You don’t earn a nickname like ‘The Master of Horror’ without chalking up many successes in that genre. John Carpenter was synonymous with scary movies and thrillers back in the 1970s and 1980s, with an excellent run of consecutive beginning with Halloween (1978). Not every movie was critically acclaimed—The Thing (1982) was notoriously panned and flopped at the box office before being reappraised as a classic years later—but there was a tone and style to Carpenter’s work that stood out from the crowd.
His career faltered in the 1990s and never recovered as cinema moved into the digital age, but the ’80s was a noteworthy period for the horror genre, and when a film title had John Carpenter’s as a possessive before it… you knew you were in for something fun. And sometimes an unequivocal masterpiece.
To celebrate John Carpenter’s work, ahead of the release of Halloween Kills (the second modern-day sequel to his original slasher film), the writers of Frame Rated ranked his entire filmography and created a team-approved Top 10. And there are some interesting wrinkles here and there, so it’s certainly worth a read. But if you disagree with us, or just want to add your own ranking, be sure to leave a comment below.
Dan Owen, Editor-in-Chief
10. Christine (1983)
by Dev Elson. For most horror fanatics living through the 1980s, you had Stephen King on your coffee table and John Carpenter in your VHS player. 1983 delivered the dream collaboration of Christine, a classic King premise of Americana iconography haunted by violent evil. Between superb character developments and a chilling atmosphere, there’s a far more impressive story being told than one simply about a possessed car.
Who has ever told a love story about a boy and his car? The coupling of Arnie Cunningham (Keith Gordon) and Christine could be compared to Laurie Strode and Michael Myers; the fresh-faced naïve teen versus the silent killing machine. Christine explores a far richer and interesting power dynamic of an abusive relationship as the picked-upon loser grows arrogant and callous while we’re never clear if Christine shares a mutual bond or is simply leeching power from him as some form of worship.
It’s such a shame to hear the typically pragmatic Carpenter regard this gem as “something I needed to do at that time for [his] career.” The two horror masters really balance out each other’s weaknesses as King’s complex character depths often stretch any sense of pacing to breaking point, while Carpenter’s directorial style is the double-edged definition of ‘cool’—in that we may love his characters but do we ever really care for them? When Arnie first witnesses Christine’s showcase of self-repair, Keith Gordon was told to react as if he were receiving a striptease. Carpenter may believe subtext is for cowards, but this sequence carries such emotional and thematic weight that it stands out as truly unique in his long career.
9. Prince of Darkness (1987)
by Alexander Boucher. After tackling horrors from the human, to the alien, to the mechanical, John Carpenter’s second feature in his unofficial ‘Apocalypse Trilogy’ took on the greatest evil of all: Satan. In the form of green goo. But amongst the hocus pocus and high viscosity anti-Christ, featured in the film are some of Carpenter’s heaviest and most troubling ideas, ruminating on the nature of evil, and the thin boundaries that separate humanity and inhumanity. It’s Carpenter’s unique ability to meld the earthbound terror with the fantastical that makes Prince of Darkness such a thrill; its flights of fancy counterbalanced by bursts of violence, and a deadly serious tone.
Take, for instance, the scenes that present transmissions from the future. A crackly, electrified voice warns us with no comfort that this isn’t a dream, as something we might now call found-footage captures pixelated glimpses of a dark figure appearing in the door of a church. A concept straight from an old sci-fi comic-book, perhaps, but in Carpenter’s hands it’s the most terrifying image he’s ever conjured. Like so much of the film, it feels almost avant-garde in its inscrutability, and trailblazing in its execution. (The scene’s dialogue would later be sampled on DJ Shadow’s 1996 masterpiece Entroducing album, signalling once again the significant cultural footprint the director’s work leaves).
More than anything, Prince of Darkness is a masterpiece of tone and atmosphere. Its opaque nature doubtlessly frustrated those who prioritise logic and tight storytelling. For those who look to horror as a gateway to the collective existential terrors of our world, this is unquestionably top-tier Carpenter. By the time that we stand on the other side of that gate, Prince of Darkness has pretty well convinced us that the devil is indeed contained within its darkest corners.
8. Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
by Barney Page. John Carpenter’s gut-punching, take-no-prisoners second feature demonstrates that in the hands of a master, less can be much more. Shot in three weeks with limited locations, no-name actors, and a tiny budget, Assault on Precinct 13 brought together the relentless threat of zombie movies (George A. Romero was a fan) with the dramatic set-up of a last-stand western.
What’s most impressive in this tale of a nearly-empty Los Angeles police station besieged by vengeful, nihilistic, disturbingly dehumanised gang members is the sheer simplicity of the concept: it’s a lean, mean film that made the most of its limited resources, small cast, and claustrophobic setting. Its notorious ice-cream-truck shooting scene remains shocking today, and Carpenter’s synth-based score is one of his most effective. The movie bombed in the US, but enthusiastic reception in Europe saved it from disappearing completely, and soon the American critics and audiences came to relish its unsettling atmosphere.
7. In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
by Remy Dean. There are many disappointing adaptations of H.P Lovecraft stories and only a handful of good ones. I’m thinking of Christophe Gans’ segment for the otherwise weak Necronomicon (1993) and Richard Stanley’s inventive take on Color Out of Space (2019). Stuart Gordon’s entertaining attempts have their fans, but for me, they fail to capture that Lovecraftian glimpse beyond the edge of sanity. The terror of the original tales relies so heavily on milieu and a creeping dread born of the barely hinted at, so it’s tricky for any filmmaker to show just enough but resist explaining things in a way the rational mind can grasp and readily dismiss. But that’s what Carpenter nails here.
In the Mouth of Madness isn’t a translation of a Lovecraft story, per se, but it remains the most faithful in spirit. The nested narrative weaves an immersive meta-fiction about a contemporary Lovecraftian author, Sutter Cane (Jürgen Prochnow), who disappears into an overlap of realities created by his own writings. Sam Neill is at his best as an insurance investigator hired to find the author and debunk claims his novels have caused insanity that inspires readers to murder. Just as the page is a paper-thin veil, separating our world from a multiverse of madness, so too the screen becomes an insubstantial wall that allows the fantasy of the film to challenge what we take for reality. Serving a disturbing mix of dark humour and mind-bending horror, it all builds to an inspired rending of the fourth wall…
6. Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
by Jono Simpson. Big Trouble In Little China remains the oddity in John Carpenter’s oeuvre, but it’s easily his most accessible and amusing movie. Perhaps also his most divisive and ambitious effort, it’s an unpredictable combination of action, fantasy, and comedy. Propelled by a handsome but inept action hero, much of its wacky personality derives from a perfectly cast Kurt Russell as Jack Burton; a wisecracking trucker who gets caught up in an ancient battle between Good and Evil. Following his stoic and measured performances in Escape From New York and The Thing, Russell showcased one of his most charismatic characters; delivering hilarious one-liners with a healthy dose of self-awareness.
Although Big Trouble In Little China wasn’t commercially successful upon its initial release, it’s an incredible mix of ideas and themes. Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein’s screenplay combined Carpenter’s affection for martial arts and creates an outrageous world filled with magic, monsters, and ancient sorcerers. The introduction of Chinese mysticism allowed for the inclusion of an impressive array of VFX by Steve Johnson (Ghostbusters) including a ‘demonic gorilla’ and a grotesque floating head full of eyeballs. A trio of elemental henchmen known as The Storms provided dazzling lightning and impressive swordplay, too. Carpenter certainly made more influential and better films, but he never made one more entertaining from start to finish.
5. The Fog (1980)
by Tom Trott. The first time I watched The Fog its campfire story opening had me captivated from the first frame: John Carpenter’s score, the hanging pocket watch, the young boys with their blankets wrapped around them. “11:55, almost midnight. Time enough for one more story.” And that’s what The Fog truly is: a campfire story. The slow build, the creeping dread, the hulking figures, the sudden shocks, and behind it all a distinctly Gothic approach to the horror story: the unresolved past coming back to haunt.
In some ways, it’s difficult to explain what’s so great about The Fog. The performances are only fine, the characters are unremarkable, the dialogue forgettable, and the plot is ripped from a thousand other spooky stories. But what it does have, is tone. Mood. Atmosphere. Things that are impossible to quantify. It’s also an expansive story, with disparate characters facing the supernatural forces in their own ways, connected only by seeping dry ice and the soothing tones of Adrienne Barbeau’s local radio DJ.
It’s reminiscent of a Stephen King novel, the ones that balloon out to include the entire town (It and ‘Salem’s Lot come to mind), so confidently describe The Fog as “the best Stephen King adaptation that isn’t a Stephen King adaptation.” But unlike those stories, it’s short and punchy. Carpenter doesn’t get enough credit for keeping his films so tight. 89 minutes! Also, the mix of practical and visual fog FX is still astounding today.
4. Escape From New York (1981)
by Dan Owen. Carpenter wrote Escape From New York after the Watergate scandal created such cynicism about the President of the USA, but he had difficulty getting it made until Halloween became a gigantic hit. It’s a wonderful high-concept idea to imagine Manhattan island as a maximum-security prison, but Carpenter threw in some of his usual western influences (most evident in the casting of Lee Van Cleef) and turned Kurt Russell from a Disney child star to Hollywood leading man. The famous one-sheet poster showing a decapitated Statue of Liberty promised scale Escape could never achieve at the time, but there’s such an eerie, dark, peculiar sense of dread about this crazy future (of 1997). A pervasive sense of grubbiness and creepiness always gets under my skin.
Snake Plissken may have just been Kurt Russell doing a swaggering Clint Eastwood impersonation, but the character’s mysteriousness, quiet sneering, and antiheroic behaviour left a big impression. There wasn’t the budget for big action set-pieces, so after Snake glides into the top of the World Trade Center he doesn’t do all that much until a brawl in a boxing ring, but with his black eyepatch, torso snake tattoo, and no-fucks-to-give attitude, he’s undoubtedly one of Carpenter’s finest creations.
3. Halloween (1978)
by Jack Thomas. It’s a backhanded compliment to say John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) is the best of that franchise, as it’s the only one other than the 2018 sequel to have a thought-out story and characters. It’s also the only one that reaches the level of greatness. It’s known as the film that jump-started the slasher craze of the 1980s, but although it unwittingly established a lot of cliches that would be endlessly recycled—first as tropes and then as satire—it’s dissimilar to its progeny in some key ways. For one thing, it doesn’t contain any real mythology or even a murder mystery. All you need to know about the killer, Michael Myers, is in the famous speech by Dr Loomis (Donald Pleasance), who describes how he spent eight years trying to reach him psychologically, and seven trying to keep him locked up…
Perhaps more so than any other slasher franchise, Halloween is only worsened by subsequent additions to its story. Michael Myers doesn’t need to be Laurie Strode’s (Jamie Lee Curtis) long-lost brother, as revealed in Halloween II (1981). He doesn’t require a Druidic curse or urban legend to prop him up. And he definitely didn’t deserve the poor-little-me backstory given to him by Rob Zombie in his later remakes. All of that is junk weighing down Michael’s essential threat. Halloween is pure storytelling. Not half a second is wasted on exposition, soapy subplots, character moments involving supporting players, or mawkish sentiment. It’s a story about an inexplicable killer, the shrink hunting him, and the unlucky babysitter whose Halloween gig turns into a cat-and-mouse game.
2. They Live (1988)
by Andrew Winter. John Carpenter’s paranoid classic They Live only grows more resonant since its release. Back in the late-1980s, the director was railing against Ronald Reagan and yuppie culture, but 2008’s financial crash, the Panama Papers, and the recent sight of billionaires joyriding in space has only seen distaste for the super-wealthy and their excesses intensify.
The late-wrestler ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper plays a down-on-his-luck construction worker looking for gainful employment in a dystopian near-future Los Angeles. Big of muscle and mullet, he’s a simple, decent man, who refuses to give up on the American Dream… but when a pair of unusual sunglasses enable him to see society as it really is—with the ruling class an alien race manipulating and exploiting humanity—he declares all-out war.
The scene where Piper’s character, Nada (Spanish for ‘nothing’), first puts on the sunglasses, revealing a secret, sinister, monochrome world of subliminal commands hidden in advertisements and magazine articles is utterly chilling. The low-budget aliens, with their skeletal features and bulging silver eyes, should be ridiculous, but they’re totally unnerving. It’s the thought of these repulsive creatures living amongst us as family, friends, and neighbours, while actually plotting against us, that sends a chill down the spine.
Its radical politics are only part of the story, however. They Live is also a pedal-to-the-metal actioner in which Roddy gets very rowdy indeed. A six-minute, wince-inducing punch-up between Piper and co-star Keith David is straight out of Wrestlemania, while a gun-toting rampage ends with Nada uttering the movie’s oft-quoted one-liner: “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass… and I’m all out of bubblegum.” Based on Ray Nelson’s 1963 short story Eight O’Clock in the Morning, They Live is as much Schwarzenegger as it is Che Guevara.
1. The Thing (1982)
by Eleanor Ring. Based on John W. Campbell Jr’s novella Who Goes There? and its first adaptation, The Thing From Another World (1951), John Carpenter’s remake follows a group of researchers who unwittingly make contact with an extraterrestrial life-form inside their Antarctic base. Unfortunately for them, the creature can perfectly mimic other organisms and begins picking them off one by one. Absurdly derided upon its release back in 1982, The Thing has since gained cult classic status and is considered to be one of Carpenter’s masterpiece.
This horror classic has a sense of isolation and paranoia that few others have achieved. Shots of the unforgiving frozen landscape are punctuated by Ennio Morricone’s pulsing synth score, building existential dread long before the eponymous ‘Thing’ makes its first appearance. The stellar ensemble cast, led by Kurt Russell and Keith David, all perfectly inhabit their roles as the unsociable crew who require little cause to turn on each other. The tension reaches its peak when the creature starts gruesomely transforming, providing a style of body horror that’s rarely been topped thanks to Rob Bottin’s timeless, terrifying SFX. Ultimately, it’s Carpenter’s direction that makes The Thing so claustrophobic yet thrilling: even as the audience and characters realise there’s no escape, it’s impossible to look away from this nihilistic nightmare.