The Horror Master: 11 Of The Most Influential John Carpenter Horror Movies

All hail the Horror Master, John Carpenter, writer, director, musician and American cinematic icon.

By Dolores Quintana · @doloresquintana · January 17, 2024, 9:54 AM PST
THE FOG (1980)
Image Credit: IMDB

It's time for John Carpenter horror movies on the Horror Master's 76th birthday. What better way to celebrate the great American auteur filmmaker than to discuss his filmography and achievements? John Carpenter is one of the horror genre's most influential filmmakers who has made classic scary movie after classic scary movie. The impact of his work, not just on the horror genre but on filmmaking itself, cannot be denied. He's not only a director but a writer, musician, and composer of film scores, mostly his own films, starting from the beginning of his career while still a student at USC film school. While still at USC, Carpenter worked on the short film The Resurrection of Broncho Billy as the film's co-writer, film editor, and music composer, and the film won the Academy Award for Best Live-Action Short Film. Read more: We Asked, You Answered: Three Favorite John Carpenter Movies.

Carpenter's first feature film, Dark Star, which is a science fiction comedy, started out as a film school short made in collaboration with Dan O'Bannon, who became an actor, screenwriter, director, and visual effects supervisor. O'Bannon was the screenwriter of Alien and the writer and director of The Return of the Living Dead, among many other achievements. Dark Star became John Carpenter's first feature film after the student project was screened at Filmex and was given a theatrical release. You can see that John Carpenter has excelled even from the start of his career, in multiple disciplines. I come from a home where you respect John Carpenter's work. Read more: John Carpenter Will Direct Another Movie, But He Has Some Conditions.

1. Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (1976)

Image Credit: IMDB

Assault on Precinct 13 is a chilling film that starts with a shocking moment of violence against a character that is usually sacrosanct and a gang war between the police and gang members. The gangs swear vengeance on all cops. As the few members of staff and prisoners left at a police precinct that is about to be closed are attacked by a confederation of gang members, there's not much hope. Carpenter took Howard Hawks' Western classic Rio Bravo as his inspiration in what he considers his first real film. It stars Austin Stoker, Darwin Jostonn, Laurie Zimmer, and Kim Richards. The film's main theme is one of Carpenter's unforgettable themes, and this was the first film where he worked with his longtime producer, Debra Hill, and they formed their creative partnership.

2. Someone's Watching Me! (1978)

SOMEONE'S WATCHING ME! (1978)

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Someone's Watching Me! is a made-for-television horror movie and one of Carpenter's least-known films since it was not commercially available for a long time. It stars Lauren Hutton, David Birney, and Adrienne Barbeau. Hutton plays a television director who directs live broadcasts and news in town. Hutton's character, Leigh Michaels, starts getting unwanted phone calls and gifts and slowly realizes an unknown man is stalking her and the police can do nothing to help her. This film was made right before Halloween and is right about when John Carpenter co-wrote the screenplay for The Eyes of Laura Mars, an American Giallo-style film directed by Irvin Kershner.

3. Halloween (1978)

HALLOWEEN (1978)

Image Credit: IMDB

Halloween is one of John Carpenter's signature films, the slasher movie that started off a franchise slasher film series and movies about babysitters in danger. Without Halloween, horror wouldn't be the same genre we know and love. It starred Donald Pleasence, Jamie Lee Curtis, P.J. Soles, and Nancy Loomis, making Halloween the scariest holiday. Even though the film was completed on a $300,000 budget, its style is impeccable. No one can ever forget the look of the Shape, especially as he stands in the doorway wearing a sheet and sunglasses. The fact that Carpenter could pull off that style on such a small budget shows his talent and resourcefulness, and his iconic main theme for the film is another triumph. Read more: Breaking It Down: The Anamorphic Brilliance Of John Carpenter's Halloween.

4. The Fog (1980)

THE FOG (1980)

Image Credit: IMDB

The Fog is a favorite of horror fans who love scary movies about the supernatural. Carpenter is one of the few directors who has moved from one sub-genre to the next and has been very good at them. He's a rare kind of filmmaker who has no trouble switching up film styles with ease, and because his filmography has been so consistently excellent, it is a point that some may have missed. The film is about a small fictional coastal town in Northern California, Antonio Bay, that betrayed a ship's crew and stole their wealth and the crew's return for revenge. It stars Adrienne Barbeau, Jamie Lee Curtis, John Houseman, Janet Leigh, and Hal Holbrook. Does The Fog have another great score by John Carpenter? It sure does. Read more: John Carpenter To Score A24's Death of a Unicorn.

5. The Thing (1982)

THEY LIVE (1988)

Image Credit: IMDB

Of the many brilliant films that John Carpenter has directed, none of the others have had the effect that his remake of the Christian Nyby-directed film The Thing from Another World had. A commercial failure upon its release, The Thing has morphed, much like the alien creature at the center of the film's terror-filled moments, into something else entirely. It was a film that was so frightening and bleak that it interrupted the good vibes of the summer when it was released, and the audience seemed to take it personally. I believe that the critical and fan reaction to the film came from just how frightened they were by its nihilistic and hopeless vision. It is that powerful. However, it has since been reassessed as one of film history's greatest horror films.

6. They Live (1988)

THEY LIVE (1988)

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They Live is a science fiction, horror satire of our culture where work, reproduction, and product consumption are our only purposes. As an alien race pulls the string behind a disguise, most humans have no idea they are being manipulated. Revolutionaries have discovered the plot and passed out sunglasses that allow humans to see the world's reality. The film stars Roddy Piper, Keith David, and Meg Foster and was based on a short story that Carpenter adapted. While the film was not critically praised when released, it greatly influenced artists and culture and has since become a stone-cold cult classic that is still influencing our society to this day.

7. Christine (1983)

CHRISTINE (1983)

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This adaptation of Stephen King's novel Christine is a solid version of the King story. It's about a 1958 Plymouth Fury with a will of its own and is possessed by an evil force. The car gives its new owner a new, powerful personality, and Arnie and Christine seem to have fallen in love with each other. It's good, cast well, entertaining, and sometimes, that is enough. It's an above-average 80s King adaptation with a strong directorial vision. It stars Keith Gordon, John Stockwell, Alexandra Paul, Robert Prosky, and Harry Dean Stanton.

8. Prince of Darkness (1987)

PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1987)

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Prince of Darkness is a supernatural horror film inspired by Carpenter's interest in scientific theories in physics. A priest asks a group of students and a quantum physicist to study a glowing and sinister green cylinder of liquid. Members of the group are infected after ingesting the liquid and possessed by an evil force. It stars Donald Pleasence, Lisa Blount, Victor Wong, and Jameson Parker. The film considers the idea that the religious beliefs of evil might be explainable through the principles of science. It is another cult classic with a notable and chilling dream sequence with a hazy figure that tries to communicate through dimensions.

9. In the Mouth of Madness (1995)

IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS (1994)

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In the Mouth of Madness is a Lovecraftian exploration of reality and sanity that has also gained a cult audience in the years since its release. It seems odd to refer to so many films in a director's filmography as cult classics, but it is true of Carpenter's work. While many of his movies were not appreciated when released, critics and audiences often changed their minds about the films and declared them to be classics of the genre. One of the opening scenes in the movie, the "Do you read Sutter Kane" sequence, is terrifying and intensely memorable. Speaking of great casting, In the Mouth of Madness has a cast with actors like Sam Neill, Julie Carmen, Jürgen Prochnow, Charlton Heston, David Warner, Bernie Casey, and Conrad Bergschneider as "The Axe Maniac." aka Sutter Cane's book agent. The surreal aspects of the film add an extra layer of eerie fright.

10. John Carpenter’s Vampires (1998)

JOHN CARPENTER’S VAMPIRES (1998)

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John Carpenter’s Vampires, speaking of Carpenter films with bad raps, Vampires is one of them, but it has several factors in its favor. It is a vampire Western that doesn't truck with the idea of vampires as fancy lovestruck anti-heroes. It presents vampire slaying as rough work that is almost nearly impossible to achieve, especially in the case of a Master Vampire. The film predates the release of the great 30 Days of Night by nine years which also had similar ideas. Another is the fact that it is raunchy fun that has a sense of humor. But the best part of it was the decision to cast Sheryl Lee as Katrina who gives a fantastic and heartfelt performance. As for accusations that the macho attitude is misogynistic, I would remind people that Montoya (Daniel Baldwin) actually chooses to become a vampire, Katrina over his best friend Jack Crow and Carpenter's lifelong working relationships with women producers, and his tendency to give women strong leading roles in many of his films.

11. John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars (2001)

JOHN CARPENTER’S GHOSTS OF MARS (2001)

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Ghosts of Mars got a lot of criticism and had trouble at the box office, which is a shame because it is an entertaining film with a great cast. It stars Ice Cube, Natasha Henstridge, Jason Statham, Pam Grier, Clea DuVall, and Joanna Cassidy. Carpenter's great casting sense comes into play again with the casting of Jason Statham, who would later become a big action star. While some have criticized films like John Carpenter's Vampires for their machismo, it should be noted that Ghosts of Mars is set on the Red Planet when humanity has a matriarchal society. Carpenter reportedly has a great sense of humor, and I think he likes to have fun as a director, and that's what Ghosts of Mars is, a funny and violent horror Western that doesn't take itself with deadly seriousness.

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