Why Don’t We Just Wait Here For a Little While, See What Happens: Ranking the Films of John Carpenter
Posted on Friday, June 3rd, 2016 by Jacob Hall
For the past month, I’ve been revisiting the filmography of John Carpenter, a filmmaker of extraordinary range and skill who spent a few decades churning out one masterpiece after another. And then, as luck would have it, Carpenter (who has all but retired) started entering the news again. First, Guillermo del Toro paid tribute to him with a brilliant string of tweets. Then, Blumhouse acquired the rights to make a new Halloween movie and brought Carpenter on board as an executive producer. My personal project was suddenly relevant!
Then again, John Carpenter is always relevant as long as you want to talk about one of the most fascinating and entertaining filmmakers of the past forty years. Because I needed an excuse to write about his movies (and because this is the internet), I ranked all 18 of Carpenter’s theatrically released films, which was actually a tricky progress. Even his weaker movies tend to be interesting and his best movies are so good that they defy comparison.
18. The Ward
Although never quite as bad as its reputation often suggests, The Ward has one thing really working against it – it rarely feels like a John Carpenter movie. It’s competent enough and it has a few solid scares and a few good ideas, but it feels more like a decent direct-to-video horror movie than the most recent film from one of the genre’s undisputed masters. It’s totally inoffensive…but a worse film that actually showcases Carpenter’s voice is far more preferable than a middling women-in-peril ghost story built on a ludicrous twist that we’ve already seen time and time again.
17. Memoirs of an Invisible Man
Despite its still-impressive visual effects and a handful of interesting ideas, Memoirs of an Invisible Man is a dull misfire that never figures out what kind of movie it wants to be. While John Carpenter has elegantly strung together various genres and tones in his other movies, this one is a cinematic cacophony that never finds the proper balance between its comedic and science fiction elements. Carpenter later said this was very much a work-for-hire gig, a job that he knew would involve pleasing the studio above everyone else. It shows.
16. Village of the Damned
John Carpenter has admitted that his heart really wasn’t in Village of the Damned and you can tell. Lacking the chilly atmosphere of the 1960 original, this remake is mostly guilty of being dull, hitting similar beats as its predecessor while not adding anything of value (other than a larger dose of violence, of course). The film has its fair share of solid moments and Carpenter is quite good at selling a dozen platinum-haired children as evil extraterrestrial monstrosities who must be destroyed, but the result is more dull than anything else.
15. Escape From L.A.
Escape From L.A. is mostly guilty of biting off more than it can chew. It has so much on its mind that every weird concept and wild idea can barely be contained within the film’s otherwise straightforward plot. While Escape From New York is elegant in its simplicity, its sequel is a proper kitchen sink experience, with Carpenter throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks. While often entertaining, the results are sloppy, undone by an uneven tone and production values that looked dated while the movie was still in theaters. While it’s great fun to see Snake Plissken back, this goofier, more satiric world doesn’t quite gel with the character we saw earlier. Rather than feel like the nihilistic response to a dark and broken world, Snake is now just another weirdo in a dystopian future constructed out of everything Carpenter hates. Escape From L.A. is fascinating and watchable, but it is undeniably a misfire.
14. Ghosts of Mars
It may be one of the great genre premises of the past twenty years. In the distant future, a police officer is sent to a mining colony on Mars to escort a prisoner to justice. Unfortunately, the citizens of the colony stumbled across a long-buried Martian civilization, disturbed their spirits, and found themselves possessed by the ghosts of long-dead aliens who thirst for violence. It’s a wonderful blend of straight-up horror and science fiction and the film occasionally comes close to working! Ghosts of Mars looks and feels cheap, but it has a campy ’80s quality that actually works in its favor. When you view it as a throwback, Ghosts of Mars is a good, violent, and weird time at the movies, a film that I can’t help but enjoy as a guilty pleasure. It’s certainly not good by any rational criteria, but it’s fun and gross and it’s rarely a chore to watch. Plus, a proper score from Carpenter himself goes a long way.
The problem with Vampires is that is peaks early. Once you see James Woods‘ team of badass vampire hunters doing their thing and working together like seasoned pros and really selling the idea of blue-collar (albeit Vatican-funded) killers of the undead just getting the job done, you just want the rest of the movie to be about this crew. At its best, Vampires is Carpenter doing Sam Peckinpah doing a horror movie, complete with tons of gory violence, macho posturing, and arid landscapes. However, the film quickly strips Woods of his team and sends the few survivors down a far more generic path involving an especially powerful vampire and a ritual that will allow vamps to live in sunlight. Vampires is crude and nasty and often very fun, but too much of the film’s second half feels overly familiar.