John Carpenter is more than a simple film director. A talented artist, a gifted musician, an inspired writer, and a visionary director, he's a filmmaker in the same catch-all manner as Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton.
Overseeing his movies from their inception into the final editing stages, Carpenter is responsible for writing, producing, directing, and even composing the music for some of the most decade-defining films of the '70s and '80s. Throughout his career, he's redefined horror, action, and science fiction narratives, his place in genre films as clear as his contemporaries George Romero, Wes Craven, and David Cronenberg.
As fantastic as many of Carpenter's films are, like any director, some of his movies are often regarded in a far more favorable light than others. From his earliest career successes to his later failures in the '90s and 2000s, here is every one of John Carpenter's movies, ranked from best to worst.
On the fifteenth anniversary of the night he murdered his sister, hulking serial killer Michael Myers (Nick Castle) escapes from a mental health facility. Donning a mask, Myers returns to his hometown on Halloween night, menacing a teenage babysitter (Jamie Lee Curtis) as his psychiatrist (Donald Pleasence) avidly searches for him.
Escape From a Mental Health Facility
Whether Halloween is truly Carpenter's greatest movie is debatable, but it's most assuredly the most important in his entire filmography. Not only did the movie help elevate Carpenter and Jamie Lee Curtis to career stardom and it also introduced a new genre to viewers, creating the prototypical slasher that we know today. Without it, the names Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, Chucky, or Ghostface would be absent from pop culture and our collective consciousness.
2. The Thing
At a remote Antarctic outpost, a team of American researchers is hunted by an alien creature able to take the physical form of its victims.
Hunted by an Alien
Halloween might be Carpenter's most famous film, but The Thing is arguably his singular best accomplishment as a director. Creating an eerie atmosphere of suspense that never lets up, Carpenter builds a sense of dread that few horror movies can possess. As a result, its place in the horror community is without equal, its reputation rightfully only growing more hallowed with time.
3. Escape From New York
In a dystopian future where crime rates have risen dramatically in the U.S., Manhattan has been converted into a massive prison complex where the inmates run free. After Air Force One crashes in the city, the government sends former war hero-turned-bank robber Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) to rescue the President (Donald Pleasence).
Manhattan Has Been Converted Into a Prison Complex
In a decade characterized by amazing sci-fi films like The Terminator and RoboCop, Escape from New York stands apart as Carpenter's greatest achievement in its action alone. Constructing a nightmarish version of America from the ground up, Carpenter forever left his mark on the genre with this film, directly inspiring everything from Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror to Hideo Kojima's Metal Gear Solid series.
4. Assault on Precinct 13
At a run-down police station in Los Angeles, a highway patrolman (Austin Stoker), two convicted criminals (Darwin Joston and Tony Burton), and two secretaries (Laurie Zimmer and Nancy Loomis) defend themselves from a massive gang out for blood.
A Massive Gang Out for Blood
Channeling his fierce love for Howard Hawks, Carpenter took the premise of a Western and moved into the then-contemporary '70s. Retaining the overall narrative tone of Hawks' most famous movie, Rio Bravo, and crossing it with the socially tumultuous climate of its setting, the resulting film helped gain Carpenter industry recognition, clearing the way for his breakthrough Halloween.
5. They Live
Happening across a pair of strange sunglasses, a construction worker (Roddy Piper) realizes that the World is secretly being controlled by an all-powerful alien society whose members covertly live among us.
An Alien Society Controls the World
They Live is the last great film in Carpenter's career and one of his strangest. A clever satirization of capitalism and mass consumer culture, They Live belongs to the same category of weird, over-the-top, counterculture '80s films as Repo Man. It could have been an unmitigated disaster, but Carpenter's comic screenplay and Piper's unexpectedly charismatic performance helped pull the whole thing off.
6. Big Trouble in Little China
After his best friend's (Dennis Dun) fiancée is kidnapped by a centuries-old wizard (James Hong), truck driver Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) becomes embroiled in a high-stakes gang war of fantastic proportions in San Francisco's Chinatown.
Kidnapped by a Wizard
The most absurdist and comic-heavy of Carpenter and Russell's films together, Big Trouble in Little China has also earned what is probably the largest and most dedicated cult following of Carpenter's movies. Carpenter has always been an expert at mixing genres into one satisfying stew. Here he cooks up a comedic fantasy adventure film the likes of which we had never seen before and have yet to see duplicated since.
Taking the physical appearance of a woman's (Karen Allen) deceased husband, a kind alien (Jeff Bridges) convinces her to drive him to Arizona, where his species plans to pick him up, all the while being hunted by a team of government researchers.
A Kind Alien Hunted by The Government
A cross between E.T. and Splash, Starman is (along with Dark Star) Carpenter's most routinely overlooked film. Although not nearly as tongue-in-cheek or openly comic as Big Trouble in Little China or They Live, there's an inherent charm that can be found in Starman that's notably missing from Carpenter's other films. It's a bold stylistic departure but one that works unbelievably well.
8. Dark Star
On assignment in deep space, the crew of a dilapidated intergalactic vessel battle boredom, isolation, an increasingly self-aware A.I., and a small alien that looks like a beach ball as they complete their daily duties onboard the ship.
An Assignment in Deep Space
Made in the early '70s on a shoestring budget, Carpenter's directorial debut, Dark Star, showed Carpenter's immense capabilities as a director able to thrive under intense limitations. Making the most out of every last cent in his dramatically small budget, Carpenter created a three-dimensional world that was bizarre, comic, and somehow tangibly real. Moreover, it demonstrated all his clear talents to make the most out of what he had — something that would prove abundantly clear with his later work on Assault on Precinct 13 and Halloween.
Upon refurbishing a vintage 1957 Plymouth Fury, a lonely young man (Keith Gordon) suffers from an inexplicable personality change. His behavior becomes darker and more malevolent the more time he spends with his new car.
A Personality Change
In the mid-'80s, John Carpenter and Stephen King were two of the most recognizable names in horror, the idea of the two working together almost too good to be true. Though Christine pales compared to King's collaboration with George Romero on Creepshow, Carpenter still makes a compelling film from King's difficult-to-adapt source material. In any other director's hands, the movie might've bombed; but with Carpenter overseeing the material, it became one of its era's better King adaptations.
10. The Fog
When an unnaturally heavy fog blankets a coastal Californian town, its inhabitants realize that the ghostly crew of a shipwrecked vessel are using the fog to invade the town, killing anyone they come across as part of their spectral revenge.
Ghosts Using Fog To Invade The Town
Obvious similarities to Stephen King's later, far superior The Mist aside, The Fog is built around a simple but ingenious idea (what if something lurks in the fog that sweeps over your neighborhood?). While the execution is a little messy in some places, the suspenseful sequences Carpenter builds are superb, forcing you to sit at the end of your seat whenever Carpenter shows the titular fog rolling in.
11. In The Mouth of Madness
John Trent (Sam Neill) is an insurance investigator trying to find an influential horror novelist (Jürgen Prochnow) whose latest work is said to cause readers to literally lose their minds.
A Book Causes Readers to Literally Lose Their Minds
When looking at the whole of his career, Carpenter peaked by the late 1980s with the release of They Live, the last great entry in his filmography. While none of his movies post-They Live measured up to the heights of his earliest successes, In the Mouth of Madness came fairly close. With its Lovecraftian themes and more dire tone, it was an ideal way to conclude Carpenter's unofficial “Apocalypse Trilogy” (including The Thing and Prince of Darkness).
12. Prince of Darkness
Upon finding a strange canister in the basement of a Los Angeles church, a team of graduate students and a Catholic priest (Donald Pleasence) arrive to study it. Shortly after opening the canister, the group is shocked to learn that it contains Satan's liquid spirit.
A Strange Canister in The Basement
Prince of Darkness's biggest faults lay in its harebrained central premise. While the film is far from the atrocious failures of Carpenter's later films, it was a clear drop in quality from the bone-chilling horror of The Thing, the initial entry in Carpenter's thematically connected “Apocalypse Trilogy” to which this belongs.
Raised by the church to become the ultimate vampire slayer, Jack Crow (James Woods) sets out to find and destroy the World's oldest vampire (Thomas Ian Griffith) before he can recover an ancient Catholic cross.
The Ultimate Vampire Slayer
Like many of Carpenter's lesser works, Vampires has secured a strong cult following of fans. However, that doesn't necessarily define it as Carpenter's definitive film. As with most of his '90s movies onward, the movie failed to yield much of an interesting narrative, nor did it have genuinely likable characters for viewers to connect with or even root for.
14. Escape From L.A.
Several years following the events of Escape from New York, America has been transformed into a totalitarian state, the government banishing all rebellious elements to the earthquake-stricken Los Angeles. When his daughter disappears with the keys to a powerful weapon, the deranged President (Cliff Robertson) sends fugitive Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) to retrieve the device.
America Has Been Transformed Into a Totalitarian State
More a remake than a sequel, Escape from L.A. was a risky creative decision on Carpenter's part that left viewers scratching their heads. Some see the movie as improving Escape from New York (Carpenter's main incentive behind the project). Still, a thinly-veiled remake was bound to elicit a mixed response from even the most dedicated Carpenter fans.
15. Memoirs of an Invisible Man
After an accident turns him completely invisible, a stock analyst (Chevy Chase) is pursued by an enthusiastic CIA agent (Sam Neill) as he comes to terms with the reality of his new life.
An Invisible Stock Analyst
On the surface, a collaboration between John Carpenter, Chevy Chase, Sam Neill, and Darryl Hannah would be a dream come true. But, sadly, the movie flops back and forth between genres too often, not being funny enough to be a comedy and yet not serious enough to be a drama in the same mold as Starman.
16. The Ward
In the mid-1960s, a young woman (Amber Heard) at a mental health facility believed the ghost of a former patient is haunting her.
Haunted by The Ghost of a Former Patient
A movie so bad it ultimately forced Carpenter into retirement, The Ward lacks any semblance of a coherent plot, hair-raising scares, or the strong characterization that made Carpenter's works the indelible cult classics they're commonly hailed as.
17. Village of The Damned
Nine months after all the women in their town inexplicably become pregnant, the residents witness the birth of several children who may look like ordinary humans but are clearly anything but.
Children of The Town Are Not Normal Humans
With how loved the original Village of the Damned was, tackling such a popular film was bound to be challenging. Perhaps something was lost in the translation process — the original movie was so clearly embedded in British culture — but Carpenter's finished result was another career blunder.
18. Ghosts of Mars
In the 22nd century, Earth successfully established a colony on Mars. But, when a mining group becomes possessed by the ghosts of the planet's first inhabitants, a ragtag team of police officers and criminals defend themselves from the vengeful creatures.
A Colony on Mars
The movie that nearly ended Carpenter's career, Ghosts of Mars wasn't Carpenter's final film, but it might as well have been. Relying on horrendous dialogue and some painfully campy performances, it's no surprise that it would be nine long years before Carpenter made another film. Truthfully, he would've been better off stopping here.
Richard Chachowski is an entertainment and travel writer who has written for such publications as Wealth of Geeks, Looper, Screen Rant, Fangoria, and Sportskeeda, among many others. He received his BA from The College of New Jersey and 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.
Richard has been an avid consumer of movies, television, books, and pop culture since he was four-years-old. Raised on a diverse mix of Clint Eastwood Westerns, Star Wars, sci-fi and horror films, Alan Moore comics, and Stephen King novels, he eventually turned his various passions into a creative outlet, writing about film, television, literature, comics, and gaming for his high school and college newspapers. A traveling enthusiast, Richard has also managed to create a career out of journeying abroad, venturing to such awe-inspiring places as the Sonoran Desert of Mexico, the rainforests of Costa Rica, and the scenic coastline of Haiti. Upon graduating from TCNJ, Richard set his sights on a career in journalism, writing extensively about the art of traveling and the entertainment medium for various online publications. When he’s not busy making his way through The Criterion Collection, he can be found either reading or planning a trip somewhere (preferably someplace with a scenic hiking trail).