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11 Great John Carpenter Movies And How Watch Them

John Carpenter as The Coroner in Body Bags
(Image credit: Showtime)

“Master of Horror” is a title bestowed only to most the esteemed and skilled in the art of tapping into an audience’s deepest fears, such as Stephen King, George A. Romero, or Wes Craven. John Carpenter immediately earned that same distinction with the release of Halloween - which (like many of his films) he co-wrote, co-produced, directed, and composed the music for - in 1978. 

Of course, if horror movies are not your cup of tea, not all John Carpenter movies are scary, but all of them (which you can find on streaming, available for digital rental, or on physical media) are undeniably thrilling. You may also notice that many of the following films have been remade or have a remake in the works, such as one of the filmmaker’s first action-packed cult classics.

The Assault on Precinct 13 cast

(Image credit: Turtle Releasing)

Assault On Precinct 13 (1976)

A highway patrolman (Austin Stoker), a pair of death row inmates (Darwin Joston and Tony Burton), and a secretary (Laurie Zimmer) barricade themselves inside an inoperative police station and try, by any means necessary, to defend themselves against a street gang’s relentless onslaught during one violent Los Angeles night.

Why it is one of John Carpenter’s best: A lifelong fan of western movies, John Carpenter took the plot of one of his favorites - 1959’s Rio Bravo - and updated it with a modern setting to craft the plot of Assault on Precinct 13, which is such a sharp and intense action thriller that I am amazed it is not referenced as one of the director’s best more often.

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Jamie Lee Curtis and Nick Castle in Halloween

(Image credit: Compass International Pictures)

Halloween (1978)

A psychiatrist (Donald Pleasance) races to prevent a massacre when one of his most infamous former patients, Michael Myers, escapes from a mental asylum and returns to his hometown of Haddonfield, Illinois, where he stalks a group of unwitting, young babysitters on All Hallows’ Eve.

Why it is one of John Carpenter’s best: Of course, the film most often referenced in association with director John Carpenter is the film he and co-screenwriter Debra Hill, arguably, invented the modern slasher movie with, Halloween - the visceral, atmospheric masterpiece that introduced one of cinema’s greatest horror movie villains and cemented Jamie Lee Curtis (in her big screen debut) as the quintessential Scream Queen.

Stream Halloween on Shudder
Rent/buy Halloween digitally on Amazon
Buy Halloween on DVD/Blu-ray on Amazon.

Ghouls from The Fog

(Image credit: AVCO Embassy)

The Fog (1980)

A group of locals from the coastal California community of Antonio Bay (where a tragic shipwreck occurred exactly 100 years earlier) struggle to survive when a thick, ominous mist surrounds the town and brings with it an army of bloodthirsty ghouls. 

Why it is one of John Carpenter’s best: John Carpenter would reunite with Jamie Lee Curtis (and fellow Halloween actress Nancy Kyes) for The Fog - a classic ghost story which takes the term “atmospheric” to a more literal level and was also the director’s second collaboration with his then-wife, and fellow legendary Scream Queen, Adrienne Barbeau, after the 1978 TV movie Someone’s Watching Me!

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Rent/buy The Fog digitally on Amazon
Buy The Fog on DVD/Blu-ray on Amazon.

Kurt Russell as Snake Plissken in Escape from New York

(Image credit: AVCO Embassy)

Escape From New York (1981)

In a war-torn, futuristic United States, a hardened criminal (Kurt Russell) is offered a pardon if he can discreetly extract the kidnapped president (Donald Pleasance), within 24 hours, from the large maximum security prison that was once New York City. 

Why it is one of John Carpenter’s best: John Carpenter would reunite with Adrienne Barbeau (and a few more of his frequent players) for Escape from New York - a dystopian thriller with the look of a grim, avant garde drama, the pulse of a grindhouse movie, and the wit of a political satire, that was also the director’s second collaboration with Snake Plissken actor Kurt Russell after the 1979 TV movie, Elvis.

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Buy Escape From New York on DVD/Blu-ray on Amazon.

An example of what the Thing can do in The Thing.

(Image credit: Universal Pictures)

The Thing (1982)

After they come into contact with an otherworldly organism that can disguise itself as a perfect recreation of whoever comes into contact with it, a group of American researchers stationed in Antarctica begin to question how many of them are still human. 

Why it is one of John Carpenter’s best: John Carpenter would reunite with Kurt Russell (and pass music composition duties to the legendary Ennio Morricone) for The Thing - the perfect blend of a creature feature with flawless practical effects and a mystery thriller fueled by non-stop paranoia that more faithfully adapts John W. Campbell Jr.’s short story “Who Goes There?” than Howard Hawks’ 1951 monster movie The Thing from Another World did.

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Buy The Thing on DVD/Blu-ray on Amazon.

Keith Gordon in Christine

(Image credit: Columbia Pictures)

Christine (1983)

A gawky high school student (Keith Gordon) begins to undergo a dramatic change in behavior that severely affects his relationship with his best friend (John Stockwell) and his new girlfriend (Alexandra Paul), after he purchases a killer red 1958 Plymouth Fury that turns out to, literally, have a mind of its own with grave intentions.

Why it is one of John Carpenter’s best: Released in the same year when the novel that inspired it was published, Christine is the first and (technically) last time that John Carpenter would tackle a Stephen King story, and one that literally demonizes a machine that is commonly recognized as a symbol of necessity and, to many people, passion.

Stream Christine on Pluto TV
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Buy Christine on DVD/Blu-ray on Amazon.

Karen Allen and Jeff Bridges in Starman

(Image credit: Columbia Pictures)

Starman (1984)

A widowed woman (Raiders of the Lost Ark’s Karen Allen) tries to help an extraterrestrial visitor who has taken a human form that resembles her late husband (Oscar winner Jeff Bridges) find his way back home.

Why it is one of John Carpenter’s best: John Carpenter would eventually branch out into films of a less macabre and more romantic nature with Starman - the story of a much friendlier shapeshifting alien than the one from The Thing, who is played by Bridges in a transformative performance that earned him his second Academy Award nomination.

Rent/buy Starman digitally on Amazon
Buy Starman on DVD/Blu-ray on Amazon.

Kurt Russell and the Big Trouble in Little China cast

(Image credit: Disney/Fox)

Big Trouble In Little China (1986)

A wise-cracking truck driver (Kurt Russell) becomes embroiled in a centuries-long fight against a mystical evil that has kidnapped his friend’s fiancée and stolen his semi-truck in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

Why it is one of John Carpenter’s best: John Carpenter and Kurt Russell would eventually reunite again for Big Trouble in Little China - a cult favorite action movie that is far less bleak than Escape from New York but a much stranger and more absurd creature feature than The Thing, with some kick-ass kung-fu sequences and beautiful special effects work.

Stream Big Trouble In Little China on Starz
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Buy Big Trouble In Little China on DVD/Blu-ray on Amazon.

Roddy Piper in They Live

(Image credit: Universal Pictures)

They Live (1988)

An average construction worker (late professional wrestler-turned-actor “Rowdy” Roddy Piper) finds a special pair of sunglasses that allow him to see the subliminal, manipulative messages hidden in mass media by a race of tyrannical, grotesque aliens whose human disguises he can also see through.

Why it is one of John Carpenter’s best: Everything that John Carpenter does best you can find in his adaptation of Ray Nelson’s short story “Eight O’Clock in the Morning,” called They Live - one of the best ‘80s movies (which also stars The Thing actor Keith David) for its bleak, chilling, action-packed sci-fi elements blended with witty and thought-provoking social commentary.

Stream They Live on Peacock
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Buy They Live on DVD/Blu-ray on Amazon.

Mark Hamill in Body Bags

(Image credit: Showtime)

Body Bags (1993)

A coroner (John Carpenter) who looks haggard enough to be a corpse himself presents three bizarre tales about the morgue’s latest “guests” - one taking place during a particularly excruciating night shift for a gas station attendant (Alex Datcher), another following a middle-aged man (Stacy Keach) who goes to extreme lengths to have hair again, and one more about a professional baseball player (Mark Hamill) who receives an eye transplant from a mysterious donor.

Why it is one of John Carpenter’s best: Not only does John Carpenter co-produce, help compose the score for, and direct two segments of the Showtime original movie Body Bags (the other of which was helmed by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre creator Tobe Hooper), he also appears as the comically ghoulish narrator in one of the most charmingly cheesy anthology horror movies ever. 

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Stream Body Bags on Pluto TV.
Stream Body Bags on Vudu.

Rent/buy Body Bags digitally on Amazon
Buy Body Bags on DVD/Blu-ray on Amazon.

Sam Neill in In the Mouth of Madness

(Image credit: New Line Cinema)

In The Mouth Of Madness (1994)

An insurance investigator (Jurassic Park cast member Sam Neill) is tasked with finding a missing horror novelist whose stories, as he comes to find out, have a more profound impact on reality than he is prepared to discover.

Why it is one of John Carpenter’s best: Earlier, I said that Christine was “technically” the only time John Carpenter would tackle a Stephen King story, because In the Mouth of Madness - yet another strange and amusingly meta apocalyptic fantasy with some cool creature effects - is clearly inspired by the beloved author, but less by his actual work and more by his nearly unparalleled influence in pop culture.

Rent/buy In The Mouth Of Madness digitally on Amazon
Buy In The Mouth Of Madness on DVD/Blu-ray on Amazon.

It has been a while since John Carpenter directed a feature-length film - the last one being The Ward in 2010, which followed a pretty sizable gap after 2001’s Ghosts of Mars, with a couple episodes of Masters of Horror in between. Luckily, he is still involved in cinema, having most recently helped produce and compose the scores for Halloween Kills and Halloween Ends - the latest in a franchise he pioneered more than four decades ago.

Jason Wiese

Jason has been writing since he was able to pick up a washable marker, with which he wrote his debut illustrated children's story, later transitioning to a short-lived comic book series and (very) amateur filmmaking before finally settling on pursuing a career in writing about movies in lieu of making them. Look for his name in just about any article related to Batman.