John Carpenter hasn’t made a movie since 2011, and it’s obvious he’s done. He had quite the run from 1978 to 1988, though. Despite my somewhat less enthusiastic reactions to some of the work here, there’s no denying the cultural impact he had with films like Halloween, The Thing, and They Live.
His reputation is greatly outsized compared to the box office receipts, though, which I find interesting. His most financially successful film, both in terms of profit and raw dollars, was Halloween. Nothing else he made, even into the 90s with inflation, came close to matching that. Hollywood never knew what to do with this irascible chain smoker with a vision who never really turned into a hit of a director.
He kept having to go back to do studio work like Starman and Memoirs of an Invisible Man in order to keep finding work. When he would earn the smallest bit of freedom, he’d go off and make something like In the Mouth of Madness or Escape from L.A., stuff so outright crazy from a Hollywood perspective that it’s amazing that they got made at all.
He lost it, though. Not every director can keep the fire of creativity active within them as they age and encounter more and more bullshit, and Carpenter is but a man. He tried, and he tried, and he never got the kind of acceptance he probably deserved.
Anyway, here’s the definitive ranking of his body of work, including all of his television work. Do check out my other lists. They’re definitive.
“Do you love irony? Do you love irony above character, plot, or basic narrative structure? If you do, then do I have the episode of television for you.”
“This movie is just a disaster of a film. The horror never connects. The characters fall apart completely. The storytelling is unclear. A promising if unspectacular opening act just spills into confused nonsense for the last hour, and there’s nothing to really recommend.”
21. Ghosts of Mars
“Vampires felt like a misstep. Ghosts of Mars feels like John Carpenter has lost all sense of what made him appealing as a filmmaker.”
“This is just a disappointment through and through.”
19. Body Bags
“The best of them comes first, but it’s still not all that good. It goes downhill from there, though.”
18. They Live
“On a certain level, I get it, the appeal of the movie. The concept is cool and some of the key moments are executed with a certain appreciable style. However, the movie simply doesn’t work all that well as an actual story. It’s poorly built with jumps in logic and a muddled central point.”
17. Memoirs of an Invisible Man
“It’s a slight entertainment that could have been made better. As it is, there are worse ways to spend 100 minutes.”
“That’s disappointing, because the first two-thirds of the film were really good, the sort of character based storytelling within genre that Carpenter was becoming well-known for.”
“It’s still a safe genre movie for Carpenter to sink his teeth into after the critical and commercial failure of The Thing, but that safety ends up numbing its effect for me a bit.”
“There’s a great performance at its core, but the actual script needed work.”
13. The Ward
“This was Carpenter really rediscovering his craft at the feature film length and doing a pretty decent job of it. It feels like a Carpenter film, and it’s pretty okay. It could have used a rewrite to help things along, but it’s honestly better than its reputation.”
“He took a script that honestly needed more work, and he made the absolute most of it in terms of production. While the characters tend to be thin, he manages the right kind of unease and panic and even terror from his acting troupe.”
11. The Fog
“Still, the film overall is a good horror film with something on its mind, fitting in well with Carpenter’s body of work and offering some decent genre thrills along the way.”
10. Dark Star
“A script that found a greater variety of business to do in the middle section, I think, would have improved the film overall, but as it stands, the ending raises the rest of the film to a higher level.”
“It’s a solidly good film, and one that shows a more refined promise for Carpenter in his sophomore effort.”
“All of that being said, I really do find this film consistently entertaining…After its rather great opening, it ends up being more meandering that it probably should be, and I think that diminishes the film’s overall impact and entertainment value.”
“The episode of television lacks Carpenter’s voice, but it is proof positive that he could take a solid script and turn it into a solid piece of cinema. He didn’t elevate it, but he did make the most of what was there.”
6. Big Trouble in Little China
“It’s not perfect. I find its first act a little too convoluted (kidnapping of one girl leads to kidnapping of another girl leads to brothel leads to dual attempts to get her out leads to Lo Pan) when it could have probably been streamlined.”
“Starman shows a gentler side of Carpenter that he rarely let out, usually embracing the more cynical side of how he viewed the world. There’s tenderness and a guileless humanity on display, and then there’s also a subplot about how the military is filled with dumb warmongers. Well, I guess we can’t always have everything.”
“There’s so much to admire in In the Mouth of Madness, but it’s also easy to see why it might have rubbed people the wrong way upon its original release. It does have a traditional three act structure, but that familiarity is undermined by the absolute ruthlessness that Carpenter takes Trent into complete insanity. There’s something really special at the heart of this film, and it just keeps growing on me with every viewing.”
“There’s something subtly intelligent about Carpenter’s work, especially when he’s at his best. He’s working firmly within genre filmmaking, but there’s obviously some very smart stuff going on underneath the surface.”
“I’m going to get so much shit for this. I mean all the shit. 100% of the shit. Oh, well. Here goes.
I love this movie. I unabashedly, unironically, and unashamedly love this movie.”
1. The Thing
“There was something about the generation of filmmakers that came about in the 70s that gave them this great combination of old school aesthetics with new school sensibilities.”
32 thoughts on “John Carpenter: The Definitive Ranking”
“Definitive” You’re trolling here too, aren’t you? 🙂
As usual, every list is personal and there’s no arguing about taste. Man…there are some bold takes here in that ranking, though.
Serious question: could Escape from LA work if you hadn’t seen Escape from New York?
I really do think so. The only thing that really holds me back at all in my appreciation of LA is that it really is a beat for beat remake of NY. I think that if NY didn’t exist and LA managed to exist in a sort of vacuum, I’d still enjoy it as much as I do.
Overall, though, I know I view Carpenter differently from most male film fans. I think he’s a talented filmmaker who needed strong writers to make the most of his visual talents. He had a very solid education at USC that allowed him to effectively explore his ideas through cinema well, but one of the greatest? Nah. He was definitely good on balance, though.
I don’t know if I’d call Carpenter a ‘great’ filmmaker, either. He quit, creatively and literally, and though nobody hits 100% of the time, he has too many bad films in his filmography. Like, badly made.
However, he did make several of my favorite films, Big Trouble in Little China, In the Mouth of Madness, The Thing, Prince of Darkness..so much so that I had to limit his appearances in my own top 100 list.
So not a ‘great’ director but one that made great movies.
It’s weird to have a director with such a strong body of work that seems to almost have gotten lucky so much in creating quality films. He had obvious talent, but he needed real direction from other creatives, like Bill Lancaster on The Thing. As a pure director, he had real chops, but he wasn’t the complete package like a Scorsese. He’s more of a De Palma.
Well look who you inspired…
I just watched that. I’ve never wanted to participate in one of their discussions more.
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Part 2 is up now if you hadn’t seen it.
I have. Thanks for pointing it out!
Oops. I meant to add. John Carpenter is actually a hometown boy (my aunt has his signature in her yearbook) so it’s hard for me to hate too much anything he does because his films so often have tributes and winks to our little town it’s just a delight to find them.
(He and I are both Hilltoppers.)
That’s neat. That yearbook would probably sell for, like, $50. Much more than any of mine ever will.
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