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‘A John Carpenter Film’ is a genre of its own. The cult filmmaker, who first rose to prominence in the late 1970s with the seminal horror classic Halloween, spent three decades crafting a body of work that would blend pulp visuals, iconic antiheroes and pop culture references to atmospheric synthesiser scores. Throughout the 1980s he would be responsible for such recognisable titles as The Fog, Escape from New York and Big Trouble in Little China and, along with Wes Craven and David Cronenberg, would bring horror and science fiction further into the mainstream.
Acting as not only the director but often his own writer, producer, editor and composer, most of Carpenter’s work would be the sum of his own talents, with only a few disappointing experiences with meddling studios tampering with his work. Throughout his filmmaking career he often surrounded himself with a small group of loyal associates who trusted in his vision, with the likes of producer Debra Hill and actors Kurt Russell and Jamie Lee Curtis working alongside him. ‘John Carpenter shoots a movie faster than anyone I’ve ever seen,’ Curtis told Fangoria while promoting Halloween II in 1981.
Since launching his career over forty years ago Carpenter has become such an influential force within the genre that the impact of Halloween, particularly on Friday the 13th two years later, would provide the template that most slasher movies would follow during the early 1980s, while his action classic Escape from New York would inspire its own subgenera which would culminate in a lawsuit when French filmmaker Luc Besson lifted wholesale from the story for his own movie Lockout.
While many would consider the 1980s to be his commercial heyday, the following decade would prove less successful with such misfires as Memoirs of an Invisible Man and a remake of Village of the Damned failing to make an impact. This era did produce one of Carpenter’s most overlooked offerings, however, with his H.P. Lovecraft-style psychological horror In the Mouth of Madness showcasing some of the director’s most inspired set-pieces. Following the release of Ghosts of Mars in 2001 he would take an extended break from filmmaking but with the disappointing reaction to The Ward it seemed that Carpenter may have lost his passion for filmmaking.
Yet this would not be the first time in his career that his work had been dismissed, only later to be re-evaluated and hailed as a classic. ‘A lot of critics at the time told me that I did crap,’ said Carpenter in a 2015 interview with Vanity Fair. ‘I had a movie released in 1982 called The Thing and both critics and audiences and especially the fans hated it. Hated it! There was a magazine article called ‘Is This the Most Hated Movie of All Time?’ Wow!…Every movie I’ve made has had a little dark cloud around it.’
When reflecting over a body of work that commenced in the mid-1970s with the expanded student film Dark Star and over the decades would offer audiences such iconic characters as Michael Myers and Snake Plissken, Carpenter consistently played Hollywood his own way and when the studio system became too restrictive he would retreat back to his low budget roots. ‘It was such a different time back then and the kind of movies were different. I started when you could actually make an exploitation film, a low-budget exploitation movie and get it into theatres,’ he confessed to the Guardian. ‘Nowadays it’s so ridiculously expensive. Could I succeed if I started today? Probably not. I’d be rejected.’
But filmmaking is not the only talent that Carpenter has long been acclaimed for. He famously screened a cut of Halloween to producers without a score and the reaction was somewhat uninspiring, yet once he had crafted the soundtrack the movie suddenly became a force of nature. His simplistic approach to composing, along with his understanding of the relationship between sound and visuals, has resulted in an array of Carpenter themes entering the charts around the world. 2016’s Release the Bats tour saw his live band performing a medley of Carpenter classics that included music from Assault on Precinct 13 and They Live.
‘People recognise that sound from my movies but what’s funny is that I started using synthesisers out of necessity, because it was the cheapest thing available to me at the time,’ he explained to Little White Lies regarding the distinct style that is a John Carpenter score. ‘If I was starting all over again I would probably still use the same synthesisers, but of course the technology has advanced so much that I would be able to create completely different sounds. Digital synthesisers are the best.’
Having spent most of his career considered as a filmmaker first and a musician second, in 2015 he surprised fans with the announcement of his first solo album, Lost Themes. Ostensibly songs from movies that were never made, the record boasted the signature Carpenter sound and allowed him to create music without the pressure of accompanying it with strong visuals, instead focusing solely on the sound and instead giving the listener the opportunity to conjure up their own ideas as to what kind of film each song could have been created for. The album proved to be a commercial success for Carpenter and was soon followed by a sequel, while his most recent offering was the highly-anticipated Anthology: Movie Themes 1974-1998.
‘It’s lost themes in the sense that we were scoring the movies that many people have in their imaginations,’ he explained to Rolling Stone at the time of the first album’s release. ‘The perfect way to listen to this would be with a beautiful girl next to you – but if you can’t have that, turn the lights down, start the album up and let the music sink in with the imaginary movies in your mind.’ Carpenter’s style of music has become so influential that the recent breakout success Stranger Things was often compared to his early work, most notably with its heavy use of synthesisers. Many dance and industrial metal artists have also cited the likes of Escape from New York as a point of reference, with Nine Inch Nails mastermind Trent Reznor offering his own interpretation of the Halloween theme.
Carpenter’s Lost Themes were not strictly solo work as they were the product of a collaboration between the filmmaker, his son Cody and godson Daniel. ‘We would usually just sit down and sometimes Cody or Daniel would bring in a sketch. Or I would bring in an idea by myself and we would just play something to see if we could make something out of it,’ he told the Quietus regarding his approach to composing. ‘It’s isn’t writing as much as it is sitting and playing and letting the music come out of you. It’s total improvisation. All of it. All of it comes out. It comes out in interesting ways and this is what the fun is.’
Improvising has long been a method that Carpenter has employed as much as musician than as a filmmaker. Scoring his own movies as a way to reduce production cost, he admits that he rarely followed any rules when creating the music for a film. ‘There’s an element of improvisation with every single score I’ve done. Every single one of ‘em,’ he told Fact Magazine. ‘It’s all out of instinct, that’s where it comes from. Every movie since Escape from New York, I watch the footage and record the score. It’s all the same process. Halloween III was a movie I didn’t direct, I just sat down and came up with the score for it by watching the scenes and trying to support them and give them what they need. But that’s always been the process.’
Thirty-five years after composing the score for Halloween III and Carpenter once again created music for an instalment of the franchise that he did not write or direct. The announcement was first made in early 2017 when Carpenter revealed via Facebook that a new Halloween movie would be released the following year from the most unlikely of duos. Director David Gordon Green and actor Danny McBride, perhaps best known for their work on the 2008 comedy Pineapple Express, developed a sequel in the roles of director and co-writer, respectively, with the intention of ignoring all of the sequels and offering an ‘alternative reality’ in order to bring back Curtis’ infamous heroine Laurie Strode, who had been killed off in the disappointing Halloween: Resurrection in 2012.
The most significant aspect of the original sequels would be the introduction of Strode’s daughter Jamie Lloyd, a disturbed child who becomes the target of Michael Myers until her too is finally dispatched by the unstoppable killer. But this character would also be ignored in favour of allowing fan favourite Laurie to once again face off against her nemesis. At the time Carpenter also expressed an interest in scoring the music and shortly before Halloween 2017 confirmed that he would indeed be offering a new soundtrack, his first since Ghosts of Mars sixteen years earlier. ‘There are many options. I’ll be consulting with the director to see what he feels,’ explained Carpenter. ‘I could create a new score, we could update the old score and amplify it, or we could combine those two things. I’ll have to see the movie to see what it requires.’
Despite being responsible for some of the most memorable scores and genre pictures of the last forty years Carpenter has often downplayed what critics and fans refer to as his genius. ‘Playing music is instinctual, nothing to do with planning it out. It’s ‘Look at the movie, decide what key I want to play in and play it.’ I’m serious, there’s no more magic to it than that,’ he explained to Esquire. ”Give me a sound and let’s see what works for this.’ It’s just a matter of adding layer upon layer of sounds.’ But his work on the likes of Halloween, Assault on Precinct 13 and Escape from New York, from his directing to his music, has left a legacy that will continue to entertain and inspire, much in the same way that ’50s B-movies and westerns inspired him as a young boy. There are new generations of filmmakers and musicians who chose this path because of Carpenter’s work and even when he finally decides he no longer wants to create his own art there will be others more than eager to carry the mantle.