Lost and Sound

Nick Pinkerton on “John Carpenter: Master of Fear” and Lost Themes

John Carpenter, Big Trouble in Little China, 1986, 35 mm, color, sound, 99 minutes. Gracie Law and Jack Burton (Kim Cattrall and Kurt Russell).

IN TRYING TO PINPOINT what made John Carpenter’s 1978 Halloween a cultural flashpoint, you’ll hit a wall if you’re just looking at the subject matter. Knife-wielding psychos were not unknown to cinema since well before, say, Hitchcock’s Psycho—to which the film owes a certain debt. What Halloween has (and Carpenter’s 1976 Assault on Precinct 13, too) is a very particular combination of flourish and minimalism—that is to say, it’s a matter of style.

The flourish is in the insidious stalking Steadicam, the fact that, as perspicacious Village Voice critic Tom Allen observed, the film “owes more to the expressive possibilities raised by Vincente Minnelli in the Halloween sequence of Meet Me in St. Louis than to any films in the realistic school.” The minimalism in the neutral, clay-colored mask of Michael Myers, the eerie calmness with which Myers observes his would-be victims (Carpenter took the effect from Jack Clayton’s 1961 The Innocents, and used it again in his 1987 Prince of Darkness), and of course that theme music, a brittle cluster of notes played in 5/4 time over an anxious, tinny tick. Carpenter wrote the theme and performed it himself, along with much of the rest of the sound track, on a Moog III synthesizer. He has to date directed eighteen theatrically released feature films, having commanded a firm grip on the pop imagination with works like Escape from New York (1981), Big Trouble in Little China (1986), and They Live (1988), then gradually losing his audience, if never his touch. Carpenter made music for all but three of his films, and if he hadn’t directed any of them, he would still be a crucial figure in film history for his contributions to the art of the sound track.

Carpenter’s most recent film, The Ward (2010), was treated to an undeservedly chilly reception, and he now seems content to spend a semiretirement in marathon video-gaming sessions and convention appearances. Though perhaps done with moviemaking altogether, as of February 3 he has a new album, Lost Themes, out on the Brooklyn-based label Sacred Bones, and this is the occasion for a complete retrospective of Carpenter’s films at BAMcinématek. (A personal appearance was canceled, but will hopefully be rescheduled.) The sound-track-without-a-film is a phenomenon that has ramped up in recent years. Sacred Bones has released work from another polymath auteur, David Lynch’s The Air is On Fire and The Big Dream, while groups like Pittsburgh’s Zombi (named for a Lucio Fulci film) specialize in invoking the work of Italian sound track composers like Fabio Frizzi, Riz Ortolani, and Goblin, the last of which is best known for the heavy-breathing “La la la” theme in Dario Argento’s Suspiria.

Carpenter broke out as a director while the synthesizer was still being established as a sound track instrument, though electronic scores were then nothing new—Dimitri Tiomkin had used a theremin in his score for Howard Hawks’s The Thing from Another World, which Carpenter would freely remake in 1982, while Forbidden Planet (1956) was scored entirely by Louis and Bebe Barron, formerly collaborators with John Cage. (Forbidden Planet will play BAMcinématek in a “Carpenter Selects” sidebar, along with William Friedkin’s 1977 Sorcerer, sound tracked by the pioneering Berlin electronic group Tangerine Dream.) The Moog, the first commercially available synth, had gone on the market ten years before Sorcerer—Bernard Herrmann had used one to score Brian De Palma’s Sisters in 1973—and the synth gained ground in film scoring through the 1970s. In 1978, the year of Halloween, Italo-German Giorgio Moroder, who’d already recorded hits under his own name and for Donna Summer, composed the breakout sound track to Alan Parker’s Midnight Express. The contrasting styles of Carpenter and Moroder—Carpenter skeletal, sinister, pared-down; Moroder driving, danceable, brawny—defined the twin poles of electronic scoring for years to come.

Left: Cover of John Carpenter's Lost Themes (2015). Right: John Carpenter, Halloween, 1978, 35 mm, color, sound, 91 minutes.

Carpenter had learned the 5/4 time signature he used on the Halloween score from his father, Howard Ralph Carpenter, a music professor who taught at the university in Bowling Green, Kentucky, where Carpenter was raised. The sound track is credited, facetiously, to the “Bowling Green Philharmonic Orchestra,” though it’s really just Carpenter and Dr. Dan Wyman, a professor of film scoring at San Jose State University whom Carpenter had met when he was in the film program at the University of Southern California, and who programmed the Moog for Carpenter starting with Assault on Precinct 13. That film’s fuzzy tattoo of notes punched over a nattering metronomic click-clack presaged their work on Halloween, while their next collaboration, on The Fog (1980), a rising tide of apocalyptic premonition, looked toward future studies in Armageddon.

From Escape from New York on, another collaborator helped to shape the music of Carpenter’s 1980s output. This was Alan Howarth, a Clevelander who’d gigged around in prog/jazz-fusion/cock-rock circles through the ’70s before breaking into Hollywood, doing sound effects work on sci-fi movies like Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). It can’t be overstated that the music of Carpenter’s films isn’t limited to the score, but is also in the musique concrete soundscapes: the breaking glass in Precinct 13; the under-the-hood growl in killer-car classic Christine (1983); the ambient rumble in Prince of Darkness. Perhaps the strangest relic of Carpenter’s ’80s is a music video for the Big Trouble in Little China theme, credited to “John Carpenter’s Coup de Villes,” which has the director seated at a Moviola console, plunking a Paul McCartney Höfner 500, and doing his best Jim Morrison croon while menaced by the film’s Fu Manchu–esque villain, Lo Pan. Big Trouble… was a big-budget attempt to establish Carpenter on a Spielberg/Lucas level, though it’s a far more sympathetic reckoning with Hollywood’s history of exoticism than any Indiana Jones adventure. The bluff bravado and cluelessness of its white “hero” (Kurt Russell, impersonating John Wayne) is played up for laughs, while it’s one of the only American movies of the period in dialogue with what was then happening in Hong Kong action. Naturally, it failed to break even.

Though Carpenter worked happily within the constraints of popular genres, it was increasingly clear that he was consigned to be a cult director—a fact reflected in the odd contortions of his career through the 1990s. During these years Carpenter’s key musical collaborator was Kinks guitarist Dave Davies: Village of the Damned (1995) isn’t up to the level of their mesmeric and martial “March of the Children,” though In the Mouth of Madness (1994) is the most perfect (and overt) expression of the director’s career-long conversation with the weird tales of H. P. Lovecraft. (As in Prince of Darkness, which Carpenter wrote under a pseudonym, the film gains a great deal from a sense of conviction—you get the feeling Carpenter actually believes in ancient evil active in the modern world.) Carpenter next teamed with Steve Cropper and Donald “Duck” Dunn of Booker T. & the MGs to lay down the bluesy swagger that backs John Carpenter’s Vampires (1998), a soundtrack that picks up where that of They Live left off. Vampires is the movie in which Carpenter’s often-verging-on-parody machismo turns plain ugly—a profane splatterfest, it seems an attempt to out-Tarantino Tarantino, a zero-sum game if ever there was one. And while Ghosts of Mars (2001), set in a matriarchy-run future, was a high-concept return to form, the box-office receipts failed to reflect this fact. The Ward showed Carpenter’s attention to the pleasures of ensemble acting undiminished, but he hasn’t worked on as large a scale since.

This brings us to Lost Themes, sixty-seven-year-old Carpenter’s first standalone, non–sound track album, born out of improvisations with Davies’s son, Daniel, and Carpenter’s own son, Cody, who records under the name Ludrium. It’s made up of nine tracks with sinister single-word titles—“Mystery,” “Abyss,” “Night”—and six remixes by the likes of Zola Jesus and J. G. Thirlwell. “Vortex” is night-prowl music, sleek, virile drive broken up by introspective passages; the eight-and-a-half-minute “Obsidian” combines pounding, full-throttle runs with lulls of lunar calm; “Fallen” builds to a magisterial, triumph-of-death quality; “Wraith” is the sinister glisten from an unknown object in the dark of space; “Purgatory” begins as a slow stroll through a world reduced to ash, then erupts into anthemic strut. Without a narrative arc to work around, Carpenter tends too much toward closing-credits culmination—the album is altogether too heavy on climax, lacking in the incipient or coaxing gesture. Per Carpenter, these are sound tracks “for the movies that are playing in your mind,” and this is the cold comfort that Lost Themes offers. If there isn’t a “next” Carpenter film to look forward to, at least you can imagine what it might be.

“John Carpenter: Master of Fear” runs February 5–22 at BAMcinématek in Brooklyn. Lost Themes is now available from Sacred Bones Records.