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Ranking John Carpenter: Every Movie from Worst to Best

A complete dissection of the antiheroes and creeps from The Horror Master

Ranking John Carpenter: Every Movie from Worst to Best
John Carpenter
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    Dark streets, empty lawns, singing trees, and the nauseating pulse of synths — you’re watching a John Carpenter film. Chances are the Master of Horror was responsible for a few of your earliest childhood nightmares. He’s more or less the Ray Bradbury of filmmaking, an underrated visionary who can conjure up a brand of fear that’s both out of this world and within your reach.

    Six years after returning to the synthesizer for 2015’s Lost Themes, the Master of Horror is back for more with its second sequel: Lost Themes III: Alive After Death. Once again, Carpenter is working alongside his son Cody Carpenter and his godson Daniel Davies, a collaboration that’s only grown stronger with time. “We’ve matured,” Carpenter has confidently expressed.

    In celebration, we’ve resurrected this original breakdown of Carpenter’s filmography, where we first faced all the terror that lies within and shared our findings with you. In the past, this would be the part where we’d tell you that “everyone’s entitled to one good scare.” But, with this ranking and the 10 new tracks within Lost Themes, we think you have plenty of tricks and treats.


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    21. The Ward (2010)

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    Runtime: 1 hr. 29 min.

    Press Release: In 1966, a troubled young woman arrives at a mental institution only to find it haunted by a vengeful ghost.

    Cast: Amber Heard, Mamie Gummer, Danielle Panabaker, Laura-Leigh, Lyndsy Fonesca, Mika Boorem, Jared Harris, Jillian Kramer

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    Soundtrack: A handful of bubblegum hits from the 1960s, most notably The Newbeats’ “Run Baby Run (Back into My Arms)”. Like Halloween II , it’s used for juxtaposition — a sugary tune to foreshadow horrific events — but isn’t nearly as timeless or effective. Outside of that, we get some overused classical music from Bach and Mozart.

    Carpenter’s World: One of the few distinct qualities of The Ward is the autumnal 1966 setting. Since most of the filming was confined to Eastern State Hospital in Washington, Carpenter, cinematographer Yaron Orbach, and the rest of the production team were accurately able to nail the dusky hues of the woods, muted turtlenecks, plaid skirts, and lots of old, creepy hallways.

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    The Antihero: We won’t spoil too much, but the film’s (admittedly pretty lame) twist ending kinda makes everyone an antihero. And that’s no fun.

    Key Scene: Gratuitous partial nudity aside, the slow-burn specter of the below scene feels like vintage Carpenter:

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    An Unlit Fuse: When discussing 1978’s Halloween, Carpenter decried jump scares in favor of the “bomb under the table,” where the horror comes from the audience knowing what the characters don’t. Outside of the above shower scene, The Ward more or less does away with that concept, sticking to standard loud-noise-thing-jumping-out-at-you jolts instead of subtle sound effects and the periphery.

    Let’s Hear It for Harris: While all of the actors are fairly serviceable, Jared Harris somehow manages to chew up the scenery without ever spitting it in our faces. The high-profile thespian seems to be having a lot of fun in an unabashed genre film.

    Final Transmission: In terms of raw filmmaking,The Ward is a sleeker and perhaps a higher-quality film than other latter-day Carpenter flicks like Ghosts of Mars and even Escape from L.A. However, it commits the most heinous cinematic sin of all: being boring. Whereas almost every other one of his films has a sense of risk and identity, his tricks here — the jump scares, the predictable twist ending — feel nothing but derivative.

    –Dan Caffrey


    20. Ghosts of Mars (2001)

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    ghosts of mars poster Ranking John Carpenter: Every Movie from Worst to Best

    Runtime: Allegedly 1 hr. 38 min., but feels like 5 hrs.

    Press Release: Officer Melanie Ballard and her team of fellow officers and soldiers must transport the dangerous prisoner Desolation Jones to another location. The twist: They’re on Mars and must contend with recently awakened spirits.

    Cast: Natasha Henstridge, Ice Cube, Jason Statham, Pam Grier, Joanna Cassidy

    Soundtrack: Another of Carpenter’s latter-day misses. His decision to go to guitar for They Live has haunted the filmmaker several times since, and Ghosts of Mars is no exception. To make things worse, he added even more guitars to the party, assembling the likes of Nine Inch Nails’ Robin Finck, G’n’R’s Slash and Buckethead, all of Anthrax, and technical wiz Steve Vai. Because when you think of Mars, you think of early ‘90s rawk.

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    Carpenter’s World: We’re on Mars. Carpenter had not ventured this far away from Earth since he and Dan O’Bannon visited space in 1974’s Dark Star. Aliens have visited Earth in his films several times, but this is the first time we visit them. In Ghosts, Mars looks a whole lot like New Mexico, which makes sense because that’s where it was filmed. The cheap CGI comes courtesy of whatever computer was available at the time.

    The Antihero: Cube plays the aforementioned Desolation Jones, a role that was supposed to go to Statham. If the producers knew now what they didn’t know then, Statham would have remained the film’s co-lead. Either way, the movie still would have sucked. Though Cube is given an undoubtedly cool name (who was better than Carpenter at naming characters?), his role isn’t a very interesting one. He’s a tough guy, but there’s not much more to him. He’s light years away from Snake or Napoleon.

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    Key Scene: Don’t huff Laugher.

    I Love Mars: After several actresses turned down the lead role of Melanie Ballard (wonder why), Courtney Love was cast in the role. You may scoff now, but Love was getting more and more work in respectable fare such as Milos Forman’s The People vs. Larry Flynt and his follow-up, Man on the Moon. The story goes that she injured her foot after it was run over by the ex-wife of someone she was seeing at the time. Courtney Love, ladies and gentlemen! What a life!

    A Farewell to John: This was the movie that broke the master’s back. After nearly 30 years and 20 films, Carpenter told A.V. Club back in 2011, “It hit me when I was looking at the extras for the DVD of Ghosts of Mars. It showed me at the beginning of the process on the set. I looked okay. Then it showed me at the very end of the process, doing the music. I was like a dead man. Dead man walking. I thought, ‘Okay. All right. I can’t do this for a while. I just can’t.’ I thought it was a good time to stop.” The bad box office and reviews didn’t do him any favors, either.

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    Final Transmission: The last few films of Carpenter’s career didn’t have fans screaming for more, and Ghosts of Mars falls into that category. The structure doesn’t work, the performances are lightweight, the camera fade-ins and -outs are pedestrian, and the score is aggressive to a fault. The less said about its flashbacks the better. Carpenter did return nearly a decade later with the just-as-underwhelming 2010 effort, The Ward.

    Justin Gerber


    19. Body Bags (1993)

    jc body bags Ranking John Carpenter: Every Movie from Worst to Best

    Runtime: 1 hr. 31. min.

    Press Release: John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper teamed up for a three-part scare fest on Showtime (to try and send up Tales from the Crypt for the most part). Carpenter directed the first two chapters, “The Gas Station” and “Hair”. The former is a generic slasher about a lone gas station worker being terrorized by a madman. The latter is Stacy Keach and an evil alien hair transplant. Carpenter himself MCs the show as the “The Coroner”, a soft-spoken, bland, Cryptkeeper knockoff.

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    Cast: Alex Datcher, Stacy Keach, Louis from Revenge of the Nerds, Luke Skywalker, one of the Americans from American Werewolf in London, Twiggy, Sheena Easton … who in the hell casted this?

    Soundtrack: It’s cheap. Carpenter worked with Jim Lang on a series of scary sounds and TV-grade noises. There’s a lack of score, and it’s very indistinct Carpenter work. For shame!

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    Carpenter’s World: Carpenter stepped in front of the camera for his first starring role. He did shabbily, dressing up with fake teeth and black makeup around his sunken eyes. He looks like, well, someone’s dead grandpa. Okay, that is troubling.

    The Antihero: Carpenter’s scenery and prop-chewing Coroner has no purpose other than to set up the three stories. He’s not likable, he’s not funny, he’s not even that deep or spooky, he’s just, Showtime’s inferior Cryptkeeper. He’s unseemly.

    Key Scene: It’s silly to pick favorites in generally cruddy horror stuff, but if there’s a special moment, it’s Stacy Keach seeing his long flowing hair for the first time, and it looks like a crappy hair metal band hairdo. It’s actually funny to think that Fabio dos were hot stuff in the ‘90s. Keach looks like a chubby, middle-aged Renegade.

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    Multiple Masters of Suspense: Ah, the ‘90s. It was a time when horror movie directors were household names and still able to draw marquee-level audiences. Not only does Tobe Hooper co-direct, he cameos as a morgue attendant. Sam Raimi? He’s a corpse (and The Employee of the Month!) in the first segment too. The creepy middle-aged man who comes on to the sexy young gas attendant/college student? Wes “I invented Freddy Krueger” Craven himself. Roger Corman even shows up for Tobe Hooper’s installment.

    It’s Showtime!: If Body Bags resembles Tales from the Crypt in form and structure, that’s because it was initially proposed as a competitor to HBO’s very popular horror series. Showtime eventually balked and accepted this as a movie instead.

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    Final Transmission: This whole thing’s just kind of D.O.A. Body Bags is corny, campy, and at times a little embarrassing. And John Carpenter, with all due respect, is not a great actor. Maybe this needed more horror dude cameos? Like, Clive Barker as an S&M dungeon master, Stuart Gordon as a mad scientist, or, ooh! How about Jason Voorhees in a cameo as a hockey goalie in some sort of tongue-in-cheek bit?

    You know what, I am stupid and bad. Move on to the next film, please.

    –Blake Goble


    18. Escape From L.A. (1996)

    escapefromla Ranking John Carpenter: Every Movie from Worst to Best

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    Runtime: 1 hr. 41 min.

    Press Release: In the futuristic year of 2013 (stifling laughter — when will sci-fi ever avoid dating?), Snake Plissken is back in action, as a nutso religious President needs him to go into Los Angeles (now also a prison island like New York), retrieve a Doomsday device, and maybe save the President’s daughter. If he’s got time … after post-apocalyptic Disneyland.

    Cast: Kurt Russell, Steve Buscemi, Peter Fonda, Cliff Robertson, Pam Grier, Stacy Keach

    Soundtrack: Carpenter paired up with Shirley Walker and re-used his perfect score from Escape from New York. He then spoiled it a little with rock guitars, cowboy harmonicas, violins, and a White Zombie-resembling nastiness. It’s campy good when it sounds like a spaghetti Western.

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    Carpenter’s World: Welcome to the wastelands of future Los Angeles. A huge Earthquake took the city to sea, and in Carpenter’s world, that’s ground for constructing island prisons. Shallow Hollywood bastards and peddlers, take that!

    The Antihero: Call him Snake — 45-year-old, doing-it-for-a-clean-$10-million Snake. For 1996, that’s pretty impressive there, Kurt Russell. You know Snake Plissken, he’s a B-movie rock star, one of Carpenter’s most beloved, badass creations. So naturally, it’s like watching a middle-aged Rolling Stone get wheelbarrowed out for a health check.

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    Key Scene: Escape from L.A. isn’t just remembered for its awkwardly late existence but also for its really crappy computer-generated imagery. Between a terribly animated shark attacking Snake in a submarine, and the digitally dopey wave that Snake rides along with a pitifully hammy Peter Fonda cameoing, the latter wins out as the key and most memorably sudsy and stupid scene in Escape from L.A. Hang ten for crapola, dudes!

    Call Him Snake, in About 10 Years: In 1985, a script for a sequel was commissioned from Coleman Luck (who wrote a ton of Equalizer episodes, so he was fine), and Carpenter apparently rejected it on the grounds of it being too campy and light. Fast-forward to 1994, and between earthquakes and the L.A. riots, Carpenter and Russell felt like they had the material to revisit ol’ Snake. According to Debra Hill, the producer, Russell wanted the film very badly (it’s apparently his favorite movie character — excellent choice, too), and filming began late 1995 for a summer 1996 release. And then it bombed, grossing half of its $50 million budget. Bummer. At least Russell got to show up, swagger and all, with Goldie Hawn on a Harley at the premiere. That’s stardom for you.

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    Escape from Earth: If Escape from L.A. had landed with audiences, and there was a need for a third chapter, Carpenter and Russell envisioned a zombie apocalypse where 99% of the world’s population have transformed and Snake would need to get the hell offa Earth. Escape from Earth sounds delightful, and we’d wholeheartedly welcome back Russell and Carpenter for a Snake Plissken victory lap, should they want to. Time has passed, but the Plissken brand is still strong! Come on, zombies are the new hotness! Kurt Russell is still awesome, and Carpenter could use the easy (hopefully modest) hit. You can almost see it.

    Earth, 2032 A.Z. (That’s Z for Zombies).

    Ext. A barren wasteland. Nothing alive. Suddenly, an extreme close-up of a wincing eye. Pan right. Another eye, but with a sinister eye patch. Hell, I’ll write the damn thing if someone can pass it along!

    Final Transmission: Escape from L.A. was just not a good follow-up to the original cult classic. But, if paired with the original on a Friday kitsch night, it’s amusing enough. Watch it sans New York, well, then you have a whole lot of problems onscreen, from low-rent effects and production value to old-age nostalgia gallivanting in black leather for the sake of a cash grab (that didn’t even make that much cash). Escape from L.A. is now a sadly dated dystopia that beat for beat resembles the original, just, worse.

    –Blake Goble


    17. Vampires (1998)

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    Runtime: 1 hr. 48 minutes

    Press Release: Under the leadership of Jack Crow (James Woods), a group of surly slayers must stop a master vampire before he finds an ancient Catholic artifact capable of allowing him to walk in the daylight.

    Cast: James Woods, Daniel Baldwin, Sheryl Lee, Thomas Ian Griffith, Maximilian Schell, Tim Guinee

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    Soundtrack: Even though John Carpenter composed the music for Vampires, you’d never know it by listening. His signature moody keyboard loops have been replaced by twangy steel guitar solos that wouldn’t sound out of place at a rough-and-tumble roadhouse.

    Carpenter’s World: As James Woods’ character so eloquently describes it, this movie’s set in “another New Mexican shithole.” Everything in the film looks like it was shot through a filthy orange gauze. It’s one of Carpenter’s ugliest films, with cinematography resembling something Steven Soderbergh’s digital camera would barf up on the set of a Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake.

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    The Antihero: Jack Crow is one of the most despicable protagonists in all of filmdom, let alone in John Carpenter’s oeuvre. If Snake Plissken had an uglier, lewder older brother, it’d be Jack Crow. He trots around the desert wearing black leather and sunglasses, spewing vile, terribly unfunny one-liners and gay slurs along the way. This is the type of guy who beats up a priest, then asks if the punches gave him wood. This is the type of guy who asks a vampire, “After 600 years, how’s your dick working?” This is the type of guy who’s really obsessed with boners, apparently.

    The movie tries to make Jack a bit sympathetic with a clichéd backstory, at least. Ya see, Jack is pissy because some vampires killed his parents when he was a boy. After he was orphaned, the Catholic church took him in and taught him how to be a slayer. Unfortunately, the priests didn’t bother to teach him how to clean up his goddamn language or stop using the term “pole-smoker” every five minutes.

    Key Scene:

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    Biggest Waste of Laura Palmer: Poor Sheryl Lee. She played one of the most iconic roles in television history, Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks, and John Carpenter puts her through the damn wringer in Vampires. The actress is forced to endure endless degradation. She gets orally raped by a vampire, stripped and gagged by a vampire slayer, and, worst of all, French kissed by Daniel Baldwin. It all makes getting wrapped in plastic and tossed on a riverbank seem like an afternoon at the Four Seasons.

    Not Your Daddy’s Vampire: Vampires shuns a lot of the common vampire lore. In this world, vampires burrow under the adobe-colored sands of the desert instead of sleeping in coffins, and they hang out in rundown shacks instead of sprawling mansions. They’re completely immune to garlic, as well, which I guess is good for any Papa John’s franchise in New Mexico. For some reason, Jack and his slayers also insist on hunting the vamps with shotguns, even though the bullets barely slow ‘em down.

    Final Transmission: This one’s just a dud. It seems pretty likely that some Hollywood producer wanted to cash in on the bad-boy vampire hunter hullabaloo inspired two years earlier by Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn, but I’m not sure why John Carpenter took the gig. Most of the film’s flaws lie with the script, and no amount of his directorial artistry could have saved this turd.

    Adriane Neuenschwander


    16. Dark Star (1974)

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    Runtime: 1 hr. 23 min.

    Press Release: Space explorers in the 22nd century have been tasked with blowing up unstable or uninhabitable planets in order to make room for Earth’s colonization. This one team, well, they’ve been in space for 20 years, and the job has just gotten so very boring. But one day, they pick up a beach ball-like alien to break up the monotony, and everything goes incredibly, hysterically wrong.

    Cast: Brian Narelle, Cal Kuniholm, Dre Pahich, Dan O’Bannon.

    Soundtrack: For one thing, the score’s like a prelude to Carpenter’s later, greater work. Synthesizer sounds and ominous tones are here to hear. Yet the best and most distinctive tune comes in the opening credits. “Benson, Arizona”, by John Yager, is a hillbilly tune with a mellowed-out West Coast bent, and it perfectly sets up the oddball tone of Dark Star.

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    Carpenter’s World: More like out-of-this-world! Sorry. Carpenter came up with this concept with his buddy Dan O’Bannon (of Return of the Living Dead and Total Recall fame) while they were students at USC.

    The Antihero: Dan O’Bannon’s Sgt. Pinback is a pernicious, angry, and just really bored little man. He’s the team’s bombardier, and has devolved after being isolated in space for so long. All of the men have, but O’Bannon’s portrayal is so giddily manic and bitter. It’s a shame to realize that O’Bannon only acted in this and three other films; he had the makings of a great comic character actor, but writing called. Look out for the montage of video diaries that show his gradual decay (and shaggy hair growth) late in the film.

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    “I do not like the men on this spaceship. They are uncouth and fail to appreciate my better qualities,” he moans.

    Chill out, Pinback. You could stand to get some space drugs or space lucky.

    Key Scene: When the team takes in a pet alien, one has to scoff at the design. It’s a freaking beach ball, with dots painted on and rubber claw hands placed at the base of it. It’s the lowest of low rent, and yet it’s used with ingenious placement, editing, and conceptual fear. The little bastard terrorizes the crew, and with quick cuts, proper angles, and lighting, the bugger is both creepy and really funny. Considering the budget and limitations, it’s all the more impressive that Carpenter makes a broom fight between Sgt. Pinback and the ball work. It’s the film’s most inventive moment.

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    Aliens: About that beach ball. The “alien mascot” and the general concept of a creature getting aboard a spaceship and causing hell was later re-used and altered by O’Bannon in what would become the screenplay for Alien.

    $60,000 Spaceship: Carpenter and O’Bannon worked together on a $60,000 budget in 1974. That’s, uh, really not much money for making a movie. For context, another sci-fi film that year, the baffling Zardoz, cost $1.57 million to produce. Characters dangling in elevator shafts are achieved with trick camera angles (and actors laying on the floors). Space helmets were just refurbished kids toy costumes. The bombs that the astronauts drop on useless planets? Model trailer and car kits shot up close. It’s low-budget gold all over this thing. The illusions are frugal and clumsy and delightfully so.

    Final Transmission: Dark Star’s a deft first feature, brimming with creativity and ambition. It’s just such a fun idea: space ennui. The film works as a creature feature, an exploration film, and a far-out black comedy. It’s John Carpenter’s first feature film, and it’s the best kind of scrappy, low-budget film school project.

    –Blake Goble


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