It’s been a decade since John Carpenter released a film. After arriving on the scene in the ’70s, Carpenter’s name became synonymous with horror thanks to the release of influential films like Halloween and The Thing. As the Halloween franchise exploded into a cultural institution among scary movie fans, Carpenter continued to blend horror, comedy, and action with titles like They Live and Big Trouble in Little China.
Never a favorite of critics, Carpenter’s films became even more derailed in the ’90s – a vilification he never fully recovered from. However, Carpenter’s influence on horror and sci-fi is undeniable. In recent years, some of his later films, especially those with large cult followings, have been reassessed. Others, though, still maintain their status as total flops.
19 John Carpenter’s Ghosts Of Mars (2001) – 21%
Futuristic police officers battle alien spirits inhabiting mineworkers on Mars in what turned out to be a box office bomb. Ghosts of Mars features a diverse ensemble cast including Natasha Henstridge and Pam Grier.
While diehard fans find it an underrated gem, the vast majority of moviegoers see it as a total mess.
18 Memoirs Of An Invisible Man (1992) – 24%
Another flop, Memoirs of an Invisible Man stars Chevy Chase as a yuppie who becomes invisible after a freak accident.
Billed as a sci-fi dark comedy, the film co-stars Daryl Hannah as Chase’s love interest.
17 Village Of The Damned (1995) – 29%
Carpenter remade 1960’s Village of the Damned with stars of the ’90s like Christopher Reeve and Kirstie Alley. In the film, an alien lifeforce impregnates all the women in a small town – who give birth to a legion of white-haired otherworldly tykes set up taking over.
While it failed at the box office, some horror fans stand by Village of the Damned‘s slow pacing, melancholy tones, and creepy kids.
16 The Ward (2010) – 33%
Carpenter’s last feature film stars Amber Heard as a patient in an institution dealing with a lot more than mental illness.
Heard’s character Kristen is terrorized by a ghost, and the result is a predictable, generic psychological thriller with supernatural twists and turns.
15 John Carpenter’s Vampires (1998) – 40%
Vampires is a critically disparaged pulpy vampire western in line with Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn.
Why this movie starring James Wood, Daniel Baldwin, and Sheryl Lee isn’t hailed like Rodgruez’s film remains a mystery among Carpenter fans who love this brutal, albeit sloppy, feature.
14 John Carpenter’s Escape From L.A. (1996) – 53%
Escape From L.A. is Carpenter’s last collaboration with Kurt Russell, who stars in many of his films. This campy, over-the-top sequel to Escape from New York sees Russell reprising his role as Snake Plissken – the post-apocalyptic hero with an eye patch.
In the film, Plissken is tasked with traversing L.A. (now an island due to a cataclysmic earthquake) in search of a doomsday weapon acquired by a powerful resistance movement.
13 Prince Of Darkness (1987) – 58%
Computer age scientific inquiry meets ancient bizarre religious philosophies in Prince of Darkness, which follows a group of college research students asked by a priest to investigate a large, green cylinder whose contents turn out to be the physical embodiment of Satan.
Prince of Darkness divided critics, but the general consensus is this heady demonic flick sees Carpenter returning to his spooky, atmospheric roots.
12 In The Mouth Of Madness (1995) – 59%
Sam Neill stars in this cinematic tribute to the works of horror writer H.P. Lovecraft.
Neill plays an insurance investigator in search of an elusive novelist named Sutter Cane whose stories seem to be coming to life around Neill’s character John Trent – who becomes entrenched in Cane’s cult of personality.
11 Body Bags (1993) – 67%
Carpenter joins forces with fellow director Tope Hooper for this comedic horror anthology film told in three parts.
Carpenter himself plays the coroner who introduces each tale in Body Bags, which was made for Showtime.
10 Christine (1983) – 69%
Carpenter tackles Stephen King in Christine, considered one of the better ’80s adaptations of King’s work.
Keith Gordon plays a nerdy high schooler who restores a 1958 Plymouth Fury that begins to develop magical and homicidal tendencies.
9 The Fog (1980) – 74%
A supernatural fog descends upon a small coastal California town in this ambient, dreamlike ghost story. Before the fog clears, the ghosts within it must exact bloody vengeance on the locals.
The Fog stars Jamie Lee Curtis, her mother Janet Lee, and Carpenter’s former wife Adrienne Barbeau.
8 Dark Star (1974) – 77%
Carpenter’s first feature film, Dark Star is a pre-Star Wars space movie satire about a group of explorers tasked with destroying unstable planets.
While a low-budget venture, Dark Star maintains a cult status thanks to its focus on space colonization, alien disrupters, and kitschy special effects put together with no money.
7 Big Trouble In Little China (1986) – 78%
One of Carpenter’s big studio ventures, Big Trouble in Little China‘s poor box office performance inspired the director to return to independent filmmaking. With time, though, this fantastical martial arts film starring Kurt Russell has become a cult classic.
In the movie, Russell plays a trucker who helps one of his friends navigate the supernatural underworld beneath Chinatown.
6 The Thing (1982) – 85%
When The Thing was released, it was mocked by critics as a gross-out monster movie with no backbone. In the present, this film about a shapeshifting, parasitic alien that sets its sights on a group of Antarctic explorers is viewed as one of the most iconic horror features of all time.
With its insane special effects and emphasis on moody body horror, The Thing remains one of Carpenter’s best.
5 Starman (1984) – 85%
Carpenter took a break from horror to make this whimsical sci-fi feature starring Jeff Bridges and Karen Allen. Allen plays a widow whose late husband (played by Bridges) is cloned by an alien.
The alien asks Allen’s character Jenny to drive him from Wisconsin to Arizona as the government tries to intervene.
4 They Live (1988) – 86%
Carpenter gives the middle finger to Hollywood’s obsession with consumer culture in They Live, which envisions a future where skull-faced aliens bent on world domination keep the masses subdued through subliminal messaging.
Wrestler Roddy McDowall plays a wanderer who comes into contact with a pair of sunglasses that allows him to see the truth when he puts them on.
3 Escape From New York (1981) – 86%
Dystopian sci-fi meets noir eerieness in Carpenter’s best action movie: Escape from New York.
Kurt Russell plays the jaded convict Snake Plissken, a man forced to save the President after his plane crashes in Manhattan – which has been transformed into a maximum-security prison.
2 Halloween (1978) – 96%
With his low-budget masterpiece Halloween, Carpenter brought the story of serial killer Michael Myers to the big screen. Halloween launched many of the tropes common in slashers, from masked assailants to signature weapons.
While Carpenter hasn’t directed any of the subsequent Halloween movies, his original story with Debra Hill helped make Myers a house name. It also made a star out of Jamie Lee Curtis, who plays Myers’s sister Laurie Strode.
1 Assault On Precinct 13 (1976) – 98%
Before Halloween, Carpenter perfected his ability to weave together a tense tale with Assault on Precinct 13. This siege thriller centers around a criminal gang that decides to attack a police precinct occupied by just a few officers and employees.
A steady and consistently riveting feature, Assault on Precinct 13 works just as well as other popular crime movies from the ’70s.
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