Synth-heavy soundtracks, gruesome special effects, and his own name above the title make it so you always know when you’re watching a John Carpenter movie. This is an auteur with a gift for turning low-budget, high-concept ideas into underrated cult classics. Carpenter’s movies span a range of genres—from sci-fi to rom-com—but he’s known as the Master of Horror for good reason.
In the list below, we’ve combined Metacritic, IMDb, and Rotten Tomatoes scores to create the ultimate ranking of Carpenter’s filmography, deciding once and for all which is his best movie.
18. Ghosts of Mars
Trailing a considerable distance behind the competition, Ghosts of Mars takes last place as Carpenter’s worst movie. Set in the distant future, this sci-fi, action, horror flick sees a mining colony on the red planet possessed by evil spirits. It’s up to the Martian police alongside convicted criminal, Ice Cube, to save the day.
17. Village of the Damned
Carpenter’s remake of the 1960 horror classic was poorly received by fans and critics alike. Village of the Damned takes us to a quiet seaside village where several of the residents fall mysteriously pregnant. Nine months later, they give birth to strange children with white hair, glowing eyes, and psychic abilities.
16. Memoirs of an Invisible Man
Loosely based on H.F. Saint’s novel of the same name, Memoirs of an Invisible Man introduces us to a stock analyst, played by Chevy Chase, who becomes invisible after a freak accident. The government wants to catch him for experimentation, so he uses his new power to go on the run.
After his parents were bitten by vampires, the Catholic church raised Jack Crow to lead a highly-trained team of vampire slayers. Now, he needs to stop a deadly master vampire that wiped out most of his team. James Woods stars in this schlocky action movie that shows vampires as a monster to fear, rather than a teenage boy to fall in love with.
14. The Ward
Carpenter practically came out of retirement to make The Ward, his most recent movie. It takes place in a women’s psychiatric ward, in which Amber Heard plays a new arrival. She’s troubled by her past, but more troubled by the deformed figure that appears to be picking off the other patients through the night.
13. Escape from L.A.
Escape from L.A. sees the long-awaited return of Snake Plissken, the badass renegade who inspired Solid Snake in the Metal Gear games. In his second outing, Snake is sent to the island of L.A. to retrieve a deadly weapon that fell into the wrong hands. It’s a bombastic action-adventure, but it fails to reach the heights of the original.
12. Dark Star
Although it was his first feature-length film, Carpenter doesn’t consider Dark Star one of his “real” movies because it wasn’t made on a schedule. He wrote this sci-fi comedy alongside Dan O’Bannon, who later went on to pen Alien. It tells the story of an astronaut crew tasked with destroying unstable planets, but all goes wrong when their own ship becomes unstable.
11. Prince of Darkness
The second installment to Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy—named for their bleak endings—Prince of Darkness combines science with religion to form a satanic horror film. Academics find themselves trapped inside a church as they experiment on a strange liquid that appears to summon demons from another realm. Can they discover what’s going on before it’s too late?
10. In the Mouth of Madness
Sam Neill stars as an insurance investigator looking into the disappearance of a popular horror author. The author’s books seem to lead his readers to madness, which Neill discovers for himself as he falls deeper into the supernatural mystery. In the Mouth of Madness was Carpenter’s final installment to his Apocalypse Trilogy.
9. The Fog
There’s something in the fog! On its centennial anniversary, a fishing town finds itself shrouded in a dense fog and residents must face the deadly creatures that lurk within it. Can they survive the night? Don’t bother with the 2005 remake of this film, Carpenter’s original version is far superior.
Nerdy high schooler Arnie Cunningham has just bought himself a banged-up old car. Through an exhaustive restoration process, he soon becomes obsessed with the vehicle, and before long it drives him to insanity. Carpenter’s classic horror film is based on Stephen King’s novel of the same name—so you know it’s going to be good for a few scares.
7. Big Trouble in Little China
Despite its commercial and critical failure upon release, Big Trouble in Little China has garnered a huge cult following in the decades since. This hilarious martial-arts adventure follows big-talking truck driver, Jack Burton, as he gets caught up in an ancient war between two Chinese clans. Burton’s so overconfident he doesn’t realize he’s only the sidekick in this tale.
6. They Live
Rowdy Roddy Piper plays a drifter who stumbles across a special pair of sunglasses. Wearing these shades, Piper sees the world as it really is. An alien ruling class keeps people in place through subliminal messaging that tells us to obey, consume, and reproduce. Now he knows the truth, Piper’s having none of it.
5. Escape from New York
In a dystopian future, Manhattan is a maximum-security prison for the most dangerous criminals in the country. But when the president is kidnapped and taken hostage, Snake Plissken must infiltrate the prison on a daring rescue mission. This over-the-top action movie knows exactly how corny it is and has a lot of fun with it.
When an alien creature visits Earth from outer space, it takes the form of Jenny Hayden’s dead husband. Now the government is in pursuit of the technologically-advanced lifeform, and the love-struck duo must reach Arizona for a rendezvous with an incoming spaceship. Jeff Bridges received an Oscar nomination for his unearthly performance in this romantic sci-fi.
3. The Thing
In the first installment to Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy, a shapeshifting alien infiltrates an Antarctic research base, mimicking whoever it gets a hold of. Now you don’t know who you can trust. For many people, myself included, The Thing is Carpenter’s best movie. But it only ranks third due to a disappointing critical reception upon its release. These days, The Thing is considered one of the greatest horror movies of all time.
2. Assault on Precinct 13
Carpenter considers this to be his first real movie, so it’s incredible to see it ranking so highly on the list. Assault on Precinct 13 takes place in a decommissioned police station under attack by deadly gang leaders. The cops must use everything at their disposal to survive the night, including their prisoners. The 2005 remake to this action movie is equally worth checking out.
Halloween introduced the world to Michael Myers, the mask-wearing serial killer who slashes his way through most of the cast of this movie, leaving none other than Jamie Lee Curtis to fight for survival. He’s one of the world’s best horror villains and Halloween spawned an iconic franchise with countless sequels. It’s safe to say, the slasher genre would not be what it is today without Carpenter’s contribution to it.
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