Updated: Nov 17, 2021
Apart from George Lucas’s directorial work on Star Wars, I don’t think there was another film director more impactful on my childhood than John Carpenter. Memories of watching his movies, mostly as an awkward teenager, routinely flash through my mind and the nostalgia they spur forth always brings the warm fuzzies. Here, you’ll find a list of my ranking of his feature films only. I’ve excluded his TV credits, but maybe someday I’ll honor them with another post. Keep in mind, nostalgia weighed heavily in my rankings, and some of his lower ranked movies might be more technically sound, but this is my list, so deal with it.
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Is there really any other choice here? Whether we’re discussing the best John Carpenter movie, greatest special effects, greatest remake, greatest science fiction film, or greatest movie of all time, this masterpiece makes any cut. Of course, much of this has to do with the excellent casting. Kurt Russell is great, as always, but Keith David puts in a great performance, as does a slightly unhinged Wilford Brimley. If you haven’t seen this movie, do yourself a favor and watch it!
John Carpenter is the king of camp, but this one is easily his most fun to watch, as both a child and an adult. It’s 99 minutes of pure joy with some really cool set designs, a fast-paced story, and another very memorable performance by Kurt Russell, who plays the charismatic king-of-the-one-liner, Jack Burton. Oh, and let’s not forget a very lovely green-eyed Kim Cattrall, who shares some great chemistry with Russell. Too bad they only shared the screen this once.
At first glance, casting wrestling star Roddy Piper in the lead probably seems an odd choice. After all, his biggest acting credit to date (outside of wrestling) had been Hell Comes to Frogtown, and, although a very fun B-Movie in its own right, it was about as corny as you can get. And, yes, They Live does have some corny moments, but it’s also an excellent social commentary on blind consumerism in America, which is just as relevant today as it was in 1988. Plus, Keith David puts in another memorable performance. Oh, and it also features some all-time great one-liners, the most memorable off all being, “I’ve come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass… and I’m all out of bubblegum.”
By now, horror fans are probably screaming at their screens. Sure, they’re thinking, putting The Thing as #1 makes sense because it has some strong horror elements and is widely considered a classic, but to put Big Trouble and Little China and They Live ahead of his horror classics is heresy, plain and simple. And I get it, but I can’t help it if I’m partial to science fiction and fantasy. Besides, ranking them lower shouldn’t take anything away from the movies below it. All ten movies at the top of this list are fantastic movies, but the first real horror movie on my list is . . . Prince of Darkness. Yeah, I know it’ not very shocking since the giant movie poster displayed atop this text already told you my pick, but it will probably be a surprising choice to a lot of horror fans. Yep, I think Prince of Darkness is a better horror movie than Halloween, or at least, I think it’s scarier. And yes, I realize Prince of Darkness wasn’t as impactful as Halloween to the horror genre, particularly slasher flicks, but I still think it’s scarier, which is what a horror movie should be. It’s also a lot gorier, which scores it some points, horror-wise. So, why doesn’t it get the credit it deserves? Well, for one, the title is a bit misleading. Prince of Darkness sounds like it should feature a Garbiel Byrne or Al Pacino type walking around as Satan-incarnate, when it’s really just an elaborate haunted house movie. Secondly, the casting is a bit strange. Most of the cast are relative unknowns, with the exception of Donald Pleasence, and Big Trouble in Little China alum, Victor Wong and Dennis Dun, but the really surprising choice is casting mustachioed Jameson Parker (who was best known for starring in Simon & Simon) as the lead. His performance is a little wooden, but also just weird enough to work for this movie. Anyways, if you like horror movies, especially impressive low-budget gore and special effects, this one is for you.
Okay, if you read the above snippet about Prince of Darkness, you’ll know a little bit of what I think of this movie. It’s a great horror movie and THE slasher flick. Jamie Lee Curtis set the standard for damsels in distress and Michael Myers will probably live on in eternity as one of the greatest movie villains of all time. It’s no surprise the movie spawned a very good sequel and several other hit of miss sequels and reincarnations, which is why nothing more really needs to be said, except, John Carpenter’s timeless score probably needs at least a mention.
I had a hard time deciding whether or not to put The Fog above Halloween in my rankings, but eventually ranked Halloween higher because it was made before The Fog, and because it was more impactful on the genre in general. That being said, The Fog is a great movie, and a keck of a lot of fun. Adrienne Barbeau and Jamie Lee Curtis are both excellent and the rest of the low-key cast is great as well. It optimizes the use of the fog special effect for a very cool atmosphere overall. It’s also a heck of a lot of fun.
For anyone who knows me, or has read my book, Digital Wasteland, they’ll know I’m a huge fan of apocalyptic movies, so it may be surprising to find this one all the way down at #7. But like I said before, this just speaks to how good the movies are that I ranked higher. Kurt Russell’s take on Snake Plissken makes for the ultimate antihero, but this movie also features a solid supporting cast including: Lee Van Cleef, Harry Dean Stanton, Adrienne Barbeau, Ernest Borgnine, and John Carpenter stablemate, Donald Pleasence. The story is simple and the characters larger than life, but the post-apocalyptic/dystopian atmosphere Carpenter creates is top-notch. As an aside, this movie spawned more post-apocalyptic copycats than I care to remember, many of which are hilariously bad, but that’s just another reason to love the movie.
Without a doubt, Starman is John Carpenter’s most tender, touching movie and one that has really stuck with me for so many years. Of course, much of this can be attributed to Jeff Bridges’ stellar performance (pun intended). Of course, Karen Allen does her part too, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how much I enjoyed Charles Martin Smith’s character. Although this is a science fiction film, it’s also a quirky, uplifting, romantic, road movie. A fun watch!
Although Halloween and The Fog are rated higher, I think Prince of Darkness is the only movie that can compete with this one for creepiness factor. It sets the tone early too, from the very opening scene, which introduced us to a lovely, unhinged and straight-jacketed Sam Neill. It also has one of the best off-screen character introductions of all time: “Do you read Sutter Kane.” Classic!
I think it’s fitting to have John Carpenter’s first full-length feature film round out the top ten, but that’s not why it’s this high in the rankings. From the start, it’s clear he’s working with a low budget, but man on man, does he ever make use of it. The sets are inventive, the camera work is innovative, and the props enhance the comedy in a way a larger budget likely would have squandered. It’s deadpan hilarious and a lot of fun. I know sci-fi comedy mixed with low budget is enough to scare a lot of audiences away, but I think this movie is awesome.
John Carpenter adapting my favorite horror writer’s novel seems like a dream come true, but I was left with mixed feelings. This has much to do with how difficult it is to successfully adapt a novel in the first place, particularly a Stephen King novel and how much time he tends to spend on character development. A 110-minute movie just doesn’t afford the audience enough time to get to know the characters, which is probably why I never cared much for any of the characters. The acting was fine; they just didn’t have enough screen time for me to connect with them. That being said, the actors aren’t what make this movie. It’s Christine. John Carpenter manages to make Christine steal every scene, which is quite the feat considering Christine is a car with no speaking lines apart from the music being played on the radio, which Carpenter uses to full dramatic effect also. This movie also might be John Carpenter’s most beautifully filmed and well worth watching for the special effects alone.
Chevy Chase takes the lead in a humous take on the Invisible Man story. Although it features Chevy Chase’s regular doses of quick-witted, dry humor, this is a toned-down Chevy Chase—a more dramatic Chevy Chase. Have I said Chevy Chase enough times yet, because, I don’t know if you know this, but he’s in this movie. Oh yeah, it also has Daryl Hannah, Sam Neill, Michael McKean, and a bunch of other actors who aren’t Chevy Chase. Anyway, it’s a fun flick with some impressive special effects and, surprisingly, a lot of heart.
I cannot think of another movie that made me want to punch a child (or group of children) in the face(s) like this movie. It’s got a very cool plot and feels the most Twilight-Zoney of all of Carpenter’s films. I don’t know if it’s because it was based off a John Wyndham book or because Superman can be seen alongside Luke Skywalker, but it definitely has the feel of an old sci-fi movie from the 50s, except way darker and eerier. Also, it made me want to punch children, and also to slap Kirstie Alley—not her personally, but her character in the movie.
Snake Plissken is back and this time he’s escaping from the City of Angels. The story is basically a carbon copy of Escape from New York, except this time he’s got to deal with post-apocalyptic West Coast morals highlighted by fast-talking Steve Buscemi, plastic surgery-crazy Bruce Campbell, surfer-dude Peter Fonda, and all-around badass Pam Grier. It lacks some of the gritty charm of the original, which is why it loses points, but also because it doesn’t differ enough from its predecessor. That being said, I’ve liked it more with each viewing, so maybe it has room to move up the rankings in the future.
’ll be the first to admit this isn’t a perfect movie, but I still enjoyed it. In particular, the set design, costume design (mostly), and props were top-notch. However, some of the character design was a little too, for lack of a better word, gross. Body mod and body mutilation usually doesn’t bother me, and I don’t know if it was the color palette Carpenter used in his costume and set design, but I just found it off-putting. I don’t know; maybe that was the point? I actually felt this movie would have benefitted from a slower pace where characters had some time to really stew on their dire situation. Not that I’m criticizing Carpenter here; just wished we could have seen more of the characters before many of them were killed off. As a side note, I kind of left the movie feeling like we need a Ice Cube/Jason Statham buddy flick.
Okay, for any diehard fans out there of The Ward, I have not seen this movie for a while so I rated it lower on the list primarily for this reason. That being said, if I don’t remember much about it, it probably means it wasn’t very memorable. What I do remember is that was well shot and that I enjoyed it overall, but also that my mind immediately lumped it into the generic ghost story category of films that was very popular from the late 90s through the 2000s. When I do watch this again, I’ll move it up the ranks accordingly.
Even when he’s doing horror, John Carpenter movies tend to make me feel good, which is why I don’t have this movie ranked high. I actually really liked the set designs and the choreography was well done too, but I struggled with the intense, nihilistic tone. Maybe it was just too dark, or maybe I had different expectations; I don’t know, but I didn’t come out of the movie feeling good. This is another movie that might move up the rankings on repeat viewings.
Last, and it should go without saying that I also think it’s the least, is the only John Carpenter movie that I wouldn’t recommend. I watched it in the theaters upon original release and I remember not caring much for it then, and I re-watched it recently and came away feeling the same way. I think it is because there isn’t a single likable character in the movie. James Woods and Adam Baldwin’s characters are total tough-guy jerks and Sheryl Lee, of Twin Peaks fame, is barely a character at all, but more of a lolling prop for the two leads to smack around. I haven’t read the books so I don’t know if the vampire hunters are all supposed to be a group of macho d-bags, but I would have liked at least one vampire hunter to root for.
There you have it. That’s my ranking of all 18 John Carpenter directed feature films. I did not include made-for-TV movies, nor did I include short films. Also, you may notice I did not include John Carpenter’s writing credits, except those in regards to the films he also directed. Although he’s been involved I some good movies that he didn’t direct, those movies will have to wait for another day. With that being said, I would like to make note of a few interesting pieces of informaiton I’ve come across in my quest to devour John Carpenter’s works (I know this sounds weird, but I’m not going to rephrase). The movie Lockout (2012) that starred Guy Pierce (a pretty decent sci-fi flick if you care to watch it) actually gives writing credit to John Carpenter for using his Escape from New York story. Also, a couple of his early writing credits were for Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) and Black Moon Rising (1986), both of which featured Tommy Lee Jones in some of his earliest starring roles. Anyway, just thought I’d bring attention to these interesting little tidbits for fans of John Carpenter’s work.
That’s all. Thanks for reading and happy viewing!