Ever since bursting onto the scene in 1976 with his first full length feature, Assault on Precinct 13, John Carpenter has forged an enviable filmography with heights that rate among rarest brilliance and that encompasses many genres, but each instilled with his trademark taut direction and, of course, synthesized rock soundtrack. He is a stalwart of horror cinema, a science fiction genius and a great conveyor of human drama, and his legacy will last for a long, long time.
Naming his top 10 films in order is solely opinion, but here is my crack at it:
10. The Fog (1980)
A classically told, and genuinely frightening ghost story starring the perfect trinity of female leads in Adrienne Barbeau, Jamie Lee Curtis and Janet Leigh. The Fog oozes with atmosphere, class and was an early indicator of Carpenter’s directorial skill.
9. Dark Star (1974)
A student film eventually extended and released theatrically, Dark Star is highly respected as one of the funniest sci-fi spoofs of the 70’s/80’s and has enough wit and intelligence to incite a brilliant post-viewing discussion.
8. Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
One of my favorite guilty pleasure movies of all time, Big Trouble in Little China is about as much fun as you can have with the action genre with its deft mix of comedy, thrills and outstanding special effects. Jack Burton is one of the best characters Carpenter has created, and there are far worse things on the eye than Kim Cattrall in her prime.
7. Starman (1984)
If it wasn’t for that pesky Steven Spielberg, Carpenter would have been offered far more projects such as this, as it soon became remarkably clear that he had the ability to merge heartfelt human interaction and elements of science fictions like few other people in the industry. Featuring outstanding performances from Jeff Bridges and the beautiful Karen Allen, Starman has never recieved the recognition it deserves, but is finally available on Blu-ray ready to be experienced by a brand new audience.
6. They Live (1988)
An absolute cult treat starring professional wrestler Roddy Piper and the ever-cool Keith David, They Live remains one of the most re-watchable movies around, with the seemingly never-ending alleyway brawl the indisputable highlight. This is also the great man’s most political moment, but its safe to say he had me with the infamous “bubblegum” line.
5. Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
Coated in suspense, taboo-breaking violence and cool dialogue, Assault on Precinct 13 is an absolute cracker of a debut feature, and showcased some of the many tools at the maestros disposal.
4. Escape from New York (1981)
The first collaboration between Carpenter and Kurt Russell – a partnership to match it with Scorsese/De Niro and Ford/Wayne – Escape from New York also features iconic actors Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, Donald Pleasence and Harry Dean Stanton and is undeniably one of the most ambitious and brilliantly executed cult films of the 80’s.
3. Christine (1983)
Some may be opposed to Christine being in my top 5, but to those people I say this: watch it again. Christine isn’t just an automobile-focused horror film, it is a moving coming of age story and a slice of classic American film-making that stays with the viewer long after the DVD has been removed from the tray.
2. Halloween (1978)
Carpenter + Jamie Lee Curtis + a synthesizer +a nameless villain wearing an inside-out William Shatner mask = the definitive slasher film. There is a babysitter, an all American neighborhood, a killer o on the loose and a psychologist determined to track him down… this is as pure as a horror movie can be, and world renowned for a reason.
1. The Thing (1982)
The better alien movie released in 1982 (yes, I’m looking at you, E.T.), The Thing is a terrifying, one-of-a-kind examination of paranoia in its many guises. From the moment we see a group of Norwegian scientists chasing a dog across the vast expanses of Antarctica, to that ending that encapsulates the prior events perfectly, we are completely enthralled, shocked and amazed. Rob Bottin’s physical effects do deserve a lot of the credit, but they would be nothing if the ensemble cast didn’t perform their roles with such precision, or Ennio Morricone’s score wasn’t so perfectly suited. Needless to say, if you haven’t seen The Thing, do so now.
Great list! 🙂 This is a top ten I also have planned for my future but I still need to see a few (Escape From NY, Precinct, Dark Star). But I already know that They Live is number one, followed by The Thing then Halloween.
That is a solid top 3! You will very much enjoy NY, Precinct and Star… actually just thinking about Precinct makes me want to watch it now!
Great post, makes me want to see Halloween and The Fog again.
Excellent list! I just saw They Live a couple of weeks ago on the big screen! Still holds up.
Still my favorite director to this day.
Escape from New York is one of my favourite films, and definitely my Favourite John Carpenter film.
How are you feeling about the proposed remake then? Unfortunately the fact that all of his films remain relevant now means that it’s just a matter of time until they’re all remade. Lets hope we get more like Precinct 13, and less like The Fog.
I like the idea of a remake providing that they hire a good cast and not just some people who occasionally appear on MTV programming or Idiotic Stand-up Comedians.
As long as John Carpenter is involved in a big way and I don’t mean just as a Creative Consultant, and hire a Good Director also, then it should be quite good. Takashi Miike could be an interesting person to Direct it.
Admittedly, I have not seen The Thing, which I need to correct immediately. However, I consider Halloween the greatest horror film ever made, so I’d probably put it number one. Cool list!
I’m in the same boat! I love Halloween, but immediately checked Netflix to see if The Thing is on there and it is. Hooray for the world of instant streaming!
Ah! I have Instant, so I’m all over this. Thanks for the heads up!
Great list! I have to say that Halloween is my all time favourite horror film. The first slasher flick I ever saw was Halloween 4 when I was about 9 years old and for weeks I was afraid Michael Myers was hiding behind the shower curtain in the bathroom. Despite this I ultimately became a huge slasher flick fan! What can I say I love to be scared 🙂
Haha, great story. Candyman had a similar sort of affect on me, for a long time I was scared to look into the mirror in the bathroom, and I’m still yet to risk saying his name 5 times!
hahaha that’s great! Any time I see Tony Todd in anything I expect him to be murdering people :p
Wicked list guys. Always love a top ten. It gives me a sense of closure. You have inspired me now, think I will do a top ten of old games. Cannon Fodder anyone?
Nothing like a top ten! Good luck with the list 🙂 (Eddie)
I love John Carpenter’s Vampires, and I liked Escape from L.A better than New York even though it was its campier counterpart.
Escape from L.A. is a lot of fun no doubt! Whats not to love about Snake surfing with Peter Fonda and Bruce Campbell as a crazed plastic surgeon?? I just prefer the grit and dystopian vision of New York. And yes, Vampires remains incredibly re-watchable, though I do think it is mainly due to James Woods’ awesome performance and not so much Carpenter’s direction.
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Great list. I personally would remove Christine, move everything else down, and place Prince of Darkness at #10. Christine was a super fun Carpenter movie but a lousy adaptation of the book.
Prince of Darkness is indeed a good and quite scary film, but Christine just holds a special place in my heart and I believe has higher ‘re-watchability.’ Thanks for the view!
Great post on an underrated director (Halloween and The Fog are two of my most favourite films of all time). FANGORIA just released a limited edition “Legends” issue on John Carpenter (received mine in the mail a couple of weeks ago) and it includes a very good, in-depth interview with him and touches on everything he’s done. It’s a shame that he had to wait until after-the-fact for so much of his work to get the appreciation they deserved (especially The Thing, which got him dropped from his Universal contract when it initially flopped with critics and audiences)
Thanks vinniepop! I very much wish I had that FANGORIA special, I missed out on the Romero one as well. I think The Thing was almost too relevant upon release and that turned people who were seeking escapism off.
Fantastic list, and I agree with you about Christine.
Great list and I agree: I think Christine is generally underrated. I watched it when I was tripping on some super strong magic chocolate truffles and I thought it was brilliant!
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Great list! I’d definitely rank “The Fog” higher, but other than that, spot on! 😀
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