A few years ago I walked up to John Carpenter’s table at a local horror convention, Escape from New York Blu-ray in hand, and asked if he knew of the existence of any collection somewhere that contained all of his self-composed movie themes. He looked up at me quite indifferently, shrugged his shoulders, and uttered, “I don’t know.” I wondered for a brief moment how an auteur of such great acclaim couldn’t keep track of his ip’s and their various usages. Just then, flashbacks of my previous education on publishing, licenses, copyrights, and trademarks (in regards to audio recordings, at least) flooded back to me and I snapped to reality and commented, “Well, that would be cool if there was, because as big a fan as I am of your films, I’m just as big a fan of your music.” That got a little bit of a smirk out of him and got me a pretty sincere, “Thanks a lot, man, I appreciate that,” or something to that effect.
Now I’m not trying to take credit or anything, but just a few short years after that encounter, John Carpenter Anthology was released, wherein Mr. Carpenter and his band, including son, Cody, re-recorded a plethora of some of the filmmaker’s most memorable theme songs. Coincidence? ‘Anyway, this is kind of a dream series of mine because I’ve always considered music to be first and foremost in my life (right after other important things like my wife, dogs, and family). So much so, I made a career of it in the earlier years of my life. First as a drummer in a multitude of bands, then as a professional audio engineer later on in life, having been lucky enough to take part in the production of a couple great records. Nothing I would have ever bought with my own hard earned cash, but gold, platinum, and Grammy winning all the same. As a result, or maybe as a direct byproduct of, I kind of fancy myself a music history buff, an aspiring musicologist. So a monthly feature centered on some of the great music in modern horror cinema has been on my to do list since I first started writing over here at Horror Bound.
But before we can even explore modern horror music, we kind of have to start from where it all began, at least in this humble writer’s opinion. The reason why John Carpenter has been such a huge influence on modern horror composers is multi-faceted, but ideally, his music, including main themes, although not the most complex from a writing standpoint, always fit the mood and atmosphere of any one given scene in his films. Less was always more. His reputation is but another factor that has contributed largely to his influence on later generations of writers. Not only were his films good, but as a result, Carpenter’s music was then thrust to the big screen as well, granting him notoriety for another facet of his many talents.
Carpenter grew up in a musical household, his dad was a music teacher, and so John was surrounded by music at a very young age and learned to play fairly early on. But his decision to compose his own scores for his films came out of necessity and really nothing else. He was working on small budget, independent films with practically no crew, so there was no money to go out and hire some big time, or even small time composer to put something together for him.
Carpenter was also mining the sound of the era, utilizing the still new, but burgeoning technology of the keyboard synthesizer. Although the synth had been used as early as the 60’s in psychedelic rock, it wasn’t until the late 1970’s that the sound started becoming more prevalent in popular music like Prog rock and, of course, Disco. With a synthesizer in the late 70’s and early 80’s, one could now harness a multitude of different sounds in one single unit; even compose short sequences or loops to play back simultaneously. The technology continued to expand well into the 80’s once the popularity of New Wave music caught on, and concurrently Carpenter produced some of his most memorable theme songs around this time as well.
This is kind of when I jump on the train. As a kid of the 80’s, I was hugely influenced, just in general, by, of course, the music, movies, cartoons, and the other new technology of the time: the arcade cabinet videogame. Which, much like Carpenter’s experience with limited resources leading to his decision to compose his own music, videogame development as well only had a very limited amount of data allocated to the music score, which led to these really simple loops of electronic sounding melodies since the focus of an arcade game was playability. But I digress. This is why when modern horror cinema tries to harness the feel of 80’s slasher films regardless of time period, or simply choose to have a film take place in that era specifically, we get a soundtrack or score rooted in synth based music. Our brains instantly connect that sound to, not only a specific time period, but even a specific genre of film.
Look, I’m not trying to discredit other composers the likes of Bernard Herrmann (Hitchcock’s guy), Hans Zimmer, or even Danny Elfman, I’m just saying this a horror site and when was the last time you could walk up to any Tom, Dick, or Harry on the street and ask them to hum the theme from Vertigo back to you? But I bet they could all whistle the theme from Halloween in no time flat. Most recently, Carpenter has even gotten around to composing wholly new and original music, released across two albums, appropriately titled Lost Themes and Lost Themes II (yes, I own both), and as with every modern electronic music release these days, even prompted a remix album with remixes by such artists as ohGr (of Skinny Puppy fame) and JG Thirlwell. Even Trent Reznor and writing partner, Atticus Ross, got in on the fun in 2017 when they recorded their version of Carpenter’s classic Halloween theme.
So John Carpenter’s influence on horror film music cannot be understated. He wrote the sound of our nightmares and singlehandedly, practically launched an entirely new genre of music (Horror Synth for those who are wondering). He’s influenced hundreds, if not thousands of other musicians who grew up on his films and even continues to leave his mark on an entirely new generation: I was at Halloween Horror Nights just last year and recognized a piece of music pumping over the parks PA, but couldn’t quite put my finger on where I knew it from. When I consulted my trusty SoundHound app, I wasn’t the least bit surprised to see it was in fact Vortex, a tune off Carpenter’s Lost Themes album. Y’see, haunting an entirely new generation of folks.
So I hope you’ll join me over the course of the next few months as I highlight some of the artists who are carrying the torch today and keeping the spirit of Carpenter’s musical scores of the late 70’s and early 80’s alive today. Next up, a French Canadian group who I first discovered watching 2015’s Turbo Kid, but channeled 80’s slasher vibes three years later in 2018’s Summer of ’84. See you then.