When we talk about the most important filmmakers of the 80s, John Carpenter might not be the first name that comes to mind. However, when you look at the body of work, it’s hard not to be in awe. Though generally classed as one of the great horror directors, Carpenter worked in numerous genres across his career, and produced many esteemed cult classics that we still love today. Here’s our ranking of all the films John Carpenter has directed, from worst to best.
20. The Ward
When John Carpenter ended an almost decade-long hiatus from feature filmmaking with 2010’s The Ward, fans and critics had high hopes for a triumphant return to form. Sadly, this was not what we got. Carpenter’s last directorial effort proved to be a nondescript and forgettable low budget horror movie which is unlikely to ever be listed among his best work.
Set in 1966, The Ward casts Amber Heard as an Oregon farm girl who loses her memory, and finds herself in a mental institution where the inmates are mysteriously being killed off one by one. Very much a product of the M Night Shyamalan era of horror, the narrative hinges on a slow-burn approach and a final act twist, none of which is particularly effective or in-keeping with Carpenter’s usual style.
19. Memoirs of an Invisible Man
This 1992 would-be blockbuster was not a great harbinger for how the 90s would treat Carpenter. Both the director and leading man Chevy Chase were in dire need of a hit, yet at the same time both men wanted to get outside their comfort zones with something a little more action-oriented and mainstream friendly. Sadly, the resulting film just didn’t work.
Memoirs of an Invisible Man may boast some fairly impressive special effects for the time, as well as a decent bad guy turn from Sam Neill, but the plaudits end there. Comic actor Chase is hopelessly miscast as a comparatively straight hero, Daryl Hannah is a flat love interest, and Carpenter’s own personality is almost entirely absent, as indicated by the fact that this is the only film on which the director didn’t put his name above the title.
18. Village of the Damned
This 1995 chiller is a direct remake of the 1960 film of the same name (itself based on John Wyndham’s novel The Midwich Cuckoos), and centres on a remote town which mysteriously gives birth to a number of white-haired, cold-eyed children who grow to exhibit psychic abilities, which they use against the adult townspeople.
While Village of the Damned is efficient enough, it doesn’t venture far enough beyond the 1960 original to really justify its existence. It’s largely unmemorable, other than for the sad fact that it was the last film Christopher Reeve made before the horseback-riding accident which sadly left the former Superman actor paralysed for the rest of his life.
Notable for being John Carpenter’s first collaboration with Kurt Russell, 1979 TV movie Elvis came just two years after the passing of the beloved King of Rock and Roll, and is the only film based on a true story that the director ever made. Respectful to a fault, the film details Elvis Presley’s rise to stardom but stops short of exploring his darker final years.
Had this been a full-on big screen biopic with the budget to match, Elvis might have been something really worthwhile. Yet despite the strength of Russell’s central turn, there’s no escaping the fact that it’s a comparatively shoestring TV movie with low production values, lazy writing and haphazard performances, and at almost three hours it’s a bit of a slog.
16. Someone’s Watching Me
Another TV movie, but considerably closer to John Carpenter’s usual style, 1978’s Someone’s Watching Me casts Leigh Hutton as a newcomer in Los Angeles who finds herself receiving threatening phone calls and being stalked by an unknown male. In style and story, it’s not a million miles from Halloween, although Someone’s Watching Me was actually made before Carpenter’s breakthrough horror film.
As with Elvis, Someone’s Watching Me shows promise but struggles to escape the confines of the TV movie, with low production values and a somewhat rushed feel. Still, it’s a reasonably effective piece of filmmaking, and is notable for being Carpenter’s first film with his sometime leading lady (and one-time wife) Adrienne Barbeau.
15. Escape from L.A.
After many years of avoiding sequels, Carpenter finally decided to call the shots on a follow-up to one of his earlier films with Escape from L.A. However, the 1996 film is in most respects more a remake of Escape from New York than a sequel, and while it’s blessed with a far bigger budget than the early film, it’s also hindered with an over-abundance of silliness.
It’s the fifth and final film Carpenter made with Kurt Russell, with whom he also co-wrote the script (along with the late Debra Hill). This time around, Los Angeles has become a prison in a dystopian future, and Plissken must venture in to retrieve a deadly super-weapon. The set-up is familiar, but proceedings are soured by an uneven tone, a deluge of bad CGI and misjudged attempts at humour.
14. Ghosts of Mars
On release in 2001, many critics declared this sci-fi action horror to be the last nail in the coffin of Carpenter’s career, but it’s not really as bad as all that. Although it’s set on the nearby red planet, Ghosts of Mars sees Carpenter on familiar ground, essentially remaking his earlier film Assault on Precinct 13 with added bells and whistles.
A Martian colony is plunged into chaos when the miners there are possessed by malevolent spirits buried deep within the planet. To combat the threat, Natasha Henstridge’s hard-nosed cop and her fellow officers (among them Jason Statham, taking his first action-based role) are forced to enlist the help of Ice Cube’s notorious felon. The result is pretty basic B-movie fare, but it’s plenty of fun nonetheless.
Another later entry from Carpenter’s ouevre which tends to get a bad rap, 1998’s Vampires is indeed crude and melodramatic, but damned if it isn’t entertaining. James Woods takes the lead as Jack Crow, the somewhat unhinged leader of a vampire hunting paramilitary unit secretly employed by the Vatican to keep the undead threat under wraps.
Vampires gave Woods his first and only action hero role, but given the actor’s irascible nature, Jack Crow was never going to be a down-to-earth good guy. Some critics blasted the film as overly sadistic and sexist, particularly given the treatment of Sheryl Lee’s troubled vampire victim. Still, if you have a taste for jet black humour and outrageous violence, Vampires is a blast.
12. Dark Star
John Carpenter’s first feature began life as a short student project whilst he and co-writer/lead actor Dan O’Bannon were in film school at the University of Southern California. They beefed it up to feature length after graduation, and eventually the lo-fi sci-fi comedy Dark Star was released in 1974 to a warm reception from critics and general disinterest from the wider audience.
Made for around $60,000, Dark Star follows a crew of burned-out slackers aboard a spaceship that suffers widespread malfunctions and mischief from an oddball alien (not just a figure of speech – the creature literally looks like a ball). It’s quite far removed in tone and content from the films Carpenter would later make his name on, but it foreshadows Dan O’Bannon’s later work on the script for groundbreaking sci-fi horror Alien.
11. Prince of Darkness
This 1987 sci-fi horror boasts one of the most ambitious concepts Carpenter ever took on. It follows a team of quantum physicist graduate students, who are brought by their teacher (Victor Wong) to a crumbling LA church, where they are to conduct a study on a mysterious ancient cannister which the resident priest (Donald Pleasence) believes may contain the liquid essence of the Devil himself.
It’s an eye-opening premise, yet in execution Prince of Darkness is very much Carpenter sticking to what he knows best. While it’s surely the weakest entry in the director’s golden period (1979-1988), there’s still plenty to recommend it, particularly the haunting imagery and commanding central performances from Pleasence and Wong. Alas, romantic leads Jameson Parker and Lisa Blount lack chemistry and charisma.
Made at a time when Hollywood was racing to bring every Stephen King story to the screen, Carpenter himself has often lamented that his heart was never really in Christine. Still, even if Carpenter directed the film on cruise control, that doesn’t mean he didn’t still deliver the goods with this 1983 shocker (made the very same year King’s source novel was first published).
A bullied teen revenge fantasy in a similar vein to Carrie, Christine casts Keith Gordon as an unpopular, put-upon high school nerd who suddenly gains newfound confidence after purchasing and fixing up a battered 1958 Plymouth Fury – but those close to him come to suspect there’s something strange about that car. Sticking very closely to the book, Christine may be a bit by-the-numbers for Carpenter, but it’s still streets ahead of most youth-oriented horror made at that time.
9. Assault on Precinct 13
This 1976 action thriller was the film that really got Carpenter’s career off the ground, and much of his later work would refer back to it in a variety of ways. Assault on Precinct 13 casts Austin Stoker as a newly promoted LAPD Lieutenant sent to oversee the closure of a precinct building, which unexpectedly comes under siege from a violent street gang. Outnumbered and outgunned, the cop has no choice but to enlist the help of two convicts being held in the precinct’s cells.
Carpenter has called Assault on Precinct 13 an homage to classic John Wayne western Rio Bravo, which also sees a lawman form an allegiance with a convict to fight against a common enemy. While it’s essentially a grounded thriller, there are clear overtones of horror thanks to the inhuman, almost zombie-like portrayal of the attacking thugs. The low budget is readily apparent, but Carpenter pulls out enough clever tricks to make everything seem bigger than it really is.
8. In the Mouth of Madness
Arguably the last truly great film Carpenter called the shots on, 1994’s In the Mouth of Madness may have flopped on release, but today it holds up as one of the esteemed director’s best and most intriguing works. Equal parts a tribute to the surreal writings of HP Lovecraft and a satire on the personality cult surrounding Stephen King, it centres on the work of Sutter Cane, a best-selling horror author whose books are literally driving readers mad.
Sam Neill stars as Trent, an insurance investigator sent out to locate Cane when he disappears just prior to the release of his latest novel. This sends Trent down a rabbit hole of weirdness, with reality itself seeming to unfurl before his very eyes. By turns bewildering, nightmarish and darkly funny, In the Mouth of Madness might be too weird for some, but it’s a must-see for Carpenter afficionados.
Carpenter may be most closely associated with comparatively dark and bleak narratives, but this doesn’t mean that he’s incapable of seeing the light, as proved by 1984’s Starman. This romantic sci-fi drama stars Karen Allen as a grieving widow who is stunned to find her late husband Jeff Bridges reborn, when a good-natured alien entity appears in a clone of his body.
Despite Starman’s sci-fi adventure trappings, the focus remains squarely on the relationship between Allen and Bridges, proving that Carpenter could handle a far broader range of emotions than mere dread. It proved to be one of the director’s most successful studio productions, and became the only John Carpenter film to get Academy recognition when Jeff Bridges was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar.
6. They Live
In the eyes of some, 1988 sci-fi thriller They Live marked the end of John Carpenter’s winning streak – but if so, what a note to go out on. The late pro wrestler Roddy Piper made his first (and only) great movie as a homeless construction worker who stumbles across some strange sunglasses, which reveal the sinister truth: Earth is secretly run by aliens who are brainwashing the masses with subliminal messages.
A blunt attack on the inequalities of 80s America, They Live has long been both a cult classic and a firm favourite of conspiracy theorists (Carpenter has been forced to defend the film against charges of right-wing sympathies). On top of the subject matter and striking imagery, the film really holds up thanks to Piper’s commanding performance, plus his unforgettable six-minute fight scene with Keith David.
5. Escape from New York
Another of Carpenter’s most inventive and influential films, 1981’s futuristic action thriller Escape from New York envisions a future in which crime has overrun the USA, and the island of Manhattan has been converted into a maximum security prison for the worst of the worst. Into this dystopia steps Kurt Russell’s world-weary war veteran Snake Plissken, who is forced to infiltrate the city and rescue the kidnapped President (Donald Pleasence).
As with most of his films, Carpenter clearly didn’t have too big a budget to play with here, but this just means the emphasis is on the characters rather than the stunts and special effects. And what characters they are: playing Snake Plissken helped Kurt Russell escape his child star past and become a fully-fledged leading man. He’s backed up by a great supporting cast, with charismatic turns from Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, Harry Dean Stanton and Adrienne Barbeau.
4. The Fog
Carpenter presented his own unique twist on a good old-fashioned ghost story with 1980’s The Fog. Set in a remote coastal town celebrating its centenary, the film follows a diverse range of characters – among them Adrienne Barbeau’s local radio DJ, Jamie Lee Curtis’ hitch-hiker and Janet Leigh’s town official – when a fog bank rolls in, filled with the angry ghosts of long-dead pirates who are out for revenge.
Infamously, Carpenter was unsatisfied with his initial cut of The Fog, and insisted on significant reshoots to get the film right. We can safely call that time and money well spent, as The Fog is a lean, mean, scary piece of work that holds up today. The initial reviews were tepid but it still proved a hit, and over the years the film has been re-assessed as one of Carpenter’s best.
3. Big Trouble in Little China
There’s no other film in John Carpenter’s back catalogue quite like Big Trouble in Little China – but then, it’s a film quite unlike anything to come out of 80s Hollywood. Kurt Russell reunites with Carpenter once more as Jack Burton, a square-jawed but dim-witted trucker who stumbles into a bizarre mystical underworld when the fiancée of his old pal Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) is abducted.
Boasting a primarily Asian cast and stunt crew, fantasy action comedy Big Trouble in Little China was arguably the first US production to really capture the spirit of Chinese kung fu movies. Critics and audiences were bewildered at the time, particularly given the ineffectuality of the blowhard Jack Burton – but as both the actor and director have explained, the whole joke is that Russell’s would-be hero fails to realise he’s actually the sidekick to Dun.
When John Carpenter accepted an offer to write and direct a low budget, independently produced B-movie about babysitters being stalked by a serial killer, no one could have predicted the impact that the film would have. 1978’s Halloween proved to be one of the most influential horror films ever made, and whose legacy endures to this day (and not just because sequels to it are still being made).
Deceptively simple, Halloween centres on the psychotic Michael Myers, who breaks out of his asylum and heads to his home town of Haddonfield, where he proceeds to terrorise Jamie Lee Curtis’ innocent teenager Laurie Strode on Halloween night. A major sleeper hit, Halloween wound up kick-starting the 80s slasher movie boom and made Curtis a horror icon, while elevating Carpenter and producer/co-writer Debra Hill to the big time.
1. The Thing
It may be a remake, and it may have been reviled by critics and audiences alike when it first hit screens back in 1982. Today, however, it’s hard to dispute that The Thing is John Carpenter’s true masterpiece. Intensely atmospheric, often unbearably tense and still truly shocking at times, this Antarctic-based sci-fi horror remains one of the most compelling and terrifying alien films ever made.
With an all-male cast once again headed up by Kurt Russell (sporting a beard which many a modern hipster lives in envy of), The Thing follows a group of isolated men who descend into paranoia when their remote research station is infiltrated by an extra-terrestrial entity which duplicates and assimilates organic life. Rob Bottin’s practical special effects remain astonishing, but it’s the persistent, palpable air of tension and mistrust that really makes The Thing so breathtaking.