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Top 10 John Carpenter Films

Pulse Pounding Synth Scorage

By Chuck Francisco     October 02, 2013

Top 10 John Carpenter Films from
Welcome to the witching season! As mainstream horror recognition accelerates into overdrive for a month long celebration of the macabre, the demands upon your viewing time will be likewise increase exponentially. I am sympathetic to your plight as my pile of genre releases to watch has grown so tall over the past week as to endanger my cats, should it choose the worst time to topple. Allow me to slice away some of excess fatty tissue, laying bare the raw muscular strength of Carpenter’s filmography. 
While it’s easy to issue John Carpenter a dozen lashes for inflicting Ghosts of Mars upon a trusting fan base, arranging a list of his crème de la crème is an order tall enough to make Snake Plisskin blink. Of the eighteen films Carpenter directed, only a small handful fail to be awesome. Having consulted a bevy of horror luminaries and industry personalities, consumed more than the recommended doses of pumpkin ale, and then agonized over the ordering, I present to you the Top Ten John Carpenter Films.  
10. Dark Star (1974)
Dark Star is the brilliantly clever dark comedy born of the collaboration of Carpenter and genre luminary Dan O’Bannon, writer of a number of films you love like Alien, Total Recall, and The Return of the Living Dead (also 1995’s Screamers, which you should love). This would be the first of his films that Carpenter would score himself, engaging the synth drunk portion of the audience's brain and making the audio a secret sauce, beloved but only available in his chain of restaurants. Likely the least well known entry on this list, you should seek Dark Star out right away.

9. Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
Assault on Precinct 13 is an interesting mash up of the Alamo and Romeo’s Night of the Living Dead. Interestingly the unending siege of blood drunk street killers takes on a new dynamic when considered beside rampages in Grand Theft Auto Five, with the criminal player character besieged by an unending stream of aggressive law enforcement drones. Austin Stoker’s officer Bishop maintains a compelling forced partnership with career criminal Napoleon Winston in a bid for mutual survival. It’s a formula which Carpenter unsuccessfully attempts to copy for Ghosts of Mars. It doesn’t work in that turkey, but is a lot of fun here.

8. Vampires (1998)
Yeah, I went there. Long time readers shouldn’t be surprised as I’ve previously written a comprehensive  defense of Vampires for Shock-O-Rama which can be found Here. This absolutely fun flick is a bad ass western told through the scope of a vampire movie. James Woods plays the unflappable master slayer Jack Crow, who runs a crew of vampire hunters sanctioned by the Vatican. Woods plays Crow as the kind of action tough guy who would be at home drinking with Snake Plisskin in Kansas City, and it’s delicious to watch in every scene- he doesn’t even break character when a piece of shrapnel strikes him in the back during a massive explosion (the take of which made it into the film, Woods can be seen visibly flinching- 1:24 into the trailer below). So Awesome.

7. They Live (1988)
Rowdy Roddy Piper has never been so cool. They Live could muscle its way onto this list on the strength of Piper and Keith David’s five and a half minute alley fist fight alone, but it doesn’t have to. The story of an impoverished workforce and worldwide brainwashing is again highly relevant and They Live has never been as popular as it is now. Scream Factory recently released a bells and whistles packed edition which belongs in the collection of everyone who’s ever intended to kick ass and chew bubble gum, but found themselves without a solitary stick of Trident.

6. Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
John Carpenter longed to make a martial arts film and loved working with Kurt Russell, but what would be the best way to put a unique spin on the story? By making Russell’s truck driving Jack Burton think that he is the hero, when really he’s merely the sidekick to Dennis Dun’s Wang, that's how. So we’re treated to the a robust martial arts film, packed with mystical elements, as told from the perspective of the bumbling sidekick. It’s brilliant! Big Trouble in Little China is a true cult movie, having been a box office bomb upon release, it has endured through the love of passionate fans who have continued to share it with their friends.

5. The Fog (1980)
The Fog is one of my all-time favorite films period. The opening sequence of a ghostly campfire story told to children cast a lasting imagine in my mind (even if the time it takes to tell the story is only two and a half minutes rather than the stated five). This is Tom Atkins, Adrienne Barbeau, and Jamie Lee Curtis in their primes. The story, the soundtrack, the locales, and the scares are all perfect. I’ve always wanted to live in a lighthouse because of The Fog. To this day I still do.
4. Escape from New York (1981)
The name’s Plisskin. Call him Snake. Don’t piss him off. Kurt Russell frames his performance as the ex-special forces turned government rebel through the personage of Eastwood’s man with no name. In that regard Russell is pitch perfect as he squints and rasps at the wacked out denizens of Manhattan. Opposite Snake in a battle for the President’s tape (lynch pin to avoiding a third word war) is Isaac Hayes as the A number one Duke of New York. The remaining cast list reads like a who’s who of 80’s awesome: Adrienne Barbeau, Harry Dean Stanton, Ernest Borgnine, Lee Van Cleef, and Donald Pleasence. An undeniable classic.

3. Christine (1984)
From the Stephen King story, Carpenter crafts a masterful tale of codependence and jealousy driven revenge. It wouldn’t seem quite so strange if the titular Christine wasn’t a 1958 Plymouth Fury. Did I say strange? I meant captivating. Christine is the kind of movie I drop whatever I’m doing and watch everytime it’s on. The famous “Show Me” moment is cinematic legend and showcases how a practical effects master can amaze an audience without the use of computer processing. The licensed 50’s rock and roll tunes are perfectly placed and absolutely enthralling. I seriously want to watch it right now.

2. Halloween (1978)
The night He came home is arguably Carpenter’s most pervasive, influential, and well-remembered work. It’s chilling, taking the time to unhinge and unsettle. Halloween set the stage for more than a decade’s worth of slasher films to follow it. Massively successful financially, it inspired several great (and many weaksauce) knock offs and a franchised legacy still alive today. Who could have forseen the fright brought on by a distended, whitewashed Captain Kirk mask? An immortal synth score by Carpenter accompanies the visual frights, and Jamie Lee is so relatable, real, and likeable that it’s disarming. Halloween is a true classic, and as Bob notes in DVD Shopping Bag this week, absolutely worth repurchasing (The 35th anniversary BR having just recently been released). 

1. The Thing (1982)
Is there a more terrifying moment than the first real glimpse of the hideous alien monstrosity? I’d argue that the defibrillator scene is more heart stoppingly frightening and lastingly scaring (honestly they're both terrifying). I’m speaking from personal mental trauma here, having first watched The Thing around the tender age of seven or eight. Beyond the horrific visuals, there’s a perfectly constructed whodunit which never actually answers the final question. This has led to enduring debates which still rage today surrounding the ending. The Thing, while not as influential as Halloween, is arguably Carpenter’s best work to date and remains frightening to this day.
Before I release the hounds of endless debate into the comments section, understand that all of these films are awesome, and that it was an absurdly difficult task to order them (I was especially hard pressed arranging three through seven). Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, how would you order them?

Screaming' Streaming
Want to watch something right now? Check the Screaming Streaming section for suggested viewing which is available right now via the magic of the Internets.

100 Bloody Acres
Year: 2013
Rating: Unrated
Runtime: 91 minutes
Genre: Horror Comedy
Availability: Amazon Instant, Xbox, iTunes, Playstation, Vudu, Google Play, Youtube, Blu-ray/DVD

100 Bloody Acres is bit of a bloody mess, but it's an entertain bath of hemoglobin despite some problems. Somewhat similar to Motel Hell, wayward travelers are used by the proprietors of a small business to meet their own fiscal ends. Here the Morgan brothers have discovered the secret to killer fertilizer: mulched human bodies. Obviously their schemes go to pot and a Dark comedy of errors ensues. 100 Bloody Acres is indicative of the fascinating low budget horror currently coming out of Australia and is a wacky, bloody good time. Released stateside just this week, there are a number of avenues to check it out (listed above). Cheers mate.

Chuck Francisco is a columnist and critic for Mania, writing Wednesday's Shock-O-Rama, the weekly look into classic cult, horror and sci-fi. He is a co-curator of several repertoire film series at the world famous  Colonial Theatre  in Phoenixville, PA. You can hear him drop nerd knowledge on weekly podcast You've Got Geek or think him a fool of a Took on Twitter.


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jppintar326 10/2/2013 9:40:08 AM

Halloween at #2?  It should be #1.  The debate should be where the other 9 go.  I would put Assault on Precinct 13 higher.  The Thing is wildly overrated.

mellowdoux 10/2/2013 10:22:47 AM

 Christine & Vampires... better than Assault on Precinct 13???





RobertTrate 10/2/2013 10:39:51 AM

 The Thing is by far his best film! It is the abomination of Vampires on this list that needs to be corrected! In the Mouth of Madness is better than Vampires

monkeyfoot 10/2/2013 11:27:16 AM

I've noticed a general trend in his movies from this. Other than Halloween none of his movies have really been big box office hits. Some were modest and some totally failed financially, perhaps only recouping their money from cable and video. Also most were not appreciated for quality when they first premiered. The Thing was a financial and critical bomb. Reviewers and the audience didn't think much of it. But it seems like with most of his work, repeated viewing on cable and growing up with most of them does something magical to them.

I've never been a huge fan of Carpenters. I've seen most of these at some point but for me the one I can watch over and over to utter delight is Big Trouble In Little China. "Indeed!"

aegrant 10/2/2013 5:41:47 PM

 @RobertTrate I liked vampires I just would have had Big Trouble in Little China and They Live ("I'm here to kick ass and chew bubble gum, and I'm al outta buble gum) higher than The Fog. But hey that's my opinion.I do agree about The Thing - i still watch that movie every time its on.

VermithraxPejorative 10/2/2013 5:44:02 PM

This list showcases some of my all-time favorite movies. The Thing being #1 is spot on! JC's production values, direction, and the over-all bad-assness of this movie makes it his best movie he ever did, IMHO!

I LOVE The Fog, Christine, and Escape from New York, but the rest on the list are all bad ass! This was when JC kicked ass and chewed bubble gum on the comprtition! I saw every one of these movies, except Dark Star, in the theaters. I have Dark Star in my DVD collection, though! Great movie, and the precursor to Alien!

But, there will never be another JC film like or as good as The Thing! Simply a masterpiece any way you slice it!!  The Thing would be the greatest Sc-Fi Horror film ever done......but it has the unfortunate timing of coming out after THE greatest Sci-Fi Horror film, Alien, which just so happens to also be one of the best movies ever made!

SmokingFrog77 10/2/2013 5:47:22 PM

Yep, The Thing is the best horror movie ever made IMO. I would also put Prince of Darkness and In The Mouth of Madness in the top 10, because I love the whole "Apocalypse Trilogy". 

And while it isn't a patch on the original as a piece of cinema, and while it's far from his best work, I think Escape from LA still deserves special mention because if nothing else, it is a heartfelt loveletter to just how fucking badass Snake Plissken is, and it has the best movie ending ever.

Snake is cinema's greatest anti-hero, and the whole sequence of him shutting down the entire planet - just because he was pissed off - before lighting a cigarette and staring into the camera and saying "Welcome to the human race" as it fades to black, is gloriously excessive and the absolute pinnacle of cinematic badassdom.

Dodgyb2001 10/3/2013 1:21:40 AM

I absolutely love early Carpenter, and while his later movies did go off that amazing streak, they're still watchable. Still, I can watch Escape, The Thing, Big Trouble, and The Fog over and over. Halloween not so much just because I'm not so much into slashers, but still, I'll watch it if it's on. Big trouble is just so much fun, and everyone in the world should have seen it ripping the mick out of itself.

klaatu1701 10/3/2013 3:04:20 AM

Starman, released in 1984. One of the best lines when Jeff Bridges (who was nominated for an academy award for the role) said the powerful words describing the human race "You are a strange species. Not like any other. And you'd be surprised how many there are. Intelligent but savage. Shall I tell you what I find beautiful about you? You are at your very best when things are worst."

Wiseguy 10/3/2013 5:51:22 AM

The Thing and Halloween would tie for #1 for me.

Prince of Darkness would be on this list somewhere, possibly at the expense of Dark Star which I have yet to make it all the way through

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