The Best Films Of John Carpenter

When thinking about the best films of John Carpenter you immediately envisage slasher classic Halloween or Arctic outpost horror The Thing but the stylish filmmaker has so much more to offer when you delve into his body of work…

best films of john carpenter

The best films of John Carpenter are such indelible works of modern genre cinema that his fall from grace appears even more surprising. But you can’t help looking back at his catalogue of movies with fond memories. More recent fans of cinema and certainly viewers born after the 1980s would be forgiven for thinking Carpenter was a straight-to-video hack with little discernible talent.

That’s understandable.

best films of john carpenterThere have been few films in the last couple of decades as bad as than Escape From L.A. or Ghosts of Mars, and Carpenter has enjoyed a sort of career hibernation since. But cast your mind back to 1978 and the release of Halloween and you might think differently. There have been few horror films as good as Halloween or The Thing, few fantasy-adventures as weirdly wonderful as Big Trouble In Little China, few science-fiction comedies as satirically astute as They Live. He’s also made a habit of giving Kurt Russell his best roles from Snake Plissken in Escape From New York to the likes of Jack Burton and even Elvis Presley.

If you ask me, John Carpenter is welcome to a long and fruitful retirement. He’s always stuck to his guns and remained undiluted and undeterred by studio interference. The very best films of John Carpenter showcase his determination to remain in creative control of every aspect of his movies, his independence ultimately proving to be his downfall as well as his legacy. Perhaps we would have seen more from the director had he allowed Hollywood to Hollywoodise his films. But he didn’t. He remained independent. As a cult movie hero, John Carpenter is one of the best and most revered. You only have to marvel at his greatest work to know this “straight-to-video hack” is actually one hell of a filmmaker.

10. Vampires (1998)

vampires best films of john carpenter
“Can I ask ya somethin, Padre? When I was kicking your ass back there… you get a little wood?”

Is Vampires one of the best films of John Carpenter? Yes and no. It isn’t up to the standard set by Carpenter’s best work and there are probably at least a couple of movies that deserve to be on this list ahead of this one. But, I’ve always enjoyed it because I like vampire films, but more importantly, a like vampire films with mythology stripped bare. Think Near Dark or more recently Let The Right One In. I also think Vampires is worthy because it is insanely funny as well as being a decent scary movie. And much of the film’s success is down to James Woods who’s brilliant in the role of Jack Crow – a sort of male version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer only Crow has better one-liners. Vampires was actually a financial success for Carpenter, unlike so much of his work.

9. Prince Of Darkness (1987)

prince of darkness best films of john carpenter
“Hello? I’m opening the door, if you want to stop what you’re doing and put your clothes on!”

Prince Of Darkness reunites Donald Pleasance with John Carpenter after the pair worked together on Halloween. The film was Carpenter’s return to independent filmmaking after becoming disillusioned by big-budget studio films after the box office failure of Big Trouble In Little China. The film is very much rooted in horror traditions and although it suffers from a convoluted plot, Carpenter maintains a sinister atmosphere that culminates in a tension-filled finale.

8. The Fog (1980)

the fog best films of john carpenter
“11:55, almost midnight. Enough time for one more story. One more story before 12:00, just to keep us warm.”

The Fog is a traditional ghost story with a few Carpenter sensibilities thrown in. It has a great beginning with an old horror story told around the campfire. The film stars Carpenter’s then-wife Adrienne Barbeau who had starred in the “lost” Carpenter film Someone’s Watching Me in 1978. The director doesn’t feel this is his best film and recalls how he was so dissatisfied with the original cut he went back and re-shot one-third of the movie. Nevertheless, it’s a good horror story that Carpenter says was inspired by the 1958 British film The Trollenberg Terror about monsters hiding in the clouds.

7. They Live (1988)

they live best films of john carpenter
“I’m here to chew bubble gum and kick ass.”

This could be one of the best films of John Carpenter purely for one scene in particular, but there’s lots to enjoy here. For those that have seen this crazy little sci-fi cult classic it’ll probably rate as the most purely enjoyable film of the director’s career. That’s in no small part down to the performances of wrestling great Rowdy Roddy Piper and Keith David. The left-field nature of the film comes to a head when, for no real reason, Piper and David partake in a wrestling match in a quiet street alley. The fight has be one of the most memorable and funny wrestling match-ups ever put on screen, and adds to the film’s over-the-top legacy. Outrageousness is the name of the game in They Live, a film Carpenter plays for laughs with 1950s sci-fi television as his inspiration.

6. Escape From New York (1981)

escape from new york best films of john carpenter
“You wanna see him sprayed all over that map, baby? Now where’s the President?”

Kurt Russell appears for the second time in a John Carpenter film after the made-for-TV Elvis. What would become interesting as he continued to work with Carpenter was how the characters he portrayed for the director were all vastly different. Here he takes the machismo of his turn in Big Trouble In Little China with the grit and ballsy courage of MacReady in The Thing to create the iconic Snake Plissken. The film concerns itself, like Assault On Precinct 13, with the fine line between good and bad. Here, Plissken is a criminal sent into Manhattan to rescue the President who has crashed landed there. The catch is – Manhattan is now a cordoned off maximum security prison. Inside the prison walls the prisoners are able to roam free without interference. If Plissken gets in, manages to survive, and saves the president, he will receive a full pardon and walk free. It’s a simple set-up, delivered by Carpenter in a straight-forward fashion. Russell is great and the film motors along at breakneck speed.

5. Assault On Precinct 13 (1976)

assault on precinct 13 best films of john carpenter
“In my situation, days are like women – each one’s so damn precious, but they all end up leaving you.”

Ask the man himself what he deems the best films of John Carpenter are and he’d almost certainly say Assault On Precinct 13. It was heavily influenced by Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo and George A. Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead. Made on a shoestring budget of $100,000, the film sparked interest from Hollywood producers who liked the fact Carpenter could work effectively within the constraints of tights budgets. The relative success of Assault On Precinct 13 would lead to Carpenter’s hiring on Halloween, another film made on a small budget. For me, and many others, Assault on Precinct 13 is one of the best films of John Carpenter because it’s a taut, well-constructed nature, the tension-filled thrills that transpire, and the wonderful premises that sees a disparate group of cons and coppers fending for their lives inside a besieged police station. It is another example of Carpenter investigating the group dynamic and is of particular interest because of how police officer Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker) has to work together with the convicts held at the prison in order to survive. It’s a terrific concept and blurs the distinction between the convenient attributes of good versus bad.

4. Big Trouble In Little China (1986)

big trouble in little china best films of john carpenter
“Like I told my last wife, I says, “Honey, I never drive faster than I can see. Besides that, it’s all in the reflexes.””

If you were to ask anyone what film of John Carpenter’s career was the most fun to watch they would either say Big Trouble In Little China or They Live. Kurt Russell is back with Carpenter, this time delivering an altogether different performance than the one we saw in The Thing. Here he’s cocky truck driver Jack Burton, a guy who wants to drink beer, get his next pay cheque, and have a little fun. But the fun has to wait when a friend is kidnapped and Burton must enter the mysterious Chinatown underworld in order to save her. The film mixes spectacular action-adventure with fantasy and mythology, all pulled together by Russell’s wildly funny Burton. Despite undoubtedly being one of the best films of John Carpenter, Big Trouble In Little China was another huge failure at the box office. This resulted in the director’s return to independent film. Yet, like much of Carpenter’s work it has gained a strong following on home video. The film didn’t deserve to be shunned by audiences on its release – it is a funny, engrossing and hugely entertaining action-adventure.

3. In The Mouth Of Madness (1995)

in the mouth of madness best films of john carpenter
“Reality is not what it used to be!”

One of John Carpenter’s later films – made during his gradual period of decline – is still one of his best. This is a surreal story about private investigator John Trent, played by Sam Neill, investigating the disappearance of a horror writer. Although Stephen King is referenced in the film as a rival it is clear King is a major inspiration for the writer Neill’s character is tasked to find. The film is told in flashback after we learn that Trent has been admitted to a mental institution. It’s a terrific thriller and Neill delivers a gritty performance in the lead role.

2. Halloween (1978)

halloween best films of john carpenter
“I met this six-year-old child, with this blank, pale, emotionless face and, the blackest eyes…the devil’s eyes.”

In 1997, Wes Craven released Scream. It was a film targeted at the youth market – a market that hadn’t seen a quality slasher film released for years. That said, not many who saw and loved Craven’s homage to the slasher genre knew much about the films it was referencing. But the film, and the success of the sequels and new-age slashers, are in debt to one of John Carpenter’s greatest films Halloween. It isn’t the first slasher film but it is the best. Alfred Hitchcock made the Granddaddy of the genre with Psycho, and this was followed in the early 1970s by Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Bob Clark’s Black Christmas which were both hugely influential on Carpenter. He deconstructed the template which had made those films successful and set the conventions which Scream would so shrewdly mock and simultaneously celebrate.

Halloween is so effective because it depicts a monster which is at once unstoppable and seemingly without reason. Similarly, it was what made the violence in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre so alarming – not just the ferocity of it but the fact it lacked motivation and therefore reason. It was terror born out of what can only be described as undiluted, indefinable, and deep-rooted evil. Halloween benefits from its monster – Michael Myers – one of the most iconic antagonists ever envisaged.

1. The Thing (1982)

the thing bst films of john carpenter
“I dunno what the hell’s in there, but it’s weird and pissed off, whatever it is.”

I might ridicule remakes but sometimes they reveal some marvellous works of cinema. If we cast our minds back to 1982 – before remakes seemingly became half of all Hollywood production – we find one of the finest adaptations of an original story. John Carpenter’s The Thing modernises the Howard Hawks/Christian Nyby film The Thing from Another World which was an adaptation of the John W. Campbell, Jr. novella Who Goes There?. The Thing arrived on a wave of hype for science-fiction horror thanks largely to the success of Ridley Scott’s 1979 film Alien. And, as science-fiction horror films go, The Thing is one of the most captivating and brilliant exponents of the genre.

This is John Carpenter’s best film because it is not only a frightening horror movie, it is the accumulation of Carpenter’s best attributes as a director coming together to show him at his most masterful. Minimalist lighting, an ominous score, brooding tension and careful build-up make for the perfect backdrop to a great horror story, but his depiction of the breakdown of the group dynamic is at its most refined here. It is a character trait he has looked at in many of his films from Assault On Precinct 13 to Prince of Darkness to The Fog, in how a group of people deal with an overpowering threat. The Thing is the best example of the director deconstructing the loyalties, friendships and trust formed by a group of people; a concept he’s almost obsessed with and one he thrillingly depicts with perfection here.

And of course the performance of Carpenter regular Kurt Russell, who delivers a commanding turn as helicopter pilot R. J. MacReady, is a big plus. He is ably supported by a great cast which includes Richard Dysart, Keith David, Wilford Brimley, Thomas G. Waites, Joel Polis and Charles Hallahan. The special-effects are also fantastic and still look good today in spite of the digital capabilities of filmmakers in the modern era. Rob Bottin created most of the monster effects but Stan Winston was brought in to do some puppet work.

The fact The Thing received a muted critical reception at the time of its release along with a poor box office return may well be due to it being a spectacular horror film. It’s scary so audiences fled to the safe confines of Spielberg’s E.T., which was released around the same time, and it’s suitably gory turning high-horse critics off their cup of tea. But the film has aged well. It quickly became a cult hit on home video, and is now widely considered one of the finest horror films ever made. Occasionally time can be beneficial. For John Carpenter’s The Thing, time has ensured this is his vintage.

Written and compiled by Dan Stephens.

Over to you: what are the best films of John Carpenter in your opinion?

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Dan Stephens
About the Author
Dan Stephens is the founder and editor of Top 10 Films. He's usually pondering his next list, often inspired by his adoration for 1980s Hollywood, a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. Fitz Reply

    I, to this day, still have not seen The Thing. Halloween is aces though, The Thing will have to be pretty good to top that.

  2. Dan Reply

    @Fitz: check The Thing out Fitz. Put it to the top of your list. Halloween and The Thing are Carpenter’s two true masterpieces. But The Thing edges it for me because it’s such a fun film to watch again and again. Halloween is darker, its horror more affecting and bleak; The Thing takes itself a little less seriously but isn’t any less horrific.

  3. rtm Reply

    Horror genre is not for me, so obviously I don’t watch hardly any of his movies. But In The Mouth of Madness sounds intriguing, plus I like Sam Neill. It sounds more of a psychological thriller than a straight horror film.

  4. Heather Reply

    I’ve only seen a handful of these, but the ones I have seen I stand behind tenfold. John Carpenter has had quite the career, no one can deny that.

    I still need to check out They Live and Big Trouble In Little China. Blasphemy I know!

  5. Dr Kippling Reply

    I’ve always preferred The Thing over Halloween but I know others see those two switched around.

  6. Dan Reply

    @rtm: In The Mouth of Madness is quite graphic so that might put you off. However, if horror isn’t your thing I’d recommend Big Trouble In Little China (Fantasy-comedy) and They Live (social comment science-fiction). They Live is very much a b-movie that celebrates its own trashiness but it’s definitely underrated as a social commentary on late 80s America. Also, try Memoirs of an Invisible Man – it didn’t make my top 10 but it’s worth watching.

    @Heather: It’s a shame the likes of Escape from L.A. and Ghosts of Mars have tarnished his legacy. Both were poorly received but on subsequent viewings I quite like Ghosts of Mars and Kurt Russell is always worth watching, even if he’s rehasing Escape From New York in the surroundings of L.A. Heck, I even like Memoirs of an Invisible Man.

    @Dr. Kippling: I agree. Both are great but The Thing shades it.

  7. rtm Reply

    Hey thanks for the warning. Big Trouble does sound more like something I’d enjoy. WOW, John has quite an affinity for Kurt Russell huh? 🙂

  8. Dan Reply

    Yeah he does. The DVD commentaries with Kurt Russell and John Carpenter are superb – very funny and enlightening. You can tell they are close friends and work well together.

  9. Marc Reply

    Kudos for putting The Thing in the number one spot. Not only was it a flat out AWESOME film, but with Carpenter’s style all over it, it succeeded in being a remake that topped the original. I would have this and Big Trouble in Little China fighting for the top two spots (Carpenter is an awesome guy, I met him once and he signed the Blu Ray versions of each film).

    But look at you with “Madness” at No 3! Few people I know like that movie (and the ending still bugs the crap out of me). But no mention of Memoirs of an Invisible Man?? That’s another Sam Neil/Carpenter gem.

    They Live is just cheesy fun and taking No 7 is a good assessment. Fine list Dan…although I guess I have to see The Fog and Prince of Darkness to complete this list:P

  10. Dan Reply

    @Richard: I’ve added the link, cheers for that. I’m a big fan of In The Mouth of Madness, it’s underrated in my opinion. I actually have a fond spot for Memoirs – maybe it could have been improved with Kurt Russell in Chevy Chase’s role perhaps?

    @Marc: That’s great that you met Carpenter Marc. He always comes across as a enthusiastic speaker – I love his commentaries – and a friendly sort of fellow.

  11. Richard Reply

    Interesting list, with some real surprises. But only in the order, I guess. In the Mouth of Madness at No.3? Controversial. 🙂 I LOVE The Fog and would definitely have it at 1 or 2. And what about Memoirs of an Invisible Man?

    Okay, that last line was a crock of shit.

    Radiator Heaven is running a John Carpenter week Oct 3-9.

  12. Will Reply

    Once again, great list. I love them all! My personal favorite is probably Big Trouble in Little China, but I can’t really argue with the Thing in the top spot as it is flat-out awesome. Yeah, I need to watch some Carpenter again. Starman is also a good one!

    I wonder if his new one will be any good. Here’s hoping!

  13. Aiden R. Reply

    Good man. The Thing is truly in a league of its own. And They Live totally makes the list if only for the bubblegum line.

    Never seen In the Mouth of Madness though. Putting it on the queue.

  14. goregirl Reply

    THE THING in the number one spot is exactly as it should be and I love that you included Assault On Precinct 13 in the top 5! I would probably have They Live and Escape From New York in my TOP 3 though. Great list regardless, can’t argue with any of these films!

    The man was certainly mighty back in the day. I also thought his Masters Of Horror episode Cigarette Burns was one of the best of the two seasons. I’m excited to check out his new film THE WARD, which I just learned of a few days ago!

  15. Thomas Reply

    love your lists – I also recently had a nostalgic (re)viewing of the Carpenter oeuvre – and realised that things like “Village of the Damned” or “Vampires” I had never seen before. But those that I had seen are the movies that – thanks to Video 2000 and VHS and all the tv reruns – I have probably seen most times of all the films I have seen. I am not kidding, I really believe that “Escape from New York”, “The Fog” and “Christine” (hey! what kind of list… anyway, that is my soft spot for Stephen King, I guess) share hundreds of hours of my life. and pleasant ones, at that.

  16. J.D. Reply

    Thanks for the plug for my upcoming blogathon! Much appreciated.

    I would also rank THE THING #1 with ESCAPE FROM NY a close second. That film is just so good and fires on a cylinders in a way that I enjoy every time I watch it. But the Carpenter film I love to revisit the most is BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA. So much and just such a joy to watch. I never tire of it and is a film that I can watch almost any time.

  17. Rodney Reply

    The Thing. Win. Pure and simple. God, I haven’t seen In The Mouth Of Madness in an age, and so wish I’d seen it before reading this. Loved Sam Niell in it.

    Must try and make time to finally getting to see They Live at some point.

    The rest of this list is pretty much what I would have chosen!

  18. Andrew Reply

    It really has to go to Thing or Halloween, but I dig seeing Madness and Assault so high up– like you, I believe Madness to be a truly underrated Carpenter film that for some reason hasn’t gotten the credit it deserves. Meanwhile, Assault just feels overlooked.

    But it’s really hard to go wrong with any of these. I could watch the films on this list forever and never get sick of them.

  19. mark Reply

    Looked at this, went away and thought about it for a while, then it hit me …..NO DARK STAR?!

    I would put it before Vampires, They Live, Prince of Darkness and In the Mouth… I think it also tops Big Trouble ….

  20. KP Reply

    Carpenter is clearly one of the Masters of Horror. I see him as one of the directors who defined the modern horror film.

  21. Mark Loughton Reply

    IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS is brilliant. Its an awesome film. THE THING deserves to be at Number 1. I might add GHOSTS of MARS is great fun, i loved it. I loved ESCAPE from L.A. Too. THE WARD, cigarette burns were brilliant. THEY LIVE a brilliant film as well. I like most of Carpenters Work, hell Paul W.S. Anderson and Luc Besson have been stealing from carpenter for years. I don’t think Carpenter had a decline its just for ten solid years he made classic after classic. HALLOWEEN, THE FOG, EFNY, THE THING, BTILC, THEY LIVE, PRINCE of DARKNESS, ITMOM,EFLA, GhOsts of Mars. The Ward, i love them all.

  22. Dan Reply

    @Mark Loughton: Thanks for the comment Mark, great to hear from a new fan of the site. Of course, everyone knows H.P. Lovecraft is heavily influential in the construction and execution of In The Mouth of Madness but look a little closer next time. You’ll also see references to another writer in there – namely, Stephen King. Sometimes you’ve just got to look between the lines.

  23. Dan Grant Reply

    It’s interesting, when I list off my favourite director’s of all time, Carpenter isn’t one that comes to mind. As mentioned at the beginning of the article, Carpenter has done some absolutely horrible pictures. Ghosts of Mars would be one of my top 100 worst films of all time.

    Conversely, Halloween is my number 5 best film of all time. And reading this list, it really makes me appreciate all that Carpenter has done. I like or absolutely love every film on this list. They Live has the best fight ever in the history of motion pictures and it has the coolest line in the history of motion pictures.

    Then there is the top two. While I would have swapped spots one and two, it doesn;t really matter because both are such iconic, genre defining films.

    What a great list Dan. Very well done and it makes me appreciate Carpenter that much more.

  24. Neal Damiano Reply

    Exceptional list, Dan

    The only two things I would change is including Starman in there somewhere and have The Fog further down.
    Nice to see The Thing take top spot.

  25. Neal Damiano Reply

    @Dan Grant

    Carpenter’s exceptional films out weigh his bad ones by far.

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