As a longtime John Carpenter fan but not an obsessive rewatcher of his movies, I’d like to share a reaction I had to listening to Anthology: Movie Themes 1974-1998 without the track listing in front of me. “Oh, man. Big Trouble in Little China is so much fun! What a cool guitar and synth theme song this is.” Then I looked at the title to discover I was actually listening to “Escape From New York”.
That is a recurring issue when one lines up Carpenter’s theme songs right next to each other. The man has created some iconic music to accompany his films, but a lot of it is very similar in tone and feel. Carpenter favors certain guitar and synth sounds, and those sounds show up again and again throughout the 24-year span of this compilation. Those similarities essentially make this album a catchy but fairly monotone instrumental synth-rock record.
My reaction to this is tough to parse. I want to honor the man’s longevity and dedication to taking on the musical duties for his films as well as directing and writing. And this album has all of the highlights you’d expect. “Halloween” is here in all its creepy piano glory. Listening to it again, the tinny, clicking synth hi-hat and kick drum push the theme forward as much as the main piano melody and the stabbing synth chords. It’s a masterpiece of creepy minimalism. But then there’s “The Fog”, with its gentler, creepy piano theme and synth chords that pulse more than stab. The similarity is undeniable, but the song is effective in its own right. In particular, the slow, simple guitar solo near the end gives the song a distinct feel that sets it apart from “Halloween”, despite it being the same exact guitar tone Carpenter always uses.
And what about “Dark Star”? The overbearing synths-only theme to Carpenter’s first movie feels like a dry run for “Halloween”. There’s a germ of interesting, unsettling melody there, but the piles of synth sounds are a lot to take and the fact that it’s over in just 87 seconds feels merciful. On the other hand, the anthology’s other full synth theme, “Starman”, is borderline glorious. Coming from the mid-’80s and maybe Carpenter’s lightest and brightest film, this theme feels like a piece of classical music rearranged for synthesizers and timpani. It may be no coincidence that it was around this time that Mannheim Steamroller’s classical-style synth opuses really started taking off with the release of their very first Christmas album. Because that’s what “Starman” most closely resembles.
The balance of the anthology is filled with guitar rock songs, and they aren’t all iconic. But a few of them stand on their own. The quiet, Southwestern-tinged “Santiago” from Vampires echoes its New Mexico setting nicely, creating a modern cowboy mood from its combination of acoustic picking and reverb-soaked electric guitar chords. “They Live” feels laconic and bluesy with its inclusion of harmonica warbles and electric piano in addition to the more typical guitar work. “In the Mouth of Madness” rocks hard and features a great synth interlude, even though this theme feels completely at odds with the movie’s Lovecraftian horror vibe.
As good as the movies are, the similarity between the themes to “Escape From New York” and “Big Trouble in Little China” are hard to ignore. You can also throw in the slow but heavy “Prince of Darkness” theme, which is distinguishable only by the inclusion of synth voice patches to sound like a demonic choir. “Christine” falls into this sound-alike category as well. It opens with a minute of slow synth washes but once the track opens up it rocks in the same way (mid-tempo guitars with the same crunchy tone and synth backing) as these other songs.
Then there’s the intentionally oppressive synth theme to Assault on Precinct 13, which accomplishes the feeling of approaching menace perfectly. But then “The Thing” (originally written by Ennio Morricone, performed here by Carpenter) takes much the same tack with the same synth tones. It probably accomplishes the same menacing scene set in the context of the movie, but on this album, it comes off as a lesser version of Precinct 13.
There are a lot of fascinating, really good pieces on Anthology, and several of them work well even removed from their film context. But the ones that don’t work as stand-alone songs end up calling attention to Carpenter’s limitations as a musician. Obviously, all of these themes are readily available to anyone with access to YouTube, but the hardcore film geek audience this compilation is targeted at will likely be delighted to have it all in one place. Anthology is great for them; the rest of us can pick and choose at our leisure without having to listen to all 13 in a row.