The Best John Carpenter Movies of All Time

The Best Films from the 'Halloween' Director

Halloween
Compass International Pictures

Few filmmakers have reached the level of cult and critical favorite peaks of John Carpenter, the mastermind behind some of cinema's most thrilling movies. Carpenter not only directs his films, but he also usually writes, produces, and composes the music for them, making him a multi-talented creator. While growing up in upstate New York, Carpenter became a huge fan of movies—especially Westerns and horror movies—and the influence of years of movie-watching can be seen in all of Carpenter's films. One his earliest films even won an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short.

The ideas behind Carpenter's movies are so inventive that Carpenter's films have frequently been remade—but the remakes have never been as good as the classic originals.

From his creative peak in the late 1970s to his big hits of the 1980s, here is a list of Carpenter's eight best movies.

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

Assault on Precinct 13
Turtle Releasing

Carpenter wrote and directed the 1976 action thriller Assault on Precinct 13. It cost just $100,000 to shoot, but it became one of the biggest independent film hits when audiences loved the stark story of a handful of cops defending a precinct building against a vengeful gang (Carpenter cameos as a gang member). Despite its contemporary setting, Assault on Precinct 13 borrows liberally from Western sensibilities—in fact, Carpenter attempted to make a Western until he realized it would be cheaper to fit the story in modern day. Carpenter also wrote the music and edited the film.

Carpenter was not involved in a 2005 remake, which starred Ethan Hawke, Laurence Fishburne, and John Leguizamo.

Halloween (1978)

Halloween
Compass International Pictures

Halloween is the slasher movie that launched hundreds of imitators, but Carpenter's horror film about the masked killer Michael Myers remains in a class by itself. Not only is it a thrilling and influential movie, but Carpenter's chilling score is one of the most recognizable movie themes ever recorded. It also features a star-making performance by Jamie Lee Curtis.

Carpenter co-wrote the 1981 sequel and produced 1982's Halloween III: Season of the Witch (which had nothing to do with Michael Myers), but he has not been involved in the many Halloween sequels which have followed, including the 2007 remake directed by rock star Rob Zombie.

The Fog (1980)

The Fog
Embassy Pictures

Carpenter and Jamie Lee Curtis reunited for another horror film, The Fog, just two years after the success of Halloween. Though not as successful as Halloween, The Fog—which tells the horrific tale of a mysterious ghost-filled fog haunting a California town.

The Fog was remade in 2005.

Escape from New York (1981)

Escape from New York
Embassy Pictures

In the dark future of 1997 (yes, we know it has long since passed), Manhattan is used by the U.S. government as a maximum security prison where anything goes and nobody leaves. Unfortunately, the plane of the U.S. President is shot down over the island and the President is taken hostage. Only the disgraced former Special Forces soldier Snake Plissken, played by Kurt Russell, can rescue him from the hell-like streets of New York. Escape from New York became one of the most popular action films of the early 1980s.

Carpenter and Russell reunited for a 1996 sequel, Escape from L.A., but it just wasn't the same. A remake has long been discussed with numerous tough-guy actors being suggested as the new Snake Plissken, none will ever be as cool or tough as Kurt Russell.

The Thing (1982)

The Thing
Universal Pictures

Many consider The Thing to be Carpenter's best movie, and with good reason—this sci-fi horror film, which is a loose remake of 1951's The Thing from Another World, is masterfully directed and features countless scares. Carpenter and Russell reunited to tell the story of an alien that can take the appearance of its prey and uses that ability to scare and eventually kill a group of researchers in an Antarctic base.

Though The Thing was not a box office success upon initial release, critics and fans have continued to praise the film. A prequel (also titled The Thing) was released in 2011.

Starman
Columbia Pictures

Though Carpenter is best known for working in genres like sci-fi, action and horror, all of his movies have heart. His most heartfelt film is Starman, which stars Jeff Bridges as an alien whose spaceship is shot down on Earth. Hping to find his way back home, he takes the form of a recently-deceased man. In the meantime, he bonds with the widowed wife (Karen Allen) of the man whose form he has taken. Sadly, Starman is pursued by the U.S. government despite his gentle nature. Bridges was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance. More »

Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

Big Trouble in Little China
20th Century Fox

If there wasn't enough evidence that the Carpenter-Russell pairing was gold, the action comedy Big Trouble in Little China proved it. Russell plays Jack Burton, a truck driver who ends up caught up in rescuing a kidnapped woman held by a sorcerer in the underworld of San Francisco's Chinatown. Carpenter used over-the-top humor and memorable special effects to make this martial arts comedy a classic. In particular, fans love how Russell's Burton screws up just as much as he succeeds over the course of the story.

A planned remake starring Dwanye Johnson has yet to go into production.

They Live (1988)

They Live
Universal Pictures

They Live stars pro wrestling legend "Rowdy" Roddy Piper as an unnamed drifter who finds a pair of sunglasses that reveal that the media is filled with subliminal messages placed there by the rich and powerful, who are actually invading aliens.

While They Live made very little at the box office, the movie quickly became a cult hit and is still celebrated today for its anti-commercialism message.

They Live is one of the rare films that seems to gain more popularity every year—not just for its ahead-of-its-time warnings of the role the media plays in manipulation, but because it features what is generally considered one of the greatest fight scenes in the history of cinema between Piper and Keith David.

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McKittrick, Christopher. "The Best John Carpenter Movies of All Time." ThoughtCo, Apr. 3, 2017, thoughtco.com/best-john-carpenter-movies-4132358. McKittrick, Christopher. (2017, April 3). The Best John Carpenter Movies of All Time. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/best-john-carpenter-movies-4132358 McKittrick, Christopher. "The Best John Carpenter Movies of All Time." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/best-john-carpenter-movies-4132358 (accessed December 13, 2017).