John Carpenter Movies Ranked

11. Dark Star (1974)

Dark Star is John Carpenter’s directorial debut. It originally started out as a student film, but when people threw some more money at it, the feature went from being ‘the biggest-budget student film ever’ to ‘the lowest budget feature-film ever’.

Created with Dan O’Bannon, who among other things would eventually write the screenplay for Alien (which he described as Dark Star but horror, not comedy), this film sees a small crew out in the far flung reaches of space destroying planets to make way for industry to come through. Along the way, the crew deal with beach-ball monsters, the philosophical implications of the vast emptiness of space, and nuclear bombs undergoing existential crises.

Dark Star shouldn’t be taken seriously in any way. Nobody is scared by the beach ball pet alien they find. Nobody is convinced by the effects. But the film is surprisingly endearing. The characters are great fun, the directing crisp and sharp even in Carpenter’s creative infancy, and the finale involving trying to convince a nuclear bomb not to blow up a ship by battling it, philosophy for philosophy, as it questions the nature of reality around it, is so absurd that it never fails to amuse. It is ridiculous low budget fun, and sometimes that’s all you need.

10. Starman (1984)

John Carpenter, directing what is essentially a romantic drama? What? Anyone that has somehow overlooked Starman will be astonished to learn that this story of an alien that falls to earth and falls in love with one of its inhabitants gave Jeff Bridges his third Oscar nomination (Actor In a Leading Role), and that Starman is the only Carpenter film to receive an Oscar nod.

The story is fun, light, and heartwarming, and though Carpenter obviously directs the hell out of the film, the real star is of course Jeff Bridges.

Bridges is absolutely flawless as the clone of Jenny’s dead husband – he is wonderfully quirky as a stranger trying to learn the ways and language of a people completely alien to him, and his voice and body language are perfect for the role.

The relationship between the Star Man and Karen Allen’s Jenny makes the time fly by, and a warm and fuzzy feeling overcomes you by the end of the film. Unfortunately, Starman is constantly overlooked compared to John Carpenter’s other films, but if you want a wonderful few hours and don’t want something too stressful, Starman is your way to go.

9. Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

Assault on Precinct 13 is a classic action film that really put John Carpenter on the map and paved the way for his future successes.

Holed up at an unused police station in Precinct 13, a gang with a sworn oath to destroy Los Angeles and its people surround the station with stolen weapons and a desire to kill everyone inside as revenge for an LAPD storm the night before.

Low budget and in trouble with the censors over a scene early in the film involving the brutal killing of a little girl, the film shows where Carpenter’s growing powers lie. Tension mounts, characters squabble, fights break out, and an oppressive horror of oncoming violence hangs over the film.

The base-under-siege setup that Assault on Precinct 13 utilises would be perfected in other Carpenter pictures such as The Thing and Prince of Darkness, but take nothing away from this one; Carpenter’s simplistic style means it’s all given the weight and palpability it deserves. The nerves are frayed, motivations clear cut, action as easy to understand as crystal.

It is an achievement in itself that the film was accomplished for only $100,000, and that it is this damn good is on another level. Assault on Precinct 13 is a truly wonderful cult action thriller if ever there was one.

8. Prince of Darkness (1987)

The lowest ranked of John Carpenter’s so-called Apocalypse Trilogy (with the other films being The Thing and In the Mouth of Madness) is a tight, winding combination of satanism and quantum physics, blending science-fiction and horror together in a tribute to British TV writer Nigel Kneale, especially his 1972 TV film ‘The Stone Tapes’ (Kneale himself wrote a treatment for the Carpenter-produced Halloween III, though it was ultimately rejected).

Underneath a church in small town America, a secret is rediscovered; a secret kept hidden even from the Vatican. The priest, played by Carpenter alumni Donald Pleasance, brings in a team of scientists and philosophy students from the nearby Kneale University, but the night that wears on brings on time travel, zombies, and a possible end to the world.

Often forgotten and overlooked, Prince of Darkness is ambitious and tense in equal measure. Building towards an ever-climbing finale, with iconic images such as the green tank underneath the church, Carpenter’s zombie thriller is right from the pages of a pulp novel, and filled with entertainment.

It might muddle its concepts together in the middle, so the quantum physics and satanic ideas don’t really combine, but when you’ve got demon zombies about to give birth to the Prince of Evil himself running around in a church, who cares? It’s a damn good blast with suspense, shock, and horror in equal measure. It’ll never be his best, but it’s a great motion picture nonetheless.

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