John Carpenter is a prolific director most well-known in the horror space, but who has also contributed greatly to the action and science fiction genres. An American filmmaker, screenwriter, and composer, Carpenter directed 21 films in his career as a filmmaker, most of which he also composed or co-composed the score for.

Interested in movies from a young age, Carpenter began shooting horror shorts on 8 mm film even before starting high school, and then going on to attend the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, where he would later drop out to make his first feature film, Dark Star, in 1974.

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Most well-known for Halloween, Escape From New York, and The Thing, Carpenter’s filmography is long and filled with a variety of wonderful and not-so-wonderful movies. It’s often said Carpenter was ahead of his time as most of his films were initially commercial and critical failures, though most have become classics now in modern day. Here’s how all of Carpenter’s films stack up against one another.

21. Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992)

Memoirs of an Invisible Man is a notoriously bad black sci-fi/comedy loosely based on the 1987 novel by H.F. Saint of the same name, starring Chevy Chase as a businessman who becomes invisible due to a strange scientific accident. Just from looking at the film’s poster audiences can tell it’s going to be bad, but behind-the-scenes drama with the original director and Chevy Chase ultimately led to a boring, terrible film so poorly crafted that Carpenter opted to leave his name out of the title.

20. Ghosts of Mars (2001)

A science fiction film set in the second half of the 22nd century, Ghosts of Mars explores a far-off future in which Mars has become the new settlement of humans fleeing an overpopulated earth. When a mining operation uncovers a long-dormant Martian civilization, their warriors begin to systematically take over the bodies of the human settlers. Originally intended to be the third in the “Escape from…” series, Ghosts of Mars is laughably bad with a convoluted plot and cringe-worthy acting.

19. The Ward (2010)

A psychological horror film and the most modern movie that John Carpenter directed, The Ward follows a woman who is admitted to a psychiatric hospital after burning down a house, but then finds herself haunted by the angry spirit of a former inmate. While not an outright bad film, The Ward is just exceptionally generic. The film relies entirely on jump-scares to frighten the audience and doesn’t offer much in the way of interest or memorability in the plot or characters.

18. Elvis (1979)

This TV movie showcases the rise of rock-n-roll music star, Elvis Presley, from his early years in Mississippi and Tennessee through his first single “Heartbreak Hotel” and his subsequent rise to stardom as a musician and actor. Kurt Russell stars as Elvis in his first collaboration with Carpenter, so the film is important for that reason at the least. But, with a nearly three-hour run-time, Elvis is really a film for hardcore fans of The King only.

17. Village of the Damned (1995)

John Carpenter’s remake of the classic 1960 film of the same name, Village of the Damned explores the strange events following the collapse of a small town in California in which everyone in the town fell unconscious at precisely the same time. Ten months later, ten local women give birth on the same day and the children begin to grow abnormally fast. While this film does have an undeserved bad reputation, it’s not as good as most of Carpenter’s better work. While it offers a great score and several great scenes, it’s mostly a middling offering.

16. Dark Star (1974)

John Carpenter’s first film, Dark Star is a sci-fi comedy that follows a group of bumbling astronauts twenty years into their mission to destroy unstable planets that might threaten future colonization of other planets. Co-written with Dan O’Bannon, who would go on to make Alien with Ridley Scott, the crew of the deteriorating starship Dark Star features O’Bannon himself as one of the most comedic characters. Dark Star delivers a lot of great comedy and science fiction fun, but suffers from its low budget, causing it to feel like a student film.

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15. Starman (1984)

A science-fiction romance, Starman stars Jeff Bridges as an alien being who tries to make contact with earth, but is downed in the process by an American missile. He then inhabits the body of a dead man and kidnaps the man’s widow in a desperate search for a way back home. Essentially a road-trip romance, this movie is sweet and offers a great feel-good energy while still providing a lot of emotional depth.

14. Escape from L.A. (1996)

The sequel to Escape from New York, Escape from L.A. takes place in the far-off future of 2013 when the United States President is exiling all citizens who don’t conform to his hyper-conservative views to Los Angeles, which became an island after a huge earthquake. When the President’s daughter steals the detonator for her dad’s nuclear weapon and flees into L.A. to be with her rebel-leader boyfriend, Snake Plissken is commissioned to retrieve her. Not a bad movie by any means, Escape from L.A. gets a bad rep just from not being as good as its predecessor. Otherwise, it’s a solid action flick, but doesn’t have too much else to offer.

13. Vampires (1998)

Following a team of Vatican-sponsored vampire hunters as they clear out vampires in New Mexico, Vampires features a showdown between the team of vampire killers and a vampire kingpin with greater powers than any of them have ever seen. James Woods stars as the lead vampire hunter Jack Crow, and Thomas Ian Griffith stars as the vampire Jan Valek, a reference to the demon Valac from the Lesser Key of Soloman. While the film offers decent, gory fun for its audience and James Woods’ charisma really sells the movie, the plot is mostly one-note.

12. Someone’s Watching Me! (1978)

Someone’s Watching Me follows Leigh Michaels, a woman who begins receiving strange phone calls and gifts after taking a room in an apartment building where the previous tenant committed suicide. When she receives a letter from her tormentor that he intends to kill her, the police refuse to do anything about it, so she takes the investigation into her own hands. Offering plenty of Hitchcockian vibes à la Rear Window, Someone’s Watching Me is a TV movie that offers a surprising amount of tension and substance with great performances and cinematography.

11. The Fog (1980)

As the small coastal town of Antonio Bay, California is about to celebrate its 100th anniversary, paranormal activity starts to occur in The Fog. Supernatural fog begins to descend over the town and a gang of ghostly sailors begins wreaking vengeance on the inhabitants for a crime the town’s founders committed a century ago. The John Carpenter film with perhaps the most overlap in cast and crew with Halloween, this ghost story is fun and spooky but not quite as satisfying as other Carpenter classics.

10. Prince of Darkness (1987)

Donald Pleasance stars in Prince of Darkness as a priest with esoteric interests who discovers a strange vial of green slime while poking around in the church cellar. He brings on a team of scientists and scholars who determine that the liquid is actually the essence of Satan. Prince of Darkness is highly underrated, offering a creative plot with a more interesting look at the Satan myth than most horror films offer with scientific input and systems of good and evil that go beyond Judeo-Christian religions.

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9. Christine (1983)

Based on the book of the same name published by Stephen King, Christine follows unpopular nerd Arnie Cunningham as he falls under the spell of a 1958 Plymouth Fury who he names Christine. But, Christine turns out to be much more than she appears as she exerts her influence over Arnie, killing off bullies and trying to take him all for herself. The revolutionary practical effects in the car repair scene plus tense chases and solid acting make Christine a classic horror film beloved by many fans.

8. Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

When the LAPD kills several members of the Street Thunder, a local street gang, the remaining members avenge their fallen members by waging war on the police in an Assault on Precinct 13. The film follows Lt. Ethan Bishop as he forms an unlikely alliance with a group of prisoners at the soon-to-be-defunct precinct in order to defend the station and everyone inside. Widely considered to be one of the best action movies of its time, Assault on Precinct 13 really shows Carpenter’s ability to build suspense.

7. Body Bags (1993)

A made-for-TV horror anthology film, Body Bags is an underappreciated gem showcasing John Carpenter himself as a cryptkeeper-like character presenting horror segments through body bags in a morgue. The trio of horror shorts feature a serial killer hunting a gas station attendant, a man so desperate for hair that he goes to extreme measures, and a baseball player who receives an eye transplant to gruesome ends. On-par with Stephen King and George Romero’s Creepshow, this film was obviously built on the same premise, but offers equivalent spooks and laughs and deserves equal love.

6. They Live (1988)

They Live is a science-fiction action movie starring Roddy Piper as a drifter who discovers a pair of sunglasses that allow him to see the true state of the world, littered with skull-faced alien creatures bent on taking over the world and subliminal messages ordering the populace to consume and obey. A biting indictment of capitalism and class politics in the American culture, They Live is also a thoroughly enjoyable film with wonderfully quotable one-liners and great acting from “Rowdy” Roddy Piper and Keith David.

5. Escape from New York (1981)

In the near-future world of 1997, Manhattan Island has been converted into a maximum-security prison. In Escape from New York, Air Force One is hijacked by insurgents and purposefully crashed in New York City, where the president’s worst enemies currently reside. Snake Plissken, an ex-soldier and current federal prisoner is given twenty-four hours to rescue the president, after which, if successful, Snake will be pardoned. Snake Plissken, one of Kurt Russell’s most iconic roles, would go on to inspire Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid series, and Escape From New York would become a beloved Carpenter classic.

4. In the Mouth of Madness (1994)

In the Mouth of Madness follows Sam Neil as insurance investigator John Trent who is studying a claim from a publishing company that their star author, Sutter Cane, has gone missing. Accompanied by the novelist’s editor, Linda Styles, he seeks out Cane by traveling to a strange little supernatural town in New Hampshire where things seem to get more complicated – and significantly more frightening – than he previously believed. Possibly one of the most successful Lovecraftian-style horror films prior to the release of Color Out of Space in 2019, In the Mouth of Madness offers a great look at a true existential horror film dealing with terrors beyond the universe. It is a true underrated classic that delivers satisfying twists and turns.

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3. Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

Big Trouble in Little China stars Kurt Russell as hard-boiled truck driver Jack Burton, who gets caught in a bizarre conflict in San Francisco’s Chinatown. When a Chinatown crime lord kidnaps Jack’s best friend’s fiance, Jack must help his friend rescue his beloved before the evil Lo Pan uses her to break the ancient curse that’s been keeping him fleshless and immortal. Maybe not as well-known as Carpenter’s other classics, this film delivers the best of his action, comedy, and horror chops with solid acting and plot turns, over-the-top cheesy humor, and gruesomely wonderful practical effects.

2. Halloween (1978)

Perhaps Carpenter’s most well-known film, Halloween follows Jamie Lee Curtis in her cinematic debut as Laurie Strode, a good-girl babysitter who’s stalked by the faceless killer, Michael Myers, after he escapes from his home in a mental institution and systematically murders Laurie’s friends and family. The combination of bloody effects, John Carpenter’s score, and Debra Hill’s script make Halloween not only one of John Carpenter’s best, but one of the best horror films of all time, spawning eleven films and a legacy as one of the most successful horror franchises of all time.

1. The Thing (1982)

A loose remake of the classic sci-fi film The Thing From Another World, The Thing follows a group of American research scientists in an outpost in Antarctica who are carrying on as usual until a Norwegian helicopter flies by shooting at a sled dog. Not speaking Norwegian, the researchers shoot the helicopter gunner and take in the dog, but that dog isn’t what he appears to be. Soon, the inhabitants of Outpost 31 are fighting for their lives in a battle against a strange alien creature hiding in plain sight.

Featuring the absolute best practical effects of any horror movie to date plus a darkly tense plot and exceptional acting, The Thing is a near-perfect movie and truly Carpenter’s best film by far. The whole film is an exercise in mounting dread, and John Carpenter pulls it off amazingly with every element of the film coming together to work seamlessly as one exceptional cinematic experience.

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