ranking john carpenter dark star

12. Dark Star

John Carpenter’s first feature film is barely a feature film at all. Shot for $60,000, Dark Star was the work of a few very talented film students working exceptionally hard to ensure every single penny of their budget ended up on screen. Eventually, the film made the festival rounds, received theatrical distribution, and suddenly one of the more impressive student films ever made was being measured against films with proper budgets in actual theaters. This backstory is key to understanding and appreciating Dark Star, which is less of an actual movie and more of a mission statement from its creators, a calling card announcing their arrival. While crude, you can see plenty of Carpenter in this film: it’s a story of frustrated men living and working in uncomfortable proximity, a pessimistic black comedy about a hopeless future, and an effortless blend of genres, incorporating humor and science fiction even a smidgen of horror. Carpenter’s interest with blue-collar people faced with the extraordinary begins right here. The leads of Dark Star aren’t space explorers as much as they’re bored technicians, doing a job no one wants to do and wishing they could be anywhere else.

ranking john carpenter christine

11. Christine

One of the better Stephen King movies out there, Christine is an effective adaptation that takes the original novel, strips it for parts, and builds a new ride that gets the job done with style and efficiency. Arriving in the middle of Carpenter’s untouchably great ’80s run, Christine stands out for being merely good while being surrounded surrounded by several bonafide masterpieces. For that reason, this tale of a 1958 Plymouth Fury that is possessed by the devil and sways its new owner to the dark side often gets lost in the shuffle and that’s a little unfair. Christine is a good horror movie, a slasher film where the masked killer just so happens to be a classic automobile, and if it weren’t for the melancholy-tinged ending (a modified but emotionally accurate carryover from the book), it would function as a genuine crowdpleaser.

ranking john carpenter in the mouth of madness

10. In the Mouth of Madness

John Carpenter’s off-kilter but loving tribute to the likes of Stephen King and H.P Lovecraft is wildly uneven, but it has personality to spare. The slow-burning start eventually gives way to a parade of brilliant practical effects, surreal imagery, nightmarish concepts, and an ending that wants to (and most succeeds in) turning your brain inside out. International treasure Sam Neill is the ideal protagonist for this kind of movie. As an insurance investigator looking into an author who has mysteriously vanished, he is all charming professionalism. As the frail human shell who discovers that said author has essentially become God and can rewrite existence in the style of his horror novels, he’s appropriate unhinged and darkly hilarious. In the Mouth of Madness is really all about throwing Neil through a wringer of psychosis and watching him squirm and it works.

ranking john carpenter the fog

9. The Fog

Here is a film that works because it is so completely and utterly simple. The Fog feels like an adaptation of a story told on a rainy night while everyone is warming themselves by the fireplace. It’s deliciously old-fashioned. It feels like an old standard that never was. A strange fog arrives in the town of Antonio Bay, bringing with it the vengeful spirits of a ship that was sunk a century before by the town’s founders. These ghosts, dark shapes with red glowing eyes and sharp implements, are straightforward instruments of revenge, tools that allow Carpenter to set up a series of chilling set pieces that are always more frightening than violent. The Fog gets started quickly, does its business in a swift 89 minutes, and then departs, leaving you with a lean and mean experience that feels like it could have been a a classic in the ’50s…just with a few more decapitations.

ranking john carpenter assault on precinct 13

8. Assault on Precinct 13

Part Rio Bravo, part Night of the Living Dead, and part grimy exploitation film, Assault on Precinct 13 film is the first proper John Carpenter movie. Relentless and mean and unwilling to pull a single punch, it’s the kind of trash masterpiece that lodges itself in your brain and doesn’t leave. Working from a tiny budget and without a studio working over his shoulder, Carpenter crafted a white-knuckle carnival of carnage that allows you to ignore the lack of polish by pummeling you into submission with sheer grit. The premise remains so elegantly simple: a vicious street gang puts an isolated police station under siege and the cops and criminals within must team up to survive the night. But Carpenter reveals that he is taking no prisoners early on (see: the infamous ice cream scene) and the lack of any identifiable safety rail makes for a thriller where all bets are off and no one is safe.

ranking john carpenter prince of darkness

7. Prince of Darkness

For its first hour or so, Prince of Darkness threatens to be one of the absolute best movies in John Carpenter’s filmography. It’s smart and scary and stunning in its originality, combining science fiction and occult horror to tell the story of a team of scientists who do battle with the forces of Satan in a condemned church…except that Satan is actually an alien. With a cast front-loaded with tons of Carpenter regulars, Prince of Darkness builds a core group of characters you quickly care about, dispatches the rest (turning them into mindless slaves of the devil, of course) and proceeds to put everyone through a series of turbulent and surreal trials that test their faith in both God and science. Even though the film ends well (a moment involving a character reaching through a mirror is an all-timer), the pacing slows to a crawl in the final third, almost as if the screenplay ran out of things to do and just decided to let the characters sit around until it was time to leap into the climax. Still, Prince of Darkness is the most underrated of Carpenter’s movies and a worthy entry in his untouchable ’80s run.

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