Brian De Palma’s Greatest Movies, Ranked from Best to Worst

Femme Fatale (2002) Antonio Banderas, Rebecca Romijn Brian De Palma

Like any cinematic genre, horror has become synonymous with numerous personalities that helped influence its growth. From writers like Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, and Stephen King to filmmakers like Wes Craven, John Carpenter, and George Romero, these creative minds had an immeasurable effect on shaping audiences’ understanding of horror, pioneering new subgenres and perfecting more than a few old ones.

Less well-known but still crucial among these names is the cult horror director Brian De Palma. One of the unsung heroes of ‘70s and ‘80s film, De Palma served as the closest thing New Hollywood had to Alfred Hitchcock’s successor. Through his odd and audacious movies, De Palma crafted a new kind of horror movie that merged psychological suspense with plot twists and more visceral imagery.

A key influence on future directors like Quentin Tarantino and Edgar Wright, De Palma may not have had as illustrious a career as his contemporaries in Craven or Carpenter. Still, his impressive body of work speaks for itself. From his iconic adaptation of Stephen King’s debut novel to his later work on the groundbreaking action series Mission: Impossible, have a look at some of Brian De Palma’s greatest movies, ranked from best to worst.


Carrie Sissy Spacek
Image Credit: United Artists.

After several strange but endearing early films, De Palma’s first breakthrough success came with 1976’s famed horror film, Carrie. Based on Stephen King’s first novel, the project proved a lucrative film for De Palma, elevating him to significant career prominence by the decade's end.

A stylish and evocative take on King’s novel, De Palma’s original contributions to Carrie – including strangely calming music and dark comedy – helped set the movie apart from anything else that saw a release in the mid-'70s. Deliberately over-the-top in all the right places, De Palma managed to retain the signature scares of the book, complete with a sweeping final act that continues to leave audiences speechless to this day.

Phantom of the Paradise

Phantom of the Paradise Gerrit Graham
Image Credit: 20th Century Fox.

Far and away the most ambitious entry in De Palma’s filmography, Phantom of the Paradise acts as a contemporary retelling of Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera, set against the backdrop of the ‘70s music industry. With his music stolen by an enigmatic producer (Paul Williams), the titular Phantom (William Finley) moves into the producer’s nightclub, targeting his various staff members and encountering a young aspiring singer (Jessica Harper).

A cross between Phantom of the Opera, Faust, and The Picture of Dorian Gray, Phantom of the Paradise transcends its various literary influences, creating a one-of-a-kind fusion between horror and a rock musical. As chilling as humorous, it’s De Palma’s under-appreciated masterpiece, matching other notable rock operas like Tommy or The Rocky Horror Picture Show in its odd nature, addictive soundtrack, and satirical themes.

Blow Out

Blow Out John Travolta, Nancy Allen
Image Credit: Filmways Pictures.

Throughout the first half of his career, De Palma specialized in making more alluring thrillers in the same mold as vintage Hitchcock movies (a trait shared by Sisters, Dressed to Kill, Obsession, and Body Double). Added to that diverse mix is the excellent 1981 neo-noir mystery Blow Out.

A soft remake of 1966’s Blowup, Blow Out is De Palma’s answer to The Conversation, weaving in numerous conspiratorial elements found in such Hitchcock movies as The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps, and Foreign Correspondent (among many others). A first-rate thriller propelled by John Travolta’s spellbinding performance, it’s a deft blend between espionage and political suspense.

The Untouchables

the Untouchables Billy Drago
Image Credit: Paramount Pictures.

As he became more established as a talented young director with films like Carrie, De Palma began to distance himself from the horror films of his earlier days, turning his attention to a wide range of genre films by the mid-80s. In 1987, for example, he cranked out one of his most impressive projects yet with the crime epic, The Untouchables.

A loving homage to the ‘30s Warner Bros. gangster films that starred the likes of Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney, De Palma brings Prohibition-era Chicago to meticulous light with The Untouchables. Contrasting its hard-boiled setting with intense violence and terse language, De Palma portrays the world of gangsters and Tommy guns not as some Bogie-led noir story but as a gruesome, dangerous industry teeming with cutthroats and psychopaths.

Casualties of War

Casualties of War
Image Credit: Columbia Pictures.

Following up on the critical and financial success of The Untouchables, De Palma’s next assignment took him to the wilds of Southeast Asia, exploring the darker aspects of the Vietnam War from the perspective of soldiers involved in the conflict.

Less a war movie than it is a gut-wrenching drama, Casualties of War adapts a startling real-world incident that saw a squad of U.S. Army troops kidnap, assault, and then murder a 21-year-old Vietnamese woman. Adhering to the basic details surrounding the incident, De Palma presents a story of a troubled young soldier (Michael Fox) and his attempts to obtain justice in the chaotic, bureaucratic military hierarchy. It’s an intensely moving anti-war film and one of De Palma’s most overlooked achievements as a director.

Carlito’s Way

Carlito's Way Al Pacino
Image Credit: Universal Pictures.

After several less-than-well-received films throughout the late 1980s, De Palma returned to form with his enthralling 1993 crime drama, Carlito’s Way. Met with a middling response upon its original release, it’s since earned its place as one of De Palma’s most warmly-received movies, with many considering it among his strongest movies of the past several decades.

Making extensive use of his A-list cast, De Palma gives each of his actors (Al Pacino, Sean Penn, Penelope Ann Miller, and John Leguizamo) the freedom to handle their own individual characterization. Combined with De Palma’s rapid pacing and sharp camera work, the finished film is a satisfying crime epic that gifts Pacino one of his most interesting characters yet.

Dressed to Kill

Dressed to Kill Nancy Allen
Image Credit: American International Pictures.

De Palma’s most direct homage to Hitchcock, Dressed to Kill loosely retells Psycho, merging the Master of Suspense’s classic 1960 slasher with a stereotypical Hitchcock plot (the wrongfully-accused protagonist trying to prove her innocence by catching the actual murderer).

Harking back to the twists and turns of a classic Hitchcock film, Dressed to Kill works well, inviting comparisons to its thematic predecessors while also incorporating De Palma’s creative interests as a director (including an exploration of more adult subject matter).

The Fury

The Fury Amy Irving
Image Credit: 20th Century Fox.

Establishing himself as a creative young voice with 1976’s Carrie, De Palma went on to mastermind another psychic-focused horror movie with 1978’s The Fury. Far from producing a movie that cashed in on the success of Carrie, De Palma also took painstaking efforts to differentiate The Fury from its stylistic precursor.

Another underrated entry in De Palma’s canon, The Fury plays like an intersection between the telekinetic-driven Carrie and the political undertones of Blow Out. Containing an espionage-heavy plot filled with evil C.I.A. operatives, rogue agents, and government conspiracies, it’s a gut-wrenching political thriller/supernatural horror film that makes phenomenal use of its talented stars (Kirk Douglas, John Cassavetes, and Amy Irving).


Scarface Al Pacino
Image Credit: Universal Pictures.

As with most of De Palma’s films, casual viewers can have difficulty withstanding such high levels of violence and adult subject matter as featured in his 1983 crime film Scarface. Released to scathing controversy, Scarface’s violent nature makes it one of the most difficult De Palma films to sit through in its entirety.

Abundance of violence aside, however, Scarface thrives off creating a central narrative underscoring how fraught with danger the international drug trade industry can be. Through the half-opened eyes of Al Pacino’s Tony Montana, viewers witness a journey that takes its anti-heroic protagonist from the slums of Miami into an opulent mansion house built by his ambition and unscrupulous willingness to betray anyone who stands in his way. It’s a riveting character study, and one of De Palma’s most well-known films to date.


Sisters Margot Kidder
Image Credit: American International Pictures.

De Palma’s foray into the horror genre began with 1972’s psychological horror/slasher hybrid Sisters. Not only does Sisters mark the first instance where De Palma entered the field of horror, but the film also marks De Palma’s earliest cinematic homage to the works of Alfred Hitchcock – a narrative focus that preoccupied De Palma for the remainder of his career.

Taking liberal inspiration from Psycho and Rear Window, Sisters operates as an eerie horror film where the audience – much like the inquisitive main character (Jennifer Salt) – is never quite sure of what’s going on. Maintaining a strong central mystery throughout, it’s an impressive early horror movie from De Palma, having earned a tried-and-true cult following in the decades since its release.

Body Double

Body Double Melanie Griffith
Image Credit: Columbia Pictures.

From 1972’s Sisters until 1984’s Body Double, De Palma expressed an avid fascination with the work of Alfred Hitchcock, directing several films inspired by Hitch’s work in the thriller and horror genres. As the final entry in this Hitchcock-inspired series of films, Body Double shares numerous attributes to both De Palma’s earlier films and the more famous projects of the Master of Suspense.

Whereas Sisters acts as a postmodern riff on Psycho, Body Double takes more ample influence from Vertigo and Rear Window. As with most of his films, the movie touches upon such Hitchcockian themes as voyeurism and deception, De Palma pulling off these difficult topics with the same dexterous ease as the Master himself.

Mission: Impossible

Defying most other tropes surrounding action franchises, the Mission: Impossible series only grows better with time, moving beyond the initial scope of its earlier, half-baked entries. As unimpressive as most of the original Mission: Impossible films are, De Palma delivered the best of the bunch with 1996's Mission: Impossible.

A far cry from the CGI-laden action films of the modern age, the first Mission: Impossible relies on a relatively simple plot, following series protagonist Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), as he works to find a mole inside the I.M.F. agency. Distancing itself from its 1960s source material, De Palma helped re-establish the M.I. for a new generation — even if the final product doesn’t hold a candle to everything after Ghost Protocol.

Femme Fatale

Femme Fatale Rebecca Romijn
Image Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures.

One of the final mainstream releases of De Palma’s career, Femme Fatale came out just as De Palma lost the favor of Hollywood producers. Fresh off the cusp of commercial and critical failures like Mission to Mars, De Palma doubled down on the same genre he helped make famous, cranking out an electric thriller with 2002’s Femme Fatale.

Though it failed to earn the same high level of acclaim as De Palma’s earliest Hitchcockian thrillers, Femme Fatale nevertheless gained a large following of fans in more recent years, owing to its layered suspense, steamy subject matter, and the performances of its main cast (Antonio Banderas and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos). While never rising to the same heights as Dressed to Kill or Sisters, it makes for a fascinating enough film on its own, existing as De Palma’s last decent movie.


Obsession Geneviève Bujold
Image Credit: Columbia Pictures.

Obsession has recurred as a theme in De Palma's work, whether in the context of solving a potential political assassination (as in Blow Out) or tracking down a long-lost relative (The Fury). In the aptly named Obsession, De Palma broached this idea in a more heavy-handed albeit original manner.

A homage to Hitchcock’s Vertigo in the same that Dressed to Kill calls to mind Psycho, Obsession’s main issue is its melodramatic presentation and the mismatched casting between Cliff Robertson and Geneviève Bujold. Possessing little to any romantic chemistry, the duo’s fumbled relationship on-screen hampers the entire weightiness of De Palma’s plot, preventing the movie from achieving the same success as De Palma's later Hitchcock-inspired films.

Raising Cain

Raising Cain Mel Harris
Image Credit: Universal Pictures.

Recovering from the disastrous shortcomings of 1990’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, De Palma once again returned to a genre he felt comfortable working in: the psychological horror film. However large his aspirations, his work on 1992’s Raising Cain failed to yield the same positive results as his earlier outings in the horror genre.

Enlivened by John Lithgow’s energetic performance, Raising Cain can be seen as a stylistic precursor to Split – a far more evenly-paced film that utilizes a similar premise. Abandoning the same eerie edge that made his ‘70s horror films so fun to watch, De Palma’s endeavors on Raising Cain veer too close to camp, creating a movie that’s more cartoonish than it is outright suspenseful.

Author: Richard Chachowski

Title: Journalist

Expertise: Classic Film, Contemporary Film and TV, Video Games, Comic Books


Richard Chachowski is an entertainment and travel writer who has written for such publications as Wealth of Geeks, Fangoria, Looper, Screen Rant, and MSN. He received a BA in Communication Studies and a BA in Journalism and Professional Writing from The College of New Jersey in 2021. He has been a professional writer since 2020. His geeky areas of interest include Star Wars, travel writing, horror, video games, comic books, literature, and animation.