John Carpenter’s Twitter handle is @TheHorrorMaster, and there’s a reason for that. While his filmography spans action, science fiction, and beyond, Carpenter made his most indelible mark on the horror genre. And with last month's release of Halloween renewing interest in Carpenter's vision, now's the perfect time to take stock of the filmmaker's contributions to the horror canon. Here are ten of the best, most terrifying John Carpenter movies—and one extra that just couldn’t be left out.
Carpenter adapting Stephen King seems like a surefire hit, and certainly Christine is one of the most successful adaptations of King’s work to ever hit the big screen, keeping intact what made the novel work while adding Carpenter’s mastery of the frame—especially notable is the scene of the titular car repairing itself.
9. In the Mouth of Madness
While Carpenter peppered many of his films with references to the works of H.P. Lovecraft, In the Mouth of Madness is as close as he ever got to adapting the Old Gent to celluloid. More of an adaptation of the idea of Lovecraft’s writing than a riff on any particular story—although it does include bits from some of Lovecraft’s stories—In the Mouth of Madness tells the tale of a Lovecraftian author (with just a hint of Stephen King) whose works are so popular, and so potent, that they can bend and fray reality itself.
Related: 11 Books for Fans of H.P. Lovecraft
8. Prince of Darkness
In the Mouth of Madness, The Thing, and Prince of Darkness makes up Carpenter’s so-called “Apocalypse Trilogy,” a trio of otherwise unrelated flicks that deal with themes of cosmic horror, nihilism, and, of course, apocalyptic threats. In this case, that threat takes the form of a green liquid stored in the basement of an old church that may, in fact, be the Prince of Darkness. From there, things get really weird …
7. Assault on Precinct 13
After the bizarre science fiction farce Dark Star, Carpenter’s first “real film” (in his words) was Assault on Precinct 13. While ostensibly a crime/action movie, Assault draws from Night of the Living Dead as freely as it does from Rio Bravo, and the silent and implacable gang members who lay siege to the precinct are figures of uncanny horror that presage Carpenter’s most famous cinematic creation.
6. They Live
Like Assault on Precinct 13, They Live may be considered more action/sci-fi than horror, but this savage satire of aliens living among us, controlling us all through subliminal messages added one of the most potent anti-capitalist metaphors to the lexicon of cinema and is, if anything, even more topical today than when it was made.
5. Someone's Watching Me!
Probably the most obscure film on this list, this made-for-TV gem was released the same year as Halloween and was actually shot before that film. Carpenter does his best Hitchcock, and the film features an incredible central performance by Lauren Hutton as a woman menaced by a stalker in her high-rise apartment. It’s also notable for being the first time that Carpenter and Adrienne Barbeau worked together—the two married the following year.
4. Big Trouble in Little China
Okay, this one definitely isn’t a horror film, but it’s got monsters and ghosts and sorcery and martial arts and just about everything else you could ever ask for from a movie.
3. The Fog
After making Halloween, Carpenter’s most famous film, the one that is credited with creating the modern slasher flick, the director followed it up with … an old-fashioned ghost story. And he did it with aplomb! Starting out as a literal campfire tale, The Fog spins a haunting (no pun intended) yarn about vengeance from beyond a watery grave. Besides numerous beautiful and subtle (and some not-so-subtle) touches, the film also features one of Carpenter’s most notable casts, including Jamie Lee Curtis and her mother Janet Leigh in a film together, as well as Adrienne Barbeau’s unforgettable turn as smoky-voiced radio DJ Stevie Wayne. A perfect movie for a dark and stormy (or foggy) night.
The movie that started it all. If you had to screen just one film for a person to show them everything that horror cinema had been and would one day become, you could do a lot worse than to sit them down with John Carpenter’s classic Halloween, which takes the atmosphere of Hammer’s gothic shockers, mixes it with a little urban legend, and plunks the resulting concoction down in the middle of the suburbs on Halloween night.
1. The Thing
While Michael Myers is probably Carpenter’s most enduring contribution to the canon of horror cinema, The Thing may be his most perfect. Dismissed by critics at the time of its release, the first installment in Carpenter’s “Apocalypse Trilogy” is now seen as a masterpiece of isolation and paranoia, complete with some of the most jaw-dropping practical effects of all time.
Bonus: "Cigarette Burns"
In the first (and best) of his two contributions to the Showtime anthology series Masters of Horror, Carpenter weaves a mesmerizing tale of a lost film that can drive those who watch it into fits of homicidal madness, complete with a star turn for Norman Reedus, years before he would become Daryl on The Walking Dead.
Featured still from "Halloween" via Compass International Pictures