Love him or hate him - or perhaps a better means of comparison is ‘revere him or reject him’ - but John Carpenter is much more than his frequently slipshod cinematic cache. Granted, over the last two decades he has yet to match the macabre benchmarks established with such groundbreaking efforts as Halloween, The Thing, and Escape from New York. But to diminish the man with a “what have you done for me lately” ideal seems silly, especially in light of how classic said previous creepouts have been. In fact, when you broaden your perspective a little and realize just what the man has truly accomplished, you’ll see that such irate instant gratification has no real legitimacy or leverage.
For the most part, film fans fail to remember that Carpenter is more than just an accomplished director. He’s a wonderful writer (he’s scripted at least 20 films and/or TV productions), an accomplished producer, and perhaps most importantly, a fantastic horror/fantasy film scorer. Some of the most memorable music to come out of a Carpenter film is typically created by the man himself. In collaboration with longtime associate Alan Howarth (among others), this rightful figure of renaissance rarity has made as much of an aural imprint on the genre as visual. In fact, many of his themes are so instantly recognizable that the complementary motion picture would feel lost without it (and visa versa).
While some of his later compositions pale in comparison, the years between 1974 and 1987 saw many of his most unforgettable efforts. Drawing direct inspiration from Dario Argento and his work with Claudio Simonetti’s Goblin (as well as the compositional kingpin Ennio Morricone), Carpenter’s soundscapes are both unique and referential. There are definite ‘disco’ underpinnings to his approach, as well as a reliance on analog synthesizers that give each effort a kind of cine-schlock b-movie sheen. Some may complain that once you’ve heard Carpenter underscore a film, you’ve heard his entire auditory canon, but true aficionados of his work know better. Here are at least five fine examples of the man making music to support his often outlandish and totally original flights of fear fancy.
Prince of Darkness (1987)
For his last legitimately great film, Carpenter decided to deal with the arrival of the Antichrist - the Devil’s true son. Set in a broken down church and imbued with a highly technical (and talky) take on science vs. philosophy, the director poured more of himself and his ideas into this film than he had in any other previous project. The results are riveting and ripe for post-millennial reexamination. On the sound side, this is one of Carpenter’s most clear cut borrows from Goblin. The throbbing electronic beat supports what sounds like banshees wailing over shrill strings. While the tempo never deviates, the drama inherent in the melody lines suggests something vast and apocalyptic. It couldn’t be more correct.
Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
Decades before Quentin Tarantino was quoting (and ripping off) the Shaw Brothers as some kind of newly discovered cinematic standard, Carpenter was manufacturing his own unique revision on the then mostly unknown Hong Kong action movie genre. Thanks to a terrifically quirky script from W.D. Richter (the movie was originally planned as a Western) and a legendary turn by Kurt Russell (no one does clueless heroics better), this remains one of Carpenter’s commercial and cult standouts. It is also the most rock and roll of the filmmaker’s cinematic compositions. The end titles even use a song by the faux combo The Coupe De Villes (actually the director and fellow crewmembers Nick Castle and Tommy Lee Wallace).
In what seemed like a match made in horror film heaven, the reigning Don of Dread was earmarked to adapt Stephen King’s killer car bestseller for the big screen. But instead of being completely faithful to the author’s automotive murder ideas, Carpenter decided to make his own hilariously sick satire of the generic John Hughes high school film. Funneling in a little ‘50s JD jive just for fun, he created a unique and undeniably odd effort. Even better, this is one of his most complex compositional undertakings. The score frequently references classic rockabilly with bits of Twin Peaks era Angelo Badalamenti tossed in here and there. Like the movie it supports, this soundtrack remains one of Carpenter’s more criminally underrated.
Escape from New York (1981)
For what is perhaps the ultimate example of an action film as flashpoint allegory of a dystopian society gone sour, Carpenter invented the iconic character of Snake Plissken, had the creative common sense to cast former child star Russell in the role, and the covered everything in a fascinating future shock sensibility. For many, this stands as one of Carpenter’s, and the filmic category’s, best. So is the sensational soundtrack. In what has to be a near perfect marriage of music and mise-en-scene, Carpenter makes every note and every cinematic beat sync up beautifully. Another instance where narrative and noise fuse in such a way as to forever coexist.
This is, without a doubt, Carpenter’s crowning achievement. It represents his love of Hitchcock and all things suspense married to a prickly post-modern view of the everpresent personal boogeyman. Sure, it started the whole slasher genre (much to Black Christmas or Michael Findlay’s chagrin), but revisiting the film some 30 years later illustrated Carpenter’s mastery of filmmaking form and classical composition. So does the score. Like other seminal ‘70s films like Jaws and The Godfather, the aural backdrop here is so identifiable and iconic that it creates its own unique sphere of further influence. Beyond what it did for the fright flick, Halloween re-established that solid scary movies needed their own recognizable soundtrack to really resonate. Don’t believe it? Just ask Friday the 13th, or something as recent as Saw. There is more to fear than the sense of sight. Carpenter is one of the few filmmakers who embrace and exploit audio’s ability to deliver the shivers. That’s why he will always be a master of BOTH mediums.