In recent years filmmaker John Carpenter has benefited from widespread critical reappraisal of some of his more ambitiously strange movies, such as Big Trouble in Little China and the disturbingly prescient They Live, which fared poorly compared to his blockbuster masterpieces Halloween and The Thing. "It's a nice feeling," Carpenter says by phone from his office in Los Angeles. "I just wish they had been received better in the beginning."
Slightly more surprisingly, the soundtracks Carpenter composed and performed for his films have also found a second life. An entire generation of electronic musicians have discovered that his scores from the 70s and 80s rank among the most provocative and compelling synthesizer experiments of the time. "It's just like everything else in my career," he says, chuckling. "You know a movie will come out and be dismissed by some people, and then later it gets reappraised. It's wonderful."
Have a listen to songs written or influenced by John Carpenter. (Note: You'll need Spotify installed to hear 'em.)
Soundtrack work has long been a refuge for forward-looking composers, as well as one of the easiest ways to expose mainstream audiences to contemporary and experimental classical music of the type usually found only in art galleries and tiny theaters. Recent film history is filled with scores by people who might've been classical composers in another life (Christopher Nolan's master of Sturm und Drang, Hans Zimmer) or who actually are in this one (Philip Glass, whose score to Errol Morris's The Thin Blue Line is among the all-time most synergistic musical accompaniments to a film). It's likely that few people who saw Shutter Island even realized that they were also listening to works by some of the most important classical composers of the 20th century, assembled by Robbie Robertson.
Horror movies are especially amenable to experimental composers—dissonance and strange noises pair well with monsters and murderers—and Carpenter's musical instincts are, unsurprisingly, well suited to them. The main theme from his score to Halloween—one of the most famous examples of 5/4 time—has not only become sonic shorthand for stalker paranoia but also does an incredible job summoning the actual feeling. Carpenter's greatest legacy is his innovative use of synthesizers from the analog era and the early days of digital synthesis. At the time the potential of synths had only begun to be explored, and everyone seemed keen to see what they could do—including theatrical prog rockers, disco producers, and electronic-music pioneers such as Chicago native Laurie Spiegel (whose 1972 piece "Sediment" showed up in The Hunger Games). Carpenter's synth parts often throb with a menace that contemporaries such as Giorgio Moroder could only hope to inspire, and his melodies are strangely catchy considering how powerfully they evoke evil.
Carpenter started composing his soundtracks in large part because it was cheaper than hiring someone. His first film, Dark Star, which he and cowriter Dan O'Bannon funded themselves, was an ambitious sci-fi absurdity with a tiny budget, and Carpenter could play piano. He got into synthesizers for similarly pragmatic reasons. Part of it was the creative control they afforded (Carpenter is an auteur of the old school), but just as important, he explains, "You can sound big just by playing keyboards. In other words if you sit down and play it on the piano, you can't necessarily be the most powerful sound. But boy, with synthesizer setups you can really sound good."
Much in the way that Halloween spawned a legion of knockoffs in the slasher genre it created, so did Carpenter's music inspire its own horde of imitators—and their failure to come up with anything nearly as memorable as Carpenter's work says a lot about his skills. (Do you have the Halloween theme running through your head right now? How about now?) But much of the credit for creating the unique sonic spaces he explored goes to his longtime engineer, Dan Wyman. "I only knew about playing," Carpenter explains. "I always had somebody with me who would run the gear. So I'd say, let me have a string sound, let me have a bass sound."
Those collaborations now inspire electronic musicians of all stripes. Seth Haley, a native of Oneida, New York, records dance music as Com Truise that's heavily influenced by movie and video-game scores from the 80s and 90s; he's a big fan of Carpenter's synth sounds and cinematic scope. "I always think of one thing in particular when I think about John Carpenter," he says, "and that's Escape From New York, when Snake Plissken first gets into the building when he gets to the island of Manhattan. He's walking around, and there's this kinda long shot and you can see in the background there's a little doorway. And a person runs by real quick and the sound is so loud it's the scariest fucking thing ever."
The current electronic-music scene is littered with references to Carpenter's scores. Ann Arbor producer Mogi Grumbles recently covered the tense, dystopian theme to Escape From New York. And the first album from Brooklyn-based duo Gatekeeper (formerly of Chicago) is a loving, pitch-perfect tribute to Carpenter's work and the work of his imitators. (Their new Exo explores a more cyberpunk-influenced sound.) Aaron David Ross, half of the duo, says his respect for Carpenter is about more than his talent for putting listeners on edge. "I don't know if he was necessarily the first person to integrate some of those sounds in popular Hollywood horror movies," he says, "but it was definitely the first prominent place where those kind of synthesizer textures were utilized. His melodic and harmonic sensibilities are incredibly simple—he had no training, so he was composing in this really honest and organic way."
Though Carpenter doesn't make films regularly anymore—he says he finds video games a more compelling medium these days—he continues to create music with the same kind of cinematic feel. He and his son, Cody, are at work on an album that he calls a "soundtrack sampler" of various themes. "They're very short. You can also think of it as a symphony, kind of, too, with three movements to it."
Carpenter is delighted by his influence on modern musicians, and even more delighted by modern gear. "Modern synths now have built-in samples," he says. "They have all these amazing sounds in them and you can dial them up. That's what I'm talking about. It's the greatest." And Cody has introduced him to the recording software Logic Pro, which he's found to be a perfect fit for his auteurist tendencies.
"It's amazing," he exclaims. "It's a great world we live in!"
Sorry there are no upcoming showtimes for Dark Star, Escape From New York, The Thing, or They Live