ranking john carpenter they live

6. They Live

They Live has become such a meme over the years that it is vital to revisit it every so often and remember that it is actually a fantastic movie and one of the cleverest satires of the ’80s. The real genius of the film is that it houses its acidic worldview inside a silly shell. It’s no accident that John Carpenter cast a natural born ham like Roddy Piper in the lead role – he’s the instantly lovable goofball that guides us into a movie that otherwise hates the world so damn much. The premise of the film has grown larger than the film itself, with people who have never even seen They Live being familiar with the concept of glasses that reveal the subliminal messages encoded into every corner of the world…and that all of our world leaders are actually aliens in disguise. It’s a terrific way to kickstart an action movie (Piper is going to chew bubble gum and kick ass and kill the alien scum!), but it’s an even better outlet for Carpenter’s inherent pessimism and his obvious distaste for the politics of the time. They Live is hilarious, but its laughs are bleak and nihilistic. Humanity has given into the monsters and all you can do is chuckle at how far we’ve all fallen.

ranking john carpenter escape from new york

5. Escape From New York

Escape From New York is one of the best dystopian science fiction movies ever made, a terrific and imaginative action movie that also argues that that world will eventually crumble and it won’t be worth saving. There is no hero in this film – there is only Snake Plissken, the nihilistic, resourceful, and brutally effective criminal forced to journey against his will into the penitentiary that used to be New York City to rescue the President of the United States. Although Carpenter displays his usual eye for action and atmospheric menace throughout Escape From New York, he chooses to rest the film on Kurt Russell‘s shoulders and the results are nothing short of spectacular. Many movie antiheroes have mimicked Snake, but none have equalled him. In a world as ugly as this (the far-flung future of 1997!), a man who literally cares about nothing is the only appropriate tour guide.

ranking john carpenter big trouble in little china

4. Big Trouble in Little China

Big Trouble in Little China is the silliest of John Carpenter’s movies, a colorful and magical fantasy adventure that subverts all expectations and builds a mythology that feels fresh and alive. While gentler than his average film (and the rare Carpenter movie that could make for suitable family viewing), the film maintains a razor-sharp edge. After all, making a fun and fantastical and goofy-as-hell movie means little if that journey at the center of the film was cushioned and safe. Carpenter walks a tricky tonal tightrope – he keeps things lighthearted while also ensuring that every threat feels real and every perilous situation looks genuinely dangerous. Carpenter also subverts Hollywood tropes, making sure that Kurt Russell’s big-mouthed Jack Burton proves completely useless in almost every fight, quietly allowing Dennis Dun‘s Wang Chi to take the spotlight and save the day whenever possible. There is no trope, no cliche, that Big Trouble in Little China doesn’t gleefully shatter.

ranking john carpenter starman

3. Starman

Although he’s leapt from genre to genre throughout his career, few would accuse John Carpenter of being a particularly romantic filmmaker. Well, those who haven’t seen Starman would make that accusation, because this is one of the all-time great movie romances…and it happens to be wrapped inside a wonderful and lovely science fiction story that could be be described as “E.T. for adults.” As the alien who takes the form of a young widow’s dead husband, Jeff Bridges gives an all-time-great performance, playing his character not as an oddball but as a form of life with no connections to humanity whatsoever, struggling to understand his body and his language. As that young widow, who finds herself road-tripping with this strange creature who looks like her dead husband, Karen Allen gives the kind of sweet, charismatic performance that makes you wonder why she never became a major movie star. Above all, you watch this beautiful and moving and thoughtful film and wonder why John Carpenter never made a movie quite like this one ever again. Maybe that was for the best. Starman is just about perfect.

ranking john carpenter halloween

2. Halloween

At this point, Halloween speaks for itself. Few horror movies cast a larger shadow and thousands of movies owe their very existence to what John Carpenter pulled off here. But while the masked, mute Michael Myers often gets lumped together with the likes of Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees, the original Halloween couldn’t be more different from the countless imitators it spawned over the decades. With its patient pacing, unnerving long shots, and subtle reveals, Carpenter’s work here feels more akin to Alfred Hitchcock than a typical slasher film. In Halloween, the threat of violence is so much more frightening than the violence itself. The idea that someone wants to harm you, that someone is in your home, has never been more terrifying.

ranking john carpenter the thing

1. The Thing

The Thing is one of those rare cinematic butterflies – it’s a perfect movie. An outstanding cast (Kurt Russell, surrounded by so many brilliant character actors), remarkable make-up and creature effects (courtesy of the brilliant Rob Bottin and his crew), a killer screenplay filled with outstanding reveals and quotable lines (written by Bill Lancaster), and a musical score from the great Ennio Morricone (a rare case where Carpenter not scoring his own movie has been forgivable) all come together to form the perfect genre cocktail. The blood-testing sequence is the finest scene Carpenter has ever shot. The scene with the defibrillator, you know the one, may be one of the greatest creature effects sequences in cinema history. The final scene, where two men wait to die and aren’t aware if they saved the world or doomed it, is Carpenter’s patented pessimism at its very best. Good God. How about we all go watch The Thing right now?

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