The 8 scariest horror classics, according to John Carpenter

The genre master remembers his most frightening movie-watching experiences.

Illustration Sharon Gong
The 8 scariest horror classics, according to John Carpenter

Unless you were raised inside a giant pumpkin, you probably know who John Carpenter is. But did you know the filmmaker and composer behind Halloween, Escape from New York, and Assault on Precinct 13 is also basically a rockstar?

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On October 20, he's releasing an anthology of the movie themes he wrote between 1974 to 1998. For the collection, Carpenter, his grandson Cody Carpenter, and godson Daniel Davies (son of Kinks guitarist Dave Davies) re-recorded the theme songs from 13 of his movies. The songs span from the shadowy synthwave of "The Fog," to hair-metal opener "In The Mouth Of Madness," to the bluesy, tip-toeing theme from "They Live."

To celebrate that release, and also to revel in this sacred Halloween-time, I spoke to Carpenter about the horror flicks that made him the person he is today. He was incredibly kind-sounding, and his movie memories rolled freely. So, without further ado, here is a perfect scary movie marathon — curated by John Carpenter, the one and only.

1. Night Of The Living Dead (1968)

JOHN CARPENTER: Let’s start with a movie called Night of the Living Dead. I saw this back in 1968. Back in the day, it was a pretty terrifying movie. It’s not so much anymore, but that’s a groundbreaking movie. I went to see it with my girlfriend at the time, who was so freaked out at it. I think it may have affected how I saw the film; maybe I’m a little biased. But it’s the idea of this relentless, relentless horde of things coming after you. The fact that a loved one can be turned into a zombie. It’s just tremendous. I mean, look at the movies that have ripped it off! Look at Walking Dead. I mean come on.

2. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is an incredible movie. It’s one of the scariest movies ever. The whole idea is scary. You really don’t see anything; it’s not explicit. But it’s what’s going on in your head that’s scary. It’s also extremely funny — it’s almost a comedy. I really loved the movie. Loved it.

3. The Exorcist (1973)

You know what’s scary about The Exorcist. Everyone knows what’s scary about that movie. It’s the devil. The first time I saw it, I thought, in order to be really effective, this movie requires a belief in a higher power. But since then I’ve come to appreciate it just for what it is. It’s got some pretty great scenes in it. I watched it again recently and was surprised by how intense it is. The things that they did back then, with this little girl, they broke a bunch of taboos, my god. It’s pretty damn good.

4. X The Unknown (1956), 5. The Quatermass Experiment (1955), 6. Horror Of Dracula (1958)

There are a lot of other movies that you have to go back to the 1950s, when I was growing up, to appreciate. That may be a little too early for you. Can we go back there? OK, well, when I was a young man, some of these movies really scared me. There was X The Unknown, there was The Quatermass Experiment, and Horror of Dracula.

7. The Fly (1958)

The original The Fly — that was a movie where the popcorn went flying. I jumped up. I was so scared! It’s pretty creepy! I know everyone loves the remake, but I love the old one. When his wife rips the hood off him and there’s a big fly head there, I just — the popcorn went flyin’! That just scared the hell outta me. I was 10. I should have known better! I should’ve been more mature and cooler, but I wasn’t. I was a wimp then. I admit it.

8. The Thing From Another World (1951)

The Thing From Another World is the daddy of all science fiction monster movies. That was back in the early ‘50s, but I saw it a little later on. That is an absolutely terrifying, fabulous, classic movie.

Anthology: Movie Themes 1974-1998 is out October 20 on Sacred Bones.
The 8 scariest horror classics, according to John Carpenter