Filmmaker’s Top 10: John Carpenter

Every month on Margetis Movie Reviews, I’m going to choose a different filmmaker I admire and map out what I think is their Top 10 Filmography. This list is going to be highly subjective to my tastes so I’d love to hear your opinions as well.

Since this is the month of the Great Pumpkin, I decided to explore one of the biggest and most talented names in modern horror, science-fiction and fantasy – John Carpenter. With Halloween Ends currently terrifying or boring audiences, depending on who you ask, I figured this was the perfect choice for this year.

Also, if you have any filmmaker suggestions for me to do, please let me know in the comments. Without any further ado, here are the ten best films of John Carpenter‘s career, according to a really prestigious authority, me.

10. In the Mouth of Madness

1994 / dir. John Carpenter / USA / 95 minutes

cast: Sam Neill, Julie Carmen, Jurgen Prönchnow, David Warner, Charlton Heston, John Glover, Peter Jason, Frances Bay, Hayden Christensen

The last decent film John Carpenter made and the concluding chapter of his “Apocalypse Trilogy” which also included The Thing and Prince of Darkness. A typically fantastic Sam Neil plays a rigid insurance investigator who journeys to a small town where a Stephen King-esque horror author named Sutter Kane (Jurgen Prönchnow) has gone missing. He slowly begins to discover the town has mythologized the author as some sort of evil diety and therefore the laws of physics bend to fit the fucked up, supernatural stories he has written. It’s a bizarre premise and features some truly unnerving (and quite funny) visuals but it never quite reaches the creative heights of the other two entries in Carpenter‘s “Apocalypse Trilogy”. Still, it’s definitely worth a watch and features a really fun John Carpenter hard rock score. ($2.99 rental on Amazon)

9. Christine

1983 / dir. John Carpenter / USA / 110 minutes

cast: Keith Gordon, John Stockwell, Alexandra Paul, Harry Dean Stanton, Robert Prosky, Kelly Preston

Ultra cheesy but pretty fun and light adaptation of a Stephen King story about a weak-boned nerd (Keith Gordon) inheriting a killer car. Her name is Christine and if you disrespect her in any way, you’re as good as dead. The nerd is very respectful which results in her falling in love with him and brutally running down anyone that stands in the way of their love. While Carpenter’s previous outing, The Thing, tanked at the box office, Christine was a moderate success at the box office and generally well reviewed. Early on there’s fantastic scene where Christine murders an auto worker for ashing a cigar on her interior, which perfectly sets the scene for what this metal broad is capable of. (AMC+)

8. Assault on Precinct 13

1976 / dir. John Carpenter / USA / 91 minutes

cast: Austin Stoker, Darwin Joston, Laurie Zimmer, Martin West, Tony Burton, Charles Cyphers, Nancy Loomis

Carpenter‘s second feature was a gigantic flop in the U.S. (it was super popular in England) which is a shame because it’s an often humorous and spectacularly weird satire on crime gone rampant. It all plays out like a frightened senior citizen’s self-conjured idea of what street crime looks like from the comfort of their own homes. If it makes some really dark choices that wouldn’t necessarily be made today, like the brutal shooting of a little girl, it was very much par for the course for post-Vietnam cinema. It also unsurprisingly features an excellent score by John Carpenter. (Showtime / Paramount+)

7. Starman

1984 / dir. John Carpenter / USA / 115 minutes

cast: Jeff Bridges, Karen Allen, Charles Martin Smith, Richard Jaeckel, Robert Phalen, Ted White, Dirk Blocker, M.C. Gainey, George Block Flower

Jeff Bridges delivers one of his best screen performances as a nice alien fella who has come down to earth to in response to the Voyager 2 space probe. Taking the form of Karen Allen‘s deceased husband, the “Star Man” learns the ways of humans and it’s an absolute delight to behold. This is one of Carpenter‘s more uncharacteristically warm films that feels less like a Carpenter movie than Ghosts of Mars, but it serves as a nice reminder that the filmmaker has immense range even if he mostly prefers making cynical supernatural thrillers over heartfelt stuff. ($3.99 rental on Amazon)

6. They Live

1988 / dir. John Carpenter / USA / 94 minutes

cast: “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, Keith David, Meg Foster, Peter Jason, George Buck Flower, Susan Blanchard

Carpenter‘s angriest and most outwardly political film was made during the height of the Reagan administration and is all about the disenfranchised masses discovering that conservatives are alien slave masters from another planet. Blue collar bad-ass “Rowdy” Roddy Piper finds a pair of magic sunglasses which allows him to see their subliminal messaging in commercial advertisements devised to control the general population. The sunglasses also allow him to see who is a real human and who is a Republican martian, because he’s here to kick ass and chew bubblegum, and the son of a bitch is clearly out of bubble gum. This one features one of the longest fist fights ever committed to film as well as a couple of truly funny sight gags. It’s anything but subtle but clearly captures the pulse of the era. It’s also pretty timeless in its commentary on the dangers of fascism. (Peacock)

5. Escape From New York

1981 / dir. John Carpenter / USA / 99 minutes

cast: Kurt Russell, Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, Donald Pleasence, Issac Hayes, Harry Dean Stanton, Adrienne Barbeau, Season Hubley, Tom Atkins, Charles Cyphers

Even if some of the choreographed action is a bit lackluster, the vibe carries this indie adventure picture so far. It’s just so fucking cool and most of that is because the edgy anti-hero, Snake Plisken (Kurt Russell) is so fucking cool. Featuring one of Carpenter‘s best musical scores and boner-inducing set design, Escape From New York takes places in a dystopian future where a bunch of bureaucratic dickheads have converted New York City into a giant prison colony. When the POTUS’s (Donald Pleasence) plane crash lands in the prison colony, desperate government goons hire escape expert and professional criminal, Snake Plisken, to help the president escape…from New York. It’s dated, but it works as a nice little retro throwback to an era of DIY moviemaking that is all but completely gone. (Tubi)

4. Prince of Darkness

1987 / dir. John Carpenter / USA / 101 minutes

cast: Donald Pleasence, Lisa Blount, Victor Wong, Jameson Parker, Dennis Dun, Susan Blanchard, Anne Howard, Ann Yen, Alice Cooper, Peter Jason, Jessie Lawrence Ferguson, Dirk Blocker

Carpenter‘s most misunderstood film, Prince of Darkness is an exceptionally unique Satan flick surrounding a Catholic priest (Donald Pleasence), a quantum physics professor (Victor Wong) and his grad students who team up to battle the son of the devil, who is portrayed as a giant container of green swirling sludge that has been safeguarded by Franciscan Monks for the past 400 years. For as goofy as it sounds, Carpenter is able to generate some really creepy and suspenseful sequences including a 10-minute opening credit sequence that gets most of the exposition out of the way in loose montage form. Also, Alice Cooper plays a homeless gentleman possessed by the Devil. (Peacock)

3. Big Trouble in Little China

1986 / dir. John Carpenter / USA / 99 minutes

cast: Kurt Russell, Dennis Dun, Victor Wong, James Hong, Kim Cattrall, Suzee Pai, Kate Burton, Carter Wong

Outrageous and unbelievably fun, John Carpenter‘s highly imaginative action comedy Big Trouble in Little China follows a lovable but delusional dip shit (a fantastic Kurt Russell) who thinks he’s Arnold Schwarzenegger or some shit. The reality is his friend Wang (Dennis Dun) is the hero and Russell is more like the clumsy sidekick. In addition to that hilarious premise, the movie features some delightfully bizarre practical effects, entertaining characters, great fight sequences and a wonderful sense of humor. ($3.99 rental on Amazon)

2. Halloween

1978 / dir. John Carpenter / USA / 91 minutes

cast: Donald Pleasence, Jamie Lee Curtis, P.J. Soles, Nancy Loomis, Charles Cyphers, Nick Castle, Nancy Stephens

It’s ironic that a filmmaker so known for his intricate plots would find his biggest success in his most straightforward film. Halloween didn’t invent the slasher genre but it certainly set the gold standard, a standard that was rarely if ever met. Far more focused on building suspense and maintaining dread than traditional stabby McStabbies, Halloween follows a random ass babysitter and her friends getting stalked by a killer. His complete lack of motivation makes him all the more scary, something the sequels really fucked up by making him the babysitter’s brother and eventually, just Jason Voorhees with a different mask. The quality of the sequels range from ok to unwatchable, but the original remains one of the best thrillers ever made. (Shudder)

1. The Thing

1982 / dir. John Carpenter / USA / 109 minutes

cast: Kurt Russell, Keith David, Wilford Brimley, T.K. Carter, David Clennon, Donald Moffatt, Richard Masur, Richard Dysart, Charles Hallahan, Peter Maloney, Joel Polis, Thomas G. Waites

Speaking of greatest thrillers of all time, Carpenter‘s remake of 1951’s super campy The Thing from Another World is the best film of his career. Perfectly paced and suspenseful throughout, The Thing features some of the most impressive practical effects ever seen in film which grossed critics and audiences the fuck out when it was released back in 1982. They had just seen E.T. a few months prior, so they were expecting a nice, hopeful alien movie, not a brutally cynical Cold War allegory about how fear and paranoia turn men against each other….while they’re being eaten alive by parasitic alien lifeforms. Everyone hated it, devastating John Carpenter who thought he really had a hit. Years later it found success on home video and quickly earned the reputation of one of the greatest entries in its genre. (Peacock)

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