John Carpenter is my favorite director of all time. It’s not even close. I can watch pretty much everything he has done and the vast majority of them I love unabashedly. And a good handful of them are legit classics. Just iconic movies, some game changers and just an absolute embarrassing amount of riches in the work. He has style to spare without ever becoming obnoxious or overbearing, every movie feeling like a Carpenter movie but never being repetitive. His eye for visuals is almost unparalleled in cinema. Not only is he a great director, but he’s also an amazing composer, having done almost all of the scores to his movies. And they’re all great pieces of music, so easy to listen to on their own without the movies. They’re that good.
So when he started to make original music last year with his son and godson, film fans went wild. And lucky us, the album was fucking great. “Lost Themes” was a great album that feels very much like his work without copying his old stuff, and it manages to feel slightly different because it wasn’t made specifically for movies. It stands on its own a little more. And then he released “Lost Themes II” earlier this year, and it was even better. Seems like he’s alot happier doing this. But the biggest surprise out of all of this is that he announced that he would be going on tour to play his music. New and old. For guys like me, this was a godsend. Something we never thought to want, but immediately needed to do when we were bestowed with the opportunity to do so. And having been able to see him live, it was a religious experience for me. I’ll do a write up of that show another time, but just believe me when I say it was amazing. His music is great, the band he had made it pop and the atmosphere of love was palpable.
So in honor of things turning up Carpenter, I decided to do the rankings for his movies. I skip the TV stuff, just cause that isn’t totally fair to judge against the movies. But all the movies are here. And I’ll spoil a little bit now. Only two of these movies I will never watch again. That’s a good record. Better than guys like Tobe Hooper or George Romero. So sit back, take a gander at this list, and maybe download some great music by the legend.
Ghosts of Mars (2001)
This is by far the worst thing I have ever seen by Carpenter. Just a complete and utter failure on pretty much every level. It could have been amazing, with a good idea at the heart of it. Making a western in space that takes feels like a sci fi and fantasy version of Assault on Precinct 13 that uses the genocide of the Native Americans as the thematic backbone of the story, there’s something that coulda worked. But as happened all too often in the 90s for him, his budget got cut really late in the game and he couldn’t wrangle the movie together. The visuals aren’t very good, stuck in that early days of CGI dreck. The music is bad, way too reliant on the nu metal scourge that ran though the music industry at the time. The action is bland and uninspired. The bad guys look like rejects from a Rob Zombie music video. It’s very disheartening to see a movie that feels like the bloated corpse of a Carpenter movie. All of his stuff I’m inclined to rewatch over time. But this is just completely bad with no redeeming qualities to it.
Memoirs of An Invisible Man (1992)
It was a bad idea from the start. Any movie that comes from the place of being a Chevy Chase movie is already starting from a cancerous place, as he pretty much signifies bad times are ahead. But becoming a work for hire job for Carpenter didn’t signify a movie with his heart in it, and you can tell. It’s just not funny or thrilling or anything it wants to do. But it does have the amazing special effects from ILM that still hold up today, so there’s that. It’s a battle of inches between this and Ghosts of Mars, but ILM keeps this afloat just a bit.
Village of The Damned (1995)
Carpenter doesn’t really much care for this movie, feeling like he didn’t execute it well enough. And it’s hard to really argue with him. But I don’t really feel like this is completely terrible. It’s got some charms to it. Visually it feels like one of his movies, with good cinematography and a sense of dread to it. He has a good tone to the movie and the score is pretty good. Not as good on any level as compared to his 70s/80s heyday, but it at least feels like him. The casting isn’t too good in the main roles, but the supporting cast is pretty solid. He actually makes the kids pretty off putting and otherworldly. There’s a pretty good set piece at the end, Carpenter just letting his budget fly free. There’s a decent Twilight Zone feel to it, but just missing that spark to really let it soar.
Dark Star (1974)
This movie is in a weird position for me. For it’s the debut of Carpenter, but not really. It’s a student film that was expanded to feature length, and it was made with Dan O’Bannon. It honestly feels more like an O’Bannon film, as it shares more tonal similarities with Return of The Living Dead than it does with any of Carpenters movies. There’s a sense of comedy mixed in with the sci fi elements and some deeper yearning underneath it all thats played for laughs with a wild sense of anarchy. I mean, there’s a killer alien that is just a beach ball. The movie ends with the last survivor riding a surfboard into orbit of a planet and burning up upon reentry, but it isn’t really played like a tragedy. Just a wild thing that happens. It’s rough and shoddy and thrown together and kinda fun but a little boring too. It doesn’t really show the path that Carpenter would follow in his career. But for completists, it is a little treasure trove as it isn’t as widely known or as widely available as his other stuff.
The Ward (2010)
This one is firmly in the weaker half of his career. And while it may not have the wild lows that others in this period has, it doesn’t reach the highs that some of them do. So consistency in this one is high. It even feels like a Carpenter movie and has some of his trademark visual stylings, going back to the slow burn and background scares that he used back in Halloween. It’s a run of the mill little thriller that has some good performances, a maybe overused and not too successful ending, and doesn’t have anything unique to it that would set it apart from the pack like his more successful movies have. It’s not a mashup of genres nor does it work within the western trappings he likes to play with. Going through all his work, it feels like an overlong episode of Masters of Horror. Which is fine and all, but will never stand out. It’s nice to see him rebound after the dumpster fire that is Ghosts of Mars, and seemingly leave the movie game on a movie that isn’t complete thrash, but it still feels sad to see a master make something so traditional.
Escape From L.A. (1996)
Such a disappointing movie that isn’t as bad as it’s reputation would have you believe, but is filled with so much unfulfilled promise that you can’t help but feel cheated by the end of it. Returning after many years to the world of Snake Plissken, Carpenter wanted to switch gears a bit and make the movie more satirical. Take aim at the empty world of Hollywood and California and the world as he saw it at the time. But thanks to a customary at the time slashing of his budget mere weeks before shooting, he ended up with a hobbled product that is a shoddy mess of what he wanted it to be. There’s still some of the satirical elements in there, but it gets lost in the tonal weirdness and overblown 90s stylings of the whole thing. It’s not very pretty to look at, the action scenes range from really entertaining to cgi monstrosities to overly comedic moments that stand out as way too comic for the movie it’s in. But for as many problems as it’s faced with, there’s still some good. Kurt is still great as Snake and is a pleasure to watch. Some of the action scenes, like I said, are great. The ending of the movie is pretty ingenious and a nice continuation of the nihilism that the ending of Escape From New York had. And honestly, it’s fun in spite of itself. It’s not very good, but it’s not so bad as to be unwatchable. Not a great endorsement, I know. But I’ll take this swing and a line drive single over a bunt like The Ward any day of the week.
Say what you will about the man as a human being, but James Woods can make a movie watchable but sheer charisma. This movie is something I would consider pretty decent. It doesn’t have the bad moments his other second half movies have had. And it has some pretty great stuff in it, James Woods aside. For one, it looks and feels like Carpenter. He’s dealing in western archetypes and spinning it into another genre, this time the horror movie. The beginning of the movie is great, filled with some interesting ways he turns the vampire story on it’s head. And the motel massacre is excellent, just completely brutal and unexpected. But, that budget cutting shit happens here too, and you can feel the movie just get considerably smaller than it needs to be. It gets slow and cliched. What starts out real original and energetic kinda peters out. The casting outside of Woods is solid too, but coulda been better. Having a 3rd rate Baldwin shows the kinda limitations that was on this movie. What’s weird though is that this movie kinda feels influential, as at least Supernatural has taken from it. In the second half of his career, this is the top of it. Could be worse. But the overarching lesson of his second half is that it should have been better.
Prince of Darkness (1987)
This is quite easily the most overlooked movie in the Carpenter Canon. It has the sad distinction of falling in between two iconic entries, Big Trouble In Little China and They Live. It could have maybe had more room to breathe if it wasn’t released in such a potent period in his career (maybe coming after They Live and before In The Mouth Of Madness would have made his winning streak even stronger). It doesn’t help that it isn’t as consistently strong a movie as the others in his winning streak, even though it is really strong in most regards. It is one of his most tensely atmospheric movies he’s ever released, just unrelenting from the very beginning and just strangling you with dread the entire time. It’s got maybe his most underrated score, doing some real heavy lifting within the narrative. And it is his most heady movie of his career, at least until Mouth of Madness drops some real heavy shit onto the world. He goes for some heavy, metaphysical shit that mixes Science with Theology and crafts a narrative that makes every person question reality. Believers and non believers alike are tested in the new found truth of the universe, leading up to a typical Carpenter siege while the titular beast tries to raise some literal hell. It’s not perfect by any means. It’s got a draggy second act, setting up alot of stuff that they need to convey so that the ending can make any kind of sense. Exposition, not typical in one of his movies, gets in the way here. It’s got some weaknesses in the character department, not really allowing anyone to be fully dimensional. He’s so strong a filmmaker that it doesn’t really matter in the end, as he delivers one of his most fucked up endings in any of his works. A character is so completely destroyed that one doesn’t really need too much info to feel the weight of the action. Same with everyone else. The Lovecraftian horror that is on the fringes of the film give stakes so high that we immediately connect with anyone trying to survive it. It broaches some interesting subjects and does it the only way he can. It’s tense and heady and scary and thrilling and real fucking bleak. It’s everything you want from Carpenter, but done in a way that feels like a first/second draft that just helped him pass the time between classics. Either way, most directors would kill for a “lesser” movie like this.
Carpenter tackling Stephen King just feels like a no brainer. They honestly feel like kindred spirits, working within similar stories but just in different mediums. Very well told but not overly flowery storytelling, focus on blue collar people thrown into horrible situations and a penchant for brining some flair and originality to old tales or outright making something completely original that has never been seen before. So their merging is quite a glorious sight. While it doesn’t take on the iconic status of his best movies, it’s proof positive that very few have ever worked at the level he did during this time. Taking a story about a killer car is something that doesn’t scream prestige, but Carpenter manages to bring the book to life with enough changes to make it cinematic but still recognizably the book. He makes it seem so effortless and easy that you forget how ridiculous it is, especially for the early 80s. The first stroke of mastery he has is in the casting, most specifically with Keith Gordon as Arnie Cunnigham. Gordon is perfect as the lowly nerd that is perfect feasting for the killer car to spiritually feast on. You buy the addict like journey from lowly nerd to shining alpha male to crazed maniac. The second stroke of mastery is his filming of the car, making it feel like a real menacing presence. And with his trademark cinematic mastery, he wrings some iconic imagery with this story. When there’s a flaming car running a bully down in the middle of an abandoned road, you know that he is gonna film it in a way as to be burned into ones mind. Again, for something this good being out of his top 5 just shows how fucking good he was. It doesn’t reach the highs he just delivered in The Thing, but it shows more originality and personality than most horror movies at the time. It’s one of the best King adaptations of all time, and that’s because of the perfect symbiosis of the two.
The Fog (1980)
Very few directors have ever been so good at crafting a strong tone in their movies as Carpenter. This movie is just an absolute delight of pure tone, feeling like a campfire story the entire time. It’s short and simple and to the point. There’s a sense of humanity to it, some morality to the supernatural presence, and the ever present sense of danger. It’s tone is strong but also very different than the tone he had in Halloween. That was the sense of danger in man, where this is a more existential terror. You don’t know how or why this thing is happening, leaving doubt as to when it can strike. Cause it’s not killing people who deserve punishment, nor does it fit the standard horror movie tropes with it’s victims. The mystery feeds into the thematics of the story, that of the sins of the fathers haunting the children. There’s clarity to the killings but an even stronger sense of being unable to fight the threat. The ending of this cements that, with the seemingly defeated ghosts coming back for one last scare and killing their last victim. His visuals here are gorgeous and all the more impressive when you know that most of the movie benefitted from reshoots. The casting is perfect and filled with Carpenter mainstays. The pacing is perfect and the narrative hits it’s modest goals perfectly. This is the movie where we start to enter pretty much perfect territory. And if there’s one element to pick here to convey why the movie is great and iconic, you just gotta listen to the score. It’s so moody and perfectly representative of the campfire tale tone the movie is going for. It’s a nice warmup to keep him limber while he preps for yet another classic just a year later.
Carpenter has never been one to be called a romantic or a optimistic man. His movies, even when they end with the heroes victorious, tend to be bittersweet if not outright depressing. For the most part. Cause this movie is very much not the violent, cynically optimistic movie that he is known for. It’s a movie that comes during the time of movies like E.T. and Firestarter, sci fi stories that deal with others being hunted for their otherness. But this one comes from a romantic angle. It’s not as simple as other love stories. Cause this deals with some sci fi elements and complex psychology of the human mind. Karen Allen has lost her husband recently, but an Alien comes to Earth and ends up taking his form. They roadtrip to the destination Starman needs to get to, and all the complex shit stored inside Allen comes out and she really changes by the time the movie ends. It’s a real sweet movie, anchored by two amazing performances. Allen is always great, and she does so yet again here with the grieving widow. But the real MVP here is Jeff Bridges. His role as the alien learning human behavior in the skin of a deadman is astonishing. There’s no phoniness somehow, feeling exactly like an alien ignorant of humanity’s ways learning in the moment. Kinda like watching a baby grow up. The movie may have some tension in the beginning about his intentions, but it immediately gets set aside and just goes for positivity. It still ends with a tinge of sadness, but not without hope. A rarity for the man, and one he handles with some real mastery.
Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
To many, this is the beginning of the whole wild journey. The first feature Carpenter would helm outside of college and the one that showed off what he could do. Very few directors burst onto the scene with a debut that is as fully formed and definitively them. John Carpenter did it with this movie, an immense and iconic action movie that right out of the gate told everyone what he was all about. From that pulsating synth score to the gorgeous widescreen compositions to the elevating of simple stock characters to the merging of western stories with the more modern and a sense of nihilism mixed with a sense of hard worn optimism, this is a quintessential Carpenter movie. Taking the basic idea from one of his favorite movies, Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo, he strands a cop and a criminal inside a police station and forces them to team up against a silent horde of thugs trying to kill everyone inside the essentially abandoned police station. But within it you get everything that makes Carpenter the iconic director he became, setting it apart from being a simple pastiche of an older movie. He claims there isn’t much in the movie in regards to social messages, but it’s there. There’s no way it wasn’t in his subconscious if he really didn’t aim to make a statement. It’s about the white flight and how the police station is being shutdown because the “scum” that live in the area aren’t worthy of protection. So it leaves the police station wide open to attack without any sort of help, leaving them as helpless as those they are abandoning. He also sidesteps any sort of racial messiness by making the cop black and the criminal white, without even commenting on it. Not many B movies from the 70s can come out today and be think piece proof, but this movie side steps at least one subject by smartly doing that. It’s also smart as it helps to make you care, subliminally, because the cop is a guy from that area who bettered himself to try and help others. What’s nice is also that there is a sense of camaraderie between the cop and the criminal, as they both have a code and a sense of morality that plays well off each other. There’s no handwringing about having the crook help when the attack happens, just simple survival. The movie is a nice breath of pure and simple thrills on all fronts. Hell, my favorite aspect of the movie is that the people in the station have no idea why they’re being attacked. We know, but it doesn’t matter to them. They just need to survive and the whys of it won’t change that. The man speaks pure cinema, wringing gold out of a tiny as hell budget and making something timeless and indicative of his style and interests. John Carpenter came to the fore fully formed and he just tightened it up as he went along.
In The Mouth of Madness (1994)
The only movie he made past the 1980s that’s worth a damn from beginning to end with no caveats. There’s no low points (aside from some minor 90s cgi), just a complete thrill ride from beginning to end. It feels like two of his past movies were smashed together into one without ever feeling derivative of those two, once again showing his talent for mashing elements together to make something all it’s own. It feels like Stephen King wrote an HP Lovecraft story about the old gods and Carpenter directed it. So basically mashing together the tonality and the thematics of Christine/Prince of Darkness into this mind bending entity. It completely fucks with reality, using the form of cinema to make us question what is real or what isn’t. It uses all this to tackle the power of storytelling and how it reverberates throughout the world. He assembled a good cast, anchored by a very strong Sam Neill performance. He sells the confidence of the man before being thrown into such a mind fuck of a situation, where his descent into “insanity” seems completely believable. The pacing of the movie is strong as hell, with no fat on the bones at all. As per usual with John, the tone is perfect. I think there’s a strong case to be made for this being the best Lovecraft adaptation, despite the fact that it’s not an actual Lovecraft story and Stuart Gordon has claim to that with two masterful 80s horror flicks. This is no typical horror movie, going for the existential terror of being used at the whims of a careless creator. It’s a great damn movie and one that should be talked about more, that had the bad luck to fall in the decade that started the demise of his career. Would have been a hell of a chapter to end on, or at least end the masterful streak he was on.
They Live (1988)
The most misunderstood movie in Carpenters filmography. Having Roddy Piper in the main role and some of the silly fight scenes make people think this is a very stupid movie, but it is quite the contrary. This is a searing, prescient piece of satire the world has seen. A movie that has only gained more and more power as time has gone on, feeling so completely of the moment even in 2016. Taking aim at the Reaganomics that took over the world in the 80s, he tapped into a palpable anger and saw the fucked up turn the world was taking as the have nots severely outnumbered the haves in population, but lacked any sort of power. He saw the pacification that the haves were using and used his distaste for it all to craft a supremely entertaining movie that has suckered people into being taught a lesson. Hell, there’s a reason the iconic image of the uncovered alien has been used to call out the corruption in the world today. There’s been no angrier entry in his filmography. That it manages to balance such a goofy and fun tone at the same time is yet another magic trick that he pulls off. And we can’t go without mentioning the amazing and iconic fight scene between Piper and Keith David. It’s so long that it becomes funny, but there’s a pretty strong thematic reason it’s in the movie. It’s a long and hard process to manage to get people to see the truth. You’ll look like a maniac, but the moment you convert them is a satisfying moment. And the moment Piper convinces David to wear the iconic sunglasses, it’s well worth the wait. It’s honestly fucking insane that this is only his 5th best movie, cause most directors can only wish they make a movie this good in an entire career.
Escape From New York (1981)
This movie may play like pure fantasy today, but it really wasn’t so far fetched back in the early 80s. Back when NYC was a cesspool that fueled such grimy movies like Taxi Driver and Death Wish, the idea that NYC would be abandoned by the country to be used as a massive prison city was only slightly out of touch. Just right on the edge of fantasy. This is another deeply cynical movie, and while it may not be as angry as They Live, Snake Plissken is the most nihilistic character he’s ever crafted. Snake is a man that fought for his country but saw how little he and his ilk mattered to the higher ups, losing all faith in man and looking out for number one. But yet, there’s some sparks of the old Snake in their. It’s kinda heartbreaking really, to see such a broken man be proven right again and again. This is his version of a Clint Eastwood character, and he does not see anything sexy about it. Snake is a loner and a selfish man who would rather watch the Earth burn than give the President a moment of glory. The world he sets up is fascinating to see, filling in all the details in subtle ways, never letting his smallish budget hinder him. The plot is great and helps propel the deeply cynical nature of the movie. The action is great and well paced, never getting too stylized as to make Snake supernatural. How he is able to make such a deeply unhappy movie about the world as he sees it going and make it such a deeply entertaining action movie is just beyond me. It’s a feat I don’t that has been matched until 2008, when The Dark Knight came out. And that too is a movie where in the end, the bad guys win essentially. His adeptness of taking archetypes and giving them life with economic storytelling is astounding, getting us to care about criminals. With maybe his best score and some of the best visuals in his oeuvre, this is a masterpiece of B movie cinema, elevating it to prestige material with his unreal craft. While this wasn’t his first time working with Kurt (that would be the TV movie, Elvis), this is the one that showed the world what an unparalleled pair they were. And yet, it’s only his 4th best movie.
Big Trouble In Little China (1986)
One of the most purely entertaining movies to come out of the 80s, this is just popcorn bliss. This doesn’t have the thematic heft or righteous anger hidden underneath it like They Live. Just pure, ole fashioned pulp fun. But while it isn’t some prescient piece of sociological satire, there is a subversive streak to it. Where Escape From New York was Carpenter/Russell’s version of a Clint Eastwood movie, this movie is their version of a John Wayne movie. And where their Clint was a stoic nihilist, this Wayne is a blowhard buffoon. And while it may seem like just a typical Hollywood movie with a white savior character saving the day for the loveably inept minorities, this throws this all asunder. For the white guy who we think is our hero is really the sidekick to the badass Asian friend. It’s a kung fu movie that focuses on the sidekick and has all the badasses surrounding him and just pushing him along like the out of his element doofus he is. There may never have been a more charismatic Kurt Russell performance, so charming despite being an unqualified braggart. He’s a decent man, but one that thinks he’s the hero so we think he’s the hero. But the whole movie just shows us, time and again, what a fuck up he is. It’s amazing. The plot is very much steeped in Chinese mysticism and doesn’t shy away from it or try to homogenize it, which gives it its flavor and makes it stand out from the pack in the 80s. Hell, even today it stands out as there are very few Asian centric movies made. He shoots it all like a pro, using some great B movie tricks to get all the crazy elements on to the screen. It manages to seem very quaint and B movie without ever feeling cheap, like it’s all apart of the aesthetic. The action scenes are thrilling and over the top, utilizing martial arts and magic to make a wild little ride. But most of all, it’s just so god damn fun. There’s a sense that everyone is smiling during the making of this movie, and it comes through the screen. How can you not like a movie that has it’s doofus main character fail the whole time and then accidentally kill the villain? It’s just so charming. The truest oddity in the entire Carpenter canon, as there is no sense of cynicism or nihilism. And he crushes it.
Very few directors can claim to have a movie that caused an absolutely seismic shift in Hollywood. With his followup to Precinct 13, Carpenter managed to craft such a movie. And it is the game changing, masterpiece of horror cinema that we call Halloween. A movie that has started a franchise and has terrorized generations since it’s release. What impresses me the most about this movies success is that if you really think about the script, it is so simple and so bare that the directorial skill of Carpenter had to be so masterful to elevate it to such an iconic level. Just the way he uses his camera to put you in the POV of Michael Myers without resorting back to the first person view he utilizes in the beginning of the movie. The camera is pretty much there as the presence of Michael Myers, even if he isn’t there. Or he’s in the background of the scene, never demanding too much attention from the camera. He lingers all over this movie and it just makes it unbearable. It’s this visual style that I think of every time I think of other horror movies or stories I wanna tell. It’s so much more effective to be in the middle of a scene and realize halfway through that the killer has been watching the whole time and then disappears. It’s stunning work. He introduces the trademark Carpenter steadicam shot here, utilizing it better than any other director since. When he uses it, there’s a sense of dread to it. The music is iconic, so perfectly creepy and foreboding in it’s simplicity. The story, as I said before, is simplicity at its finest. But thanks to his genius, he elevates a simple serial killer story into an existential horror movie about the inevitability and omnipresence of death. The journey the movie takes of Michael being a special kind of maniac to an unkillable force of nature is so matter of fact and never so over the top that you feel like it ends in a fantastical place, despite the utter fantasy of the fate of Michael Myers. There’s so much iconic shit in this movie that it’s almost unfair to see how easy Carpenter makes it look. From the score to the unbelievable visuals to the matter of fact nature of the storytelling, this is just masterful cinema. It has maybe the greatest shot in cinema history, with Michael Myers slowly appearing behind Laurie Strode in the closet. That reveal and the use of lighting just shows where other horror movies fail. And the ending is such a gut punch despite the good guys ostensibly winning. That too is another Carpenter special, the bittersweet win. Cause they may have postponed death, but it’ll never die and will never forget. Going back over the locales that Michael has stalked during the movie, with that music playing and Michaels heavy breathing over that is the bow and the whole package. In many regards, this is the one movie that Carpenter can hold over many of peers and idols and protogees. The movie that changed the game, created a sub genre that’s still going today, and influenced directors worldwide.
For more of my ramblings about this movie and the series it spawned, click here.
The Thing (1982)
For the handful of near masterful/masterful movies in Carpenters career, this is the cream of the crop. The piece la resistance. Nothing has topped this movie before or since. A movie that has a strong argument to be made that it is the greatest horror movie of all time, the greatest sci fi movie of all time, and the most singular movie of the 80s horror movie boom. And the fact that it’s a remake is the most remarkable thing about it. It’s such a masterful movie that it, along with The Fly, can singlehandedly make the idea of remakes not completely worthless. It’s a movie that I have written about in depth before (check it out here), so I won’t waste too much time repeating myself. But it is a movie that stands alone, works as the perfect combination of everything Carpenter likes to do, and created a new high point for the genre to reach for. There are very few movies that can go toe to toe with this movie, regardless of genre. One of the few perfect movies ever released. Carpenter killed it with this one. And while he never reached this high again, he kept running with another decade of greats.