6 must-see John Carpenter horror films

2019 10th Annual TCM Classic Film Festival - Saturday
2019 10th Annual TCM Classic Film Festival - Saturday / Emma McIntyre/GettyImages

Now that legendary horror director John Carpenter (along with Robert Englund) is set to finally receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame next year, it's as good a time as any to share our favorite horror films by the auteur. Keep in mind that this list is totally subjective, based on personal preference. Carpenter's body of work includes 18 theatrically released films, but these are our faves. Honorable mentions go to Christine, Escape from New York, Big Trouble in Little China and his Masters of Horror episode titled Cigarette Burns.

The Fog (1980)

Following the resounding success of Halloween, Carpenter directed an old-fashioned ghost story. Set in the coastal town of Antonio Bay, California, on the cusp of its centennial, The Fog is a spine-tingling tale about drowned mariners who return from the depths of the sea to enact revenge after a wrong done to them by the town's elders many years ago.

This film has a great atmosphere, especially the dense fog that eventually engulfs the sleepy seaside town. It also has a fantastic cast. The film stars Adrienne Barbeau as DJ Stevie Wayne, Jamie Lee Curtis as Elizabeth Solley, a role that's quite a contrast from the uber-innocent Laurie Strode, and Tom Atkins as Nick Castle, just to name a few.

The Fog is available to rent on digital platforms such as Amazon Video, Google Play, Vudu, etc.

They Live (1988)

They Live is a biting satire and a perfect blend of horror and comedy, which leans far more into the comedic aspects. This is a film that lampoons Reagan's America, specifically consumerism. The feature spawned countless memes throughout the years. It's also quotable, especially the line, "I have come here to chew bubble gum and kick ass. And I'm all out of bubble gum."

Like all of the films on this list, this one sports a great cast. This includes Roddy Piper as reluctant hero Nada, horror icon Keith David as Frank, and Meg Foster as Holly. Unfortunately, the film's message is perhaps more relevant today than at the end of the 1980s. They Live is very much Carpenter's protest against consumption and the power of unregulated corporations to shape what we think and buy.

They Live is available to rent or buy on digital platforms such as Amazon Video, Google Play, Vudu, etc.

Prince of Darkness (1987)

This is the middle film in Carpenter's self-proclaimed apocalypse trilogy, which began with 1982's The Thing and concluded with 1994's In the Mouth of Madness. Though this film, for years, received a lukewarm reception, it seems like lately, it's garnered attention. Maybe it's because the world feels so chaotic right now.

Regardless, I find this to be a moody, creepy, and atmospheric film. It follows a group of graduate students and scientists who uncover an ancient canister in a church that just may mean the end of days is near. Accidentally, the group releases the canister's strange liquid, which unleashes evil.

The film stars Donald Pleasence as an unnamed priest. Lisa Blount stars alongside him as Catherine. Oh, and Alice Cooper even has a cameo as a creepy ghoul-type character. Lastly, this film has several unsettling sequences, especially in the final minutes.

Prince of Darkness is available to rent or buy on digital platforms such as Amazon Video, Google Play, Vudu, etc.

In the Mouth of Madness (1995)

Is In the Mouth of Madness a perfect film? No, no, it's not. That said, it's pretty bonkers and a heck of a lot of fun, especially the performance by Sam Neill as John Trent, an insurance investigator who's sent to solve the disappearance of horror writer Sutter Cane. It's a real treat to see Neill return to the horror genre after the massive, massive success of Jurassic Park just a year early. Neill has played an unhinged character before, specifically in Possession (1981), but he really loses it by this film's last act.

The last entry of Carpenter's apocalypse trilogy, in which Cane's stories take on a life of their own, is based on the Lovecraft mythos. It's also one of the strongest Lovecraftian movies of the last 30 years. It gets the feel and, well, madness, just right.

In the Mouth of Madness is available to rent or buy on digital platforms such as Amazon Video, Google Play, Vudu, etc.

The Thing (1982)

Somehow, The Thing received lukewarm reviews upon its release. Since then, it's become a pure horror classic. There's just not much to say about this film that hasn't been said prior. It has fantastic practical effects, courtesy of Rob Bottin. It's another Carpenter film with a great cast, especially Kurt Russell as MacReady and Keith David as Childs.

There's also that ending when MacReady and Childs are the last men standing, sitting before a fire, after the shape-shifting alien wiped out all the other scientists. Is either one of the survivors infected? We still don't know years later. This film is simply a perfect two hours of body horror and a metaphor for paranoia, distrust, and even the AIDS pandemic.

The Thing is available to rent or buy on digital platforms such as Amazon Video, Google Play, Vudu, etc.

Halloween (1978)

I can never decide which is the more perfect film, The Thing or Halloween. Both are near-flawless and horror masterpieces that refined the genre for the better. Though Halloween wasn't the first slasher, considering Peeping Tom, Psycho, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Black Christmas all preceded it, its massive success on a shoestring budget kicked off the slasher boom of the 1980s, for better or worse.

Though this film spawned many sequels, some much better than others, I firmly believe that Michael Myers is his most terrifying in this film, a blank slate, a white mask meant to project all of our fears. He's behind the bush, and then he's not. He's across the street, and then he's not. This film also birthed one of the most iconic final girls in film history, Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode.

Though this wasn't Carpenter's first film, it certainly launched his career. Let's also give Debra Hill her props. If not for her, this film wouldn't have happened since she co-wrote the script and made several choices alongside Carpenter. She worked with him on other films too, including The Fog.

Halloween is currently streaming for free on Crackle, Xumo Play, Sling TV, and Plex. With a subscription, you can also watch it on AMC+ and Shudder.

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