Ranking Director John Carpenter's Best Movies
With the release of director Jordan Peele's latest movie on July 22 — the sci-fi/horror thriller "Nope" starring Oscar winner Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer — there's been a renewed debate about who are the greatest horror directors of all time and where Peele might rank.
In response to a Twitter user who said Peele belonged at the top of the list, the director himself, who won an Academy Award for writing "Get Out" in 2017, chimed in.
"Sorry. I love your enthusiasm but, I will just not tolerate any John Carpenter slander!!! Peele replied in a tweet. While Peele's modesty was refreshing, it's also worth noting that he's not wrong — John Carpenter remains the greatest horror director of all time.
These are the best feature films directed by the horror legend, who will turn 75 years old in January 2023.
Release date: Dec. 9, 1983
Budget: $10 million
Box office: $21 million
Starring: Keith Gordon, John Stockwell, Alexandra Paul, Robert Prosky, Harry Dean Stanton
Bottom line: What happens when you mix the greatest horror director of all time and the greatest horror writer of all time? We got "Christine" — a story about a haunted car — although we wish we could have got even more pairings of director John Carpenter and novelist Stephen King.
"Christine" is a really entertaining film despite some things holding it back — mainly bad casting — and only falls off a little bit over the last 30 minutes.
9. The Fog
Release date: Feb. 1, 1980
Budget: $1.1 million
Box office: $21.3 million
Starring: Adrienne Barbeau, Jamie Lee Curtis, Tom Atkins, Janet Leigh, Nancy Loomis, Charles Cyphers, Hal Holbrook
Bottom line: Like many of John Carpenter's films, "The Fog" has gotten slightly better with time and no doubt propped up somewhat by the flat tire that was the 2005 remake starring Tom Welling and Maggie Grace.
"The Fog" reteamed Carpenter with his "Halloween" muse, actress Jamie Lee Curtis, along with Carpenter's wife at the time, Adrienne Barbeau, and legendary actor Hal Holbrook.
8. Assault on Precinct 13
Release date: Nov. 3, 1976
Box office: $7 million
Starring: Austin Stoker, Darwin Joston, Laurie Zimmer
Bottom line: This was one of the independent films John Carpenter made early in his career that not only became a cult hit, but helped him cut his teeth in the years leading up to the film that made him a star, "Halloween," in 1978.
7. Ghosts of Mars
Release date: Aug. 24, 2001
Budget: $28 million
Box office: $14 million
Starring: Ice Cube, Natasha Henstridge, Jason Statham, Pam Grier, Clea Duvall, Joanna Cassidy
Bottom line: There's a pretty distinct dropoff in the quality of Carpenter's films after the release of "They Live" in 1988 — save for few exceptions. Even at that, placing "Ghosts of Mars" on this list might surely rub some Carpenter die-hards the wrong way.
"Ghosts" was savaged by critics when it was released and its star, Ice Cube, even took some shots at it, but the appreciation for it has grown among non-haters over the years.
Release date: Dec. 14, 1984
Budget: $24 million
Box office: $28.7 million
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Karen Allen
Bottom line: John Carpenter was in his heyday of making big-budget studio films in the early 1980s. Never was that money put more to good use than with "Starman" starring Jeff Bridges in 1984.
Set up across from "Raiders of the Lost Ark" actress Karen Allen, Bridges earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for his role, which makes it the only film made by Carpenter to ever receive an Academy Award nomination.
5. Big Trouble in Little China
Release date: July 2, 1986
Budget: $25 million
Box office: $11.1 million
Starring: Kurt Russell, Kim Cattrall, Dennis Dun, James Hong, Victor Wong
Bottom line: It speaks to the sheer greatness of the films at the top of John Carpenter's catalog that "Big Trouble in Little China" comes in at No. 5. It's an infinitely rewatchable film that's more like a typical Hollywood blockbuster than any other Carpenter film.
This was the fourth film Kurt Russell and Carpenter made together in a seven-year stretch and was one of the biggest box-office flops of the year, but it made a mint on video rentals and in streaming over the ensuing decades.
4. They Live
Release date: Nov. 4, 1988
Budget: $3 million
Box office: $13 million
Starring: Roddy Piper, Keith David, Meg Foster, Raymond St. Jacques
Bottom line: There's not a whole lot we don't still love about "They Live" — a movie that encapsulates the 1980s probably better than any other sci-fi film ever did.
In the most 1980s thing of all time, Carpenter met professional wrestler "Rowdy" Roddy Piper at WrestleMania III in 1987 and cast him in his next movie. It was also a chance for Carpenter to cast Keith David again after his great turn in Carpenter's version of "The Thing" in 1982.
3. Escape from New York
Release date: July 10, 1981
Budget: $6 million
Box office: $25.2 million
Starring: Kurt Russell,
Bottom line: John Carpenter and Kurt Russell teamed up again after the success of the lauded television film "Elvis" to make "Escape from New York," and they created one of the greatest antiheroes of all time with Russell as Snake Plissken.
"Escape" represented Carpenter's second hit in three years following "Halloween" in 1978 and represented one of the few times his films met with immediate success in both its critical reception and at the box office.
Release date: Oct. 25, 1978
Box office: $70 million
Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasance, P.J. Soles, Nick Castle, Nancy Kyes
Bottom line: You can make a good case that John Carpenter dined on the success of "Halloween" for the next 20 years — as he should have.
Made for just over $300,000, and released a few days before Halloween in 1979, Carpenter's terrifying tale of escaped mental patient Michael Myers returning home to terrorize his hometown made $70 million at the box office, making it one of the most profitable independent films of all time.
It was also the film debut of actress Jamie Lee Curtis and spawned 12 sequels, including "Halloween Ends" starring Curtis in 2022.
1. The Thing
Release date: June 25, 1982
Budget: $15 million
Box office: $19.6 million
Starring: Kurt Russell, Keith David, Wilford Brimley, T.K. Carter, David Clennon, Richard Dysart, Charles Hallahan, Peter Maloney, Donald Moffat, Joel Polis, Thomas G. Waites
Bottom line: Perhaps the best combination sci-fi/horror film ever made and perhaps the greatest movie poster of all time, "The Thing" fell flat with critics and at the box office when it was released on June 25, 1982 — the same day sci-fi classic "Blade Runner" came out.
Audiences were still enamored by "E.T.," another sci-fi hit that was released just two weeks earlier and weren't ready for what "The Thing" had to offer —a brutal, unrelenting thriller with graphic violence. The film is based on the 1938 novella "Who Goes There?" by John W. Campbell, and John Carpenter had been a fan of the original "Thing" film from the time he was a small child in the early 1950s.
"The Thing is always in the shadows (in the 1951 version)," Carpenter told The Ringer's Sean Fennessey. "I wanted to show it."
Also worth asking: Is this Kurt Russell's best starring role?
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