John Carpenter Movies Ranked

7. Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

John Carpenter loves to jump genres, and in 1986 he got to try his hand at a martial arts feature.

Obviously, this is a John Carpenter movie, so he doesn’t play it straight. Instead, Kurt Russell returns to his buddy’s side to play Jack Burton, a lorry driver roped in to help his friend Wang (Dennis Dun) rescue his beloved from a gang of Chinese thugs. It’s then a race against time to stop sorcerer Lo Pan (James Hong) from marrying and releasing an ancient curse upon the world.

It’s tongue-in-cheek. It’s mad. It’s wild. It’s got lightning-wielding sorcerers in Chinatown and martial arts wire-fu battling Kurt Russell. It looks great, it’s stocked with wonderful one-liners, there are fun action set pieces aplenty, and it’s all round a good fun time.

Kurt Russell kills it as Jack Burton – he is instantly likeable as the everyman thrust into a mad situation, getting through it all with sarcasm and punching to protect his own sanity.

Big Trouble In Little China is Carpenter at his most fast and loose, rolling with the punches. You can feel him having a whale of a time in every single frame. That sense of fun is infectious, and it’s this feeling of freedom which makes the film so great.

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6. The Fog (1980)

100 years in the past, Antonio Bay suffered a shipwreck that killed the entire crew. Now, a century later, strange paranormal things are afoot in the town. Lights play up, driftwood with the ship’s name washes ashore, and a ghostly fog that doesn’t obey the wind rolls over the town, bringing with it the phantoms of the seamen who drowned before, killing all in their way.

The Fog is prime horror, one of the absolute classics of the ghostly slasher film. With a wonderfully perfect score by Carpenter himself (one of his very best), the atmosphere rises and rises as the fog drifts in through the town. The pacing is great, never allowing more than a moment or two of downtime before going right back into the film again.

Shocking and terrifying in equal measure, the final scenes with the silhouettes of the ghostly seamen in the mysterious fog are iconic and forever burned into every horror fan’s brain. Additionally, it brings together mother-and-daughter scream queen royalty Janet Leigh and Jamie Lee Curtis, whilst somehow not using them purely as a marketing ploy. Incredible, spooky fun.

5. In the Mouth of Madness (1994)

In the Mouth of Madness is John Carpenter’s forgotten masterpiece.

When insurance investigator John Trent (Sam Neill) is asked to track down missing horror author Sutter Kane, he discovers a town that shouldn’t exist, populated by people with strange habits that appeared straight from Kane’s last manuscript, and with strange events occurring seemingly beyond all rhyme or reason. Soon, the whole film begins to fold in on itself as Trent’s entire world comes into question, the nature of reality is poked and prodded, and Kane’s newest book, the titular “In the Mouth of Madness”, starts a violent craze that could bring about the apocalypse from beyond the stars.

Featuring one of Sam Neill’s finest performances to date, In the Mouth of Madness is stuffed with tributes and references to Stephen King and H. P. Lovecraft, all with its own uniquely meta twist.

It’s incredible that it was released in the same year as Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, as two of the all-time horror greats examined the very nature of the genre they made their name with. Brain-melting, gory, unsettling, and expertly directed (he’s helped by the wonderful script from Michael De Luca, and impeccable editing by Edward A. Warschilka), In the Mouth of Madness is an unforgettable cosmic horror film unlike anything else ever made.

4. They Live (1988)

The movie of a thousand memes.

Based on the Ray Nelson short story “Eight O’Clock In the Morning”, Roddy Piper’s unnamed drifter discovers a box of sunglasses in an abandoned church. When he puts them on, he discovers the truth. The wealthy and elite are reptilian aliens, using mass media to brainwash the public into the basic human instincts to reproduce, to sleep, to eat, to spend; to turn off their heads and let the aliens stay in power.

As obvious a political allegory as you can get, They Live’s black-and-white signs of instruction have infiltrated the popular consciousness as a revolutionary rallying cry. More than that, it is a good action flick, with chases, gunfights, alien tech, great direction, decent dialogue, and terrific acting from twin leads Piper and Keith David.

Yes, the opening twenty minutes or so are a little slow, but when the film gets going it’s impossible to deny its power and its genius.

Also containing one of the best fist fights ever put to screen, and one of the most quotable lines in film history, They Live is one of the best sci-fi-horror action films ever made. To roughly paraphrase the protagonist, the film has come here to kick ass and chew bubble gum; and it’s all out of bubble gum.

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