John Carpenter Movies Ranked from Worst to Best

John Carpenter has directed and scored some of the best movies ever made.

John Carpenter Movies
Photo: 20th Century Fox, Universal Pictures, New Line Cinema, AVCO Embassy Pictures, Compass International Pictures, Aquarius Releasing

This article contains spoilers

John Carpenter is hands down one of America’s greatest filmmakers and composers, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a horror geek that doesn’t adore at least one of his movies. Born in 1948 to a a college music professor, Carpenter fell in love with cinema as a child and was out there making his own short films before he’d even started high school.

As the decades flew by, he was at the helm of some of the most beloved sci-fi and horror pictures of all time, whilst also composing the music for most of them, including the iconic scores for Halloween and Escape from New York.

Today, we’re ranking the director’s output, from Dark Star in 1974 to The Ward in 2010, but we should note that we haven’t included TV movies like Elvis or Someone’s Watching Me here, as we’re planning to take a deeper look at those in the future.

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Disagree with our choices? As always, head to the comments to make your voice heard!

18. Ghosts of Mars (2001)

An attempt at tackling a campy space western, John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars was released in 2001 to a nonplussed audience that definitely wasn’t receptive to its deliberate schlock. It also seemed to be a struggle for the director to land the right cast for the project. First choices for the lead role all turned it down before Courtney Love hopped aboard and then left. Then, after Species star Natasha Henstridge was finally cast, production had to be shut down when she succumbed to extreme exhaustion. At the time, Jason Statham was also considered to be lacking star power, so he was bumped to a lesser role.

But the acting in Ghosts of Mars isn’t the only problem with the movie. It’s one of them, sure, but the dialogue isn’t particularly stellar, either, and the flashback sequences are really muddled. Though the movie has its fans, it’s simply a bit of a mess, and just too silly for most.

17. Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992)

Let’s be honest, Chevy Chase is an acquired taste. Sure, the guy has done some legendary work on Saturday Night Live and Community, as well as the Vacation movies. But there’s a haughtiness to his persona, an arrogance that lingers, even when he’s playing a doofus. The right material can harness that superiority. And Memoirs of an Invisible Man is not the right material. 

Most of the problems stem from Chase himself, who became the chief creative force on the film after buying the rights to the 1987 H.F. Saint novel Memoirs of an Invisible Man. Chase initially planned to make the movie with Ivan Reitman, but creative differences drove the two apart, eventually leading to Carpenter stepping behind the camera. Whether it’s Chase’s ego or Carpenter’s lack of interest, nothing in Memoirs works. The jokes fall flat, the drama has no force, and Chase never makes for a compelling leading man. 

Like it’s main character, Memoirs of an Invisible Man is best left unseen. 

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16. The Ward (2010)

By all accounts, John Carpenter is happy spending his retirement by indulging his inner adolescent, smoking weed, playing video games, and watching basketball. Normally, we wouldn’t dream of trying to interrupt such a blissful existence, but when a legendary director goes out on a movie like The Ward, we can’t help but want him to come back for one more shot. 

Honestly, The Ward is hardly the worst movie ever made. It’s just so generic. Set in 1966, it follows mental health patient Kristen (Amber Heard) as she begins to experience weird visions. Anyone familiar with the “haunted asylum” genre can easily see where The Ward is going. Carpenter still knows how to craft an effective scare, but it’s hardly enough to separate the movie from your average Netflix timekiller. 

15. Village of the Damned (1995)

When Carpenter remade the enjoyable but goofy The Thing From Another World, he created one of the all-time greatest horror movies. He did not repeat the feat with Village of the Damned. Carpenter keeps the central premise of the source material The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham and little kids are inherently scary, especially when they have glowing eyes. But despite revisions the director himself made to the script by David Himmelstein, Carpenter doesn’t seem to have a handle on the material. 

The problem begins with a lackluster cast, none of whom can find the right tone. Kirstie Alley and Christopher Reeve, who play doctors investigating the births, act like they’re in a stately drama. Mark Hamill, who plays the raving town minister, is somehow even more cartoony than in his animated work. Thomas Dekker, recently seen in Star Trek: Picard, is kind of fun as the lead crazy kid, but overall, the movie never makes good on its creepy premise. 

14. Escape from L.A. (1996)

How do you follow an all-time action classic, a beloved film that turned Kurt Russell into one of the great action heroes? If you’re John Carpenter, you make the most repulsive film possible. Escape From L.A. brings back Russell’s be-patched Snake Plissken, once again forced to deal with a President he’d rather ignore. This time, it’s right-wing extremist President Adam (Cliff Robertson), who needs Snake to go to L.A., now an island separate from the mainland, to retrieve his daughter Utopia (A.J. Langer) and the superweapon control she destroyed. 

By Carpenter’s own admission, Escape From L.A. is a passion project for Russell and he’s just along for the ride. Russell co-wrote the script with Carpenter and Debra Hill, supplying most of the ideas. But it’s clear that the director shares his star’s disdain for Hollywood, letting Steve Buscemi, Bruce Campbell, and Pam Grier go as broad as they can playing Tinseltown weirdos. It’s hard not to respect Russell’s passion and Carpenter’s anger, but it’s also hard to watch such an unpleasant movie.

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13. Vampires (1998)

Back when Vampires was first released in 1998, the buzz was less about the esteemed director of the movie and more about the casting of Sheryl Lee as a vampire sex worker. Lee was such a familiar face (if not a familiar name) to a large chunk of the world, having starred as Laura Palmer in David Lynch’s groundbreaking TV series, Twin Peaks, that there was certainly a level of curiosity about the flick.

Unfortunately, while it may be an entertaining 100 minutes or so, Vampires is not a film you’d be likely to give anything more than a generous three stars. And its sequels (there were two believe it or not) couldn’t even hit those heady heights. While Lee is perfectly fine in the role of Katrina, a woman psychically linked to a powerful vampire and hauled around as a kind of human homing beacon, James Woods is chewing so much scenery as lead vampire hunter Jack Crow that it’s almost impossible to concentrate on anything else. 

At the end of the day, the plot of Vampires isn’t much more than “keep ancient artefact away from bad guy”, so the movie sticks around in the memory as long as it takes to wipe your mouth after a standard evening’s blood-sucking.

12. Dark Star (1974)

Dark Star marked Carpenter’s feature directorial debut, and he also provided the memorable score. It had originally begun as a student film and was eventually expanded into a longer project with a small budget. Though it didn’t make much of a splash upon its release, Dark Star became a cult classic as home video caught on, and it’s now thought of as a real sci-fi gem, while its writer, the late Dan O’Bannon, went on to pen the screenplay for Alien. It would also later be referenced as the original inspiration behind the classic UK sci-fi sitcom Red Dwarf.

The film is full of fascinating ideas. Set in the mid-22nd century when mankind is busy colonizing space, it follows a scout ship (the titular Dark Star) as it goes about its monotonous 20-year mission to destroy unstable planets. The tech and weaponry of the craft is able to both chat to the crew and think for itself, which soon becomes a deadly problem, causing philosophical conflicts as the crew continue to go mad with boredom. Ludicrous and compelling in its humor, Dark Star is a slow-burning masterpiece, and just the kind of audacious project you’d expect from a young filmmaker who isn’t too concerned with playing by the rules.

11. Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

If there’s one thing John Carpenter loves, it’s a Howard Hawks western. And if there’s one thing John Carpenter hates, it’s psychological explorations of bad guys. He brings both those preferences to bear on Assault on Precinct 13. Despite its setting on a modern urban police station, Assault borrows the siege premise of westerns such as Rio Bravo, following a group of cops and crooks who team up to survive a mob onslaught. 

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There’s not much substance to Assault on Precinct 13 and even less character development. Carpenter’s loosely constructed script acknowledges the tension between Lieutenant Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker), murderer Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston), and secretary Leigh (Laurie Zimmer), but is more interested in shocking moments. And, to be sure, the movie does still shock, especially the murder of a cute little girl (Kim Richards) in an early scene. 

10. Prince of Darkness (1987)

“I have a message for you. You’re not going to like it. Pray for death.” 

After a random man in a white suit delivers those words to a group of researchers barricaded in a church, he collapses into a pile of squirming cockroaches. Why? I have no idea! But it is really unnerving. Prince of Darkness might be the weirdest movie in Carpenter’s oeuvre, a nonsense story (written by Carpenter under the pen name Martin Quartermass) in which Satan is green slime and Jesus is a space alien. When a priest (Donald Presence) realizes that the slime is acting strangely, he invites a quantum physicist (Victor Wong) and his students to investigate. 

As bizarre as that premise certainly is, Carpenter fills the movie with moments made all the more terrifying for their indescribable nature. Throughout the film, characters receive transmissions in their dreams, presented as grainy VHS footage more unsettling than anything in The Ring. A group of homeless people, led by Alice Cooper, surrounds the church, heightening the terror of Assault on Precinct 13. People looking for answers may dismiss Prince of Darkness as an unwatchable mess, but those who simply experience the film will find a genuinely terrifying movie. 

9. The Fog (1980)

Stuffed with a cast of notable horror icons, including Adrienne Barbeau, Jamie Lee Curtis, Tom Atkins, and Janet Leigh, Carpenter seemingly has the time of his life setting up various spine-chilling sequences in The Fog, including one near the start of the film that focuses on strange phenomena before three fishermen are slaughtered at sea. Throughout the rest of the movie, the director accomplishes so much with his unique visuals and unsettling score that he manages to make even a slow knock or the appearance of some wispy fog under a door utterly terrifying.

The Fog is just a great ghost story, plain and simple. It’s set in a small coastal town in California, where the descendants of its founders are about to experience a reckoning 100 years in the making. As a huge fog bank rolls in from the sea, vengeful ghosts of leprous mariners once killed there in a shipwreck are about to return and get their vengeance. Refreshingly, the townspeople react to this bizarre invasion like any normal folks would. There’s no “all guns blazing” standoff here really, just a lot of running, screaming, and hiding. But you can’t run or hide from the truth, and that might be the only thing that can set these people free.

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8. Starman (1984)

The word “warm” never comes to mind when people think of John Carpenter. His depiction of a cruel and uncaring world leaves little room for heartwarming moments, a quality that condemned The Thing to box office failure in the wake of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. So the only thing more shocking than the inclusion of Starman in Carpenter’s filmography is the fact that he pulled off its sentimental tone. Based on a script by Bruce A. Evans and Raynold Gideon, which initially stalled in development for being too similar to E.T., Starman tells a moving story about the pain and beauty of being human. 

In a role that earned him a Best Actor nomination, Jeff Bridges plays an alien being who comes to Earth after learning about humanity through the Voyager 2 probe. Assuming the form of the deceased Scott Hayden, the alien forces Scott’s widow Jenny (Karen Allen, never better) to take him to Arizona. Frightening as that sounds, the cross-country adventure allows the two to bond, teaching the alien about humanity’s beauty and barbarity. While the movie certainly has its scary parts (the alien’s transformation into Scott haunted young me), it provides a strangely warm and welcome addition to the Carpenter canon. 

7. Christine (1983)

Based on Stephen King’s novel of the same name, Carpenter’s 1983 adaptation of Christine has lost none of its bite in the decades since its release. The story may be acutely silly – a teenaged boy buys an eye-popping red and white 1958 Plymouth Fury that has a deadly mind of its own – but it just works thanks to both Carpenter’s ability to ratchet up tension, and the film’s wholesome 1950s aesthetic. A small town way of thinking combined with a dangerous fury always makes for a suitable boiling pot.

The way Carpenter plays with color throughout the movie could be easy to miss on a first viewing. Christine’s shiny red coat of paint is the glaring red button that should not be pushed, but pops of red are the path that leads to it; a letterman jacket, a shirt, a cola cup – jealousy and frustration manifest. Carpenter even wore a red hoodie while on set. It all quietly pulls you into an almost inescapable bubble of anger. By the time you get to that iconic shot of Christine ablaze in the night, you already know you’ve seen something special.

6. Escape From New York (1981)

Is there anyone cooler than Kurt Russell? No, there is not, and Russell is at his coolest playing Snake Plissken, the soldier/criminal forced into the savage streets of 1997 New York. Russell channels John Wayne, updating the Duke’s swagger for the 80s, making every line he growls feel like a rumble from the pits of Hell. With Plisskin, Carpenter finds the perfect avatar for his love of classic Westerns, bringing the solitary heroes of El Dorado or A Fistful of Dollars into a new decade. Carpenter even melds the classic and the modern with the main theme he composed with Alan Howarth, using synths to capture the sweeping loneliness of men with no name. 

Even better, the director fills the movie with interesting figures, perfectly portrayed by some of the best character actors of his time. Never mind Donald Pleasence’s English accent; his sputtering desperation illustrates the impotence of the ruling class. Harry Dean Stanton’s world-weary drawl captures the resignation of a man smart enough to realize the world is doomed. Add in Lee Van Cleef, Adrienne Barbeau, and Isaac Hayes, and you’ve got a city that feels rich and lived in, despite the limitations of Carpenter’s budget. 

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5. In the Mouth of Madness (1994)

Acting as the third film in Carpenter’s “Apocalypse” trilogy, In the Mouth of Madness is arguably the most divisive of the director’s works. For some, the unhinged tale of insurance agent John Trent (Sam Neill), who goes off in search of a missing horror novelist and instead falls into an unhinged nightmare, is just too messy. But we would argue that’s exactly how it should be when you’re following a story where the very nature of reality becomes a question mark.

Carpenter’s ambitious and cerebral love letter to the works of H.P. Lovecraft is certainly never about easy answers, which is why, amongst the impressive practical effects and shocks, the film’s story really becomes make-or-break on Neill’s capable shoulders as a kind of humdrum gentleman at the center of all the chaos. Three years later, he would perform another impressive psychological descent during the sci-fi horror of Event Horizon, but it would be a long time before In the Mouth of Madness was thought of as a similarly underrated gem.

4. They Live (1988) 

They Live is not just the pinnacle of the cinematic arts. They Live is the pinnacle of Western Culture. Yeah, okay, I’m overstating things here, but They Live is an amazing film. Carpenter’s only openly political film, They Live channels rage at the Reagan administration into a Twilight Zone-type story in which the ruling classes are in fact aliens who conquer the planet through the tools of capitalism, advertising, individualism, and free-will individualism. The only hope for the planet comes from the lower classes, who open the eyes of a couple of hulking blue-collar workers. 

In one of the greatest casting decisions of all time, Carpenter chooses WWE wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper to play hero Nada, a regular guy who learns about the aliens’ existence. Piper essentially cuts promos throughout the movie, bellowing threats against the bad guys with all the righteous anger of a man who knows that he’s right. Even better, Carpenter casts the always-excellent Keith David against Piper, using him as the audience surrogate who doubts Nada’s claims. Together, the duo channels the people’s collective rage at an unjust system into glorious action sequences, when they’re not fighting each other for six minutes straight.  

3. Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

As I write the entry for Big Trouble in Little China, I’m obliged to tell you that it’s my favorite of the director’s movies. That being said, I can understand why it’s not normally considered his best. It’s not as groundbreaking as Halloween, it’s not as scary as The Thing, and it doesn’t boast the political savagery of They Live. But Big Trouble in Little China is better than all the other Carpenter flicks in one important way: it’s the most fun to watch by far. 

Perfectly combining comedy, fantasy, and martial arts, Big Trouble in Little China also turns the rugged action hero trope on its head, giving us one of the all time most memorable characters in the useless Jack Burton (Kurt Russell), a swaggering, John Wayne-esque truck driver who fumbles the ball repeatedly when he’s thrown into a bonkers showdown with an ancient Chinese sorcerer. With every scene leading up to Burton’s eventual triumph delivering incredible dialogue, standout visuals, and genuine laughs, this is the director and his energized cast firing on all cylinders to create one of the most crowd-pleasing movies of the 1980s. Naturally, it flopped. 

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2. Halloween (1978)

Halloween was not the first slasher movie ever made. But it is the most important and arguably the best slasher movie ever made. Working alongside co-writer Debra Hill and her initial script “The Babysitter Murders,” Carpenter brought his interest in inexplicable evil to American suburbia, unleashing it on average teen Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis). It’s sometimes hard to see beneath the layers of lore expansion and revision from the sequels, but the original movie’s refusal to explain Michael Meyers or his interest in Laurie betrays a deep cynicism, at odds with the wholesome Midwestern town of Haddonfield. 

In addition to Hill’s brilliant idea and knack for capturing teenage dialogue (“Totally!”), Halloween succeeds because of Carpenter’s cold direction. Even when not taking Meyers’ POV, Carpenter’s camera reveals the uncaring world in which these teens live. The camera stares dispassionately and without judgment as Michael stalks and slaughters teens. No matter how much Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance) screams his warnings or how much Annie or Lynda (PJ Soles) wails in terror, nobody listens, nobody cares. 

1. The Thing (1982)

Was there ever any doubt? *doesn’t look at the comments* Surely, there’s no more perfect John Carpenter movie than The Thing. *continues to avoid comments section* No one could possibly dispute that The Thing is the director’s finest hour *the comments don’t exist unless we look at them, it is Schrödinger’s comments section*

But in all seriousness, looking at the previous 16 movies on this list, you may have a personal favorite that isn’t 1982’s The Thing, and that’s okay. Halloween is a classic. They Live is a satirical gem. Ghosts of Mars is …yeah. There are honestly very few John Carpenter movies that don’t deserve to be someone’s number one. The Thing, however, is arguably a perfect movie. In over 40 years, it hasn’t lost a single shred of terror. Due to its remote, self-contained nature, it also hasn’t really dated. Its tale of paranoia, loss of self, and the erosion of trust inside small communities is truly ageless. 

Based on the 1938 John W. Campbell Jr. novella Who Goes There?, the film’s story had already made its way to the screen as the successful The Thing from Another World in 1951. And when John Carpenter’s version showed up over 30 years later, the world just wasn’t prepared for it. Going up against E.T. and Blade Runner, the R-rated, poorly-marketed movie realistically didn’t stand a chance. It was only later that it really found its real fans, and their numbers keep growing. 

If anyone tells you all remakes are bad, you’re obligated to bring up The Thing and tell them who sent you: Kurt Russell with a flamethrower.

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