Master of Fear, DIY Synth-Punk: The Best of John Carpenter’s Film Music

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It’s John Carpenter Week here in Brooklyn! Given the usual content of the genre-film icon’s work, that might suggest an alarming scenario—our borough beset by homicidal maniacs, roving dystopian street thugs, ghost pirates, or maybe just infiltrated by sinister Yuppies who are secretly subliminal alien jerk monsters. But no. (Except maybe that thing about the Yuppies, that actually sounds about right.)

Instead, we get the more benign offering of a month-long BAM retrospective of the horror director’s once critically shrugged at but now widely respected filmography. The reverence was meant to begin with a live event at BAM this Thursday, that would feature the auteur conversing with NPR’s Brooke Gladstone about his enduring legacy. Unfortunately, due to illness, that’s now been cancelled. (Thankfully, a note sent to ticket holders assures that the 67-year-old is “expected to recover fully.”) But his convalescence provides all the more reason to celebrate Carpenter’s past and present not just as a filmmaker but a massively influential musician to boot.

Despite recording hours of original soundtrack material in a totally badass DIY fashion, possibly inventing synth-punk, cold wave, and a few strains of horror-core hip-hop in the process, Carpenter’s first ever original/non-film-related album, Lost Themes, is being released by Brooklyn’s Sacred Bones label today. As expected, it’s pretty cool! It leans heavily on the unnerving piano refrains and juggernaut synth arpeggios that characterized his early soundtrack work, rather than the feathered-hair guitar noodling that marred some of the later scores (though there’s a fun-size dose of that too). The additional musical support of his son Cody and godson Daniel Davies gives the record a dynamic sound. Freed from narrative functionality, the music creates its own internal drama, bending into weird diversions and building to exciting rhythmic codas. But the qualities that make it so ominously appealing were present in his film scores, too.

The still-self-deprecating Kentucky kid that he is, Carpenter is super-reluctant to take credit for the impact he’s had, not just on film and TV soundtracks (Cliff Martinez’s hypnotic scores for Drive and The Knick are pretty unthinkable without him), but on experimental electronic music in general. Below, we’ve compiled highlights from a few decades that prove his modesty totally false.

Get well soon, J.C.!

“Benson, Arizona” from Dark Star

A complete outlier in Carpenter’s music, this country song serves as the main theme for the director’s 1974 sci-fi comedy, Dark Star. With low-key strumming from Carpenter, lyrics by the film’s star Dan O’Bannon, and a friendly baritone from their college pal John Yager, it’s miles from the icy minimalist sounds so characteristic of his later stuff. But goofy warmth is an inspired choice, underlining the film’s lightly stoned comic timing and a refreshing lack of self-importance that broke away from mind-bending, super-serious sci-fi like 2001: A Space Odyssey.

“Assault on Precinct 13 (main title)”

This is straight-up punk as fuck, in a number of ways. Carpenter had little money and less time to score his 1976 film Assault on Precinct 13, which blended elements of the Western and George Romero’s zombie flicks into an singular urban siege narrative. He revealed later that the main title music was a simplification of a Lalo Schifrin composition for Dirty Harry, that itself resembled the main riff of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song”. It’s classic rock n’ roll, ripped off, ripped up, and rebuilt from the cheapest available parts. The movie was released a year and a month before the first Suicide record, placing it well ahead of stuff that seemed wildly ahead of its time at the time of first-wave punk.

“Halloween (main title)”

Maybe the single piece of Carpenter’s music that’s stabbed deepest into the heart, gut, and rear shoulder of pop-culture at large. (Pop-culture took a few cuts to the hands, also. Likely defensive wounds.) It works with at least three steady, simultaneous tempos, a technique that he would use often. The piano’s like a steady nerve twitch, while the synth notes are more removed, lurking. It might be the very best articulation of this stuff’s very primal effect: Something is coming to get you.

Laurie’s Theme” from Halloween

Lost Themes mainly resembles Carpenter’s big-swing main credit music with bold refrains, pounding rhythms, and dramatic shifts. But there’s a different charm in his more esoteric mid-movie stuff, especially when listening separate from the images the music was created to accompany. “Laurie’s Theme” is a real creepshow. It’s nagging, but just a bit more still, capturing the last moment when everything seems alright but very much isn’t.

“Ghost Story” from The Fog

Or take this beautifully wispy piece from the 1980 film The Fog. It’s so sparse, it’s practically non-existent. But with wind-blown sound effects, glacially building synth tone, and haunting yet almost haphazard-seeming piano strikes, it could slide into one of Brian Eno’s Music for Airports records without anyone noticing. And the bare minimalism seems even more current than that, maybe? Shoot, let Grouper’s Liz Harris cry softly over it, and let the “Best New Track” tags roll in.

“Escape From New York (main title)”

For active listening, the soundtrack to 1981 thriller Escape From New York (co-credited to producer and frequent collaborator Alan Howarth) is the most album-ish of Carpenter’s scores, the one that features the most variety, scope, and ambition while still retaining the signature qualities you’d expect. This one isn’t as ominous as most, its swagger is more confident and less homicidal. It may sound definitively 80s to us now. Having been released in 1981, it can plausibly be considered one of the key cultural reasons the 80s sounded like that in the first place.

“Engulfed Cathedral” from Escape From New York

Carpenter had come a long way from trying to simplify Led Zep just five years earlier. The increased scope of the score is maybe best illustrated by this eerie, futuristic reworking of Claude Debussy’s 1910 piano prelude, “Engulfed Cathedral”. It’s sort of similar in concept to, but much less frantic than, Wendy Carlos’ mechanized classical music used in A Clockwork Orange by Stanley Kubrick a decade prior.

“The Duke Arrives/Barricade” from Escape From New York

Working with then-current disco influences, this is the rare Carpenter piece that seems like a potential dance-floor filler. You don’t get Isaac Hayes to play a warlord called “The Duke of New York” and then fail to give him funky theme music! This same movie also features a Carpenter-penned showtune that capably parodies the vapid Broadway shows existing amid New York’s era of epic shittiness and peak urban blight. (“Shoot a cop! With a gun! The Big Apple is plenty of fun!”) All are examples of a moment when the director let the widest range of outside influence bleed into his work.

“69th Street Bridge” from Escape From New York

Then there’s this runaway subway car of a track, juxtaposing a few tempos as usual, none of them mellow. The top line melody is almost, I dunno, calypso or something? The drum sound, like broom bristles on sandy linoleum, gets awfully close to abstract noise yet also weirdly close to experimental techno.

“Arnie’s Love Theme” from Christine

Carpenter’s 1983 Stephen King adaptation Christine is neither his best film nor his best score, but it is a mean little number. The spiteful use of 50s rock n’ roll on the soundtrack is very much in tune with the curdled Baby Boom nightmares of the author’s work, and provides the film’s most memorable musical moments. Still, the use of robot cicada screams as a would-be “love theme” is kind of lovably fucked.

“Prince of Darkness (main title)”

The main title music from 1987’s “scientific Satan” flick Prince of Darkness seems like a bit of an end marker. Carpenter would soon try the dodgy blues harmonica of 1988 cult-classic, They Live, and eventually the instrumental hair metal of later work like 1998’s Vampires. With so much produced work and such a singular style, it’s understandable that he might eventually seem to be off-track when not actively repeating himself. The use of subtle vocal effects to amplify the typically ominous mood of the Prince of Darkness track suggests a tool he never fully utilized, and one that might hold some interest still should his newfound career as a recording artist continue onwards.

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