unnerved. This movie casts a disturbing spell—if you haven’t seen it for years, plan to revisit it soon.
3. Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
The finest of Carpenter’s “adventure movies” without a doubt, Big Trouble in Little China is also one of the decade’s more broadly entertaining genre mish-mashes. Fantastical, colorful and brimming with parody of American action machismo, the film might also be Carpenter’s finest satire—entertaining enough to appreciate at face value, but sly enough in its commentary that some contemporary viewers no doubt missed what it was saying about it’s so-called “hero,” Jack Burton.
Burton is yet another iconic Carpenter protagonist portrayed by Kurt Russell, but he’s pretty much the antithesis of Snake Plissken or R.J. MacReady in terms of his attitude. Brash, loudmouthed, hotheaded and not particularly bright, Burton doesn’t so much uncover a mystery in Chinatown as he does fall ass-backward into it, smack dab into the business of immortal sorcerer David Lo Pan (a never-better James Hong) as he searches for a mystical “girl with green eyes” who can restore his humanity. Burton is a big, dumb brick of grade-A action beefcake, all oiled biceps and glorious mullet, and audiences are primed to accept this man as our hero … even though in reality, he’s more accurately playing the part of the goofy sidekick. The true protagonist of Big Trouble in Little China is the fearless and competent Wang Chi (Dennis Dun), who engages in death-defying stunt work and aerial swordplay while Burton is … firing his gun into the air and subsequently being knocked unconscious by falling debris for most of an action scene. Burton’s just along for the ride, largely unaware of what the hell is going on for most of the film, an ingenue suffering from delusions of grandeur.
That kind of satire is easier to miss, though, in a film as relentlessly paced and exciting as Big Trouble in Little China is through its brisk 99 minutes. It throws a stunning collection of sights at the screen—huge back alley kung fu battles, flying and exploding lightning assassins, hairy sewer monsters, and instantly iconic, neon-drenched sets that encapsulate the style of the late 1980s like no other film has ever quite managed to replicate. In terms of pure aesthetic appeal, Big Trouble in Little China really can’t be beaten.
2. Halloween (1978)
For students of John Carpenter’s filmography, it is interesting to note that Halloween is actually a significantly less ambitious film than his previous Assault on Precinct 13 on almost every measurable level. It doesn’t have the sizable cast of extras, or the extensive FX and stunt work. It’s not filled with action sequences. But what it does give us is the first full distillation of the American slasher film, and a heaping helping of atmosphere. Carpenter built off earlier proto-slashers such as Bob Clark’s Black Christmas in penning the legend of Michael Myers, an unstoppable phantom who returns to his hometown on Halloween night to stalk high school girls. (The original title was actually The Babysitter Murders, if you haven’t heard that particular bit of trivia before.) In the process, he becomes a mythic figure of evil.
Carpenter heavily employs tools that would become synonymous with slashers, such as the killer’s POV perspective, making Myers into something of a voyeur (he’s just called “The Shape” in the credits) who lurks silently in the darkness with inhuman patience before finally making his move. It’s impossible to suss out his thought process—is he titillated by the promiscuous young women he’s stalking, or is he even capable of recognizing another human? It’s a lean, mean movie with some absurd characterization in its first half (particularly from the ditzy P.J. Soles, who can’t stop saying “totally”) that then morphs into a claustrophobic crescendo of tension as Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode first comes into contact with Myers. Utterly indispensable to the whole thing is the great Donald Pleasance as Dr. Loomis, the killer’s personal hype man/Ahab, whose sole purpose in the screenplay is to communicate to the audience with frothing hyperbole just what a monster this Michael Myers really is. It can’t be overstated how important Pleasance is to making this film into the cultural touchstone that would inspire the early ’80s slasher boom to follow. Without Loomis, Michael is just a man. With him, he becomes something more.
1. The Thing (1982)
As a 30-something horror geek who first dove headfirst into the genre in college, there was never a time for me when cultural appraisal of John Carpenter’s The Thing was anything other than as a universally lauded masterpiece of the horror and science fiction genres. That’s the reality I’ve always existed in, which makes it all that much stranger to read about how much critics sincerely hated Carpenter’s film upon its release in 1982. They hated its unflinchingly gross gore and morphing effects. They hated its cold indifference toward humanity, and its distrust of authority. They hated the way its characters failed to band together in a cohesive or satisfying way to repel an alien invader. They hated it with such verve, in fact, that the magazine Cinefantastique ran a cover story on The Thing with the following caption: “Is this the most hated movie of all time?”
It’s incredible, then, to think of how utterly the film was reappraised over the course of the next three decades. How many classics in this genre really end up that way after being not just “overlooked” in their initial releases, but widely condemned as abominations? The consensus on The Thing reshaped itself with an alacrity not unlike its titular, shape-shifting monster.
One thing the critics certainly weren’t wrong about was the film’s emotional temperature—everything about The Thing is icy cold and remorseless. It is ponderous when it wants to be, but Carpenter’s slowly panning shots tend to hide nuggets of information meant to give audiences the tools they need to pick apart its central mystery. The question of any given moment—who is The Thing, and what is its aim?—can often be deduced by following Carpenter’s careful clues, although some meetings, such as the final one between MacReady and Childs, are purposefully left ambiguous to stir a never-ending debate. It’s the stuff that armchair YouTube film essays are made of.
From a purely technical standpoint, The Thing is clearly a triumph. Every shot conveys vital information. Its score, from Ennio Morricone, fuses the talents of the Italian master with Carpenter’s own ear for electronic-driven soundtracks, amplifying the film’s sense of apocalyptic detachment. Its visual FX, largely from Rob Bottin and with an assist from Stan Winston, are perhaps the greatest collection of horror film practical effects sequences ever assembled. Each transformation or assimilation sequence outdoes the last in pure, nightmare-inducing shock value, making the film’s antagonist into cinema’s most insidious alien presence. Say what you will for the Xenomorph in Alien, but at least that thing is brutally straightforward in its intentions to kill you. The Thing, on the other hand, operates with an alien intelligence that is utterly emotionless and unknowable. It’s never even completely clear if those who are The Thing know whether or not they’ve become The Thing—perhaps it simply sits in one’s system at times, idle, letting you live out your life until it’s time to emerge. You could be The Thing right now, in fact …
Jim Vorel is a Paste Magazine staff writer and resident horror buff. You can follow him on Twitter for more film writing.