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Every John Carpenter Movie, Ranked, from Village of the Damned to The Thing

With October approaching and many of the horror master's films streaming on Peacock, it's high time for ranking.

By James Grebey
John Carpenter

It’s possible that John Carpenter might have the best run of movies than any other director — or, if not, he should at least be in the conversation. Though many of the iconic horror director’s films in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s weren’t initially beloved by audiences or critics, they’ve gone on to become classics. Even in the ‘90s and early ‘00s, when Carpenter never could quite seem to recapture the same magic of films like The Thing, Escape From New York, or Halloween, you could always tell that what you were watching was a John Carpenter movie. There’s really nothing else like ‘em. 

It’s a great time to settle into watching some of Carpenter’s spooky classics, so we’re ranking every one of his movies — many of which are available to stream on Peacock, including the No. 1 film on this list. 

What are John Carpenter's best films?

18. Memoirs of an Invisible Man

In a way, it’s not really Carpenter’s fault that Memoirs of an Invisible Man doesn’t work. The movie, a not-especially funny comedy-drama about a man who becomes invisible and becomes a secret agent against his will, was a passion project for Chevy Chase. Memoirs of an Invisible Man is hardly a disaster, but Carpenter feels as invisible behind the camera as Chase’s titular character does in front of it. 

RELATED: 25 Essential Horror Films from Peacock's Massive New Halloween Drop

17. Ghosts of Mars

It’s not too hard to imagine a world where Ghosts of Mars was part of Carpenter’s ‘80s output, and the spooky sci-fi action flick might’ve made a little more sense in that decade. But, it was an oddity in 2001 when it came out, straddling a line between earnest and tongue-in-cheek that didn’t vibe with that era’s style of filmmaking. It’s occasionally a fun romp (aside from the torturous butt rock-heavy score), but it’s not Carpenter’s best. 

16. The Ward

Carpenter has spent the last decade making music and playing a lot of video games, and while you have to respect him as a “King” for doing that, it’s a bit of a bummer that it means his last film is 2010’s The Ward. Starring Amber Heard as a woman trapped in a haunted psychiatric ward, the film isn’t bad so much as it’s surprisingly generic for Carpenter — which is especially a shame because at his peak Carpenter was basically inventing the modern slasher movie and making innovative, unexpected films like Escape from New York and Big Trouble in Little China. 

15. Village of the Damned

Carpenter’s remake of the 1960 British film of the same name has plenty of charm and some spooky moments, including the opening sequence when every resident of a Northern California town blacks out for several hours (leading to some graphic accidental fatalities). When they awaken, 10 women — including a virgin — are mysteriously pregnant, and they later give birth to a crop of creepy kids who seem to be part of some sort of hive mind. Unlike Carpenter’s other notable remake of a black-and-white horror flick, though, the original Village of the Damned might be the better film, as it can coast on the quirks of English mannerisms while this ‘90s remake has an unshakable “made for television” feel despite the effort Carpenter put into it. 

Stream on Peacock.

14. Escape from L.A.

In theory, having Kurt Russell’s Snake Plissken escape from a different dystopian American city should’ve been fun, but Escape from L.A. lacks the magic its East Coast counterpart had 15 years earlier. It’s a pretty explicit and ugly repudiation of Hollywood — and Carpenter himself believes it’s the more interesting and better of the two Escape films for partly that reason. That might actually be why it can’t compete with the mad vision of the first one, which is only “simpler” compared to Escape from L.A. and not when compared to pretty much every other movie. Some not-ready-for-primetime CGI in a scene where Snake surfs a big wave doesn’t help.

13. Dark Star

Dark Star, Carpenter’s first movie, began as a student film — and on that level, it’s impressive as hell. Working off a script from future Alien screenwriter Dan O’Bannon, it’s a slow-burning sci-fi comedy about a bunch of bored spaceship crewmembers on a 20-year mission to destroy unstable planets ahead of mankind’s future colonization efforts. As a full movie, it sags a little bit, but even when he was just starting out, Carpenter made movies like nobody else. 

12. Vampires

Horror fans have seen a lot of different types of vampires. Classy ones, ancient ones, sparkly ones… but for Vampires, Carpenter innovated, bringing us what can only be described as “dirtbag vampires.” It’s hardly the director’s deepest work, but watching James Woods’ Vatican-sponsored vampire hunter Jack Crow (who is also a dirtbag) take on a unique spin on bloodsuckers with interesting lore makes for a good time. 

11. Starman

Starman is a good movie. Jeff Bridges was nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of an alien being who's come to Earth. It’s just that it’s always going to be a little confusing to see tender drama coming from Carpenter. Clearly, he could do it in addition to the horror and action he was better known for (as evidenced by Starman itself), but it feels wrong to put something outside his normal oeuvre in the top 10.  

10. The Fog

Carpenter has always been a vibes-heavy filmmaker. The Fog, his follow-up to Halloween, is certainly a vibe. It’s a true ghost story — the sort that you can almost see Scooby-Doo and the gang meddling in. A haunted fog brings vengeance-seeking ghost sailors to a coastal town seeking their stolen gold. It’s charmingly scary, and perhaps even more than Halloween itself, The Fog feels like a true spooky season watch. 

9. Christine

It’s almost surprising, given how prolific Carpenter was in the ‘80s and how many Stephen King adaptations there were at the time, that this 1983 flick about a killer 1958 Plymouth Fury was the only time the two titans of horror ever crossed over. Christine feels slightly more like a King movie than it does a Carpenter movie, but their sensibilities are a great match. The way Carpenter depicts a supernatural, sentient automobile will get any horror fan’s engine running. 

RELATED: They Live Is John Carpenter at His Most Gloriously Unsubtle 

8. They Live

Carpenter’s anti-Reagan, anti-Yuppie attack on American consumerism is savagely, at times comically, blunt. Aliens have invaded, and only by wearing special sunglasses can star "Rowdy" Roddy Piper see their real faces and the messages about confirmation and consumption they’ve used to take control of Earth without anybody knowing. Come for the social commentary, stay for the six-minute alleyway fight and quotes like “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and I'm all out of bubblegum."

Stream on Peacock.

7. Prince of Darkness

Science meets faith meets horrors beyond comprehension in Prince of Darkness, which follows a group of quantum physics students who are summoned to research a strange jar of green liquid that’s been discovered in a monastery. The goo is, in fact, liquid Satan. The middle entry in Carpenter’s “Apocalypse Trilogy” along with The Thing and In the Mouth of Madness, Prince of Darkness might be Carpenter at his most intellectual and his most disturbing. 

Stream on Peacock.

6. Escape from New York

Please don’t think too hard — at all, really — about the logistics of turning Manhattan into a lawless, open-air prison to combat a 400% rise in crime. Escape from New York isn’t about that sort of “logic.” Instead, it’s about Kurt Russell’s Snake Plissken, one of the coolest action heroes of the ‘80s, going on a mission into the heart of one of the coolest dystopias ever put on film. Carpenter’s grim yet humorous take on the Big Apple is so deeply realized, it's a truly urban waste that only he could’ve created and only in the ‘80s.  

5. Assault on Precinct 13

The secret to Carpenter’s second film is that it is, basically, a zombie movie. Inspired by Western movies like Rio Bravo, which had John Wayne playing a sheriff forced to team up with criminals to defend the jail against attacks, Assault on Precinct 13 pushes things even further. The gang members who attack the titular precinct have no regard for their own lives and might as well not be human. It’s possible to have some dark political readings into the implication of this portrayal, but what Carpenter’s really delivering is thrilling, reimagining a zombie standoff where the ghouls have guns. 

4. In the Mouth of Madness

Though not a true adaptation of any of H.P. Lovecraft’s works, In the Mouth of Madness is clearly inspired by the author’s brand of eldritch horror. Sam Neill stars as a freelance insurance investigator tasked with finding a Stephen King-like horror author who has gone missing. The disturbing things he finds while seeking Sutter Cane end up unraveling his very sense of self and possibly the whole world. Your mileage may vary, but for fans of mind-screwing cosmic horror, In the Mouth of Madness might be Carpenter’s scariest film. 

3. Halloween

Halloween’s influence cannot be overstated. While there were other movies that could be called slasher flicks or at least precursors to the genre, like Black Christmas or even Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Carpenter’s masterpiece sliced open a golden age for the subgenre. Everything about Halloween is iconic, from Carpenter’s music, to Jamie Lee Curtis’ performance as the ultimate Final Girl Laurie Strode, to Michael Myers — the masked killer officially known only as “The Shape.” That it’s even possible to take Halloween for granted only speaks to how totemic the film is. 

Stream Halloween II and the 2018 Halloween, both of which Carpenter did not direct but was involved in the making of, on Peacock.

2. Big Trouble in Little China

Big Trouble in Little China shouldn’t have worked. A kung-fu genre pastiche that leaned so far into mysticism exploitation that it basically did a martial arts frontflip, with a handsome, blithely ignorant white guy (Russell) as the lead? Carpenter made a masterpiece, though, in this hilarious, thrilling, and category-defining movie. Big Trouble’s greatest strength is that our ostensible protagonist, Russell’s Jack Burton, is clearly not actually the protagonist of the film, which deals with a magical war between Chinatown factions. Ever the truck driver, Jack Burton thinks he’s behind the wheel of this crazy narrative, but he, like the audience, is only there for the ride.  

RELATED: The Thing: John Carpenter & Original Producer Talk Sequel Hopes, What Could Be Next

1. The Thing

Carpenter’s radical remake of the 1950s sci-fi horror flick The Thing From Another World swapped the original’s alien plant monster assaulting an isolated arctic research base for a shape-shifting, paranoia-inducing monstrosity brought to life by some of the best practical effects ever put to film. That The Thing was a major critical and box office disappointment when it first came out is baffling. It’s since been regarded as not only Carpenter’s best film, but one of the better movies ever made. 

Stream on Peacock.