Ranking the John Carpenter Films

There is nothing I could say about John Carpenter that could be better put than what Martin Scorsese said about him:

18. Memoirs of an Invisible Man [1992]

The conflict in John Carpenter’s weakest film is that Chevy Chase’s brand of cynicism does not pair with Carpenter’s sincerity. It is one of those mismatches that is so obvious and requires no hindsight that you question how this casting possibly happened in the first place. Especially in a film where the protagonist is designed to be very pitiful – Chase just doubly does not work. Carpenter does some cool shit with the invisible gimmick and few supporting players try their hardest (Neill of course does some fun stuff), but this is definitely my least favorite Carpenter. The conventional wisdom is correct.


17. Vampires [1998]

While a perfectly fine little film, it is undermined significantly by the two leads. James Woods is an exceptionally talented actor (and lunatic human being), but playing this North/South Carpenter protagonist did not really align with his talents. He has too much natural slimeball energy to his personality to be able to pull it off. A good point in comparison would be his work as Dick Fuld in Too Big to Fail. There he is also playing a North/South character. The difference being there his natural slimeball personality is being channelled into a character that will stop at nothing for the purposes of dominating others and “winning.” In Vampires, that he basically becomes a square peg being forced into a round hole. It just does not work. Daniel Baldwin, meanwhile, is simply the least talented and interesting Baldwin brother. I wish him nothing but success and goodwill and for him not to be in movies that I watch. Despite a wide variety of other positives in this movie, it is easily the weakest Carpenter simply because Woods and Baldwin were just so not up to the task at hand.


16. Dark Star [1974]

John Carpenter’s first film is a fun and easy watch. More than that though, it’s pretty fascinating to get a glimpse at what was making him tick as a young man. You can see the class issues he would explore throughout much of his career. You seek the working class characters he often focuses on. There is a sense that the system is against the protagonists (or at the very least, bad at supporting them). There is also a pretty clear divide in Carpenter movies between purely terrifying vs. slightly goofy, and we got a taste of the latter here. Dark Star is a must-watch for all Carpenter fans at a bare minimum.


15. The Ward [2010]

After a decade away, John Carpenter came back for what looks like is gonna be his final film ever made. The Ward is missing two elements that I always connected with the most when I watch Carpenter: a strong sense of humor or just a dynamite casting in the lead role. Neither of these things are **necessary** for Carpenter to cook, but they are often my favorite elements of his films and everything has to go right for one of his film to really hit that next level if he doesn’t have them. Needless to say based on the build-up, this film does not really have either. What you are left with instead, is just a rock-solid horror film. Probably the most notable thing about The Ward is that it feels ahead of the curve. If it came out after 2017, it would have been seen as a Hollywood #MeToo movie or something. Unlike many of those films though, Carpenter has built up a ton of credibility and when he makes a film about a woman repeatedly not being believed by doctors and other medical people, it does not feel trite but genuine and sincere. A solid final film for one of the best to ever do it.


14. Ghosts of Mars [2001]

“I believe in staying alive.” “For what?”

While less purely joyful than the majority of Carpenter’s prime efforts, this was unsurprisingly quite a fun time overall. Ghosts of Mars is a deeply cynical (yet not untruthful) look at human civilization and how it will continue to raid and pillage wherever it goes even if we somehow terraform and colonize Mars. While most of the main actors here do solid jobs, the setup and the dynamics between the characters does not create the same energy that the best Carpenter films usually do. And while the look of the film was likely appropriate for the story, the lack of bright and distinct colors made this less visually pleasing than one might hope. One thing that stands out that might explain this film’s shortcomings is that Ice Cube’s character was a more natural Carpenter protagonist. He is sidelined for much of the first half of the film in favor of us following the space cops around. It might have been a miscalculation.

“I can give a damn about saving this planet. Seems like it was after me since the day I was born. If I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die fighting, not running.”


13. Village of the Damned [1995]

The film starts off with an unexplained supernatural phenomenon that causes an entire town to pass out. After everyone wakes up, it becomes revealed that everyone with a vagina in the town has become pregnant due to the supernatural phenomenon. The women eventually give birth to a race of demon children who can telepathically make the humans do anything they want, and they proceed to make all of them self-harm or commit full-on suicide in many cases. Christopher Reeve is our hero trying to make sense of everything while Kirstie Alley, for some ungodly reason, is cast as the government agent that slowly reveals the government (of course) knew a lot more about what was going on then they let on. This all comes together to a slightly-less nihilistic film full of b-movie horror fun. It’s not Carpenter’s best, but it’s also unfairly unheralded if not outright dismissed. The ambiguous ending becomes a real Rorschach test for the viewer: is a better world possible where David becomes anything other than what he was…or is the idea of a better world just a delusion?


12. Assault on Precinct 13 [1976]

While not the most fun, enjoyable, or beautifully executed Carpenter film, it nonetheless captures the true ethos of Carpenter’s best work: there is something fundamentally wrong with this country and it is causing us to tear each other apart. Beyond a strong lead presence from Austin Stoker though, there was not much else about this film that spoke to me. His co-lead, Darwin Joston did fine as well, but it really made clear how much someone like Kurt Russell or Roddy Piper was truly necessary for such a role. But hey, it did at least have yet another amazing John Carpenter score.


11. Halloween [1978]

There are two perspectives I find myself alternating between when I think of this film. One, the craftsmanship is so impeccable that this would be the best film 99% of filmmakers would have ever made if it was theirs. Secondly, though, it has never struck me as being anywhere close to one of Carpenter’s best let alone most interesting. The fact that it is THIS film that became such a “thing” that is has spawned countless remakes/sequels/etc and become a source of “franchiseable IP” speaks very poorly to the tastes of the people given what else Carpenter has produced over his legendary career. But I should probably not get lost in such unhelpful ways of thinking about art.


10. Escape from New York [1981]

9. Escape from LA [1996]

These movies are just fun, and I have never had much else to say about them beyond that. The big question seems to be which movie do you think is better. I kind of go back and forth on the subject. Basically, whatever one I have seen more recently is the one I think is better so in this case that is Escape from LA. It has the basketball and hang gliding sequences which seems to give it the leg up.


8. The Fog [1980]

It is rather incredible that John Carpenter managed to take one of the more ridiculous horror film concepts ever and make it genuinely scary while never asking too much of the audience. He does this mostly not just with his tremendous craftsmanship with the camera but through his ever brilliant scoring and for his genuine love for his characters. There is no condescension in his portrayal of his people, and you quickly get invested in their survival. Now, zombie pirates may be literally what is coming to kill them but in reality it is actually history. And history is the most terrifying villain because it is coming to kill us all.


7. Starman [1984]

Normally when a live-action film reminds me in any way of Pixar, it is usually a bad sign. That feeling works here though because of Carpenter’s sincerity, his love for people, and his deep weariness for humanity. While many Carpenter films feel genuinely scary or tonally absurd, Starman takes a sci-fi premise, and then immediately pivots at the start of the film to a gentle human story about loss and learning about the world. The film ultimately shows the great innocence that we are born with and how much of a threat that attitude is to the institutions of the world. It shows how scared people are of that idea that there is a better way of living than the world we have created for ourselves.


6. Christine [1983]

“I’ve consulted about everything I’ve ever done…I’m gonna have this one thing.”

John Carpenter was a true master of the craft of filmmaking, and there was probably no one better suited to adapt this rather absurd concept from Stephen King and make it hit home. The real key to the film and the terror of it comes from the characterization of Keith Gordon’s Arnie. There are two big aspects of Arnie worth exploring: his relationship with his parents and the mistreatment he receives from his peers. On the parental front, Arnie is clearly one of those kids who just lives in fear of them. This creates this underlying tension where her is just primed to lash out. This dynamic is compounded by the fact that Arnie is maliciously targeted by bullies in school, has no romantic prospects, and has but one friend. He is a powder keg of repressed frustration and anger and then he buys the KILLER CAR. The movie is so much more than that hilarious concept because that violence and anger was already deep inside Arnie.


5. The Prince of Darkness [1987]

In many ways, this feels like Carpenter at the peak of his powers. He has no big star or classic leading man/woman. He does not have an iconic villain (in the tradition of Michael Myers, etc.). There are no big stars. The premise is a little eh in comparison to some of his others. And he does not need any of these things. He creates a well-executed ensemble film with a bunch of solid to good actors who all perform their roles as well as they need to. John Carpenter is just simply one of the best filmmakers ever, and you really see it in the films that are not traditionally attention-grabbing.


4. In the Mouth of Madness [1994]

“When does fiction become religion?”

There are two major things going on in this relatively unheralded film from Carpenter. At its core, it is a story that captures what it must feel like to slowly (and then very suddenly) to lose your mind and then go absolutely mad. Sam Neill is investigating a missing Stephen King knockoff whose books are supposedly driving his readers insane. Neill predictably gets exposed to the book and then in fact goes insane. The movie does not play out that simply of course. Instead of focusing on getting from plot point A to B, the film is about trying to create the feeling of one losing their mind and for the audience to experience that sensation.

Then on a thematic level the film is very openly and critically examining the role of fiction in religion and how that can leads to very real consequences. On the surface, the film appears a little reactionary and caving in to the concern trolls who think shit like “South Park is corrupting the youth of tomorrow” or whatever. While I do feel like that would be a reductive analysis, the film is taking on the naive idea that the stories we surround ourselves with do NOT have an impact on the masses. Carpenter makes his point by going to the modern original narrative. The missing author is a God stand-in and his fiction literally becomes religion that tears apart the world and brings about the destruction of humankind. I know writers who use subtext and they’re all cowards, every one of them.


3. The Thing [1982]

One of the greatest director-actor partnerships ever was John Carpenter and Kurt Russell. While their other films relied on the delicate balance the ridiculousness of the scenario with a comedic tone, The Thing asks you to accept in full the absurd premise and then just roll with it as a mostly straight horror film. This is one of the great United States films, and it’s one that you can just re-watch over and over again to appreciate all the small details and moments.


2. Big Trouble in Little China [1986]

Besides being one of the most purely fun films to ever be made, the thing about this one I gravitate most to is the Kurt Russell character, Jack Burton. Jack Burton is simply speaking the biggest idiot in the world. He bumbles his way through this entire movie. He rarely does anything that can be considered a net positive to the mission (for wont of a better term). And he never loses his insanely high level of confidence the entire time. It is just simply too fucking funny, and one of the best takedown of Hollywood action protagonists. This film is a remarkable accomplishment.


1. They Live [1988]

“I believe in America”

Roddy Piper says that line after several sequences show that the United States has chewed him up and spat him out, time and time again. The transition from “I believe in America” to the FIGHT captures so much about what the experience is like to learn what is really going on in the world. Then once you finally wake up and see what is truly going on, you realize how much of a struggle it is to get anyone else to see what you finally see. There is so much else going on in here that you could spend a year and hundreds of pages dissecting it and still have stuff left uncovered. A beautiful film that is a love letter to the people.


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