Ranking all of John Carpenter’s movies from worst to best

The landscape of 20th-century cinema owes a lot to the frenetic creative energy of filmmaker John Carpenter. An iconic cult director, screenwriter and composer, Carpenter’s influential camp style would have a direct impact on the industry in the late 1970s and 1980s, whilst his contributions to the horror genre with the creation of the first slasher villain in 1978s Halloween would change teen splatter flicks forever.  

Beginning his career in the industry in 1969 when he enrolled on a film course at USC Cinema, Carpenter quickly began to establish his distinctive style, working as the co-writer, film editor, and music composer for The Resurrection of Broncho Billy in 1970 alongside producer John Longenecker. Winning an Academy Award for Best Live-Action Short Film, the film helped Carpenter to receive funding for his very first feature film, Dark Star.

Co-writing the film with Dan O’Bannon, who later penned the screenplay for Ridley Scott’s Alien, Carpenter was praised for his ability to make the most out of a shoestring budget. Such led to the director’s restricted, DIY style that relies more on smart tension rather than visceral gore, with the action often scored to his own minimalist soundtracks that often innovative utilised electronic music. 

Creating cinematic gems, The Thing, Escape from New York and Big Trouble in Little China, throughout the 1980s, John Carpenter became the creative voice of the revolutionary American youth. Although his creative juices somewhat dissipated towards the turn of the new millennium, the influence of Carpenter’s frenzied originality can still be felt in popular culture today. 

John Carpenter movies ranked from worst to best:

18. Ghosts of Mars (2001)

No, you’re not mistaken. Yes, John Carpenter did make this. Ghosts of Mars is a confusingly bad film about the future of colonisation, revolving around a mining colony in 22nd century Mars where the residents have all been possessed by the ghosts of the people who originally lived on the planet. 

It’s a sociopolitical allegory that just doesn’t work, featuring terrible dialogue, campy acting and a confusing narrative structure. If you are really interested in Carpenter’s B-movie obsession and want to avoid his usual touches of brilliance, Ghost of Mars is the perfect watch for you.

17. The Ward (2010)

Another glaring dud from Carpenter, The Ward stars Amber Heard as a disturbed young woman who ends up in a mental institution after burning an abandoned farmhouse. Her time in the psychiatric facility is complicated when she realises that she is being haunted by the ghost of a former inmate. 

Failing to provide anything original, The Ward is a cheap thrill that pales in comparison to the heights Carpenter reached with his previous horror masterpieces. The Ward is strictly for the Carpenter completionists who feel the need to watch everything the man has put out. 

16. Vampires (1998)

Vampires might not be in the top half of Carpenter’s filmography, but it’s definitely a fan favourite. A John Carpenter vampire western sounds amazing on paper, and the film has its merits, even though it had the potential to be so much more. 

James Woods plays the role of Jack Crow, the leader of a group of vampire hunters who has dedicated his life to the termination of vampires after they killed his parents. Filled with intense action and a sense of humour, Vampires is special in its own way.

15. Village of the Damned (1995)

A bizarre sci-fi project by Carpenter, Village of the Damned is actually an adaptation of John Wyndham’s novel ‘The Midwich Cuckoos’, telling the story of an American village which faces unnatural consequences after an alien entity visits it.

Following the extraterrestrial encounter, the women in the village become pregnant, but the children they give birth to have sinister secrets to hide. It fails to capture the atmosphere of horror and intrigue of the 1960 original, but it is still a commendable effort. 

14. Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992)  

A unique black comedy, Memoirs of an Invisible Man is about a man named Nick who becomes invisible after witnessing a nuclear accident. Although he has enough problems to deal with as an invisible man, it gets worse when a terrifying CIA official starts pursuing him.

The comedy elements of Memoirs of an Invisible Man aren’t that prominent, and there’s a reason for it. Carpenter’s 1992 work is more of an existential exploration of individual identity, almost acting as a commentary on the invisibility of the individual in the modern era. 

13. Christine (1983) 

Now we’re slowly entering the Carpenter A-list. Based on Stephen King’s famous novel, Christine follows a teenager who buys a 1958 Plymouth Fury and becomes obsessed with refurbishing the iconic car. 

However, to his surprise, the car is possessed by an evil spirit which threatens to unleash destruction upon everything in sight. The idea of the car as a living entity is not new in horror films, but Christine is among the better-executed ones. 

12. Escape from L.A. (1996)

A true Kurt Russell classic, Escape from L.A. features the actor as feared mercenary Snake Plissken, who gets involved in an impossible mission. He is tasked with the enormous responsibility of deactivating a doomsday device and saving the President’s daughter.

Although Escape from L.A. isn’t nearly as masterful as its predecessor, it is still a fine post-apocalyptic thriller which has found a cult following in subsequent years. In later interviews, Carpenter maintained that he thought Escape from L.A. was the better of the two.

11. Prince of Darkness (1987) 

The second addition to Carpenter’s famous Apocalypse Trilogy, Prince of Darkness has a fascinating premise. A mysterious green liquid is discovered in the basement of an abandoned monastery, soon investigated by a group of physics students.

While scientists can quickly identify most substances, this liquid is beyond the realm of physical sciences. It is a sentient embodiment of Satan, capable of great evil. The central metaphor of Prince of Darkness is incredibly compelling. It doesn’t hurt that the rest of the film is amazing too.

10. The Fog (1980) 

A proper Carpenter cult classic, The Fog might have received mixed reviews when it first came out, but it only deserves praise. The film is set in a small town in Northern California, which is suddenly covered by a mysterious and impenetrable fog.

Like many of Carpenter’s other works, the fog works as a powerful metaphor. It facilitates the rise of the ghosts of leprous mariners from another era, generating unprecedented destabilisation in small-town America. It’s definitely among Carpenter’s better horror experiments.

9. Dark Star (1974)

John Carpenter’s debut movie is a surprisingly impressive and competent piece of filmmaking, with the sci-fi comedy telling the story of a small space crew who find things begin to go hilariously wrong 20 years into their solitary mission. Captured on a budget of just $60,000, Carpenter wrote the script for the 1974 movie with Dan O’Bannon whilst attending the University of Southern California in the early ‘70s. 

Featuring the director’s trademark taste for camp comedy, Carpenter’s film would be the precursor to many of his later successful sci-fi flicks, including The Thing and They Live.

8. Starman (1984)

Playing off the back of Steven Spielberg’s success with E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Carpenter’s Starman, a sci-fi love story which follows an alien who takes the form of a young Wisconsin widow’s husband, may sound eye-rolling, but it’s a surprisingly heartwarming affair. Starring Jeff Bridges and Karen Allen, the film failed to make much of a splash at the time but has become considered one of the director’s most underrated flicks in recent years. 

Though it lacks the director’s truly innovative touch, Starman can be appreciated as a triumph outside of Carpenter’s comfort zone, proving that he was capable of multiple forms of storytelling. 

7. In the Mouth of Madness (1994)

Having been an iconic name of Hollywood cinema in the 1970s and 1980s, Carpenter undoubtedly ran out of steam toward the twilight of the century. His 1994 Lovecraftian horror, In the Mouth of Madness, was one of the director’s final great films, with the eerie, creepy science fiction flick presenting a narrative both terrifying and strangely believable, following John Trent (Sam Neill), a private investigator hired to find the missing novelist Sutter Crane and help deliver his final manuscripts to his publishers. 

The book in question, however, contains horrors so horrific and unfathomable that it sends any reader insane. A classic Carpenter concept, well executed, In the Mouth of Madness, is a bizarre, occasionally terrifying film.

6. Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

Shot in 20 days with a budget of just $100,000, Assault on Precinct 13 was Carpenter’s sophomore movie following the release of Dark Star in 1974 and would prove to be one of his most seminal films, helping to establish his name and style in the industry. Writing, directing, editing and even creating the main theme of the movie, Carpenter’s 1976 classic is proof of his pure creative dynamism. 

The movie followed Lt. Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker), who, alongside two criminals and a station secretary, is forced to defend an old LA precinct office against a violent street gang. With shades of Escape from New York and a trickling of Halloween, Assault on Precinct 13 is a real treat. 

5. They Live (1988)

Alongside Halloween and The Thing, Carpenter’s 1988 movie They Live may be his most iconic piece of work, with several moments from the film making their way into popular culture. From the sunglasses that reveal consumerist lies to the idea of aliens living under human skin and the line “I’m here to kick ass and chew bubblegum, and I’m all out of bubblegum,” the message behind They Live has become increasingly pertinent. 

Overtly anti-consumerist, Carpenter’s cult classic has become synonymous with stories that reject modern capitalism. Based on the short story Eight O’Clock in the Morning by Ray Nelson, Carpenter’s film follows two friends, Nada (Roddy Piper) and Frank (Keith David), who discover sunglasses that allow them to see the lies beneath modern society, as well as the aliens that are running the show beneath our noses.

4. Escape from New York (1981)

If one film could be chosen to represent the frenetic pace and unpredictability of Hollywood cinema in the 1980s, we’d opt for John Carpenter’s 1982 action adventure flick Escape From New York starring Kurt Russell. Set just over a decade after the film’s release, Carpenter takes us to the wild world of 1997, where the U.S. president crashes into Manhattan, now a giant maximum security prison, and a convicted bank robber is chosen to rescue him. 

Carried by its marvellous concept, this bonkers story, following the beautifully named criminal Snake Plissken, is a joyous celebration of all that makes Carpenter so eccentric. Lest we forget, the director also created the iconic soundtrack.

3. Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

Much like Escape from New York, but with an added dose of surreal fantasy, 1986’s Big Trouble in Little China may as well be a spiritual sequel to the former 1981 flick. Starring Kurt Russell once again, this time as the wise-cracking truck driver Jack Burton, the joyously silly movie tells the story of an unlikely duo who must face off against an ancient sorcerer in a supernatural battle beneath Chinatown.

Frenetic, vibrant and eccentric in a way in which modern blockbusters are scared to be, Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China is one of the greatest examples of his endearing, enduring legacy. 

2. Halloween (1978) 

Sure, Alfred Hitchcock and Tobe Hooper got the ball rolling with the slasher sub-genre with the release of 1960s Psycho and 1974’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, respectively, but Carpenter introduced the first commercial Hollywood villain. Leading a whole sub-genre into the late 20th century, kicking and screaming in fear, Carpenter’s Halloween became one of the scariest movies of the era, instilling terror in audiences thanks to its palpable tension.  

Set in a town as defiantly postcard-American as David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, that became stalked by a masked killer, Carpenter’s Halloween brought a sense of unease to every small town U.S suburb – suggesting something fantastically abnormal could be lurking in the shadows.

1. The Thing (1982)

A pioneer of cosmic horror storytelling, John Carpenter’s remake of the 1951 film The Thing from Another World, itself based on the John W. Campbell Jr. novella Who Goes There?, deftly entwines the terror of man’s paranoid struggle with the inconceivable horror of the unknown.

Starring the director’s regular collaborator, Kurt Russell, the film is set in an isolated Antarctic research facility where an alien being that perfectly assimilates its prey infiltrates the team of scientists and takes them out one-by-one. Perfectly synthesising Carpenter’s storytelling efficiency and his passion for slimy science fiction, The Thing exudes a shocking terror that remains as slimy, gruesome and disturbing to this very day. As well as a visceral horror, the film radiates perpetual paranoia, making it one of the most suspenseful dramatic thrillers of all time.

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Ranking all of John Carpenter’s movies from worst to best

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