Ten Best John Carpenter Movies (75th Birthday Celebration)

Sommerleigh Pollonais, Horror Head Writer


Composer, Producer, Writer and Director, John Carpenter’s directorial debut (he also scored the film) was all the way back in 1974 with his sci-fi comedy Dark Star which has gone on to become a cult classic. A bona fide icon of horror, Carpenter has put his own indelible mark on the genre and you would be hard pressed to find a single horror fan who doesn’t have at least one of his films listed as a personal favourite.

For this particular fan John Carpenter’s movies (especially one in particular) is where my love for the genre began. And with the talented auteur turning 75 this week (January 16 to be exact) it was downright mandatory that I showed some love for the living legend. Here are my Top Ten Favourite John Carpenter Movies.

#10 Vampires (1998)

We ain’t afraid of no vamps! (Photo by Columbia Pictures/Getty Images)

Released in 1998, Vampires came as a breath of fresh air to me in a time when really fun vamp movies were a rare breed. When most movies were romanticising blood suckers the film focused on the badass hunters led by the always-fun-to-watch James Woods. And with a western vibe thrown into the mix, Vampires is a great popcorn flick and an underrated gem in Carpenter’s filmography.

#9 Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

Wow. Dentistry was really low tech in the 70s

While most would think of John Carpenter as strictly a horror director, the man also knows how to deliver when it comes to action. And before Snake Plissken escaped from New York we got Assault on Precinct 13. Carpenter excels at taking a single location and making it feel larger than life, and that’s what audiences got with this straightforward action thriller about a cop, a secretary and a couple of criminals all forced to work together to defend the shuttled station against a bloodthirsty gang hellbent on getting in.

Smart direction is enhanced by a cast of strong performances and a tight pace making for a thriller so good they gave it the remake treatment in 2005 (as remakes go, it’s a pretty decent one too). So if like me you sometimes find yourself in the mood for a great classic action movie, you won’t be disappointed by this one.

#8 Escape From New York (1981)

Snake? Snake? SNAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAKE! (That joke never gets old)

Speaking of classic action flicks you can’t go wrong with the movie whose protagonist was so badass, a whole video game franchise was inspired by him (Metal Gear Solid). Starring Kurt Russell as Snake Plissken, an actor Carpenter enjoyed working with so much he played the lead role in three of his biggest movies, Escape from New York is one of those movies folks who dream of living in post-apocalyptic worlds probably watch on repeat. Snake is sent into Manhattan, a now giant prison to rescue the U.S. president when his plane crashes there. Although Carpenter wrote the film in the mid-70s, Escape is as 80s as they come with a lone badass hero (no one pulls off an eye patch like Kurt Russell) going up against an entire city of criminals led by the epitome of cool dudes at the time, Mr Isaac Hayes as “The Duke” (younger fans will most likely know him as the voice of Chef in South Park).

It’s hard not to see how much of an inspiration Escape from New York has had on similar films that came after. Filled to the brim with grit, grime and style this one might be rough around the edges, but when it comes to anti-hero action I’d be lying if I said it didn’t have that in spades!

Read More: Revisiting Sci Fi Action Flicks ‘Escape From New York’ and ‘Outland’ at 40

#7 Prince of Darkness (1987)

Wait. I believe I can read it. ‘A priest…a rabbi…and a camel walk into a bar…

It feels strange saying this, but Prince of Darkness might just be Carpenter’s most “stylish” film. Telling the story of a group of grad students who uncover an ancient evil in an abandoned church, it is a slow burn of a film that didn’t get the love it most certainly deserved on its initial release (a recurring theme in his filmography, which just goes to show some people just don’t know genius when they see it) and is actually the second film of a set of movies Carpenter calls his “Apocalypse Trilogy”, the other two being The Thing and In the Mouth of Madness.

Prince of Darkness also might be Carpenter’s most divisive film to date as fans either seem to love it or hate it; I’ll admit when I first saw it most of the themes went way over my young head and I didn’t appreciate how much creativity went into making it. Revisiting it with a more experienced eye and more of an appreciation for his work I now adore the visuals, the slow burn that rewards your patience, the (mostly) great acting and the score composed by the man himself which all come together to deliver a genuinely creepy experience. Say what you will about this one, you can’t deny John Carpenter’s unique style is all over it.

#6 They Live (1988)

When you see the awkward girl you used to tease in school, and now she’s a total babe-zilla

Possibly the most parodied and quoted of all his works, They Live is one of those movies whose main themes have made it timeless. Starring the late Roddy Piper and the man with the golden voice Keith David in the lead roles, this story of the dangers of advertising and consumerism is a wonderful and clever send-up to earlier sci-fi thrillers like Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Nada (Piper) finds a pair of sunglasses that allow him to see the aliens who live among us and influence the masses to spend, spend, spend. Nada’s one-liner about chewing bubblegum and kicking ass has become one with the pop culture zeitgeist, and the now iconic fight scene which runs for a whooping five minutes 20 seconds was lovingly and hilariously recreated on South Park, which just goes to show how much of an influence They Live had on audiences to this day. But it’s maybe the almost prophetic nature of the story that keeps pulling people back to it. Whatever the case, it is one of the best movies ever made and John Carpenter is the man who made it.

#5 Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

Test your might…test your might…test your might…test your might…MORTAL KOMBAT!!! *breaks into frenzied dance fighting*

The 80s. There is no era that was quite like it, especially when it come to the “anything goes” sensibility of the movies that came from that decade. A trucker (Kurt Russell in the third collab with Carpenter) and his sidekick face off against an evil sorcerer in Chinatown. I honestly couldn’t see a story as crazy as this one being made today and people not laughing their assess off at how ridiculous it sounded. Yet the 80s and John Carpenter combined for one hell of a one-two punch. And once again with his unique style and his “I don’t care if it flops, I just want to make the movie” (which is exactly what JC told Kurt Russell) we got the zany Big Trouble in Little China.

Sadly, this movie also went on to be a box office bomb for the man who I think should permanently change his name to John “Cult Classic” Carpenter. But the beauty of movies is they’re timeless and Big Trouble has gone on to gain not just cult status but also be acclaimed as a genuinely wonderful movie that feels like you’re watching a cartoon come to life.

Read More: Revisiting 1986 Cult Classic ‘Big Trouble in Little China’ at 35

#4 Christine (1983)

Now that’s a hot ride. What? They can’t all be winners

Now let me take you where the air is rare, the four movies that made me the Carpenter fan I am today. These four I’ve seen more times than I can count starting with the ultimate killer car movie, Christine.

Based on the novel of the same name by Stephen King, Christine is one of those kinds of horror movies where you’ll either love it or you won’t because it’s not loud or filled with gore and it doesn’t even have a high body count. But none of that matters because it’s all about the characters here, specifically Arnie (Keith Gordon) and what it’s like to watch someone you love fall prey to obsession and addiction, in this case Arnie’s absolute love for his very first car named “Christine”.

Carpenter nails it here for me with visuals (the iconic scene of Christine rebuilding herself is the one most people will think of), perfect pacing that gives the audience time to connect with the characters which goes a long way in keeping the tension up once the “possession” comes into play and, of course, the memorable score. It all come together perfectly. It may not be a scary movie, but Christine just has that special something about it that makes it stand out as a classic of the genre. Which is why it’s not just one my favourite Carpenter films but one of my favourite horror movies period.

Read More: Top 5 Scariest Vehicles in Horror Movies

#3 The Fog (1980)

Good evening ma’am. We’re here for the Thriller rehearsals

Growing up I was amazed at how many people didn’t know what this movie was or hadn’t seen it. One of many reasons I enjoy Carpenter’s work is how much variety he puts into his movies. One minute he’s giving you an action thriller, the next it’s a comedic fantasy or a demonic car. His style is distinctive, and his movies are all different enough to stand apart, which is my long-winded way of saying John Carpenter did a ghost movie and it was awesome!

The Fog is set in a sleepy little town called Antonio Bay that seems perfect except for the fact that it was built on a bed of lies, theft, betrayal and mass murder. A priest discovers a diary that shows the truth, but it might be too little too late as the spirits of the dead return to seek vengeance on the people who sent them to their watery graves.

I would argue that this is Carpenter’s scariest movie and I know what you’re going to say (the movies you’re thinking of didn’t scare me). To each his own when it comes to the bits that make us jumpy, and for me scenes of the dead knocking on your door, corpses rising from autopsy tables and an all-around eerie atmosphere makes for one very creepy movie. Underrated seems to be the key word when it comes to Carpenter’s movies and this one also didn’t get the credit it deserved on initial release. It did get the remake treatment though in 2005. How was it you ask? Well, I tried to rip my chair out of the ground and throw it at the screen and my friends had to stop me from leaving. Yeah, it was that good (insert SARCASM sign here).

Read More: Top 5 Horror Remakes/Reboots We Wish Were Never Made

#2 Halloween (1978)

I told you to come home at 10 pm young lady. 10pm! What time is it you ask? So glad you asked It is currently 10.05 pm. 10.05 pm! So? What do you have to say for yourself, young lady? I’m waiting

Carpenter may not have created the slasher genre but you could argue the man perfected it. While there are loads of slasher movies out there, one stands shapeless head and shoulders above them all and that’s 1978’s Halloween. That’s not an easy thing for me to admit being a card-carrying Friday the 13th fan, but it’s the truth and John Carpenter (and Debra Hill) took the simple premise of a boy turned grown-up killer obsessed with one particular babysitter (played by future scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis) and created a film legacy.

Halloween has been covered numerous times by film experts, so I won’t go over such well-tread ground again. But I will say few slasher movies, if any, have held up as perfectly as this one has. And while the franchise as a whole is a bit of a mess, it’s simply put the greatest slasher movie ever made.

Read More: Freddy vs Jason vs Michael vs Leatherface: Ultimate Slasher Showdown

#1 The Thing

Well, that’s one way to get ahead. Get it? You get it

While Halloween might be the greatest slasher movie ever made, for this horror fan John Carpenter’s The Thing is greatest horror movie ever made. Yes, I said it and I MEAN’T IT!

A remake so good people forget it’s technically a remake (see 1951’s The Thing From Another World), 1986’s The Thing is the movie that made me the horror fan I am. I’ve mentioned it before in multiple rankings but just like the man who made it, it is my personal favourite of his entire filmography.

When I was out there in the snow, I saw something. It looked like a man, but I don’t think it was a man. He was big, and he wore red, and he kept saying ‘ho’

Exploring themes of terror, alienation and paranoia, Carpenter chose to stick closely to the novel when retelling his version of Who Goes There? (even more so than the original adaptation mentioned above) and incorporating practical effects by the great Rob Bottin, The Thing is one of those movies where every single moment sticks with you long after the credits roll. I came upon this quite accidentally when I was only eight or nine-years old as it was playing on television, and I happened to walk in on the scene with the defibrillator. My cousins ran out the room screaming, but for some reason I’m still not sure of I wasn’t afraid. I stood there totally entranced by what I was seeing and little me decided then and there, “I need to see more!”

Thus, a new horror fan was born and as I got older and learned who was behind these wicked and wonderful stories, I started to seek out Carpenter’s work. I loved it all to varying degrees but none of them ever outshined The Thing for me, a movie that never fails to enthrall me no matter how many times I’ve seen it.

Read More: Five Horror Movie Endings That Left Us Wondering ‘What Happens Next?’

In Conclusion

So thank you John Carpenter and Happy Birthday to you dear sir. It’s great to know he’s lived to see how impactful his movies have been on not just fans but on the entire industry as a whole and to witness his work get the praise they most definitely deserve. 

Well, that’s my list. Agree? Disagree? What are your favourite films from the horror icon? And you can check out more awesome Carpenter-related horror lists below:


2755F829-2EEC-4A68-B6F7-F963F48C9D92 Sommerleigh of the House Pollonais. First of Her Name. Sushi Lover, Queen of Horror Movies, Comic Books and Binge Watching Netflix. Mother of two beautiful black cats named Vader and Kylo. I think eating Popcorn at the movies should be mandatory, PS4 makes the best games ever, and I’ll be talking about movies until the zombie apocalypse comes.

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