John Carpenter (analysis)

John Carpenter and Kurt Russell

To make a long story short, my favorite filmmaker recently has been John Carpenter and I wanted to make a tribute to his legacy. There's something about his cinema that is at the same time light-hearted, goofy, and excessive while also remaining serious, talented, and deliberate. In other words, John Carpenter infuses his movies with equal parts genius and stupidity, and if you're in the right mood there's little that can beat his best films. In light of this, I've taken the ten movies that he both wrote and directed and analyzed them in terms of their levels of stupidity (in the best sense of the word) and genius. This list is far from perfect as it leaves out some of the stupidest movies on his résumé (Big Trouble in Little China) as well as some of the most genius (The Thing, Christine). It also doesn't take into account other aspects of the films which might make them enjoyable or otherwise praiseworthy (you'll notice my personal rankings don't match up perfectly with the levels of stupidity & genius). But for my purposes today it is enough for a glimpse into the career of one of the greatest, as well as one of the weirdest filmmakers still alive today.

1974: Dark Star
Stupidity Level: 4
Genius Level: 2
My Ranking: 8th

Those of you who have been with me since the beginning may remember that I reviewed this movie for 70's Sci-Fi Week back in August, and I feel the same about it now as I did then. It is a very silly science fiction film. Some of the highlights of the silliness include an alien which is clearly just a beach ball with feet, an existential bomb, and space surfing. This isn't my favorite simply because it's not as polished as Carpenter's other films. A very telling beginning for the director, however. Also, one of the actors co-wrote the screenplay with Carpenter and went on to write the screenplay for Alien, so, there's that.

1976: Assault on Precinct 13
Stupidity Level: 1
Genius Level: 3
My Ranking: 7th

This is a strange movie for John Carpenter in the sense that there's really very little strange about it. It's a really solid movie with a healthy dose of personality, but other than that it's most distinguishable for its overwhelming normality. It has some early signs of the menacing mob trope which would make appearances most significantly in They Live and to a lesser extent in The Fog, Prince of Darkness, and Ghosts of Mars (as well as arguably the two Escape from's). It also contains the best coffee/race joke I think I've ever encountered (in regard to his coffee, Ethan Bishop is prompted, "Black?" to which he replies, "For over thirty years."). This is the first appearance of Charles Cyphers who would continue to collaborate with John Carpenter in Halloween, Someone's Watching Me, The Fog, and Escape from New York.

1978: Halloween
Stupidity Level: 1
Genius Level: 4
My Ranking: 4th

Ah, Halloween. If you've only seen one John Carpenter movie this is probably it. This horror/slasher flick was apparently incredibly influential in the genre, but unfortunately I'm no expert and am not here to talk about its influence elsewhere, but its place in Carpenter's oeuvre. For me this is the first movie where John Carpenter's soundtrack (he wrote the music for a large percentage of his movies) first becomes truly outstanding. The Halloween theme is incredibly iconic and has become synonymous with horror movie bad guy music. This is also the first movie where we get the people-dying-as-punishment trope. The idea here is that the people that die in Halloween all deserve it in one way or another. Annie, Bob, and Lynda are all sexually promiscuous and doing drugs in close proximity to their deaths. In my opinion this is actually one of the great examples of the sexually frustrated serial killer, something which perhaps began with Hitchcock's Psycho. Whereas Norman kills Marion after seeing her naked entering the shower, Michael Myers sees Annie take her shirt and pants off and witnesses Bob and Lynda having sex (not to mention that he kills his sister at the beginning after she has sex). Also, 20-year-old Jamie Lee Curtis apparently got the job because of her mother Janet Leigh's role in Psycho.

1978: Someone's Watching Me!
Stupidity Level: 1
Genius Level: 4
My Ranking: 5th

This movie really took me by surprise. I saw "made for TV movie" on top of the fact that it was released the same year as Halloween and immediately thought it would be garbage. On the contrary, Someone's Watching Me! is not only a well made, classically styled thriller, but it also gave Carpenter the opportunity to throw in as many Hitchcock references as he could fit. To start with, there's the opening title sequence which is clearly based off of North by Northwest (both feature a simple grid with a color background which fades into the contours of a building). Then there are shots which closely mimic the peeping tom shot from Psycho, the sewer reach shot from Strangers on a Train, and the form of the famous Vertigo shot. The entire movie is also quite reminiscent of Rear Window, especially at the end when Leigh enters the bad guy's apartment. And if all that wasn't enough to convey his love of movies, Carpenter made the protagonist a director. I highly recommend this movie to both established John Carpenter fans as well as anyone who enjoys classical Hollywood cinema.

1980: The Fog
Stupidity Level: 2
Genius Level: 1
My Ranking: 10th

I'm sorry, The Fog, it's not that I don't like you, but someone had to come in last place and there's just nothing special about you. We get several common Carpenter collaborators including his future wife Adrienne Barbeau (who's really the star of the show here), the ubiquitous Charles Cyphers, and Halloween's Jamie Lee Curtis as well as none other than Janet Leigh herself. There's are some cool visuals, but for the most part they're few and far between. The Fog is simply not as good as his other movies. And that's not to say it's a bad movie—it's certainly a fun time—it's just competing with movies in a different class. Ironically, the following year John Carpenter would release my favorite movie of his...

1981: Escape from New York
Stupidity Level: 3
Genius Level: 5
My Ranking: 1st

Call me a hipster for preferring the original over its much more boisterous sequel, but there's something about Escape from New York that I just can't stop watching. Maybe it's just the way Kurt Russel tells Hauk, "Call me Snake." This is the first movie John Carpenter made with Kurt Russell and talk about a match made in heaven. Kurt Russell's subdued and stoic acting style perfectly complements Carpenter's loud and excessive directing. This is also a bit of a turning point for Carpenter in that it marks the beginning of his descent into the realm of campy cult classics. From here, with the possible exception of Starman (although Jeff Bridges' performance itself is pretty silly), his movies only get more immoderate until he hits his peak with Big Trouble in Little China, one of the best terrible films ever put to celluloid. In any case, if you haven't seen any of Carpenter's movies then I strongly recommend you check out Escape from New York. If you need more convincing, I wrote an article about it back in May.

1987: Prince of Darkness
Stupidity Level: 3
Genius Level: 2
My Ranking: 9th

In the interest of full disclosure, part of the reason I rank this movie so low is that I went into it expecting a ridiculous and overblown Satan. I mean, can you really blame me based on the title? And while we do get some ridiculous and overblown makeup, the most we get to see of Satan himself is a single hand. Now I'm all for minimalism in horror movies, but this barely qualifies as a horror movie. This definitely seems to have the seed of They Live buried somewhere inside it, and even brings back a little bit of Assault on Precinct 13, but other than that I have to say I left this one disappointed. It is also the last appearance of Donald Pleasence previously seen in Halloween and Escape from New York. Like with The Fog this isn't a bad movie, it's just has more in the minus column than the rest of Carpenter's films.

1988: They Live
Stupidity Level: 4
Genius Level: 4
My Ranking: 3rd

Whereas my first wave of John Carpenter love came from my experience watching Escape from New York, I got my second wind with They Live. There's something wonderfully weird and original about this movie. It's not like it has any terribly deep insight—the fact that advertisements are secretly sending us subliminal messages to obey, consume, and conform is so obvious that the idea of needing a pair of special glasses to see it is quite silly. And yet there's something simultaneously compelling about the whole thing. Maybe it's just the typical sci-fi fantasy of throwing off the yoke of our oppressors, or maybe it's simply John Carpenter at his weirdest. In any case, They Live was enough to rekindle my interest in the director. After finally watching it myself I couldn't believe what I had been missing.

1996: Escape from L.A.
Stupidity Level: 5
Genius Level: 5
My Ranking: 2nd

I don't even know where to start with this movie. It's like John Carpenter reopened Escape from New York and turned the camp gauge past ten. On top of the usual nonsense we got from New York, in Escape from L.A. we get Snake Plissken surfing into the bed of a pickup truck replete with awesomely terrible green screening. We get Snake playing basketball by himself to save his life. We get the most epically excessive example of Carpenter's vision of an oppressive, fascist government. We get Steve Buscemi. The only problem for me, the reason I rank this movie at number 2 rather than number 1, is that it's just too over-the-top. But that's just me. I'd rather watch The Thing than Big Trouble in Little China. Does Escape from L.A. represent the height of John Carpenter's craft? Almost certainly.

2001: Ghosts of Mars
Stupidity Level: 5
Genius Level: 3
My Ranking: 6th

The last movie John Carpenter both wrote and directed, Ghosts of Mars, is definitely not his best, and it's often overlooked for being neither classical enough to compete with his early movies nor silly enough to compete with his later ones. But it deserves better than this. Sure, some of it doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but Carpenter's signature style is still here in full force. The movie features an incredibly early performance by Jason Statham and a surprising but short-lived performance by the amazing Pam Grier. The form of the film is also rather unique in a couple of ways. First, it overuses flashbacks so constantly that if you're not paying attention you can lose track of what happening. More interestingly, it does this thing where it will fade through fractions of a second so that actors sort of jump across the screen. For more reasons not to overlook this film, check out Den of Geek's article on the matter.

Let's Crunch some Numbers!

So I have my good friend Evan to thank for making this graph (and several others which didn't make the cut) for me, and I'm sorry it's so small but if you click on it (or mouse over if you have Hover Zoom) you'll get a much more readable version. In any case, what we have here is a list the ten movies I mentioned above sorted chronologically from left to right with Stupidity Levels marked in blue and Genius Levels marked in red. The overall quality of the movies (Stupidity and Genius combined) generally rises over time with Dark Star being a bit of an exception at the beginning and Prince of Darkness throwing the pattern off a little in the middle. You can also see there is a general rise in Stupidity as the years go by, with Genius on the other hand being more scattered with less of a determinable pattern.

And finally, a compiled list of the films in order of my personal ranking:
1. Escape from New York (1981)
2. Escape from L.A. (1996)
3. They Live (1988)
4. Halloween (1978)
5. Someone's Watching Me! (1978)
6. Ghosts of Mars (2001)
7. Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
8. Dark Star (1974)
9. Prince of Darkness (1987)
10. The Fog (1980)


  1. Cool article, it was very entertaining. I've only seen 'Halloween' which I've watched a number of times - it's great. I want to see 'Escape from New York' but am afraid of being disappointed (and it depends whether I can find it). I did hear 'The Fog' was crap. I saw the remake of 'Assault on Precinct 13' and loved it. But otherwise 'Halloween' the only one, and I managed to view many of the sequels.

    1. Thanks a lot Dan, I wasn't sure how well it came out so I appreciate your support. From what I've seen so far of your taste, you might try Ghosts of Mars since you probably don't have the same high expectations as for Escape from New York. It's definitely a weird one though.

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